I'm dragging my five-year-old, who can dig his heels in deeper than Kenneth Starr, down a jungle path in Northern Thailand, rushing to keep pace with the rest of our tour group. Jonas does not want to go elephant riding. He wants to stay in the air-conditioned van and play his brother's Gameboy.
To express his disapproval with our itinerary, Jonas is in full tantrum, screaming with such volume and intensity that even the elephants seem impressed. A large bull is eyeing us curiously -- as are the other members of our party, most of whom are already gathered uncertainly at the base of a rickety elephant-mounting platform. I sense their disapproval. These people know nothing of the Gameboy. They think Jonas is afraid of the elephants.
"That poor child is terrified," the woman from France says, glaring at me with open hostility.
She doesn't understand that I'm dealing with a child who can stare down taxi drivers during the rush hour in Bangkok. A child that spent much of our six-week vacation in Thailand hanging out in cheap cafes teaching tattooed German expatriates to play poker. A child that isn't even fazed by the eighth grade boys on the school bus back home in Maine.
It is this child that I'm forcing up the eight-foot platform, where Mr. Poo (our guide from Panda Tours) is perched flapping his arms and encouraging my wife to make the traverse to the back of the last elephant. When I clamber aboard and lend my weight to prying Jonas off the rigging, my wife -- sensing that we may go down, abandons ship and lunges -- not gracefully -- for the elephant.
I wait for the backwash from her leap to subside while I consider how to mount an elephant with a reluctant five-year old.
"Hurry up Daddy, everyone's waiting for you," my nine year old hisses from the back of his elephant.
Up until now Noah has managed to avoid any association with his family by taking up with a party of Canadians he chatted up in the van. It surprises me that he has broken cover, but clearly he thinks we need to be getting underway, as do the rest of the tourists who have been milling around the clearing on their elephants, listening to Jonas's bellowing.
By now Jonas realizes that he's not going to play Gameboy in the van and is continuing his tantrum anyway. It's not about getting his own way anymore. It's about revenge. He's going to make us pay for this.
If our elephant had been a normal, well behaved animal, content to follow the established path, I think Jonas would have made us pay all the way to the hill-tribe village where we were to dismount. But he cheered up immediately when our elephant sprinted off into the jungle making his own trail by knocking over small trees. Getting the last elephant is like getting the last bumper car at the amusement park -- nobody wants it because it won't steer straight and veers off slamming into the walls. The more our elephant crashed about trampling the understory, the happier Jonas became. During one long uphill charge, as my wife hollered hysterically for the guides, Jonas leaned back giggling uncontrollably.
"It's funny Daddy," he sputtered. "It's SO funny."
"It is NOT funny," my wife said. "Who knows when this elephant will stop running. We could end up in Burma and be shot by terrorists."
But by this time, I'd concluded that the straps that held our seat to the elephant were unlikely to break. All we had to do was hold on and look out for low branches. Jonas was right I decided it was funny, and for the first time I began to enjoy our elephant tour.
I leaned back with my son and the two of us laughed until the tears rolled down our faces. We were still laughing when the elephant tired and our handler and a frantic Mr. Poo rushed up. The handler made a show of watching the elephant carefully for the rest of our trip and it kept to the established trail, but I don't think the guide had anything to do with it. I think that elephant did pretty much what he wanted to.
When we reached the hill-tribe village there was just enough time for a quick lunch by the river before we went rafting. Mr. Poo was waiting at the platform to help us dismount, but Jonas was reluctant to leave his elephant. The two of them had developed quite a rapport.
"I don't want to get off," he said.
But Mr. Poo, who by now regarded Jonas with a wary respect, was a wise man.
"Crocodiles" he whispered to Jonas. "The river is full of crocodiles. Sometimes they chase the rafts."
Jonas scrambled down immediately and trotted off behind Mr. Poo.
"That Mr. Poo," I said, helping my wife dismount. "He would make a good elephant trainer."
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