Through Thai paddy fields by elephantThe elephants had been plodding along quietly in the heat of the day. The somniferous air and the rhythmic swaying of the great beast under my body lulled me into a dreamlike trance. Then without warning the elephant behind me sneezed and let out a great low rumble that vibrated across the valley. She swung round on the path until she was facing the undergrowth below the track. My elephant jolted round too, letting out a high-pitched trumpet that tore through the air and bounced around the hills, blasting my ears. My dreamlike trance was replaced with shock, then fear.
Earlier, as I'd headed out on my journey, the only sound had been the dull slap of my elephant's ears against her head, swipers that would crush any insect that dared to land within their reach; that and the quiet squelch of water as the female carefully planted each footprint into those of the elephant's in front, leaving circular waterlogged pools the size of dinner plates.
From the elephant's back, I could see the valley stretching out on either side of me. Beyond the muddy path, a farmer worked the land with his rotivator, his form mirrored in the still waters between the fresh green plants. To his right, paddy workers hunkered down by the water's edge, eating a breakfast of rice and papaya.
We passed on by farm dwellings: raised, open-sided buildings with corrugated tin roofs; motor bikes and farm equipment stored beneath their stilts. In a garden children made mud pies from the sticky red clay under a line of wet washing. Behind them a row of upside-down wellies dried out on wooden stakes.
We continued on through the hamlet, passing wooden shrines with offerings of Fanta cans, on past water tanks of fish or frogs and squares of cultivated fruit and vegetables.
On and on we plodded, the elephants flanks sashaying to and fro. It was then I noticed my bearer was heavily pregant. I wondered if she felt the weight - her mahout on her head, two passengers and her unborn baby.
We headed down to the river. My elephant scooped up muddy brown water in her trunk and squirted it into her mouth, drinking thirstily. She waded along the stream before joining the mud track again.
I caressed her back. Her hide was thick and rough like stone. Dust gathered between the crevices. Her skin was as wrinkled and tough as a thousand year old woman. I wondered if she could feel my fingers on her body - or was it just the faintest sensation - like a tickle?
It was at that point on the journey that my elephant had startled and swung round. It was unclear what had disturbed the two elephants. Had the female behind caught a glimpse of a shadowy movement through her tiny inadequate eyes? Did something cause her to sniff the air, then sneeze? Had she heard something in the undergrowth? The elephants sudden movements had taken me by surprise. The calm lollop and the near silence in the valley had lulled me into a false sense of security. Now, the swift violent reaction of the beasts made me aware that I was not much more than a gnat on the elephant's back. As she swung round, I grabbed the rope that secured me to the makeshift wooden seat. It was then that she let out an ear-splitting trumpet followed by a long low growl. I felt her great bulk tremble, a small earthquake under my legs. As the sound tore through the air, I was sure this single creature had produced the same number of decibels as an orchestra at full volume.
Later we wondered what exactly had disturbed the elephants. A snake in the grass? Some other threat hidden in the undergrowth? Or was it simply because the elephant behind had sneezed, scaring herself and our skittish pregnant elephant in front?
Then as quickly as the commotion had arisen, our elephants were quietly picking their way through the footprints again, ears flapping, tails swishing, dreaming of the bananas that were waiting for them at the end of the road.