Learning To Be A Mahout – The Rest of the Story
Our first glimpse of the elephants saw them all hard at work. Several were already carrying tourists on bench saddles belted to their back like a horse. Others were munching on green leaves set in front of them. They too were ready to be ridden with a saddle already attached. One at a time the mahout (elephant trainer) commanded their elephant to walk to the platform where eager foreigners waited for a ride. “Okay.” I heard someone say to the next tourist in line as he tilted his head toward the elephant as if to said ‘it was his turn’ to get on.
Each tourist carefully grabbed the side of the bench and placed each foot near the front shoulder of the elephant before sitting down. I could see a look of gratefulness across each face as they realized they had “made it” without falling between the fifteen foot platform and the elephant beside it.
A large tour bus parks nearby and at least twenty people are lead to the stairway going up to the small platform.
“Okay, we need to split you into groups.” My attention is redirected back to our guide. “Everyone who signed up for the ride and the river kayak stand over there.” This is the point we realized that most of the new faces we met on the shared minivan ride would not be with us the rest of the day. Only four of us had signed up to learn how to be a mahout for a day. A teacher and baker from Ireland, an engineer from Germany and myself.
We were lead away from the elephants to change into our official mahout uniforms and to learn about asian elephants. This included learning the commands we would need when working with the elephants later in the day.
Every elephant has one mahout which always works with the same elephant. It is clear to see that the pair have a very close bond. Elephants have terrific memories and I would come to learn that each has a very different personality.
I was very lucky with my first elephant/mahout pairing. “Don’t worry. She is very gentle.” The main tour guide said to me as I reached to get on the bench on top of my elephant. I would find that her mahout was likewise very a gentle soul.
I was glad that this seat had a bar that fitted across the front of the bench. When I had ridden an elephant in Thailand, years earlier, I remember holding on to the back of a similar bench with both arms when going down a steep hill. I felt steady with the wooden bar in front of me. “This is much better. I am not going to slide off this bench with this bar to push back on.” I thought to myself.
Within a few minutes of leaving the platform my mahout, Sing, pointed at the bar. “You want bar?” He seemed to nod, “Okay, here you go.” I handed the bar to Sing as he motioned for me to scoot over. I moved to the left on the bench and he hopped up beside me. “Who is going to drive this thing?” I said looking over to him. Sing pointed for me to get on the elephant. I was realizing that the commands I had learned earlier that day were all the common words between us but we seemed to communicate just fine.
One foot after another I crawled on Tahoot. She was steady as walking on granite. I was immediately comfortable. Sing motioned for me to move my hands forward on the top of her head. It seemed more comfortable so I figured it was the proper position. I looked back to see Sing’s face and determine how I was doing. Sing had replaced the wooden bar across the bench and was curled up behind it, resting but keeping an eye on me. I figured I must have been doing okay for him to be so relaxed.
The elephants in front of us were not being as compliant. The other mahouts were having to assist and prod their elephants to move. Hubert’s elephant was being particularly difficult. Turning the wrong way, stopping to eat at whatever looked greenest and deciding to halt and not budge an inch at times.
I was able to use several commands to stop, move to right or left around the others and go at will. The others used “ya, ya” several times which means “no, no.” I was glad I never had to do that with Tahoot.
Next thing I knew, Sing was off the bench and assisting the other mahouts. He walked beside Hubert’s elephant.
Tahoot and I were the last to reach the top of a steep downward incline. “Emma, do I need to do anything differently?” Emma, the teacher from Ireland had just went down the hill. “Your elephant will do everything. Just squeeze you legs together and lock you elbows.”
Emma watched from her elephant. Upon making it down the hill she said. “Good job.” She looked over to my mahout busy with Hubert’s elephant and added, “I guess they don’t think you need any help.”
From that point on Tahoot and I were bonded and I completely trusted her. I could see that Sing looked back every one in a while and it was clear I had his nod of approval.
In the late afternoon they assigned us to a different elephant team. I was not excited to leave Tahoot but I guess they wanted us to have different experiences. I am glad I was assigned to Tahoot and Sing first as I was able to build my confidence with such a calm elephant and encouraging trainer.
My second pairing was not as delightful. Both the elephant and mahout had a cantankerous streak. For example, I wanted the elephant to stop, to leave a “‘little personal space” (2-3 feet) between us and the next elephant and my mahout would command him to go budging right up to the other elephant. I would tell the elephant to go left down the stream and the elephant choose to go right up the embank on a narrow pathway. “Okay, not the way I wanted but that works too.” I told the elephant who was not paying much attention to me.
When we reached the river for his afternoon bath I found that the elephant and the mahout were paying attention. I am now positive that they conspired together to have some fun at my expense.
I gave the command to spray and my elephant completely dunked giving me a bath. I looked behind me and my mahout was standing up and balancing on the only part of the elephant not in the water. I thought, “He had to know that the elephant was going to do that to know stand on the back of the elephant before he went under the water.” Next, my mahout had the elephant walk right behind another elephant going to the bathroom and commanded her to dunk again. The elephant, which had a habit of doing what he pleased, was quick to comply. All I could do was cover my mouth and hold on. Now I knew that they were on the same wavelength….And possessed same personalities.
I seemed to pass some initiation because after that my second mahout and elephant seemed to try harder to get along. (Though I must admit I made sure my mahout did not continue to stay dry after I was dunked the second time. Maybe he just decided to back off and get along.) At any rate, the new elephant and I finally bonded and I realized that elephants, like humans, have strong nonverbal skills, unique personalities and can have a stubborn streak….But in the end, given enough time, it is hard not to become attached even to the most difficult.