Pachyderm Dreams
Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

I felt a bit panicky when I realized, while speaking with the bed and breakfast owner in India, that I might never work with elephants.

My husband and I were staying in the woman’s home in a rural part of Kerala, chatting with her about the wild elephants that had wreaked havoc on her banana trees the year before, when the thought of elephants caused my heart to sink. I began to tune out what she was telling us as I recalled my myriad childhood career aspirations – elephant caretaker, and also naturalist, park ranger, veterinarian, journalist, jockey, novelist. In my mind, I watched these varied and utterly incompatible aspirations fall to my sides like leaves. It struck me then as it never had previously:

There was so much I had wanted to do, and so little time.

In my actual life, I chose to be a lawyer, figuring that law school would be a good way to kill some time while I figured out if it was what I really wanted to do. And then, suddenly, I was 33 years old and I had spent seven years litigating with a large law firm – a job I quit so I could travel the world with my husband. How could I ever, at my age, suddenly decide to scrap my years of higher education and toil as an attorney to give elephant training a try (and still leave time for everything else I still wanted to do)? As I thought about this more deeply, an existential gloom settled in that I had a hard time shaking over the next several weeks.

That one of my dreams involved elephants made the thought of letting that dream go particularly bitter. Elephants have always struck a special chord for me; there is just something about the contrast of their immense size with their gentleness; their intelligence; their playfulness; their soulful eyes. Simply imagining spending my days working alongside them was enough to bring a smile to my face.

As our travels continued through India, I let some of my angst go and focused on enjoying our nomadic existence. By the time we returned home for Thanksgiving and began to ponder our next move, I had more or less forgotten about my crisis. As was my habit when we were in the planning process, I picked up the Lonely Planet guide for our next country – Thailand – and began to leaf through the first few pages. The photo that caught my eye right away was of a baby elephant, happily wallowing in a mud puddle, surrounded by the sturdy, protective legs of the herd. “Elephant Nature Park,” the caption read, going on to describe this sanctuary for rescued Asian elephants near Chiang Mai where visitors could spend a week or more volunteering with the elephants.

Though I was instantly sold on the idea of spending some time at the Park, it was not until my husband and I were actually there, spending our mornings shoveling elephant poo and our afternoons feeding the elephants bunches of small bananas and halved green pumpkins, that I realized what I was doing. I was working with elephants. It wasn’t my career, and the elephants were not exactly dependent on me for survival (the park had people who were paid for that), but here I was, fulfilling some idea I had had of myself as a child.

I felt slightly giddy every time I placed a piece of fruit on an elephant’s outstretched trunk and felt it wrap around the food, gentle yet so strong, twisting as it maneuvered the food into its mouth. And I still remember the thrilling terror I felt when I learned just how strong those appendages could be, when an ornery elephant grabbed my arm with her trunk and began pulling me – helpless, perplexed, and exhilarated – towards her. Fortunately, she lost interest after a few seconds and released me, leaving an enormous slobbery mud blotch on my bicep.

Looking back, I now see that it was only because we were traveling for so long and so extensively that I was able to achieve one of my many, possibly silly, childhood dreams. There is a sense of satisfaction I get just from having taken the trip; knowing that I truly seized the day and pursued a huge dream. But also knowing that I was able to do something I never thought I would do, and realizing that there is a way to at least try out some of the things I always thought I might do, is an added bonus.

To be sure, there is still much left untried. I will never be a veterinarian, having realized I can’t handle blood of any kind, not even animal blood. I am almost six feet tall, so my chances of giving jockeying a try are pretty slim. But it is a huge relief that after the moment of panic in India, when I saw my world closing in, came clarity in Thailand, when my world suddenly opened wide again.

After leaving her job as an associate with a large law firm, Robin Devaux spent approximately eleven months traveling the world with her husband, Pierre. They visited five continents and 24 countries, sampling the local beer in each one (except for the United Arab Emirates, where they were forced to drink Budweiser). You can read about their adventures at www.travelingbones.com or meet them in person when they speak at Meet, Plan, Go! San Francisco on October 16.

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