It was barely dawn. I was on a weekend tour in Mondulkiri with Cambodian friends, Kimsore and Sopheap, along with their NGO colleagues. It was a staff retreat, and I was included since I was staying in Phnom Penh as my friends’ houseguest. I was soon reminded why I hated tours and preferred to travel alone. The knocking started at 6:15 a.m. “Madam, are you ready?” asked an unknown voice. “Ou-tee!” I shouted “no” in Khmer from under the covers. I punched an indentation in the pillow, turned over, and closed my eyes. More knocking. “Madam, may I take your suitcase?” “No, not ready.” The knocking switched to banging on the door. “Madam, can you come on bus #2? You can change your bus when we are at the restaurant.” Throwing off the covers and resigning myself to getting up, I responded, “Yes, yes, I can. Aut panyaha, no problem.”
No coffee in the quiet of my bed, alone in semi-darkness. No caffeine to work its magical opening of my vascular system and starting my body to function properly. By the time I got outside, bus #1, not #2, was waiting for me. If anyone was angry about having to wait for their breakfast, there was not a clue on their smiling faces. After all, I was the guest, the founder of the NGO, the g-d mother of their bosses! The children smiled up at me shyly—not sure whether I was completely human, given my pale skin and light hair. Their gazes reminded me of how I look at chimpanzees in the zoo—recognizing something human in their faces and behaviors.
However, once breakfast was finished, I left the tour. Sopheap and Kimsore had arranged for the three of us to visit an ethnic indigenous people’s village to ride elephants through the lush mountain jungles on a full-day trip. For the first half of our trek, I rode in the small cradle on the elephant’s back, but on our return to the village, I sat atop the goliath’s head. I could feel his shoulders move rhythmically under my butt as he plodded slowly along the jungle path! I was Queen of the Hill—Angelina Jolie on an adventure to find ancient treasures. I was at least eight feet off the ground, the chill mountain air kissing my face and cooling my body. It felt good to be out of the small riding basket that cramped my legs, put my feet to sleep, and hurt my already painful knees that were tired and sore from having used Asian squat toilets for days.
Suddenly I pitched forward. The slope of the terrain changed, and the big, one-hundred-year-old beast started down a small slope. I leaned forward with no saddle, no stirrups, and not even a halter to hold on to. I screamed for Kimsore to hold my shirt. He hollered back that it wouldn’t help. I stopped breathing as I imagined myself toppling over and getting crushed under the large feet of the plodding beast.
“Carole, come back to the basket,” Kimsore called out. “What? Stand up while we are going downhill?—Are you crazy?” No, but I must be crazy, at seventy years old, to ride on an elephant in the jungle! What was I thinking? I was stuck, too terrified to turn around to climb back into the safety of the basket. The mahout, the elephant driver, motioned for me to move further down onto the head of the elephant, where there was a natural indentation between the shoulders and the skull. I inched forward, repeating a single mantra: breathe, just breathe. Kimsore let go of my shirt, so I tried to hold on to the tough leathery skin but couldn’t gain any purchase. Eventually, I sucked in the cold air, straightened my back, and rode! Although it felt like forever, it was more likely just a few minutes until the ground evened out, flat and easy. I was okay, perched solidly upon the big beast’s head. I rode into the village more alive than I could remember.
The tour got me to Mondulkiri, my friends got me to the village, and the elephant took me on an adventure of a lifetime.