Thursday, September 10, 2009

Elephant Washing

Sept 10

Just outside Louang Phabang, it's possible to go elephant riding, so Geoff and I picked up a cheap tour and headed out this morning. After a comfortable hour in an air conditioned minivan, we arrived at a small rattan shack that was home the two elephant handlers (Mahouts) and three Asian elephants. The elephant ride through the jungle was kind of cheesy, but it was interesting to see the jungle from so high up. The real fun started in the afternoon. After a quick lunch, we changed into our swimming gear: it was time to wash the elephants. My elephant was going to be Bao, which means young one. He was 25 years old. I got on his bare neck by climbing up a rickety bamboo platform. What a feeling!! I was so small in size compared to the elephant that it's skin and muscles didn't even give against my weight. I was just a gnat on its back.

We set out down a steep track to the edge of the Mekong. It was obvious that the relationship between an elephant and its Mahout is not really one of master /slave. It's more a tacit agreement between an animal of superior intelligence and an animal of superior strength. The Mahout would say "Bai" (go), and the elephant would stand still. The Mahout would say "BAI!" and the elephant would flap its big old ears against my legs. The Mahout would say "BAI!!!!!!!!!", and the elephant would reach its truck over and grab some bamboo to eat. The Mahout would walk over and punch the elephant on the leg, and the elephant would swing its tail. After a bit, for no particular reason, the elephant began to make for the river. I admired it for it sense of self; no need to get flustered or bothered by the little man making a fuss. The universe was unfolding as it should, and it would move when it was ready.

Once we got under way, it was a slow, steady swaying back and forth until we got to the river, and, without a pause, Bao walked into the water until it was totally submerged, rolled over, and I fell off laughing. I scrambled back on and was handed a brush. I scrubbed away at the grit and dirt on Bao's skin along with the Mahout and two of the village kids. Bao loved having his head rubbed. I'd climb up on his back, swish some water on his head and rub away which always made his eye close in contentment. As I got more comfortable, I started climbing across his hug back, scrubbing here and there. He liked to roll over in the water, and I liked to go for the ride, so over and over again I'd climb on to his back and hold on as he slowly flopped over or dove down. Then the heavy current from the Mekong would wush me away, and I'd fight to swim back the ten feet until one of the Mahouts would grab my hand and pull me over so I could grab Bao's ear and start to fun all over again. I'd stand on Bao with the kids, jumping into the water, or striking a pose for the camera. It was a great time. Bao was a patient, powerful and calm. I was sorry to say good bye. I wonder if Geoff would go for a pet elephant.? No, seriously.

- Cindy