Elephants are some of the most interesting creatures. As we traveled through the country of Sri Lanka we saw only one alongside the road being led by his owner. Then we visited the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage near Kandy and had an up close adventure with these amazing animals. Pinnawela is operated by the Sri Lankan government and they take in elephants that are unable to care for themselves in the wild. They have one elephant that is blind from almost being killed by a hunter. Another special elephant there has only three feet. He stepped on a land mine during the Tamil Tiger rebellion. His whole body has become misshapen because of the way he has to maneuver with only three full legs. There is even an elephant there with a missing ear. An overly confident leopard claimed the ear but not the life of the elephant.
A land mine victim
On the way to the orphanage our driver Erickson stopped and bought some bananas at a roadside market and told me to put them in my purse and zip it up. At the entrance of the orphanage there were men standing around with sacks of bananas and were very insistent as they forced them into our hands. Then they promptly charged us ten times the amount of the roadside bananas. Erickson just rolled his eyes when he saw how weak we were when it came to the high pressure sales from the locals. I guess the orphanage doesn't want us bringing our own bananas for the elephants so they can take advantage of the captive consumers - hence the reason Erickson asked me to zip up my purse.
We first met the elephants out at their exercise area. We first got to feed bananas to the blind elephant and had to put them right inside his large pink mouth. It was pretty slimy but so cool to be able to be next to such a gentle giant. We fed the three-legged elephant and then a baby with her mother. She was so small she was still nursing. Abbey wanted to know all about that as we watched from six feet away.
So let's be clear: Elephants are not soft cuddly bedtime buddies like they are portrayed in children's books. They felt like a bristle brush attached to 8 inch thick leather. Their personalities though are more like the fables and fairy tales advertise. These elephants are gigantic and powerful yet they gently submit themselves to the men who must wrangle them throughout the compound. I asked Erickson why some of them had chains around their legs or necks. He said those were the working elephants (like the one we saw by the roadside earlier) that are used at the orphanage. I noticed they got extra special treatment in the river as their trainers bathed them. I guess there should be some payoffs because I wanted to break all the prodding sticks and chains they had.
Then we left the orphanage and toured the nearby elephant poop paper factory. And yes, they make paper from elephant dung and silly tourists like us buy it. It is quite interesting how they wash it, dye it, and then form and dry it. I guess every little bit of money helps the facility, so we didn't feel so foolish about our purchase. Now some of you are wondering who the lucky person is who gets the wonderful souvenir stationery Abbey picked out. I guess you will just have to be surprised.
Erickson led us down through the small town where shopkeepers were desperate for our business, but the only thing that interested me was the man in the turban with a cobra in a basket and a python. Abbey snapped a picture before his partner informed everyone that we should pay for such an indulgence because that was their living. Unfortunately the cobra was put away before the picture was taken.
This is one tough handicapped elephant!
I sipped my cool drink in the very humid weather and watched the elephant drama of the day. We saw the three-legged elephant hop into the river very carefully and then become a regular elephant with the curtain of water over his lower body. He never did take part in the water games, but he seemed happy anyway. I guess anyone in that large steamer trunk of a body would be happy sinking into the cool water in that sticky heat. Abbey seemed very concerned as she noticed many of the elephants walking over to the other side of the river and climbing up the opposite bank. She thought they were running away, but the trainers didn't seem all that worried, so we realized it was part of the routine. The large elephant bodies couldn't get enough of the river banks and the dirt they rubbed off onto their backs and head. It seemed a waste of a good bath to me, but their instincts are strong and keep them from unwanted sunburns and pests.
Can you see the elephant causing some major erosion?
The bathing lasted for quite a long time, so Brett and Abbey went down to the riverbank to get some closer pictures and see the Muslim school children who were there on a field trip. The next thing I saw was Brett wading into the river to bathe an elephant. Abbey was snapping photos from a safe distance and Brett had a big smile on his face when he got back.
Our next stop was a chance to have our very own elephant ride. I think the elephant was at least ten feet tall and his name was Samria. He was gentle but oh so TALL! The most difficult part of the whole ride was hanging on as he was climbing down into the river. We were glad we only asked for a 15 minute ride because . . . well . . . let's just say we were VERY saddle sore the next day. Abbey was a little frightened at first even with me hanging on to her. I just wished I had stretched out before climbing aboard such a wide ride. Brett felt like a true Tarzan but didn't complain when it was all over. With only a small signal from the trainer, Samria dipped his trunk in the water and sprayed us. Abbey got the worst of it but had a big smile. Then we ended our ride with a good rub down - for the elephant that is. They gave us coconut shells and taught us how to rub Samria's back to get the coconut oil into his skin for protection. He didn't mind our inexperienced hands at all and let us fondle his ears and trunk. We then said good bye to the elephant crew and drove back into Kandy.
It seems like a Sri Lankan myth, but all we know for sure is that we will never forget our magical elephant experience!