The sad truth about elephants

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There’s no debate: my new favorite animal is the elephant.

While in Tanzania, we were lucky enough to see hundreds of elephants, from babies and teenagers to matriarchs and large bulls known as “tuskers.” We saw elephants mating, nursing and one in musk (the male equivalent of heat). We drove by as elephants splashed in mud puddles, playfully trumpeted and rummaged for food with their trunks. 

We were lucky. In the not-so-distant future, these sightings will be rare.

During our second day in Tanzania, we met up with the head of African Wildlife Trust, Pratik Patel. The organization, along with Pratik, focus their efforts on anti-poaching, and anti-ivory campaigns.

We sat outside, overlooking hundreds of acres of land set aside for a brand-new “Ivory Elephant” orphanage, as Pratik explained why.

“It’s a genocide,” he explained, emphasizing the latter word. “Yes – a genocide.”

According to a 2012 NPR article by John Burnett, an estimated 11,000 elephants are dying each year for ivory. That was three years ago, and the problem is only getting worse.

Ivory is especially popular in China, but the United States isn’t completely innocent. According to the National Geographic article “U.S One of Largest Ivory Markets,” we’re the second-largest ivory-market in the world.

I couldn’t believe that, and I couldn’t believe the number of wild elephants left: an estimated 13,000.

The story is a heartbreaking one, and we’re running out of time.

After leaving Pratik, we went on a game drive through Terengerie National Park. There, I saw a little baby elephant, tucked beneath it’s mother.

“She’s less than two months old,” our guide explained, pointing out the babies’ wobbly steps.

At that moment, the infant copied her mother and sniffed the air, peering at us. My heart stopped.

Elephants are my new favorite animal, and I’ll do everything in my power to help stop the ivory trade.

A Completely Foreign Culture

The man, who spoke no English, looked toward the trees. He raised his hand-carved bow, pulling back the string made of an antelope’s tendon.

I held my breath. The nine other students with me did the same.

The man kept his arms steady, then in a flash, released the arrow. A puff of multi-colored feathers exploded from the tree and he raced to catch the falling caucus.

While the students surrounding me chattered with excitement and pushed forward to get a picture, I stood in my place. I didn’t know what to think: I’d just seen an animal die.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 12 years. I grew up tucked in a dense community of suburbs next to the city of Detroit, miles and miles away from the closet farm or ranch. Once I moved to Montana, I heard discussions of hunting, but I’d never been closer. And there I was, thousands of miles away in Tanzania, as close as you could get.

The man, and the rest of my group, moved forward. I walked along, secretly hoping he wouldn’t find a bigger animal to kill. But, at the same time, I leaned forward and kept an eye on his every movement.

This man was hunting to feed his tribe. Without the animals he caught, he would starve along with his brothers and sisters, wives and children. This was how he lived, and he generously let us see a peak.

I wasn’t entirely comfortable while we walked around the African bush, the man shooting a handful of more birds, but I wasn’t uncomfortable either. These people were different from me, yet they recognized from birth what I was only starting to uncover: humans are a part of nature, we’re animals like giraffes, elephants and lions, even birds.

I couldn’t watch as they plucked the bird and pulled off it’s skin, grilling the meat over their fire. I was happy when we left their village – littered with skulls, skins and drops of blood. But I look back to that experience more than any other, seeing it as an example of what our whole trip represented.

We are all different. But when it comes down to it, we’re very much the same.

A man from the Hadzabe tribe holds up a bird he just killed. The Hadzabe use small arrow-heads, often coated in poison, to hunt.  Photo by: Gary Kerr

A man from the Hadzabe tribe holds up a bird he just killed. The Hadzabe use small arrow-heads, often coated in poison, to hunt.
Photo by: Gary Kerr

Hadzabe men sit around after their hunt. The tribe is completely nomadic, and lives off the land. There are only 600 members of the tribe left.  Photo by: Gary Kerr

Hadzabe men sit around after their hunt. The tribe is completely nomadic, and lives off the land. There are only 600 members of the tribe left.
Photo by: Gary Kerr

A Global Society; a two-week trip to Tanzania

You don’t hear much about the plane ride.

Students travel halfway across the world and sit in turbulence-ridden aircrafts for 15 plus hours, dealing with crying babies and rock-hard, boxed food. Sometimes claustrophobia sneaks in, other times a bad case of nausea. But as soon the wheels touch the ground, they seem to magically forget the whole ordeal.

At first, my trip to Tanzania was no different. 

We landed in Arusha after the sun had set and the land was cast in shadows. We drove to our lodge blind, forced to use all other senses to take the country in. It smelled of eucalyptuses and bananas, it felt warm, fresh, and inviting. The sounds were different too – all bird calls foreign, insects I couldn’t identify buzzing around our vehicle, and the quiet nature of it all. The bouts of silence were newest to me – there were no cars honking, no trains whistling.

I felt a sense of relief and closed my eyes. It didn’t feel like I’d been traveling for almost two days. I was there and that’s all that mattered.

I didn’t think of the plane ride again until we stopped outside Lake Manyara almost a week later. The water level was low, despite the recent rainy season, and our tour guide explained why.

“Global warming,” he said.

I thought back to the 15 hours I spent stuffed in a small chair on that plane. I was so far from my American life – over a day’s journey – but in that instant I realized the distance didn’t matter. What I did back home, from buying products that supported drying up African wells, to driving my car, impacted the lives of the people of Tanzania. The people that live 9,000 miles away from my home.

For the rest of the trip, I’d notice the little things that connected my American world with my Tanzanian one; the shrinking Lake Eyasi, the baby elephants orphaned by Ivory poaching, even the little boys and girls running around in American shirts.

On the plane ride home, I was able to sit up against the small window. I watched as we flew over oceans, brightly-lit cities and sheets of melting ice. Our world is magically diverse, but I knew as I watched, we were all connected.

I’d heard it before, but it was then that it dawned on me: we are a global society.


Arusha is one of the largest cities in Tanzania. In it, coke products are found everywhere.

Lake Manyara is one of the many lakes that are getting drier and drier each year. Our guide attributed this to global warming

Lake Manyara is one of the many lakes that are getting drier and drier each year. Our guide attributed this to global warming

Sustainable Agriculture in Thailand

Traveling to Thailand during winter session of 2015 was my first time overseas. Everything was new and exciting and I didn’t know what to expect. Our group went to two different farms and multiple markets over the two week period. The first farm we stayed at was called Pun Pun which mean “a thousand varieties”. Pun Pun is located an hour north of Chiang Mai, in Norther Thailand. It is an intentional community of about twenty people. Peggy and Joe started the farm ten years ago. When they bought the land it was all cleared and nothing was growing there. They started with banana tress and after two years they were able to get fruit and other things were able to thrive around the banana trees. Pun Pun is a very sustainable, everything there is used. Throughout our week stay at Pun Pun we leaned so much. We leaned how to make compost, built an adobe house out of mud, made kambucha, made garden beds, cooked, went fishing, did yoga, weeded and watered plants, leaned about fermentation, and leaned about Thai culture.


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IMG_3063Composting squat toilets

IMG_3141 Making compost in a basket, with layers of chicken poop, food scraps and hay. It then needs to be waters and will be ready in two months.

P1060779 Hand fishing with a net

The second farm we visited was Payong’s Farm. Payong lives a couple hours from Bangkok. His farm is small and is just for his family. We hoed out the dragon fruit and banana patches and also planted lettuce, we leaned how to plant parachute rice, and Payon’s wife Jane taught us how to make lip balm! Payong’s family was very welcoming to us. paying had grown up in a small village and went to Thammasat University in Bangkok, after getting a degree he decided to move back to his village and work with Karen people. Karen people are the indigenous people of Thailand, they are working with Payong and leaning how to farm and use CSA’s.

P1070553P1070874P1070645IMG_3312   P1070655 P1070662 P1070730 P1070735 Parachute rice planting


On the day you awaken fifteen kilometers outside of a thousand-year-old holy site holding the remains of the apostle St. James, patron saint of Spain, you might have a headache. You have been imagining this day since months before you started your two-and-a-half-month pilgrimage, since before you became injured, since before you gave up the bragging rights of walking across two countries. You decided, about a month ago, in the border between France and Spain, to finally listen to an injured body, to give up your dream of a perfect pilgrimage and submit to the still-mysterious experience offered to you, taking busses some days, walking others, resting others. That’s the exact word–submission–to a storyline, it turns out, that you didn’t control. Every day, you had to wake up and make the decision again. And again, the next day. Some days, you whispered your intention in arching Gothic cathedrals. Some days, you silently cried about it over cups of espresso. Some days, you laughed about it with new injured, window-shopping, irreverent pilgrim friends. Some days, you mumbled sarcastically about it as you were rudely awakened by hasty hostel hosts turning the bunkroom lights on at six am and telling everybody to “get walking” when you couldn’t walk. Oh, the irony. Some days, others unknowingly reinforced its importance for you; a nun saying “you are not a hiker. You are a searcher for God;” a local woman in Leon blessing the statue of a fatigued pilgrim right in front of you on her way to work. So on the day when you will arrive at your destination, you not only have to make that decision for the day; you must make it for the whole pilgrimage, and for the way it colors the rest of your life. No coffee included.


It was Halloween morning. I was dressed as a modern pilgrim, complete with compression socks for my aching shins, and Santiago was on the day’s itinerary. I stuffed my two-pound sleeping bag into my blue pack, so small I’ve seen others use it as a schoolbag, and walked into the darkness of the morning to meet Lisa and Jay from Connecticut and Margaret and James from Las Vegas.

The air hung low as we walked through the forest with eucalyptus trees outside of the town we had stayed in that night. I had taken a short, quiet shower at the albergue early that morning in an attempt to “cleanse” myself for Santiago, but now the dampness of my hair just seemed to make the dawn moisture cling more readily to me. My head ached. The tiny cookies I had eaten for breakfast had not broken the fast. I was still wrestling with a last bit of self-doubt. Small talk of the others buzzed around and through me. All night, I had tossed and turned, woken up, tried to sleep.

An hour and a half in, we stopped for coffee. I started to tell Lisa my worry, which was that when I got to Santiago I wouldn’t recognize what I had just accomplished and would be too caught up in what I did wrong. Everybody said, “Rebecca! You are going to be proud. You have to be.”

Finally, after coffee, I talked. We were talking about “the power of the camino,” a big buzzword with these friends. The whole point, they said, of the term is that the Camino has more power than most people expect. Many people flee. And many people stay. For days, in my anxiety over the end of the way and my grief over the injured shins, I had stayed silent, convinced that I in no way embodied the power of the Camino. But on this morning, I finally wanted to give myself credit. I said to them that there comes a moment when you have to make a choice. You can either submit to what the world gives you or keep attempting to control your life. Controlling hurts. It is violent. Submitting, asking, experiencing–there, you find fulfillment. There, you find peace. At least, that’s how I saw it on the Camino.

The whole city of Santiago, the whole pilgrimage, commemorates St. James the apostle. You have to make a choice about what to think about him, too. Throughout the centuries in Spain, he was hailed as a mythical military hero in their efforts to drive out the moors. This story appeals less and less to pilgrims, especially as many grow increasingly saddened by a decade and a half of war. The story of St. James that gives me hope is another one. They say that, after coming to gain converts in Galicia, James went back to Jerusalem where he was beheaded. His followers brought his body back to Galicia in a tiny boat. James was a man who, despite the ultimate weakness–his own mortality–had gotten to Galicia, with the help of friends. To me, this was the ultimate lesson of the Camino. In weakness, in brokenness, in times of the death of our old understandings of our identities, something–friends, the promise of incense lighted mostly to please tourists, cosmic dust, God, our own sheer determination–takes us to where we ask to go.

I gasped the first time I even caught sight of the Cathedral. We must have walked for forty minutes through the outskirts of town, and finally there we were, around a corner and in front of the Cathedral. A bagpipe played, and people all around said hello and took pictures in the front square. I did cry. I did feel proud, even with the front of the Cathedral bandaged with scaffolding.

I ran into an Australian lady I had met two days before. “Well done, Rebecca,” she said, the second she saw me, mid sentence in a conversation with a man. “You’ll have this for the rest of your life.” She hugged me and looked at me with eyes of awe. I did not battle a life-threatening illness. I did not save a country. I did not even walk a thousand miles, as I set out to do. But on the Camino, the fabric of the world, the pattern of strings that weaves us together, sits right around all our shoulders, even as we battle exhaustion and confusion and loneliness. Victories, tragedies, inner battles, become visible to us and deepen themselves in us. And as they deepen inside of us, we begin to recognize them in others. Every world seems bigger, every life raw and rich and full of struggle. This lady saw my Camino. And so did I, finally.

We went to the pilgrims’ office and stood around waiting in line for our Compostela, the certificates of the completion of the Camino. It seemed like an ironic place for such an emotional moment, so clerical and formal and sterile. It reminded me of a similar moment, and I searched around for another time when I had cried in a drab and formal place. Then it came to me–I had been crying and shaking when I stepped into the airport in Missoula. That really made me cry. When I got my Compostela, they marked me as having come one thousand miles, all the way from Le Puy. No questions asked, no scrutiny, no judgment–only recognition of a long, hard, beautiful journey. 


A Day on the River

I am not a very outdoorsy person, but when I first got to Cork I decided I would play “Yes Man.” Whatever anybody asked me to do (to a limit) I would say yes without any hesitation. One of the main things I said yes to was going to a introductory Kayaking lesson put on by the kayaking club at UCC. I also talked Hannah into going with me. There are two things that are important to know about this situation. 1. I am the most unathletic, athletic person you will ever meet and 2. It was pouring rain and we did not have any appropriate shoes.

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At the conclusion of our adventure, I had tipped over the kayak once, gone off of a 2 foot jump in a kayak, and Hannah had lost a shoe. This is one of those experiences I would not take back for the world and whenever it is brought up I will still have a good laugh. I don’t think I will ever want to go kayaking again, but I would not change these memories for anything!

A Weekend in Kilkenny

Another crazy weekend consisted of traveling by bus for 3 hours to Kilkenny. Two of my friends, Taylor and Miranda, had left earlier that day so I was just going to meet them.  Once I got to the bus station, after cutting it close, I was on my way to Kilkenny. 10698518_10204873615310544_7896577530031094456_n

When I finally got there, Taylor and Miranda were waiting by the bus stop and we started off the adventure like every other adventure is started off, by wandering. We found our way around to some of the most beautiful churches and took a lot of pictures. We then found a cute little pub/cafe called Kytler’s Inn, that had a spooky back story of witches and traditional Irish food. Next was to find the hostel that we were staying at. My first impression after hearing that word is of the terrible movie that plays in the states. While in reality a hostel is just a cheap place to stay for people who just want to travel and is not super sketchy. It consisted of 8 beds (4 bunk beds) in each room, a kitchen, and a shared bathroom. Overall it was an enjoyable experience.

Then nightlife was not all that great in Kilkenny, but also during the weekends most Irish people just focus on work, and Kilkenny is also not a college town like Cork is, so there was a different crowd.

On the next day we found our way to a cute little cafe for breakfast called a circle of friendship, then to the Castle, and finally we explored the shops around town. All-in-all we had an amazing experience and took a lot of unforgettable pictures.