In the Indian community where Apurva Anand lives, it’s pretty uncommon for residents to travel abroad. He says his family and friends in Jhumri Telaiya, India were surprised to hear he was going to Thailand on a travel program designed for high schoolers.
Apurv was able to go on the Thai Elephant Conservation Project with the help of a scholarship from the Rustic Pathways Foundation. He heard about the opportunity through an Instagram friend. When he won an award, his parents were hesitant to give him permission to travel.
“Initially they were reluctant to let me go because I was traveling alone for the first time to a new country,” Apurv said. “After I showed them the videos and everything, they got really excited.”
The plane rides to Thailand were relatively short for Apurv. He was only in the air for a total of about three hours. Still he had some unexpected moments in store once he arrived.
Lessons Learned in a Different Asian Land
Apurv says he expected certain aspects of Thai culture to be similar to what he saw at home. But he found there were a number of differences, including the cuisine that was less spicy. What stood out to him the most, though, was how much the country lives up to its nickname – The Land of Smiles.
“They were always smiling, and they were really welcoming to you all the time,” Apurv said. “I didn’t expect them to be that nice. They were really accommodating with anything you needed.”
Apurv particularly found this to be the case with one of the Thai program leaders – Veerayut Suphadee, who goes by the nickname Chet. Apurv says Chet immediately made him feel at home.
“He was always there to help us with everything throughout the trip. I really learned through him how kind a person can be – how nice Thai people are,” Apurv said.
Once he was comfortable, Apurv was able to enjoy all the program’s activities. After resting the first night, the students learned how to cook dishes like pad Thai, which Apurv really liked. Then they headed off to an elephant sanctuary.
Apurv says he lives near an elephant sanctuary in northeastern India, but that center does not offer opportunities to learn about the animals. So he treasured the chance to learn more about these amazing creatures.
Time with the Elephants
The students in the elephant program get hands-on lessons about taking care of the animals. They also see how the caretakers called mahouts live, and they’re taught why the elephant is sacred in Thailand.
Apurv says they started by learning why the elephant is a national symbol and taking part in a ceremony for the god of the elephants. Then it was time to give the elephants snacks and see their personalities. Apurv’s favorite part was bathing them in a lake.
“They were so much like kids. They were splashing water all over our faces and playing with us. It was really fun,” Apurv said.
On land the elephants also enjoyed using their trunks to squirt water on the students and do tricks like taking hats off the teens’ heads. When the students weren’t with the elephants, they worked on food planting projects, saw how the staff takes care of sick animals, and met an elephant with long ivory tusks.
Tusker elephants need more protection from poachers and may look intimidating, but Apurv found the one they met really enjoyed his visitors.
“He was the most playful of all the elephants that we met,” Apurv said.
Apurv also found it interesting how the staff used dung to create paper. The students were given the opportunity to see how it’s done.
“We were given elephant dung, which had been cleaned by some chemical. We put that into water and then a net. After it dried, it became a paper – the same paper used for the certificates we were given,” Apurv said.
The most memorable lessons though centered on the importance of animal conservation. Apurv was really inspired by the students’ visit to the Elephant Parade House where they painted ceramic elephants. They were told the story of the organization’s founding.
It was started by a father and son team in 2006 after they met a baby elephant named Mosha during a trip to Thailand. Mosha lost part of her leg after stepping on a landmine. Elephant Parade was launched to provide funds to places like the Asian Elephant Hospital that took care of Mosha. Apurv says he hopes to do something similar in the future.
“I really saw first hand how these animals are being threatened, and what we can actually do to serve them. I would really like to do something for wildlife – something for a greater purpose,” Apurv said.
Returning Home with Newfound Inspiration
Before Apurv left for Thailand, he was already a leader in his school. He’s the president of the debate club and the head boy of his school’s student government. He also likes to sketch and plays an Indian instrument called the tabla, which is a pair of hand drums.
The Thailand trip, though, has fueled his desire to do even more. He’s hoping to go to college for economics and maybe launch a nonprofit organization some day. His parents could see how much the Thailand program inspired Apurv after he came home from his journey.
“When I came back and showed them pictures, they were happier than me,” Apurv said.
Shortly after his return home, Apurv had to go back to school for his senior year. He did pause from his studies to complete one important task – writing a heartfelt letter of thanks to the scholarship donors. In part it read:
“Your investment in my education and personal growth has empowered me to become an advocate for wildlife conservation, armed with a newfound sense of purpose and determination… Thank you for believing in me.”