May 15, 2004

Well, at least I haven't fallen off yet...

[This is an extra log entry by Christine. There are seven more log entries after it from Toli covering our last two weeks. Find his first entry and start your reading there.]

I really suck at this elephant driving thing. Combine my short and weakly physical stature with my fear of heights and you have the makings of one lousy mahout. I have no idea why in the world the people here thought to pair me up with Cho Cho - maybe they took one look at Toli and thought, well, if she's married to this cowboy, she'll be able to handle this enormous, greedy (he steals food from the other elephants), troublemaking, but very sweet and intelligent male elephant. (The similarities to Toli don't end there - I soon found out that Cho Cho is a bit of a pervert, using his trunk to feel up the girl elephants.) Or maybe they thought it would be one big joke to pair up the littlest girl in the group with the biggest elephant they could get their hands on. I'm not kidding - Cho Cho's probably the 2nd or 3rd biggest elephant out of the fifty or so pachyderms at the place, and I have yet to see a tourist-mahout ride one bigger than mine.

Anyway, if it *was* a big joke, I certainly proved them right the first afternoon of training. The very first thing they do is teach you is how to climb onto the animal - you're supposed to grab an ear, a flap of skin, command the elephant to stick out its knee to use as a stepladder, and hoist yourself up. Well, I got the ear, the flap of skin, stepped on the knee, saw that his back was still as high as my head, and then flailed around wildly until Cho Cho's mahout gave me one big shove on my heinie to finally get me on the boy. Not graceful in the least. Similar elephant moves were also out of my reach. I couldn't properly dismount the elephant - had to slide off like his leg is a fireman's pole, and I couldn't even clear his ears when I straddle-jumped over his head (while he's bending down) to climb on from the front. Even normal things like walking through the jungle on my own two legs became difficult - I fell a few times in the mud and then lost a shoe walking in a mud puddle! Clumsy comic relief at best.

It was not an auspicious beginning, but fortunately, today was much much better. I managed to climb onto Cho Cho once during the morning session without any help (though the next two times, I still flailed so much I needed help), and by the afternoon session I climbed on every time on my own, though with much grunting and groaning. Toli's got it all on tape - it's pretty funny. Then, on my last attempt at straddle-jumping from the front, I managed to clear Cho Cho's ears, which was a big relief since I'm sure he wasn't pleased with how I smashed into them every time previous. Let's just hope that I can get my act together enough to pull these moves off in front of an audience at tomorrow's elephant show so that I don't embarass my hardworking elephant and mahout.

So now that I've learned a little better, and in case you should ever decide to try mahout school yourself, here are some elephant-riding tips:

A few words on mahout attire

The nice thing about the TECC program is that they provide you with a mahout suit - basically large and loose fitting pajamas with the elephant logo emblazoned on the shirt. I didn't realize how important it is to wear loose clothing because as you are climbing/riding on the elephant, you move around a lot, and anything restrictive makes it difficult to adjust yourself comfortably. However, I had made the wrong choice in shoes, wearing my thick buttery Reef sandals which are great for just about everything outdoorsy *except* for elephant training. They are way too thick with not enough traction, so I constantly slip on the elephant's knee while climbing to ride it. Plus, the animal jostles so much while riding that they don't stay very well on my feet. I found it a lot better to take off my shoes when climbing and riding. I just leave them on the ground, and if ever I need them, I just command Cho Cho to pick them up with his trunk and hand them to me, which he does quite nicely. So anyway, if you plan on being a mahout, stick with thin-soled shoes with decent traction (I imagine rock climbing shoes would work pretty well) or a good pair of Tevas, which worked just fine for Toli. Or, you can go au naturel and give your elephant a little extra work like I did.

Climbing on the elephant song-soong style

My biggest mistake was in trying to do this in one swift move - grab ear and flap, step on the knee, and swing your other leg up over the elephant. In the elephant show, all the mahouts in front demonstrate on slightly smaller elephants, so I thought you were supposed to be able to do it in one go. Not quite - in the next elephant show, I watched all the taller elephants in the back and saw that for them, you need to add something extra. You grab the ear and flap and step on the knee, but then you add a second move. You use your time on the knee to stabilize yourself as you put both hands on the elephant's back, then push your body up before swinging your leg over. It's fairly exhausting, but it works. You also have to remember to grip very tightly on the elephants ear and side as you are going up - I was constantly worried that I would hurt the animal, so I didn't hold on as tightly those first few times.

Climbing on the elephant via the front tag-long style

Again, the mahouts can do this in one swift move - jump, straddle your legs, and land on the elephant's neck while it's kneeling down. It can be broken down in two moves if you step on the elephants head first and then use your hands to help hoist you over. However, I didn't really like doing this and find that if I jump with all my might while splitting my legs as far as they will go (ow, I know - I'm not that bendy), I can clear the ears without having to step on the elephant.

Riding the elephant in general

Here's the best way to describe riding an elephant. Imagine if you strapped a waterbed mattress to a really tall horse, climbed on to the waterbed mattress, and started riding it. It's really hard at first to find a way to balance yourself so that you don't feel like you're going to plunge along headfirst over the elephant's head. One novice mistake is to sit too far back on the elephant - this isn't good, because it's wider the further back you sit, and the shoulders and rib cage move around a bit more. Sit up as close as you dare - for one thing, it's easier to grip your legs around the elephant's neck, and you can kind of jam your knees up against the elephant's ears. The elephant relies on various types of kicks to its ears (gently, please) to know when to go and where to turn, so this will be helpful once you're comfortable enough to steer the elephant. Plus, if your elephant is thoughtful, it will hold its ears back close to its head and sandwich your legs in, especially if it's about to dip or turn in a way that will throw you off balance. Also, remember that an elephant's physique allows you to lean all the way over until your foreheads touch, which for some reason makes it feel less scary.

Also while I'm at it, here are some random elephant facts:

  • Elephants sleep only about three hours a day - can you imagine that? It's amazing when you consider that cats sleep about six times as much even though they are much, much smaller (and less, less active according to Toli).
  • Elephant gestation periods are 22 months, from conception to birth. I'll try to remember that when I am pregnant and be patient.
  • Female Asian elephants don't have long tusks like the males, but female African elephants do. There are also male elephants that don't have tusks, like my very own Cho Cho. (I've wondered if that makes him feel like he's got something to prove, hence his troublemaking behavior.)
  • Elephants do not mate for life. The mom who just had a newborn was already on a second boyfriend after the father of the baby calf. And Cho Cho is also known for being a bit of a ladies' man - again, tusk envy?
  • Elephants average about two mahouts in a lifetime since they can live 60 - 80 years. And the bond is extremely strong - should its mahout die or disappear, the elephant does become very agitated and traumatized. Today, we saw the elephant who lost part of her trunk get fed by a person who wasn't her mahout, and the poor thing cowered every time he tried to feed her sugarcane.
  • Elephants are afraid of cows and mice, and they don't particularly like dogs or cats. In fact, like Toli said, the group of elephants we drove to the jungle nearly panicked and started stampeding at the smell of cow dung. It's kind of funny, but I guess it's no different from me shrieking whenever I see a scary insect or rodent myself.
  • Elephants exert less force on a forest floor than a deer a twelfth of their size. This is due to the size and the padding on their feet, which makes them ideal workers for the logging industry.
And last but not least, here's a song I made up today about elephants, dedicated to Cho Cho and his mahout Su Wang.

(Sung to the tune of Monty Python's I'm a Lumberjack Song)

I'm an elephant and I'm okay,
I sleep all night
(Yes, we know this isn't true from the above facts, but it sounds good, okay?)
And I work all day!

I carry tourists, I perform in shows
And I know how to paint.
My favorite times are eating bananas and sugarcane.

I'm an elephant and I'm okay,
I sleep all night and I work all day!
Posted by Christine at May 15, 2004 06:37 AM
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