I’m on my last elephant ride. The realisation that I will never do this again comes with the certainty of the sunrise. Staying present in the moment. With a shame that comes from the imperialism of being human. Of killing, eating, enslaving and humiliating animals. She walks with care and deliberation. Each step takes me closer to my pathetic regret.
Elephants have a similar life expectancy to humans. And like humans they can live full and happy lives. Under the right conditions. Lakshmi Kahli is 35 years old. 9 am in Chitwan, Nepal and she is on her second run already. There has been a slight delay because we asked them not to overload her. Serious discussion ensues. Each of these elephants is expected to carry 5 people at a time.
We are the last to ride. Hoards of animated, excited, overweight people jump, scratch and scramble their way on to the elephants. As each person boards, the elephant adjusts slightly to manage the load.
My first elephant ride was at the Melbourne Zoo. I was 5. In all the years that have followed I have also jumped, scratched and scrambled my way onto the backs of elephants around the world. Loving the view from up high, the gentle rhythm and the mystery of the elephant spirit. On top of an elephant is on top of the world.
I have been told about the vengeful nature of elephants. How they will remember a hurt done to them and wait for an opportunity to retaliate. In Laos, the guide at the elephant camp tells a story of a tourist who teased an elephant by offering bananas repeatedly and pulling them away just as the elephant was reaching for them. After a few minutes of this, the elephant whacked him to the ground. ‘So’, he says, ‘never trust an elephant’.
At 35 years old I was working 3 jobs. Harnessed. And at times I felt like a brute animal, with little value other than the weight of the load I could carry. I retaliated at acts of senseless cruelty. I also retaliated for much less. There were times when people would say. ‘You can never trust a Lisa’.
These days I choose who, and what, I will carry. I do not carry entitlement, or cruelty, and I brushed rudeness and humiliation off on a low hanging branch some time ago. About the time I developed a deep fondness for bananas. And kindness. This is what it means to be free.
As Lakshmi Kahli stands steady for me to scramble my way off her back I think of all the elephants that have carried people, little and big, safely around the world and through time. Of their huge bulk kneeling to accept a small child and their gentle trunks touching the upturned palms of generations. And I smile.
You can never trust an elephant.