Summer Journeys: Maya Lewis ’24, Where Service Meets Culture

For thousands of years, the story of Asian elephants has been deeply intertwined with that of the history and culture of Thailand. Once abundant and revered, Asian elephants are now classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Across Thailand, elephant sanctuaries provide safe spaces for elephants threatened by poachers, displaced by development, or born in captivity without the ability to survive on their own in the wild. Last summer, Maya Lewis ’24 traveled to northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai province to help care for these storied, majestic, and endangered creatures. As a sanctuary volunteer, Maya was involved in the direct care of the elephants, which included feeding them and administering medications.

“The elephants in the sanctuary are required to take daily medications to maintain healthy immune systems. The sanctuary staff taught us how to assemble medicine balls made of rice, their medicine in pill form, bananas, bamboo, and a black, sticky fruit for them to enjoy,” Maya explains. “We learned very quickly that the elephants absolutely love bananas and watermelon, which the Thai people also include a lot of in their diets.”

Another critical component of elephant care? Mud baths. Mud not only helps elephants cool down, but it also adds a protective layer to their skin that prevents against sun and insects. And the baths also double as play time.

“We swam in the mud baths with the elephants,” says Maya. “One of them, Lanna, whipped its tail around playfully, leaving me with mud all over.”

Maya chose Thailand for her summer journey not only to spend time in service at an elephant sanctuary, but because of its rich culture and history. She was eager to explore the country and its many villages surrounding the sanctuary.

“In the countryside, we biked tens of miles, visited many small villages, kayaked and did a white-water rafting trip on the Pai River,” says Maya. “We also harvested our own vegetables and took cooking classes so we would know how to prepare them.”

Her time in Thailand culminated in the largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai. Once a religious center, Chiang Mai is home to hundreds of ornate Buddhist temples. It is also known for its food and night markets.

“I deeply appreciated traveling throughout Thailand—not just as a tourist, but almost as a citizen. I was exposed to the lives of everyday people and did some of the things they do daily, such as harvesting and preparing rice, hand-sewing traditional clothing, and learning to more words than ‘hi’ and ‘thank you.’ Also, indulging in street food, visiting temples, and having actual monks pray with and for us was especially meaningful to me,” Maya says. “The opportunity to engage in service work while being fully immersed in their culture made for an incredible experience.”

Maya’s travel was made possible in part by a Robert Keyes Poole ’50 Fellowship.

Established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole ’50, Taft teacher from 1956 to 1962, Poole Fellowships are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in travel or in projects consistent with Mr. Poole’s lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.