On this sweltering Burmese afternoon, Rangoon at pre-monsoon, the humid tropical air is alive with anticipation. I am a young, newlywed Canadian woman. In spite of my homesickness and severe culture shock, I am teaching at the International School Rangoon. It is a small school, for children whose parents are diplomats from all over the world. I have a small Junior Kindergarten class.
My six young charges can barely contain their growing excitement. They have each brought a few Burmese coins to school. Today, the elephant is coming.
The Asian elephant is a majestic beast of burden. Used upcountry to move great, heavy logs in the dwindling exotic teak forests, their power and stamina is awe-inspiring. Every year there are stories from Asia, Africa, and zoos around the world, telling how an abusive trainer was trampled; how taunting spectators were gored; how a formerly gentle elephant cow went insane after the death of her baby calf, stampeding through a village, trumpeting her grief.
Yet my pint-sized students are completely unafraid at the prospect of seeing the enormous creature. I silently wonder how many of these kids have ever seen a live elephant up close before. Perhaps their fearlessness is derived from their Disneyfied versions of the great beasts: Dumbo; his mother, Mrs. Jumbo; and Abu in one of his many transformations in Aladdin? Whatever their innocent reasons, not one of the children is afraid, and each of them is quivering in anticipation.
I lead them in single file outside onto the front lawn to join the rest of the students and staff. All heads are turned expectantly to the opened black iron gates; the entire school is waiting in the tropical heat.
Suddenly, a low gasp is heard, which grows louder, into hoots and hollers. The eager crowd surges forward as the very youngest students point and shriek in recognition, announcing the elephant’s arrival. A significant local Burmese entourage accompanies the spectacle; despite it being native to this country, an elephant here in an urban Rangoon schoolyard is nonetheless as exciting as it would be back home in Calgary, in addition to being an opportunity for its opportunistic keeper to make some money. As the group of local citizens dances their way into the schoolyard, some of them play flutes and bang on makeshift drums, enhancing the circus-like ambience of the moment.
At last, the elegant greyish-brown elephant is led in on a frayed harness by its Indian trainer. The animal is clean and appears well-fed. It wears faded silk straps and tattered fringe, with sequins and beads missing in many places on what was once an ornate costume. It plods obediently amid the throng as it approaches yet another curious audience. The aging trainer looks impatient and weary, but breaks into a practiced phony smile as he waves beguilingly to the awaiting students. He parks the compliant elephant under a huge tree in the schoolyard; the throng of teachers and students tentatively moves in to close an intrigued circle around the beast.
The wily trainer is all white-toothed smiles and charisma at first, and the expectant children stand in patient awe for quite some time. Still, the elephant doesn’t move. Aside from a twitch of an ear, or a flick of its small tail, the elephant is motionless and disinterested. The youngsters quickly grow restless and bored. Perhaps they expect complicated tricks? Where is the entertaining circus act? A few of the more impatient students begin to drift apart from the loosening circle, as the elephant remains aloof and unmoving.
Suddenly sensing that he is losing his young audience, the sly trainer reveals his true motives. As he passes around a small, decorated wicker basket, he invites the audience to generously donate their handfuls of coins for the animal’s food and shelter. “Monies! Give your monies, childrens!!” he pleads in imperfect English.
However, the children seem to have decided en masse that this boring event is not worthy of their attentions. Only a gullible few proffer the coins they have been clutching in their small, sweaty palms, and even more are straggling away from the crowd to explore the playground. The trainer’s cries become more desperately plaintive as his young audience disperses.
Suddenly and on cue, as if realizing its owner’s dire predicament, the grand old elephant breaks its stillness. In a glorious movement that is forever branded into the memories of each person there, the elephant lifts its massive head, raises its spindly tail . . . and in a series of dull thuds, dispenses several bowling-ball-sized elephant turds onto the ground below.
The dubious crowd is instantly at attention. The young children, already fascinated by all things potty, are now completely mesmerized and truly impressed with the sheer enormity and quantity of this mammoth-sized dump. Even the adults present momentarily lose their professional composure, guffawing and slack-jawed in their own childlike amazement at the elephantine excrement.
Then, in a gratuitous coup-de-grace that the fortuitous trainer could not possibly have choreographed (but would no doubt take all the credit for), the elephant adjusts its stance slightly, squats, and lets loose with a huge, steaming stream of urine.
It is a copious flow. It is an endless stream. It is also rather smelly. The growing lake of elephant wee-wee stretches dangerously close to the boundaries of the human circle in which the urinating creature stands. The amazed crowd backs away, respectfully speechless, as the elephant floods the already-humid schoolyard.
It seems to go on forever, like a fascinatingly weird dream. When the golden stream finally slows to a trickle, then quits at last with a few succinct squirts, that wily elephant trainer “carpes the diem” and triumphantly passes the donation basket again. “Monies! childrens!!” he proudly cries. “Give your monies to my amazing elephant!!”
This time, the appreciative audience gladly pays up, forking over each and every one of their moist-fisted coins as if they’d just got the bargain of a lifetime. What an incredible show! What a fantastic day! And indeed: what an amazing elephant!