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Turning 33 with the Elephants

LAOS | Monday, 24 December 2007 | Views [4137] | Comments [1]

Elephant riding on my 33rd birthday, with Meixi the elephant and Joe the Democrat from Texas

Elephant riding on my 33rd birthday, with Meixi the elephant and Joe the Democrat from Texas

I celebrated my 33rd birthday by riding an elephant. Her name is Meixi, and she’s 45 years old. She is “retired” from logging work and now just has to carry around tourists for a few hours a day, which is apparently much less taxing than logging work was. We paired up, and I shared the elephant with a guy named Joe who was introduced to me by his friends as “a Democrat from Texas.” We exchanged stories about travels to Cuba and outrage over the US policy towards the country as we bumped along through the jungle.

The mahout (elephant trainer) rides on the elephant’s neck, and we were seated on a wooden seat that is mounted upon many blankets, on the elephant’s back. The mahout directs the elephant using his bare feet and soft verbal commands. I learned that a word that sounds like “bye” means “go.” Meixi wasn’t so happy about that one when we were going down a steep incline. She hesitated, and on the steep pitch we nearly slid off our seats. There was a wooden bar holding us in, but it was held in place only by a small lip.

I reached behind to hold onto the back of the seat for more stability and decided to focus upon her feet, enormous and strong, to distract myself from worrying about what would happen if the elephant fell over.  I commented to Joe “look at those toenails!” He thought I meant my toenails – now a nicely chipped red – and said, “Uh, yeah, they’re very nice.” I wondered how Meixi would look with red toenails. She made it down, slowly (I wondered if it’s possible for elephants to get arthritis), and we walked along the river bank.

At this point the mahout gestured for me to take his place. I carefully slid down and sat on her neck. I had to keep asking him if it was okay, if I was hurting her. All I could think about was the headache I’d get if someone who weighs as much as I do straddled my neck. She just plodded along with her strong elephant stride. Then I started thinking about how sore I was going to be the next day (and I was). But it was quite thrilling, especially when I would start to lose my balance and sort of slide from side to side.

At the end, we were invited to feed the elephants bananas and sugar cane, which they went wild for. It was great fun to place the sugar cane in their trunks and listen to the loud crunch as they ate it. Then we got to meet the resident baby elephant, who is 3 years old and was rescued from being sent to Thailand to perform. Now he gets to eat fresh bamboo all day and be oohed and ahhed over by tourists. He was very cute – like a miniature elephant. He won’t have to carry humans until he is 10 years old. His back was covered with dirt, which they throw upon themselves to cool off.

I learned all sorts of fun and not so fun facts about elephants. Did you know that during the US Civil War, the King of Thailand offered to send elephants to Abraham Lincoln to help with the war effort? I love the idea of elephants marching across the Mason-Dixon line, though I doubt the elephants would have been so happy. On a more somber note, there are only 35,000 wild elephants left in Asia, and experts estimate that there will be no more wild elephants left in 50 years because their habitat is being rapidly encroached upon by humans.

I ended my birthday by sharing a Lao Barbecue with two American women from New York who I had met on the plane. I knew they were traveling at a much more luxurious level than I am, so when we agreed to meet for dinner, I dressed up, thinking I’d be assured that they’d want to go to a nice restaurant. But they wanted to try Lao BBQ, and I thought it would be fun as well, so off we went, me in my black dress and silk scarf.

The way it works is that they remove a tile from the center of the table and place a bucket of coals inside. Over this goes a hubcap shaped pan, with a bump in the middle, surrounded by a moat. They pour hot water into the moat and using chopsticks, you cook your food in the hot water, and then eat it with a spicy sauce. They brought us plates of raw meat and fish, raw vegetables, uncooked noodles, eggs, and streaky bacon. Yes, streaky bacon, which turned out to be bacon fat. This is rubbed on the bump in the middle, and then you cook the meat in the bacon grease. I stuck with fish, which was tender and fresh. It was definitely a labor intensive meal, and since I was doing a lot of talking, I kept forgetting to eat. But lots of fun, nonetheless.

At this point I hadn’t told a single person that it was my birthday. I had decided only to say something if there was the right opening. I didn’t want to impose celebrating my birthday on perfect strangers, nor did I want to feel like I was forcing it. If it felt right, I would say something, if not, then not. So I ended up not saying anything to the American women, which was fine. After they went home, I wasn’t ready to go back to my room, so I went to the Croissant d'Or café and ordered tea and chocolate pie. Chocolate pie is basically a dark chocolate bar in a pastry shell. They heated it and it was lovely and gooey and the best chocolate I’ve had on my entire trip. It was the perfect birthday cake.

As I was paying my bill at the counter, the waitress slid a small wrapped packed toward me. When I asked what it was, she told me it was a Christmas present. Then I noticed that it was wrapped in birthday paper. When I commented on this, they rushed to apologize, but before they could finish, I told them that it actually was my birthday. And they all broke out in huge smiles, and so did I.

One of the young waiters turned to me and said “sometimes things just work out.” It was the sweetest thing, and I was so touched by all of it. It was such nice birthday karma. I opened the gift, and it was a small woman in traditional dress, on a key chain. I told them that it would always remind me of my birthday in Laos. Then I loaded up on cell phone credit, and called home to celebrate my birthday over the phone line with familiar voices. It was the perfect end to a very different -- and wonderful -- birthday.

Tags: adventures, birthdays, celebrations, elephants, luang prabang



I love this story! Life can be beautiful, can't it? Travelling is incredible. I can't wait for my trip - leaving next Wed - aacckk!

  Maria Jan 3, 2008 3:51 AM



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