I really wanted to ride an elephant. Decades ago while reading a travel magazine I was mesmerized by a close-up picture of smiling tourists riding an elephant up to the Amber Fort. That was what I wanted to do, ride on top of an elephant. Walking alongside the lake below the Amber Fort in Jaipur, India were possibly the same elephants wearing regal crimson blankets and carrying riders to the fort. After visiting the fort we drove by a building where the rides were advertised. Asking the driver to stop, he pulled in to an adjacent side street, we climbed out of the car and waited outside for an approaching elephant. Its face and trunk were painted in pinks, yellows and oranges. My pulse quickened. A chance to ride an elephant! As it neared, the ground, surprisingly, did not shake and we could hear the riders’ voices. Then we noticed that the paint colors were faded and I sensed sadness in the spirit of this elephant and lifelessness in its eyes. It looked very unhappy with the family of five sitting on its back in the hot, dry midday sun. Albert didn’t want me to ride these elephants because they looked abused, but I wanted to be sure. I asked the mahout where the elephants were housed. He pointed down the same dirt street we were on to a large entrance. I took my camera and entered into a cavernous building that was two stories high, where I found six adult elephants and one baby tethered to the cement floor by short chains.
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The Elephant Whisperer? Part 2
The elephant trainers, called mahouts, wore tattered shirts and dhotis, short white loincloths. They rushed at me shouting to pay them rupiah to take pictures. The baby elephant was making high pitched squeaks which so distressed me that I ran back to Albert. “You were right,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.” I was disappointed that I couldn’t have a ride but I did not want to support these mahouts. If there had been any way to kidnap the elephants and take them to a better place, I would have insisted on it. In Chiang Mai, Thailand we came across more elephant activities for tourists, including a two-to- three-night camping trip with elephants, a show featuring elephants painting pictures and pulling logs, a tour of an elephant hospital where prosthetics are made for elephants’ legs that are blown off by land mines, and a program where visitors can spend a day caring for an elephant. I had no trouble choosing the elephant care day. After all, did I want to spend two nights with strangers in a tent with no electricity for my CPAP sleep apnea machine? Elephants painting pictures would be cute, but offered no opportunity for interaction with the animals. We could visit the Friends of Asian Elephants Hospital another day. I wanted to RIDE. As it happened, Patara Elephant Farm, which offered the day-long elephant care experience, was recommended by Lonely Planet and the #1 activity on Trip Advisor.
Spending a day getting up-close and personal with an elephant would cost $200, and we were really watching our expenses. Would Albert feel okay about my spending that much in one day when the rent for our studio apartment was only $600 for the entire month? I approached the subject gingerly at dinner one night, but I shouldn’t have worried. Albert knew my heart’s desire, and quickly said, “Yes, do it!” “ I’ll stay home, though,” he said, adding that hanging around an elephant all day wasn’t his comfort zone. Albert did have questions. “What if the elephant steps on your foot?” he wanted to know. I couldn’t answer that, but I was fairly sure if elephants went around stepping on tourists, they’d have trouble hiding that fact from the media. I showed Albert pictures of elephants being bathed. He wondered aloud if the elephants peed and pooped in the river. I replied confidently, “Oh, no, that would be like dogs pooping where they sleep. They’re not going to do that.” Having satisfied Albert’s protective instincts, my excitement kicked in: I was going to groom and ride my own elephant! Maybe I’d learn to be an Elephant Whisperer!
When the driver picked me up at 7:30 am, the van already contained a half-dozen passengers, all of whom seemed at least 20 years younger than I. Visiting during the 30-minute winding drive through the moraine forested mountains they shared recent outdoor adventures like zip-lining through the rainforest.
The driver turned onto a bumpy dirt road that led to a village of little houses perched on wooden posts. The houses had woven grass roofs, and there were clothes hanging to dry. Mothers were chatting with each other watched their children playing in the dirt. Later I learned these were the wives and children of the mahouts who cared for the elephants. Next we came to an area the size of a football field where twelve elephants were standing around munching on their breakfast greens.To my surprise, there were no fences in sight. These were free range elephants! Some of the elephants had one foot chained to the ground. The chains were long enough so they could meander, but not too far. Our driver said this was to keep the mischievous ones from wandering into the landscaped grounds of the hotel next door. I had to admire the elephants for trying. I liked them already and wondered which once would be mine for the day. Under a grass-roof pavilion, our van-load of mahouts-in-training were each assigned an elephant, along with a set of care taking responsibilities. I was given my elephants’s name—Nui—but was not allowed to meet her until after our tutorial. At Patara Elephant Farm, each resident is attended by its own private mahout. Today, I would be attending Nui’s every need, while her real mahout, would stay close by to supervise.
We learned that Patara Farm helps to prevent their extinction by promoting elephant sexual reproduction. When a female is in heat she and a male are taken to a large enclosure in the forest for a few days to mate. This is called a honeymoon. I wondered if the honeymoon bales of grass were spiked with aphrodisiacs. Were the elephants hooked up with iPods playing Barry White songs? Even though Albert and I weren’t interested in reproducing we had brought Kama Sutra products along for our extended honeymoon. While the honeymooning couples’ mahouts would be monitoring mating activities, we trainees would be engaged in less titillating activities. This morning each of us would be checking our elephant’s health. Is there a small amount of weeping by the eyes? A little is necessary to show that the eyes are well lubricated. Is there moisture around the toenail bed? If the elephant has been drinking enough water, its feet will be damp from sweating. Did they lie down to sleep last night? Both flanks should be dirty, as an elephant should stand and turn over once during its four- to-five-hour rest. Are there six to eight clumps of dung nearby? It would be our job to pick up a piece of the dung, smell it, then tear it apart. Does the dung smell like grass? Are the contents fibrous? When squeezed does a greenish-brown liquid drip out of the dung? Is your elephant happy? The ears should be flapping and the tail merrily flicking.
When approaching your elephant, we were told, always have food in your outstretched hand. They will wrap the end of their trunk and its single finger-like extension around the food and feed themselves. We could also place food directly onto our elephant’s tongue. I was relieved to learn that the eleven-pound molars are located far back in the elephant’s jaw, so there was no chance of losing my hand to an enthusiastic snacker. We donned mahout outfits over our clothes so the elephants would recognize us as mahouts. Thank goodness we got upscale uniforms compared to the loincloths they wore in Jaipur. Time to meet my elephant! I approached Nui hesitantly, lugging my introductory 10-pound basket of treats: sugar cane, bananas and squash. A polite elephant, she’d been waiting quietly for me without being tied to a hitching post. At 8 feet tall and 9,000 pounds, Nui had the mass of three four-door sedans. “Dee dee, Nui,” I cooed, using the Thai word for “good” while checking for the flapping ears and twitching tail. I wanted to be sure she was happy before I put my hand in her mouth to bestow the treats. Check. She was happy. She lifted her trunk skyward and exposed a moist pink tongue that was tucked inside her lower lip. Nui’s real mahout nodded his head, encouraging me to place a banana on her tongue. Nui quickly devoured the banana and opened for more, like a baby bird waiting to be fed. The basket of treats was rapidly consumed.
Next I competed Nui’s health assessment. Weepy eyes? Check. Moist toenails? Check. Dirty flanks? Check. Appropriate volume, scent and consistency of dung? Check. Nui was healthy and happy, and she didn’t seem to mind my touching her. An elephant’s skin is an inch thick in some places yet sensitive enough to feel a fly landing. Around the eyes, chest, shoulders and abdomen, the skin can be as thin as paper. To human hands, it feels like spongy wrinkly leather, sparsely covered with short wiry hairs. Nui needed to be dusted off before her bath in the river. The mahout gave a command and Nui knelt down on all fours, shifted onto her left hip, then supported herself by bending her front legs on the ground and fully extending her back right leg. The mahout held her trunk while I swung a small bundle of leaves in wide swaths over her mountainous body brushing off the dirt. Dust rose in the air and pebbles rolled down from Nui’s stomach. She stood up, then sat back down on her right hip, repeat. Elephant care was hard work, I discovered. My arms ached. At the mahout’s direction, I led Nui to the river by tugging gently on the bottom of her right ear. When she spied the water, Nui quickly plowed through the dirt bank and stood ankle-deep in the river, waiting for her bath.
I took off my flip-flops, rolled my pants up over my knees and followed my elephant into the river. Fortunately, it was the dry season; the river ran slowly just below my calves. In the rainy season, the river would have reached above my knees and flowed more swiftly. Nui stood while I tossed baskets of water on her. A nearby elephant was pooping while reclining. Its mahout scooped up the floating poop with her hands and tossed it to shore. I scrubbed her entire body with a hand-sized brush with plastic bristles—first her chest and abdomen, then her legs and tail, and finally her ears, trunk and face. Later I realized that I had forgotten to use the soap with oil that would have moisturized Nui’s skin. Two girls remembered and won the prize at the end of the day for taking the best care of their elephants. I should have won a prize for motherly patience when Nui peed into the river, right at my feet, and I managed not to make a fuss. It was a waterfall of gallons of yellow pee splashing upon me as it hit the river. Standing in the pool of warm water, I had to admit that Albert was right, about one thing: elephants were not like dogs. Fortunately, I received a good shower when there elephants in their final rinse phase blew three trunks full of water into the air, and it came down on me and a few of the other trainees. We screamed and laughed and stood there until we were drenched. At least I wouldn’t go to lunch smelling like elephant pee.
When it was time for the mounting demonstration, the trainers chose Nui and me! My confidence in a perfect first try was unfounded as it was much more difficult than it looked. There are two methods for mounting an elephant: you can crawl up the trunk, or the elephant raises a foot and you step on it. Either way, you end up in an awkward yoga pose, gripping hard with your knees behind the elephant’s ears. I chose the trunk mount. Nui lowered her head so her trunk dangled between us, the end curving downward, almost touching the ground. I trusted her to not flick me off like a fly. Without hesitation, I stood on her trunk, gripping each side of it with my hands, the thick texture of her skin made it easier to hold, then walked an imaginary line while she lifted me six feet up in the air and crawled to the top of her head. All attempts at grace on my part failed. I ended up flopped on my stomach on top of Nui’s head with my legs hanging over her left ear. It took all of my strength to push myself up into the riding position, one foot behind each ear and knees tucked up tight. Everyone mounted and off we went single file on a one-hour walk through some mountains and back to the river. After straddling Nui’s head for thirty minutes and listing side to side, my legs ached and trembled with fatigue. Tree branches scrapped my legs and smacked my head. Had I really considered the three-day ride? I must have been insane.
I nearly crumbled with relief when we arrived at the river and dismounted. The elephants immediately submerged themselves in the water, rolling side to side relaxing. Lunch had been prepared by the mahouts’ wives and was served in bundles of banana leaves that we unwrapped and ate with our hands. After lunch I walked over to the standing herd of elephants and stood among the forest of tree-trunk legs. Gentle giants they are, poised nearly motionless around me while I talked to them, caressing their trunks and their chests. A mahout had been watching, “She likes you,” he said, gesturing toward one of the elephants. My heart sang. Walking up to the bathroom alone, I spied two elephants having a honeymoon on the hillside. The bull towered over the quiet female from behind; and then dismounted. His organ was black and as thick as a man’s leg. Two mahouts took notes, and the female would be watched for a possible pregnancy. Returning to the group I announced, “I’ve seen a honeymoon!” Commotion ensued. “You did? Where? Is it over?” One guest told me she had visited the farm ten times and never had witnessed a honeymoon. That night in bed, Albert asked, “Well, are you happy you rode an elephant, or would you rather have spent $200 on a Tibetan wall hanging to show all our friends?” I put my knuckles to my nose, wiggled my index finger like an elephant’s trunk, and drifted off to sleep.