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My Elephant MAG
Who would have guessed that a teen born and raised in west Los Angeles would befriend a 49-year-old elephant halfway around the world? My elephant, Yom, lives in a conservation camp deep in the jungle of Lampang in northern Thailand. The camp was created to protect the elephants from poachers and safeguard the villages from elephant rampages.
I came here with Rustic Pathways, a community-service organization that teaches students about other cultures. Our group of 15 American teenagers traveled to Thailand to help the elephants’ lifelong trainers, called mahouts. They work all but three days a month. We would help them by taking over some of the more menial jobs in their exhausting schedule.
The journey to Lampang was an adventure in itself. We took three flights just to get to Bangkok. During a pit stop at a gift shop in the Tokyo airport, we took turns inspecting packages of sliced squid and fried anchovies. On our layover in Singapore, a couple of the boys tried to test the country’s strict laws by chewing gum. Singapore is known for its “anti-gum chewing” laws. Once in Bangkok, I discovered that we would take yet another flight to Chang Mei, as well as an hour car ride to Lampang. The long journey, however, proved to be well worth it.
The elephant conservation camp was filled with shrubbery of every color. The straw-roofed buildings touched the edge of the forest as if afraid to enter the uninhabited territory. The elephants’ smell was strong in every room of our camp and seemed to follow us around.
Soon after I arrived, a mahout introduced me to his elephant, Yom. Her eyes, immense and brown, showed a deep love and serenity. Her hair, which is almost invisible from afar, felt as sharp as nails. And Yom’s giant ears drew attention away from her enormous nose.
During my first day working with Yom, I was given a denim suit to wear whenever I rode her. The outfit seemed to be incredibly impractical. The pants were one size, designed to be folded over and tied with string. The shirt was so stiff I wasn’t sure if it was even made of fabric. I would wear this unique ensemble for 30 hours during the next six days. I was instructed not to wash it so that my smell would soak in.
It is remarkable how smart elephants are. After a couple of days, Yom flapped her ears in excitement every time she smelled me coming. And those flapping ears acted as an automatic seat belt whenever I rode her, holding my legs against her neck so I didn’t fall off. At the conservation camp I learned how to take an elephant’s temperature (you don’t want to know) and how to shoot a rampaging elephant with a homemade dart gun (very carefully).
Every day I gave Yom two baths. I rode her into the nearby lake in the morning and at night. There she submerged herself for up to 15 minutes, with only her trunk sticking out like a snorkel. The lake water was so muddy, I was never sure if she was really clean. Sometimes I thought she had just covered herself with a new layer of dirt.
After Yom’s morning bath, I either took her to the feeding grounds or the training area. On every occasion that I took her to eat, she would pile food in her mouth as though it was her last meal. We passed areas that looked as if a logging company had just been there. With all the eating I wondered how there was even a forest left at the end of the day. Once Yom had her fill of leaves and branches, I led her to her activities. One was an obstacle course where I steered her through poles, instructing her to bow her head and walk backward. Yom was exceptionally good at the course because she had been trained for 48 years. She performed these tricks in shows for tourists to raise money for her upkeep.
Time flew when I was working with Yom. Before I knew it, the sun was ready to set and I had to put her in the forest for the night. We traveled for miles to find the perfect spot. Once I decided on a place to leave her, I tied her to a tree sturdy enough to hold her. I always looked at all the surrounding trees, realizing that they would not be there when I returned the next morning. Yom would take down every tree or bush she could reach for a midnight snack. Then, as I left, I’d look back at her standing amidst the trees. I’d stare in awe of Yom’s beauty in her native habitat, standing half-hidden in the foliage looking perfectly peaceful. This sight was the highlight of my trip.
I spent the evenings with the counselors and staff members. They introduced me to native dances and their favorite Thai bands. Two counselors told us about their schooling at a local Buddhist temple. Their parents had died when they were children, and as orphans they were brought up in a temple. When they were old enough, they became tour guides and counselors for Rustic Pathways.
After four days of bathing, feeding, and training the elephants, we set off for a small campsite in the middle of a forest so dense that I could not see the sky. It took us an hour-long elephant ride to get there. In the forest, we collected bamboo for cups, leaves for plates, and wood for the fire. We used our hands for utensils. At nightfall silence took over the forest, and the only sounds I heard came from the mahouts’ singing and drumming. There was no TV, no electricity, and no running water. We were just 16 kids, a herd of elephants, and a breathtaking forest.