I can hear my mother’s gloating laugh echo through my grumpy, dream-groggy mind. She grew up on a farm and thinks I have been sheltered from the character-building harshities of hard work. Oh, how she would relish seeing me disturbed from my “spoiled” sweet dreams by the insolent cock-a-doodle-doos of more than 15 roosters before dawn this morning. Did I mention these huts stand on stilts? I’m pretty a rooster is directly below my sleeping mat. My mother’s sweet revenge.
The pre-dawn village is already up and huddled with stray dogs around a small fire. A black kettle is lifted from the fire and poured over freshly cut ginger root for my morning tea. I tip toe along a 1 x 4 over the wild hogs’ mud pit to use the out house – an always-wet ceramic hole in the ground that will double as a cold shower later in the day.
I waste no time sulking or socializing for today is the day I will be taken into the high-altitude rain forest to look for the freely-roaming elephants the Journey to Freedom project has successful brought back to the Karen Hill Tribe and to the wild. This is the reason I am here. This is why I volunteer.
When the Sun is still young in the sky and the mountain temperatures are still cool, the Karen elder leads Dino the program guide, Jing Jo the guide-trainee and we two American volunteers down a crumbling dirt road. The Karen man appears to be in his eighties, but repeatedly leaves we young athletes in the red dust. Jing Jo pulls a leaf off an abundant and fragrant bush blooming with purple flowers, and describes it’s traditional blood-clotting properties. Dino feeds us a bitter, but good tasting yellow trumpet flower. Mountain olives hang from the top branches of a skinny tree. Dino pockets lemongrass leaves to use in our dinner later that evening.
Occasionally the Karen man’s smiling, wrinkled face peeks out from behind a shady waiting spot to make sure we aren’t lost. The red dirt road turns to a path, turns to a dangerously rocky foot hold leading straight down the side of a forested mountain. Even with my Vibram Five Finger shoes I slip repeatedly and catch myself, thanking goodness my back did not lock up in the process. Down, down, down, we climb, stopping to catch the breathtaking mountain top views, examine brightly colored spiders – bigger than my hand – Sunbathing on their daytime webs, or to hydrate from our water slings. The air is much thinner up here than in Los Angeles, and it is difficult to catch my breath. But when I do, I relish air much purer than Los Angeles – not a cloud nor chemtrail in the sky.
After a strenuous hour of knee-wrecking downhill trekking (or should I say sliding?) we have made it to the bottom of the valley, where a river runs through. We tightrope cross a fallen tree across the bridge into dry rice fields, only in use during that magickal time after monsoon rains have flooded this river, dried slightly, and left soggy patties perfect for farming the aquatic rice seed. The Karen man instructs us to wait and within moments a massive elephant appears in the distance from between the valley hills. With movements in powerful slow motion she glides towards us in the silent, elephant walk. Each step, gently placed to protect the attached scurry of two baby twin elephants. So young they do not yet look up, without the adolescent energy to be rambunctious. Just tiny, 300 pound twins, born two and a half months ago on October 8th – my birthday.
At the Elephant Nature Park we are trained to avoid new elephant mommies and aunties, whom can be dangerous in their notorious protectiveness of their babies. At the Elephant Nature Park, volunteers never get near babies of this size or even several years older. But this mom, we are told is gentle. “Touch her. Go ahead – touch the babies”, we are told. Still, it is difficult to bring one’s self to get close to a 10 foot tall mother. And with each twin weighing in clumsily at over twice my weight, I fear even an out of control head bump might leave me vulnerably on the ground. We take our time warming up to the gentle giants because there is no rush. These elephants are not on a feeding schedule, they are not due to give a tourist a ride or play a musical instrument when the audience has gathered. All this mother and her twins must do is eat. Wild forage 500 pounds of mountain jungle roughage for 18 hours of the day – today … tomorrow … for as long as their Karen owner keeps them in the Journey to Freedom program.
It is true, she is gentle. She is one of the widest elephants I have seen yet. Her breasts are full with milk. Her eyes are bright and healthy and her eyelashes long. I touch her shoulder, her cheeks, her trunk. But by far, my favorite spot to caress an elephant is the side of the rib cage where I can feel how warm the miracle of life runs through them. I can feel her lungs take a humbling three seconds to expand that great diaphragm. I can wiggle my fingers through the course hairs covering her thick, but sensitive skin.
The twins seem to be able to see my bright turquoise shirt from a distance. If I bend down and put out my hand, the first-born (and smaller) of the two, will flop right over to me. I touch her little ears and cute hind hips. She wraps her stupid trunk awkwardly around my arm and sticks her wet nose right up towards my face. She lacks the finesse of her elegant mother, but her strength still demands all of my attention.
The Karen elder was the elephant mahout, but now has passed the position on to his son, whom currently lives in the fields day in/day out with the new mother to help her look after her twins. At first, the twins were not tall enough to reach the mother’s nipples, which like humans, are situated between the front arms. The mahout helped the babies reach their feeding spot and cut grass to bring the mother so she could reach her 500 punds/day quota without wandering and leaving her babies behind, unprotected. At six months old, the babies will begin eating their first solid food, their mom’s partially digested poo, increasing digestive bacterias in the childrens’ systems so they can soon digest raw plant materials on their own.
But today they play. As mom crosses the river in two sophisticated strides to annihilate a tree for it’s apparently delicious vines, the twins play sniff and feel with each others’ trunks. They practice snorting and spraying little tufts of river water. And when they are hungry to nurse again, the brave what to them must seem a frighteningly massive river current and end up giving up, throwing themselves under water and rolling back and forth with countenances that can be confused with nothing other than pure bliss.
Suddenly, the mother gives a wild, blaring trumpet and the babies instantaneously gather in the safe space underneath her belly. The mother has seen three other elephants caravanning down the hill behind us. They are so silent, I would have never turned around to notice them. These three elephants are also members of the Journey to Freedom program, saved from tourist performing and trekking camps. Now, they are left to wander the mountains free for days on end (or until a volunteer comes through) before their Karen mahout even checks on them. This morning, their two mahouts searched three hours before hearing the wooden bell around their necks – it is amazingly surprising how well an elephant can become invisible in it’s natural environment. The mahouts bring the elephants to join the mother and her twins. One of the elephants is the mother’s sister. The other elephant is a mother herself, with a rowdy boy adolescent of about five years old of her own. We are warned not to try to touch the rowdy boy and consider it an easy warning to accept. Especially because our fascination has shifted from touch to observation. Elephants are complex social creatures which we will get to observe wild and unadulterated for the next two hours as we trek behind the six elephants along the river.
The elephants lead us through the rice fields and into the forrest. They frequently stop to eat in the river amongst the pricklers. A white eagle soars overhead and colonies of humongous spiders bask at eyelevel. We enter the jungle with it’s large Alice-In-Wonderland sized leaves and slippery mud holes. We follow the wiggling butts of newborn pachyderms past isolated huts with families of five all coming out to watch. I am unsure if it is the elephants or the white people that are the stranger show. The elephants lead us over fallen trees and into rushing rapids. We follow a cliff edge and look up to see a hundred colossal honey combs hanging on the underside of the rocks above – bees swarm a dozen honeycombs. Two have fallen, larger than tires, at our feet. I feel like a child experiencing a fantasy world for the first time.
When the elephants split off to climb a hill filled with their favorite bamboo delicacy, we humans press on towards the sound of falling water. There, at the end of our trek, my partner and I throw off our clothes and bathe in the devine mountain cold waters falling from a 100 foot high cliff. Showing our deep gratitude by playing – the best way we know how.