I had an extremely vivid dream several months before planning a trip to Asia. In it, I was bathing an elephant in a river in Sri Lanka. The dream was detailed down to the trousers--a pair of Capri khakis with a North Face logo on the pocket. After the dream I went on an elephant washing trouser hunt and found the exact trousers in my dream at my local REI store. Six months later we were on a train to an elephant orphanage in Pinewella Sri Lanka.
At the orphanage, one can stroke baby elephants while they are bottle-fed by volunteers. If you look pathetically desperate to hold the bottle yourself, as I did, they let you. Large families and tour groups from Colombo and Kandy arrived throughout the morning to have their picture taken with elephants before piling back into waiting minivans that would take them to the next stop on the tourist trail.
I wanted more than just a photo. I wanted to live my dream.
I asked one of the elephant handlers, a mahout, “Where do the elephants bathe?” and he gestured with head and hand in the direction of the exit. Then he proceeded to burst my bubble. “Only mahouts can bathe elephants.”
I was mystified. "This isn’t like the dream at all," I said to my husband Scott while turning away from the mahout.
I felt completely deflated. Why would I have such a lifelike dream if it wasn't going to come true? I shrugged off my selfish desire and helped feed one more baby elephant before starting toward the exit.
Suddenly, I sensed I wasn’t alone. I turned around to see 85 elephants walking in my direction, but at a much quicker pace than mine. I hightailed it out the exit and watched the elephants come toward me. The elephant in the lead, but apart from the others, was enormous and very old. Two mahouts led him, one on each side, murmuring quiet direction.
Aw, how sweet, I thought. Those two men are so kind and gentle with that old elephant.
Just before the elephants reached the exit gate, a guard blew a bugle announcing to everyone in bugle range that in a minute a herd of elephants would cross the road to get to the river. Except for one elephant. Instead of heading to the river, the old elephant with the two mahouts turned away from the herd and began walking down the middle of the road.
As the threesome turned, one of the mahouts looked at me and cocked his head, “Come with us,” he gestured. So I did. I looked for Scott but couldn't see him. I finally spotted him trapped on the other side of a conga line of elephants heading to the river. He took advantage of a gap in the line and cut through the elephants so he could catch up to me.
Scott was confused. “Tris, What are you doing? Where are you going?” he asked when he reached me.
“I'm not exactly sure. But I hope I am going with this mahout to bathe this elephant!” Then I asked the mahout, Rajit, through pantomime, “Why doesn't this elephant go with the others?” He indicated that the old elephant was blind and that the place all the other elephants go to get to the river is too steep for the blind elephant to navigate.
We continued walking down the road until we came to small white bridge and a path that led to the river. I followed the elephant and the mahouts down the path. The elephant stepped carefully into old footprints that formed a ramp made by hundreds of trips down his personal path to the water.
At the river the elephant immediately began sucking water up into his trunk and spraying it on his back and over us too. Then the mahout told the elephant to get in the river, which he did.
“May I get in?” I mimed with giddy with anticipation.
Rajit motioned that I should wait. Then he told the elephant to lie down in the river, which it did. Then I got in the river.
The mahout showed me how to scrub the elephant with half a coconut husk. At first I wasn’t scrubbing hard enough but then I remembered how I did it in the dream and I quickly got the hang of it. I scrubbed his whole body. I had to kneel on top of him to reach his back. I washed his tusks, which were incredibly smooth. I gently stroked his eye lids with my hands. When the mahout asked the elephant to stand up and turn over, he did; and I washed rinsed and repeated on the other side. As I scrubbed, the elephant, relaxed and content, fell asleep in the river.
I could barely believe what was happening. It was my 50th birthday and I was exactly where I wanted to be doing exactly what I wanted to do. Dreams do come true.
The next morning I waited in the road outside the orphanage to watch the procession of eighty-five elephants head down to the river. As Rajit turned the blind elephant away from the herd he looked at me and gestured, “Come with us.”