|View from the top of an elephant - Nongnooch Gardens, Pattaya, Thailand|
Besides discovering a real affinity for Buddhist spirituality as a pathway to deepen my love of Jesus, who knew I would come to love elephants?
Well, not at first.
I rode an elephant today, in Nongnooch Gardens, just a bit north of the city of Pattaya, Thailand. Not only did I love it - well, eventually - I can't wait to do it again.
Yes, pictures were taken. Unfortunately, those won't be available until some time tomorrow. My friend Rob took them of me and we have to get the 'doohickey' that connects his camera to my USB port so we can upload them.
I took the above picture while I was on the elephant. It was, in fact, a very brave thing for me to do (I'll accept your applause. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.). I actually had to let go of the death grip I had on my seat, search through my bag, take some deep breaths, and then steady myself on the side railings of my seat to take the picture.
My mahout (driver) heard the camera click, turned around and offered to take a picture of me. I told him that my friend had already taken one, thank you. I sounded very adult and composed and mature.
"Ah, but you no have for self. Own camera. I take for you." And, he started to get off the elephant.
It was the first time I panicked. I have no idea where that little girl voice came from, but suddenly I heard myself sounding as I once did at around age 5 pleading, "No, please don't leave me!"
('Don't leave me' ???? Where the heck did THAT come from?)
He giggled a bit and said, "Madam safe with me."
"You can get back on after you get off?" I asked, again sounding like a scared little girl.
"Oh, elephant go down, I get up."
"Elephant go down?" I practically shrieked. "I go down too?"
"Okay, Madam. Okay. You stay. Stay stay. I stay. Be fine, fine."
Poor man. I think I scared him almost as much as I scared myself. So, he started talking to me as I tried to regain my composure.
He told me that he had been working at Nongnooch for 10 years. This was "his" elephant which became "his" shortly after she was born. He slept with her and her mother and began training her when she was four years old. Up until that time, elephants stay exclusively with their mothers.
Elephants only sleep four hours a night, he said, usually from 11 PM to 3 AM. They simply yawn and then sit down, often snoring "like old man" he said, as he laughed. "Keep me wake."
Elephants only sleep standing up if they are not well. "Has she ever been ill?" I asked. "No, no," he said. "She good. I good. I get sick one. I no come for sorng - two - day. She worry. She walk-walk. No sleep. I come back, she happy, happy. She sleep good time that time. Me too."
I guess it really is true: Elephants never forget.
My mahout (driver) said that the reason Thailand is free today is because of elephants. Kings mounted elephants and fought in battle on them, which is why they won so many battles on so many occasions when the Burmese invaded the country. The elephants made all the difference.
Earlier in the day, we were treated to a reenactment of two kings battling on elephants in the cultural center. Here's a very brief clip of it which I took from my cell phone, so it's not the best, but it's not that bad, either.
I asked my driver if he was married. He laughed and said, "You want marry me, farang lady?" I laughed and said, "Are you proposing?"
We laughed together and he said, "Thai people say marriage like elephant - man front legs, yes? Choose direction. Wife back legs. Give power."
"Ah, I see your problem," I said.
"Problem?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, "why you no marry." He looked at me curiously.
"You find maybe Thai woman give you power but no want follow."
He roared with laughter, "Yes, yes. True, true."
"I stay with elephant. Good that way."
All too soon the ride was over and it was time to take my leave. "You come back. Five o'clock. We go again. No charge. My time. Free," said my driver in a remarkable expression of generosity that I have come to know of Thai people.
"Oh, no. I would love to, but can't. Bus come. 1400. Have to go back home."
"You come 'nother day. Five o'clock. I take you."
He bowed his head and then took my hand and kissed it like a proper gentleman. I think I actually blushed, but I bowed in return and then took my leave.
I do believe he was flirting with me. Which was fine because it was all so innocent and lovely, in a way that was not at all offensive. It was, at a very basic level, human and relational.
You know, somewhere in the midst of the time my driver and I were talking about elephants and Thai-Burmese wars and Thai philosophy of marriage, I was able to let go of my anxiety and fear and just allow my body to sway with the elephant's walk and my mind relax with the driver's talk.
I think allowing the scared little girl that still lives in me to come out first also allowed me to turn that expression of a base, primordial fear into a deep, adult respect - not only for the elephant but for the relationship she has with her mahout (driver).
He would never hurt her. She would never hurt him. And, by extension, neither would either do anything to put me in harm's way.
We have so much to learn from each other - across gender and culture and even species.
I think I'm finally old enough to begin to learn how much more I need to learn. It happens when I can acknowledge and then let go of my fears and simply be what God created me to be - and become.
As the Buddhist monks would say, "We are not human beings. We are 'human becomings-with'."