My choice for Ailsa’s Unexpected challenge shouldn’t be unexpected, given my absolute and undiminished delight in unexpected encounters with elephants. You mayl recall the story of my first out-and-about elephant sighting – of the dizzying realisation that the grey mass up ahead was an elephant; my delight at what appeared to be its nonchalance as it negotiated the afternoon traffic into Galle that afternoon; and the wonderment at its size, relative to the tuk tuk in which R and I were riding. I’ve posted this image before, but since it was my first sighting, it must lead the parade:
My next sighting, some hours later, was far less enchanting, and was, in fact, the only time I ever saw an elephant having a hard time of it in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t that the animal was being mistreated, I don’t think, but rather in the way it was being spoken to – or commanded. At the time I felt – as you can see from my indignant caption – that the animal was labouring because of its handler, a sense that was borne out by my observations during later encounters, particularly the masterclass we received watching an elephant loading logs onto a truck. Just imagine rounding a bend and seeing this up ahead:
I won’t subject you to a litany of every sighting – impossible, in any case, since I didn’t always have a camera to hand, or be in a position to pull over and take a photograph (it’s most inconsiderate how public transport doesn’t cater to the whims of elephant-mad passengers!). Back in the mid-to-late 90s, particularly, I’d see them wherever I went on the island. Mo and I were stopped in our tracks one afternoon as an elephant came surging up onto the road after its bath in the river below. At certain times of day, especially around Kandy, you’d almost routinely see them down at the river, lolling about like half-submerged boulders, luxuriating in their bath. Off exploring, or visiting friends upcountry, I’d see them, keeping well to the side of the road, mahout perched on top, on their way to a perahera, or some auspicious occasion, sometimes moving logs, often carrying dinner.
The first time I went up to Kandy for the Perahera – it must have been ’95, back in the days before security concerns restricted access to certain areas – I was charmed to see the city’s parks and fountains turned into stables, bathrooms and dressing yards. I’ll never forget the evening I came across elephant bath time at the fountain at Palace Square (the scan’s from a battered print – sorry about the faded blow-out).
Subsequent visits to the fountain have provided unique insights into the niceties of elephant ablutions, and though my last visit was probably not as enchanting as the artlessness of my first, it was still unfettered. Can you imagine being able to walk right up to an elephant in a city square? This time I didn’t though, since the fellow was unchaperoned (the mahout you see is actually bathing the elephant he’s looking at, to the left) but instead approached with care, talking reassuringly to it , seeking permission to move in for a close-up, being careful not to invade his personal space.
A while later, through the fence on the other side of the cathedral, I had an extraordinary view of one elephant’s beautiful clean feet.
Walking around the fence to get a better look at the commodious King Street bathing precinct, I found the owner of those beautiful clean feet. I still can’t stop grinning at the palpably febrile grasping of his ‘finger’ as he lay there sucking up gallons of cool clean water.
The most unexpected of my unexpected encounters, though, was with an elephant I recognised. I’d seen it some years previously, coming back to the city with Mo, and there it was again, part of a perahera we’d stumbled into on one of my Farewell Trips. I really can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about its luxuriant tail hairs, or its gait, that sparked my sense of recognition, but incredibly I did, a sense that was immediately confirmed when I saw the shock of white hair of its mahout, walking as he always did, at the animal’s shoulder. The sense of completion this unexpected encounter gave me still brings tears to my eyes (oh dear, what a sentimental thing I’ve become!).