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.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Done/not done

Sorry I haven't been around the bar much; I've been hanging more around Twitter lately. Oh, and trying to survive the end of the semester. But memes are easy and fun, so here's one making the rounds lately. Things in bold are things I've done. You can play too!

1. Started my own blog
2. Slept under the stars

3. Played in a band (if singing counts)
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower

6. Given more than I can afford to charity ("more than I can afford" for me sounds like bankruptcy, so no, I have not managed to be that charitable)
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain

9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sung a solo

11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched lightning at sea
14. Taught myself an art from scratch

15. Adopted a child (no, that one's just not likely to happen.)
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty (is it still possible to do this?)
18. Grown my own vegetables (used to have a gazpacho garden, with onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers. Man, I miss that.)
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France and was completely awed.
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
22. Hitchhiked
(on a bulldozer, no less!)
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill (I am just beginning to learn how to do this. Too much of a rule-follower, I am.)
24. Built a snow fort
25. Held a lamb
26. Gone skinny dipping
27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
(are there people who haven't done this?)
31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person
34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught myself a new language
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
(that doesn't take much for me, fortunately.)
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
39. Gone rock climbing
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt (oh, I've wanted to do this ever since I learned about it as a little kid. I remember reading that it was very gradually erupting less often, and I cried to think that it might not exist by the time I was old enough to go. Hang on, old thing, I'm still working on getting there...)
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance
47. Had my portrait painted
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (was at the bottom, but didn't want to spend the hours in line to go up)
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain
(that was the best first date ever, with Bruce-Springsteen-look-alike guy)
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater

55. Been in a movie (does a promotional university video count?)
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business (kind of unintentionally; I need to close it down by the end of the year)
58. Taken a martial arts class (years of tae kwon do; a little karate)
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies (would much rather buy them. oooo, Thin Mints!)
62. Gone whale watching
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma
(all three, and some bone marrow to boot)
65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check (I could live without doing this, or the ambulance trip, thanks)
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. Eaten caviar

72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job (I was about to once, but I think I managed to quit first.)
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London (and Madrid!)
77. Broken a bone
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book
(hee! this still astonishes me sometimes)
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had my picture in the newspaper
85. Read the entire Bible
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating (if fish count)
88. Had chickenpox (somehow I skipped all the childhood illnesses.)
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby (no, thanks)
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a lawsuit
98. Owned a cell phone
99. Been stung by a bee
(just once. Thanks, Rocket Boy.)
100. Ridden an elephant (and for real travel, not just a photo op)