I grew up admiring elephants. My mother's father drove Mrs. Fleischacker, the original benefactor family of the San Francisco Zoo. My mother told me stories of riding in the back of Fleischacker's big, black Lincoln and my grandfather wearing a chauffeur's uniform. Mrs. F liked my mother and asked her to ride along on visits to the zoo, and one day she gave my mother a tiny, carved jade elephant. That elephant still sits on my dresser.
At the zoo, elephants were always my favorite animal. Gentle giants that learned tricks but were tethered by heavy chain bracelets.
I went to India to ride an elephant. I sat in a one of those worn teak benches they strap to an elephant's back, padded by blankets. All day long tourists ride up a hill on a tired, hot elephant. When I bought the photos of our ride, my driver was checking the messages on his cell phone. I felt sorry for all of us. Mostly the elephant.
And then I went to Africa, and at dawn I heard the rumble of thick brush being trampled and in the soft pink light on the Serengeti, an elephant herd appeared.
The leader, a huge male, roared to tell us, "Your fancy jeep is too close, move back so my family can eat." And we did.
Last year, I went to Thailand, which was my husband's dream vacation. A local tour guide told us about the "Spend the Day with An Elephant" excursion. I was in.
Under a thatched roof built for shade stood Ponti. She was 43, and I'm 60. I liked her immediately; her black eyes, big bottom, and I was told she liked to get the job done.
If you know me, you'd know that could easily be me in a nutshell. Obviously, we were meant to be.
My Mahut, (an elephant wrangler), was a tiny Thai boy who spoke not one word of English. I called him Carlo. It only made sense if my elephant's name was Ponti.
After changing into my elephant camp couture complete with hat and shoulder bag, there was a five-minute training course on how to ride an elephant.
I will summarize the training for you, although not by much: Climb up the elephant and don't fall off. John, who owns the elephant conservation and reserve, assures you that the elephants are smart. Well, I glad one of us was.
Ponti bends down and I crawl up her leg and hoist myself over her very broad back. I'm so glad I didn't have to see that. Without a rope, saddle or blanket, I tuck my knees into the warm cracks behind Ponti's ears. Her skin is tough like ancient shoes, and the hair on her head is short, black bristles. When I lean forward to center myself, I truly trust Ponti as she moves down the skinny, rocky path. I am surprised by the red poke marks from her hair on my palms.
In a short distance, I realize my breathing has changed. I have nothing else to do but ride this magnificent beast.
Ponti wants a snack. She eats all day, sleeps for only five to six hours a night, and loves the water. There are elephant snack vendors along the path on landings that are the perfect height for the elephants. A really old woman is selling sweet, little ice cream bananas and bundles of sugar cane. Lucky for us I have baht. I stuff as many clumps of bananas in my shoulder bag as I can, trying not to fall. I balance the bundle of sugar cane on my lap.
Not quite ready for this new element and feeling like we were doing so well, Ponti's trunk comes over her head and into my hands. It's an inch from my face and its center is pink, freckled, and demanding.
The sugar cane is gone in minutes. She gracefully grabbed the unpeeled stalks from me and stuffed them in her mouth.
A woman after my own heart, she is not shy about wanting the bananas either. In my family we would simply say with Italian pride, she likes to eat. Still in clumps and in their skins, the bananas disappear.
Her inquisitive trunk rolls over her head one more time as I murmur to her, "All gone Ponti, but we can get some more."
I shake her trunk with my hand to seal the deal.
We travel for hours to the river, stopping along the way for more snacks.
I tell Ponti not to worry, it's my treat.
Denise Vivaldo is the author of seven cookbooks, all available on Amazon.com, and adores all creatures, great and small. She would love if everyone would consider donating to the Wildlife Conservation Society.