I know two Thai words and one is our elephant’s name, Sawasdee, or “hello.” Yes, Dave and I are seated on a metal bench resting on many layers of padding upon the shoulders of an elephant. Casey and Karis are similarly situated on an elephant behind us. The girls are laughing and indeed, there is a swell of such joy in my chest, such astonishment, that I am in Thailand, lurching and sloshing through a chocolate mud river on an elephant’s back, that my laughter spills and mingles with theirs. The sun is bright and hot. Dark, mysterious mountains, wreathed in mist, slope to meet an expanse of brilliant green rice paddy. Beneath my feet, leathery gray skin puckers as a great ear flaps and Sawasdee’s trunk stretches to probe the shrubs along the riverbank. How, how is this real?
At 8:30 this morning, our guide, Ghee, arrived with her driver in a tattered Panda Tour van to pick us up at Hotel Sirilanna for our “One Day Trek of the Mae Tang-Muang Khaud Area.” Ghee’s tiny pale face, bushy hair and over-sized glasses peeped from a beige wide-brimmed hat. She was fully swathed in a long-sleeved rain jacket, jeans, socks and sneakers. Doubtfully, she eyed my sleeveless shirt, striped Capri pants, and sandals, and said, “Walking shoes? You have walking shoes?”
I headed back to our room to change and met Casey and Karis on the stairs. Both were wearing camisoles, shorts and sandals. When I told them Ghee’s remark, they exchanged a look. “These were fine the last time we rode elephants, Mom,” my worldly girl commented. “It will be harder to clean mud off of sneakers.”
Oh. Well. “Ghee was adamant,” I said.
So, with sneakers on our feet, bathing suits under our clothes, and raincoats in our daypacks, we rejoined our guide outside the hotel and climbed into the van. Four others had signed on for the expedition: three girls about Casey’s age and Marcel, an engaging young man from Brazil.
After a brief stop at an orchid and butterfly preserve, we were off to the elephant camp, a compound of thatched huts, canopies and platforms at the toe of the mountain, at the edge of the ride paddies, in the curve of a river.
We were distracted, delighted, and amazed that we were in the presence of elephants, so Ghee had some difficulty corralling us to read a large sign, written in English, posted beside the platform where we mounted up. Frequently asked questions – or perhaps, accusations – were addressed, most of them related to the chains around the animals’ ankles and the prods used by the mahouts, their trainers. Elephants, the sign said, are not allowed in the jungles or paddies, and they are prone to disputes, or even stampedes, at mealtime. The chains minimize such problems. As far as the prods, they do not have points, and we saw that the mahouts were gentle and affectionate with their charges. Still, something is wrong in the world when elephants are banned from their jungle, and chains on ankles are the answer.
Two by two we were helped onto our elephants. Soo-Ree, the mahout, speaks no English, but turns to grin at us often and, open-handed, reaches for Dave’s camera to capture our ride upon Sawasdee.
In front of us cavorts James Bond, a two-year-old baby elephant the size of a VW Beetle, tethered to his mother’s leg by a length of chain. Despite the mahout’s calls and urging, young James lolls in the water, at times disappearing below the surface but for the tip of his trunk. He emerges, his mother tugging him along, but he pulls to the bank, flops in the mud, wallows, takes his time – he’s a little kid out for a stroll. There’s fun to be had and he is doing what he wants – at least, to the degree he can at the end of a chain.
James’s mother urinates copiously, impressive amounts, gallons, into the river.
We hear a hollow thrumming, in this setting, a sound we know only from war movies. It would seem a helicopter is approaching. Sawasdee shoves past shiny green ferns as the grumbling grows so loud, we can feel it in our feet. In our feet! It is not a chopper, but Sawasdee, working up to a resounding trumpet! We are thrilled at her call. What is she saying? From behind us, Casey and Karis’s elephant rumbles a reply. We imagine the exchange between these two immense working girls, When do you go on break? My back is killing me.
I crane through the safety bar to caress tough skin bristling with wiry hairs. I take in the view down my leg: my sneakered foot, the mound of massive skull, the slap of a gray, wing-like ear. I want to soak in the scent of earth, manure, bug spray, sunscreen and elephant, the squelch of huge feet in mud and water, the shrieks of our two girls as a spider web sweeps their faces as they brush through overhanging foliage.
An hour passes and we circle back to the enclosure to dismount. Dave buys some bananas to thank Sawasdee and James Bond. Two snaking trunks eagerly probe for the yellow fruit and curl it away, gently, from our hands.
Ghee gathers our group and herds us to lunch at a wooden plank set on a platform beneath a thatched canopy. Two women garbed in black dresses swathed in pink fabric with multi-colored beads and ribbons serve bowls of yellow curry with tofu and potatoes, and a salty soup of broth, carrots and cucumbers. The food is delicious. After we eat, one of the women coaxes Casey, Karis and I to a booth draped with beaded necklaces, silver bracelets, woven goods and embroidered bags. “I make,” says the woman, and Casey and I pick out two beautiful scarves.
A little girl sits in the shade of the booth playing with a kitten. Near strangling the kitten. Tucking the kitten into a bag and zipping it shut. “That cat’s not going to last long,” Karis murmurs. We mime cradling, cooing and patting an imaginary cat, and for the time being, while we are there, the child heeds us.
“You ready to walk?” Ghee appears at our side. “We go down, down, down, then up, up, up.” She did not say, “is velly dangerous.” She saves that for later.
* * *
Gingerly, we seek solid footing on widely-spaced rocks at stream crossings and on the deep-red earth of the narrow path, stretching for a toe-hold where the trail has not washed away. We are grateful for our sneakers. Through much of the hike, we laugh hysterically – and I mean that literally. We are scared, but exhilarated. I wonder how we missed the part in the trek brochure that said “periodically perilous.”
NPR did a segment on laughter in one of their Radio Labs and concluded that it is not just a response to humor. Fear and anxiety are triggers as well. When Dave falls from the spine of a massive downed tree, when Karis slips on rocks beneath a pounding waterfall, when I tumble as the trail drops away, we are teary with laughter.
Always after one of us trips over roots or rocks, after one scrabbles to regain footing on a particularly tricky incline, or after the rickety bamboo handrail sways out of reach just when a clawing hand lunges for it, then Ghee shouts from the head of our wavering line, “Keh-ful! Slipp-a-leeee!” And it is. So very slippery. We crack up, weak with laughter and exertion, at the too-late warnings, the monstrous spiders, the holes by the track the girls insist are tarantula lairs, the gun shots cracking through the jungle. “This is where the sound track turns ominous and the drug lords appear and lead us, at gunpoint, to their compound…and we are never seen again,” I observe. Laughter. Hysterical.
“And they were never seen again,” becomes a regular refrain.
As we inch over a section where the trail used to be, Ghee sings back a minute too late, “Keh-ful! Landslide!” We glance up the slope of slick red earth at the jagged gap between the mountainside, the tiny trail on which we stand, and the dead drop through groves of bamboo, ferns and trees. Hysterical.
“We are in ‘National Geographic’,” says Dave, breathless.
After an hour and a half of sweating, muscle-twitching, weepy-with-laughter hiking, we hear the thunder of falling water – a promise, a beacon. Our skin is feverish, burning; cold water sounds heavenly.
“Strong water. Velly dangerous,” says Ghee. Ah yes. Danger. And we are howling again, laughing like lunatics.
A wild froth of water tumbles from an unseen source hidden in the foliage high above. Marcel, the young Brazilian, is first in and he disappears beneath the deluge. “It’s great!’ he shouts above the water’s din. “Come on!” Ghee slogs in, fully dressed, and submerges.
Casey and Karis have learned on this trip to turn no opportunity aside. They stagger into the churning foam, mouths wide, laughing. These girls have a spirit and courage I envy.
Dave and I make our way slowly and cautiously into the pool and toward the waterfall, but I can’t bring myself to take on the full force. Karis slides on a rock and goes down, wincing as she smacks her shoulder. It hurts, clearly it hurts, but she smiles, rolls it back to test it, and says she’s okay. Reassured, Casey yells, “Someone take pictures! Awkward family photos!” a phrase she and Karis use for the goofy stances they’ve observed other tourists assuming. Marcel climbs from the water to oblige. So, there, in the jungle, beneath a waterfall, after an elephant ride, we point our toes, grimace and primp for the camera. Hysterical.
“Next, back to the river,” says Ghee. What? More? “White water rafting,” she adds.
“No way,” says Casey. “Was that in the brochure?”
Ghee nods and says, “And bamboo rafts after that.”