He was standing tall and big, a beautiful elephant statue.
It was the scene that welcomed me when I get off the car at Millangoda Elephant Village, Sri Lanka. After purchasing a ticket I approached the young locals for instructions. One of the three guys led me to a platform beside the statue. I came closer and stood at the platform thinking it was a photo session for a souvenir.
There was an aged man and in his hands were two sticks, the longer one has metal hook at the end.
I was standing still and the young local told me to ride at the elephant. Unsure if I heard it right, I didn’t move.
The aged man said something and the elephant statue begun to move. To my surprise, it was a real elephant. For the first time in my whole life, I am seeing this magnificent creature. I’d never imagine they are big as this.
He was a male elephant and his name is Raja. The aged man is the mahout or the elephant trainer.
From the start, I told myself not to ride an elephant because of phajaan, a method how elephants are being tamed. But curiosity set in and so I did. Remembering that experience now wasn’t fun at all.
That was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Under the heat of the sun, Raja with me on his back took me around. I felt the heavy weight in every step that he took. He did it in every command of the mahout. It’s impossible to comprehend their language but I felt that Raja wasn’t happy at all. I requested to go down, feeling guilty and afraid. But how? Should I jump and reach the ground with broken bones?
The mahout led Raja back to the platform instead of leading us to the river.
I should be happy for being able to experience elephant riding but it was the opposite. It was like adding to a list of grievances and melancholy.
I found my way to the river guided by another young man. Raja and the mahout followed. They walked down to the knee-deep water. How amazing they understood each other’s gestures, movement and command. The elephant laid down and submerged in the water as if he was anticipating to have a bath.
The mahout handed me a piece of coconut husk to be used as a scrub. Starting from the back I gently scrubbed Raja. The elephant trainer wasn’t satisfied at all. He showed me how to do it. He splashed water all throughout the body of the elephant and vigorously scrubbed it.
I was hesitant, afraid that I might hurt Raja or cause some abrasion to his skin. Though I tried to put some energy and later on, the elephant was flapping his ears. I assumed he is enjoying the bath. At least, for that day, I have made one creature happy. That was my aim though. To be happy, and be someone’s reason to appreciate life.
Raja is really a huge creature. I was thankful that a couple came later on to join me in giving bath.
As it was time to leave then, I thanked Raja for being a good boy and patted his ear. I hoped he got the sincerity of my message. I thanked the mahout as well.
I had the chance to talk to a younger Sri Lankan when we walked further to the river to wash. He mentioned that the only person who can control the elephants are the mahouts. They are usually angry with Sri Lankans but with foreigners, they are totally fine, he added. I don’t know how true it is but I took it as a joke and laughed.
We were on our way going back passing through the river bank. There were two elephants; one is being submerged on the water while the other one was standing like on guard, waiting for us to pass by.
I asked the young guy to go before me. It seems he doesn’t agree with that idea, but he went on. And whoa! At the snap of a second, the elephant pushed him with his trunk to the ground. I ran back as fast as I could. And the young Sri Lankan was quick enough to get up and ran also. I felt sorry for him though we’d manage to laugh it off.
From this experience, I became aware of human and elephant conflict. And I look up to the people who volunteer for elephant care projects. They educate the locals to lessen the conflicts but what’s fulfilling about their job as volunteers is that they have a task to give an elephant a one week break from working hard or from interaction with tourists. They bath the elephants in the river, they go for a walk and they feed them. They provide rest and give chance to these giant mammals to enjoy their lives.
I’m fortunate enough that I’d meet at the hostel two wonderful ladies, Sandra and Christine, who volunteered for the project. “Elephants are not here to entertain us.” Sandra told me. I feel guilty and made a promise to myself that last March 19, 2016 would be my first and last elephant ride.
Beyond chasing dreams are realizations and lessons that we learn along the road. As we travel, we are obliged to consider the welfare of others, of animals and of the environment.
This post was first published for World Nomads Scholarship for the travel writing contest published last June 2016
Updated and edited by the same author on August 13, 2016 for World Elephant Day.