Friday, August 18, 2006

The Elephant Story I Promised

Catch-up entry: Haridwar, last Tuesday (Aug 15).

We read in the Lonely Planet about this tour place called Mohan's Adventure Tours. It sounds pretty good, and there's a great national park nearby with Tigers, Leopards, Deer, and a whole bunch of other stuff. In peak season you can also ride one of two elephants, but that's not til the winter and most of the park is actually closed right now.

So we go in the morning and set up a tour for 2:30. Sanjeev doesn't actually show until 3:30 (miscommunication?) but it gives us time to have lunch. We pile into this jeep-like thing and set off down the road, chatting to Sanjeev while the questionable driver mashes the pedals and dodges rickshaws, motorcyles, pedestrians, cows. Turns out Sanjeev used to be a rally car racer, and also does all kinds of nature photography and documentaries, even some music video and feature film location scouting/booking/logistics. We talk and talk.

We get out of town a little ways, toward the park, and come across some monkeys, which are cute (these monkeys are not threatening; a few days later we will meet some that are). We stop (violently) to take pictures.

We get into the park area and pull up by the park ranger's place. There are a couple of staff and they guy that runs the place. Sanjeev has to talk to them for a minute. They're talking, and we're standing, and it crosses my mind that (1) the park is supposed to be closed at this time of year and that (2) bringing cameras is supposed to incur an additional charge.

This is when I begin to realize that Sanjeev Mehta is a serious pimp. We enter.

We trek along for a while, passing an outlandish number of cannabis plants (this is the Himalayas, where it all started), and come out into a developed garden area. We're told this is the park's nursery. A baby elephant is grazing there. I think Sanjeev said it was 5 years old, but it was still a good 5 or 6 feet tall. It was left behind by the herd a few years ago, and Sanjeev has been taking care of it since then, getting it ready for its release back into the wild.

It has a chain around its foot, which I realize later in a brief moment of worry (as it mysteriously trots towards me) is only attached to a small weight. As it starts to munch on some bamboo, a gardener cries out in protest. Apparently Sanjeev has rented out this governmental park nursery for his elephant, and from the looks of things the gardener's words are a tired, futile last effort at preservation.

The elephant is cute for a while and then we leave.

On our way back we stop at a bridge for the main event, as much an absurd human comedy as a wildlife safari. Every night, a pair of elephants crosses this road bridge to return to their sleeping grounds after grazing. Sanjeev asks a local if they have been by yet. They haven't, so we wait. Sure enough, we can soon make out a large ear hiding behind some brush on the opposite side of the bridge. The scene is set.

Enter four guys on two motorcycles, speeding around the bend. They don't notice a local motioning for them to stop, and they continue across the bridge. As they reach the curve at the other side, they skid to a halt. One of the passengers falls off. They scramble to turn the bikes around (or, in the unfortunate passenger's case, chase after his friends and remount), and tear back across the bridge, swearing at what is now a small crowd of amused onlookers for not warning them.

This is repeated with a car and two large trucks. One of the trucks stays parked at the far end of the bridge, hoping that the elephants will leave or pass. Sanjeev intervenes, explaining to the driver that the elephants will deposit him and his cargo into the waiting river without much trouble.

Elephants are really, really big.

The crowd manages to get traffic under control as the elephants slowly make their trek. Sanjeev keeps an eye on our position, making sure we don't get too close. After they are gone, he tells us a story:

A few years ago, his brother's friend (we'll call him Vladimir) was in town and really wanted to go check out the elephants. Sanjeev was busy and didn't want to take him, but Vladimir persisted. So Sanjeev buckled and agreed to take him, and they trapsed off into the forest with tripod and XL1 in tow. As they were setting up, Sanjeev began to feel uncomfortable and, knowing that his instincts are never wrong, carefully scanned their surroundings.

He found the elephants they'd been looking for. A group half a dozen strong had them surrounded, staked out from about a hundred metres away in each direction (apparently this is, for an elephant, a stakeout). The pair made break for it, but by the time they had cleared the distance to the edge of the brush by the water, one elephant was already on their original position, trumpeting and stamping the ground.

It approched them. Sanjeev was mortally terrified, but Vladimir was worse. Both men tried to stay perfectly still - elephants have poor eyesight and it's difficult for them to make out shapes without motion.

But Vladimir, in his foresting inexperience, wasn't quite still enough. The elephant charged and gored him in seconds. Sanjeev remained perfectly still. Soon, the elephant charged off to bring his friends along. Knowing he would soon return, Sanjeev grabbed his camera and bolted.

He came to a road, on which a close friend of Sanjeev's happened to be passing. This friend also happened to be a judge or a high-ranking politician or something. Sanjeev's friend alerted authorities, and assured them that Sanjeev was trustworthy and that there had been no foul play. Sanjeev and the police drove down in a jeep and used drums and horns to scare away the elephants, but they found Vladimir quite dead.

Later, Vladimir's grandmother told Sanjeev a story. She knew more of the Hindu details than I remember and can reproduce here. A small, beautiful bird was chilling at the gates of heaven. Another animal, one of the god's chariots, was looking on. Gods kept entering and remarking on the bird's beauty, but the Death God didn't happen to notice the bird, which is lucky since one glance from him dooms you to death.

The other animal (let's say he's a winged poodle) thinks maybe he should help the bird out and move him to safety, lest the death god see him when he re-emerges from his meeting in heaven. So the winged poodle drops the bird in a nice tree a few kilometers away. The death god comes out, and of course can't see the bird. But, as luck would have it, the bird died some other way in the tree a kilometer away.

When you're fated, you're fated. And sometimes you need a steward to bring you to the place where you're supposed to die.

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