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January 17, 2013

Local Voices From Around the Globe: High atop an elephant

You’ve read correctly, elephants! At last I’ve come face-to-face with one, and what an experience it proved to be. As a native of upstate New York, a place with no mammal larger than the average hibernating black bear, there was all the room in the world to fantasize about the wonder and eminence of the elephant. That being said, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the residents of Northern Thailand and the hill tribe I was visiting are as familiar to the gentle giants as any upstater is to dairy cows.

I was in a very small settlement that belonged to a Karen hill tribe, an ethnic group native to the Thai/Burma region far in the north of Thailand. However spare the commerce of this village, there did happen to be a simple elephant reserve that offered free rides right in the center of town. Climbing a short staircase to what could have been a tree house I carefully boarded the slightly swaying carriage fastened to the back of the elephant.

There aren’t very many things I can equate with the physical sensation of riding an elephant. I think Hobbits ridding in an Ent — Tolkien’s smallest characters lodged in the high branches of his giant tree characters — is the closest allusion I can make. There is an interval of about two seconds between each step and when the foot lands on the ground the seat and everything in it (Me!) drops abruptly to one side and then to the other after the succeeding step. It wasn’t particularly comfortable and was certainly not a camera friendly perch, but it was awfully hilarious to me as I clutched the guardrail, grinning wildly.

As the elephant plodded down the local highway I watched as moped drivers waited for the procession to pass while checking messages on their cellphones as if at a stop light. Much like a Cooperstown tourist gawking at the site of dairy cows and silos in Milford, I was taken aback by the indifference Khana, the elephant, was receiving from the locals. That’s culture shock.

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