Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Did you know elephants are ticklish? I did not know this until Dr. Byers told me after I climbed down the back of the elephant, grasping at the animal’s soft hide I just finished going in circles on. 

We were scheduled to have our elephant ride last Thursday, unfortunately the adventure was canceled because:
The elephant had the flu.

Luckily, he recovered after a week of rest and we were on our way to the grounds where the elephants lived. Now, let me say that these elephants are not treated poorly, malnourished or overworked. They are well fed, given baths weekly and used to help with labor and work in the city of Ahmedabad. At first glance I thought I walked into a single-animal zoo, but Dr. B’s wise words and past experience told me that these animals were well taken care of – this only sunk in after I had time to reflect. This blog post is dedicated to reflection and the question of what I stand for. Jennifer wrote a similar blog  about this experience and what she stands for going into the new year and it’s important to remember that what we stand for changes and is always hard to define. 

When we arrived I couldn’t get out of the vehicle fast enough. I had never seen an elephant so beautifully painted, with pastel colors red and blue drawn intricately on the animals hide.  Of course, I anxiously walk towards the one where a man stands and he suddenly waves his hands across his body motioning, “No, no, no!” I stop and realize the elephant was going to be given a bath. I definitely can’t touch that elephant is what ran through my mind at the point, no matter how much I like wildlife, but I did. 
First touch of an elephant ever!
After making the decision to ride the elephant Jennifer and I walked over to the elephant that the men pulled to a concrete wall for us to climb on and then hop on the back of the animal. When I say “hop” I mean struggle. Jennifer of course volunteered me to go first and so I follow the man’s advice and attempt to wrap my gangly arms around this ginormous animal whose skin was surprisingly slippery because it was so soft. Five minutes passed and I was still not on the elephant but somehow with one giant leap and swinging of my arms and legs I was on top and bracing myself for dear life. Jennifer was next.

Let us just say this; Jen was not so willing to get on after she realized how large the animal was or seeing the man who lead the elephant whack the animal with a bamboo stick.  (This is where Dr. Byers’ comment on it only tickling the elephant comes in, we didn’t know that at the time, however.) Jen had a difficult time mustering up the courage to continue on with this delayed adventure but she hopped on more graciously than I and we were ready to go. 
It's harder than it looks.
We're off!
A quick jolt woke me up to a greater reality that I was riding on an animal that I consistently saw in captivity at home in the zoos. That I was riding on an animal that was being used to do labor, better than what happens to other elephants in the country, but I was getting pleasure out of something that one member of our team believed was inhumane. Chris is an animal activist who did thought it was unjust to ride an animal for enjoyment or using animals for labor. Seeing Chris’ face made my heart break. 

We continued around a small, grassed area where my emotions were fluctuating. I was on a natural high due to my excitement, I kept thinking: I am in India and riding an elephant?!, but I was also wondering why I was sitting on that elephant in the first place after seeing Chris’ face. He was obviously upset and usually when I see people who are upset I go and ask them what is wrong. I knew what was wrong but I put myself and my mission first and disregarded his. Chris was so sure of himself and where he stood and so was I. I was someone who stood by their friends and family in their decisions and opinions but here I didn’t. We rode around twice more, one time we saw the elephant use the loo, which I thought was hilarious, another he stopped to get a bite to eat. The experience made me feel so many different emotions that I didn’t know what to do with myself afterwards.
Jen is beginning to become a little overwhelmed.
I'm beginning to be overwhelmed by the elephant.
An elephant just used the loo.
The elephant smiled for Carole.
Nice elephant, nice elephant. Please don't make any more abrupt motions.
Now our elephant is using the loo!
When climbing down from the elephant Jen practically jumped off and ran away confused by her own emotions and the experience we just shared. I climbed down, in a not-so-classy fashion, and simply was thinking: Wow, I just did that and I am so confused by what I believe in now…. If you say that in a lax bro voice, you know what the voice in my head sounds like when I am very confused. 
Jen is off the elephant and running away.
After we left I shared my experiences with the students and they were very understanding but also very confused. They thought it was perfectly normal to ride an elephant and find it enjoyable. One student even said, “How many times can you say that? Live it up!” I laughed at this and though, this is true. I am becoming a person who likes to live in the moment, but at what cost?  

Since New Years and the much delayed publication of this post I have thought about what I stand for. I realized there are many things that I do advocate for and stand against. I am currently President of Active Minds, a mental health awareness organization on Marquette’s campus that fights to reduce the stigma against mental disorders, I was involved in Gay Straight Alliance in high school and continue to fight for gay rights at Marquette through my beat on the Tribune and through campus clubs.  I stand for equality, equal rights and I stand for everyone to have the freedom to voice their opinions, ideals and to exercise their morals. The moments that I was on the elephant with Jen made me question my beliefs but they also made me realize that the things I do fight for I do so with my whole heart. The elephant ride was not just a tourist attraction or on the list of “Thing I have to do in India,” it was a wakeup call for me and my commitment to what I strive for. So, all in all, thank you dear elephant, and thank you dear India for the lessons you taught me.

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    Andrea is a recent graduate from the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University with a double major in journalism and Spanish.

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