Riding an Elephant
My trip started with a campy tourist adventure. It ended with reflection on the terror of war.
I hadn’t wanted to ride him; he was too small. But the hectoring Thai guys hawking pony rides convinced me to take him out for an hour for 500 bhat, more than the cost of a good meal. I couldn’t resist the idea of galloping through the surf in the Gulf of Thailand. Seymour had short legs and an eggbeater gait, and while it was kind of fun to gallop through the surf in front of scads of belly-heavy sunburned northern Europeans, I probably could have run faster and with less discomfort on my own. Plus Seymour — I knew that wasn’t his real name, but I liked that whatever it really was, the way the Thai guys pronounced it made it sound like my great-uncle’s name — was kind of a jerk, pinning his ears and throwing his head when he didn’t want to accede to my requests.
So when, after spending too much time at the bridge on the river Kwai — because the train that was to be the continuation of our tour was delayed for more than an hour — and then boarding and traveling for another hour of noisy rumbling, past fields of sugar cane and what our guide called “sweet potato”; after a buffet lunch of pad thai, Indian sweet curry with don’t-ask-don’t-tell meat, and fried chicken and bananas; after getting back in our air-conditioned mini-van (now more appreciated in the afternoon sun); after getting to the elephant park and climbing the stairs to mount, I was disappointed to see that my elephant was not the biggest.
She was not, to be sure, small. I jittered like a kid at the state fair preparing for her first time astride a pony. With awkward steps — like boarding a small boat from a dock — I managed to climb onto her back. I settled onto the bench and was seat-buckled in for the event. A long line of elephants with tourists on their saddle-benches and young Thai boys on their necks followed each other on a short path through the jungle.
I have sat bucking horses more easily than I remained seated on the elephant’s back. I held onto the sides of the seat, my arms aching as I felt each of my vertebrae smash against the padded back of the seat; each step lurched me to one side, and then the other. It made the beach pony ride feel like gliding.
I asked the guide how old the elephant was.
He said 16.
I asked how old he was.
It was a question he seemed unaccustomed to answering in English and it appeared to take some calculation.
“16,” he said, finally.
Yes, he was a 16-year-old boy, and an asshole in the way that 16-year-old boys often are. He called out “I love you!” to young Asian tourists as they passed us in the other direction. He whooped Yeehaw when we went downhill, and cut the line in front of other elephants, urging his — our — steed to go faster by kicking her hard behind the ears. He and his fellow guides carried on long and loud conversations that cut into the heavy jungle air.
Then, toward the end of the ride, he stopped, climbed back from the elephant’s neck, and sat on the bench beside me. When we arrived at the park I’d seen a sign listing the rules. The second one, after the customary caution about keeping an eye and a hand on your valuables, was “Not allow to sit on the neck of elephant or other parts except specific place only.” I said to him, “I get to ride on her neck?”
He said “Yes, you want.”
So I slid down, reaching my legs behind her ears. I asked her name, and what I heard was “Chopin” like the composer and the writer. I urged Chopin forward, but she didn’t move. Instead she drew her trunk to the top of her head and searched for my hands.
“She hungry” said the guide, her conspirator, and then mentioned something about 500 or 1000 bhat, as I wished. I’ve been swindled in Thailand before so I said, “Sorry, no money.” Chopin lowered her trunk and ambled off.
Sitting on the neck was far easier than on the bench. It was, in fact, thrilling. My riding muscles are well developed and my body responds instinctively, able to balance without thought. I no longer feared falling off. I started to understand her rhythms, began talking to her with pressure from my legs. I didn’t want to stop.
But eventually, of course, I had to stop. After the elephant ride, we tourists dismounted and, in the middle of a jungle in Thailand, we were funneled into a line to see photos of ourselves displayed on a computer screen. I hadn’t understood why, shortly after boarding, we rode the elephants into the muddy river. I thought that perhaps it was for them to have a chance to cool down and get a drink before we ventured on a long jungle trek. I was wrong. Now I saw that it was just for a photo op before we set out on the short well-trampled loop around the camp.
I have never bought souvenir photos of myself — I am either un-photogenic or simply less attractive than I would like to believe — and wasn’t even going to look at this one, but I was standing there in line for I didn’t know what and it popped up on the screen. I have few documentary impulses, but I felt compelled to purchase it.
I look happy in the photo, though you can see the tendons in my arms straining as I clutch the sides of the bench. My light orange shirt — I’d bought a button-down Thai schoolgirl shirt because it seemed more modest than the beach wear I’d brought for my two-week stay at a friend’s borrowed luxury condo in Hua Hin — picks up the yellows in the leafy background, compliments the red in the blankets piled underneath the seat.
But the focal point of the photo is not I, and it’s not the elephant. The eye is drawn to the tee-shirt on the guide. This 16-year-old Thai boy setting astride the neck of an elephant is wearing a black tee shirt. In the middle is a swastika, black in a white circle, framed on a red square.
Because I was so excited, looking only at the elephant, I hadn’t noticed the boy’s tee shirt, not until I saw the photograph. I showed it to the Thai guide who had taken us on the trip, who had booked the tickets to this elephant park. He looked embarrassed, laughed a little. I waited for more of a response. He said it was a symbol in eastern religions.
“Yes,” I said, “I know that symbol. This is not that. Look at the colors. Look at the design. This is a swastika.”
There were five of us on the tour, the others were German women, likely two lesbian couples, who talked mostly to each other in a language I’d been taught as a child to hear as ugly. One of the couples came over having just bought a print of their elephant-riding photo. They showed it to me; it was a romantic setting, indeed, a good photo opportunity.
Then I showed them mine. At first they cooed, commenting on how happy I looked. Then one of them gasped.
“Not gut,” she said. “This is not gut.”
We all turned to the Thai guide, who tried again to make his argument about it being a religious symbol.
The quietest of the German women delivered a lecture. “Yes,” she said, in the cadence of an academic, “there is a symbol like this that you often see in India. It signifies new beginnings. But that is not what this is.” She shook her head. She kept shaking her head.
Two nights before I had watched, with Thai subtitles, the bad American movie Valkyrie: A movie about a plot to murder Hitler. Seeing Tom Cruise in a Nazi uniform — even as a member of the resistance — was unsettling. The imagery of the Third Reich can’t not rattle you.
I had booked this tour, to go to the bridge on the river Kwai, because after two solitary weeks at the beach reading and writing, I needed more than sun and surf, excellent cheap food and daily massages that cost seven dollars an hour. I needed a little history, a little culture, a chance to get out of my own head.
We’d spent the morning immersed in World World II. Everything we had done and seen that day was tied to the years between 1939 and 1945. Our first stop, after a two-and-a-half hour mini-van ride north, was a cemetery built by the Thais for the British and Dutch dead. Our second stop the JEATH War Museum in Kanchanaburi.
It was, we learned, established in 1977 to commemorate the horrors of the construction of the “Death Railway,” an appropriate nickname for the strategic train line the Japanese built connecting (what was then) Siam to (what was then) Burma. Most of us know one small segment of this history from the movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai. As it turns out, JEATH is a curious acronym of the names of the countries involved: Japan, England, America (and Australia), Thailand, and Holland. The poorly-copied museum brochure explained that “The Japanese were the controllers of the railway project, Thailand was involved as the conquered country and the other four countries were involved as PoW’s on the actual construction of the 415 kilometer long Death Railway and the bridge over the River Kwai.” It continued on the next page, “The word JEATH also replaces the word Death because it sounds too horrific.”
The museum consists mainly of a replica bamboo hut with a display of photographs of the POWs, more than 16,000 of whom — plus 100,000 impressed laborers — died during the construction process which Japanese engineers first reckoned would take at least five years. The railway was completed in sixteen months.
The last paragraph of the brochure read as follows: “Dear visitors, JEATH museum has been constructed not for the maintenance of the hatred among human beings, especially among the Japanese and allied countries, but to warn and teach us the lesson of HOW TERRIBLE WAR IS.”
After leaving the museum, riding on a railway that had been hacked into the jungle by men fighting off disease and starvation, I thought about what I thought about World War II. Growing up Jewish in a rural, agricultural community, my father taught me that the most important thing about my ethnicity was that there was always somebody who wanted to kill me. My great-grandpa Max, a giddy and sweet man, had numbers tattooed on his arm. He didn’t talk about them. Once, during my childhood, someone painted a swastika on the sidewalk in front of our house. At Yale, because of my blonde hair and pale eyes, my “Ellis Island Special” last name, I got to overhear the scions of Robber Barons make anti-Semitic comments. When I thought about World War II, to be honest, I thought about the Jews.
In my twenties, as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press, I worked on a joint US-Russian authored book about the collaboration between US and Russians forces during the war. (In a small world moment, I later dated the US author’s brother. He turned out to be a toad.) I’d thought about the dropping of the bomb, about Rosie the Riveter, about the internment of Japanese Americans, but I confess to not knowing much about what was happening in Southeast Asia during that time.
So this winter I spent a sunny morning in Thailand feeling abashed by my ignorance, learning in visceral ways about what had happened here during WWII, and hopped off my elephant and looked smack into a photo of a happy me with a swastika-wearing Thai boy.
The German woman urged me to take the photo back.
“No,” I said, “I’m keeping it.”
“I’m Jewish,” I added. Somehow, this was something I needed to say.
The Thai tour guide said, “He doesn’t know.”
I don’t know what he knew, that teenager, that elephant-riding, trash-talking, rambunctious boy. I wanted to ask him, to talk to him, but he had already loaded another tourist onto Chopin’s bench and taken off on the loop, whooping and hollering. His English was limited. How much, really, could I have learned from talking to him? Was that swastika just another incomprehensible symbol of the far-off West, like the ubiquitous tee shirts from American universities that didn’t exist? In Thai tourist markets there are often vendors selling tee-shirts with unutterably nasty English messages. Was this just another example of rampant commercialism with no content?
Thailand, so long a country known for its tolerant and accommodating people, is undergoing change. The beloved king is ailing; there is now gang violence. Did I want to know what, specifically, this young boy knew? Was it meaningful? Did it matter? There is no such thing as global political correctness. I have no more right to question his appropriation of cultural and political symbols than he does to accost Americans who adapt Buddhism to suit their needs.
For years I have been thinking about the commemoration of atrocity. A decade before this trip I’d gone to Asia with a college friend, and we had dinner with friends of hers, expat Americans living in Hong Kong. They were giving us advice on our itinerary. The guy, well-educated and well-spoken said, “I’ve been to Auschwitz, I’ve been to Dachau, you gotta go to Tuol Sleng. No one does concentration camps like the Cambodians.”
I never saw him again but have always hated him for that remark, though I understood, when we went to Tuol Sleng a few days later, what he meant. It was an awful experience, moving and unsettling and tear-filled. We had gotten lost on the way, consulting our guide book but unable to negotiate the streets of Phnom Pehn. My friend wanted to stop people on the street and ask them for directions. I blocked her. I couldn’t imagine asking locals to think of a place like that — a former school where just 25 years before their families, their friends, their teachers, had been imprisoned and tortured — as a tourist site. How do you commemorate atrocity? How do you keep people informed and aware of the vicious vicissitudes of the past, how to educate young people in ways to foster tolerance? My intolerant father often quoted, without attribution, Santayana’s remark about the condemnation of repeating the past. How do you do this in a way that is not ham-handed?
I look at that cheerfully framed picture of myself on the elephant, smiling and unaware, seated behind a Swastika-branded teenager. I think about the contemporary genocides, and how so many of my college students have no idea about things that have happened in their lifetime, that, as those of us who are steeped in history know, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” It makes me wonder what the best way to engage and instruct people about “HOW TERRIBLE WAR IS.” • 19 October 2012
Photograph courtesy of Rachel Toor.