Friday, December 19, 2008

The elephant story

Many many years ago, back when I was young and foolish, I was dating a slightly less young and more foolish young man who invited me to run away with him to Thailand. Just for the summer, of course; we would backpack and travel throughout the country and be Adventurous Travelers. I turned him down at first; I was a Responsible Young Woman more than an adventurous traveler, and I had a job, and a rented house, and a cat. But then I remembered my brother’s sage advice: when faced with such a choice, imagine yourself being ninety years old, looking back at your life. Which would you rather say, that you had a summer job and kept your lawn mowed and fed your cat, or that you were an Adventurous Traveler in Thailand?

Duh. I quit my job, sublet the house to someone who would feed the cat, and bought a plane ticket.

After a few days in the heat and noise and chaos of Bangkok, we escaped for a couple of weeks to the quieter, jungly north, near the border with Burma and Cambodia. We met some other Adventurous Travelers there, including a charming Scot named Daihi and his friends. A guide offered to take the group of us on a hill trek, several days of travel by foot and canoe and elephant into the villages of the northern hills which have never seen roads or electricity.

I should have known what was in store when we all piled into the back of a small covered truck to take us on the first stage of the journey, the only part that was accessible by road. We realized that the top of the truck had a sort of platform, and we asked the guide if we could ride on top rather than inside. He grinned and shrugged, and we all clambered up, wondering who would be so dull as to stay in the covered part. Riding on top let us see the little villages we passed with their huts and curious children and indifferent water buffalo by the sides of the road. It was infinitely better than riding inside, until we hit a length of road where the truck stirred up an enormous dense cloud of red dust, which stuck to our sweaty bodies and instantly transformed us into a mass of unrecognizable muddy creatures. Daihi howled with laughter as he looked at my caked face and matted hair, and shouted “Ach, if your people could see you now!” (I flushed with pride rather than embarrassment, thinking that at least they would see me being adventurous!) The guide just smiled.

The next stage of the trip was by elephant, as we ventured into areas where motorized vehicles had never penetrated. Elephants don’t plod heavily around like they do in zoos; in the jungle they are astonishingly nimble, and they can climb steep jungly hillsides more quickly than I could have on my own. On the second day of the trip, we started off early for a day-long journey, two elephants bearing three people each and one lead elephant with the guide.

The elephants snacked along the way, seizing clumps of tall grasses with their trunks and munching them as we ambled along. Several small streams crossed our path, and the elephants took advantage of those as well, slurping up the cool water. Ours drank his fill, and then filling his trunk again, suddenly swung it up in the air and sprayed himself – and us – with a shower of stream water. We howled with surprise and then pleasure, as the cool water felt wonderful in the sticky heat. We hadn’t showered for days anyway, and were still streaked with red mud from the truck experience, and it fit into our National Geographic sense of adventure to be sprayed clean by elephants. We crossed several more streams, and began to cheer every time we saw the elephant’s trunk swing up to give us a good dousing.

As we climbed higher, there were fewer and fewer streams to cross, and fewer trees to give us shade. The tropical afternoon sun beat down on our heads. The elephants lowered their heads as they trudged up the hillsides, and they probably missed the streams more than we did. We did pass a sort of ditch by the path, where stagnant water had gathered and a rich profusion of plants grew up out of the damp ground. I experienced a moment of horror, thinking surely the elephant won’t find that nasty stuff appealing? A cool mountain stream is one thing, but I don’t really want to be sprayed with swamp water. He didn’t, fortunately, but he did help himself to a few good-sized mouthfuls of the tender plants, and we were relieved that he was only interested in the snack. We climbed on, as he munched contentedly.

Then the trunk went to the mouth, and filled, and the trunk swung up in the air. We had just enough time to realize what was happening, but not quite enough time to duck, as we were drenched with an enormous trunkful of juicy green elephant spit. It was cool, and wet, but not exactly refreshing, though the elephant seemed to enjoy it a great deal. The rest of the day was filled with our howls of despair every time we saw that trunk reach out for another fat mouthful of squishy plants. The guide just smiled. Ach, if my people could see me now.

Some travelers complain that these northern hill treks are patronizing to indigenous cultures, because they take wealthy white people around to gape at the uncivilized tribes. I can assure you that it was more the other way around. Every evening as the elephants arrived at whatever village we were stopping at for the night, all the children came running out to stare and laugh at the stinky, mud-streaked, green-crusted foreigners who had come to visit. We experienced many of the wonders of Thailand that summer: temples, jewels, islands filled with coconut trees, luxurious fruits. But I will always associate it most with the smiling guide, and the sensation of being covered in elephant spit.

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