Elephants and Earthquakes

A month ago, Lombok was hit with two deadly earthquakes and barraged by aftershocks that crumbled houses and destroyed schools. Tourism halted and the locals were left to rebuild their island without aid from their biggest industry-tourism. 

With the boat’s guest room invaded by 140 kg of rice, 200 diapers, 15 mosquito coils, two empty water cans ready to be filled by the boat’s water maker, enough soap to service the crown plaza for a week, a tarp, a tangle of ropes, bricks of canned tuna and six soccer balls, we sail into Madina Bay on the north side of the Lombok. 

The bay at night is a minefield. Coral outcrops vanish with the sun, and we are left trusting a palm-sized map in a navigation book to get us into the bay without puncturing the 75 ft catamaran that’s been home for the last two months. I sit on the bow looking out for sudden changes in depth and searching for the chasm of deep water that is the only way to shore. The sun is already below the horizon but last light in still 10 minutes away. Dark shadows creep from the bottom, and I yell to the captain that it’s shallowing. Obviously, he knows, eyes glued to the depth meter that now reads 2.3 meters. He stops the boat and kicks it into reverse and heads back into deep water to try and find the channel from another angle. The radio chimes with the voice of one of a sailor already anchored near shore. The stranger offers to come aboard and pilot us through the channel. When you risk sinking a home, the answer is always, yes, please. 

The next day, I wake up to my new backyard and neighbors-a dozen other boats all bobbing 30 meters from the white beach at the toes of a jungled mountain. 

Word on the radio is that the elephant park opened yesterday for the first time since the earthquake so instead of pitching in with the school (tomorrow’s duty) I head to shore on the dingy expecting to see the destruction before stepping onto the jetty. An uncracked pavement leads off to a white three-story hotel. Ahead, a shack stocked with a wall of spirits and a fridge of Bintang is filled with tourists drinking and laughing. The only sign of destruction is the mound of construction tools and material under getting checked by a lady with a red clipboard. There are lines of jerrycans, walls of rice, ten wheelbarrows and countless shovels, tarps, pickaxes, and rakes.  The marina is the headquarters for the relief effort and the base of various charity organizations that have sprung up in the month since the first grumble. It’s not until I’m in the Elephant Park’s 4WD leaving the beachside that the world shifts from paradise to demolition. 

Tent cities rise from the rubble and the houses still standing have cracks exploring their walls. The earthquakes destroyed every second house and the deeper we drive into the mountains, one-in-two becomes nine out of ten, all buckled to the foundations. 

Amongst the wreckage, Children kick around a flat soccer ball or throw small pieces of rubble at bigger pieces of rubble. The sounds of cracking rock settles over dusty streets. Bamboo frames rise from pebbled cement and nearby, displaced mothers sit in a hodgepodge of tarps and tables selling homemade rice crisps as they wait for walls and rooves on their homes. 

Happiness amongst Tents

The destruction intensifies as we climb deeper into the mountains. As we reach the elephant park, however, a miracle emerges from the jungle. Two cement elephants charge out of stone pillars to frame a wooden door big enough for blue whales to swim through. Two park workers open our car doors and usher us to the front desk where three women smile and rattle off a list of prices and experiences.   I buy a basket of fruit but say no to the elephant ride and insurance. The fact that insurance is coupled with an elephant ride. The fact that the “experience” is coupled with insurance is enough to say no and the extra 200 Rupia could be better spent on cocktails or clean drinking water for the local school children. 

There are cracks in the paths, but the squawks and honks of monkeys, birds and unknown grunters lure us through the gates.  Alien parrots bob on low hanging branches oggling the goodies in my basket. 

“Your peanuts,” says Toto, our guide. “Parrots like peanuts.” 

Toto places a black cockatoo with a beak big enough to crack open a coconut on my shoulder. It clucks its beak, asking for nuts and I reach into my bucket wishing he ate carrots or anything that puts more than a centimeter between my fingertips and its chomper. 

Birds are just the warm-up. I shake it off my shoulder and head down the hill to the Elephant Enclosure where two giant Sumatran Elephants sway side by side. 

Elephant Feeding

“For you, a ride is 100,00,” says Toto as I feed brocholini into a trunk. 

I want to say no knowing that Elephant Rides aren’t that great for the animals, but more pressingly, may not be great for my nerves. 

When I was six, a horse bolted with me on its back. When I was eight, I was chased up a fig tree by a bull.  I nearly fell off a camel in Outback Australia two months ago, and although two days ago I raced water buffalo without recieving a horn to the kidneys, an elephant ride doesn’t feel too tempting. 

But a seven-dollar joy ride is too good to pass up and since we are the only visitors at a zoo that employs 30-plus people from groundskeepers, vets, animal handlers, elephant jockeys and the men rebuilding fences that, at a closer look, are one rumble more away from crumbling into the orangutan pen, I agree to the ride.  =

When it costs the same price as a latte in New York, no isn’t an option. I climb onto the prickly back and grab the waist of my Elephant’s jockey. 

Next time I ride, I’ll wear long pants.   The wiry hide grates my legs, and as soon as I’m sitting, I want to hop off.  Halfway along the track the elephant stops and the thump of poo that hits the ground would scare snakes into burrows and birds out of trees. We plod through the park’s curated jungle searching for the owners of the shrieks, yells, honks and howls erupting around us.  

When leaves are as big as beach umbrellas, and vines strangle trees, you forget that you’re in a park.  We return to the cement elephant enclosure, and Toto waves us over like we are the only tourists to visit in a month and since we are, I tip our jockey and jump of the elephant whooping like a monkey who just caught a spiraling banana. 

We wind through the park past the pigmy hippos which look sunburnt and smeared in Vaseline. The two adults, seemingly fresh out of the birth canal, plod towards us, eyes on the now half-full basket of near-rotten fruit and veg. I toss them a bit of lettuce and wonder how an animal could evolve to be that ugly. With no hair, sunburn must be a killer. They waddle about with webbed feet and legs that seem to quiver under the weight of their bulbous belly and Neanderthal heads. 

We continue past gibbons swinging between tree limbs, their hands, feet and tail working as one to show off to their only spectators of the day.  

The porcupines, our next stop, are the sole casualties of the earthquake with the littlest of the troop’s foot having been crushed by falling rocks. It hobbles behind its mother, sniffing out the beans I’m dangling over the pen. How this walking sea urchin is the only animal in the park to have been hurt is a mystery. There are snakes twice as long as an elephant, lizards as big as the hippopotamus and monkeys in cages that are one aftershock away from their gates cracking open and an early release date into the wild. 

The last stop on the tour is the orangutans who live on a grassy knoll surrounded by a mote penned in with enough climbing equipment to keep a kindergarten class happy for an afternoon. Native to Borneo, the orangutans are our great grandparents 20 million times removed and although millennia’s have passed since the evolutionary divide,  the likeness is startling, particularly if the comparison is made from a cross-section of a dive bar at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday night. You have the lazy ape in the corner, scratching his belly, waiting for an apple to be tossed his way. There is the jokester, twirling and squawking for a banana and finally, the grouch that looks over the scene with scorn but continues to keep an eye on the tourist’s fruit basket biding his time for the best berry in the bunch. 

I toss bananas and oranges, and the Orangutans perform for our quickly depleting fruit. I tell myself that I’m doing my part, feeding the currency and supporting a local business that would usually have hundreds of tourists per day and needs every penny to care for and feed the animals. I know, however, I’m relishing the attentiveness of both the staff and animals. 

“Do you want to meet Valent,” Toto asks, pointing at the Orangutan that’s pacing the mote’s edge for another catch.

I buy a second fruit basket and follow Toto to a feeding stage. Valent arrives holding hands with a woman who leads him beside me, and I hand my orange ancestor a small pineapple. He grabs it with one hand, then snatches the whole fruit basket with the other and turns his back on me. I want to seize it back, to feed him in drips, but he’s huddled around the food as if it’s a fire on a cold night. 

Hungry Orangutan

 I sit down beside him, and he turns away, cradling the heist between his legs. Once he’s eaten his favorites-a banana and a second pineapple-he drapes his arm over my shoulder like he is about to let me in on a secret. I lean in, and he pats my head then gives me a noogie.  Toto assures me this Orangutan, which, according to the information board is seven times stronger than humans and could crush my spine with one well-aimed pat on the back, is harmless. I slither away and try to stand, but Valent grabs my hand and takes me for a short stroll, possibly looking for the lady that sells the fruit baskets. 

Having a private tour, no lines and animals that scurry towards you in the hope of treats are only available because outside the park walls, the world is rubble. A day of digging and hammering and a guest room full of supplies doesn’t feel like quite enough, but it will be all I give back. 

In two days, I’ll be in Bali, and the destruction of Lombok will be pushed aside by surf, beachside coconuts and flush toilets.

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