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January 17, 2013

Local Voices From Around the Globe: High atop an elephant

By Zak Aldridge
Cooperstown Crier

---- — 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.

Elephants are easy to fall in love with. In fact, they are impossible not to fall in love with. Upon sighting one, you’ll think “ELEPHANT!! Awwww,” then up close, an unwanted timidity washes over your excitement as the rough, probing trunk of the animal callously investigates you, your clothes and your face with a bristly, dripping tip. The eyes of the elephant, much like the eyes of a learned Thai monk, speak nothing but the highest wisdom and patience and are intoxicating in their integrity. As you try to shy away from the invasive trunk and the massive flat feet of the animal, you can’t help but linger a few more uneasy minutes because of your sheer elation to be in its presence.

The elephant is a national symbol of Thailand and its image can be found on nearly all tourist apparel, exaggerated with exquisite, flowing carpets of the finest Thai silk; gliding through purple clouds and ethereal heavens on coin purses and bracelets. They deserve as much embellishment for they are undoubtedly some of the most majestic, solemn creatures in the world, yet when all is said and done Khana and the rest of her kin are just animals. They eat, breathe, sleep and poop. That great, rough, curious trunk that is so iconic was, I’m sure, just concerned with the three bananas I was hiding behind my back.

Zak Aldridge is a junior at Milford Central School. To read more from him, visit