Today we leave the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) in Laos for the final time after being lucky enough to spend a week as part of the ECC family in Sayaboury and a few weeks helping out at the ECC’s visitors centre in Luang Prabang.

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We have been living along side 40 Laos, 1 Belgian, 2 Spanish and 2 French staff, many of whom I would now consider to be friends.

Leo’s learning here has majored on ‘what to do when you are bored’, Spanish lessons and ‘how to weald a machete without cutting yourself’ (plasters have been required!). He has learnt how to tend a bar, make a tasty lemon juice, riffle shuffle a deck of cards and ‘how to cut off grass roofing tiles with a machete while perched on a roof six meters above the ground’!

Leo has also started to learn how to and how not to play card games. In January I taught Leo to play a two player card game that we call ‘Slam’. It involves two players sitting opposite each other across a table and one deck of cards equally divided between both players. The aim is to put all your cards in sequence onto the two middle piles before the other player. Both players play simultaneously and the faster you can play with accuracy, the more cards you can get out. When both players have similar cards there is a cause of conflict because both players want to put cards on the same pile, often at the same time. It is also a game that gets the adrenaline pumping – spot the potential for tears and frustration.

Leo has been discovering how to teach others to play, how ‘going easy’ on his new opponent means they are more likely to play again and what happens when he accuses other people of cheating. It is still a work in progress however Leo has been blessed with lovely opponents who have taught him much about social interactions and resilience.

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My work here has involved bringing English competence and confidence to the local guides, kitchen team, maintenance team and resident biologist. I’ve also been correcting English grammar in online material, pulling together information sheets on each of the elephants and kicking off a crowd funding campaign to raise money to buy an injured male elephant.
With the kitchen and maintenance team we have been working on the basic vocabulary for their jobs: plate, spoon, serviette and pencil, screw driver, nail. With the all female kitchen team it has been a joy to see their confidence grow in front of clients as they say “Excuse me, can I have (your) plate.” instead of being silent shadows in the restaurant. Only one of the five kitchen staff can read or write Lao so everything has been visual and auditory. While the all male maintenance team can read and write Lao, they have picked up words slowly, repetition has been essential and we have played fun games to help the words to stick.

The guides are all confident in conversational English, however there is a big difference between the three guides in their english competence, presentation skills, pronunciation and understandability.

I learnt a lot about the Center and about the captive Asian elephant population from sense checking formal reports and conference notes produced by Anabel one of the two resident biologists.

My biggest challenge was adapting my delivery style from one of ‘what do you want to learn’ to one of ‘I will teach this today’. This meant that we started slowly, with the guides, for instance, because they didn’t turn up to lessons and I needed to learn for myself what they needed to improve and, most importantly, how they would learn best.

I work on the belief that the best learners are those who ‘choose to learn and choose their learning’, however with Laos people this needed refining because I discovered you can wait a long time for someone to approach you asking to learn even when they are told they can. The work ethic is also very different in Laos compared to the world I have grown up in. Learning is not something that has historically been given a priority to many Laotians and fitting something extra on top of your day job feels undesirable or just plain impossible, depending on your role. One member of the kitchen staff, Kham, is driven and ambitious, she wants to learn and even asks to learn but, right now it is high season and she has found it impossible to make the time. On the other hand, the guides have schedules that mean they are working for significantly less hours than the kitchen staff, however appointments to learn together have repeatedly been missed and I will get apologies the following morning about how tired they were or how they had to do ‘this thing’ instead. I made significant progress with one of the guides is the last week of my stay by being very firm and direct about what he needed and what time we must spend together.

After initial frustrations, it has been really rewarding to key into what each distinct group needed from me here. In delivering what they need, and it is working well, I sometimes notice when I am ‘in flow’ and in these moments I am reminded of how skilled a trainer/teacher I am and how useful my knowledge of people is to others.

Life at the Elephant Conservation Center is simple and uncluttered, it has been a wonderful environment to ‘just be’ and I have been able to create a satisfying balance in my life here.

We will miss being at the ECC, a lot, and would love to return for again soon.

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