A Vacation From Working For Elephants and People Alike, a/k/a Why All Work and No Play Makes Mali a Dull (Big) Girl

We have taken a slight detour from our initial volunteer placement of teaching English to monks and renovating temples. The opportunity to work with elephants for a week presented itself to us and it was hard to say no! These are domesticated elephants, not wild elephants, here to to eat more than usual and regain some weight if they have lost it, play in the water, and be washed by us. Conjure up a picture of vacationing elephants in your mind and you will be pretty close. Amarasini, short, jovial, and kind, runs this program and hopes to eventually have enough funds to provide a “heaven” for the elephants. He pays the owners half of what the elephants would otherwise “earn” working and nurses them back to health while they are here. Once healthy again, they go back to work. He worked in the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage for several years but elephants there still have to “back carry” the tourists (something known to be bad for them) and he wanted to do more for the elephants. And, he admitted to me yesterday, he wanted to “get some good karma” for his next life.

So, vacationing volunteers and vacationing elephants.

We are staying at Amarasini’s home in Kegalle and arrived here after 3 hours in the hottest vehicle on Earth. Even with all the windows wide open (a decision not to be taken lightly when driving through the fumes of the choking Sri Lankan traffic), the temperature inside the ancient van rose to at least 20 degrees more than the 95 degree temperature outside. Sitting just above the diesel engine, the heat was so intense that we could not rest our feet on the floorboards of the van for more than a few minutes before our shoes began to smoke. Nicholas even reheated our leftover french fries from lunch (if English is a lingua franca all over the world, French fries are the comida franca… and yes, that’s a made-up word – not a true vocabulary term from Nicholas’s human geography class) by placing the cardboard box on the floor. And for a reason unknown to us, our driver used only two gears of the manual transmission, 5 and 3 (and occasionally neutral), even when others were desperately needed, so the struggling engine heated up even more than it needed to.

Amarasini, as he will tell you, lives simply, but he and his gracious and sweet family have welcomed 5 volunteers into their home this week. It is a chance to practice some Sinhalese and enjoy a window into a different world.  His wife, Dilhani, cooks meals far better than the meals at the other volunteer house (though breakfast is still a cold fried egg, a piece of white bread with marmalade, and a banana or piece of watermelon). Neranjan, 12, flies out the door each morning at 6:45 am as his school bus honks at the front door, pulling his backpack onto the shoulders of his white uniform. We barely see Kavishka, 9, the shy one. Amarasiri accompanies her to school each morning. Bhagya, the youngest at 6, home sick the past two days, with cropped short hair, smiles every time we walk into a room and diligently completes lessons in her school workbook while home. The children laugh and smile constantly and we have fun playing silly games with them during the evenings.

His home is set back from the road by 12 feet at most. Buses, trucks, cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles, most with diesel engines and none, it seems, with mufflers, create a constant din that slows to a dull roar between 10 pm and 5 am. The walls do not connect to the top of the roof so each room connects to the other by light and noise. The green leaves of an avocado tree, a papaya tree, a jackfruit tree, and a mango tree blend with the jungle rising from the dirt patch behind his home. The children play on a rubber tire swing. We never hear them fight.

Mornings, I rise with the waking traffic as it picks up around 5:00. The other four volunteers, all younger and better sleepers, manage to sleep until 7:00. After breakfast, Amarasiri waves down a faded red bus, built sometime in the 1940s but repaired and recycled into continued usefulness by the resourceful Sri Lankans.  It matches the faded government bus passes we see many passengers using.  Relics of a bygone era to many, part of the present here.  We hop on and the bus careens around corners, knocking us from our feet and into sari-clad women, children dressed in white uniforms, and men in sarongs. More experienced than us, they were already holding on for dear life as the driver flew down the hillside. Anyone who wants to get off must pull a bell. We change buses, ride to a smaller town, and climb aboard an even older bus for the final leg of the ride to the village of Polambegoda. The elephant we are working with, Mali, lives here with her mahout Samandha, a wiry man about the size of a horse-racing jockey.

Mali and her mahout are an unlikely pair, the 3 1/2 ton Mali lumbering through the village as tiny Samandha, at most 95 pounds, shouts commands to move right, move left, stop, drink water, spray herself with water, and occasionally, spray us with water. Mali has one chain around her foot, and carries a long “necklace” of jangling chains on (but not around) her neck. Samandha attaches the chains to her foot only at night, to keep her from wandering away while he sleeps. One day, to keep her from wandering as we cut down a ketel tree for her evening meal, he attaches the chain to a 5 foot stake he has carved with an axe while we watch. No pole to tie your elephant to? Carve a stake with an axe from a fallen jungle branch. Practical and efficient. A five foot wooden stake does not seem like much of a deterrent for a 3 1/2 ton giant, but it works for Mali. She doesn’t wander away.

Each morning when we arrive in the village, we feed Mali a handful of cookies. She expects them immediately and grumpily searches for them with her trunk if we dally. The first day, we try to place the cookies in her trunk so she can feed herself, but she wants us to place the cookies directly in her mouth. The enormous fleshy and pink cavern looks like a giant vagina, and we each quietly confess our impression, giggling and snorting, as we later walk through the village.  One day, I am caught up in taking pictures of the cookie feeding with my fancy new camera and forget about the cookies Amarasiri has stuffed in my pocket for Mali. Elephants never forget, and Mali is no exception. Her searching trunk finds its way to my pocket and slaps at it. I will not forget again.

Elephants’ status in Sri Lanka is a confounding one. They are revered, almost worshiped by Sri Lankans. As we walk through the village each morning, old women, young children, and monks in orange robes rush to bring her a banana or a pineapple, then watch with genuine pleasure as she swallows the fruit in one piece. At the same time, wild elephants plague farmers around the entire country as they crash through fences and destroy crops in search of food. Other volunteers we know are working on a wild elephant project, trying to teach villagers how to keep elephants away from crops using honeybees and other alternatives to simply killing them.

We spend our mornings gathering food for Mali. Banana tree leaves, like salad. Banana tree trunks, thick and solid, which she will crush with her feet and then tear apart with her trunk. Coconut tree leaves, more salad, which her mahout braids together. Ketel tree leaves. Her mahout climbs a tall ketel tree, and we watch, amazed. Ketel trees have no branches, much like a coconut tree, and he shimmies up the tree using only his arms, his feet, and a scarf to brace his feet. We gather the leaves, more like palms, and drag them several hundred yards to where she will sleep (and eat) that night. The next day we will return and cut the entire tree down. The inside of the ketel tree, soft and porous like the inside of a banana tree, provides valuable nutrients for her.

Afternoons, we accompany Mali to the river, where she checks into the local spa for some pampering. The first day Mali and Samandha arrived at the river before us, and we can barely tell Mali, laying on her side and relaxing in the river, from the large grey rocks next to her. She naps peacefully, and barely notices when we start massaging and scrubbing her skin with coconut shells. Harder, urges Amarasiri. She cannot feel it if you do not scrub hard. You must scrub harder. We scrub harder, mimicking Samandha, scrubbing away with all his might, but mindful that he is her lifelong boss and we are merely visitors in her world. We do not want to be rebuked by this giantess if we scrub too hard.

One afternoon, I notice a coca in the distance, flapping his wings on a vine hanging above the river. He stretches his long white wings again and again, trying without success to rise from the vine. Caught in something – plastic maybe? – he will die if we don’t help him. The mahout wades through the river and pulls the vine down. The coca hisses at him, almost like a goose, then lunges with his long yellow beak, pecking at Samandha’s arms. Undeterred, Samandha holds the coca’s body tightly and disentangles him from the vine, kissing the bird’s head once he succeeds. The coca, lulled by the kiss of the mahout and the whispering promise of help, rests quietly. A web of string strangles both of his feet, rendering one unusable and the other crippled. Clara, the German girl, has a Swiss army knife with a small pair of scissors and we begin to carefully cut one string after another. Eventually we switch to the mahout’s knife, and Samanda cuts the last few strings with the precision of a surgeon. We set the coca on the sandy banks of the river and Samandha kisses his head once more. The coca stands, unmoving for a few moments. Mali flaps her ears and tail in the water and snorts through her trunk in the background – where have her masseurs gone? We glance at her and the coca begins to carefully hop away. We smile at each other.

Riding the buses back to Amarasiri’s home, we are often caught in torrential downpours. The cooler air accompanying the rains is a relief. One night we arrive home to wet bedrooms and candlelight. The rain has blown through the eves of the roof – open to the outside all around the home – and leaked into our rooms. All of Kegalle is without electricity due to the storm, and Amarasiri’s home is no exception. We enjoy Dilhani’s potato curry, chicken curry, cucumber and onion salad, dhal, and Sri Lankan fried rice. Praising Dilhani and Amarasiri for the wonderful food, we hint that we would love the fried rice for breakfast. Amarasiri hems and haws and eventually admits that we cannot, for he feeds the neighborhood stray dogs with each evening’s leftovers. For more good karma, he smiles sheepishly. Karma, indeed.

We all need more karma.

2 thoughts on “A Vacation From Working For Elephants and People Alike, a/k/a Why All Work and No Play Makes Mali a Dull (Big) Girl

  1. Kris, thank you so much for sharing your adventure with us. Wow, amazing descriptions I felt like I was there in the heat on your trek in the hottest vehicle on Earth.


  2. What an incredible experience! I am enjoying your colorful stories! Keep them coming! Your next project–more pictures from your fancy new camera!


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