Water and Elephants: A Mixture of Bliss

“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” Deuteronomy 4:9


If we are lucky, there are a handful of particularly precious experiences packed into our memory. I know that the birth of my daughter was especially profound for me. Twenty-five years later, another momentous occurrence happened on a family ski trip. My husband, daughter and I were riding up the chair lift as she regaled us with details of her upcoming wedding. We were spellbound by the beauty of the telling when suddenly we were surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of migrating Monarch butterflies. They had chosen us for their brief encounter. The settled on our legs, our arms and in our hair. They made magic of that wonderful chair ride and I will never forget it! Heartwarming reflections but part of their beauty lies in their infrequency and their transitory nature. Impossibly, last week another such amazing happening was added to my mental treasure trove.


I had been enjoying a 17 day trek through the lower Annapurna Mountains of Nepal with 10 other trekkers. It had been marvelously energetic and culturally enriching. Two days of vigorous river rafting were included and I knew that the last part of the itinerary featured an elephant safari through the jungle. I had no idea what new enchantment that activity was going to hold for me.


Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal was the site for the elephant safari. The first stop was the elephant compound where a naturalist taught us the habits and characteristics of Indian elephants. To emphasize his points he brought out two 11,000 pound female elephants for demonstration. We learned that their teeth change out seven times across their lives, they live on more than 300 pounds of vegetation per day and drink 100 liters of water and in captivity require three handlers each. Elephants communicate with each other across vast distances at a very low frequency and they are the largest animals on the Indian subcontinent. Sadly they are also are on the endangered species list, victims of encroaching civilization. The conclusion of the talk featured a hand feeding of the elephants by us! When it was my turn, I gingerly approached my elephant of choice with a large packet of her favorite greens. Simply putting my 5’3” self up next to this 5 plus ton giant was a thrill. Serving the bundle of food to her big trunk was another. I could feel my grin spreading from ear to ear. This was so exciting! Seriously how could get it better than this? I even got to feed her a second bundle! Oh, but there were more surprises were waiting for me!

Our program continued, we left the elephant compound and climbed up into ox carts and journeyed to a local village to interact with the famous Tharu tribe which had historically been successful in resisting the malaria carrying mosquitoes of that wet lowlands. It was most inter-culturally enriching.


The next day our robust band of adventurers gathered at dawn for the elephant safari. We watched four of the elephants being driven slowly across the shallow Rapti River by their trainers. We hiked down to the river and descended to its banks ourselves where we boarded our dug-out canoes which were poled across the water.

Our elephants were now “saddled” and ready to take us rhino watching. I chose a particularly beautiful pink-eared elephant and was directed to shimmy up her body as she kneeled for me. I climbed up using her foot as a step and a loop in her tail that the trainer provided for me for the other step up. With a big pull I was on top of her! I took the front position in the wooden saddle and positioned my legs so that they were around the shoulders of the trainer. The trainer sat behind the elephant’s head with his bare feet placed against the back of each of her huge ears. He held a small sledge hammer in his right hand. My two friends, Joyce and Dale, climbed aboard and soon we were off! So how very exciting was this to trample through the jungle from our tall perch searching for wildlife? As we made our way deeper into the tropical jungle we fell silent, the only sounds coming from the elephant as she was directed to pull large branches from the trees to make a path. I smiled every time I spotted her wily trunk sneaking out for a snack. Her trainer quickly corrected her behavior through foot motions against the back of her ears. Kids will be kids! Our two hour safari included sightings of a family of one-horned rhinos and many birds, herds of deer and even a mongoose. It was a marvelous adventure and it could have stopped there, but the biggest thrill of the day was still waiting for me around the corner.


Once again we disembarked from our elephants, took many snapshots and returned to our dug-out canoes to go back to the camp. Our guide, Raj, invited us to bathe the elephants if we cared to, but that we needed to quickly put on our bathing suits and return to the river bank. We had ten minutes! On cue ten minutes later, the eleven of us lined the banks of the muddy river. It was a dark and drizzly morning, the remnants of monsoon season.


The Mahouts had two of the elephants standing in the water near the bank. Our guide asked if anyone wanted to sit on the elephant and be sprayed by her mighty trunk? What? I thought we were going to bathe the elephants, not the other way around! Without thinking I raised my hand and was immediately guided down the muddy river bank to the awaiting elephant. I was helped up on to her back which was now free of the wooden saddle. She walked into deeper waters.

Suddenly WHAM I was blasted by a trunk full of cold water!! The gang from the river yelled, “Donna close your mouth!” I tried to close it and then suddenly once more. WHAM!!! She sprayed me again. By now I was screaming with glee, trying to keep my mouth closed while yelling and waiting for the next blast! She sprayed me five times!! What great fun that was! Then she started to roll over onto her side and I had instant visions of my left leg being crushed so I scramble off of her back and into the water and swam to the shore. Oh my gosh. I thought!! What could be better than that? Who even dreamed this was a possibility? Who even dreamed this was possible in life?


Some of my fellow trekkers waded out in the water for their turns at elephant showers. We were all delighted by the picture taking and the elephants and the water. But still, we were not bathing elephants, they were bathing us! Sometime later, when all of us had had our fill of being water soaked, Raj, said, “So does anyone want to clean the elephants?”


“I do!” was my immediate response, not having any idea at all what this aspect of the day entailed. He directed me to wade down to the elephants yet again. By now they were lounging on their sides in about four feet of water. Clearly they were enjoying lazing around in the water. I was guided to one elephant’s back and I began to spread water up on her skin and rub. It was marvelous. Her dark grey hide was thick and felt rough to the touch. She seemed to really enjoy the caresses. Soon, growing more confident, I waded up to her gigantic head and began stroking and cleaning her enormous ear. I rubbed gently and she seemed to lean into my touch. As I continued my stroking of her ear, I studied her beautiful long thick black eye lashes, the few graceful hairs on her head, and noted the look of contentment in the visible eye. She was so huge and beautiful and wonderful. I could hardly take a breath for feeling the enormity of the moment I was sharing with her. It was something I imagine like being with God. She was still. She was relaxed. We both seemed to have moved into a kind of a bliss. It lasted for long minutes.


After a while my fellow elephant cleaners were trudging out of the water through the mud onto the bank of the river. We were all soaked to the bone. The rain continued and we were getting chilled. Everyone was starting back. I was still glued in bliss to my elephant’s beautiful head. Finally from the shore, Raj, called, “So Donna are you staying?”


That pulled me from my reverie. “Could I?” I meekly asked.

Raj smiled. It might be that he could see the expression that must have been on my face. He replied, “Yes.” But clearly it was time to go back. I lingered a few more precious minutes in the water, truly “soaking in” the experience and the magic. The elephant continued to lean into me and I into her.


Finally one of the trainers came to help me to shore. I was far behind my group and got a bit lost trying to make my way back to camp. On the trail, I passed three Tharu women who were out harvesting the morning crops. I think they read the rapture on my face, plus they could clearly see that I was disoriented. They giggled a bit at my expense. I was, after all, soaking wet, in a bit of a trance, and lost! Very gently they turned me around and pointed me in the correct direction toward camp. They shared shy smiles of understanding with me, and one woman even gave my arm an affectionate squeeze! Here I was, half way around the planet in a foreign culture, being assisted by kind-hearted women garbed in colorful red saris, and they reached out to me, sisters to sister. We did not share language or customs, but we did share a bond of understanding.

Poignant, short lived and beautiful. That was my moment with the elephant and water and with the beautiful Tharu women in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.


“It will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickenson

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