A Mahout Drives a Cab

It rained today, replacing the smog-filled air with a cool freshness and tempering the heatwave in Chiang-Mai. Geoff and I have been working constantly – I have been fluctuating between uber interview mode and right-brained visual mode, and finally having a great time in the process, despite being totally exhausted from our early morning starts. Again, we have been extremely lucky with the people we have met. Richard Lair in the top picture is one of the advisors for this project and one of the top experts on the Asian elephant.

We drove down to Lampang with Nui  to meet Richard and speak with him about the issues around elephant welfare in Thailand, global warming, Thai attitudes towards conservation and all sorts of other things. Our interview took over an hour. His spirit is huge as you can tell from his expression in the photo. He has the top elephant library in all of Asia on the second floor of his house and used to be a filmmaker himself back in the 60s and 70s. Stay tuned for video clips from my interview with him on youtube.

I had an interesting conversation with a journalist from Kashmir who works part-time in his family’s rug  and fabric store on the road outside of Chiang-Mai which I would call the Tuk-tuk tourist trail of Thai treasures. How completely bizarre to find a huge building full of sapphires, diamonds, rubies, silver and gold alongside a road full of mangy dogs, lean-tos and dust-filled turnouts. Nui (the driver I hired to take us to our different film shoot sites and interviews and who will be a major part of the film) gets gas money to take tourists to each of these specialty buildings – gems, silk, cotton, textiles, umbrellas, etc. – and I am so glad I agreed to do the obligatory ten minute walk through the rug store.

I entered the gilt-lined glass doors and was met by Gigs who immediately took on the role of genteel salesman. As we went through the standard back and forth of bargaining over whatever it was most tourists buy, in this case, gorgeous pashmina shawls, I told him I really was in Thailand to make a film about people and elephants. The tone of everything changed and he and I started having a conversation about Thai culture, government and animal welfare, all of which I recorded with his permission on my iphone.

If you are following the current world news, you are probably aware of the political tensions in Thailand between the Red Shirts and the current government. It has been eye-opening to learn so much from a few Thais and people working in Thailand about the conflict. In order to make a compelling and informed film about anything to do with Thailand, this background on culture and politics is crucial. I am hesitant to go into it for a variety of reasons but will post more details at some point.

I met up with Geoff at 6 and we collected our laundry from the women at the combo car mechanic/hand laundry on the alley behind the hotel, gearing up for our night of what is the closest I have ever come to activist journalism. We needed to capture on the film the plight of some elephants in Thailand being used for begging on the city streets. This fate for an elephant is a nightmare considering the sensitivities of an elephant’s ears, nose and feet, not to mention a complete affront to the dignity of this incredible animal. The men who do this are also driven to it by poverty, although my sympathy is more with the elephant which has no choices at all. As I mentioned in a previous post, they are often forced to drink beer by drunk tourists, avoid speeding mopeds and trucks on crowded streets and make ridiculous gestures of thank you after getting tourist attention by being trained to make “cute” squeaking sounds to elicit the compassion from the milling tourists.

As with so many situations, nothing is black and white. I wanted to work with Jo, our translator (upper left) to see if she could convince the men with the elephants to say anything about why they were doing this, knowing that it was highly unlikely they would want to say anything if they saw our recording equipment. Geoff, myself, Jo and her friend Dorothy spotted the elephant making its way slowly through the cacaphony on one of the busiest night market streets and started filming. The men with the elephant looked angrily at us and told us to stop. Geoff kept on filming and the men drove the elephant (about six years old) away from us down the street. During the few moments when tourists were buying bananas from the men, the elephant hung her trunk in what might be considered a state of dejected exhaustion.

The four of us took a tuk tuk weaving in and out of traffic to one of Jo’s favorite bars across town which was full of blaring music, blinking outdoor lights, cicadas that were so loud in the trees that I actually thought it was a computer malfunction in the loudspeaker. While Jo was telling us more about her life, she suddenly stopped and pointed. An enormous elephant had turned the corner on the alley and was coming into this sensory overload hotzone doing the peeping trumpeting sound to get tourist attention (I can’t think of a better way to describe it since it is sort of a pathetic truncated trumpeting sound).

Geoff took the camera out of his bag and started filming. As soon as the mahout on the elephant noticed him, he started waving angrily at him and turned the elephant around, taking it off down the side street with the red bicycle light blinking attached to its tail (see photo at left). Geoff continued to film and I noticed (while taking this photo) that the mahout was turning the elephant around and kicking it, forcing it to run towards us with its trunk swinging.

From Geoff’s vantage point looking through the wide angle lens he wasn’t able to gage the distance of the oncoming elephant or the mahout’s animosity. It was very scary and is dramatically caught on camera.

Seeing an elephant in the midst of such urban cacophony is so surreal. It was the closest experience I have had on this trip to breaking down in tears. Here in Thailand, domestic elephants have the same status as livestock. Only wild elephants are protected.

About naturestage

Miranda Loud is the Founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit NatureStage based in Waltham, MA, and is an interdisciplinary artist - classical singer/organist/filmmaker/photographer and environmentalist. She writes about the vital need for education to include a more heart-centered approach to studying other species that leads to a sense of stewardship. Naturestage creates works that foster empathy and kinship with other species, using the emotional power of storytelling in different art forms, mainly film, photography and music. She is also a public speaker on art and social change. Her current projects include The One Language Project, Park Dreams, The Elephant Project, and Elephantasia which all use different art forms to encourage a mind shift in how we relate to other species by asking "How would the world be different if we viewed other species as someones instead of somethings? If, instead of drawing lines, we drew circles?"
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