We spent the first two weeks of December in Jaipur, a city in the state of Rajasthan, India (part 1 of our 35-day stay in the country). Jaipur was high on my list of places to go in India, mainly because of pictures I'd seen of the city (the movie Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was set in Jaipur), and we found a volunteer program there through the organization Volunteering With India (VWI). For two weeks, we spent every morning plus two afternoons per week volunteering with elephants on an elephant “reserve” (more on the quotation marks later), while living in Jaipur's old city center, called the "Pink City" for it's peachy-pink colored buildings. When Sukret, VWI's volunteer coordinator, picked us up from the Jaipur airport and drove us to Prity Guesthouse in the Pink City, Jaipur's crazy no-rules cow/car/motorbike/rickshaw-laced traffic was not so shocking after Kathmandu. Having been in developing countries since late October, our skin has begun to thicken to the traffic, stray animals, and many people trying to make a living by hustling wares on the street. The urgency of shop owners' pleas to “just take a look...,” the rampant stray animals, and the resoluteness of begging children still breaks my heart a little bit every time. My family has had its own financial struggles, but we are so privileged. Seeing numerous examples of abject poverty every day for the past few months has been a constant reminder of this fact. I don't know why I happened to be born in a place where so many opportunities and lifestyle options exist....because of my father's choices to excel academically and immigrate to the U.S. for graduate school....because of my mother's choices to become the first in her family to go to college, and to marry a handsome Indian immigrant....
Another side effect of long-term travel is seeing so many beautiful and extraordinary world heritage sights in rapid succession and finding ourselves, while still appreciating the beauty of each, comparing each to the others. For example, the preservation efforts at the different sites seem to vary in ways that surprisingly don't always correlate with the respective countries' economic statuses (e.g. we could have strolled through Pompeii wielding cans of spray paint without any apparent security or staff to object, while the Taj Mahal's many guards policed us at every turn as we shuffled through the echoing chambers in mandatory over-shoe booties to protect the marble floors). In this unusual state of hyper-touring, having visited more than twenty cities in five countries on three different continents in only two months, I was very excited to feather a nest in Jaipur for two whole weeks.
That first night, we were exhausted from traveling all day, and eager to rest before our first 5:00am shift with the elephants the next morning. Sukret introduced us to the members of the Tanwar family who run Prity Guesthouse (Prity is the name of the family's youngest daughter) out of their home, which has four additional bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms for guests. VWI has an arrangement with the guest house, and all volunteers stay there. During our stay, the four guest rooms were filled by us; Simon's mother, Sachiyo; a teacher from Spain named Kim, who was in his final few weeks of volunteering for three months in a Jaipur orphanage; and Monica from Mexico City, also in the elephant program. The guesthouse, typical of large family homes in Jaipur, has a spacious vestibule/sitting area, kitchen, dining area, and a few bedrooms occupied by family members on the first floor. The guest rooms, one additional family bedroom, and a few common areas and outdoor patio spaces fill the second floor, and a rooftop terrace offers a lovely view of the nearby City Palace parks, several resident monkeys, and a man-made lake. As Sukret gave us the grand tour, he explained that Punam, the second oldest Tanwar daughter, would be married that Saturday on the large park lawn behind the house, and warned us that there would be noise and commotion all week long as pre-wedding preparations and ceremonies took place. According to Sukret, the family had suggested that VWI find different accommodations for volunteers that week due to anticipated wedding-related noise disturbances, but Sukret thought the wedding festivities would further contribute to us experiencing authentic Indian family life. In the car ride from the airport, Sukret had issued the following preemptive advice: “the volunteers who do best in this program keep their minds open to how Indians do things....it's all part of the experience,” in a tone that implied his experience with volunteers who had not done well in the program. I felt a pang of concern and guilt....I had conducted very little research on the organization for which we were about to volunteer. I work in the nonprofit sector, and I know better. For the zillionth time since embarking on this crazy adventure, I repeated to myself one of my favorite quotes, from Kent Haruf's novel, Plainsong (which you need to read to understand the gravity of the context): "You're here now. This is where you are."
Our tour culminated on the rooftop terrace, where our host brother and guest house manager Sonu (the only son of the Tanwar family) tried to point out the vague shimmer of the lake below us in the evening darkness. Someone turned on music in the house below that followed us up the stairs – a prelude to the pop and Bollywood music that would play every night that week at wall-shaking decibels until about 11:00pm, vibrating throughout the house from giant speakers rented for the occasion. Occasionally, the women in the bride's family would sing together in place of the music, and their voices, though still loud enough to carry through walls and ceilings, provided a welcome respite to the nightclub atmosphere created by the industrial speakers. Here is an example of a very popular Bollywood song played every night that week, that is still stuck in our heads: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTfkSDlDvM0. We were encouraged to feel at home in all common spaces, and while it was fun to see the Tanwar women's beautiful dancing that accompanied the music, and while we can look back fondly on the absurd hilarity of the sleeping in such a crazy environment, it was especially painful to wake up at 4:30am for our volunteer shift every morning that week. Additionally, the rooms (including the sheets) didn't seem to have been cleaned before we arrived, a mouse ran through our room and mysteriously disappeared on the first night (we were too exhausted to care), and hot water was elusive and usually short-lived. Despite these quirks, living with a Rajasthani family and essentially being flies on the wall during the wedding activities (the family was too busy with the wedding to pay us much attention) was definitely unique, interesting, and not an unwelcome change of pace.
Some swatches from our stay in Jaipur:
Longish tangent about our awesome taxi driver (don't worry – I'm getting to the elephants)
After finally getting to sleep that first night, we were picked up at 5:00am in front of the guest house by Totaram (referred to by all volunteer and elephant staff as “the taxi man”), who would drive us to “work” in his motor rickshaw or “tuk tuk” every weekday morning plus two afternoons per week for the next two weeks. Totaram is possibly my favorite person who we met in Jaipur. Every morning, during the thirty-minute drive from Prity Guesthouse to Elephant City or Elephant Village (the names of the two elephant reserves on the outskirts of Jaipur where we volunteered), Totaram would roll down the side window flaps on the rickshaw to keep us slightly warmer on the chilly morning drive.
As we worked our shift at the farm, Totaram would keep the shades rolled down and sleep in the back seat beneath the wool blanket that he wore as a shawl during the drive. He would occasionally pull over and run some unexplained errand...picking up sweets at a shop, making a quick offering at a roadside temple, or one inexplicable time, purchasing a loaf of bread and feeding it to the fish in the water palace lake. Nearly every day, he would idle the tuk tuk beside one particular roadside shrine just long enough to leave a coin or two. Our 5:00am pickup was the beginning of his workday, and he typically works late into the evening. He recently paid for his two daughters' weddings, which had 2,500 guests in attendance. I can't explain exactly why I immediately liked Totaram so much, especially since our different languages prevented us from saying much to each other. There was something good-humored and sharp in his eyes beneath the bushy gray eyebrows.
One morning, on our drive back home from a morning shift, Totaram steered the rickshaw onto his own street and invited us into his home for tea. As in our guest house, multiple generations of his large family live together there. In India, women traditionally go to live in their husbands' households after marriage, so the families of Totaram's parents and the families of his four brothers live in the one-story house, while his six sisters live elsewhere with their families. The house has one large, central common area surrounded by the private rooms of family members. I believe there was more than one kitchen for the multiple families. The common area has a concrete floor, several plastic chairs, and an open skylight. When it rains, water pours through the skylight, and the floor is slanted to facilitate drainage. On this visit, we were particularly impressed by Totaram's 80ish-year-old father (none of the sons knew his exact age), who emerged impeccably dressed in white from one of the bedrooms and made a show of winding his old-fashioned pocket watch. When I asked to take his picture, he sat in a chair and posed regally, than silently wagged his finger at me when I showed him the photo. One of Totaram's brothers, demonstrating a reaction that I would encounter frequently during our stay in India, was particularly amused by my “Indian face,” given that I don't speak Hindi. As I would explain over and over again (which honestly is not much more often than I am asked to do in the U.S.), I explained that my father is from India, and my mother was born in the U.S. with an Italian/Polish background. Unlike when I provide this information to inquirers at home, in India, the additional information that my dad's family is from the state of Gujarat is meaningful....most Patels come from Gujarat. The fact that I speak neither Hindi nor Gujarati has earned me many baffled stares in India, as if I've come to trick people with my Indian-looking shell. In the U.S. (and especially in California), being mixed is normal, but in India, I am a curiosity. A few days later, when we attended a dinner function at Totaram's house, the same brother, upon recognizing me, pointed at me gleefully and shouted “Indian face!,” then laughed hysterically. He may have been drunk.
Besides Totaram himself, his college-aged niece Chandu made a big impression on me. Chandu, like a few other young people we met in Jaipur, is completing a college degree through independent study, which entails studying the course material at home, then taking exams at test sites in the city. She is about to complete what sounded like a business administration/management degree, and desperately wants to work abroad. When we first met her, she emerged from one of the cement-walled bedrooms of Totaram's house, still disheveled in her pajamas (our morning shifts with the elephants ended at 8:00am), and pulled up a chair next to mine. Her English is very good, and after chatting for a bit, she got serious, and told us about her dream to get out of Jaipur and work abroad. She sounded optimistic: “my family teases me, but I tell them I will work abroad....I hope when I come to America someday, I can call you my friends”.....and also unsure about her future: “how can someone like me, with no experience, find a job abroad?,” the latter question asked with hopeful eyes that seemed to plead “tell me how to get me out of here!”. I found that all of the advice popping into my head (networking, LinkedIn profiles, internships) didn't seem applicable for this bright girl living in a cinderblock house in a town where most women (at least among the families we met in the old part of Jaipur, including our host sisters at Prity Guesthouse) get married and become full-time homemakers in their early twenties. And while the independent study option has made it possible for Chandu to obtain a degree, she does not have fellow classmates or teachers with whom to network or from whom to gain mentorship. In the end, my vague, lame advice amounted to encouraging her to work hard and not give up on her dream. I have her email address, and feel compelled to offer Chandu some more concrete advice....perhaps looking for a starter job in the more modern part of Jaipur outside the Pink City, finding other educated women there to network with, etc. I need to do some more research. I am even more aware of the vast opportunities afforded me, that are so limited for others.
Finally, the elephants (and the men who depend on them)
I kept Sukret's vaguely cautionary advice in mind as Totaram steered us into Elephant City that first morning. Looking back a VWI's website, all of the facts are there, and it seems like they must have very recently changed the text to make it so (maybe in response to my comments on the evaluation form?). In any case, in the whirlwind of planning, packing, and our preceding travel, I had only minimally scanned the website for the work description (cleaning up after and feeding elephants) and several previous volunteers' testimonies (unanimously positive). It was still dark when we arrived in a dusty compound dotted with gray cement-walled structures that served as housing for both people and elephants, who live literally side by side. The people who live there are the mahouts (the Indian term for elephant caretakers and/or riders) and their families. The elephants live in concrete stalls, with chains looped around their ankles and shackled to the floor. That first day, Govind, the local coordinator of VWI's elephant program, introduced us to Gulab (which means “rose” in Hindi), and instructed us to sweep dry hay from from her stall that was left over from her evening meal of sugar cane. Govind and the mahouts showed us how to sift the hay for remaining hard stalks of sugar cane, which Gulab accepted straight from our hands with her trunk, lifting them to her mouth with relish. Once the stall was swept free of hay, we snapped on plastic gloves and used our hands to pick up the large pile of dung that had accumulated behind Gulab during the night (the gloves exist for volunteers' benefit.... the mahouts use their bare hands). When all of this was done, and the cement floor of Gulab's stable was swept spotless, we were introduced to Pinky in an identical stall, and repeated the process. We also gave pinky a bath, scrubbing her with brushes and water from a hose. The sun rose, pink against the smog, during the final half hour of our shift.
We were offered cups of Chai served on a ledge in Gulab's stall, which we drank with the Mahouts while Gulab was saddled up for her day job of giving tourist rides at nearby Amber Fort (the sole source of income for the mahouts). The mahouts' wives and small children peered shyly from a side entrance to the stall, and we could see into the rooms of their home beyond. As we piled back into Totaram's tuk tuk, we watched Pinky, decked out in a red and blue saddle blanket, amble off toward the fort in the rising sun as her mahout rider secured a traditional Rajasthani turban onto his own head. Like the Indian masala (mixed spices) in our chai, I left that morning with mixed emotions. Elephant City and Elephant Village (a very similar compound, but larger and with more elephants) are in fact government-regulated. Elephant City is a government-owned sanctuary designed to improve the lives of elephants, whose captive lives had previously been unregulated. The Indian government provides the land, structures, food, and medical treatment for the animals, allowing the mahouts to comply with government regulated work hours for the elephants. Elephant Village is privately owned, but must comply with the same government regulations and standards of care as Elephant City. In my ignorance, I had attached a very different vision to the term “reserve.” I knew the elephants would be captive, and I knew that part of their days would be spent giving rides to tourists, but I imagined that they would return home to something resembling a natural and enjoyable existence. On that first morning, I expected to eventually see Gulab and Pinky released from their stalls for the leisurely part of their day, and my heart slowly sank as I realized that wouldn't happen. Simon felt less concerned about the living conditions of the elephants, which, as he pointed out, are probably lightyears more humane than those of some of the animals we eat (hooray for the new chicken coop law in California). Simon's main problem with the program was feeling that we weren't adding value by volunteering our time. Our volunteered time didn't contribute to a particular improvement or cause....we just lightened the loads of the mahouts.
Friends and family who knew about our volunteer plans started asking for details, and I evaded their questions as I tried to process my complicated feelings about those two weeks of mahout life (typical introvert....can't say anything until I have something to say). I was disappointed and saddened by the circumstances of the elephants' lives, but we weren't having a horrible experience either. Elephants have amazing memories, and, trying not to anthropomorphize, I felt like they recognized me each day as they raised their trunks in greeting, and that we formed bonds that were tough to break when the two weeks were up. The mahouts were fairly lenient about our workloads, and we had some free time each day to just be with the elephants. I would sneak them extra sugarcane from the stock behind the stables, and tried to understand the thoughts in those intelligent eyes. Finally, I broke the silence and included the following description of our volunteer work in an email to a few of my San Francisco girlfriends:
….“We just finished 2 weeks of volunteering on an elephant farm in Jaipur, India. It was a little different from what we expected. The website described an elephant reserve, but it was actually more of a farm for working elephants who go to Amber Fort every day to give tourist rides. The elephants are not abused, but they aren't living a natural life either. The mahouts (elephant caretakers) are born into the profession - their fathers and grandfathers were mahouts, and they are very poor and mostly uneducated. Some even sleep in the stables with the elephants. The government provides the land for the farm, pays for veterinary care for the elephants, and regulates their work hours, etc. to prevent abuse. Tourist rides are the only source of income for the mahouts, and their families would be displaced if the industry was shut down. Compared to all of the other social problems in India, it's definitely not high-leverage enough to warrant much government attention at the moment, beyond regulating treatment of the animals (which is apparently a recent improvement, thus the term "reserve"). So, I have very mixed feelings about elephant tourism, and working with the mahouts was an interesting empathy exercise. Getting to know the elephants up close was amazing, and also sad. They're so intelligent and aware. I'm still working through some mixed feelings - I didn't like seeing the elephants in stables, yet I eat meat.... Overall, it was a very real and positive experience. Jaipur is a beautiful and crazy city, and through our program and home stay, we hung out with a lot of locals. Now we're embarking on the tourist portion of our India trip, and after the questionable cleanliness of our home stay room, I have never been so happy to see a clean hotel shower!”....
I kind of cringed as I hit “send.” Even sending these thoughts to close friends, I was afraid of sounding discompassionate toward the elephants, toward the mahouts, or both. My complicated feelings stemmed from seeing the injustice in both the animals' and their caretakers' lives, feeling complicit in the whole flawed system through my volunteer work, and not knowing what to do about it. Almost immediately, my friend Iris sent me this sweet and thoughtful response that meant so much to me:
….“I too wish that it were a sanctuary. It's deeply sad when Elephants are enslaved for human benefit, especially since they're highly aware, intelligent, and emotional beings. To be confused about the situation, though, while still wishing it were different, I think, is truly compassionate; like you mentioned, it's how some know how to survive--a sad reality, but maybe not hopeless still.”....
Later, my friend Sarah replied with this smart and insightful perspective:
….“In Sri Lanka, we always visit an elephant "orphanage" with tons of baby elephants. The mahouts never seemed cruel, but its an entirely different attitude than an American would expect for a place called an orphanage! In a way, the idea of a pet or any empathy with animals feels like a luxury. These people are just trying to get by. No one was getting rich off of anything, but it's still hard to swallow the Sri Lankan elephant industry. We, as tourists, are the sole reason these animals are given any attention at all. Environmental conservation / animal protections are a long way off. Although, as a kid, this was completely lost on me. I thought they just wandered the jungle with their human friends. Haha.”....
My friends are brilliant, in every sense of the word.
So, I have made peace with the fact that my feelings about this volunteering experience are complicated, and I am thankful to VWI for providing an experience that expanded my heart and mind, even if it wasn't always comfortable. Elephant tourism in India and in other countries is riddled with complex problems, and it would be impossible for me to draw a neat conclusion and tie up my Jaipur experience with a bow. A fellow traveler who we met in a cafe in Rishikesh (a north-Indian town along the Ganges River known for yoga and ashrams), after hearing about our experience, suggested that the elephant tourism problem is exactly the kind of social issue that the World Wildlife Fund usually tackles. WWF is known for looking at the big picture and figuring out how to help a disadvantaged group (such as captive elephants) without displacing another group (such as the mahouts whose lives depend on them). Maybe, as Iris suggested, there is hope still. In thinking about this problem, the trickiest factor for me is the deeply ingrained cultural significance of captive elephants in India. Elephants as chariots or laborers are a frequent theme of both ancient and contemporary Indian art and architecture. A recently built Hindu temple that we visited in Delhi sits atop a massive sandstone platform into which nearly life-sized, high-relief elephants are carved into a series of impressively detailed historical and religious scenes featuring the beautiful animals. The scenes are accompanied by anthropomorphized inscriptions describing how the elephants are proud of their contributions to Indian history, all related to providing labor and support to the people. This is Indian truth, and I am bringing what Sarah so eloquently called the luxury of empathy for animals from my privileged first-world background.
Leaving Jaipur behind was bittersweet. It was our beautiful home for two weeks, and we met some amazing friends with whom we plan to stay in touch. I loved exploring the ancient forts and colorful markets, and despite complicated feelings, I loved meeting and working with the elephants for a short time. Saying goodbye, especially to my favorite, Rupa, was very sad. I wish the elephants, the mahouts, and their families well, and hope that all of their lives improve as India modernizes and its economy and middle class continue to grow.
Elephant Village on our final morning of volunteering....home to beautiful animals and people who shared their lives with us: