AN HOUR OFF THE PLANE TO SRI LANKA, my taxi rolled up on this huge elephant just standing on the side of the road. “Stop,” I said. The driver stopped in the middle of the road. No other cars in sight. Raw nature in every direction. And this incredible elephant, just staring at us.
I snapped a few photos — the elephant didn’t move an inch. So I passed the camera to the driver and approached it slowly, one nervous step at a time. Moments later, I was face to face with this ancient creature. Its sad dark eyes and cavernous wrinkles. A thousand years, that’s what it felt like. I placed my hand on its forehead. Just for a second. A second that would last rest of my life. Scared. Awed. Stupified. There are no words.
And when I got back into the car my driver said, “Please, never do that again.” He gave me that Indian side-to-side head wobble, that means so many things and nothing all at once. “You might have been killed,” he continued.
He was a terrible photographer, that cabbie. But it didn’t matter.
Two weeks later, I’ve seen dozens of wild elephants and heard even more stories. Stories about them overturning cars, smashing the occupants, even stopping tanks in their tracks. Tanks! There was war in Sri Lanka, and there are elephants.
My final night I spent in this filthy city of Colombo. A city with barbed wire and machine gun installations and where, even though everyone says the war is over, the soldiers remain. The tension hovers like the sticky heat. I wanted to take photos of the soldiers, but when I raised my camera the soldier raised his machine gun in response. Bad idea. Don’t point things at the soldiers here. The war is over, but the bullets live on.
I sat in a park and watched them lower a flag beside the ocean and the setting sun. The boardwalk teemed with activity. Children playing drums. Uniformed schoolgirls holding hands and singing songs. Cotton candy and falafel. A man was selling pony rides. And then this elephant dressed in chains was led along the shore. Dressed in circus garb and the saddest dark eyes I’d ever seen. They stood by the curb outside a grand hotel, shaking a tin can for tourist coins and photo ops. I handed my camera to a young local and spent a moment showing him how to aim and press the button. A camera worth more than his house perhaps. He might have been five or six. His father stood nearby watching. Smiling.
I walked over and placed my hand on the forehead of the mighty elephant. Again. Longer this time. I closed my eyes and attempted to convey a message. To bury my fear and press only love into his manacled heart. I’m sorry, I said.
The boy took an alright photo. Better than the cabbie. But it’s the first elephant moment that sticks out in my memory. The one I missed. The one that almost killed me. That’s how I remember Sri Lanka.