Thursday, May 28, 2009

Honesty and Poverty

I had to create this image from some toys in my dining room because I have lost all of the pictures that I have ever taken in the jungle. (That's another story.)

My uncle stroked the elephant and praised it like he would his dogs. He had even come prepared with a few fruity snacks that the little elephant took politely with the tip of its trunk and deposited into its mouth. Elephants look so sad and wise at the same time. I thought I saw a curious appreciation for my uncle's kindness in its long lashed eye.
They had not yet finished building the platform stairs so that we could easily climb into the crate saddled on the elephant's back, so the Mahout commanded the elephant to lie on its belly and cross its hind legs. My uncle, already in his late 60's, climbed up, stepping first on the back of one of the elephant's legs, then the other, and then onto the tail which the Mahout gripped tightly next to the elephants back side to form another step. He grabbed the edge of the crate with one hand and hoisted his body up onto the elephant's back and climbed into the crate. My uncle's legs dangled down over the right front shoulder of the elephant. I climbed up next, and seated myself in the opposite corner of the crate looking to the rear of the elephant. The Mahout nimbly scampered up the front leg of the elephant and swung his legs around the elephant's neck placing his bare feet gently behind its ears so that he could steer the elephant.
The elephant walked slowly down the road and over a bridge to a small village that was surrounded by a fence of prickly cactus. The cactus had been planted to keep the rhinos out, but I was told that a few people had to stay up all night to watch for rogue animals all the same. The village was full of open air shacks with few walls. You could see every detail of the inhabitants' lives. They seemed just as curious about us as we were about them and would smile and press their hands together in greeting as we passed. Some of the children ran along side of the elephant and waved to us. Village cows, chickens, goats and pigs scattered in front of our parade. But the children stayed back as the elephant stepped into the low lying mists of the jungle.

I had ridden on elephants before that were much larger than this one. Usually, the ride was smooth, graceful, and remarkably quiet. I was surprised at the brutal lumpiness of this ride. We lurched forward and back relentlessly with our ribs banging into the wooden bars on the crate. After a while, I tucked my coat down around my ribs to provide some extra padding. Painful as it was, it was still an exhilarating ride through the jungle. There are animals that you can see from an elephant's back that you usually do not see while walking through the jungle. The deer, wild boar, peacocks, monkeys and rhinos all stay around a little longer when an elephant is coming down the path compared to a group of noisy people tramping through. Sitting quietly on the elephant's back, we were able to stand only a few feet from a wild elephant, her baby and a few rhinos.

For about 2 hours we rode up and down jungle paths and created a few of our own paths in grass that was as tall as the elephant's eyes as we looked for a tiger. We saw tiger tracks, but never found a tiger. Few people do. Finally, we returned to our camp. I started searching my coat pockets for my wallet so that I could give the Mahout a tip. As I patted about my pockets, a deep sick feeling welled up in my belly and a cold sweat started to break out on my brow. The wallet was gone. I had done something I never do, I put the wallet with my driver's license, credit cards and all of my cash into my coat pocket. Normally, I have hidden zippered pockets and extra wallets so that I don't lose everything at once. I did still have back up cards and a passport tucked away in a safe place, but there are many places in Nepal where credit cards are useless, so one must carry small bills in Nepalese Rupees.

Immediately, I told the camp manager what had happened and he explained it to the Mahout. The Mahout, 3 men and the elephant went right back into the jungle without even stopping for lunch. I didn't have a lot of hope that they would find the wallet though. Not only had we gone on a long complicated journey, the jungle is not as empty of people as you might imagine. Plenty of people regularly walk up and down the jungle paths.

My uncle and I had a worried lunch after which I retired to my cabin alone to consider from whom I would borrow money so that I could comfortably continue on my journey and how I was going to cancel all of my cards from the remote area where we were staying. I fell asleep. About two hours later, someone called from the jungle. They had found a river of coins gleaming in the sunlight and followed it to my wallet. When they returned, they were smiling triumphantly. My uncle gave the search party about $20 from my wallet, to split 4 ways. I think that I would have given them much more than that, but he said that they all seemed very pleased.

There was the equivalent of $200 US in Nepalese Rupees in my wallet. To give you some perspective about what these men did for me, you need to know that, according to the Wilson Center and the WWF, the average per capita annual income for the country of Nepal is only about $235. In the Terrai region, where I was jungle trekking, the annual per capita income is more like $50. Yes, that is $50 per person per year! That would have been a year's income for each one of them. The next time you go to the jungle in Nepal, let me know and I will happily tell you a very honest group to travel with.

If you look at the pictures of Nepal on my side bar, you can find pictures of tourists riding elephants in the Terrai.


  1. I loved your descriptions of the jungle walk. So glad you got your wallet back and the things in it. So nice to hear about these far flung parts of the world.
    Blessings Star

  2. It is always a pleasant surprise to find people so honest. Usually they are the ones with the most needs. I enjoyed the vicarious ride on the elephant. And I know that SICK feeling of losing a valuable with little hope of finding it.

  3. First of all, that's a terrific image you created from toys! Secondly, what an adventurous life you've experienced. I could never imagine getting on the back of an elephant, nevermind venturing that far.

    Your story proves the goodness of mankind. And, that sometimes, the poorest are the best samaritans.

  4. Oh I always seem to be under pressure for time...
    I will be back.
    Love your stories.

  5. What a beautiful story, Butternut. I love elephants, and the honor of the men who found your wallet is heartwarming. Thanks for sharing.

  6. There is so much I want to say about this post and so little time tonight... well, here it goes...

    I don't remember if I told you that my favorite animal is the elephant...I have an assortment of elephants in boxes and, I must say that I LOVE that picture you have taken...of toys! ? Excellent job! I am pretty sure I will try to copycat that! lol

    Such an extraordinary and soul warming story too. You can feel "heaven on earth" in events like that.

    Thank you for sharing this story (and the link about that book by Amelie. I have heard of her previous book before but never read it. This new book looks interesting too so I think I will go on another shopping spree soon!)

  7. Thanks for the compliments everyone. There is much I have to say about honesty. You might be surprised at how differently it is perceived in different parts of the world. I expect that I will write several stories on this topic.

    About the toys: I should probably just post the unadulterated photo. In the background are jade plants, you can see the edge of the pot. In the foreground is a bit of burrows tail. The rhino and small elephant are carved wood and the large elephant is made of leather. Photoshop 'Cut Out' did the rest. (The toys were gifts to my boys from their brothers in Nepal.)

  8. A touching take on the simplicity of rural people.

    Like you said elephants look sad and wise at the same time, and no I have never seen a Tiger in the wild either though plenty of pugmarks, maybe because I was on foot on all the treks.

    Sad as it is am curious to know how you came to lose the pictures you took.

  9. Wonderful story..sort of like a miracle...
    And the look of elephants, sort of like they know everything and accept it anthropomorphic vision, I guess.

  10. Wow, what a story! Riding on the back of Ganesha.

    It is truly a miracle that they found your wallet. Angels have watched over you, Butternut Squash, they have.

    Thank you for a glimpse into a life I honestly can not imagine. Wow.

  11. Butternut, that sounds good on the tongue. Evokes almond rocha not a vegetable.

    Anyway. thanks for visiting my site recently. I've seen you around the blogosphere and we finally get to meet. Thanks

  12. This is an uplifting story. I have known the beauty of timeless honesty in different places. For example, in Japan, I lost a silk scarf that belonged t my grandmother. It blew off my neck when I did not noice. Upon retracing my steps though a large garden path on route to a castle, I found someone had found it, tied it to a tree branch for the owner to hopefully find. Maybe it was the spirit of my grandmother? Her spirit does not confirm or deny the possibility. When you are honest and loving, the universe resonates parallel energy back. Curiously, in North America, when a person loses a glove on the street and retraces the steps, for some reason the glove is often invisible or not found. My most uplifting experiences have been overseas and abroad, and yet, that is changing. Love is in the air.

  13. In my youth the chant was finder's keepers losers weepers, but that is not the motto in all places. It is a choice to be honest, but reinforced by the conventions and expectations of the society. Japan is a beautiful example. I found that people would not even keep the change found in the phone booth when I was there in my teens. They just put it on top of the phone. We need to raise our cultural expectations in so many ways. Peace.

  14. I loved this story and all the images it made in my mind. And that photo, it's art.

  15. Upon further reflection, I conclude all of my experiences are equally meaningful and equally uplifting. Each one teaches me love takes shape in different places, people and situations. All of them invite me to grow. Riding an elephant in Thailand reminds me all creatures great and small are teachers. Humans are wise to choose to learn from all.

  16. What a fantastic story! The odds were considerable against them finding your wallet. Another lost and found story. Love it.