Zen and the Art of Mastodon Maintenance

By DAVID PEARSON, Special Contributor

The following passage is an excerpt from the author’s upcoming book, “Yankee Doodle Volunteer”.

NORTHERN GHANA, AFRICA — Being chased by an elephant through a grove of trees is a startlingly Zen experience.

You skip over years of meditation practice — calmly chanting “ohhhmmm” in order to quiet your mind — and you land suddenly and solely focused on the present moment.

You run for your life, dodging and diving behind tree trunks, while an animal the size of a double-wide trailer CRASHES after you, SMASHING down whole trees in her pursuit to stomp you and kill you.

The sound, only feet behind you, of branches LASHING and SLAPPING and tree trunks CRACKING and SNAPPING focuses your mind wonderfully.

For the first time in your life not a single extraneous thought floats across your consciousness: not a random song lyric, not a flash of an old girlfriend, not a regret, not even so much as a hankering for lunch.  As you race through the trees you are entirely IN THE MOMENT. Your monkey mind has lit off screeching in the opposite direction and all that is left inside your head is one simple mantra:


But how — I hear you asking, Dear Reader — does one come to be chased by a homicidal elephant?  And surely there are less precarious paths to a quiescent consciousness?

Excellent questions, Dear Reader, I could hardly have phrased them better myself. To find the answers let’s travel back 15 minutes to a time when annihilation and/or enlightenment by elephant was, as of yet, not yet dreamt of.

You see, there I was on the grassy savanna of Northern Ghana, peddling my rusty red bicycle down a dusty dirt road, a road which like so many others in this part of Africa careened like a drunkenly-plowed furrow through the wind-swaying grasses.

My humble intention was to make it from Zebilla, the little village of mud huts where I lived and worked as a volunteer English teacher, to a nice cold bottle of Star Beer in the town of Bolga Tanga.

My hope also, as I squeaked down the dirt road in highest gear as fast as my little legs would peddle, was to make it to Bolga Tanga before nightfall (before the malarial pestilence took wing).

But then something unexpected occurred: coming along behind me I heard the low long growl of a car.

I turned and immediately thought, “Oh, crap…”

For what I saw was a beat-up old police cruiser bouncing over the washboard ruts in the road and trailing a long tail of dust behind it like a dirty comet.

As the cruiser approached and then bumped past, a cloud of reddish-brown dust boiled up all around me. I covered my mouth and nose with my hand, squinted my eyes tight, kept peddling, and willed with all of my mental lasers for the damn thing to just keep on going.

But of course, it didn’t.

Fifty yards past me, the cruiser stopped, and for a second time I thought, “Oh, crap…”

For you see, as many West Africans will tell you, the police in this part of the world are essentially state sanctioned thieves.  They are paid nearly nothing (when they are paid at all) and so a tradition has arisen amongst these brethren of systematically extorting money from the poor and hapless.

(Incidentally, this may explain—in part—why there is still so much tribalism in Africa.  When a European-imposed Nation State spreads thieves amongst its people, who else are they to trust and rely upon but their family and tribe?)

In any case, it appeared that once again I was the hapless fly and here was a spider.

Now, let me hasten to say that in contrast to certain nightmare countries like Equatorial Guinea, where I have also lived, the police in Ghana are not nearly so bad as they might be.  You might even liken them more to sports fishermen than to highwaymen.

For, you see, because of my white skin, the police reeled me in regularly during the 2 years I lived in Ghana.  Their eyes would shine with the hope that they had hooked a nice fat whale of a tourist.  But when they saw that I was, in fact, merely a very lean minnow, who just happened to be volunteer teaching in a little village in Northern Ghana, they generally grinned good-naturedly at their ill-fortune and then said something along the lines of, “Oh! You are here to help Ghana!”   Then they tossed me back into the teeming sea of anonymity without demanding any money.  These encounters, though benign, were an unwelcomed drag…particularly so when a cold beer and convivial company were awaiting me.

So when the cruiser door swung open ahead of me, I reflexively slowed my peddling and prepared my standard spiel: Oh, officer, I am but a POOOOOR English teacher, yadda yadda yadda…

To my great surprise, however, when this would-be Ahab climbed out of his cab, he was smiling excitedly instead of scowling.

He beckoned me to come closer, then turned and pointed towards a large grove of trees floating nearby in the sea of grass.  He poked the air vigorously with his finger and exclaimed “Look! Look! Look!”

I slowed to a stop on my bicycle and looked warily towards the trees.  At first I didn’t see anything, but then I shaded my eyes with my hands and squinted.

That’s when I saw them.

A parade of about ten elephants was standing in the middle of the woods.  They had formed a circle with their bodies like a wagon train ready to fight off marauding Indians.  And in the midst of this circle, within this fortress of massive grey bodies, were three baby elephants.

“OOOOOOOO!” I thought to myself, “Baby Elephants! Cute! Cute! Cute!”

Naturally, I had to get closer.

I lay my bicycle down in the dust, and started walking through the knee-high grass towards the wood. As I reached the edge of the trees, one of the elephants turned her head and glared hard at me. I froze as her eyes bore into me.

After a few moments, however, this bullish elephant had done nothing more than glower at me, so I thought to myself, “Great!…Now let’s have a closer look at those babies.”

I stepped into the trees and started walking once again towards the elephants.

Everything went fine for ten…15…20 feet.  The sentry elephant merely stood there peevishly peering at me.  And the baby elephants, the size of horses, really were cute!

But then, as I lifted my foot to step over a heavy fallen branch, the glaring elephant suddenly SNAPPED her huge fanlike ears, and then did something I thought elephants only did it in Tarzan movies.  She raised her trunk and actually trumpeted, “BUH—RUHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Then she charged me.

As I spun away I saw the cop at the edge of the trees…saw his eyes fly wide open…saw him throw his hands above his head…saw him turn on his heels, race through the grass, jump in his cruiser and slam the door shut…saw my bicycle lying in the dirt…heard the SLAP and SNAP and CRASH and SMASH of branches behind me…felt the lash and scratch of branches….felt the swish of grasses…

…As I RAN and RAN and RAN…

…and jumped on my bicycle…and then for one horrifying moment was MIND-SCREAMING all alone in the universe on a motionless bicycle glued in highest gear with no momentum…

…But then my legs were PUMPING and PUMPING…and I could feel the hot breath of the elephant on the back of my neck…could hear the THUNDER of trunken legs against the dirt!…

…and then I clenched my teeth and turned!…

…and the elephant was gone….

…it was a bluff charge…

The elephant had never moved more than 20 feet.

And that’s my giving a damn.


David is a perennial student of the English language and an active member of the Doha Writers’ Workshop.

Part 13 of Afterwards punches you square in the kisser this weekend!!
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