Big Z Travels Light

Next, we had to mount our elephant. We climbed steps to a platform made out of hewn trees. At the top, a handler instructed us to walk on to the massive, wrinkled head of an Indian elephant with a sawed-off tusk, then along its back to a bamboo cradle. This looked far more dangerous than the bridge. Traversing those few steps from the platform across the leathery head of the beast was like balancing fifteen feet up on Jabba the Hutt. Attempting to ignore the height, I stepped along with my arms out. What did the elephant make of it? Finally, I could gingerly turn around and plop into the cradle next to Frank, who somehow had maneuvered the distance with his swollen leg. Sitting side by side, we laughed nervously, legs dangling from the cradle on to the elephant’s back.
The beast set off into the jungle—delicately, like a ballerina, tip-toeing down a red-clay path no wider than the length of a child’s arm. High in the air, we clung to each other, staring at the middle branches of trees and looking down at the path. It was like being on a moving four-story bridge. The elephant’s eyes were small, unlike those of horses. For some reason, that made a difference, made me feel more trusting. When the dips were particularly treacherous, Frank and I yelled and screamed like kids on a roller coaster, clutching the rickety cradle and each other. We shouted our fears and wild instructions to the elephant and the guide riding on its neck. My New York accent, which had lain buried under layers of Northern California propriety, blasted its way out to mingle with the Big Z’s in a coordinated opera of profanity.

Frank knew how to say “fuck” naturally, with perfect inflection and tone. He wielded it like an artist wields his favorite brush. You had to have New York-Irish or Italian blood to use the word properly. It was definitely nurture over nature. The fetching flexibility of the word was lost in the gentility of California. Fuck cut through the bullshit. It created meaningful dialogue between Frank and me, helped us relate and identify with each other, to get in touch with our feelings.

As we shouted, the twelve-year-old guide took a different approach and Frank got his first taste of how another society treats animals. The boy beat the head of this noble beast with a wooden truncheon, until blood trickled down its forehead and into its eye. I yelled at him to stop, and he did. Elephants were beasts of burden, and dogs and cats a barely tolerated evil. Remembering the magnificence of elephants in Africa, I couldn’t help but think how we had enslaved so many millions of animals on the principle that they were inferior. Our egos must need this distinction.

Two and a half hours into the jungle, the caravan halted at a clearing. We then trekked by foot another two hours, emerging into a primitive settlement of thatched huts. Chickens and small pigs meandered about the garbage. Jungle John escorted his troop to an elongated hut made entirely of bamboo. Colored gray-white like aged hair, the thatched roof came halfway to the ground. A weathered picnic table sat awkwardly outside. Inside was dark and humid with a hard dirt floor. Thick woven bamboo mats covered the wooden-slat bunks. Clearly not incorporated into the village, this hut marked us as outsiders. Frank, however, thought the place was “fuckin’ great.”

Discarding his cane for the first time, he limped along on a pre-dinner excursion, discovering that men worked in the fields until dusk. He saw women with babies strapped to their backs balancing buckets on both ends of a pole running across their shoulders. With joy, he listened to the sound of music coming from a strange-looking bamboo pipe, sniffed the aroma of cooking herbs, and observed dirty kids laughing as they kicked tin cans and threw kittens into the air (or at trees). This was his first sense of the old way.

“People go to bed when the sun goes down, and get up when it rises!” Frank exclaimed with amazement. I’d had that exact thought in a little village in Zimbabwe at the start of my journey. His enthusiasm was renewing my own sense of seeing, tasting, and feeling.

After dinner, two long-haired, somber young men walking barefoot entered the hut. One of them carried a long opium pipe and asked for volunteers. Angelo, the Italian in our group, quickly offered to be first. The New York Italian meanwhile paced up and down the dirt floor puffing furiously on a cigarette, struggling with his conscience. The rest of us waited our turn with the pipe.

The villager with the pipe had a characteristically sparse mustache and wore blue sweats with a yellow line down the sides and a smudged white T-shirt. He gestured at Frank to be next to sample nirvana. “No way,” said the Z, speaking to the group. “I just don’t feel right about drugs. But I don’t mind if you guys try.” In case anyone else succumbed to guilt, the young tribesmen told us of the positive medicinal effects of opium. Their solemn countenances attested to the fact that opium sales were serious income for this hamlet. While drug sales were illegal in Thailand, that stricture did not apply to the hill tribes.

From a process perspective, smoking opium started with a bamboo mat, which served as a workbench, and tools: a candle, a long needle that looked like a hatpin from the Thirties, a lighter, and the pipe, consisting of a foot-and-a-half-long stem connected to a singed green, metal container. Slouching forward, the young villager mixed the poppy with aspirin granules for bulk and consistency, then, using the long needle, shoved the resulting black gunk in the pipe. To smoke, you lay prone and inhaled while he applied the candle flame. The black mass undulated and bubbled to the dancing flame as you puffed away.

I didn’t find the opium overpowering, more it felt like the lingering lethargy of lying on a beach in a daydream, watching sunlight flicker off waves. Afterwards still in that state, I wandered around the hamlet. Opium was right in these hills—a place devoid of television, movies, video games, city activity. Here was only nature and basic life activities.

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