Thick, leathery gray legs covered with a layer of thick, wet, chocolate-colored dirt, surround me.
At first, I am apprehensive.
On all sides of me are six-ton elephants. Capable of plowing me over.
I look over to Lek, the founder of Elephant Nature Park, with my eyebrows raised.
We’ve learned we’re not supposed to be in the path of these giants, and here I am. Not only keeping step with them, but flanked by them.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” Lek assures Pam and I as we keep our eyes fixed on the animals around us. “We are a part of the herd right now. They won’t hurt us.”
In normal, volunteer park life, we are not part of the herd. But, this afternoon is special. Lek has invited Pam and I to walk with her through the elephant’s habitat, an experience most don’t have while here.
We’re shadowing Lek as she makes her afternoon rounds with the main elephant families. Two babies, loads of aunties, nanas and moms.
The afternoon happened on a whim.
“Do you want to come with me on my walk?” Lek asks Pam and me following a presentation she has given to our group about the atrocities of training elephants to pain. The two of us have hung back, discussing our frustrations with the tourists down the road riding elephants as we speak and trying to figure out how we can help educate visitors to Thailand set on enjoying these magnificent creatures.
I look at Pam and our eyes light up.
How in the world could we ever say no to such an opportunity to walk the park with Lek?
My mind drifts back to the first time I saw Lek, earlier in the week.
Under a thin mist of rain, she had walked out into the field and kept step with the Faa Mai, the pudgy baby elephant she’s bonded with.
The two look like an odd-coupling, but behave like old friends out for an afternoon stroll.
Lek walks with her hands on her hips, dwarfed by the baby, who reaches around to touch her with her trunk.
Today, I get to witness the beauty of Lek’s friendship with these elephants first-hand.
As we begin our journey into the elephant’s habitat, we’re trailed by about 10 dogs who are Lek’s shadows. It’s clear — these adopted dogs love Lek as much as the elephants love her. I follow after Lek the same way they do — hanging at her heels. My heart is full of admiration for a woman who is nearly single-handedly taking on the elephant tourism industry in a country where it is one of the biggest selling points.
The three of us head out into the elephant’s habitat — a grassy field with thick brown puddles from the rainy season that is causing flooding in other parts of the country. We quietly stroll up to the family, which is snacking on fruit a mahout shakes from a tree. None of them are related, except mommies and children, but an entire make-shift family has blossomed.
The beauty of elephants embracing the inherent structure of family and adapting to create their own.
Pam and I stand back at first, unsure of what to do or how to behave. Jack’s warnings of standing in front of them echo in my mind, so I try to sidestep their bodies. But, with so many of them, it’s nearly impossible not to stand in front of one of them.
Lek produces a bag of bread, and suddenly, we’re surrounded. Trunks come from every angle as they grapple for a piece of the fluffy snack. Talking to them softly and scratching their searching speckled trunks one-at-a-time, she delivers the pieces to them.
This is unreal.
When the bread is gone, the three of us sit among the long blades of grass for awhile as Lek talks about the park. Then, we hear commotion from a mahout.
One of the baby elephants is tangled in a green hose, as if she has taken it and spun in a circle, lacing it around her legs. She waddles with it for a moment, playing, and then her trunk wraps around the part still attached to the house and pulls it from the spout, causing a slow trickle of water to hit the ground.
I can only imagine, this is how a delighted and happy elephant looks as she speeds away from her owner.
She waddles around for a moment, hose wrapped around her pudgy legs, before the mahout can sneak in and remove it from her body.
Then, it’s bath time. The entire family heads to the banks of the rushing brown river.
This is the moment we become a part of the family.
Looking around, in between legs, trunks swaying within centimeters of my hands, the gushes of wind from the flapping of the ears … it evokes this happiness I have never felt before.
I can’t help but realize how incredibly lucky I am to be keeping step with these creatures.
In the moment, walking with the herd, I am incredibly fulfilled and it stretches from my toes to the tips of the hair on my head.
This is, quite possibly, one of the most amazing moments of my life.
Lek, Pam and I stand back a few feet as the family heads into the water to rinse off. Some of the elephants wade out a bit and just stand in the water, letting it rush over them. Others seem to enjoy it more, plunging their heads and then entire bodies under the water and letting the current carry them down stream a little bit.
And, of course, the babies play, splashing their trunks in the water.
Mommy and baby come out of the water, headed straight for us. Instinctively, Pam and I dart out of their path as they rumble past.
“Where are they going?” I ask.
As we turn to follow, their end point is obvious. The huge dirt hill a few feet away where a group of volunteers are digging and making sand bags for a sick elephant.
The baby walks up to the truck where the rust-colored dirt is first, flinging a boot into the back of it. Then, she grabs dirt and sprays it on her.
Within minutes, the elephants are once again covered in dirt. They are laying in the pile. Rolling in it like dogs.
It’s one of the most adorable displays of animals enjoying themselves I have ever seen.
I almost feel guilty when Pam and I head off with Lek again, leaving the other volunteers to continue shoveling.
But, as we walk with the herd, those feelings vanish and are replaced with one of the most exhilarating feelings of elation and bliss.
This trip to Thailand is life-changing, there is no doubt.
As we continue, and the elephants stop to scratch their now dirty bodies against posts and logs to get at itches.
They slide their enormous bodies against the wood, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, until they move on to the next post, where they once again rub and scratch.
As we make our way back to the family shelter where all of the volunteers will meet to sit with Faa Mai as Lek sings her lullabies to for her afternoon siesta, we encounter Medo, in her 20s, and her best friend.
She has been sadly disfigured from both logging and forced breeding injuries. At a young age, Medo was forced into illegal logging, and was the victim of a serious logging accident, breaking her right ankle badly. The bone was unable to set and today her ankle is enlarged and irregularly shaped.
After this injury, she was unable to work in the industry and sold to a new owner as a breeding elephant. She was chained to a tree and a bull in musth was chained next to her. According to Elephant Nature Park, under normal conditions he might not have taken an interest in her, but in this case, he attacked her and mounted her. Medo collapsed under his aggression and laid there for two days, until the bull was able to be removed.
But, the damage was already done.
The teenage elephant had a dislocated spine and broken pelvis.
Today, it is impossible to miss her gait and how she can hardly place weight on one of her legs.
But, she is beautiful.
As we walk by Medo, I can’t take my eyes off of her. Her history and abuse run through my mind, and I smile, comforted by her being so close to me, knowing she is no longer going to face any harm.
When we finish our walk, I return to my room, speechless, breathless.