Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Secret Lives of Elephants: A Photo Odyssey

The Secret And Remarkable Lives of Elephants
We all know that Elephants are remarkable creatures, but until very recently we didn’t know how remarkable. It was on a two-year expedition to previously unexplored regions of both Africa and South East Asia that I was able to gain the trust of these ponderous pachyderms to the point where they let me photograph them in there normally secret activities and feats that have never before been witnessed by humans. Elephants, as it turns out, have amazing skills in music, dance, in athletic performances and even in the metaphysical.

Burmese Jungles and Elephant Ballads

At one point, having hacked our way through the deep jungles of Burma for weeks, sharing meals and stories with Tribal people including the neck-ring wearing Padueng, some of whom had never seen westerners before, and seeing nothing but malaria mosquitoes, leeches and venomous snakes, we were rewarded with a truly inspiring sight. We actually heard it before we saw it. An eerie but incredibly beautiful melody, a haunting harmony punctuated by rap-like bellows and an deep rumbling base that came up through the ground and reverberated into our chests. And then, as we parted the vines and tropical leaves, there before us, four of the huge beasts, trunks upraised, stood together and harmonized in their elephant ballad that spoke of eons of history, of heartache and accomplishment, of lost brothers and sisters, and of hopes for the future.

Bangkok, Disco Dancing and an Elephant in a Bar

But our elephant adventure was not confined to the Burmese rain forests. In the back alleys of Bangkok, where tourists are never seen and darkness hides the comings and goings of those who frequent unlikely venues, we were ushered into a cavernous unmarked warehouse whose plain and pedestrian exterior belied the extraordinary scene within. A huge, pulsing room filled with a flashing staccato strobe and streaming colored lights washing over a crowd swaying to the music and surrounding a towering bull elephant standing upright and disco dancing with surprising agility. When the music stopped the hulking animal lumbered over to the bar (you may have heard about the elephant who walked into a bar…) and enlisted three stools as he settled himself in at the bar for a little libation.

Angkor Wat, a Buddhist Monk, and a High Wire Act
But the athletic ability of elephants isn’t, as it turns out, limited to dancing. In yet another jungle clearing, this one not far from Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat, an ancient, leathery Buddhist monk led us to a sight I will never forget.  Among the fallen stones of a long forgotten temple, the elephants had set up a school, a school of performing arts, and we were lucky enough to witness one young adolescent practicing his high wire act with the help of a balance beam.  As we watched another youngster drifted by in the background clinging to a balloon with his trunk. In the corner of my eye I caught one elephant practicing his chameleon act changing from grey to pink in just an instant.  As awesome an experience as it was we couldn’t linger. We had to press on with our journey of investigation into the secret world of elephants.

Flying Elephants, Elephants Hiding in Trees, and Elephants in the Room

In the course of our mission we saw flying elephants, we saw elephants hiding in trees, and even elephants practicing yoga. But perhaps the most amazing ability of all that we witnessed in the elephant repertoire, is a metaphysical ability, the ability to slip virtually undetected into any room in which a conversation is taking place, and to remain undetected as long as the conversation continues. I myself witnessed, and photographed, such feats more than once (once in a hospital recovery room, and again in an office).

The End of Our Odyssey, and One Last Treat

Eventually we had to end our odyssey. Our funds had run out and it was time to get back to work. But the elephants had one last treat for me. As we headed to the airport on our back home, I took one last glance out the back of the cab and caught a glimpse of a lone elephant emerging from a side road and then disappearing into the distance…on a unicycle.

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