As volunteers, we have the opportunity to ride the elephants. Today, which has turned out to be my last day at the project, I chose not to take my turn. Let me tell you why.
Sri Lanka has many characteristics that remind me of Tanzania. Corruption is simply soaked into the fibers of the tourism industry. Everything has a catch; every referral has a kickback; and nothing is simple. It's part of what makes it exhilarating, and perhaps what many tourists turn a blind eye to, but also makes it exhausting.
I was told that my work was to be part of an "elephant rehabilitation camp" and that I'd be helping with day to day care of elephants. That much is true. Though, interpretation of the term "rehabilitation" appears to be a bit subjective.
Elephants are simply part of the culture in many Asian countries and Sri Lanka is no different. For centuries, they've been revered creatures, part of religious festivals and ever-present in art and story. They've also been beasts of burden. Used for logging and building, similar to an ox or horse, elephants have immense value. Elephants were captured from the wild, "broken" and domesticated.
Today, it is illegal to take elephants from the wild. Only those born in captivity are able to be trained and utilized for religious reasons or profit. And elephant safari (riding) is big business.
I've become a bit disillusioned to see that the camp where I've been working isn't so much a rehabilitation center as it is a successful part of the elephant economy. Granted, because of our presence, the elephants get far more attention and cleaner surroundings than they would if we weren't here. It's difficult and frustrating though, to watch multiple white vans full of tourists roll in for rides. Going down the road, I've passed many places advertising elephant rides, some in places with little to no shade and one sad elephant with four or five or six sunburned tourists on her back. Comparatively, where I've been is far better. The elephants have night beds that we clean daily, after they've been moved to their day beds. And at the end of the day, we bathe them in the river. They are given lots of fresh palm and greens, banana wood and coconut, and seem happy to see us. Waving at Queenie, Manica, or Loku Raja or even Gaul from his musth bed results in ears waving back at us and a raised trunk. They seem to be in good spirits. It's bittersweet, really.
But it's still hard to watch them used as a means of income. Though, I struggle with how (or if) this differs from pony rides or something similar with an animal deemed less exotic to my western self.
After a hard day's work on Monday, yesterday (Tuesday) a few of us went to one of Sri Lanka's biggest tourist attractions, the Pinnewalla Elephant Orphanage. And, while truly a tourist magnet, parts of it are quite cool. Many elephants are chain-free and spend their days with time in a large range or the river. Others who haven't been there long enough or have proven aggressive still have chains and ever-present mahouts with them. Again, my heart was torn. Spending a bit of time interacting with two youngsters with curious trunks made me laugh.
My solo travel plans will take me to Kandy, a small-ish city to the east. From there, I'll take the train to the mountainous tea country town of Ella. The six hour trek between Kandy and Ella on old, British-era trains is often written about as one of the most picturesque in the world. I'm excited to spend a few quiet days in the mountains.
And so...since Rosiee was planning on taking some volunteers to Kandy tomorrow, it just made sense for me to tag along for the free ride and simply stay there. I hadn't planned on leaving the volunteer stay so soon. Alas, being flexible and open to change is a cardinal rule of travel in the developing world...as is a large supply of tissues, hand sanitizer, and wet wipes.
So I didn't ride Queenie today. Instead, I fed her some bananas and gave her as much love as I could. Working around the elephants and their mahouts with the other volunteers has been amazing.
Alas, it's time to move on.
The home stay and those I've met have been colorful parts of the journey. While I'm looking forward to real mattresses, hot water, and a restroom without a queue, I'll miss the constant chatter of languages and accents. I'll miss the faint sounds of a nearby Buddhist temple or the call to prayer of a mosque, wavering in and out dependent on the wind, or the sounds of rain on the roof. It's time for me to operate again on my own schedule. I've got a loose plan for my final week in Sri Lanka, though I'm armed with the expectation that things will change.
That, and plenty of tissues, sanitizer, and wipes.