“ Do you ever get trapped inside your car at Walmart because there is a tiger wandering around the parking lot?” I asked.
“Really?” she replied.
“Yea, yea! Or do you ever walk out of your back yard and step in one of those rope traps that spring and grab you by your foot and hang you upside down in a tree?” I pressed. I had never been to India, I needed the info.
“You’re an idiot.” she laughed. “You are aware that tigers don’t roam around freely in cities, right? And these traps you’re talking about, I think they were in African jungles in the 1400’s or something and there are no Walmarts here.” She concluded.
“What?!?!” I was aghast, “No Walmart!!” India sounded like a strange and exotic destination for sure…no Walmart…imagine!
“Sometimes, do you have to pull over on the side of the road because of stampeding elephants?” I wanted all the basic information before I travelled to this alluring jewel of a country.
“Elephants are a nuisance actually” my then girlfriend Mrs. R. said quite casually.
“What?” I sputtered, all joking aside now, she seriously had my attention.“What do you mean a nuisance?”
“They knock over fences, trample your garden, in the city they hold up traffic…like that” Oh, there was so much I had to learn about India and I couldn’t wait to get there. This was going to be the trip of a life time. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any elephants on that trip. Lots of monkeys and a camel or two, but no Elephas Maximus Indicus. Nor on the next trip. It wasn’t until I moved to India permanently, I experienced the joy of seeing wild elephants and suffered the anguish of being in an elephant caused traffic jam.
Kaziranga National Park is in the Golaghat and Nagaon districts of the State of Assam. The sanctuary is home to one-horned rhinoceroses, elephants, water buffaloes, swamp deers, six billion types of birds and insects and of course, the big daddy of them all, tigers. Not only is this an amazing wildlife (tiger) reserve, it is a World Heritage Site. It was on the road to Kaziranga I had my first up close and personal experience with an elephant. Lost my virginity so to speak…literally.
We were driving through the tea farms of northern Assam heading for the National Reserve. Now just to be clear, I didn’t grow up under a rock; my parents had taken me to zoos and the circus when I was a kid. I was consciously aware of the existence of elephants; I may have even fed one a peanut on the odd occasion whilst reluctantly petting his trunk. But these were foggy childhood memories and most certainly would have been through bars or a cage of some sort. I had never seen one just strolling down the road and just like that, there he was. Not one but two. In my excitement I screeched out MALEFICENT!! It cut through the silence of the car interior like a gunshot and was followed very quickly by a smacking of my forehead against the (closed) passenger window. I craned to get a better look. The outburst caused my Jiju (brother-in-law)to swerve drastically and my little niece to scream! No offense to the fine people at Disney, the 2014 dark fantasy was a cinematic masterpiece; really really enjoyed it(Love that Angelina Jolie…don’t you?). But I was just so taken by surprise, it was all I could muster.
“We can stop and see them if you like” my princess bride said.
“Alright! Yes! Do we have any peanuts, why are they scared of mice, can we pet their trunk, is it really true they never forget?” I was giddy as a school girl, ignoring the raised eyebrows and chuckles; I was gonna see an elephant.
We pulled over on the soft shoulder and watched as they lumbered up the side of
the road. The Mahout (driver) on them were kids, no more than fifteen years of age. I was astounded. These gentle giant ambled up and the Mahouts brought them to a halt. That is when I discovered that elephants are quite dog like concerning their method of introduction. That is to say, it was my first experience with an elephant trunk rooting around somewhat forcefully in my crotch. ‘Sniff sniff’, I must have made the grade as there was no alarmed trumpeting, rearing up on hind legs or crushing of small white man bones under mammoth elephant feet.
“Ello Harry” I grinned at him. His soulful eyes grinned back. Since my teens I had referred to elephants as Harry Elafonte like the great American crooner Harry Belafonte. There was also a rather crude reference to hairy elephant parts. It doesn’t matter now, the name stuck. Thrilled, beside myself, ecstatic, all accurate descriptions of my mood. After all, it was a real live elephant. After some time I had my fill and we got back in the car. Immediately I inquired as to why no one else was sharing my exuberance and why we had to pay the Mahout! As it turns out, this is all pretty hum drum stuff in Indian society. Elephants on the side of the road and such, wow…what a buzz kill. As for the payment, well, they kind of expect it. They did stop doing their day’s work so we could ogle and take pictures. On another level, some folks just give them money to help feed or care for them. As elephants are sacred animals,highly revered and respected, it is common enough to just pull over and give a little cash.
The next day we were on a safari, using none other than the preferred mode of travel for any serious safarier…elephant! We saddled up and set off into the savannah. We were riding females and the toddlers that were strong enough were allowed to trail along beside us at mommie’s feet. Elephants are extremely intelligent and once domesticated (trained), are quite docile. In the wild, they are in fact one of the most dangerous animals on earth. Elephants are emotional animals, they mourn their dead and openly show love and empathy, especially with their young. Female elephants stay with their mothers until their death, and the males hang around until puberty, twelve years of age or so. By far the closest knit families (other than human, although I am certain my mother wanted me gone by 12) in the animal kingdom. We saw a fine example of this on our safari that morning. There was suddenly a loud trumpet from one of the females, agitated and alarmed. They were quite a distance ahead in the fog; so we couldn’t make out what was happening. There was a moment of concern as in 2004, a Mahout was attacked by a tiger on this very safari in this very park. Our Mahout quickly explained, it was simply a mother scolding her baby for walking along side another female. Apparently they are possessive also.
Not too long after that, on a getaway trip to Goa, as a distraction from the beach, we thought a little botanical enlightenment was in order. No, not that type, a visit to a local spice farm type. After a fun and enlightening spice tour, we noticed just outside the gates was a whole pack of Harry Elafonte. They were kind of hard to miss actually, being that they are quite large and were all wrapped up in orange raincoats. The huge creatures looked like convicted felons; the dreaded pachyderm pariah gang finally rounded up. It appeared they were just waiting around to truck tourists up and down a jungle path. I mean, it’s not like they had anything else on the agenda that day, what with it being rainy and all. My sister was over for a visit and not to deny her the experience, we headed over to the paddock. Alright, another thing elephants have in common with canines, an oh so delicious aroma when wet.
Still, it was an adventure worthy of a couple of white tourists. Mrs. R made a face and insisted we carry on alone. I was the veteran elephant rider and was laying out all the do’s and dont’s and proper elephant etiquettes as we wandered deeper and deeper into the jungle. Suddenly we stopped and the Mahout spun around and made it very clear he expected a tip, a large tip, now. My first instinct is to get aggressive, but my sister, ever the diplomat and realizing it is probably best not to confront a man deep in the jungle with no one around, told him “Of course, as soon as we get back” and with a pat of her hips “ no wallet” she explained. We sat there a moment, her smiling, me scowling and him looking puzzled. With a shrug, he turned the beast around and we headed back. Mugged on an elephant, strange days indeed.
They may not look it, but elephants can be quite stealthy. Don’t snicker, it’s true. A fact most top Indian spies have known for centuries. Like whom you ask? Like Ajit Doval, or Detective Byomkesh, or the infamous Prince Ali Ahoo Ababuah. “Prince whom?” you ask? “Ali Ahoo Ababuah” I answer!! Okay, alright…Ali is me. I’m Ali. Lee is Ali Ahoo Ababuah. Now you know. It’s my secret identity when I wish to travel incognito throughout Indian tourist areas. Why do I want to travel incognito through Indian tourist areas? Simple. Just like everyone else, I don’t like them, the tourists (not Indians). Most recently on a trip to Japiur, I used my covert pseudonym to gain entrance to the heavily visited Amer Fort. I effortlessly shadowed past Brits and Russians and Australians, every manner of Asian, European and North American tourists, with the clever and classified use of Maximus Indicus. I breached the velvet ropes and ‘twas there I photographed the legendary Sheesh Mahal; but that is a whole different story. Spy rule number one, make use of your indigenous cover.
The sad truth is now, I don’t really notice them anymore. The odd time in Delhi, we pass them on the road and curse them for causing traffic jams. People stop in the middle of the street to pay the Mahout or tourists stop to take pictures. Elephants show up at all the government parades and are featured at tourist hot spots.
Yet, in all my four years here, I have only seen wild elephants once. A small herd, bathing in a river in Assam. So majestic, so beautiful, and I am disheartened that beauty has been lost on me since. Not so very long ago, elephants were a source of amazement and wonder, now they hold the same amount of fascination as a horse trotting by. I have become desensitized to my environment I suppose; happens to the best of us. Let me close with this thought, if we don’t see what’s around us, we can’t appreciate it. If we don’t appreciate the beauty of life surrounding us, how can we protect it?
Till next time, keep wandering…
The elephant rides I participated in were when I had first moved to India, before I was aware there was an abuse problem with the animals by some factions of the tourism community. I have written this humorous article, not to make light of the issue, but to draw attention to it. Please do take the time to follow the links below. – LN
Information and Save The Elephants