THAILAND ELEPHANTS, WEEK TWO
Getting up to pee in the middle of the night in a mountain jungle village is a bit complicated. It’s not like at home where you can roll out of bed, stumble into the bathroom and take care of business without having to really snap into consciousness. Being over 40, normally I can pee with my eyes closed and continue to make out with Madeline Stowe in my dream. (Madeline Stowe is the beauty that Daniel Day-Lewis falls for in Last of the Mohicans.) And, like D.D. throwing his axe, my aim is still true.
But not in Huay Pakoot. First I have to dig for my flashlight. Then I have to pull on my pants. Then I have to slowly and carefully wriggle out of my mosquito net cocoon, in such a way that I leave no opening for the sieging insects outside to march in whatever hole I make to get out.
By the time I crawl across the floor and grope for the light I’m almost fully conscious, with the bugs, fired up by the flood of fluorescent light, kamikazing into my neck and face. It’s a good thing I am awake at this point, otherwise I’d probably tumble down the uneven wood staircase and roll down the mountain, because everything is on a mountain around here.
The first night I stumble toward the Outhouse-Plus, the symphony of jungle cicadas serenade me, and I look up at the night sky. I stop in my tracks.
In my life I’ve been on quite a few camping trips, in some beautiful places in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, and California. I’ve never seen a night sky as the one I am looking up at now. The stars throb and pulse so that they look like they are taking breaths. They dance on the heads of the mountains and shove their way through the milling clouds, demanding to be seen. The Big Dipper looks like I could slide it off a pantry hook, pluck it out of the sky, and drink from it.
I sit on the stoop, flashlight extinguished, and stare upward. The days are so hectic that the 3 am pisses become wonderful opportunities to bliss out in the jungle night.
By the second week I settle into a routine. I am jarred awake by roosters crowing at 4:30, try and usually fail to go back to sleep as my family gets up to cook and get ready for their day jobs farming rice in the fields. I dress, pack water bottles, sunscreen, bug repellent, and my Minnie Mouse lunch box into my backpack, and I trudge off to work.
Well, it feels like work, anyway. You know–early morning, carrying my lunch, hours of physical exertion ahead of me, saying hello to the baby elephant as I walk by.
– Okay, maybe not work, exactly.
I always greet Lulu, the youngest of the baby elephants, on the way to Base Hut. She is tied up overnight in the village while her mahout trains her.
All the elephants in this herd have chains attached to at least one of their feet. They have to be chained at different times for different reasons. Sometimes it’s for a health check, sometimes because the elephant may be close to another village’s territory (encroaching and feeding on someone else’s property could likely get the elephant shot), sometimes because us volunteers are feeding them.
While these elephants have been around humans their whole lives, there is always a dangerous and unpredictable element when dealing with them, and the staff always make sure to keep us volunteers at a safe distance. An adult Asian elephant can sweep up two grown men with it’s trunk and fling them like rag dolls.
The elephants will still wear the chains when they forage in the jungle, they just won’t be tied down. Remarkably, the chains, which trail behind them for fifty feet or so, never seem to get snagged. Usually the elephants’ sheer brute force is enough to plow through the obstruction. I did witness one mahout try to untangle a chain: the moment he touched it, the elephant decided to move, and the chain shot out of his hand, taking his fingernail with it.
Lulu quickly becomes a favorite elephant of mine, because I see her and talk to her every day. I love the tawny hair sprouting up from the fringes of her head and from between her ears, the baby with dyed old man hair. Lulu is the youngest elephant at three years old, new to the herd, and until about two weeks ago she has never been in a forest. She has spent her whole life inside a tourist camp.
This is Lulu’s first experience of the vastness of the jungle: the noise, the insects, the deluge of plant life. When she forages with Mario and Bpee Mai, the other babies, she scours their mouths with her trunk, to smell and touch what they’re eating. She’s asking them what’s good on the menu. When she grabs Mario’s tail with her trunk, most likely she’s feeling vulnerable and wants comfort. Sometimes she has a tendency to cling to the mahouts.
The most alarming trait I see in Lulu, however, happens the second she is tied down. It seems to induce a kind of trance in her. She rocks and sways in a jerky, monotonous rhythm. I feel like I’m watching a being in torment, suffering from some unseen demons.
Studies now show that, like humans, elephants can suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The swaying is a symptom of what captivity, abuse, and a life of boredom in the tourist camps have done to Lulu. Humans that have been prisoners of war know this trauma. The second Lulu is locked down, her personality disappears and she reverts to this rocking behavior.
When I pass by Lulu, tied up in the village, I stop and call to her. The first few times she stops, slowly turns, her trunk swings toward me, and she smells me. Her eyes widen and she stares at me.
We volunteers are instructed to not bother the elephants while they are tied up in the village, so I speak to her in hushed tones and I try to tell her it’s going to be okay. I feel like I’m outside prison walls, calling to a friend in solitary confinement.
Lulu swivels back around, turning her back on me. She resumes the rocking and swaying, as if yanked back into a nightmare.
After the third or fourth time of me greeting her, Lulu doesn’t even acknowledge me. She doesn’t turn, she doesn’t look, her trunk doesn’t grope for my smell.
She just rocks, back and forth.
The good news is that Lulu’s life is now infinitely better in Huay Pakoot. Over time, this behavior may lessen or even disappear.
On the day that I get to feed the babies, I seek Lulu out. Usually, the elephants are tied down for this, but not this particular time. Lulu is free to do what she wants. Her trunk frisks me for food. Her touch is much gentler than the adults. Lulu’s eyes open wide and her mouth stretches into a baby’s innocent grin.
I feed her bananas, pretending they are cakes with nail files hidden in them.