Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The elephants…

After my family left, we got back to work seriously. I had a few interesting encounters in the forest (see this and the next entry). The most exciting was seeing 20 elephants one morning. As I was walking out to one of my groups, the field assistant suddenly stopped as we were rounding a corner and said “elephants”. When I looked down the path, I saw several medium to big elephants crossing the trail about 50 meters in front of us. They went off into the forest to the left of the trail and we heard them thrashing about. The field assistant, Jimmy, insisted that we go back down the trail to get away from them. Field assistants are notorious for being afraid of elephants and running from them. Not that I am complaining. Generally, it is good to run from elephants, but not when they are so far away and not bothered by you. After standing further down the trail for a few seconds, I got anxious to see what was happening, so I moved back up. We climbed up the side of the trail a little bit to see if we could see where they were, but we could only see the trees moving. Then one trumpeted very loud. Jimmy yelled “they know we’re here!” and pushed me backwards down the trail. We waited back again and finally I asked if we could find another way around. He said yes, we could go through the swamp, so we turned around to make our way around them in the other direction. About 5 steps later, I started thinking about me and my clumsiness in the swamp and elephants that were headed to the swamp and us trying to sneak around them. I realized that this was a terrible idea and was immediately frightened, but I was trying to act tough. So I waited until we were starting to walk down into the swamp to say “Hey Jimmy, maybe we should listen to see if we hear any elephants in the swamp before we go down there.” He agreed and we listened and immediately heard elephants. Good enough, Jimmy was just as scared as me, so we scurried back up to the main trail. We decided to go back to where we saw the elephants and see if they had left. We got to the point we had been at before and all was quiet to the left of us. They had clearly already headed down to the swamp. So we started walking forward on the path when we heard crashing and trumpeting to our right. More elephants were coming and they were about to cross right in front of us. So we went back to the bend in the road and I staked out a spot for prime elephant viewing. In the midst of this, Jimmy was sure to tell me how those elephants we saw weren’t really that big. How he had seen much bigger ones before. Got it. So next, of course, this massive, massive male with huge tusks comes stomping onto the trail. He crosses and is followed immediately by a tiny little baby. This thing was so small it could barely make its way up the other side of the trail and its little butt stuck out trying to heave itself up. Then another small, but slightly bigger baby went by, then another tiny, tiny one, and finally, another huge male. It was awesome. Jimmy and I were playing a constant game of him forcing me to move back and me coaxing him forward on the trail. We heard more coming, so we waited and watched. A variety of medium sized and large elephants crossed the trail in 2’s and 3’s until 20 had crossed. Overall, this whole thing took about an hour. I was thrilled. I don’t usually carry a camera out to the forest because it is extra weight and it would basically be a biohazardous material by the end of it with all the poop and pee that lands on me, but that day I was thinking it would really have been great to have it. At the same time, I sometimes think that cameras block us form really “seeing” things, so I was also a bit happy that I just took in the sight of these huge elephants bounding across the forest trail in front of me without fumbling for a camera or having my view obstructed by a lens. I won’t soon forget those images, anyway.

Jimmy and I went on to search for our group and we ended up in the swamp with elephants crashing around nearby. Jimmy insisted that we were in a safe area, but we were walking over semi-fresh elephant tracks. It just seemed wrong to be in a swamp with elephants hopping over big elephant footprints and piles of dung. We finally reached a point where we needed to wait for the elephants to move to get access to the group. I decided my time was better spent at home doing data entry and other computer work. So I headed off on my own. Let me just say that the walk back was intense and there were several back and forth’s with trying to identify the groups I came across. None of them ended up being the group we had been looking for, but it was so hard to focus when I was so nervous about bumping into an elephant while I’m staring up into a tree. When I finally made it back out onto the main trail, I found a beautiful sight. The sun was shining through the green foliage onto the trail and hundreds of butterflies were floating all over the place. It was beautiful. It was a perfect butterfly garden. In all reality, butterflies are really disgusting creatures that are attracted to poop and dead things, so I’m sure having had elephant poop all over the trail, in addition to the usual monkey poop, was a real perk for these butterflies. This was actually the moment I was most wishing I had a camera. There was plenty of time to take in the butterflies all around me AND get some good shots. But I still was camera-less. It was very peaceful and calming, though.

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