Thursday, February 20, 2014

Elephant festival

I took a dusty ride out of Luang Prabang today to go see some elephants with three Frenchmen. Bounmee, a fat French carpenter who's been in Laos for 18 years, offered me a ride to Sayabuli to see the yearly Elephant Festival, and I thought, hell, I might be leaving soon; I'll sneak away. We picked up his two French apprentices/assistants, Hugo and Phillipe, and hit the road for a journey that used to take perhaps more than ten hours but now takes two, thanks to a new (mostly) paved road and a new bridge over the Mekong.
It was a new stretch of road for me, but it brought back the same old Laos--electric green rice paddies, dust-covered jungle in the area where the road wasn't paved, blue green mountains looping over each other in the distance, separating to give glimpses of thatched roofs and gardens in the valleys in between. The occasional wait while a truck huffed its way up the hill; the ladies in sins hunkering down discreetly in a ditch by the side of the road while they had the chance. Black eyes looking out from cloth covered faces in the backs of trucks; men in shorts walking along the road with baskets of fish. Beauty and life and choking dry season grit, everywhere.
In Sayabuli we visited Bounmee's wife's family and his young daughter and ate some raw water chestnuts and some other slightly sweet, crunchy vegetable shaped like a small turnip. Then we went to see the place the festival will be held. There are elephants here already, chained to trees in a field that spreads along the river, overlooked by the town's main road. Just before sunset, while men and women and children bathed in the river in small clumps, the elephants joined them. One by one, the mahouts shouted the big, brown, slow moving creatures down to the water and urged them in. Most of the mahouts switched at the water's edge, ordering the elephant to lower its head so a fully clothed man could jump off while one already undressed, already wet and bathing, could scramble on, stepping up the elephant's hard skull to ride them then into the water and back out.

Yesterday I rode an elephant for the first time in all my years here. I climbed up one of the wooden platforms built onto the trees growing along the river and, holding the mahout's hand, took a step out into the air and onto a broad brown back and then a howdah mounted across massive shoulders. The elephants shoulders rolled as he walked, rocking us back and forth on the bamboo seat. It was a bigger thrill than it should have been, elephants walking down the street being almost no big deal to me now, looking in their long-lashed eyes being almost something unremarkable. But it was so exciting, swinging back and forth, tied front and back but not side to side, high, high up off the ground on a very big animal being controlled by a very small man. It was just delightful. And a little guilty as well—I don't like seeing elephants chained; I don't think the life of a working elephant, even a healthy one, is better than being in the wild. There's always the guilt.

On day two was the main festival and the elephant bassi. By ten am the stadium field was baking. Children wearing western long-sleeved jackets to keep the sun off their skin hung off their mothers' backs, black bangs plastered to their foreheads, beaded with sweat. I was glad for my hat.

First it was the ethnic group parade and dance, and then one by one the elephants, about 65 of them, paraded in, carrying people or sometimes bags of rice. I don't know if the people riding were high officialdom or just folks who paid a premium. Maybe there's not much difference sometimes. Some of the mahouts blew on strange open horns, making a sound like a strong, musical wind. Some elephants walked almost without any direction. Other mahouts kept the handles of their hooks pressed into the tops of the elephants heads.

The main elephants took their places around a huge bassi cone—I don't know what these things are called, but they're huge banana leaf cones studded with marigolds and other flowers standing on big plates filled with sweets. Sticking out from the cone are sticks with white string hanging from them—the strings will be tied on bassi participants as a blessing. A shaman chanted into a microphone in a monotone, wishing for food and children and money and falling rain and health and enough room to live and lots of other things for the elephants and for Sayabuli province while the elephants bowed and were linked one by one to the string and the rest of us stood quietly in the sun.

After the elephant bassi, after finding Bounmee and his wife and daughter, after they took an elephant ride and got a photo printed, after we ate some sticky rice and papaya salad and watched hanggliders parachute into the stadium, hundreds and hundreds of people were still streaming back into town. The only way out was across a small river over which two rickety bamboo bridges had been quickly installed that morning. They hung only about a foot over the water--so there was no loss of life when, as I watched, coming down the hill on my way to the river, several flimsy panels of woven bamboo buckled and sunk under the weight of the 25 people shoving their way across.
By the time I got to the first bridge, the bottleneck was huge. I hung on as long as I could in the heat and the dust, flanking my two French friends who'd been given the task of transporting a giant stroller (the other Frenchman's baby had gone ahead without it). But I couldn't take it anymore--the crowd and the waiting and the sun--and I saw that people were still crossing the broken bridge, though fewer. Two thirds of it was still up, after all! You just had to, you know, sort of slide your way down the slippery bamboo into the water up to your knees, not be knocked over by the current, not put your eye out on the bamboo railing that was now hovering around head height, clamber up the cracked, wet, completely unstable bamboo on the other side, and Bob's your uncle.

So yes, I ended up with a cold current (that felt so good) nearly knocking me over, trying to balance on the remnants of a bridge that had already proven itself not at all up to the task of getting people from one shore to the next. And surrounded by people who also thought crossing a broken bridge would be a grand idea--so clearly not in the best company. But I made it! I don't know what the lesson is there. Patience, ok, but that's easy. And I DID make it across. And I DID get in the water, which is what I was dying to do. So...go your own way, even if it's weird and dangerous? Or, sometimes a bridge is just a bridge? I don't know.

Afterward, I sat around with my friend's Lao family and watched kids running around and worried whether I'm now some kind of cautionary tale in Lao, or some object of pity. Then I wondered if I'm actually an object of suspicion, having been, without knowing it, a mia noi for quite a long time in LP. I don't suppose a mia noi on the loose is exactly the person you want around your family, right? Then I got teary behind my sunglasses and thought that I really should spend more time thinking about what I have than what I don't have, and realized that's a lot of things. I got to see a baby elephant drink milk from a bottle, for one.

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