One afternoon several years ago, I was roaming the grounds of Angkor Wat, a giant abandoned temple complex in western Cambodia, when I spotted a group of four elephants, taking a smoke break.
When I say “taking a smoke break”, I mean that the elephants were taking a break from their work, which was hauling howdah-fuls of sightseers around the ruins, not that they were literally smoking cigarettes. I knew then and I know now that elephants are not biologically capable of smoking cigarettes. They don’t even have real lips.
Nonetheless, when I revive the scene in my memory, the four of them are lounging in the warm dappled sunshine, casually smoking and chatting about, I suppose, politics or which mahouts was a little too quick with the goad or whatever elephants would chat about if they could talk. Which they cannot.
The four were a fair distance away, perhaps 100 meters, but much closer, there was a girl at a table selling bananas. Great idea: I’ll buy a big bunch of bananas and give them those elephants, and they’ll be my friends. I’d never had any friends who were elephants before and it sounded like fun.
So I bought a big hand of bananas for a dollar — all business transactions in Cambodia are conducted in American money — and started walking towards the elephants. Almost instantly, the elephants saw the bananas and started walking towards me.
But quickly, each elephant realized a problem. There was only about a kilo of bananas, versus some 15,000 kilos of elephants — and whichever elephant got there first would get most or all of the bananas. It was therefore advisable for each elephant to reach me slightly earlier than his fellows.
So each elephant started trying to walk slightly faster than the other three. At first they were ambling, then strolling, then striding, then trotting, then running, then thundering — towards me. 15,000 kilos of hungry elephant thundering towards me.
“Well,” I reflected resignedly. “That idea about making friends with elephants with bananas, certainly the worst and probably the last idea of my life.”
Elephants are actually pretty compassionate or perhaps they just didn’t want to endanger the bananas, but in any case, they didn’t trample me. They raced up to me, then came to a last-second stop and just crowded up around me. They began to importune me for food.
One snaked his trunk around my arm. You know elephants are strong, you have seen drawings of an elephant shifting logs with his trunk, but you don’t understand how strong they really are until one grabs your arm and you realize that it could pull that arm off you as easily as you could pull a banana off a bunch — which is exactly what I did: pull a banana off the bunch and place it on the wrinkly underside of the trunk wrapped around my arm. The elephant had to let me go to toss his banana into his moist triangular garbage bin of a mouth.
Another guy put the tip of his trunk right in my face. Another surprise: the pink quivering snout was damp with mucus, piggish and big, the size of a dinner plane, and each nostril was almost wide enough for me to put my fist in. This I did not do, and just gave him a banana too.
The smallest of the four, although still bigger than a UPS van, was hanging back. The other three were keeping their gigantic faces pushed right up to mine, but this guy seemed discouraged, as if he were just going through the motions and did not expect to receive his portion. I wriggled my arm through the begging trunks and tossed him a banana. It fell short and was snatched up by one of the other elephants; I tried again and this time he caught it in the air. As he downed the banana he gave me a look I still don’t understand.
Of course, my small store of fruit was quickly exhausted, and the four pachyderms looked at my empty hands, looked at each other, shrugged, and wandered back to resume their smoke break.