Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Elephant Days

I found my one true love this weekend. He is large and big-boned, has thinning hair on the top of his head, has two long sharp teeth, goes to the bathroom A LOT, and he's Asian. I am luckily not referring to a man, but the elephant I got to have for a day.

Amelia's birthday is December 11th, and in Thailand why not ride an elephant for your birthday?! After researching elephant conservatories for a few weeks, we finally decided on Thai Elephant Home. We wanted to be able to ride bare-back at a place that we knew did not abuse the elephants. I guess you can never truly know that for sure, but from the reviews we read, this place had everything we were looking for, even though it was a bit pricey compared to what we're used to spending. I splurge for elephants.

When we arrived, our fears of what we would actually walk into we're immediately put to rest. We had a briefing from a bubbly Thai man with good English. He gave us the history of the elephant home, told us about the elephants, taught us commands to use, and also explained the stick with a hook that the mahouts, or elephant trainers, would be carrying around. The stick is used for tapping the elephants to guide when they are going astray (which mine often did), and their skin is so thick that it is basically itching a scratch for them. The hook is only used in extreme measures, like if the elephants are fighting, if they are putting someone in danger, or when teaching them not to eat plastic or garbage (we have to teach dogs not to eat our furniture somehow too!). I have heard horror stories of how elephants are treated at some zoos and sanctuaries, and the fact that the guide brought up the hook without anyone asking gave me reassurance that they were being honest with us. Also, the elephants were in perfect shape. No holes in their ears and no gashes on their bodies. It was a great sign and we all felt like we chose a place that genuinely cares for and respects the elephants.

We were given a beautiful change of clothes to wear over our bathing suits (can you hear how sarcastic I'm being?) and off we were to practice getting on and off the elephant. Not so easy and extremely terrifying but, if the 7 year old girl behind me could do it, so could I. When we were done practicing, we got assigned an elephant.
The mahouts must have seen it in my eyes. Terror. I think to mess with me, they gave me the elephant wanderer. The one who was always turning left or right or up or down to look for food. Elephants are vegetarians, so 9 year old Won (pronounced Juan) literally stopped every 30 seconds to try and eat something.

Now, you might be thinking that I was so silly being scared of riding an elephant. I rode one at the Catskill Game Farm when I was about 4 and I was probably fearless then, sitting on the elephant in a basket with the comfort of my sister sitting next to me, but this is no Catskill Game Farm elephant. This is a huge, wild, Asian elephant that I rode with nothing but Won's head, ears, and a rope behind me to hold onto. I have a fear of falling down. My friends can all attest to this weird fear of mine.. Slipping on ice/snow/water and falling, falling backwards on an escalator, falling from climbing/being on a tall surface (another fear I came face to face with while zip lining this weekend), and now I can add falling off of an elephant down the jungle mountain to that list that goes on and on. One thing I know about myself and accept about myself is that I am a chicken, but I always follow through, and this day was no different.

As petrified as I was while my mind was trying to figure out how to balance on this gigantic animal, I had to talk myself down from the fear so that I could enjoy one of the reasons that I came to Thailand in the first place. How could I possibly get through this without falling down the steep mountain to my death?!
I had my own elephant trainer with me the whole day. My mahout walked beside me all morning and all afternoon. He shouted commands at Won when his trunk began to wander to to the nearest tree. He knew I was a chicken. I even flapped my wings at him and said I'm a chicken bawk bawk so he was well aware. Without my mahout, I may have had an anxiety attack.

The balance thing was really stressing me out. If I had a seatbelt, I wouldn't have had one single issue, but who uses seatbelts in Thailand?! So, I had my cheerleaders in front of me talking me through it. My friends were cheering me on, taking millions of pictures (since I couldn't even take one hand off for more than 2 minutes to do so), and told me where it was more comfortable to put my feet. That was a lifesaver. I assumed just hanging my feet made the most sense for my safety, but turns out legs bent behind the ears was the place to be. Once I figured that out, it was smooth sailing. Won was even so nice and smart as to give my legs a boost back up with his ears if they began slipping down.

Amelia and Shelby were directly in front of me and were riding the elephants so effortlessly, like they had been doing it for years. They were my motivation to really take it all in, enjoy myself, and stop worrying so much. I even got myself to take my hands off Won's head for 30 seconds so my mahout could take this picture of me. So glad I did, this picture is worth a thousand words.
Look Ma, no hands!

In the morning, I rode my elephant for about 2 hours straight. I saw amazing views of the jungle and village below. I got to see elephants in their natural environment. They are smart, friendly, curious, and hungry. These enormous creatures were going up and down very narrow paths, along a steep drop of the mountain, all with their four gigantic feet. How they figured that out is beyond me!

We had lunch provided for us, which was a humungous portion of amazing pad Thai, and we gave the banana leaf it came in and any leftovers to one of the elephants.  Then we got big ole elephant kisses! That was just awesome.

I got to have a mud bath all while giving an elephant one as well. We got a free facial! We were encouraged to get all muddy, and then give the elephant a mud and dirt bath. After walking for two hours in the Thai jungle heat, these big guys deserved it. You could tell how much she loved the wet mud, and it was fun for us too! Still nice and dirty, we hopped (more gracefully now after doing it a few times) back onto our elephants to walk for about another hour. Our next destination was the river and my mahout and I gave Won a bath! Won was just like a dog, plunging under water for as long as he could hold his breath, just soaking it all up. Looking around, every single person was smiling and laughing. We were playing with our elephants. I really appreciated them at this moment, and I'd like to think that they were appreciating us as well for washing them clean and letting them take a nice break after working so hard all day. After the river, it took another 20 minutes to walk back to the sanctuary, and then I had to say goodbye to my elephant. It was around 3 pm. I spent a whole entire day with my own elephant and I will never forget it.

This was a once in a lifetime experience. I say this about a lot of the things that I do in Thailand, but unless I come across an inheritance I don't yet know about, I may never even make it to Asia again. I have adored elephants since I was a little girl. I used to collect anything elephant but eventually grew out of that phase and got rid of my collection. I've grown back into that phase again and may become a crazy elephant lady. I now have an elephant collection of bracelets, scarves, necklaces, Thai pants, a hanging rope of colorful elephants (props Erica Wordon), and I was THIS close to spending way too much money on an original painting of an elephant's behind this weekend. I actually may regret not buying that later in life, but for now, I had to think realistically about my financial situation and how much more debt I would be in at home if I went for the splurge. Maybe I'll take up painting in the future and just make my own.

I'm pretty sure nothing will top this experience and I'm okay with that. I conquered a fear and lived out a dream all in one day, and this memory will last forever.

I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful one-hundred percent!
        -Dr. Seuss

Other weekend highlights:
                    Jungle hike                                                    Sunrise at Doi Suthep                                                            Zip lining

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