I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.
Having the world in my hands this semester has been the greatest blessing, but such opportunity has also come with challenges. All decisions regarding where to go and what to do have been up to me, and that's a remarkable amount of freedom for a twenty year old. As awesome as it has been to get to plan my path, I've realized that such freedom has made it very hard at times to find contentedness in situations that aren't absolutely perfect (because after all everything was up to me, so if it wasn't perfect it was my mistake). So when I wasn't groovin with the European vibe, I thought, "Maybe I should have gone straight to Thailand," and then when Bangkok was kinda weird I thought, "Maybe I should have just stayed in Israel!" Perhaps the grass will always be greener on the other side, but Aretha Franklin told me otherwise. I was listening to the Soul Queen's rendition of "Let It Be" last night and heard her saying, "Emily, you gotta let it be! Stop second guessing your decisions because everything will work out exactly as its supposed to!" So I'm lettin it be. I thought back to the farm in Holland and the Kibbutz and Cambodia and all these places I've been and all I can feel is gratitude. Of course I've been challenged, isn't that what I wanted??
So here I am in a small Muslim village on the largest Thai island, Phuket, volunteering with the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project for four weeks. People keep asking if I'm studying zoology or if I'm just passionate about primates, and the answer to both is no. I wound up here because I've never worked with wild animals and probably never will later so hey I might as well try something new while I can! Coming in with this attitude, it was almost surprising to arrive a couple weeks ago and be surrounded by people ready to dedicate their lives to these animals. It would have been one thing if I had chosen a really cute and sweet animal, but gibbons are dangerously aggressive (they have huge canine teeth and long arms that can reach through the cage and grab you when you least expect it). So after getting my hair yanked a couple times, the thought that my first few days were nerve racking is an understatement. I looked at the other volunteers and wished I could feel as excited about the gibbons as they do. I had yet another moment of doubt, maybe I made a mistake coming here, maybe it wasn't too late to leave, but what else would I do? Anxious and confused, I eventually realized it would be crazy to leave my complete judgement on those first couple days. I decided to do a little yoga in hopes of calming down, coming back to my breath, and connecting with my body. As soon as I stepped on that old, dirt-stained, beautiful blue yoga mat I felt as if I had gone home. It's a bit bulky but my yoga mat has come with me everywhere, and though I haven't maintained a regular practice, I feel like yoga is as big of a part of my life as ever, for the lessons it has taught me follow wherever I go and in all I do. I am so thankful for my practice!!!! A cool breeze of relief brushed over me as I flowed through my sun salutations (it was really just the fan that I had aimed in my direction but you know what I'm sayin). Everything is going to be alright. In fact, it'll be better than alright because I'm on this beautiful island with dense rainforests and sloping mountains all surrounded by the most insanely bright blue ocean! So hey even if I'm not preparing to sacrifice my life to animal science or feel an intense and passionate love for the gibbons, I'm getting the chance to experience a stunning slice of the world and meet interesting people, all while being involved in a really cool project!
So this is what The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is all about. For decades, poachers have gone into the rainforests of Phuket and hunted gibbons to sell them into the tourist trade. Photographers use baby gibbons as photo props, charging tourists high sums to take photos with the animals. Firstly, this is a huge problem because gibbons are on the brink of extinction on Phuket all because of the wildlife trade. Secondly, it's illegal to keep a gibbon because of their endangered status, so any owner can receive up to 5 years in prison and huge fines. And thirdly, this is all a problem because gibbons are wild animals!! In the tourist center of Phuket, baby gibbons are kept by their owners in bird cages, with collars and all. They're fed a diet of potato chips and diet coke, and some who are kept at bars and clubs are even taught how to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol in hopes that they will attract more tourists. How crazy is that! And to get the baby gibbons in the first place, poachers shoot down the mothers and fathers, hoping that the baby will also fall from the canopy to the ground, completely defenseless. Which means that for every baby gibbon in the tourist trade there are at least two gibbons dead. So the greatest goal of the project is to release gibbons back to the wild and repopulate the rainforest of Phuket. But of course, it's much more complicated than it seems. The rehabilitation process is pretty slow going, it takes an average of ten years for a gibbon to be released. This is because we only release gibbons in family groups, rather than as individuals. If we released them one at a time, they wouldn't develop a sense of territory and they would end up just fighting with other gibbons, whereas when they're released as a family they will develop a strong bond with their territory and protect it. And creating these gibbon families is what takes the greatest amount of time. Gibbons mate for life, meaning they choose one monogamous partner, and they're very picky about who that partner is. So our rehabilitation site of 35 gibbons is essentially a dating service. We match up male and female gibbons over and over again until they're finally happy and they have a baby, and then they can be released to the wild!!! I went to the rainforest last week to feed a family that was released in November and wow it was so neat to see them swinging through the canopy of bright green trees, just like they were born to do!! But unfortunately, not all of the gibbons we care for will have the opportunity to be released. After so much abuse in the tourist industry on the island, many gibbons come to the project with really serious psychological or physical disabilities that will prevent them from ever being able to survive on their own. Tam is one of our gibbons that will never be released. She's really sweet, but when she came to the project she had to have a hand and a foot amputated because her owner had smashed them with a rock. On the remaining hand she only has two fingers because another gibbon that her owner kept had bitten off the other three fingers. Some other gibbons come to us with psychological problems like self harming disorders, anorexia, and bulemia, all because of the stress they endured in the tourist industry. (It's weird how human like they are! Its as if they have post traumatic stress disorder!). So these gibbons will stay with the project, where at least they can be given all the attention they need. And thankfully, these gibbons are the minority. We've released six families into the wild successfully and we have 35 gibbons in rehab who will be released as soon as they have a family. And to top it all off we just had our first second generation baby born in the wild this year! So though it can seem like a slow going process, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is doing good things! And remember, do not pay to take photos with wild animals!!! (The new animal activist in me coming out).
Anyway, thank you for sticking with me through this wacky journey of mine. I'm sure I must sound crazy and confusing at times (and maybe I actually am crazy and confused!), but all the endless support that you've all given me has kept me going! So, truly, thank you so much for sending all your love as I discover what this world is all about! I cant wait to share with you all I've learned!!!