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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.