Friday, February 3, 2017

Astride the Big One

How much does an Asian elephant weigh? The question isn't irrelevant, not when you are riding bareback stop one of them as I recently did some 10 miles outside of Luang Prabang in Laos. Sitting there, a dozen or more feet in the air, plenty more goes through your mind as well. Such as: what happens if I fall?  Will this giant mammal - maybe the second largest on earth after the African elephant - even know I am no longer astride her? After all, it's my puny 100-plus pounds up against her many tons. And the seat, such as it was, is the large bumpy exterior of her very grand head.
Why should she care what happens to me?
My legs were trembling, my throat was dry. The experience was unsettling - the surreal somewhat unnatural quality of it all . I was engaged in pure touristic thrill mongering, of course, though our guide (not the mahout fellow who was actually in charge of my ride) explained nicely that the 17-year-old was merely doing her job. Previously she had been a member of a chain gang of sorts, forced to carry logs out of the forest for a commercial company that had no special regard for her welfare. The non-profit Elephant Village where we were visiting is a rescue operation helping the aged and injured beasts live out their years under better conditions. In return, the 14 elephants in their care take gawkers like me for brief excursions around the settlement - earning their keep so to speak - before being put out to graze. Did I hear it correctly? Each one needs 250 kilos of vegetation  daily?
In exchange, each one receives premier care under the protection of a vet and handlers dedicated to their care.
I had been visiting the toilet for morning ablutions when I was called = come quick = to the staging platform. Others in the group had already taken up their positions with  a mahout riding astride each one. I saw a line of incredibly large animals moving slowly off in a line with my pygmy-sized friends sitting nervously aboard .
We had been told that we would be given an education in elephant lore and learn about handling them, but there was no time for instructions. "Climb up," I was told. I scrambled up the ladder to the platform where the i patient animal waited. "Put your right leg over her neck. Lean forward and put your hands on her head."
I didn't know what to expect. I'd never had the privilege of touching an elephant's head before. I knew virtually nothing about the beasts except their reputation for being famously intelligent and loyal. It was difficult to imagine how my slight frame would communicate anything at all to the three - maybe four - ton creature. My hands touched two hairy humps with a slight indentation between. My feet swung free unless I chose to cling to the side of her body behind those flapping ears. Head and body swayed. I moved in rhythm with them as best I could. I had no idea what was going to happen next. There were no overt commands that I could tell. The mahout did all the 'talking' in ways I found difficult to understand.
I did learn how the trim Laotion guide managed to get up and down so quickly: he tapped her front leg which she then lowered so he could step on the knee, grab one of the great big ears and pull himself up and over. At one point - after we had walked slowly down a steep incline to the river and out into the water - he jumped off (or so it seemed), directing me in gestures to give him my iPhone so he could take a photo of me sitting singularly high and mighty.  Not a bad picture to send home, as the mahout knew well.
We crossed the river for several hundred yards  and climbed up a bank. I was tense, leaning forward, heart in my throat, nervous that I might somehow be conveying a wrong signal.  I  felt the texture of her head, then her ears, both rough to the touch. Our movements were not always aligned but it didn't seem to matter. I couldn't help but think that at any moment she could decide - a joke perhaps - to lower that large gray-brown head and send me packing. Or toss me in the air. I was helpless and knew it, , my inner thighs aching as I sought to stay balanced. Tourist materials usually show people enjoying such a ride while seated in a howdah - the wooden seat holding two people that is strapped beneath the elephant's belly. But not here - the howdahs still are commonplace but the Village forbids them since they are thought to  rub and irritate the animals' skin.
The  trip didn't last long -  20 or 30 minutes at most. I  lost track of time. All I could think was how wondrous was the experience, happening during the month when Ringling Bros. would announced a decision to stop traditional tours. (Already, animal rights protestors had won the battle to keep elephants from performing.) We dismounted  and were asked to buy some bananas and  to feed the elephants = their tip perhaps. It was a relatively short journey but I had already bonded with my lady. She wouldn't mind your caressing her forehead, I was told. I looked into her left eye - a large unblinking saucer outlined with large lashes. She released her trunk - that magnificent feeding machine - and took in all I had to offer.
We would later visit the quarters where records are kept on each animal, having mostly to do with their medical care.  Upstairs was a pictorial display upstairs about the elephants' long and troubled history as indentured servants. But then didn't  elephants also help build Cambodia's Angkor Wat, too?
Our  trip had taken us  from the frenzied and fascinating street life of Hanoi to the relatively serene Buddhist haven of Luang Prabang and  on to Cambodia's tourist-centered Siem Reap  -   key cities in each of three main South Asian countries. Each place  a distinct culture in transition. We had exemplary custom- planned exposure to three different worlds gravely impacted by United States past foreign policies. At no time did we feel hostility though of course negatives are likely to be hidden behind the superlative promise of tourism.
 If such a crash course  by necessity allows only superficial impressions, it also builds strong memories. And even  casual contacts can be lasting .

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