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

“Don’t worry,” says Francis, who clearly doesn’t know me very well. “We can organize an elephant ride.” I’m skeptical and impatient, and I tell myself not to be.

The next day Rajakad is full of people from around the world, including Caroline Casey, a 36-year-old mahout from Ireland who is legally blind. (In 2001, Casey pursued her longtime dream of riding an elephant across India. She used the four-month trek as an opportunity to raise awareness and money for her new charity, the Aisling Foundation, which aims to change the way people view disability.)

That night we’re enjoying another feast prepared by Rajakad’s chef, Arul, when Robesh, the handsome, efficient estate manager, announces that an elephant from a neighboring coffee plantation will arrive shortly.

While we wait, surrounded by billions of stars, plants and animals, my New York impatience suddenly seems, well, pointless and puny. It’s a humbling perspective, and I sense that my attitude transition has already begun. Moments later, the largest land mammal on Earth emerges from the darkness. Ten feet tall, she’s hot and hungry from a day clearing lumber. While her trunk shoves palm fronds into her mouth, I place my hand on her warm belly and hear a low rumble from her chest. Do elephants purr? Casey explains it’s an expression of pleasure.

“Or displeasure,” she adds.

“How do you know which it is?”

“By what she’s doing. She’s eating. I’d say she’s happy.”

I notice the ellie’s foot has five toenails, which strikes me as an unexpected connection. I can’t wait to make a deeper one tomorrow, riding her through the jungle, back to her plantation.

But at dawn, she’s gone. I’m not sure why . . . something to do with licenses and work permits. Normally when I hear bad news like this, I refuse to rest until I figure something out. But this time I hang tight and believe it will all be fine. India is already teaching me how to trust in Ganesh.

And Robesh reassures me there will be more elephant ops in the southwestern state of Kerala, where Francis and I are headed in the morning. 

There for the ride

We spend our first day and night in Kerala floating along its famous backwaters. There are thousands of elephants in my midst, but somehow Francis convinces me to hop on a kettuvallam, a rice barge converted into a houseboat. The 500 miles of waterway existed here long before the roads, and they remain the state’s main thoroughfares. Houses sit on the strip of land between the rice paddies and the river. Men paddle to work; kids in school uniforms canoe-pool to class. Laundry is washed, teeth are brushed, children are bathed in the sun-dappled canal as we cruise by on our canti-levered, latticed boat. The ride feels blissfully long; we aren’t rushing to get anywhere else.

“Kind of how I imagine my elephant ride will be,” I nudge Francis. (Just because I’m learning the pleasures of patience doesn’t mean I’m not still persistent.) And so, a few days later, on the acacia-lined square in the city of Cochin, I show an elderly taxi driver a name and address on a piece of paper. It’s Shaji V Kaveri House, a camp Robesh found in Kovalam, where he promises an elephant is waiting for me. I ask the driver if he knows how to get there. He smiles and bobs his head. Neither a yes nod nor a no shake—more of a dip and a twist. It’s the preferred response around here, and it means “no problem.” It doesn’t mean there won’t be a problem, but right now there isn’t one. I get in.

The nice old guy doesn’t know how to drive, so I close my eyes and pray we don’t crash. When I find the courage to peek between my fingers, I see an elephant hoisting a log.

“Stop! Stop!”

The moment of truth

First published in the June 2008 issue

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