Our guide, Raju, straddled the elephant’s neck and barked commands only she could understand as we — a 60-ish British couple, an 18-year old German girl, and I — lumbered into the formidable jungle of Chitwan National Park in western Nepal.
We perched splay-legged and back-to-sweaty-back at each corner of a wooden box-like structure which was fastened to the elephant like a stiff saddle. I adored this old girl with the wiry spiky black hair, weathered and highly mottled skin, and expressive eyes that appeared to have lived many lives.
Raju told us she was 45 years old. He’d been her trainer since he was 13 years old (he was now 35), and her name, he said, translated to “mean old lady” in the local Nepalese dialect, which drew a chuckle from all of us.
The jungle, with its mossy aroma, was at times interrupted by illuminated open fields of tall, feathery elephant grass, and cool rivers, where the elephants of our touring herd stopped to splash and have a drink before being urged onward.
Back among the vines and brush, while shielding our faces from thwack-ing tree branches and peeling off spider webs we’d been enveloped in, I asked what was usually a pretty safe question for 35-year old men in Asia. “So, Raju, are you married? Do you have children?”
Raju shuddered comically, and patted the neck of his elephant. “She my wife. I don’t want real wife. Too expensive.” When we prodded him jokingly to explain why a wife was too expensive, he suddenly became very serious and solemn and began to fervidly explain.
He was the oldest of 16 children in his family. He had wanted to go to school, and so had several of the other older children. But his parents, simple farmers, told them it was too much money to send them all. And because there was no way to choose only a few, his father declared that none of them would go.
Instead of going to school, Raju was sent away as a young boy to became an elephant trainer. He loves his elephant and enjoys meeting foreigners on the tours, but the job pays a measly 8,000 rupees, or $75 USD per month (he’s allowed only 4 days off every year). Almost all of the money has to be sent to his family, who live a four-hour bus ride away, to help feed his younger brothers and sisters. He has no land or livestock or house of his own. His life is indentured to his parents and family.
This, he told us, is why a wife is out of his price range, and out of the question. So he always says he doesn’t want one anyway.
An awkward silence ensued among us Westerners. All four of us happened to be in the middle of an approximately one-year stint of traveling and seeing the world. Our lives suddenly seemed unreasonably bejeweled and gilded.
How utterly unfair that was.
During this past month, the seventh month of my journey, I’ve traveled from Nepal to Cambodia to Indonesia.
The more I see of the world, the more magnificent it appears to me. As the late artist (and acquaintance of mine) Susan O’Malley wrote:
“It will be more beautiful than you could ever imagine.”
And it is. It truly is. Sometimes the beauty in this world hits you like a sucker-punch to the soul, just coming at you with unimaginable force out of nowhere. There is so much of it that it short-circuits my brain to try to comprehend, like attempting to conceptualize infinity.
However, traveling for so long in countries outside of the West has also, little by little, flicked on “reality” switches in dusty, never-before-used tunnels of my mind.
The doors to the tunnels may have been fleetingly cracked open here and there by the odd news cast, National Geographic magazine article, or skeletal-African-children/Sally Struthers infomercial, but I’ve never truly entered the tunnels.
Now I’ve stumbled fully inside — and my Western blinders are no good here.
The Earth is so beautiful. But it’s also a world of hideous truths.
There are places where the air quality is so poor that walking down the street for two blocks makes your throat and lungs burn. Where a town’s river is polluted to the point of reeking like a sewer, and the water is beyond undrinkable but people are forced to bath in it anyway. Where mountains of trash cover every open scratch of land because the government can’t afford (or refuses) to offer trash collection.
Where there are people living practically on top of one another, fighting for limited resources. Where a person’s next meal is not a given.
Where women are thought of as low as the animals, and are mired in harmful, hateful and demeaning age-old traditions.
Where education is an often unattainable luxury.
This new reality I’ve stepped into causes me to think very deeply about how fortunate I am.
By sheer dumb luck, I was born in a time and in a country where, without question, I could go to school, then to university, get a good job, earn enough money to travel, and see all of this endless splendor.
In our rich countries, we’re given the opportunity to choose from a million different paths in life. We’re offered the resources to be successful and to make something of ourselves. We get to develop our talents, dream up amazing goals, find the things we love and turn them into jobs that fulfill us and pay our bills. We get to have cars and houses and gadgets and internet, unlimited access to food and clean water — and yes, we can have spouses and children, if we choose.
Nothing is stopping us.
So. The tunnels are open. Reality is flowing like a winding river through fog-laced jungle. What will I do with all of this reality? Will it make things different when I finally return from exploring the nooks and crannies and enormous, spectacular spaces of our planet? Will I recall it with the memory of an old elephant whose wise, deep eyes seem to have lived many lives before? Will I find a way to honor a kind elephant trainer, and the millions like him, who’ve never had the opportunities I have?
Stay tuned for upcoming stories and photographs from my next destination: India!
Categories: My Wanderings: Month-in-Reviews