“Moderately Free”: Elephant Washing in Tangkahan
Its skin didn’t feel the way I’d expected. It was prickly to the touch and rough, like cactus spears against my outstretched palm. I withdrew it swiftly as the giant haunch buckled, and the majestic mass began to lower itself into the muddied waters lapping at my thighs.
Men’s voices, cropped and commanding, rose above the thick hum of cicadas. The three fully grown elephants lowered themselves with domino synchronicity into the shallows of the Kualsa Buluh river as the men circled, clicking with their tongues and depositing small stiff brushes into the tentative hands of the afternoon’s tourists.
In the small village of Tangkahan in Sumatra’s north, twice a day these elephants are ridden across the river from their paddocks by men astride their necks. I’d come here on the recommendation of a friend of a friend who’d recently visited on an eco-travel tour. He described the elephant washing as “ethical enough; they don’t get ridden, only washed. Be careful of the babies though as they can get pretty cheeky.” I’d done my research to try and get a grasp on what exactly “ethical enough” was, and the fact that all proceeds went towards conservation efforts was enough to console me.
The brushes’ bristles are used to scrub them clean in the river waters by a small group who gather cautiously around them. There were no chains and no obvious cruelty. I knew that this was the experience that I had signed up for, but it somehow didn’t hold the magical, intimate quality that’s so often depicted: a soul deepening cross-species connection, staring into an elephant’s eyes and feeling at one with Mother Earth together.
But there one lay before me, in solemn splendour. Her face would disappear momentarily beneath the turbid surface before reemerging again with trunk aloft. Overcome with a kind of tender curiosity, I stepped forward through the water slapping against us to press my hands against the contours of her face, her sunken eyes. Her ears beat like wings back and forth, with what, I couldn’t tell – complacency? Irritation? If she moved too suddenly in any way, the guides would warningly flick their whip-like sticks.
The reality settled that, although they were unchained and with their babies by their sides, these elephants cows had undergone the process of spirit crushing. The suddenly ridiculous notion of freedom and ethical interaction that I’d had melted away before my eyes.
I peppered the guides with questions: was this good for their skin? Did they enjoy it? How could the guides tell? How often were the elephants scrubbed? These queries were batted away and deflected with meagre answers – yes it is, good for circulation, no bugs, yes they like, they happy. I held my doubts. The weight of my hand, so light on her back, was enough to hold her down against her will.
The guide who had taken me there, Firman (he preferred “Fireman”), dutifully clicked away from the safety of the banks, alternating between phone and camera. I’d wanted documentation of the encounter I’d waited so long for with what now seems like naiveté. The prickly, cheeky babies dashed around on their own accord, eating bananas from our hands and terrorising their mums with mini stampedes aimed at their legs.
As I reflected on the experience in days to come, I realised I’d wanted it to be something that it wasn’t. I stared out of plane windows and conjured images of the babies’ bulging eyes and inquisitive little trunks wrapping around bananas in my mind. But as the reality of their futures eclipsed any happy feelings, the memories turned to gossamer in my hands and floated away.
All I had were photos: photos that represented the experience of a million other people who’d been looking and hoping for the same connection. Photos that in no way represented the reality of paying to stand in front of a non-wild animal, in a non-wild environment.
Our social media feeds are flooded with images exactly like the ones I got that day with the elephants of Tangkahan: sunbleached skies and wide smiles, peaceful interactions, new profile pictures. Upon reflection, my own experience was something that was profoundly humbling in many ways, but left me with more questions than any kind of satisfaction or true connection.
Is it some distorted human instinct that because we hold power over an animal, they somehow deserve or yearn for our comforting touch? Do they crave that same connection, or does it exist only in the prism of human ego?
I once heard the concept of freedom described as an absolute; just as one cannot be moderately loved or moderately dead, one cannot be moderately free. In an interaction as primally unnatural as man and elephant, even when the elephant is “moderately free”, what kind of experience are we expecting when we form a line for a seat in the bandwagon?
The day after the elephant washing, answering the prayers of inner recluse, I asked Firman for a destination that might provide some space away from the hordes of weekend tourists from Medan, the capital city a few hours away. Being one of the only foreign tourists on this particular weekend, I was feeling a bit like a creature on display. I was followed in fascination by women, men and teenage boys holding cameras and phones inconspicuously aloft as I passed in my daring one piece, asking for group photos. What was at first an amusing situation became increasingly uncomfortable, with my bare legs and arms exposed and photographed without consent by smiling strangers.
So Firman took me for a walk downstream of a different river, further out of the village. This river was quiet, closed in by walls of growth and eventually the imposing sides of a gorge. Far from the local bathing spots, where monitor lizards baked deathly still on dry banks.
We walked for an hour along a shallow riverbed until we reached the last pebbled bank before the river closed off to the gorge, becoming a glimmering rush of turquoise blue that seemed lit from within. With a wisened “hati-hati” (Indonesian for “careful”), Firman pointed onwards and beckoned that I go ahead alone. He took charge of my bag to give me freedom to swim. At last glance before disappearing around a turn, I saw him grappling it from a macaque monkey, but he gave me a thumbs up and I trusted him.
I didn’t take anything with me: no camera, no phone. There was nothing but the occasional butterfly and ceaseless whir of the jungle. Snakelike turns lead to endless waterfalls and small beaches of washed pebbles. I paddled and clambered through gullies and currents for what felt like hours, lost in a haze of colours, cleansed by the mineral taste of fresh water on my skin and embraced by the humidity.
I don’t speak too much about this experience, and I have no photos to guide my memory. But I think about it often. I’ve committed to memory the only time I’ve felt so in touch with what it is to be in nature. I really felt her that day.