There’s something about falling asleep in your own dried sweat with mud-stained ankles that makes you feel invincible— as if your skin is an organic armor, and no matter how dirty, scratched or bruised it gets, the essence of “you” is always safe, wrapped up in your fleshy blanket.
After a week exploring the humid city of Chaing Mai, my volunteer group headed into the mountains to visit one of planet earth’s most famous beasts. Night time in the mountains, which we spent in bamboo huts under the stars, was fairly cool. We had plenty of opportunities to fall asleep in our own dried sweat.
“Arrowan doesn’t like to be touched when eating. We think he has bad memories from his entertainment days,” said the man named Yo, who served as our tour guide/ life guru/ my role model. He was describing the young, energetic male that lives with the free-roaming, all-female group of rescued elephants.
We trekked through the forests in search of the herd. It’s impressive how quietly such large animals can sneak up on you. Four massive, modern mastodons galloped out of thick air to meet us, their ears flapping excitedly. Before beginning our journey, we had rolled some salty tamarind balls. The elephants could smell the treats from the other side of the mountain. They raided us for the snacks and we loved every second of it.
I try to write only about wild animal encounters. Though these elephants were once used for tourist entertainment, they now live a semi-wild life thanks to the Journey to Freedom project. They roam freely around the mountain ranges, while money from volunteer groups like H.E.A.T. Abroad goes to paying for each elephant to have their own “mahout,” (a man who cares for the elephants). Rather than leasing the elephants out to an abusive tourist industry, the men now make a good living watching the elephants and keeping them out of farmlands.
I could go in-depth about how amazing the program is, but for those details, you’ll have to check out a blog overseen by my good friend and travel writer Josh Andrews at heatabroad.org. My blog, however, is about the poetic storytelling of animal encounters, so for those of you who have not had the chance to be fondled by the bristly hairs of an delightfully intrusive elephant trunk, let me try and paint this picture for you.
Every time we interacted with the elephants, we couldn’t ignore how dog-like they were. They indicated their level of joy by fanning us with their huge ears, rather than wagging their tails. Instead of excited howls and happy barks, they expressed their contentment by way of high-pitched “toots,” which sounded exactly like a third-grader trying to imitate a trumpet by pressing their lips together and blowing against their arm.
Just like any other animal, the elephants also had moments of uncertainty and distress. That, my friends, is a sound I will never forget. I’m grateful that I pressed record on my phone at the perfect moment, and captured the low, bass-filled growl that the largest female made when her mahout blocked her from entering a farmer’s strawberry field. You’ve seen Jurassic Park or Jurassic World? The deep growl of the Indomnus Rex is the exact sound elephants make when concerned, and it is bone chilling.
I was pleased to disprove my pre-conceived ideas that elephants were slow and clumsy. In fact, as we followed them through the forest, they were quite hard to keep up with, and could disappear within minutes without a trace. They would get on their knees to adjust their weight and scale steep, muddy cliffs that even I, with my precious human intellect and opposable thumbs, could not climb.
I am always impressed by strong, powerful creatures that want nothing more than to graze in peace with their loved ones. Any of these elephants could have trampled any person in my group at any time. It seems to be consistent among large, strong vegetarians, be it a bull, a rhino, or an elephant, that they rarely use their power to abuse others. There is wisdom among these animals that I hope my species may be perceptive enough to learn.
I took lots of notes.