“Ele poo! Look out, ele poo!” Jack screams as we wade into the rushing water, elephants at our side.
Sure enough, there are huge balls of elephant poo floating by our legs.
It’s like the elephants just hold it until they hit their own, big rushing river toilet.
Before we get into the water, we are given little black buckets and told how to wash the elephants. Basically, stick the bucket into the river water, fill it up, then throw the water on them.
And, that is exactly what we do.
I’m standing next to one of the elephants … really close, and filling up the bucket of water and tossing it over her head. Onto her back.
There’s water coming at me from all sides. Not only is our volunteer group bathing these girls, but the visitors to the park are in the water, too. Groups of about five or 10 concentrate on an elephant. Within a minute of getting into the water, I am properly drenched.
I watch as the elephant I’m helping bathe blinks each time the water splashes into her face. Then, she sticks her trunk into the river and sucks up water, flings her trunk over her head, and shoots it onto her back.
Clearly, these elephants are able to clean themselves, but they stand there and patiently let us get our time with them. What makes me even happier? I swear, the elephants look like they are smiling huge smiles that rival ours.
For 10 minutes, I dunk, toss and repeat. It never gets old. Each time, I give myself a reality check between dodging the floating poo.
Standing in a river. In Thailand. With elephants.
“OK, you need to get out of the water now, Hope is coming with his girlfriend,” Jack warns us, ushering us out of the murky brown, poo-filled water and onto the bank of the river. “Go upstairs and watch from the sky deck.”
The volunteers have heard about Hope. He’s been with Lek and the park since he was a baby and his mother died. Lek has spent a lot of time with the boy, who the staff refers to as “naughty” since he is going through musth and all about the lady elephants these days.
He’s also a part of the future of the park. Hope, who used to have a bell around his neck so people would know when the mishcevious little boy was around, is being trained using positive reinforcement. He is fortunate enough to never have been put through the crush. Instead, he learns tricks by being rewarded with heaps of fruit.
We all stand at the deck as Hope and his girlfriend make their way into the water.
The two walk together into the middle of the river, their huge bodies barely noticing the rushing water. Then, Hope dunks himself, rolling onto his side.
The group of volunteers, the day-trippers, we all let out giggles and “ooohs” and “aaahhhhs” as the two elephants spend five minutes dunking and rolling around in the water.
On cue, the two emerge from the water and its time for Hope to show off his tricks. With mahout at his side, he walks up to little buckets placed strategically below the sky deck. He sticks his trunk into the water, sucks it up, and then shoots it up at us.
Squeals of delight.
He eagerly takes the bananas from his mahout’s hand and shoves them into his mouth.
Then, he kicks his legs to the side and is rewarded with more bananas.
It’s heart-warming. And inspiring.
Once Hope heads back to graze, the large elephant family comes down to meet visitors. They stand in the grass, munching on bananas and other fruits, and one-by-one, people get their photo taken with one of the baby elephants who has learned to give trunk kisses in exchange for food.
A person stands next to her, then the long trunk snakes its way to the face, landing somewhere — anywhere on the face — and leaving little dirt marks. Then, the trunk finds its way into the caregiver’s hands and bounty of fruits.
We stand watching for a few minutes, until Jack once again, herds us inside.
“It’s time to get your rooms!” He announces.
At first, I don’t want to leave them. I could watch them eat, fling dirt on their backs to cool off, rub against the wooden posts scratching themselves, dip into the water, stand around doing nothing, all day. Then, I remember I am here a week. And, this is just my first few moments with them.
Baths, feeding, caring for them … it all awaits and will unfold in the next six days.