I wouldn’t trust Google Maps with my life but I just had to hope I got it right. I ask Lia, the Brazilian Babylonian, to wait for me in the tuk-tuk. I explore the street on my own, following the blue arrow. I think it’s nearby.
A kid follows me asking for chocolate. I don’t have any but he thinks I’m bluffing. I return to the tuk-tuk. The kid gives up. “This way”
I head towards the gate. Lia and the tuk-tuk driver are right behind me. I knock. A limping old man opens. No, that’s not it. I turn around. There’s another gate just like it. I knock. Someone opens and invites me to the garden.
“Excuse me, is this…”
I don’t even have the time to finish my sentence. I turn around and here they are.
I have never seen an elephant up close. Imagine my reaction when I saw almost a dozen of them staring right back at me.
“Lia, we’re here!”
Push’s family has been involved with involved for over than five generations. They used to be muhuts, elephant riders, for the royal family. But when India became a republic in 1957, the royal family lost all of its wealth. Palaces and elephants included.
That’s when it went downhill for the friendly pachyderms.
Push interrupts his story. “Excuse me, I need to attend to my other guests.” He points to a group of very British-looking tourists. They just give off this vibe. He gets up and heads towards them; Lia and I get up as well and get closer and closer to the elephants. Their riders are sitting on the ground, handing the trunks leafy green food.
“It’s ok”, one of them says. They pet the trunk and invite me to do the same.
The trunk has a couple of black hairs here and there. It’s grey (like the rest of the elephant, obviously) with pink patterns. You could know how strong it was just by hugging it. The elephant kept on eating; I felt like I was hanging to some sort of swing. I look at Lia. We’re mirror images.
Did you know that you get to make a wish when you kiss an elephant?
The British-looking tourists sit down around Push.
“Hello everyone and welcome to Eleday!”
For the next five or ten minutes, I watch Push share some elephant facts with his guests.
“Did you know that African and Asian elephants are very different? It’s easy to tell them apart. Asian elephants are smaller and weight around 2500 kilograms whilst the African ones can weight up to 4 tons. The biggest elephant to have ever lived actually weighted 10 tons.”
That’s one heck of a big guy.
I look back at the elephants as the tourists listen to Push. The Asian elephants have smaller ears and patterns on their trunks. They also have two domes on the top of their heads. I look for these and I notice the humps.
I zone out for a couple of seconds as I catch one of the elephants stares at me. It has beautiful, bright, brown eyes.
“Elephants can’t see very well. It’s all blurry to them. But they do have an good smelling sense. A 7 km-radius radar.”
Lia and I turn around when we hear a close trumpet. There are more elephants around here. Around 30. All female. All in their thirties.
The elephant riders climb up their elephant’s trunks and sit down. They guide their elephants towards stairs on top of which the tourists wait. It’s time for the elephant ride. We’re far from Jaipur’s center but I learn that the Indian government asks elephant businesses like Eleday to take their elephants to Amber fort to offer tourists rides.
We watch them leave one by one. Push joins us.
“Some of them got rescued. You know, you can’t buy elephants in India anymore. They’re either bred or rescued. That’s all because of a 2005 law that means to better protect the elephants. Because some owners couldn’t take good care of them, elephants suffered or were killed.”
I was hoping that I could see a baby elephant in Rajahstan but it turns out that I won’t be this lucky as the northern Indian environment isn’t suitable for elephant breeding. “We send them to the south instead. It’s more humid there, so it’s better for them”, explains Push.
Push is only twenty-seven. He’s twice an engineer and has four degrees in total- all that he’s only twenty-seven. Lia and I are impressed. We’re both in our early twenties and we feel like we have a long way to go.
His brother is his partner at Eleday – he takes care of the marketing. There’s also a third partner whose focus is elephant care. The whole Eleday team has around fifty members – elephant riders, caregivers, marketing team and so on…
The tourists are back and Push joins them. Lia and I head towards the pool where a family is washing an elephant.
When we go back to the other group of tourists, they have paint brushes in hand. Push reassures us all: the paint is organic so it doesn’t hurt the elephants. He draws a tree one of the grey bellies and get the tourists to print their hands on the branches.
I meet an elephant rider called Ali. His elephant’s name is Moni. They have been a team for fifteen years. I hug her trunk and get some paint on my hands. Do I mind? Not at all.
I walk towards another elephant. Sakiena. Every time her rider calls her name, she makes a happy trumpet noise. I give it a try – it works the third time.
As the tourists get ready to wash a couple of elephants, Push explains to us that elephants can know up to fifteen words. Bate is sit down. Utah is pick up. Goom is turn around. Agent is let’s go. It turns out that elephant riding is a lot like horse back riding. You apply pressure on your right leg if you want to go left, on the left one if you want to go right, on both if you want to stop, and so on. I’ll try to give that a try. Not this time though.
The tourists get in the pool. They laugh as the elephants splash them with their trunks. Some riders get in the pool with them and assist them in the elephant washing.
Everyone looks happy. Both elephants and humans.
Lia who’s a fervent animal lover I have met in my life tries to learn more about elephant care and health. Some common problems encountered by elephants in general is swallowing sand. It happens both in the wild and in captivity as you cannot really control what they do with their trunks. Having to go on promenades in relatively narrow streets, some elephants hit their bodies by accidents. Nothing too serious, but it happens often.
“I wonder what they’re thinking. If they’re happy or not”, she says.
Push reassures her that Eleday elephants are taken care of in the best way possible. She looks convinced – that’s a major achievement.
She tells me that she has seen elephant riders at Amber Fort hitting their elephants. “I don’t allow this. I forbid the riders to be violent and cruel to the elephants.”
Lia and I make our elephant wish before leaving.
We both asked for more happy elephants.