A CAT IN ELEPHANT TOWN

At the end of a long day of hiking and other activities in Thailand I would walk home alone. Sometimes it would be prairie wolf late and the other volunteers and the people of the village would be asleep. The air would be like thick glass and the cicadas would be in low throttle, probably fatigued from all the head crashing of the daytime. Sometimes I would walk by Lulu the baby elephant and she would be still. Elephants sleep only four hours a day and I would freeze when I walked by her because I knew this was one of the moments—that she was sleeping only a few feet away even though I couldn’t see her because the night crept out of a dark closet and around us both.

I’ve walked alone many times in life. I had a paper route when I was a boy and I would get up at five in the morning when the dark was still splayed out all over the neighborhood. I’d walk past the graveyard, the crosses spreading their arms in the shadows, past the corner store with the loud hum of the neon sign. I walked that paper route in the winters with the snow robing the trees and I could hear the snowfall. I could hear it sighing in the air and sometimes I would pause, maybe on someone’s porch. I’d sit there in the dark and watch and listen to the little hoof falls of the million snowflakes landing.

In college I wandered the USC campus, on my way home in the middle of the night in an L.A. ghetto, and I was lucky I guess because even the muggers, rapists, and killers would be asleep. I would be buzzed on a few beers so the edges of me would be soft but I still had a back pocket-type of awareness, and there would be a strange city-quiet accompanying me. The sirens, cars, crazy gibbering homeless people all muffled, all the crazy filtered through a wind sock. The city had a rat-eye clarity at three in the morning.

Later, walking in the Thailand jungle, fatigue drooping down the corners of me, a day full of elephants and a night with stars fender bendering in the sky, and in all these times and in all these places there was a danger in that silence. Anything could happen, a snake could swerve into me, a maniac could pogo stick out of my bad dreams and drive a blade into my spine, and the quiet was just like that—coiled violence and heavy breaths, a pirate waiting for you below decks.

In all these moments, of course, I was not alone. In these moments I was walking with divinity. I was holding the ace of spades in my hand.

This guy was my companion for many of my walks:

ace of spades 1

He was a stray from the village. He would dart ahead of me and cut me off at the ankles so I had to stop to pet him.

His coat was such that I didn’t know where the dirt ended and the black spots started. By the end of the trip he would look for me and I for him, even in the daytime. He would walk with me past the elephants, but stop laughing-dead before we reached stray dog territory.

He looks like the ace of spades, don’t you think?

INTERVIEW WITH AN ELEPHANT

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

Speaking out for the first time.

Speaking out for the first time.

In her mid-50’s now, Tong Dee is the matriarch of the man-made elephant herd here in Huay Pakoot. This is despite the fact that, with the recent arrival of Kam Suk, Tong Dee is not even the oldest elephant any more. I have been enamored with Tong Dee since I met her at a banana feeding during my first week in Thailand. I knew right then and there I needed to meet with her and try to conduct my first-ever elephant interview.

I didn’t think the interview was going to happen. When I first approached Tong Dee and asked her who her publicist was, she said, “What’s a publicist?” When I tried to negotiate the terms of the interview, including wardrobe suggestions, she balked. I felt like an elephant of her size would probably look best in a slimming black turtleneck. It worked really well for Sharon Stone. I thought some dangling silver hoop earrings might set off her eyes and jingle pleasantly when she flapped her ears. And I felt the best venue for our interview, and for an elephant of her stature, would be The Chedi Hotel Chiang Mai.

But I knew that being the matriarch, Tong Dee would be calling the shots.

I arrived early for our interview at a mud hole down from a dirt road in the village of Huay Pakoot. Tong Dee showed up only minutes later, naked and without any piercings in her flapping ears. Her size can only really be appreciated up close: she is about 7 feet tall at the shoulders and about 19 feet long, counting her tail. Her weight is a little over 6000 pounds. She carries it well. She has distinctive bowl-shaped cysts on her right flank and right foreleg—but they are benign.

It was late afternoon, the sun at its blazing worst, and Tong Dee sighed as she trundled into the shallow mud hole at the edge of a meadow in the jungle.

Her bearing was dignified but a little tentative, and her trunk wandered all over me, sniffing me a bit warily. Her past as a beast of burden in the logging camps has taken its toll, and her skin hung loosely and was wrinkled and leathery. A wooden bell was clasped around her neck. I guess she was going for an austere look. A look that seemed to say, “Sure, I’m a down-to-earth gal, approachable… but don’t mess with me”—and—“Get that makeup guy away from me before I step on his little head.”

Thong Dee at the mud hole.

Thong Dee at the mud hole.

We exchanged some pleasantries. I blew down her trunk and she snorted back at me. Then without so much as a word she settled into her mud bath, her feet clopping in the dank earth and her trunk spraying thick, cool mud all over her body. As she fielded my questions she constantly slung pies of the stuff onto her flanks and up over her lumpy spine.

ANIMAL GUY: I am honored to have you here, Tong Dee. From the first time I saw you… well, I just knew I had to meet you.

THONG DEE: It’s “Thong Dee”. There’s an “h” in there, though it is silent. You’ve been spelling it wrong for a long while. All these things you’ve been writing about me. Since I am here with you now I will correct you.

I flush red. My first interview with my elephant heroine, and it’s already going off the rails. I am pleased, however, that she’s reading my blog. This despite the fact that elephants, as a general rule, can’t read—though I understand that they do handle the internet well—which is the opposite of my grandmother.

THONG DEE: I can see you’re nervous. It’s okay. Humans make lots of mistakes. So many I could never count and never remember. And I have a very good memory. Well.

ANIMAL GUY: Yes. Yes, okay… thank you… I think. So how long have you been here in this herd at Huay Pakoot?

TD: I don’t know. I don’t count mistakes and I don’t count time. That’s another human thing. I stand with you here. Now. That is “time” for me. When the sun rises, I know it’s time to look for food. When it sets, I know I can rest for a while. That is time. For me, there is no time like you think. There is being. Anyway, I suspect you had the answer even before you asked me.

AG: Three years, I think. You’ve been here three years.

TD: You know the answer then. And yet you still ask it. Curious. I find you creatures endlessly fascinating. Always you are two opposites at once. Well.

Tong Dee's face

AG: Okay, let’s talk about that—your relationship with humans. Maybe talk about you and Patty Sai-ee, your mahout. Mahouts are the trainers and often the owners of elephants, so your perspective would be valuable.

TD: That… that is complicated. Well.

Thong Dee’s eyes stare at me for a moment, then look away. The late afternoon sun is relaxing it’s grip a bit, and some of the mud is drying, turning her skin the color of a gravestone. With the gray-white mud encasing her, she looks like the ghost of an elephant. A brilliant blue butterfly, the color of lapus lazuli, alights briefly on her flank, before fluttering away.

TD: Patty Sai-ee, ah… We are like… how you say… twins. Separate but the same. Our paths—we go together, otherwise we lose our way. There is some love, but it is not even the point. And… ah… there are things between us that are not balanced, it is like… we are on a scale and I am big, I could crush him. But he is human. And because he is human he tips the scale his way always. In nature if there is no balance… ah… I say it like this: he will never be my brother. Well.

Thong Dee sluffs around in the mud, scooping up another trunkful of the stuff. She stops in mid-air, the clump of mud squeezed in her proboscis.

TD: He sees me sometimes in the worst way—the way humans see many things in the world. He needs things: food, shelter… money. I believe he thinks he will not survive unless I am bent to his will. I think it would be easier for him if I was a thing, an object. I would have no feelings and no will and then I would do exactly as he wished. But of course I am not a thing. It’s okay. I am old and he is old and we have grown old together. There is a bond I share with him that cannot break. Well. A storm, you see—it destroys everything. Trees fall, shelters collapse, crops drown. Animals run in terror. But the biggest storm does nothing to our bond. Nothing.

Thong Dee and Patty Sai-ee.

Thong Dee and Patty Sai-ee.

AG: I think I understand…

TD: I would laugh if I knew how. Humans and the intellect. You believe the world is in the brain. Better to take in then to understand. Yes? Understand is all this work, this wheel spinning nowhere. Take in is better. It becomes part of you. Well.

AG: Okay… I am trying. So tell me a little about your past. You came from a logging camp? That must have been hard. Can you tell me a little about it?

TD: That is difficult. I will try. I was different. I was young. Men “trained” me—hah!–for a long time… for many years, to use your meaning. Always with the whip, the club, hovering over me. I was a baby and I was frightened. We were all frightened. They taught us to obey. To drag trees to the river or to the trucks.

As Thong Dee says this, she shifts on her feet. The chain around her right front leg jingles. We both look down at it, startled. It’s a reminder that even now she will be chained down for various reasons. I flush red, feeling shame, like I was the one who put it on her.

TD: As a female, I was forced to push the small trees… ah… logs… I pushed them with my head because I had no tusks. The males could not do this because of the tusks. They were forced to pick up logs, scoop them up. Their tusks sometimes would crack, break under the weight. And all the time my brothers and sisters would fall. Carrying a tree, a fall could be the end. Legs breaking and getting kicked to get up, to carry more. And the screaming. You make me think of it, the sounds of my family screaming. The humans don’t hear it with their ears, but the ground carries it far, the screams. All of us hear and know what is happening.

I sit for the first time, planting myself in the mud. Thong Dee towers over me. Her ears stick straight out from her massive head like flags in a gust of wind. Her tail is up and quivering. I know these are signs of an elephant in distress.

TD: All was black around my heart but I would see the sunrise and feel like all creatures feel upon seeing the sunrise—it would be a new beginning—it would be good this time, this day. But it was never good. The sun never got in through the blackness. I always expected it to, and it never did.

Her sunken eyes glitter at me. She becomes completely still, and I marvel at this. Three tons of nothing happening. A giant holding its breath. I can’t hold her look, shifting my gaze to the chain around her foot. Gray mud drips off a link in the chain. I look back up at her as she lowers her tail. Her ears resume their flapping.

iphone 6_10_13 125

AG: Let’s focus on perhaps a better story. What it’s like for you now in Huay Pakoot. How do you like it here?

TD: It is good. Better. I have peace here. I feel my time in this old body coming to the end. This is good, to be here at the end. The birds sing to me, the insects whisper to me as I fall asleep. The food is plentiful and good, and a lot of the time I can be slow. That is most important, do you know? To be slow. Do you take that in?

AG: I think so. To be more relaxed.

TD: Yes, I suppose. But it’s more than the absence of work or activity. Everything is in the stillness. Everything. All the senses. All that is inside you, and all that is outside you—all that makes your skin look like a big dead leaf, like mine. Well.

AG: The humans treat you okay here?

TD: Yes. They are impertinent sometimes. They get in the way. The young mahouts especially… I have no patience with them.

AG: Yes, I have heard that. I was told that you have swatted one or two of them with your trunk.

Thong Dee snorts. Her head moves up and down, a slow nod.

TD: They think they can tell me what to do. Babies. Let them live a little. Then perhaps I will listen. If I choose to!

Canon pix June 15_2013 005

AG: And what about the other elephants? Do you like them?

TD: It is not… I don’t know. It is not the right question. I am old. I prefer to be alone. Solitude is a treasure and I guard it always. I have taken many steps, had a few litters. My skin is heavy and dry from so many days in the sun, being beaten and driven. It is now my time. I have no anger with others. Kam Suk—maybe a little. She is my age and she has her ways and sometimes they cross with mine. It is okay. For the others I have neither like nor dislike. There is duty with the young ones. Sometimes I will seek them out in the jungle. Follow them. I want them to be safe, to have peace. It is what we want for each other.

AG: Lulu is one of the new babies. She has spent her whole life in a tourist camp, but now she is here. What do you think of her?

TD: She learns. There is sunlight, how you say… ah… hope for her. I followed the babies not long ago. I see her then. She does not hide behind the others like before. I see the play in her. She is a baby and she is… ah… allowed to be a baby for the first time. It makes me glad.

AG: It makes me glad, too.

Thong Dee slowly turns away from me. Sunlight bleeds through the forest in the approaching dusk. The mud is drying up… and with it, perhaps Thong Dee’s patience. I try to get in a last question or two:

AG: So is there anything else you would like to say? Perhaps anything about what it’s like to be an elephant?

TD: Sometime you must teach me laughter. I would use it a lot with you. Well. I do not concern myself with “what it is like.” I have had many sorrows. Some joy and peace—and a hair on my tail’s worth of those things is enough in this world—this world that is dominated by humans. I have survived, and if all goes well I will die in my dreams. Not in a yoke or under a whip. Or from the hot wind of a bullet hitting me. The blackness that was around my heart—as a baby—it is less. Sunlight can come in sometimes. That is enough. That is. Well.

AG: One more thing. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but most of the volunteers who come here think very fondly of you. Me included. You are their favorite elephant. Many of them get tattoos of you…

TD: Tattoos. Yes. I know them, those paintings on the skin. Well. That is a good thing, I suppose. Perhaps one day I will get a tattoo of one of my favorite humans. Perhaps even you.

My eyes widen. One of the most amazing creatures in the world has just paid me the grandest of compliments. Bamboo trees shift and rustle as Thong Dee begins to shuffle back into the jungle, indicating the end of the interview. I call after her:

AG: Wait! Did you really mean that?

She stops. Her mammoth head swings toward me. She raises her trunk so it is level with my head. She sniffs, snorts, and lowers her trunk again. Her eyes blink slowly once. Twice.

TD: Don’t be ridiculous. Seriously, you must teach me how to laugh.

Last day Tong Dee 1

TATTOO ME

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

At Base Hut one day a girl approaches me. She has a beer in her hand. It’s Chang beer, the most popular beer in Thailand. Chang means “elephant” in Thai. The logo on the label has two elephants facing each other.

“So Mike,“ she says, “Are you ready to take the plunge?”

I break out in a sweat. I’ve been sober for years now, but I am out in the middle of the jungle with a bunch of hard-partying kids.

Other volunteers are watching. Some of them move closer. I feel trapped.

Chang Beer.

Chang Beer.

Something about this feels familiar. –Ah yes… high school peer pressure. In my high school you weren’t cool unless you drank.

At sixteen, I didn’t want to drink. From my vantage point then alcohol tasted bad, made you stupid, and transformed merely weird relatives into downright deranged ones.

But at that age, I desperately wanted to fit in. The way everyone talked about drinking—the house parties, the keggers in the woods, the quarters games, the crazy stories—I definitely felt on the outside looking in on all the coolness. Plus I was a Dungeons and Dragons nerd, which was like being a coolness narc. If my D&D gaming was found out I’d be shot and found stuffed in a trunk somewhere, my mouth full of twenty-sided dice.

It took me a while, but I finally caved. I drank. And I guess I was a little cooler. For a while.

Back at Base Hut, the girl is smiling at me, waiting.

“Am I ready to take the plunge on what?” I say.

The girl’s eyes glitter. She taps my arm with her beer bottle. I take a step backward.

Drinking gave me years of trouble. My twenties were a blur. My thirties were a long slog to put my life back together. There was no way that now, in my forties, I was going to put my whole life at risk for some leftover teenage-fueled desire to fit in, was I?

“A tattoo,” she says.

I blink at her. “A what?”

“A tattoo. Are you ready to get a tattoo?”

“Yeah, Mike,” one of the other volunteers chimes in, showing fresh ink on her ankle. “Everyone’s doing it.”

Oh… Oh!

Thailand is the land of a thousand smiles and the land of a million tattoos. Many of the volunteers planned out their tattoos before they even arrived. The price for a tattoo in Thailand is a fraction of what it would cost in most countries, and the experiences in Thailand tend to be worth commemorating. There’s something magical about this place–not to mention all the elephants walking around.

But I would have never imagined that the new version of peer pressure would revolve around getting one.

I still wasn’t comfortable in my own skin here. I talked very little. I felt a little bit at ease with the volunteers that I came in with—sharing a very long ride with them from Chiang Mai helped to break the ice—but the veteran volunteers frightened me.

That sounds weird, a 45-year-old man scared of 20-somethings. But there it is. One of the symptoms of alcoholism is that it can feel like I am walking around in perpetual high school-outsider status. By its very nature alcoholism separates, disconnects.

New situations can be tough.

Neil and Jess, a married couple in their mid-twenties, particularly scare me.

They are among the longest tenured of the volunteers, and are coming up on the end of a six-month stay at the village. They have lived and breathed the village and the elephants. Jess gives many of the lectures on the elephants that are part of the program here, and I make sure I don’t miss any of them.

From where I stand, Neil and Jess are like the prom king and queen of the volunteers. (And they’re British, so the king and queen part fits.) Guys like me didn’t hang with prom royalty.

Neil and Jess.

Neil and Jess.

Weekends are free for volunteers to do whatever they like, and often people schedule trips either back to Chiang Mai or to Pai, a smaller city that is friendly to tourists. Almost always people return sporting new tattoos. At first I look at them more out of politeness than interest.

I get the appeal of them: to make a permanent life event marker, a physical manifestation of the emotional or spiritual. I considered getting some sort of cat tattoo when my cat of almost eighteen years died. The bond with him was closer than with many humans, and I wanted to honor him.

But I didn’t go through with it. Perhaps it’s because I tend to get lost in the details: if I’m going to paint a permanent picture on my body, even to honor an animal that I loved like a twin soul, then the tattoo had to be planned out carefully. It must be perfect. And perfection is the enemy of actually completing anything.

Raeah, a volunteer from Canada, returns from Pai to show off her new tattoo: two elephants ringed around her wrist, joined together trunk to tail. It’s colorful but simple, evocative. It’s beautiful.

I start to cave.

The next time I am asked if I want a tattoo, instead of laughing I grunt something like, “Hum,” and sort of shake my head no.

One of the two elephants in the ring around Raeah's wrist.

One of the two elephants in the ring around Raeah’s wrist.

After another city venture, Neil has added to his gallery of tattoos.

By this time Neil and Jess have begun to abdicate their thrones—the imaginary thrones that I put them on. We’ve shared some meals, gone on a couple of hikes, and Neil and I have played together in a couple of soccer games (or “football” games, as it’s known to everyone else except us Americans).

In the football game against the mahouts, Neil is a crazy demon running up and down the field and the de facto captain. He eggs me on and calls me the “football warrior”.

They are a warm, generous couple. I like when I can make Neil laugh, because his mouth gets big and his whole face seems to explode—he reminds me of a blissful little boy when he laughs.

Neil’s returned from Chiang Mai with the mother of all tattoos. It’s of Tong Dee, the matriarch of the elephant herd. It extends from his elbow all the way up to the top of his shoulder. Tong Dee pokes her head through the leaves of a lotus flower. The lotus blooms over Tong Dee’s head. Neil tells me the tattoo took seven hours to complete. I put that fact out of my head for a minute.

Views of Neil's tattoo of Tong Dee.

Views of Neil’s tattoo of Tong Dee.

Neil.

Neil.

Tong Dee is my favorite elephant. Every time I am close to her in the jungle, I am struck dumb. She’s always in my thoughts.

The shoulder blade, I’m thinking. I want Tong Dee there. Simpler than Neil’s version of Tong Dee, of course—no way will I writhe under a tattoo gun for seven hours my first time—but I want Tong Dee there. I need her there.

Tong Dee. The face that launched dozens of tattoos.

Tong Dee. The face that launched dozens of tattoos.

Even after I took that first drink as a teenager years ago, I still didn’t fit in. I took a million drinks after that. I hated the peer pressure and vowed I would never exert that same pressure on anyone else.

(Years later, I was reminiscing with a friend who I went to high school with about how level-headed and tolerant I was with other people after I had found the magic elixir of alcohol. I looked back fondly on my “Buddha of Booze” period.

“Yeah,” my friend said. “You were real tolerant as you were yelling at everyone, ”DRINK, PUSSY!”)

Drink, pussy!

DRINK, PUSSY!

One night at Base Camp I witness the ‘home school’ version of getting a tattoo. The tattoo artist is a local man named Root, one of the most colorful personalities in the village. Instead of a tattoo gun, Root uses a pointed bamboo stick. Root doesn’t charge very much, and most of the payment is usually in beer. Chang beer.

Most of the volunteers who get tattoos in Thailand will get at least one from Root. His tattoos are cruder than most machine tattoos, but they’re perfect if a person wants a minimalist tattoo or one that has a word or a phrase that means something to them.

Maressa, a young volunteer in her twenties, is a recipient of one of Root’s “homemade” tattoos. She is getting “plays with fire” in Burmese tattooed to the side of her foot.

I watch. Maybe this is the way to go. A simple tattoo first.

Maressa is nervous but excited. She’s never had a bamboo tattoo done before. She has a couple of Chang beers ready to use as her anesthetic.

First, Root draws the words on her foot with a marker. Then he takes his sharpened bamboo stick and dips it in ink. He bends down, tapping her skin with the sharpened bamboo.

If someone asks me now if I want a tattoo, I will say yes. This will be a great thing, a wonderful epidermal monument to my time here.

Then I see Maressa’s face. She is one of the friendliest volunteers, with one of the most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen. Now that smile is stretched tight, showing too many teeth.

She chugs the beer.

I ask her if it hurts and the way she says, “Yeah, it hurts”–sounding like her natural cheeriness has been punched out of her—tells me very clearly that there is no way in hell I will be getting a tattoo any time soon.

tattoo 2

Maressa. Still smiling. Root is on the left.

Maressa's tattoo after it was finished.

Maressa’s tattoo after it was finished.

Jess worries that she will have some difficulty finding a job back in England after the trip. It’s because of the tattoo on her hand. She shows it to me.

It’s a tattoo of Ganesha, the elephant god. The Destroyer of Obstacles.

Hand tattoos. Jess' tattoo of Ganesha is on the left.

Hand tattoos. Jess’ tattoo of Ganesha is on the left.

It surprises me that someone might say no to her because she has a tattoo on her hand— especially considering that tattoos are generally accepted today. Jess’s tattoo is beautiful. It’s art. And It’s an elephant god. Who would say no to an elephant god?

Not me.

By the end of my trip to Thailand I will have a picture of Ganesha on my bedroom wall. I will have T-shirts of Ganesha and the Chang beer logo with the two elephants facing each other. I will have a simple elephant necklace. I like the feel of the little silver charm against my heart.

I will feel comfortable with everyone. I will be myself.

No tattoos though.

It’s okay. I know it’s not about being cool any more. It’s not about tattoos, or drinking, or fitting in. My age isn’t an issue either.

It’s about knowing I’m enough.

All it took to figure that out was forty-five years, plus a few extra weeks in Thailand. And a million drinks.

One day I am at Base Hut and another girl approaches me. She puts up her index finger like Caesar at the Roman Forum.

On her index finger is a tattoo of a smiley face.

ATTACK OF THE GIANT ZOMBIE LEECHES

attack_of_giant_leeches_lc_01I’m a big fan of rain. Rain, you’re awesome and I would totally hound you for an autograph, write you heart-bursting poetry, take you home to meet the parents if only you would look at me and see how true and deep I am, not like all the others.

I melt with you, rain.

I melt with you, rain.

I love you, rain, in the happy sun shower times. I love you even when you are angry and all hurricane-y. I even think it’s cute when you piss down on everyone, like how you do to the English all the time.

And then dear rain, in Thailand, you turn on me. You bring leeches with you.

Rain in Huay Pakoot.  How could you, rain?

Rain in Huay Pakoot. How could you, rain?

In my second week in Huay Pakoot, the rainy season finally kicks in. Clouds move into the village and start pushing people around. It begins to rain several times during the day. The storms can be as short as ten minutes. Overnight, heavier rains give the jungle a good thrashing.

That means that it’s party time for the leeches.

Leech.  The stuff of nightmares.

Okay, maybe not ‘giant’. But look at it. It’s horrifying.

Bugs I can learn to deal with, leeches just don’t have any good qualities. They’re sticky, slimy, and stubborn. And they turn me off of Italian food. The reason is because they look like cooked spaghetti—sickly gray-black cooked spaghetti that has come to life and wriggled out from the bottom of a trash heap.

Worst of all, their primary trait is a particularly nasty one: blood-sucking. Leeches are the closest real creatures that the jungle has to zombies. Like zombies, they glom on to you as they start sucking out your life force—only they suck out blood instead of brains.

Zombie eating brains.

Zombie eating brains.

While zombies are cool in books and movies, let’s face it, a real-life zombie attack would kind of suck. Leeches in the jungle are a real-life zombie attack. They slither out of the dead leaves and the mud, moaning as they swarm your feet and ankles.

Okay, maybe not moaning, but seriously, they grope for you… I have watched their little wormy torsos feeling for me, twitching and stabbing at the air for just a little piece of me to grab onto.

A groping leech.

A groping leech.

Our first hike with the leeches we have to stop every five or ten minutes, because someone has a leech squirming on them.

Contrary to popular belief, their favorite hangout isn’t water, except for the leech that rose up and took Chuck Norris down in Braddock: Missing in Action 5, The Leechening. They are most commonly creeping around in fresh mud or dead, moldy leaves.

Chuck.

Chuck.

Even leeches can't stop Chuck.  They can only hope to contain him.

Even leeches can’t stop Chuck. They can only hope to contain him.

Their first move is usually to hug the back of your shoe. That’s why on a hike when there are leeches prowling around, everyone looks like they’re checking their feet every minute or so to see if they’ve stepped in dog shit.

From the back of the shoe, leeches can worm in anywhere. Some like to slither into your shoe and go spelunking in there. Others burrow into your ankle—at least you can usually spot them there at some point.

One volunteer comes well-prepared for the leeches: good hiking boots protected by gaiters, which are worn over the lower leg and ankle. They’re usually meant to keep snow out of your boots, but he uses them to keep out the leeches. I think it’s a brilliant plan.

An hour into the hike he stops, unfastens the gaiters and begins to peel them away: three leeches in there. They writhe spastically as their secret hiding place is exposed. I scream. This guy is lost to the zombie leeches. I pull out my gun, before he turns into one of them.

–Okay, I’m getting carried away. But you get the idea what these creatures do to me.

They can be sprayed off with a DEET chemical repellent, kind of like using a flamethrower to remove a mole. This method gives leech and victim instant cancer, but at least the leech curls up and drops off.

The mahouts make a game of leech control, flicking them off with a machete, toying with them for minute like a cat with a mouse, and then severing the little bastards in half.

I laugh and laugh. I guess I’ve found my limit to loving all creatures.

On this first hike with leeches they get all of my fellow hikers. They drop, one by one. Somehow I escape. I slam the door of the Outhouse-Plus, sweaty, tired, and leech-free, with the music on the soundtrack crashing into silence. I am safe.

Now I can celebrate my leeching near-miss by dumping polar ice cap-cold water over my head for a ‘shower’.

I start peeling off my clothes. I notice that my khaki pants have flecks of red in them.

Uh oh. I tug the pants completely off. The ‘flecks’ are actually large red blotches. I rip off the rest of my clothes like I’m on fire.

There he is.

A leech is wrapped snugly around a section of my upper thigh, sucking face on my leg. He is glistening and plump, and has grown from a cute little spaghetti into a strapping young penne pasta… because now he’s full of my blood.

I pause for precious blood-siphoning seconds, not because I’m unsure of what to do, but because I am terrified of doing it: touching him. I actually have to touch this slimy baby alien monster if I want to rip him off.

I know—he’s already touching me, because he’s eating my leg for lunch—but at least he’s not moving much. If I try to peel him off, I’m sure he’s going to wriggle around and… here’s where my brain goes: He’ll jump into my mouth. Ahhhhhh!… okay.

I have to do it.

I grab hold of him.

Sure enough, he wriggles and hugs me even tighter. I pry, scrape, fumble, juggle, and flick the fat little bastard from my leg to my finger to my shirt hanging on the wall, back to my finger—before I finally jettison him out of an opening in the Outhouse-Plus.

I take a breath, feeling very Sigourney Weaverish. She kicked an alien off a space ship, I bounced a leech out of an outhouse.

I run my hands all over my body—and I mean all over, dreading the feel of another slimy bloodsucker. When I find no more leeches… I check my body again. Five more times.

A leech eating me.

A leech eating a person.

After this trauma, I feel heavy dread every time it rains. Although to my credit, I never pass on a hike when it’s raining, so I am constantly coming face to face with my bogeyleeches.

I Agent Orange my hiking shoes with DEET before each hike, acquiring instant cancer.–It’s okay, once I get back to L.A. a shot of wheat grass juice will knock that right out.

I wear shorts so I can see the leeches sneaking up my leg. I stop often to carefully examine my boots (dog shit check). And I develop a sixth sense for detecting leeches. I can spot them from yards away and many of them I can avoid, even if it means taking huge circling detours.

Days later I am on another hike, helping a girl perform a health check on an elephant. She is checking off something on a clipboard. Fwop. A leech plops onto the clipboard, practically dotting an I.

She freezes. Looks up.

Shivers run down my spine. Not much I can do when they’re falling out of the sky.

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THE MAHOUTS: PART TWO

Left to right: Boon Chew, Som Bat, Suwit

Left to right: Boon Chew, Som Bat, Suwit

In Huay Pakoot, the baby elephants have ‘baby’ mahouts: Suwit (pronounced Suh-weet) and Som Bat (Sum Baht) have barely scraped by 20, and Boon Chew is the youngest mahout at 15. All three are inseparable and tend to operate on Boon Chew’s wavelength: that is, they act like teenagers.

They are concerned with typical teenage pursuits: appearance, status, sports. Girls too, but they conceal this for reasons I’ll explain later. So even though they may be walking around in a jungle, they still have to look cool.

A mahout will wear a scarf sometimes to protect himself from the elements, particularly the punishing sun. Ostensibly, that is the reason these young mahouts wear them as well. But it’s pretty obvious once you see them the real reason they’re wearing them: because it makes them look like ninjas.

Cooking lunch with Boon Chew, ninja, and Som Bat, ninja.

Cooking lunch with Boon Chew, mahout ninja, and Som Bat, mahout ninja.

Suwit, ninja.

Suwit, mahout ninja.

Colorful ninjas. So the scarves will be blue, orange, green, or red. Sometimes Boon Chew will forgo the scarf, but that’s only because he wants to display his hair. And when I see it, well-coiffed but with a few strands carefully combed askew, it’s pretty clear that he’s spent some time working on it.

Individually, all of the younger mahouts are painfully shy, even Boon Chew. But together they have that magical blowhard strength of teen boys in groups. They like to pose, to tease, and they’re capable of extraordinary feats of athleticism and dickishness, like when I greet Boon Chew as he’s driving by on his stylish little scooter. He stares right at me, then looks away with a perfect combination of apathy and insouciance, pulling off the very complicated maneuver known as the moving vehicle freeze-out.

I guess it’s reassuring to know that all teens the world over, be they from the suburbs of Los Angeles or from a mountain tribe in Thailand—have the same asshole hormones.

Boon Chew.

Boon Chew.

But when they let their guard down, these young mahouts are respectful and friendly. In the English lesson classes all three of these guys work hard and speak English fairly well. Using English in front of the volunteers would not be cool, so they play dumb when you try to engage them in conversation.

On two separate occasions they ask me through a staff member (with a translation that they probably don’t need) if I’m married, and wonder how many children I have. The answers are the same both times: I have a girlfriend but no child. I think they don’t absorb the answers the first time because in their world an older man is almost always married with children.

Sometimes I catch them staring at the volunteer girls, but there is something in their looks that is more innocent, less brazen, than the stares of Western teen boys. The focus of the young teens here seems to be more toward finding mates and starting families than just having sex, and perhaps this is the reason.

Open male-female contact and affection is frowned on in the village. The volunteer men and women are strictly forbidden to display any outward affection toward each other. No man and woman are allowed to be alone in the same bedroom together, unless they are a couple and preferably married. Even casual touch can be considered too much.

But these restrictions don’t apply to male friendships, and there’s a peculiar gender reversal from Western culture that exists here. Male-to-male affection and contact is common and very open, and the younger males—like Boon Chew, Som Bat, and Suwit–seem to show it more than the older ones.

This is the exact opposite of what I would expect of boys their age. When I was a teenager, a boy would never get too close to another boy, or else there would be talk. In Huay Pakoot there is hugging and hand holding between male friends. The young mahouts will even lay together out in the jungle, arms and legs entwined, laughing, talking, joking.

Mahouts hug 2

These are the same guys who throw themselves in front of three-ton elephants. Drop them out of the sky into the middle of the jungle and they can survive for weeks. They pluck leaves off plants and use them to dress wounds, they walk for miles without rest, and they are able to be still and silent for hours. They call the male volunteers who complain about anything ‘lady boys’.

Once Som Bat greets me in the village as I am walking by. He clasps my hand—does not shake it—he clasps it. There is no male bluster to this gesture, no ego, just friendship. He smiles and his face is warm and open.

Som Bat walks away, going on with his day. Honest affection expressed simply between men is just not something I am accustomed to, as a teenager and even now as a man. And unless I return here, I don’t think I’ll experience it ever again.

Som Bat.

Som Bat.

Gallabay also is a very young mahout at 18. He is quiet and often looks somber, but he is easily coaxed into laughing. One day he suddenly disappears from the village, and there is speculation that he will be replaced as the mahout of the elephant named Mana. ‘Substitute’ mahouts show up, but Mana seems to ignore them, and is a little more unruly.

After a week Gallabay returns. I’m told that he had to be with his family in another village because his brother was arrested on a drug charge. It is a reminder to me of the Western, ‘civilized’ world, hovering just beyond the village. With her mahout back, Mana’s behavior returns to normal.

Galllabay with Mana.

Galllabay with Mana.

Next to the lead mahout Singto, Jordoh is the most gentlemanly mahout, always helpful and always respectful. He’s also the most enigmatic mahout, and perhaps that’s why he seems to get the most attention from the female volunteers. He is in his late twenties, unmarried, seldom talks and almost never in English. He has a big smile that he sometimes hides with his hand.

Jordoh.

Jordoh.

Jordoh ends up at the center of an incident that rubs up against the male-female taboo.

During one party at Base Camp with the volunteers and the villagers, he got drunk, along with some other villagers and a lot of the volunteers. Apparently when Jordoh gets drunk not only does he talk, but he even speaks English. Well.

And he gets too flirty with the volunteer women. Or maybe the volunteer women get too flirty with Jordoh. It’s a fine line, but the simplest physical touch or gesture could cause a scandal for Jordoh and potential expulsion for any volunteer involved.

Rumors fly after that night. I was not at the party, but after filtering through all of the noise, all I discover is that there was some friendly joking and shoving involved. Eventually the incident blows over, but I realize that gossip is as much a part of the landscape here as the elephants–it’s as big as they are and as hard to control.

Jordoh's smile.  Singto is behind him.

Jordoh. Singto is behind him.

Soh Eh is about the same age as Jordoh, and he has been dubbed by the volunteers as “James Franco Mahout”. At times his resemblance to the movie star is uncanny. It shows what kind of person he is that he embraces the name and the joke, and even poses in pictures like a movie star.

'James Franco Mahout' (Soh Eh) and Gallabay.

‘James Franco Mahout’ (Soh Eh) and Gallabay.

'James Franco Mahout' (Soh Eh).

‘James Franco Mahout’ (Soh Eh).

During my second week there, one of the volunteers challenges the mahouts to a soccer game, volunteers against mahouts. The field is next to the school, on top of a mountain. The sky feels close enough to touch, and clouds roll in as if to pack the stands.

Boys from the school round out both teams. They are young, none seem to be older than ten, and their sheepishness around us foreigners vanishes amidst the excitement of the game.

Boon Chew plays goalie for the mahouts and he is a vacuum cleaner, sucking up kicked fireballs, laughing as errant shots fly off the field and bounce down the mountain. Play has to be paused for five minutes while someone hikes down to retrieve the ball. I use the time to gasp for breath.

Som Bat and Suwit play like they’re the same person, easily floating the ball back and forth to each other as they move it down the field. Singto runs sideways on the field as fast as he runs up and down mountains. The school boys are athletic even in their bare feet, exploding in laughter as they launch the ball with wild kicks. Overhead the sky blackens and threatens rain, but never quite delivers.

I am going all-out, and I’m not sure why. My sports were always baseball and some basketball, and the mahouts are patient with me, laughing, as I almost knock them over with my brute force attacks on the ball.

In the heat my clothes stick to me like wet paint. The belt holding up my shorts is so drenched with sweat that it droops like a dead snake.

A few times I steal the ball from Som Bat and Suwit, and I see the surprise on their faces.

We lose, and it’s not even close. The mahouts are just too good.

I walk off the field thinking, these guys are cool. I feel like a teenager.

mahouts laugh

THE MAHOUTS: PART ONE

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On the daily hikes I find myself watching the mahouts almost as much as I watch the elephants. A mahout is part elephant trainer, part elephant companion, part master outdoorsman. They lead the hikes and are at least partially responsible for the volunteers’ health and welfare.

The mahouts are also the face of the people of the village, the people we volunteers see and communicate with—well, as much as we can communicate with them—every day.

The mahouts don’t carry backpacks and they don’t wear hiking boots (Many wear only wear flip flops). They don’t apply sunscreen or bug repellent. They don’t ever have to stop to rest (unlike us wheezing volunteers, who dictate the pace of the hikes). I never once saw a mahout drink water, though I imagine they must have snuck a few swigs at some point. That is, unless they are part camel.

The mahouts shun most tools: so no flashlight, compass, or knife. But they all have machetes, and I rarely see a mahout who lets his machete rest in its sheath for very long.

There’s always brush to chop to clear a path, bamboo leaves to rip off for the elephants, bamboo stalks to whittle down to craft into cooking utensils. There are also slingshots to carve, leeches to slay, and even some jaunty machete-on-tree drumming to pass the time.

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Carving a slingshot with a machete.

Patti Sai-Ee is the eldest mahout by far at 55. No other mahout is even close to his age. He wears canvas Keds–black–and a baseball cap—also black. The two caps I see in his repertoire have ‘Police’ and ‘Epson’ printed in bold letters across them. I doubt he has a printer, though I can picture him watching an episode of ‘Cops’.

Patty Sai-Ee with Tong Dee

Patty Sai-Ee with Tong Dee

Patty Sai-Ee.

Patty Sai-Ee.

His fingers have an arthritic-looking gnarl to them, though I never see that he has any difficulty using them. In fact Patty Sai-Ee, like all of the mahouts, is constantly busy with his hands—whether wielding the machete or smashing his hands together on a ‘popper’ plant—that pops like a firecracker when struck just so. I like the fact that a 55-year-old man still likes to make loud noises, especially among a herd of elephants.

Patti Sai-Ee talks haltingly if at all, in a low voice, mostly to the other mahouts. They are so much younger than him that I wonder if this makes him a bit isolated, if he’s an outsider in his own village and in his own dwindling professional circle. Mahouts are already marginalized in Thailand, and what used to be an honorable profession is becoming somewhat of a lost art. These days it is generally regarded as dirty, lowly. More money can be made as a beggar than as a mahout.

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Patty Sai-Ee is the mahout of Tong Dee. She is around his age, and Tong Dee is like the elephant version of him: quiet, calm, stoic. But unlike her mahout, Tong Dee can be ornery. She will not obey the other mahouts, and they are open about their fear of her.

They approach Tong Dee only in the presence of Patty Sai-Ee.

patty and Tong DeeThe lead mahout is Singto, at only nineteen. He’s the mahout for Kam Suk, the oldest elephant of the herd, who is in her late fifties. Singto is the only mahout who talks about an elephant’s emotional state: he points out when she’s happy (most of the time), or when she’s aggravated or scared (steering us safely away from her).

Singto.

Singto.

Singto is already married and he has a baby girl. He is the most outgoing mahout and speaks the best English. He also seems to defy gravity: he runs up and down mountains–in cheap canvas sneakers. Up is one thing. At nineteen, and considering his work, he should be in shape to do that. But running down them requires a balance, agility, and fearlessness that I just cannot fathom.

Singto seems to be everywhere at once. He is at the front leading the way one moment, at the rear helping a straggler the next. When I think of Singto I think of him with his hand out.

He loves to tease and joke. In a quiet moment in the middle of a strenuous hike he will sing out, “Mike, are you okayyy?” He drags out ‘okay’ in a concerned motherly tone.

I like when I can surprise him back: “Singto, are you okayyy?” It becomes a regular thing, back and forth between us, and one time he shocks me when he spreads his arms out, grinning, and proclaims, “I am fiiine!”

Singto thumb wrestling with one of the other volunteers.

Singto thumb wrestles with one of the other volunteers.

After one particularly grueling hike I am alone with him, walking back to the village. He puts his arm on my shoulder for a moment.

“I am tired… you tired?” Singto’s smile cracks open his entire face. I tell him I am and he says, “Good tired, yes? Good tired.”

“Yes,” I agree, smiling back at him. This is a man who loves his work.

With Singto and Patty Sai-Ee, I witness a connection between them and the elephants that goes beyond dominating a beast, beyond leading around a four ton meal ticket (and make no mistake, the mahouts see their elephants as their livelihoods first and foremost).

Singto will slice up tree bark with his machete and spoon feed it to Kam Suk. The gesture is as delicate and loving as I imagine it is with his own child.

Kam Suk eats barkiphone_June 15 069

Patti Sai-Ee rarely fraternizes with the other mahouts or the volunteers.  He seems to genuinely prefer the company of his elephant. He will squat in front of Tong Dee, pick a blade of grass (hands always busy), and stare ahead into the distance.  Patty Sai-Ee says he thinks of Tong Dee as his wife.  As for Tong Dee, she may tower above this tiny man, but with a gesture or a few simple, quiet words from him, she will usually follow him anywhere.

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Every Tuesday night at Base Hut is quiz night. The volunteers pair off into teams and compete to answer a barrage of trivia questions. One quiz night, one of the questions is actually more of a challenge: each team has thirty seconds to draw their best version of Patty Sai-Ee.

The girls on one team draw a picture of Yoda. They win, hands down.

Great wide Tong Dee and Patty Sai-ee

LULU

Lulu.

Lulu.

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.

The babies, on the way to a day of foraging.

The babies, on the way to a day of foraging.

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.

Lulu's old man hair.

Lulu’s old man hair.

Lulu.  The forest is a strange place to her.

Lulu. The forest is a strange place to her.

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.

Sometimes Lulu clings to the mahouts.

Sometimes Lulu clings to the mahouts.

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.

Feeding Lulu.

Feeding Lulu.

Helping to spring Lulu.

Gentle touch.