Close encounter with an Elephant

Many people ask me if I’ve ever been scared, if I’ve every experienced something frightening in the wild. Sure – sometimes situations occur that can be a little…disconcerting.

We once had a bull elephant that every evening, right at sunset, crossed a shallow lake just a short distance from our campsite. I had seen him several evenings in a row and as he crossed the lake the sun’s rays danced across the ripples spreading out from his enormous body. I tried to find a spot from where I could film him but it was difficult because there were only a few low, thorny acacia bushes around the lake.

One afternoon I chose one of those bushes about 75 yards from the path where the elephant walked every evening. Sure enough, he came on time that evening, too. I had set up my camera so I could capture the glittering sunlight on the ripples as the elephant crossed the lake, but this evening was different. The elephant stopped near the water’s edge for a moment, then turned suddenly and walked briskly, straight to the little bush I was using as camouflage. He stopped right next to me and began to eat the bush, which just barely covered my head. I bent over the camera and held my breath. This was not good. Why had he changed his habits this particular evening and chosen my bush to eat?

I could see the enormous feet just in front of me and heard how he tore and pulled at the branches with his trunk just a hand’s width above my head. I also knew that the elephants in this area didn’t have the best reputation. People had been killed in encounters with angry elephants, especially the bulls. Now one was standing right in front of me. Running away would be futile. There was no other place to hide and outrunning an irate elephant is impossible; they are too fast. If I startled him, it would only make my situation more precarious. No, I sat still and contemplated my perilous position.

After a few minutes that seem to last an eternity, the elephant turned slowly to the next bush. I took a deep breath and felt that my chances of surviving increased with every step the elephant walked away from my bush. He stopped about 15 yards away and then turned around and came back! He finished off the last few branches that remained in my dry old bush that was now completely useless as camouflage. I sat still expecting him to grab me by the hair or wrap his trunk around my body. Strangely enough he avoided touching me at all, even though he ate every branch surrounding me.

When the last leaf was consumed the elephant turned slowly and walked away from my severely damaged hiding place and crossed the lake surrounded by thousands of glittering stars in the final embers of the sunset. I was far too stunned to start the camera and capture the mighty bull on film as he walked away. It’s quite humbling to be in close contact with one of the largest creatures on earth. I came away from there without a film sequence of the elephant but with images imprinted permanently in my mind. The words of my young friend from the Ahikuntaka came back to me – “Sir! Sir, don’t be afraid!”

People from Different Worlds

One little girl stands out especially in my memory, even though I only saw her for a few seconds. No more than six years old, she was digging through a pile of garbage in southern India. There was nothing unusual about the girl. In fact, I might not have noticed her if it hadn’t have been for the gigantic black pig digging through the same garbage pile. Just as we drove slowly past her, she looked up and caught my eye. While I sat comfortably in the car on my way to the hotel, she was struggling to find a little bit of food before the pig found it and gobbled it up.

My first production in India, 1980, was a documentary film about the Swedish orphanage, Elida Children’s Home. That trip to India gave me experiences that have influenced my life in many aspects. We landed in Bombay (now called Mumbai) early one morning in April. We left the airport before 6 AM and the taxi dropped us off in the middle of the city where we walked along streets where people dressed in rags still slept or were just waking up. A few luckier individuals slept on collapsed cardboard boxes. I was only 22 years old and never experienced anything like it – thousands of people! Many were children that appeared so frail they probably didn’t have the energy to wake up again. Others sat up, rooting among their few possessions – a rag, a bottle, a cup. A few eyed me carefully. It was surreal – everything seemed to move in slow motion.

Before embarking on this trip an older man told me, “When you come home you will be a completely different person. No one visits India without being deeply affected.” Why our Lord has given us such divergent circumstances and how we can find it so difficult to be grateful, are questions that have often crossed my mind. India has changed a considerably since my first visit in 1980, much to the better, but the memories remain.

A few years later, in 1987, we filmed a series of educational films. I had also been asked to film some desert excursions for a Swedish charter company. Tourists rode on camels from Sakkare to the pyramids in Giza. (A fantastic experience that I’ve had myself.) Stopping at a small oasis with palm trees and Bedouin tents to rest, they were invited into the tents and offered a cup of tea.

I stood outside and filmed as the tourists went into the tent. After a while two women came out, enthusiastic and grateful for everything they had seen and received. One of the women expressed her gratitude speaking loudly, “Such beautiful children! Imagine these poor people opening their home to us and sharing the little they have. What a wonderful experience!”

They moved on and soon two other women came rushing out of the tent. They were not happy. As they came closer I heard them griping, “Did you see the flies in that little child´s eyes sitting on the ground? So disgusting. How could the tour guides takes us to such a dirty tent and expect us to drink that awful tea?” They hurried away toward the camels, complaining loudly about their experience inside the Bedouin tent.

People react so differently when confronted with something foreign or difficult to understand. You can face it with a positive or a negative attitude. When we’re looking for film ideas, we look for the good, the positive, even among the difficulties and problems. Our aim is to encourage hope and happiness even in situations that appear trying and despairing.

If everyone could focus on the positive in life, what a celebration it would be.