Elephant Polo 1999
by Tilman Smith
Four of us Screwy Tuskers sat in a row on Flight 319 bound for Kathmandu. Annie, Stephani, Shamane, and I had had a few days at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, training for our E-polo matches with vigorous jostling matches through the stalls on Patpong Road, tickle tortures at Green Shirts, and carbo-loading in between laps in the pool. We were flying to meet the rest of our team,which had been training in their own way, by flying around the other half of the world. We happened to lose Alf on this first flight (Where oh where could he have gone?), and knowing we would be lost without him, we could only hope that we would hook up with our inspirational leader upon touch down.
Lucky for us, Alf was not only waiting for us in the Immigration/Visa line, but he was also ready to provide us with the extra funds needed to tip the fellow at the window. Permits secured with varying amounts of rupees, we headed to the Yak and Yeti, where we quickly found our mates, Cindy and Susan. We barely had time for introductions, hugs, and kisses before we realized that precious bonding time was being wasted. With no further delay the six of us headed out the door towards Thamel, leaving Alf behind to choreograph the grand Screwy Tusker attack plan while the rest of us got to work on the deep seeded reason we really came on this trip: shopping.
We decided to change our transit plans to Meghauli and drive to Tiger Tops instead of fly, so we only had one full day in Kathmandu. Of course, I was a most enthusiastic supporter of this new plan, nodding my head with great affirmation at the notion of seeing more of the beautiful Nepalese countryside. The fact that this would allow me to avoid travelling in the little flying tuna can they called a plane was an added bonus, but of course, that was never my motivation for voting for the swirly road.
We had a lot to see in the one day we had in Kathmandu, and our tour guide Espy was determined that we would see it all. We started off by visiting the local Tibetan Refugee Camp. Having never been to a refugee camp before, I wasn't sure what we would be walking into. What we seemed to have found was a very small, well kept and contained tourist operation. Not knowing the politics of the camp made me wary as we walked through rooms of women and men tirelessly spinning, cleaning, and weaving wool into beautiful, traditional Tibetan rugs. Chanting voices filled the air in most rooms, coming mostly from the older refugees whose eyes gazed a million miles away. Many thank you's were repeated as we left donations in the provided boxes and bought our rugs, and we left with the understanding that someone was making money at the camp, but we weren't sure whom.
We found Carolyn waiting for us at a little French restaurant, full of news of the teams we were yet to meet and old friends that would be returning.While we were energized with all the information, we also began to feel an inkling of dread with the realization that we would actually be expected to perform our polo playing duties.
The afternoon was spent wandering the narrow streets of the second and third largest towns in the Kathmandu valley, Patan and Bhaktapur, both filled with densely populated squares, beautifully restored temples, and hawkers of every kind. It became clear during this time that Espy's vision for our tour didn't exactly jive with our own. While we were delighted to walk through temples and museums, we were also naturally drawn to the shops that provided the backdrop to every winding street. Espy tried in vain to convince us that these were not the shops for us, and that we should wait until he drove us to the Government Cottage Shop where we would get the best quality and prices. We wore him down though, and he finally released us to discover the lesser goods, while he called the cottage shop to cancel our appointment. During that call, he also learned that we would be jumping ship on him the following day in order to drive to Tiger Tops. I think I actually saw Espy sigh with relief at the news.
In our never ending search to understand our individual and collective complexities, we were delighted to find the following plaque resting next to a multi-armed Buddha in the Patan Museum:
In the later development of Hindu and Buddhist practice, known as Tantrism or, in Vajrayana Buddhism, "The Way of the Thunderbolt," deities are given multiple heads and limbs to better express their complex personalities and their multiple functions.
We promised to check one another regularly for any extraneous stumps that might appear as the trip progressed.
Yesterday, we travelled by bus to the Chitwan Valley. The trip proved to be a beautiful eyeful for most of us, with the exception of poor Annie who woke up with a horribly timed flu. She stoically maintained while we passed scene after scene of life in Nepal, travelling by bus, boat, jeep, and pathway to our next destination, Tiger Tops Tented Camp.
Upon arrival, Janis arranged for us to head right out on elephant safari. What a wonderful re-introduction to the wildlife that made itself abundantly identifiable to us. Our first time out we were greeted by overflowing flora and fauna, rhinos, spotted deer, a fresh tiger kill and nearby tiger roars. Dinner by the cozy fire in the main hall and deep sleep in our luxurious tents, shared with what was to become our favorite new bedtime partners, hot water bottles.
We received a very early morning wake up call, which we had asked for, thinking we would go out on various walks and rides through the jungle again. Some of us, hearing the pitter patter of rain drops on the tents, turned right over and maintained sleeping positions. Some of us, remembering that we always hear that sound in the mornings in the jungle, struggled out of bed and made our way to the warm fire and coffee to await daylight.
Being the first up (how dumb was that?) I was able to visit with some of the naturalists and mahouts that were drinking their coffee. I took this opportunity to ask the question that had been asked of me so many times before I returned to elephant polo: "Does it hurt the elephant to be whacked on the head like that with a stick?" The looks I received told me that they had already answered this question for naive Westerners perhaps one million times too many, but they indulged me when I pleaded my case.
I ended up asking this question many times throughout our trip to various, experienced elephant handlers for two reasons: 1) because I am a crack reporter who has learned the "60 Minutes" technique of checking up on sources, and 2) because, quite frankly, it took me a while to believe the answer. Every person that I asked basically told me the same thing, which went something like this:
Each elephant handler has about 30 foot and voice commands that he trains elephant to follow. ( As far as I know there are no women mahouts.) As the handler rides the elephant, he is constantly communicating with the pachyderm through his feet (behind the elephant's ears) and through his voice. The elephant gets to know his or her handlers very well and will usually only follow their commands after he or she learns to trust them. Now, imagine that you are riding this multi-ton specimen, and the elephant decides not to follow your commands. What would you do? Severe harm could come not only to the riders, but also to the elephant itself, who often traverses deep banks and steep hills. It is at that time, when the handler feels that the elephant is NOT responding to the verbal and foot commands that the elephant gets a smack. Someone told me to watch closely on each elephant trip and soon I would be able to sense when the elephant would get a knock on the head. Though certainly no expert, I was able to see the progression of events that lead up to each blow.
So, why does it sound so awful, you ask? The elephant has about a 3-4 inch skull right under its skin, and under that there is about a 6 inch cavity filled with sinuses that protects the elephant's brain from harm. When a wooden stick hits the elephants head, it sounds kind of like the flat side of a paddle hitting the surface of the water. When a metal stick hits their head, the more traditional tool used, it sounds a little like a small sledge hammer coming down on dirt. Each person I asked indicated that the sounds had more to do with the cavity echoing than any damage done to the elephant. Now, I must admit, the above information may be off by an inch here or there, but the sentiment was overwhelmingly the same: these are trained, working elephants who are treated very well. Keeping them in line is part of keeping them healthy. Each handler knows and respects his elephant deeply and understands how and when to communicate clearly. Any questions? Please refer all to Alf, who is thinking of becoming a mahout himself one day.
We arrived to a quiet Tiger Tops Lodge, a couple of days earlier than most of the other teams, which was a first for the Screwy Tuskers. The benefits to this were great for many reasons. We had ample time to further explore the jungle both on elephant and on foot. Thanks to the riveting tiger and rhino stories of our good friend and guide, Dhan, we also realized that we had better take some pole climbing lessons from Ara Tripp if we intended to wander the paths of Chitwan again.
In between our searches for tigers and jungle chickens, we actually had the chance to practice the sport we came to play. Two years ago when I came to Tiger Tops, even though the elephant camp was right behind our rooms, we never wandered down there. This time we actually got to have a rousing practice there, complete with Tiger Tops mahouts and the infamous Margie McDougal providing handy tips, hands-on instruction, revitalizing masala tea, and good cheer. I think it was at this time that the mahouts realized three things about the Screwy Tuskers. One, was that we really did mean it when we claimed to be an amateur team; two, was that hidden within our crowd was some raw talent in the forms of jerseys #4 and #6, and three, was that all of us meant to have, what the Titanic Tracks might say, a bloody good time of it all the way 'round. If nothing else, we would provide our mahouts with great amusement.
Our second practice took place on at the Meghauli air field, the home of the WEPA tournament. Planes arrived regularly filled with teams that were ready to fling their polo sticks around. (The Screwy Tuskers prefer the putting method.) Our private training sessions were over, and it became clear from this practice that the stakes were going to get higher. The Screwy Tuskers were up to the challenge, however, and with Alf's gallant return to his rightful place on the field, we left the other teams quaking with new found respect for the only American team to grace these games.
|TIGER TOPS TUSKERS||5|
|TIGER MOUNTAIN INDIA||4|
|BRITISH GURKHA GLADIATORS||0|
All handicaps are negotiated by the team captains the night before the tournament begins. From what I can tell they are based on a blend of previous team records, quality of players (pro or amateur), sharpness of wit and the amount of Chivas consumed during negotiations. As you can see, Alf did the Screwy Tuskers well, and even if our scores don't completely illustrate it, we ended up using our handicap to our advantage more than once.
|Official Referee:||Chuck McDougal|
|Umpire:||Pradeep SJB Rana|
|Assistant Umpire:||To be seconded on a daily basis|
|Time Keepers:||British Gurkha Ladies:
Zoe Kerner, Monica Arkley
Jeanette Dowdle, Rose Parkinson
|Official Doctor:||Helena Swinkels|
SHOP COORDINATOR: SOMLAL
(You know he was important to the Screwy Tuskers.)