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

There are at least eight ways to mount an elephant. Umadevi, with his raised, bent foreleg, is waiting for me to choose one. I decide to imitate the mahout’s moves at Rajakad: I place my bare foot on the elephant’s foreleg, grab his ear and the jute rope around his neck, and hurl myself up onto his broad shoulders. I’m so pleased I made it up there without needing a butt shove, I want to do it  again—but too late: The  five-ton beast is moving!

Riding an elephant bareback is like straddling a warm Volkswagen. I slide forward so my legs hug his neck. His hide is dry, rough and dotted with sprouts of coarse black hair. I look down at the colossal, double-domed head and hope ellies don’t suffer from migraines (as I do). He flaps his kite-size ears against my shins; I take this as an expression of happiness, like a wagging tail. If I could, I’d flap mine too. As we gracefully thump away from the busy road and across an open, grassy plain, the mahout walks beside us, giving Umadevi directions now and then. Elephants respond to more than 60 commands—more than many of my old boyfriends could, combined.

Just as I’ve downshifted enough to enjoy the patient elephant pace, the mahout gives me a command that seems to mean “Get down now and go away.” I slide down Umadevi’s side and say good-bye.

Four hours later, at Shaji V Kaveri House, I’m atop a 10-foot, freckle-faced tusker, and this time the ride is long enough for me to absorb some of that famous elephant wisdom—and get an incredible inner-thigh workout. This private reserve for tourists is home to 20 elephants, including an adorable four-month-old, all tended by 25 mahouts. You’re free to ride into the jungle, around the grassy field or down the village road, but always accompanied by a mahout.

I choose the jungle. It’s noisy with birdcalls and fragrant with jasmine. Moving at an elephant’s pace, I notice everything—though, happily, I have no idea where we are going. As we lope through huge green ferns and rubber plants, I slide down to the left and then to the right, with the elephant’s rising and falling shoulders. He’s not in any rush.

And, finally, neither am I.

Elisabeth Robinson is the author of The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters, a novel. 

First published in the June 2008 issue

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