Passage to India

Restless, impatient city girl Elisabeth Robinson treks the jungles of India to find the ride of her life—and lose her hurry-up self

by Elisabeth Robinson
India image
Photograph: Rob Howard

“Stop! Stop!”

My life is in the hands of a lovely but ancient Tamil who is driving south on National Highway 47 in Kerala, aiming, it seems, for every oncoming bus and bewildered cow while playing the horn like a musical instrument. I have a date with an elephant. But I’ve been stood up a few times already, so when I see one working by the road, I ask the driver to pull over.

In India, elephants are occasionally used as draft animals, helping to clear lumber. I watch this one as he drags a log with a rope attached to a bit in his mouth and then, using his trunk (and 150,000 muscles), hoists it onto the back of a truck. After that, conveniently, it’s lunchtime. The workers don’t seem to notice me, so I steal a moment with the elephant—his name, I learn, is Umadevi—under a cashew tree. I pet his trunk, feed him some palm fronds and look into his prehistoric eyes. I really want to hop on his back and take him for a ride.

No harm in asking.

I didn’t actually think the mahout (elephant keeper) would agree. He shouts in Malayalam what sounds like “Yourmamalama!” and Umadevi promptly and gallantly lifts and bends his foreleg, a living Babar offering his arm to a lady.

Now what?

Back to the beginning

I’m not sure why I’ve always wanted to ride an elephant. Maybe it has to do with being short. Or with my desire to bond with one of the oldest species on earth, the creature Aristotle believed “passes all others in wit and mind.” Magnificent, patient, powerful and bemused, if God were an animal—He’d be an elephant. In fact, in India, elephant-headed Ganesh is one of the most beloved Hindu deities (there are more than 330 million), the remover of obstacles.

A Ganesh figure sits on my desk, a gift from my brother to clear a path for my last transition, from film producer to writer. Now I know it’s time for another change. But this time, not professional. This transformation, I realize, must be attitudinal. I’m too impatient. I always want to be further along—in the grocery line and in life. I’m always in a rush to get somewhere . . . else.

So when my friend Francis Fry invites me to visit his family’s palace in Tamil Nadu, I instantly accept. India changes people, I’ve heard.

Paradise found

“This is coffee,” Francis says, pointing not to a Starbucks cup but a bush with clusters of red and green balls. I’m so happy to meet the plant my day depends on, I want to kiss every little berry. “And this is pepper.” He snaps off a clump of chartreuse beads from a vine that winds around a tall, branchless tree. I inhale the familiar, sharp aroma of another staple of my city life and think, the next time I use my pepper mill, I’ll remember this moment in the jungles of India.

The Frys’ Garden of Eden, named Rajakad, sits atop a mountain in the Western Ghats, the forested spine of Tamil Nadu, India’s southeasternmost state. About the size of Alabama, Tamil Nadu bursts with over 2,000 native wildlife and 5,000 plant species. On the two-hour drive from Madurai Airport, we shoot under towering palms of coconut and through banana plantations, alongside lime-green rice paddies and through dusty, hot towns jammed with traffic, people, tin-and concrete shops and temples.

Every day at Rajakad, something that looks like a mythical animal—or a Star Wars character—walks or flies by me: the greater racket-tailed drongo, black-faced monkeys, even a pangolin, an anteater I mistake for a giant artichoke.

But where are the elephants?

Not here, Francis says. There were elephants at Rajakad’s previous location, he explains. The elegant teak palace, which has paneled wood walls and columns, was built in 1730 for an Indian royal family. Francis’s father bought it in 1986 and later had it moved, plank by plank, to its current site. It’s a wonderful indoor-outdoor manor, with courtyards and shallow pools—all of which is beautiful, but the whole point of this trip was to chill on the back of an elephant.

First published in the June 2008 issue

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