An elephant gijou: saying thank you
My penultimate weekend with the GVI Chiang Mai project brought with it one of the most truly incredible experiences of my entire life. In fairness, I have caught myself saying that same sentence time and time again here in Thailand, but it truly is an astoundingly beautiful country full of rich experiences if only you make an effort to find them. In the small village of Huay Pakoot that I currently call home, and in all honesty I will probably continue to do long after my departure, we were privileged enough to bear witness to an elephant gijou. Now, for those of you who don’t know what that is (when I first heard the word I was convinced people were saying goujon wrong and wondering why everyone was talking about breaded chicken in the first place), an elephant gijou is a celebration of a family’s elephants. The family who owns the elephants and many other members of the community come together to cook, drink and eat to celebrate the incredible lives of these beautiful creatures. In honour of the celebration, many of us were dressed in traditional Karen dress including intricately woven tops and skirts in a plethora of different colours and patterns. It really made me feel like part of the village as I put on the skirt that my homestay, Ampha, had woven and given to me as a gift before my departure. It was shaping up to be a truly heartwarming and emotional day for everyone.
Once at the house of Dee, our lead mahout, we quickly set about trying to be as helpful as possible. Some of us settled near the kitchen and were swiftly handed a variety of vegetable preparation jobs. With a large group garlic peelers, a very enthusiastic lemon grass slicer, some meat choppers and some people manning the mortar and pestles the food preparation was soon over and the cooking could begin. Many of the group commented on the family feeling that the morning had, with some likening the atmosphere to Christmas morning or Thanksgiving. This homely and entirely welcoming atmosphere is yet more proof that one thing the village does very well is inclusion. As foreigners to the village it would be natural to assume that there might be a certain degree of segregation from the true community spirit and inner workings of the village between us and the villagers. However this perception could not be farther from the truth. In all honesty, the longer I stay in the village the more I am staggered each day by just how much we are accepted into the fold of the community. With the food preparation at an end and the very important task of cooking well underway, we all started to get very excited as the main event of the day was drawing closer.
Soon, six beautiful elephants would be arriving, ranging in age from six month-old Wan Mai to our eldest elephant Khum Suk, who is 64 years young. One of the most incredible things about the entire celebration was that all six of the elephants were related: brothers and sisters, mother and daughters, cousins, nieces and nephews: the whole day was seriously shaping up to be a family affair. So, in eager anticipation of both some incredible food and the imminent arrival of the elephants, we all sat around restlessly, trying and failing to make conversation. Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime of sitting around, three elephants made their way down the hill towards the house and settled next to the house ready for the ceremony. The bull, adult female and juvenile female were soon joined by the elephants from one of the GVI herds; Khum Suk, Kha Moon and Wan Mai. They ascended the hill towards the house, with their mahouts grinning from ear to ear at the sight of our eager faces and the rest of the family of elephants. What happened next might be the most difficult thing to actually put into words, because it was the most insanely emotional experience of my time on the project.
Crouching under the house as the six elephants were reunited was completely overwhelming. Khum Suk, the matriarch of the herd, was rumbling so loudly I could feel it in my bones. She was touching trunks with her daughter Song Kam, whom she hadn’t seen in many months – an amazing but very happy-sad moment to see. I’m not ashamed to say that the whole interaction between the elephants, the vocalisations, the trunk bounces and the mouth and trunk touches, was so overwhelming and incredible that it literally brought a tear to my eye. As the elephants lined up alongside the house, Dee’s family proceeded with the gijou celebration. They made offerings and blessed the elephants by pouring blessed rice whiskey, made by Dee’s mum, on them and putting flowers on the elephant’s heads. I think one of the aspects of the ceremony that struck me most deeply was the utter respect that the family and the other villagers had for the elephants. The whole ceremony was literally just a celebration and a thank you to the elephants, and this purity of intention made the whole gijou that much more special. As we stood in awe, staring at the incredible creatures before us, I took the time to look around at my fellow volunteers and remembered why I chose this project in the first place. Here I was, standing within touching distance of my favourite animal, surrounded by people who were equally besotted by elephants and just as engrossed as I was in the whole process. Not only does Huay Pakoot steal your heart, so too do the people that you share the experiences with. The friends I’ve made on this project I hope will be life long, I think this kind of project is the perfect place to meet kindred spirits and likeminded people.
The whole ceremony with the elephants lasted around half an hour, during which time we got to observe the elephants in much closer quarters than we have ever had the opportunity to before. Including our normally very cheeky and boisterous baby, Wan Mai, who seemed as overwhelmed and in awe of the whole experience as we were! Hiding under his mum and grandmother, trying to make friends with Bai Fern and stealing bananas, his beautiful wee personality is very much beginning to show through. Sadly, the elephants had to leave the ceremony and were led by their mahouts back into the forest. I am, smugly, happy to report that I was not the only volunteer to tear up. As the elephants walked away from us, many of the volunteers were emotionally overwhelmed by the experience, crying because (and this is a direct quote) “It was just so cool!!”. Our elephants are so lucky that they are so loved and respected by the humans in their lives. Our lead mahout Dee said about his elephant that ‘he believes she has helped him through life so he wants to give something back to her’. As sad as the departure of the elephants was it did turn our attention to other urgencies – namely food and alcohol. As we re-settled ourselves in Dee’s house, faced with many bowls of a smoked pork soup and some minced, spicy pork and also an entire bottle of rice whiskey, it looked like the day was only going to get better. The villagers gradually started to disperse and we walked up towards base hut each trying to process the incredible experience that we had just been involved in. It is an experience which still causes many of the volunteers to get emotional today, and is a part of my time in Huay Pakoot which I will truly never forget.
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