The wild elephant encounter

In 2003, an Italian NGO and UNICEF contracted me to go to Anaradapura in Sri Lanka and teach on the subject of gender-based violence. As part of the assignment, I was ensconced in a small house on the grounds of a hotel resort run by a Sri Lankan and his Italian wife.

These were special accommodations. The grounds were shrouded by a 12-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire. The facility inside was beyond beautiful, and its special nature was by design. Frequent guests included UN staff, humanitarian aid workers, and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. During my stay, the area was also being used to accommodate the hotel owner’s mother-in-law. I was told these accommodations would help ensure I would not fall ill during the six-week stay.

Each day after conducting training, I would hurry out the facility’s back gate to look upon a nearby reservoir. Just beyond the fence was a set of stone benches. The view was peaceful and beautiful. One day as I sat on a bench enjoying the view, I spied a huge bill elephant with tusks in the reservoir, about a quarter mile away. It was thrilling to see a wild elephant. Later, the owner of the hotel was overjoyed by the news of my elephant sighting. He said no guest and none of his workers ever reported witnessing elephants at the reservoir.

I continued to visit the reservoir just beyond the gate. With each visit my appreciation for the reservoir’s beauty grew. Sometimes I had to run across the grounds to make my way beyond the gate and reach the benches to have enough time to linger before nightfall.

One day I ran across the grounds, shoved open the back gate, and started to run instinctively in the direction of the benches. But I stopped myself abruptly when I realized something was right in front of me, so large that I had not been able to notice it. I looked up and found myself staring into the eyes of a wild elephant staring right back at me. I felt mesmerized by the elephants large eyes. In that moment I felt only love.

What must have been a profound silence was eventually broken by a whispered shout. It was the hotel owner calling out to me, telling me to not move. From my point of view, from inside the encounter, I felt completely at ease, and because of that I told the hotel owner to just shut up.

After a few minutes, the elephant moved away and found a patch of ground to give itself a dirt bath. I sat down on the bench and promptly began journaling about my encounter. I did not appreciate the dirt that was flying onto the pages of my journal, and I yelled at the elephant and demanded it stop. The elephant did not stop. Instead, the elephant lay down at my feet and slept for a half hour. When it finally rose, the elephant stood before me and showed me its knee. Apparent was an injury. Walking off silently into the same jungle from where it came, the elephant left and I started to cry.

The owner rushed out from the protected compound, excited and relieved. He informed me that no one ever lives to tell a story about an intimate encounter with a wild elephant. Being an American, I had no idea about this one way or the other. Fear was not at all a part of my feelings from this experience.

At the training the next morning, all thirty of the students bowed reverently to me. Somehow they had heard about my wild elephant encounter and all they wanted to do was talk about it. They bowed to me reverently and, jokingly, I encouraged them to teach this kind of respect to my children. At lunchtime, I ate with the students. As is local custom, we ate without the aid of utensils, just clean hands to scoop up my curried rice and vegetables. I was served a special rice dish by the cook, who also had heard about my encounter. Back at the hotel, I found an altar honoring the Hindu elephant diety Ganesh. I decorated it with food and flowers. Later, I saved food from the buffet and gave the food to the women sweepers who would come to my window every early morning, singing the Gayatri Mantra, a sacred Hindu hymn.