Ratanakiri, Cambodia – I made plans with friends to spend Christmas abroad with a minority tribe in what is called the Dragon’s tail, as part of our work in a northern province of Cambodia. Our families were halfway around the world, so we used the opportunity to break from our efforts to see how they celebrated Christmas in a climate and country so very different from our own. It was a jungle as you would picture it, complete with Asian tigers, lions, and a river from China that cuts through the lush green tangle. It was also the home some of the most awesome land mammals on earth.
One of the locals invited us to help water the elephants that had been part of his family for generations helping in the cultivation of rubber trees. It meant several hours riding behind the head of a creature who could shift the moon tide with a motion of its immense grey hide. Eager to climb on, I soon discovered the spine-crushing power of each step, like a steady drumbeat of anvils beneath my tailbone. One of them, hungry for a bite, reached over and snapped a tree in half as easy as reaching for the salt across the table.
We arrived at a waterfall just perfect for diving into the pool below. Six pachyderms descended into the water to bathe themselves and drink their daily ration of 50-ish gallons of water per day. We jumped in with them, leaping from one to another playing “King of the Elephants” off their backs, hoping to be the last man standing. With little concept of time, we played in the river, lazed on rocks in the sun, ate fruits off the trees, and watched the elephants graze.
The late afternoon sun gave us a new angst, the realization of the way back to retrieve our dirt bikes, followed by a long trip to our destination village where we would spend Christmas Day. Now it would seem, we would make that long trek on the rutted road in the dark.
I braced my tailbone for our return and reflected on our amazing day as we rode through the jungle on the backs of elephants. I could not imagine a more perfect afternoon and the lesson that spontaneity afforded us on that day. I could also not predict what was to come on the harrowing trip we would take that night…(to be continued).