Thailand is awash with water. Fields have become lakes. Streams have become rivers – rushing torrents of water that pour from the northern mountains into the city of Bangkok. Crocodiles have been found in living rooms. The motorway has become a carpark. City roads have become canals, bathtubs have been converted to boats, mattresses into rafts. And this is where we have flown into, at 3pm on a humid Saturday afternoon, landing in the City of Angels that is drowning under the wrath of the monsoon Gods. The boys and I are good swimmers but not that good, so plans to explore Bangkok are abandoned and instead we head inland to the higher ground of Kanchanaburi.
In contrast to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok we find ourselves in a tranquil haven, surrounded by forests of banana plants and banyan trees. To balance the tranquility of this world however, I have the boys. Two days in, and already Orly has fallen into the river Kwae, cut his hand on a machete I told him not to touch, and stuck his finger in an electric fan. Dow has swallowed river water, vomited in the back of a tuk tuk and is still delighting in the drama of finding a leech on his shin. Food has been interesting, a chaotic game of roulette, never sure until its too late whether hot means just hot or spicy hot, which leaves Orly teary eyed and choking his mouthful back out onto the plate. Sleep has been equally interesting. The boys have insisted on sleeping with me and its been nights full of arms and legs, of shunting bottoms and soft snores.
But none of this is what this first week of travelling has predominantly been about. If I could sum it up what has moved, awed, terrified and seduced us most are the elephants; the land whales, the moon beasts with the crescent tusks. Without them Thailand would not be the country that it is today. They built it. Literally.
Ever since I began, elephants have been my favourite animal, from the bed time tales of A.A. Milne’s heffalumps, to the night I woke up in the African wilderness to find an elephant eating from the tree under which I slept. Loyally, steadfastly, they have not wavered from the top of my favourate animal list, and consequently this love has been passed down from mother to child. Yet not once in all my years of travelling, trekking doggedly through wilderness, rainforest and desert, in all my years of exhalting their praises, researching their plight, have I ever been able to touch one. Until now that is.
We saw our first elephant the night we got here, on the long drive away from the floods as we trundled our way through the traffic clogged roads. We had stopped by the side of the road, at a small ramshackle cafe for a cool drink of lime tea, when behind us a trumpeting sounded and out of the humid night air walked a young calf, led by its mahout. It walked right past us, its trunk curled like a saxophone, its India-shaped ears flapping like giant eyelashes, swatting away the noise, fanning away the heat. Two large baskets, laden with bamboo, hung on either side from the harness on its back. Chains locked around its ankles, rusted and heavy. Its tusks had been filed down, only a tip of ivory white peeking roughly above its jaw. It was a street elephant, a begging elephant, that did the rounds with its mahout, collecting money off unsuspecting tourists in exchange for the delight of feeding it. Sometimes these elephants work ten hour shifts, dehydrated and undernourished, despite the law which forbids it.
Now though we find ourselves in different territory, at The Elephant World Rescue Santuary, thirty two kilometres from the town of Kanchanaburi. We are greeted by Agnes, a dutch woman, with wild black hair, who came to Thailand to set up a nusery school, but on finding an elephant chained by the railway, raised the money to buy it and brought it to the sanctuary where they both ended up staying.
The boys are initially more interested in the five kittens that have just been born, rescuing them from an exuberant three year old girl who has already killed one of the family’s chickens with her over zealous love. But very soon they are helping me prepare balls of sticky rice for the older elephants who no longer have any teeth, and cannot therefore chew the bamboo leaves they would usually feed on.
Armed with our rice balls we all march down to the river and are there confronted by the sight of nine elephants grazing peacefully in the shorter grasses.
“What is her name?‚” I ask Agnes, as one of the huge beasts silently approaches.
“Somboon.” she replies. “It means Completely. She was rescued from an elephant camp, made to work ten hour days, carrying tourists on her back, actually the place which cannot hold much weight. She is fifty seven years old now.”
Orly is afraid and hides behind me, but Dow is all eagerness, at the age of eight striving to be a boy-man. I step forwards, my palm outstretched towards her. Somboon steps back, sways away from me. I watch her trunk stirring up the dust, as if doodling on a blank page. It’s the snout I want to touch, the elephant’s hand. She can pull trees from the earth with that snout, can douse for water. She could uncork a bottle with it, pick up a pin. The Aryans of the first millennium called the elephant Mrigi Hastin, the beast with a head-finger. As if to demonstrate, she coils her snout around a banana and fusses with it until it rests exactly as she wants it before scooping it up into her mouth.
Agnes speaks gently, soothing her to take the food from my hand. Slowly her trunk reaches out. You can not rush an elephant. It takes two and a half days for them to digest food. Foreplay can last three days. Pregnancy two years. Even the air it breathes frugally, only twelve times a minute. They are the nearest living thing on earth to a cloud, large and grey and floating gently across the land.
I reach my hand out, slowly, cautiously. Then suddenly she grabs the ball of sticky rice from my hand, and then I’m touching her, stroking the length of her trunk, the skin muddy and rough beneath my palm. She is the texture of a worn leather couch.
“Good girl,” I say softly as from above she watches me, her rust-coloured eye gleaming in the light. Finally I have touched my first elephant.
We feed them all after that, a grey wall surrounds us, trunks stretching out for more and more and more. An elephant eats three and a half tons a day.
“What are we going to eat for lunch?” asks Orly, who has got braver now, feeding them himself.
“I don’t know,” I tell him.
“I expect it’s cat,” he replies.
Afterwards we head down to the river where a rope swing drops us into the brown waters. Behind us elephants wade in. The water is full of elephant dung in moments. The boys are delighted. Despite all the delights of Eastern promise, it would seem toilet humour and bottom burps are still the prominent source of amusement when travelling with two small kids. The only difference is that now the word “elephant” is put before each joke.
I then watch as the two most precious beings to me in the world ride out of the water, barebacked like real life Mogli-boys, off into the jungle on their elephants.
I stand at the waters edge as Somboon comes onto the shore. Her snout feels along the muddy bank towards my bare feet. I stand very still. Somboon strokes across the earth, hesitates before reaching my left foot, and then, just before she retreats, I feel the cool of her snout tickling against my skin. I look down and there across my toes is a wet muddy print.
“An elephant kiss.” says Agnes behind me.
“Yes,” I say, and then Samboon lowers to the ground and I climb on board using her front leg as a steps and follow my two boys off into the jungle.
There’s not much to remind you that it’s christmas here. Some of the hotels have made an effort; flimsy streams of tinsel draped across lobbies, plastic trees with clashing baubles, over-blown up Santa’s and a continuous replay of xmas carols singing out over loud speakers in the lift, the toilets, the foyer. But Christmas isn’t a national holiday here. It’s the same as any other day. After all, most of the population is Buddhist.
So I’ve tried to keep the festivities alive. We have no tree for the first time ever, but each night, since the first of December, the elves have visited like they do at home, creeping in unseen and unheard, leaving their token gift, their countdown to Christmas day. This year they are leaving stamps to stick in the boy’s travel journals. Last year it was beads for a wish necklace, the year before that, seaside treasures for our move to the beach.
As the first rays of light slice into whatever new room we’ve slept in, I’ve woken up to the boys’ over exuberant exclamations of “Mum, the elves have been. The elves have found us again.” And each morning brings us closer to Christmas day. Through Thailand, and on into Vietnam, where on a cloudy humid afternoon we find ourselves in the city of Hanoi, the largest of Vietnam’s Northern cities, standing on the curb, contemplating as all foreigners have done before us, the seemingly impossible task of how to cross to the other side of the road.
There is a faded zebra crossing etched onto the pitted tarmac, but in the blur of passing motorbikes, rickety cycles, rusted cars and trucks, it’s difficult to make it out. The boys are either side of me, hands grasped tightly in hands, as we stand hopelessly waiting for a break in the traffic. None comes. The air is full of fumes and haze that clogs our eyes and burns the back of our throats. The colours are more faded here, greyer, browner, the colour of earth and grime. Gone is the neon of wealthier advertising signs found in Thailand, the multicolours of plastic packaging that were stacked high in roadside stalls. Here in Hanoi, everything is lower on the ground. Cooking pots spread out over the cracked pavement, filling the humid air with the smell of friend fat and herbs. Men sit on their haunches selling cigarettes and warm coke. Women with baskets laden on sticks across their backs that hang like weighing scales, tip toe from street to street with artichokes and carrots, pineapples and starfruit. Barbers set up short cuts and shaves on the pavement with a cracked mirror and a comb. Immediately you can see it’s poorer, dirtier, a land from the past, an uneven mix of medieval and the new, the new creeping in half heartedly.
And yet above the sound of beeping horns, the thrum of tired engines, the choke from back-firing exhausts, comes the sound of the sweetest birdsong, for on every corner, above every doorway hangs a cage where a small bird sings out above the dirt. It’s a contradiction of sounds, half loathed for the captivity of something that belongs free, half appreciated for the reprieve it brings to the chaotic abuse of city sounds.
But back to the present conundrum of how to cross the road. There is not a single break in the traffic, just an endless stream of weaving vehicles speeding past. I stand there contemplating what to do next, weighing up the consequence of not crossing the road to the ATM on the other side and therefore not being able to buy the boys supper this evening, or risking life and limb so close to Christmas to fill our empty stomachs, when beside us there is a low movement. A young man has joined us on the curb. He is low because he sits on a small trolley that trundles on rickety wheels. He sits on this trolley because his body is twisted and deformed, his head bent into his right shoulder, the hunch of his back pushing his chin down into his chest. He walks with his hands, uses them to push his wasted legs along the ground. They are so thin they look as if they could be snapped in half with the merest effort. His clothes are worn and ripped. He has no shoes. His hair is uncut, tangled with weeks of unwashed grime. The only thing he has of any worth are the small pile of newspapers that he carries on his lap ready to sell to anyone who approaches him. It’s hard to look at him, to really see and thus contemplate what his life might be. I’m wondering how the boys will respond, start to prepare a speech about life not being fair, when Orly squeezes my hand.
“Mama,” he whispers and when I look down his whole face is lit with wonder and awe. “Mama,” he whispers again. “Can you see him? Can you see the funny little elf?” and he’s looking right at the young man, tentatively, shyly as if to look too hard would break the magic of what he saw before him.
“Is he an elf?” asks Dow, looking too now. He’s on the cusp of still believing and disbelieving the Christmas myths. At the moment believing is still winning. I don’t know quite what to say. Eventually I nod.
“I didn’t know if you could see him or not,” continues Orly. “I thought it might be just us who could.”
The man starts to move forwards then, pulling his palms over the tarmac, into the oncoming traffic. A few feet ahead of us, he turns, and looks right at us. His eyes are bright, paler than usual, a hazel colour that catches the light. He gives a small, almost imperceptible nod of his head, as if indicating for us to follow. There is nothing to be done, but take a deep breath and step out into the traffic after him.
“Ready boys,” I say, squeezing my most precious cargo.
“Yeah,” they squeak, sounding not at all sure. And so we begin to walk. “Don’t stop,” we were told by the hotel staff. “Keep moving forwards.” “Never step back.”
So we do so, following the little elf in front of us. Mopeds, trucks, bikes speed towards us, but just when it looks like all is lost, that we are going to be hit and crushed, they veer expertly past us. Step by step we shuffle forwards in this way, never looking back, only side to side as we keep moving, and when finally we reach the other side, hearts beating loudly, our breathes sharp and shallow, all three of us are still alive.
The elf has also reached the other side safely and is moving on down the street.
“Will he know where to find us tonight?” Orly asks.
“He’ll know,” I tell him. And sure enough that night, as birdsong still fills the darkened streets of Hanoi, a funny little elf does indeed find them.