Apichart Weerawong/AP/File
Elephants enjoy bathing at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The animals were probably once amphibious.
Courtesy of Ann Hymes
The author pets a pachyderm in a Thai village that has a long tradition of keeping elephants. An elephant can eat up to 300 pounds of greens every day.

Now I know how Elizabeth felt

One day in Thailand I found myself bathing with elephants. I thought of our pet duck, Elizabeth, who used to hop in the tub with my daughters.

When my two daughters were little, a friend brought a duckling to our house that he’d been given and didn’t want his own children to have. Regifting his problem reminded us that family is a collection of belonging, of making room. We welcomed the unexpected. The children were thrilled with the fuzzy yellow creature that wiggled in their cupped hands and disappeared under furniture and behind curtains. They named her Elizabeth.

We followed peeps like sonar to discover the secret hiding places of our new resident, and we watched where we walked. Elizabeth settled easily into a life of being loved. She never resisted the attention of Jenni and Hannah and followed them around the house like a shadow, but bath time was the best. She swam circles around two giggly girls, as she fluttered and dipped.

Long baths with no soap became the new norm.

Elizabeth grew into a beautiful, big white duck, and her life and bathing moved to the patio. She even slept with the dog. Despite jests from neighbors to come for dinner and bring Elizabeth, our feathered friend retired to a children’s animal farm.

Bathing memories and customs have evolved for me. Volunteering as an English teacher overseas, I have broken ice in an old bucket to bathe in Korea, patiently waited at an erratic outside spigot in Tanzania, and drawn water from a public cistern in Ghana; but recently Thailand provided something unusual.

Courtesy of Ann Hymes
The author pets a pachyderm in a Thai village that has a long tradition of keeping elephants. An elephant can eat up to 300 pounds of greens every day.

I lived in a remote village close to the border with Cambodia, unique for its tradition of domesticated elephants. Behind the crowded home where I stayed with other volunteers, a mother and daughter elephant were kept. While many question the ethics of keeping elephants as pets, in this little village, they are an important part of the family. They were well cared for, with abundant food and protection from the elements. Their space was swept clean. They were frequently spoken to and stroked across their bumpy tough skin, always welcoming a hand extended with clumps of leaves or bananas. Neighbors, too, shared the long-established local custom of elephants in backyards, and we often heard deep-throated conversations among these jungle animals tethered to humans.

In the mornings, I taught English at the nearby school, where young students struggled to learn a language with strange sounds and letters, and I was reminded that education requires both teacher and student to relinquish the familiar. 

In the afternoons, I joined others in the fields to cut sugar cane and bamboo for the elephants. We walked the long, towering rows with machetes, their handles worn smooth and familiar. It was hot and dirty work. Long sleeves provided minimal protection from sharp leaves and the relentless sun, but together we filled brightly painted old trucks that labored under their loads; an elephant can eat 300 pounds of greens daily.

Twice a week, mahouts who own and train elephants walked them to our village. They gathered in the middle of the one newly paved road and waited until six or eight had assembled.

Elephants are herd animals, and babies stay close to their mothers. They munched on bundles of bamboo until we began the mile trek to the river.

Though the elephants knew their way, I was always offered a flimsy rope as a lead, like having an elephant on a dog leash. The gesture was comical and ceremonial, but I did feel connected to my charge, knowing the watchful mahouts were humoring me. I was glad to see the elephants in a more natural environment, instead of potentially damaging their spines carrying tourists in heavy wooden perches. The owners were paid to use their beloved animals differently, and I was grateful to witness the transition. Humane change can come in small steps. 

Our elephant parade lumbered along a backcountry road, kicking up swirls of dust and stopping often for a nibble of roadside bushes.

Approaching the water created an excited chorus of voices among the adult elephants. They would step from the muddy bank into the river as their babies first balked and called from the shore before following their mothers in. Cool water on a hot day also beckoned me in, fully clothed, and I joined the reluctant young animals, watching the adults roll and bellow, thrashing their limbs. Plumes of water blasted from playful trunks like water guns shooting at the cloudless sky.

The mahouts rubbed and scrubbed the huge animals even as they disappeared beneath the surface or turned in the deep murky water with disregard for humans. Enormous legs rose and crashed down in a daunting show of strength, creating waves of confusion and danger. Elephants do not sit still for bathing.

Other volunteers watched from the safety of shallow water, but I swam around the distracted and unpredictable gray mass of motion. Their bathing was community in action, a hint of unfettered camaraderie.

The elephants paid no attention to me as they stirred up the lazy river. Bath time was buoyancy and freedom. I emerged from the muddy river dirtier than when I went in, but I couldn’t help thinking of tiny Elizabeth the duck, splashing around the two giants in her bathtub, all bathing together, sharing a moment together. 

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