When they said we would be riding elephants, I strangely enough did not feel any particular thrill. How could one feel a thrill when one was in the depths of despair?
Of the 160-some kids in our home, over a hundred would be traveling back to their villages to visit their relatives during school break. Which means I would be missing over a hundred pieces of my heart. When I left Friday to travel to Maesai to spend five days with Anne and Nat, I said goodbye to those kids, knowing I wouldn’t see them for a month.
On the bus I had stared out the window and tried to rationalize. It will go by quickly, they’ll be back before you know it.
No good. Still in the depths of despair.
In Chiang Rai I was hungry, so I left my suitcase with a fairly reliable-looking bus driver and struck out into the traffic on foot. This healed me a bit. There is nothing like leaving all of your belongings with a complete stranger, knowing that he could make off with it, but just not caring. Because somewhere in this vast labyrinth of streets and alleyways, there is a barbecue and sticky rice stand with my name on it.
The thrill of my stupidity and the almost instant regret distracted me. I laughed out loud as I crossed the street and dodged a motorcycle. I chose to call it faith in humanity at that point and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom and anonymity of the city. Down an alley and up a street I heard music; the slide of an erhu and the beat of drums. I came upon a food court, filled with tables and ringed by food stands.
I spotted the barbecue across the way. Bingo.
With my spoils in hand I beat a hasty retreat back to where (hopefully) my suitcase and my bus waited. Safely aboard, I sank into the tired pleather seat and arranged my belongings around me. I was justified in my faith in the wrinkled man who captained us through Chiang Rai traffic. My suitcase was exactly where I left it.
On that next bus ride I tried to talk myself out of my blues. I would have a relaxing time with Anne and Nat and then I would be back. Then four weeks later, they would be back. On top of that, 50 kids were still there, I would have plenty to keep me busy.
The days passed agreeably with Anne and Nat. I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I was in that familiar home-away-from-home. I slept that first Saturday nearly all day. When the topic of the elephants came up, I thought, Eh, why not? Just to cross that off the list.
I truly was not excited.
However, now, standing dwarfed by this wrinkled giant, his trunk stretching out to touch my hand, I felt my pulse jump. Yes please.
There had to be over twenty elephants in the camp. Huge, swaying, monuments to a bygone era with meager poles separating us. In Thailand, these creatures were once used in manual labor and war. Looking into the impressive face of this elephant, I tried to imagine coming up against him in a battle. No thank you.
I touched the tip of his trunk and he blew once and withdrew. I wondered momentarily if elephants remembered you by smell, like horses. His small amber eyes were fixed over my head and his ears flapped in a slow rhythm, like breathing.
I don’t know why, but I started to hum. For a few moments he just stood there, then out stretched his trunk again. He was off by a few inches and bumped my arm. He seemed flustered, like he wanted to apologize for disturbing me, and withdrew again.
The elephant beside him suffered from no such delicacy. His trunk was wrapped around the pole supporting the roof and his ears flapped at a quicker pace. He was obviously of a more excitable nature.
I stepped up to him and his trunk came out immediately. He was a little more polite at first than he was at the end. At the end his trunk was resting on my head like a heavy boa constrictor. He was snuffling at my hands and my hair and my face until I figured enough was enough. I don’t care how exotic this creature is, he is rude.
Behind me his handler called lazily from where he rested in the shade. The elephant made no effort to respond. So I pulled that heavy, leathern trunk off my head and tried to make him understand that he should be more polite. He did not agree. He wrapped his trunk around my arm and I marveled at how tiny I was compared to this animal. He could definitely fling my around or anything he wanted to.
So I pulled away and left.
I saw my elephant and my handler, or mahout, as they are called, amble up to the platform I must climb. So up I went. As soon as my foot touched the broad back of my elephant, I felt another thrill. The saddle is made of a thick woven mat, almost a foot thick, with a metal seat. There is a cushion and my mahout gave me an umbrella. Off we went.
At first, the jerk and jar of his gait made comfort and enjoyment difficult, but as I acclimated, I started to enjoy the height and the sensation. I was on top of an elephant for goodness sake! I felt like Katherine Hepburn, braving the jungle and touring a new world. I tried not to feel like a princess but that was even more difficult than trying not to slide off the seat.
My mahout looked sufficiently wild as well. He sang and talked to the elephant, he also talked to me. Between my limited knowledge of Thai and his better knowledge of English, we got along just fine.
The rice paddies were green and vivid, the river we followed for a portion was murky and swollen. Young boys called to us as they fished along the edge and my mahout spoke back in a different language. It was not Thai. Then I remembered that this was a Karen village and that Thai was not the mahout’s native tongue. Up we climbed, beyond the rice and the river, up to the pineapples.
Here, the elephant’s appetite was not to be sated by anything other than a juicy pineapple. He ripped one right out of the patch and crunched into it immediately. The mahout seemed to be displeased and spoke sharply to it. He then jumped down and waited patiently for the elephant to be through with his snack.
He looked up at me and after a moment asked, “You, picture?”
“Yes!” I handed him my phone.
He took a few and then went a step further. “Ow mi?” He pointed to the elephant’s neck.
“Yes, oh yes!”
Before he could change his mind, I slipped under the teakwood restraint and stood on the elephant’s back. My shoes I had pulled off near the beginning of our journey and I’ll never forget the strange sensation of standing barefoot on an elephant. The hide was rough and the hair felt like bristles under my toes. I kneeled and slipped my feet down on either side of his neck. My legs nestled behind his ears and my toes barely made it beyond the tips.
I slid my hands over the top of his mighty head and laughed out loud. This was insane. Each wrinkle and line I traced with my fingertips. He started to move and I looked to the mahout on the ground. The mahout nodded and smiled. Even on the ground apparently he felt he could control his elephant. Fantastic. I hoped he was correct.
I leaned down and tried to look at the elephant’s face. His broad forehead looked so noble, even from that vantage point.
I was curious about him and he was no less curious about me. His trunk came up and I caught it in my hands. He snuffled around and touched my hands and my leg before retreating back down and continuing his ambling gait.
I rode a little bit longer and then the mahout handed back my phone. I crawled back into my seat and he stepped up on the elephant’s trunk and assumed his former position. I couldn’t stop smiling. The bamboo huts we passed and the people we met on the way smiled back and waved to the mahout.
I observed that the Coats, on the elephant far ahead, seemed to be on a less rebellious elephant with a less relaxed mahout. They marched on at a steady pace while we meandered here and there. My elephant had an insatiable appetite and ate nearly everything he encountered.
Once, on a lonely stretch, he halted. The mahout urged him forward but instead, his trunk snaked up a banana tree. With a jerk and a crack, the entire tree fell. I recalled stories of elephants being used to clear land in the older days and I laughed to see it in action.
The elephant carried that tree with him, shoving it into his mouth occasionally and audibly munching away. The mahout pulled out a sack with some sort of tobacco in it. I hope it was tobacco…. he sprinkled it into a white piece of paper and and carefully rolled out a perfect cigarette. At that moment, the elephant dropped half of the tree, but did not stop. The mahout slid off as the elephant meandered along and went back for the rest of the tree.
It occurred to me that perhaps this banana tree was not up for grabs. I recalled how Masae, the Lahu man that Nat works with, carefully tends his banana trees and how Pastor Pratuan planted some just last month and told me about the exact number with pride. The mahout was probably trying to destroy evidence of a theft, now that I think of it.
At the time though, I mostly thought it odd that elephants ate trees at all, let alone other tribe-member’s trees. I also was feeling quite alarmed at the elephant’s quickened pace, now that he wasn’t dragging a tree, and the fact that the only thing controlling it was… well… nothing, there was nothing controlling this snack-attacking, banana-tree-slaughtering beast. The mahout was back there, picking up the banana tree and slinging it over his shoulder, all the while casting glances up the trail to where a hut sat, presumably the dwelling-place of the owner of the banana tree.
I wished that he would stop looking back the way we had come and would start looking at his elephant, fast putting distance between himself and his mahout and with little old me perched atop his stubborn hide. Finally, the mahout turned and ambled after the elephant, the banana tree on his shoulder. He reached us and handed the tree back to the elephant, as if to say, “Well, eat it. I’m not going to be caught with the evidence.”
I felt a bit relieved that he was back, but still had some doubts as to how well he could control the elephant from the ground. Then, he lit his cigarette and started to smoke whatever it was. I determined I wasn’t going to let all these shenanigans prevent me from enjoying the ride. I opened my umbrella and re-assumed princess status, viewing the world from the shade of my perch. Soon, the mahout climbed back up and grinned at me.
Don’t worry, I won’t tell your boss.
We finished the ride without further incident and when I stepped back onto the platform back at the camp, I turned and thanked my mahout and my elephant for the adventure. I would never have wanted it to be ordinary, and thanks to them, it wasn’t.
The Coats made it back as well and we climbed in the van and headed back to Chiang Rai. Today I was supposed to head back to the children’s home. Every time I thought of it, I felt excitement.
Unfortunately, an hour and a half wait in a steaming bus in the dusty terminal was between me and the kids. We sat there and waited… and waited…. and sweated… and waited. I bought water and tried not to be mad. It was hard. Especially when another bus for Chiang Kham pulled up and left while I sat there thinking, Surely we will leave before them. I thought that all the way up to the point where they left before us. I had arrived at 12:25 and when we pulled out at 2:00, the entire bus breathed a sigh of relief.
I fell asleep, of course, and slept until we were about 30 minutes from Chiang Kham. At the terminal I fell out of the bus and went to the bathroom. It was guarded by a long-haired Pekinese who barked and barked while I snuck past and brushed the dust and tangles out of my hair. When I came out, the owner of the Pekinese gestured angrily to the sign and held out a hand. I blinked at the sign. 3 Baht.
I gestured to my hair and she looked disappointed. Yeah, sorry, I was using your mirror. I hope there is no charge for that. The Pekinese took up barking again as she turned and walked back to her chair underneath the 3 baht sign.
When I got back to the home, the kids were assembling upstairs for devotions. I got a few hugs and many smiles and then settled back into the swing of things. So many faces were missing. I couldn’t believe how small the group was! I felt a twinge of sadness but this was overwhelmed by the laugh that bubbled up as I watched their antics as they sang.
We ate and I went to bed, wondering what I would do with myself the next day. I shouldn’t have worried.
Rose taught me how to wash my laundry by hand. And my hands are definitely going into protest. My knuckles are raw and my skin is tight. I think I will still try, as the washing machine here is more like a meat processor than a washer, but I think I will save my hearty articles of clothing for the washer. You know, the thick jean and any bedding that can withstand being chewed instead of rinsed.
I must admit that my spirits were less high when I approached the office in order to write this post and score the tests from exam week. But when I opened the door, the light fell on a square box postmarked from a little town in Pennsylvania called Fleetwood.
I tore into that thing with my bare hands. I pulled out the letters and smelled the tea. I clutched them to me like precious gems.
You never realize how much you miss home until you get a letter.
I ate up those words like a starving man eats his first scraps of food. Every word, every line, every person who took the time was like a balm to my tired soul. Just like I didn’t know I was tired until I was at home with Anne and Nat, I didn’t realize how much I missed you all until I read your notes.
I marveled at the kindness. I marveled that they would take the time. With the stack beside me, every one opened and every word read and re-read, I stared at the ceiling and thanked God for each one, for each person who showed that tiny bit of kindness and love. I know we are just people, brought from darkness into His light, but He has made us so much more than we thought we could be.
When I was selfishly making my way through high school, gossiping with my friends and rebelling against any authority I could find, I would never have thought that He could work this miracle in me. Only God could have taken the person I was, wholly wrapped up in myself, and bring me into this place.
I am living proof of my God. If you think what I’m doing is proof of man’s inherent goodness, you are wrong. I struggle every day with that same selfishness, and He is that gentle guiding hand, correcting me and granting me a love that is not of myself.
I wish that just reading these words would convince you of this goodness. His goodness. If, even in the slightest, you turn your eyes upward and look into the gentle light of the sky, your thoughts bent in a question towards Him, I will be satisfied. Look for Him. Don’t take my word for it, please. Find it for yourself.
And for all of you that sent those letters, thank you. For all of you that are supporting me, thank you. You guys are such a blessing that I cannot express it fully.