Day One: A lesson in dung

As it turns out, throwing balls of elephant dung is slightly cathartic...and maybe not nearly as romantic as I'd I imagined.

After a four hour flight from Dubai, I landed in Colombo, surrounded by swaying palms and lush green. Amal was there to meet me and, along with two girls from China, we were off. As was the case when I traveled in Tanzania, the windy roads and bizarre traffic patterns mean that a seemingly straightforward drive is anything but. The drive from Colombo to the project site took about two hours. In the US, it would have been about 45 mins. Though, the creative interpretation of lanes could be a solution to Portland's ever-growing traffic nightmare. 

At the project house, which is located about a kilometer from the elephant camp, I met the coordinator, Rosiee. Her friendly nature and warm smile were a welcome sight after such a long journey. Other volunteers were also there, all from the UK.

At dinner, we made small talk. As the sole american, the first and obvious question regarded my thoughts on Donald Trump. So that was fun. It took a bit, but eventually everyone got settled and comfortable with one another. I'm currently sharing my four-bunk room with Amanda from the UK. She's on month four of a six month trek through SE Asia.

The rickety wifi was turned on at seven, and we all grabbed our devices. I've not been successful at uploading photos - but will keep trying!

But back to the poop.

After a whole-bathroom ice-cold shower followed by a squeegee of the floor reminiscent of those in Tanzania, I had a fairly excellent night's sleep on a three-inch deep mattress that succeeds mostly in reminding me of my back issues. Morning breakfast consisted of some white toast and hot-pink jam of some variety. I am quite grateful for the granola bars that I packed at the last minute! Here, as was the case in Africa, carbs are king.

Tuk tuks arrived to take us to the elephant camp. Upon arrival, we could see an elephant, one of the Raja's, standing in the distance. Two of the males are called Raja - one Podi Raja (small) and the other Loku Raja (big). Apparently, when the two of them arrived at the camp as babies, one was larger than the other (and someone really liked the name Raja). That was thirty-something years ago and now Podi Raja is about a foot taller than Loku Raja.  Loku Raja has gorgeous tusks, about four feet long. As a "tusker", he's especially sacred and valuable. I always thought that all male elephants had tusks. Not so...some females do, some males don't. A female, Queenie, had been called by the government to a religious festival but should be back soon.

Another male, Gaul, stood on a hill a bit away from the main trail. Upon seeing us and hearing Rosiee's voice, his ears flapped and he raised his trunk. We won't be approaching him, however. He's in musth - an annual three month period of heightened hormones and general friskiness. Elephants in musth are rarely approached except by mahouts and are considered to be fairly dangerous. So, Gaul is relegated to the top of the hill, chained in a group of trees. Poor dude just wants to have a night on the town...

Cleaning the beds involves tossing giant football-sized rounds of dung out of the bed area, as well as moving palm fronds in and hard sticks out. It's slightly stinky work and the likelihood of getting urine splattered all over oneself is fairly high. I learned that the hard way. I have no doubt that the mahouts, watching us from nearby in their sarongs with giant knives stuck in at the waist, shake their heads at these strange humans who come to do such work for free.

At lunchtime, Rosiee appeared with square packages for each of us - waxed deli paper with something in looping Sinhalese stamped on the outside. Inside was rice with spices and curry. Luckily, we'd remembered to bring spoons from the house. Most meals are eaten with hands, but after my morning of dung-tossing, I was grateful for the spoon.

After a long lunch and some time to read and relax down by the river, we wandered a bit further down to see the two Rajas laying in the water. Mahouts gave us each a piece of coconut husk and invited us in to scrub them down. For the record, bathing a 6,000lb elephant is a tad intimidating. But sort of incredible. Sort of like a giant dog.

Soon after, we loaded back into tuk tuks for the journey back to the home stay. Those of you who read my Africa blog know how excellent I am at sink laundry. Needless to say, sink laundry when covered in elephant business means one thing:

I'm going to need new pants.

Podi Raja

Podi Raja