Big Red: How I Learned Simplicity from a Suitcase


The long-awaited Elephant Safari Ride!

I have a dramatic vision of the elephant scooping me up with its trunk and deftly placing me on its back, just like in the circus. Instead I step onto the platform with the help of my mahout, or elephant driver. He tells me her name is Mumbai as I cautiously step into the basket. He situates me close to the elephant’s head, straddling her with my legs, which are hanging out the sides of the basket. It almost seems as if he is trying to ensure that all 100 pounds of me can keep the entire basket balanced atop this lightweight of 12,000 pounds. Not possible, I think with amusement and doubt, but he is so intent on making sure I am secure and safe that I don’t worry. As we lurch our way into the jungle I have an adrenaline rush and want to pinch myself. I’m riding a real elephant into a real jungle.

Three hours later we head back. I’m disappointed that we haven’t seen any exotic lions or tigers, or anything else of much interest. But it’s not over yet. My guide asks if I want to ride Mumbai back to home base. I assume he means for me sit behind him on the elephant’s neck. Although this isn’t on my bucket list of things to do before I die, being in the moment, I respond with a yes.

I realize my guide is making no attempt to join me. I assume he’s going to use a rope to lead Mumbai back. No. He hands me the elephant goad he used. Unnerved, I have no idea how to direct an elephant, with or without an elephant goad. This was definitely not listed in my travel itinerary under must-do.

I lean down to hand the guide my camera so he can take my picture. The picture taken, I wait for him to lead the way. Instead he jogs a few feet ahead, snaps one more picture, then takes off running, with my camera. Are you kidding me? What kind of guide abandons a tourist in the middle of a jungle, let alone one sitting atop a 12,000-pound elephant? How the hell am I supposed to find my way out? Fear washes over me. I blow out a series of short breaths. My mind is busy cataloging the possible dangers. What if the elephant gets spooked by one of those as yet unseen Bengal tigers or a sloth bear or a jackal? What if I fall off and get trampled? Surely the guy is coming back?

After a while, my so-called guide still nowhere to be seen, I realize I am alone. Totally alone. On top of a huge beast. In the middle of nowhere. Feel free to laugh if you want. Petrified and fuming, I have no option other than to cling to the elephant’s neck. Something tells me sitting upright and maintaining balance is key. Instead I’m half on, half off her neck, grasping her long strands of hair as we go down a steep hill. The basket tilts at such an angle that I feel as if I’m about to be shot out of a cannon.

As we move forward, holding on with a life-or-death grip, my legs flailing against her sides, I pray that Mumbai has the way committed to memory. Elephants never forget, right?