Elephants, Tooth Pain, and Fireworks in the Land of Smiles

Elephants, Tooth Pain, and Fireworks in the Land of Smiles

Caitlyn Morris

New Orleans 2013 | Thailand 2015

Caitlyn is an Operations Analyst at Accenture Federal Services | Graduated in 2018 with an English degree from Barnard College at Columbia University

All photos have been provided by Caitlyn. Read her story below!

Immediately after returning home from my first Rustic trip to New Orleans the summer before my senior year of high school, I dreamed of my next Rustic Pathways adventure.

The Rebuilding New Orleans program was the perfect combination of service and tourism, without falling into the trap of “volun-tourism” that allows travelers to insert themselves into a crisis for photo-ops rather than having a real impact on the community they mean to help.

My cousins had to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina so to be able to work with the St. Bernard Project (SBP) building their 500th house and having meaningful discussions with SBP’s volunteers about their experience in the hurricane’s wake was especially poignant for me.

Walking the streets of New Orleans to see how vibrant the city is in spite of the hurricane’s lasting impact showed me resilience I hoped to find in myself.

However, finding Rustic Pathways late in high school meant that I had already aged out of the travel and service programs—or so I thought.

During my first year in college, I found Rustic Pathways’ service-oriented college programs and picked the Thai Elephant Conservation Project based in Lampang, Thailand.

The 9-day trip to the Land of Smiles started with a night in Bangkok with our first Thai meal, a jaunt to a night market in Chiang Mai, and finally our journey to Lampang where we donned our mahout (elephant keeper) suits, partnered up, and met our mahout mentor.

Our days were filled with hikes up a nearby mountain to retrieve the elephants for their morning baths, feeding, training, and finally their evening journey back up the mountain for some well-deserved rest.

Lunches were full of warm, home-cooked Thai food, breaks were for cold showers, and evenings were for lessons on elephant conservation and the symbiotic relationships of the mahouts and their elephants. All of this was enough to make my trip to Thailand unforgettable, but little did I know there was more adventure in store for me.

On the fourth day of the trip, a constant, throbbing pain developed in my jaw, but I wasn’t going to let a little bit of discomfort get in the way of my once-in-a-lifetime Thailand adventure. I took some ibuprofen to stymie the pain, put on my biggest smile, and resumed my elephant duties.

The next night, I couldn’t fall asleep because the pain was worsening and wasn’t responding to the medicine any longer. I grabbed my flashlight and knocked on the door of my Rustic leader’s (Tony) hut, humiliated that I was waking him up at some ungodly hour. Without missing a beat, he called the program’s regional director to organize a trip for me to return to downtown Lampang to see a dentist the next day.

Another Rustic operations member, Kang, who spoke Thai and minimal English picked me up the next morning, switched the radio to Thailand’s Top 40 (which included one of his favorites, “Firework” by Katy Perry), and drove me to the dentist.

Unfortunately, the dentist’s treatment plan didn’t work and so, I was going on an even longer road trip to a hospital in Chiang Mai to see a different dentist. My trip was scheduled for the same day as the jungle overnight with the elephants and I was crushed that I couldn’t be a part of it. Tony told me not to worry and that I would have my own kind adventure.

So back in Kang’s car I climbed with “Firework” blasting and my heart heavy that this trip wasn’t turning out anything like I wanted it to.

On the other side of the world, my parents received an email from the Southeast Asia Operations Manager who explained the situation and told them he would keep them updated. Obviously, they were worried sick, but they were reassured that they were contacted immediately with a strategy to get me help ASAP.

I spent the night in a Chiang Mai hotel room and called my parents crying, partly from the pain, partly because I felt alone, and partly because my trip felt ruined.

My parents sent me virtual hugs from 8,544 miles away and told me the Rustic team was going to take great care of me. They also reminded me that I really was having a once-in-a-lifetime experience in Thailand and I was going to come back with one heck of a story.

Kang helped me translate the forms I had to fill out at the hospital and after an X-Ray the dentist explained I had an intense root infection and recommended I get a root canal immediately when I returned home. He sent me on my way with a prescription, best wishes, and a smile.

On my return trip to Lampang, Kang stopped on the side of the road to buy me fresh lychees and rambutan and “Firework” kept playing in the background.

The last two days of my trip were thankfully pain-free and on our last day, we talked about how this trip impacted us. For me, this trip was as much about the crickets I ate and everything I learned about the importance of elephant conservation to Thailand and the fascinating lives of dedicated mahouts as it was about learning about myself.

After my New Orleans trip, I merely hoped to find the kind of inspiring resilience those communities had to keep smiling, singing, dancing, and helping despite experiencing a collective trauma. Because of the support from my group, Tony, and Kang, I was able to still thoroughly enjoy my journey throughout Thailand and come back with a story I will never let myself forget.

Now, whenever “Firework” by Katy Perry plays I am transported to Kang’s car and reminded that no matter what I go through, no matter the circumstances, I will come out of the other side stronger than before. I am fortunate enough to have had two Rustic Pathways experiences to make me see the impossible strength in others, but to also find the impossible strength in myself.


Learn more about Rustic Pathways programs in Thailand, or view more Alumni Stories here