Was I ready for the elephant ride? Of course. The camel, I hadn't been so sure about. He turned out to have a relaxed, rocking gait, though, and I was soon at ease. I eyed the gray elephant with aplomb.
High and handsome, he wore a long, fringed, orange blanket on his back and a red-and-green triangular scarf on his head. Painted on his ears, face, and trunk was a colorful, elegant, leaf design. We were in Jaipur, in northwest India.
He stood calmly as I climbed the stairs to the mounting platform. He didn't protest when our guide, Mishra, helped me sit down on a flat box covering his broad back. He seemed undisturbed by my legs, those of my sister beside me, and those of my tall nephew behind. Our legs dangled loosely against his leathery sides.
"A photo!" shouted an assistant. We smiled for the camera.
The red-turbaned handler sitting astride the elephant, Sabu-style, gave a signal and clump! The elephant took his first step. Whack! My nephew's back slammed against mine as I was thrown forward.
Smile gone, my grip tightened on the metal rod that held us precariously in the box. It was a long way down.
The elephant took a second step. Whack! My back slammed into my nephew's.
"Our backs keep hitting" I yelled.
"At least you have someone behind you," my sister said. "I don't!"
We lurched up the dry hillside along the edge of the stone road to Amber Fort, the object of our excursion to Jaipur. From a stall, a vendor ran out holding high a length of cloth printed with blue elephants.
"Only 700 rupees!" he called.
Who could think of buying anything? We had to hold on!
Undeterred, he ran alongside, lowering the price. At 500 rupees, my sister called down, "OK, I'll buy it!"
"I'll take one, too!" I added. I was riding an elephant, after all. Now was the time to buy some elephant-print cloth. But how could I get the rupees from my fanny pack down to the vendor's outstretched hand?
"Just drop it," my nephew directed.
I let the paper rupees flutter down, then snatched the cloth tossed up to me.
I was still seated. Feeling a new confidence, I started to slip my camera from its case. Clump! Clump! The elephant went on.
My camera shook wildly as I was jerked forward, then back. What was I thinking? Before it could fall to the stones below and smash into tiny bits suitable for a mosaic, I jammed it back in its holder. Ah, safe.
But, no: Our elephant veered into the road! Yelling, the handler cuffed him with a curved iron bar. "He's young and still in training!" he called back to us.
Great. Our mount was a teenager learning the road.
I clutched my camera, my cloth, and the metal rod until finally our elephant stopped at the gate to Amber Fort. There was Mishra, waiting to show us around. How had he gotten there so fast?
"Jeep," he said with a grin. Four black tires seemed much more reliable than four gray feet.
Would I ride an elephant again? Only if I could sit, maharajah-style, in a well-padded, multiple-cushioned howdah with sturdy sides. Facing forward.