Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why I Took "Ride an Elephant" Off my Bucket List - And Why You Should Too

Riding an elephant looks fun and glamorous - but it isn't worth it.

I have always wanted to ride an elephant. I think it stems from when I was a little girl - I have a vague memory of the circus coming to my hometown and people riding the elephant there.  I was too young and not big enough to be allowed to ride, so my young self vowed to perch on an elephant when I grew up.  The goal made it to my travel bucket list (#36. Ride an elephant) and I have been waiting for my chance to check it off, complete with accompanying glorious photographs and an adorable tale.

I had no idea what life for a commercial elephant is really like.  I did watch the movie "Water for Elephants" and saw the scene where the circus owner whips the elephant, nay BEATS it, into submission so that it won't be rowdy for circus patrons.  That scene made me bawl - I cried and cried at the injustice of it.  I knew, of course, it was a movie scene and that that particular elephant hadn't been harmed, but I was crying for all the elephants out there who HAD been abused by circus owners.

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The movie "Water for Elephants" hinted at the abuse these noble creatures suffer.

But I didn't put two and two together that although circus practices may have changed (and truth be told, they probably haven't), other establishments might be treating elephants the same way, just in a different setting.  Then I read an article that changed my whole perspective.  You can find it here. If you don't want to go to the site, I will summarize the article as best I can here without plagiarizing it.

Basically, the article focused on elephant trekking outfits in Thailand - the kind of places where you show up, pay your money, and get to ride an elephant around the jungle for half an hour to a full day, depending on the package you buy.  I have friends who have done this, and I was envious of their seemingly amazing adventure.  However, all is not what it seems, and too many travelers and tourists arrive at these place misinformed, not realizing they are contributing to a major animal abuse problem.

Elephants are intelligent yet wild creatures.  No real, free, healthy elephant would actually bend down and allow a human to climb onto its back and lead it on a trail ride through the jungle.  Elephants are independent and occasionally violent and grumpy - they often view humans as a threat (and after reading that article, we definitely ARE!).  In order to 'train' elephants to accept human riders and follow lead ropes and guides, wild elephants are stolen from their mothers at young ages, caged, and beaten and humiliated into submission.

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A baby elephant, torn from its mother and frightened, suffers abuse to break its spirit.

Methods of 'training' include prodding and beating with bullhooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails, tied down to concrete flooring, starvation, living in their own filth, isolation, and sleep deprivation, just to name a few tactics.  They are kept in conditions such as these until their wild spirit is crushed, and they are terrified of humans to the point where they will do whatever is asked of them.

riding an elephant, unethical treatment of elephants, boycott riding elephants, cruelty towards elephants
 A bullhook, the type used to prod and beat elephants while they are being 'trained'.

Once 'trained', their lives do not get easier.  They are made to trek all day, with heavy weights upon their backs (chairs called Howdahs and then the rider in them).  Their spines are not designed to carry loads, and over time these beautiful creatures suffer spinal damage.  The Howdahs rub against their skin and cause blisters that often get infections.  The feet of the elephants are also damaged from the incessant trekking, causing cracking and infections.  I highly doubt sick elephants get the loving and tender care they require, either.

riding an elephant, unethical treatment of elephants, boycott riding elephants, cruelty towards elephants
The sole of an elephant's foot after years of trekking with humans.

I encourage you to read the article in full - it talks about living conditions, how babies are treated, and more. It also talks about solutions.  The first and most obvious way of helping is to avoid attending these businesses, and to spread the word so that others do not contribute to the industry as well.  If you DO still want an up-close and personal encounter with an elephant, there are elephant sanctuaries that allow you to feed, bathe, and generally hang out with elephants - without riding them or causing harm.  For example, Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary not only rescues abused elephants, they are also purchasing land for wild elephants to live on in safety.  Find out more at their site here.

unethical treatment of elephants, boycott riding elephants, cruelty towards elephants
Elephants suffer psychological and physical abuse, for the pleasure of tourists.

Therefore, I have vowed to change my bucket list item from "Ride an Elephant" to "Volunteer to Help an Elephant". I want to give it a bath, not break its back.  Please say you'll vow to make a change too!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Visit to Versailles: Paris' Golden Palace

There are literally hundreds of amazing things to see and do in the vibrant city of Paris, France - the Eiffel Tower, cruising the Seine River, wine tastings, explore the Louvre, and so much more.  But visitors to Paris must also remember to take at least one day and get OUT of the city to stroll the grounds and palace of historical Versailles.  This beautiful feat of architecture is dripping with gold and sprinkled with opulence.

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Enjoying the brightness of the stunning Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

When I say, 'take a day' that's exactly what I mean - due to the location of Versailles, visitors must factor in travel time to and from the landmark.  You also want to give yourself ample time to explore: Versailles is equally fascinating both inside and outside, so don't cheat yourself and cut one short.

If you don't know why Versailles is significant, I'll explain it to you here.  Built by Louis XIII as a hunting lodge in 1624, Versailles grew to become the center of power (and gilded playground) for Paris royalty and their doting courtiers by 1682.  Over time, and four major construction movements, the palace grew in size and in lavishness.  Walls and ceilings were covered in gold foil, massive paintings were commissioned, ornate furniture was carved - all to demonstrate the wealth and power of the French monarchy. Huge parties and events were held on the grounds. However, by the time Louis XVI was in power, this excessive spending and demonstration of wealth became the monarchy's downfall, and the king and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were taken from Versailles and eventually executed during the French Revolution. Most of Versailles was looted - what is on display today are mainly replicas.

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An intricately carved portrait of... um... one of the Louis.

The Palace of Versailles is located in the suburb of Versailles (formerly the village of Versailles), about 20 kilometers southwest of the capital.  The easiest way to arrive, if not traveling to Versailles in a tour bus as I did back in 2010 with my Junior High Travel Club group, is to access Versailles by Metro.  You are looking for the RER-C Line (the yellow line) and are headed to the station Versailles-Rive Gauche, which is a five minute walk to the palace.  The cost for the Metro ride to Versailles is about 10 Euro.

Tickets to explore Versailles vary on what you want to see and how you want to see it.  You can see just the palace, or the palace and the Trianon estate, or even buy a 2-day passport.  It is free to just roam the manicured lawns and gardens.  The website for Versailles has all of the options listed clearly for you.  It is recommened that you buy tickets in advance, as this will reduce your time waiting in line to enter. (Not eliminate, just reduce - you will join the ticket holders' line instead of the slower purchasing line).  And get there early - Versailles is a popular destination!

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One of the courtyards in Versailles - love the gold-foiled designs!

Guided tours are available, but not necessary if you are capable of reading up on the history on your own.  When I explored Versailles in 2010, we did have a guided tour, which I actually enjoyed greatly.  Our tour guide was an eccentric Frenchman who must have learned his English from old gangster movies, because that's exactly what his accent sounded like. I felt like I was touring the palace in the 1930s, and all my guide was missing was a Tommy gun.  He was full of great information, and had some fun facts that my Junior High students loved.  Kudos to that man for making a group of 23 Junior Highs enjoy a history tour!

Not that the kids wouldn't have enjoyed it anyway - the palace is truly a spectacle of wealth and power.  Even the front gates are covered in gold foil!

Palace of Versailles, things to see in Paris, Paris tourist attractions
The golden gates of Versailles - now that's wealth!

Marie Antoinette's public bedroom was a favorite among the kids for two reasons: they really loved the extravagant bed, and were titillatingly horrified by the story that went with it.  The bed was huge, with giant ostrich feathers donning the tops of the posts.  The kids thought the feathers were meant to show how rich Marie Antoinette was, but the guide made them all giggle when he stated that the feathers were actually meant to catch dust falling from above - they were giant ostrich feather 'Swiffers'!

Palace of Versailles, things to see in Paris, Versailles
Marie Antoinette's 'public' bed in Versailles.

Then he turned their giggles to gasps when he told the story of why it was called Marie Antoinette's 'public' bed - behind a concealed door in the room lay her true, private bedroom.  In the days of the monarchy, the courtiers watched the royals do everything... EVERYTHING. They watched them eat, they watched them read, they watched them go to sleep.  Poor Marie Antoinette had people stand behind a guard rail erected at the end of her bed while she did a bedtime ritual, watching her every move.  Even worse, she had a public audience of courtiers while she gave birth to her children in that same bed.  In that moment, my students decided being a royal sucked.

A portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children that hangs in Versailles.

Another highlight was the spectacular Hall of Mirrors.  This was the receiving room for the many kings and queens who lived in the palace.  Visiting dignitaries would have to walk the long length of the hall to approach the monarchy of France, seated at the opposite end on a high dais.  It was designed to make the dignitary uncomfortable and intimidated, and the royalty to seem unattainable and distant.  To get the full effect of the Hall of Mirrors, I do recommend going early when the palace is still relatively empty. By the time we got there, the Hall was full of tourists, and you could barely see the mirrors on the sides.

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The Hall of Mirrors (taken at an angle as to avoid the many heads of tourists!)

Finally, we had the chance to walk the palace grounds and gardens.  The manicured lawns give one the feeling that they are Alice, lost in Wonderland.  I could imagine courtiers in billowing gowns weaving through the maze-like shrubs, and boats flitting about on the man-made lake.  I really enjoyed the gardens.

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The grounds and lake of Versailles

Palace of Versailles, things to see in Paris, Paris tourist attractions
Alice in Wonderland, or Versailles? You decide!

We did not have the chance to visit the Trianon Palaces or Marie Antoinette's estate, although I really would have liked to.  If anyone has seen these aspects of Versailles, please tell me, what were they like and are they worth the visit? If so, perhaps I'll have a chance to visit again and do the complete tour of Versailles!