1991 – The Golden
Triangle: How Do You
Thank An Elephant

Here we are, on the back of a pickup truck in Northern Thailand’s hill country, headed for the Golden Triangle. Diesel fumes rise from under the vehicle as it crawls along the steep and potholed dirt path toward the Burmese border. Caroline and the two kids from New Zealand,  sitting a bit further frontward, seem unaffected. Rainer, a young Bavarian, and I are less fortunate. We’re holding on to the tailgate, the exhaust right under us. We both feel nauseous. Our guide Hari, meanwhile, sits in the cab and has no idea.

A few hours ago, in Chang Mai, it was stifling hot. Now, despite the sun shining on us, it’s getting cold. We traverse a series of hills covered in bright yellow flowers, as a range of misty, heavily treed mountaintops comes into view. Minutes later, the road ends at the edge of dense jungle. Relieved, we get off the truck, grab our packs and enter the lush forest, its bustle of unusual colours, shapes and noises soon overwhelming us.

After a four-hour walk we stumble upon a small settlement of bamboo huts. Had it not been for our guide, we would have walked past it. Hari tells us we’ll be spending the night here. At first the place seems deserted, but as we approach a man steps forward. He has the bearing of an elder, exuding dignity as he waits for our guide to address him. Then, as Hari gestures at our group he looks at us, his mouth opening to a friendly smile that reveals dark, betel-stained teeth. He says something in a language we can’t understand and that sounds quite different from Thai, presumably welcoming us.

Our guide explains that our hosts are Lisu, nomads who harvest a promising area for rice, corn and opium and raise chickens and pigs to supplement their diet. When the fields become less fertile they burn them and move on. They are animists, worship their ancestors and believe in spirit possession.

As the elder talks, two toddlers appear, shyly studying us. Then their mother joins, wearing a long tunic stitched together from brightly coloured cotton patches in vibrant yellows, blues and reds. She nods to us. Next, the elder steps in front of her and starts to talk again; something is clearly on his mind. He points in the direction of the huts and leads us to a visibly distressed young woman. At the elder’s command, she holds out her closed hand, then reluctantly opens it. It’s badly mauled, a nasty split disfiguring the middle finger down its entire length. Hari explains that she’s hurt herself with a rice-threshing device. To stem the flow of blood, the wound has been cauterized with fire and some black, tar-like substance. It’s now closed over, but the finger is twice as thick as it should be and what is underneath is clearly a serious infection.

We’ve formed a circle around her and I explain that we have a doctor amongst us. Rainer takes a closer look, firmly holds the woman’s forearm with one hand and lightly touches the wound with the other. Her face contorts; it’s clear that she’s in great pain. Rainer states the obvious: a trip to the hospital is a must—without it, there is a serious risk of illness, perhaps even death. Hari translates and the elder briefly responds.

I offer my first aid kit and, together with Rainer, go to work. The tar-like substance that covers the wound is an impediment, but we clean it, apply antibiotic ointment, and cover it with gauze and a tensor bandage. They’ll do the rest at the hospital, which we’ve been told is a two day’s walk away.

Later, in our sleeping hut, Hari sheepishly tells us that our advice will not be heeded. To the tribal people, illness is a mysterious journey to be experienced in full. The help of visiting strangers is a gladly-accepted blessing, but of hospitals and other institutions imposed by the government the Lisu are deeply suspicious.

Night breaks early at this late time of the year—it’s only 5:30 but already the stars have come to life. We sit inside our communal hut over an open fire which has been lit on the mud floor. Along the walls, just behind us, is an elevated platform covered with bamboo matting. That is where we will sleep.

After a flavourful meal of rice, vegetables and chicken we get to know each other better. The two New Zealanders are on their honeymoon; Rainer treated himself to this trip to celebrate his graduation from medical school; Hari is from the tribe of the Karen and ventured to the big city, where he learned English; Caroline and I talk about Canada.

As the fire dies down, our eyes start to sting. Some of the smoke escapes through the small hole in the roof, but not enough to keep the air clear. Despite that we keep swapping stories. And when those stop, Hari tells us about the border disputes between Burma and Thailand and the politics of opium. The governments pretend to oppose the farming of poppy, but business interests on both sides secretly subsidize huge private opium armies, which are not far from us. Hari even carries a colourful promotional booklet with him. Complete with photographs of training camps, refining laboratories and recreational facilities for the illegal armies, it’s designed to recruit new members.

By 8:30 we all agree that keeping the fire going would be very unpleasant. It’s bitter cold. As we step out to wash and brush our teeth, Caroline and I talk about the first day of our trekking adventure. Our sinuses are clogged and we’re shivering, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  “This is what it was like on my other adventure trips,” I explain. “You get to see the world through other people’s eyes.” Back inside, we unfold the small blankets we’ve been given in Chang Mai. “Poor Rainer and Hari, they must be so cold,” Caroline whispers. “And they have no one to snuggle with.”

We’ve been walking for nearly a week. Being this far removed from civilization, it’s becoming easy to see ourselves from the outside in—not just through the eyes of the locals, who probably see us as peculiar visitors from a far richer world who don’t have to work for their survival, but also through our own eyes. We feel vulnerable when stepping out of yet another bamboo hut at night and looking into the impenetrable, pitch-black forest. What would happen if our guide Hari had an accident? The sheltered life of Caroline and Peter of Toronto or Snowmass Village makes for a bizarre, far-fetched vision. What’s real?

The past two days we’ve been in densely-wooded, moist hill country, hearing the sounds of well hidden opium processing machinery at night and seeing into the lives of the jungle dwellers during the day. The men are often in a drug-induced stupor, leaving their tough and often exhausted looking women to do the work, and the children to fend for themselves. We make comparisons to what we saw earlier, in the well-functioning Lisu settlements, where family life seemed organic and people looked content.

The morning of our last day, Hari tells us that he’s negotiated a deal with a villager: we’ll experience the last few hours of our journey on the back of an elephant. Precariously balancing ourselves atop, we soon traverse a stretch of more than ten kilometers of dense and vibrantly alive wilderness, exotically coloured butterflies landing on us while we pass well-hidden cats lurking behind thick foliage. Occasionally a wild pig darts out of the bush, to disappear again almost immediately.

The grace of our friends the elephants astounds us: each time low-hanging branches block our way, the beasts find a way around them, often lowering themselves so that we can avoid being hit or scratched by the limbs or vines obstructing our progress. There are treacherous, rock-strewn creeks that frequently intersect the hilly jungle—each time we approach one, we fear that our elephant might trip or even fall, as it slows down to assess the challenge. But without fail we are delivered safely to the other side.

How do you thank an elephant? The best we can do, after cautiously descending from its back once we’ve reached the end of our adventure, is to express our gratitude by scratching the top of  its trunk, which is the width of my upper body. The elephant seems to enjoy the gesture, giving the impression that it completely understands.

Excerpted from Peter Cavelti’s memoir “Moments In Time: The Experience Of My Life”.  Volume 2, Legacy Editions Ltd., copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission.