You haven’t been really kissed until you’ve been kissed by an elephant.
|First Kiss from Watermelon|
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?
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.
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|
|The sunset lookout|
|The Balloon Prayer ready to go|