Travel Stories

Elephant Camp - Day 2

Elephant Camp – Day Two

The morning mist over the River Khan reminds me of every SE Asia war movie and all of the SE Asian war newsreel footage I have ever seen.  The villages we pass all look like My Lai, with thatched huts, squatting peasants, rice paddies and water buffalo.  I can hear the explosions and see the fires in this part of the world whose populations and geography proved far too resistant and vast to dominate, but not so vast they could not be tortured and torched, as extensive areas of them were.  Still, we live in a time of relative peace in SE Asia, Laos has been open to foreign tourism for fifteen or so years, and Sam and Loren, strong white unarmed twenty four year old American invaders lovingly and joyfully ride their elephants into the misty river that feeds the Mekong at dawn. 

Later in the morning we go to the very impressive waterfalls at Kwanzi, the summit of which proves to be so steep an ascent that Sam has to hold my hand and literally help pull me up the slippery footholds on the way to the top of the falls.  Like the elephants, I place each foot down with great care and precision. 

It is odd to find myself a sweaty panting seventy year old man whose hand is being held by his twenty four year old son, who is literally helping pull him up a mountain: a little embarrassing, and far more real and necessary than symbolic, but symbolic, of course, and, of course, immensely moving.   At the summit Sam and I get a little lost and disoriented and I remark about how comfortable we each seem, not wanting to jinx ourselves, but also wanting to explicitly note the moment.   It is here that Sam declares he wants to return to live in Chiang Mai to teach, and whether that happens or not seems to me to be no more important than the fact of his declaration.

We stop at a Hmong village on the way back to EC.  It is pathetic.  Sam calls these tribal visits, where dozens of inevitably filthy kids and their mothers are hawking identical woven trinkets, to be his least favorite part of his trip.  Still, he actually engages the Hmong children, and while refusing to have his picture taken with them, is Pied Piper-like in his ability to evoke their genuine smiles, to ask their names, to high five with the small and the tall.  When I comment on his skills and gifts with children he says it is a benefit and a curse.

Back at Elephant Camp I am doing yoga at sunset when a thin tiger-stripped green eyed cat walks up the steps onto the deck of my bungalow and, with a dancer’s precision, steps carefully on, over, and between my limbs, another creature watching his every footfall, who, as I lay down on my back, climbs up onto my stomach, lays down, and rides my in and out breaths, much as I rode the elephant’s neck and felt the rise and fall of her shoulders, much as I lay with my head on the tiger’s expanding and contracting rib cage listening to her breathing.  The cat lies on my abdomen as I lay on my back for a long period of time, each of us breathing slowly and rhythmically in and out.  And while I “know” this is “just” a stray cat, and an “accidental” visitor to the deck I am doing yoga on, I also see the cat as a spiritual guide who has come to remind me of something I need to be reminded of, to manifest something which I need to have made explicitly, perhaps about the experience of being visited - as the elephants and the tigers were visited by me - by a creature from another species who finds me gravitationally attractive, and/or about the ability of love to manifest itself, whether in cats, humans, tigers, elephants, tree branches that support old and young people as they climb and descend mountainous, butterflies in mountain leas covered with yellow flowers, butterflies at dung heaps, the slimy trails of land snails, the darting of fish, or the strong helping hands and hearts of our sons. 

The cat reminds me that it is simply undeniable we all emanate an energy that draws others to us, much as we are drawn to others: electronically, atomically, molecularly, and as a primary magnetic principle of the laws of physics and of spirit, one mass is gravitationally drawn towards another mass, that is simultaneously gravitationally drawn back in response to the other’s mass, ad infinitum.  The cat reminds me of the need, and of my desire, to watch my footsteps and to move consciously and mindfully, not as a caution, but as a manifestation of my reverence about life, and the breath of life as manifest even by mountains and stones, who just have more subtly manifest and slower respiration rates than we.  And as I write these words in the dark still night a stray bullock wanders near the bungalow, the bells hung around its neck to help locate it when lost ringing like the bells rung in temples, clattering like chimes blowing in the wind breathed through the temples, commanding that I respond to the messages and the manifestations of spirit everywhere, to feel and to know their call as they welcome me, and are drawn to me, and as I am drawn to them.  Listen, they say.  Bend your knee.  Sohng!  We have pulled on your ear and already mounted you.  Now go!  Pbai!