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.
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.
“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.
“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.
The moment of truth
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.