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Thursday, May 10, 2012

From India: Elefantastic!

On Sunday night we decided to travel from Mumbai to Jaipur as our next stop. Thanks to the interwebs and the fact that you don't have to book flights years in advance like the good 'ol days, we left for the airport early Monday morning and were there before noon.

Jaipur is the forgotten (at least to ill-versed tourists like us) corner of the 'golden triangle', also including New Delhi and a subtle little building in Agra called the Taj Mahal. Known for it's precious stones (some of which were used on the Taj) and excellent handicrafts (many of which are currently in the hands of DHL on their way to Lauren's aunt in Maryland - thanks Aunt Sue!), Jaipur also has a fantastic fort and charming old palace that rivals Topkapi in Istanbul; less in terms of current state and more by the easily conjured image of decadence (yes, including multitudes of concubines, wives, etc.) that the Maharajas of old obviously enjoyed.

But, as is evident by the title of this post, the highlight of our time in Jaipur was intimately experiencing something which most of the hundreds of thousands of tourists only catch a glimpse of while being transported from the base of the fort through the ceremonially entrance gate to the palace on the hill.

Usually I spend at least 5 minutes trying to come up with a catchy (and usually cheesy) post title that, among other things, is meant to secure copious amounts of eye rolling from my patient travel companion. Thanks to Rahul, the brains behind Jaipur's #1 rated Trip Advisor activity, my task in this regard was easy!

A quick online search will show you that 'working' elephants in India have a less than stellar reputation for being treated appropriately by their owners. I have to admit, even before googling it and after seeing how other animals (except cows which are revered in Hinduism) are treated, I had my concerns. To show that not all elephants are mistreated and that a deep and touching bond can exist between rider and beast, Rahul thought up Elefantastic earlier this year. Well, that and he's also obviously a stellar entrepreneur... the possibility of making good money off of idealistic, animal-loving tourists (I know at least two and we're traveling together) was also undoubtedly a driving force.

Thanks to an animal rights-inspired Indian law that prohibits elephants from transporting tourists up to the palace after mid morning (don't know if this is an all-year thing or just during the hot months), the magnificent animals basically get to hang out the rest of every day being fed, bathed and entertained by their riders. And, thanks to Elefantastic that day, also by two lovely young British world travelers, Lauren and me!

From a business perspective, it's a win/win all around for Rahul. Priced right at the threshold for what most tourists would be willing to pay for a very personal day with elephants (~US$100) and, with little additional effort, able to produce additional cash off of what they do everyday anyways... yeah, good business model if you ask me.

Once the elephants returned from working at the fort/palace in late morning, we got to leisurely enjoy their company. No rush. No hurry. Feed them. Drink chai. Pet them. Ride them. Paint them (all natural dyes of course). Drink more chai. Talk to them. Love them.

Lunch at Rahul's mother's house was included in our deal (as is dinner I believe although we opted out of that). Not only did Rahul's family, fourth generation elephant owners, live next to the animals, but the riders also lived in the same neighborhood. Those with families had separate homes. Bachelors slept with the elephants. Given the fact that most elephants live upwards of 70 years and one rider spends his entire time with the same animal... that's a lot of together time!

(Side note - I understand that some rights activists would prefer the elephants to roam free. Fair point and in an ideal world I don't disagree. But after four generations and countless elephant-centered cultural activites - weddings/festivals/etc. - the practice of using elephants for work isn't going anywhere... so it was really nice to find a place that cared about them enough to treat them well.)

But back to lunch. The food was predictably awesome, but it was the fact that we were in their living room that made it more unique and special. This is how Jaipur-ians live. The huge tapestry of a seven-trunked elephant. The big, decorative furniture. The unrelenting hospitality.

As if that wasn't enough elefantasm for one day, we also were taken on a 'safari' and had the amazing opportunity to help bathe the teenage 'baby' of the bunch. For the latter, it wasn't until afterwards that we wondered about the wisdom of swimming in the man-made lake that was essentially a bath tub for the area's elephants. As for the 'safari', the quotes around the word are definitely essential. It was more like an uber-cheesy, slow, relaxing walk through the woods on top of an elephant wearing, you guessed it, an uber-cheesy turban. We approached it as such and were fine. Approach it looking to spot copious wildlife and you're in for a disappointment.

In all, I give Elefantastic a solid A. Great idea. Good execution. Amazing animals.

To Rahul I offer the following advice for him to take or leave: keep it as authentic as possible. Don't take your lovely mother out of the equation. Keep it personal. Don't worry about checking to see if we're having a good time every few minutes - trust me, westerners will let you know if everything's not ok. And lastly, keep it as small as possible - given the positive press (and the ever-important Trip Advisor rating), more people will be knocking on your door. Especially during the busy tourist season. The temptation to grow and grow fast will be there. Fight that temptation.

Keep it small. Keep it authentic. Keep it all about the elephants. And your mom, she was pretty great too!