Monday, October 13, 2014

Elephants in Paradise - Kiss Kiss

You haven’t been really kissed until you’ve been kissed by an elephant. 
First Kiss from Watermelon

Goodbye Kiss 
It was part of my daily ritual (3 mornings) during the beyond-one’s-dreams stay at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort. At breakfast on a open deck, sitting at tables under umbrellas drinking passion fruit juice with the awesome view of the Golden Triangle where Laos, Mynamar and Thailand come together at the Mekong River,  “Watermelon”, the friendly elephant, joined us for a little share the bananas moment. What blew me away was “Watermelon” came through the building and walked -- gingerly -- down two sets of stairs to join us on the deck. Then she began to sway a bit and fly her trunk through the air to see not only if the pile of ripe bananas were present, but who the heck was going to feed them to her. Of course, I was first up, first offering them one by one to her trunk which quickly threw them in her throat, and then she lifted her trunk up and I was able to shoot the bananas directly into her open mouth. The bananas were gone quickly (a few other guests braved it for a photo), and then I grabbed fruit from the breakfast fruit bar - apples, whatever - and gave her a few extras. Then the Mahout (the owner, caretaker, provider of the elephant) asked if I wanted a kiss - not knowing what that entailed but trusting it was earth-shaking, I said “Sure.” So “Watermelon” wandered her trunk over my face until she found my cheek, then she sucked the biggest kiss I have ever had - She did it about 3 times, covering from my eyes to my chin, and leaving a little elephant juice just for good measure. 
You Think This Is Easy?

An Elephant In The House!

There is a true jungle paradise in this corner of Northern Thailand where life centers on elephants. Most of them have been rescued from the logging industry where they worked with their mahouts until the government stopped logging, and a bunch of elephants and a bunch of mahouts were out of employ. Places like the Anantara Elephant Camp, with purpose of saving the elephant and the mahouts from starving and  being badly abused, create a safe and healthy environment for both, so the elephants have a good home, plenty of food and very little work to do, and the mahouts can stay close to their elephants, living in homes with their families right on the grounds. This also includes education for the children and health care for all, including the elephant.
A mahout, who wears blue denim uniforms, knows every sway, every balk, every kind of greenery the elephant is going to grab for a snack as they walk through the jungle, every rumble of its stomach which sounds like a motorcycle rocking through champagne bubbles. So I was offered a 3-day “course” in being a mahout. Think I’d refuse that?
A Little spray, not perfume


The first day I was a bit anxious. It’s been a year and a half since my last elephant experience, and these elephants were definitely tall. Most were ages 9 to 25 and there are a couple of babies in the stables. We were driven up to the camp in a jeep (reminded me of Tanganyika days) and there was Pulab (Lucky), who had been chosen for my training. Primarily it meant learning the language: “Pai” means go forward, “Ben” to turn - if you kick behind the left ear - and believe you me I don’t kick hard so I don’t know if she got the signal - she is to turn right, and vice versa; “How” means stop; “Toi”, backward and there you go. There is also a signal for getting down on a knee so the awkward rider can attempt to get her leg over the neck by grabbing the opposite ear. Oh well. Not graceful. I was never good at mounting horses either although I rode them most of my life. 
Once up there in the wind and the stars, above everything but the tree-tops, you take a breath and have to bend your knees like a horse jockey - you are smack on top of the elephants’ head and neck - and nestle your toes (barefooted for me) in that warm place in the bend of the ear from where you will give directions, I hoped. However at 75, bending that tightly for a long period of time has a price - soreness. But it was worth it. Once I was able to weave successfully through a small obstacle course, we were off and I was sure I was going to fall off that high place. Grab the ears, her real mahout said. But if I had zagged when she zigged, I might have lost it, although the mahout told me my elephant was sensitive to my lack of balance and somehow would keep me from a plunge. So you start moving with the flow, that means your pelvis is pushing back and forth according to the gait. And I kept my hands pressed on top of her head - brushing them over her hair strands now and then, and saying “good girl”, which she didn’t understand. I think it’s something like “Di”. We swayed and stopped now and then for a check on a healthy looking pile of long grass or a bamboo stand, which she pulled with glee, and finally reached the pool where the elephants swim. 
Resort Entrance

Watermelon's Eye
Of course I’d get wet. I had sloshed around in a raging river to wash elephants in Chiang Mai a year and a half ago, but this was riding the elephant into the lake. Actually the mahout was sitting behind me at this point, so we sunk step by step down into the cool brown water of the pond and at once I felt a peace and glow that this was the best thing I had ever done. Pulab was so secure under me and she even ducked completely under water (I was chest high at that moment) and then came up and filled her trunk with water and sprayed it back over me - a playful gesture. It was so cool because I knew I wasn’t going to topple into the water -- as some elephant poop floated by. Well, it’s for the elephants, not me.  After much praise and thanksgiving, and sopping wet, we rose back up out of the water and I felt I had been baptized again. Somewhere, it has to have a spiritual intention. Then Pulab - without shaking off the water like a dog would do, thank God - headed slowly (you don’t know how slow an elephant walks until you are up there on top), and gracefully to the entrance to the hotel as I used all the Ben, Pai, Ma and whatever sound I could make to do the mahout thing. This was kind of neat. Front door service. I hated for it to end but my legs were limp from trying to hold on for an hour or so. Step one of mahout school was done.

Nothing like a banana

Are you a mahout or not?
Fancy meeting you here
Thru the Jungle we go
Day two after playing with “Watermelon” at breakfast (more kisses) and also visiting the baby elephant still in the pen with her proud mom, watching him butt and kick an enormous ball - which shows the marks of wild play - and learning to make banana flower salad, pomelo salad and my favorite desert with the hotel chef - we had a special  elephant event scheduled for the late afternoon: a sunset ride to the top of the mountain (this resort must cover about 400 acres of jungle and swamp - much of which was once rich with poppy fields). This time we had to use the box-like saddles, thickly padded so as not to hurt the elephant’s skin, and really how most people ride an elephant. The incline and decline were pretty steep and so this helped lighten the load for both of us. My elephant was Phuki,  the biggest male with a set of fairly long tusk for Asian elephants. He sure seemed like a giant, but I was able to crawl on from the top of some steep metal steps. We were off one heap big elephant step at a time. He steps were so slow and concentrated that I could say “supercalifragilisticexpedalidocius” before he took another. He had a lot of weight to shift, and not just mine.  It was a languishing kind of ride as Phuki wrestled with greenery samples on this route he obviously knew in detail. With a groan, he’d pull down a bamboo cluster or tear of more kudzu vine (yes, they have it too) than he probably wanted. I had no control but his mahout got to call out the commands, not too strictly because this was a leisurely trip for the elephants as well. We passed by a couple of elephants already turned out for the night - they are chained by one foot to a strong tree, but have about a football field of slack to roam and eat the grasses. This is not only to stop them from running away, but also, and it is a problem, from being kidnapped by someone wanting an elephant to make money with. 

The sunset lookout
graduation day
The trip was rocky and slow but the scenery was brilliant and when we reached the top, there was a “Wow!” moment as we climbed up to the special deck, covered with a thatched roof, with a table set before us ladened with snacks and tea and my proverbial glass of crushed ice. (The service at this resort is beyond belief) . The sun was setting as haze flowed over distant mountains like a blanket of lace and one could only thank God for this moment, this prayer - and also the elephant. Once again in my view were the three countries come together with the Mekong River flowing around them, the major site of most of the illegal poppy trade in the 20th century, and possibly still incognito in the hill tribe areas which are so difficult to get to.  Soon it was time to embark again, using the steep stairs to crawl back in the seat, and  Phuki was not stirring his speed any faster, calculating each step as we went down hill - downhill was always harder for me as a hiker than uphill, and so it is for elephants. We had to make camp by dark because elephants don’t move easily in the dark. When we got near to the mahout camp, we could hear music and that seemed to perk Phuki up a bit, he covered the last few hundred feet at a better pace. We came around the curve at the thatched roofed houses, and Yikes: a set of baby kittens were scampering around. I held my breath (thinking of the tale of the elephant and the mouse) and worrying if he might smush one unintentionally. But, delicate as these beasts are, he carefully somehow focused his wide eyes or sensed the problem with his trunk, and he stepped around the kittens who had no idea the danger they were in.  The jeep was there to meet us as I stepped off Phuki,
The Balloon Prayer ready to go
Decorating the ceremonial balloon

thanking him in Thai “Kop Kun” and giving him some ear scratches.  Exercise two completed. After dinner, we were told we would be honored (for our elephant enthusiasm) with a special balloon ceremony. I was asked to add something to the drawings the staff members had already drawn and I wrote "God bless these great elephants and keep them safe." Then he it the two circles inside the tall balloon (the hot air balloon theory of flying) and we launched it into the clear night air and watched it soar to the heavens - a really long 15 minutes or so I could see the light getting closer to the stars and further from our stance. Once it burned out, it would fall to earth somewhere, and our prayers would be answered. Wasn't that a cool honor? 

The final test happened at 7 a.m. the day we departed. Pulab was back to give me my final mahout ride - and this time she met me at the hotel entrance (and before breakfast). I felt so comfortable on her neck this time I couldn’t believe it.  I was  full of faith and confidence to take the helm once again, and went through the vocabulary of directions, although the real mahout re-enforced

when mine didn’t work so well. And then we squeezed through a narrow gate onto the lovely walkway through the gardens (you wouldn’t believe the beauty and upkeep of this jungle garden) right past some of the rooms on the way to what they call the baby elephant camp, where younger elephants are kept and trained. It is down below the hotel in the jungle area and there is a road running through it, which was our pathway. I enjoyed the warmth of my toes behind Pulab’s ears and swayed and rocked with whatever pace she allowed. Motorcyles and cars passed at ease, as workers arrived. Pulab never bobbled. It was such a fitting end to my visit at this camp and resort, where elephants are sacred and given the best of care. None of that creepy painting of them or making them do crazy tricks. This was real elephant living his real life, but with a stranger now and then taking a ride.  As a fitting end, I was presented with my own denim mahout outfit with my name on it, and a certificate for having completed the school (which I had doubted I’d do the first day), and pictures of my elephants. Could life get any better? I hope I can live long enough to return here with my grandchildren. Thank you Jesus. Kiss Kiss.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is easy to understand why your experiences with Watermelon, Pulab and Phuki at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort were the highlight of your adventure. Of course, you have had so many highlights on your amazing trip that it must be difficult to single out one. However, we do know you love elephants and they are your favorites!
When the mahouts asked, if you wanted to learn to be one of them, they didn't know you had survived Tiger Kingdom and "Big Daddy" where you had no fear and asked for the works. Of course, you wanted to be a mahout! You are ready to take on any challenge! You are unbelievable!
For you, being kissed by Watermelon must have been the perfect way to start each day. Then going into the pond and being sprayed by Pulab and riding Phuki through the jungle to the top of the mountain had to be exhilarating with the icing on the cake being the gorgeous view of the Golden Triangle and seeing the three countries, Laos, Mynamar and Thailand, come together at the Mekong River.
This is a silly question, but is your "bucket list" complete? Probably not, so what in the world is next for you? We will continue to pray that God will watch over you and protect you no matter where you are! You are keeping Him busy!
From Judge:
After six weeks of my self-imposed exile, I made a surprise visit to the Court, yesterday. Really enjoyed seeing everyone. Judge Michael is very busy and appears to be doing well. He is surrounded by good people who are dedicated to improving the quality of life for the children and families of Memphis and Shelby County. I miss the Court and my friends.
Hope your flight home is enjoyable. Just know that we miss you and love you very, very much,
Geraldean and Judge