A Friendship Beyond Words
Updated: Apr 5
A FRIENDSHIP BEYOND WORDS
“Wow, this is amazing.”I could not stop saying this in my mind while reading the Taiwanese Newspaper in my grandfather’s little warm sofa. It was February 9th, during the Taiwanese New Year break. The article was about Paul Barton, a pianist from the United Kingdom who had played various classical and contemporary piano repertoire for the elephants in Thailand’s sanctuary for so many years, dedicating in bringing tranquility to the souls and minds of those injured, blind, abused and long-ignored creatures of beauty. Having been an animal and music lover since my youth, I believe there must be something I could do for them, and because this is something I enjoy the most.
Two months later, I stood at the arrival hall of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and proceeded to get lost within one of the most notorious traffic jams in the world, trying desperately to find the way to Paul’s residence. After several hours of map navigating and hand gesturing with the mysterious cab driver, I arrived.
As soon as recognizing Paul and his 6 adopted dogs, I indeed gave him a big and warm hug, hoping him would not mind due to the temperature reached 30 °C around that time. Paul introduced his wife Khwan, his daughter, Emilie, and then we began talking about how he came up with the idea to communicate with the elephants through music. We spoke late into the night, sharing our love of animals as well as life journey before deciding to call it a day. With great imagination and eager anticipation for the sanctuary, I fell asleep late with the lullaby of trees rustling under the moonlight.
Next day in the morning, we headed to Elephants World, an environmental conservation organization located on the hillsides of Kanchanaburi, with the iconic banks of River Kwai flowing by. It took about 3.5 hours to get there and I could tell easily the landscape transformed a lot from concrete and skyscrapers to countryside and farmlands. “This is it. It’s beautiful, isn’t?” said Paul as we arrived at the solid wooden front gate in the afternoon. The pristine, tranquil atmosphere and the fresh scent of grass were something that came to my mind at once. After meeting some of the staff there, Paul greeted me with the first piano housed in a small cottage - a gloss black upright, “played” by a curious elephant named Rom Sai (which means sacred tree). Rom Sai’s left eye was visually impaired, having been impaled by a sharp tree branch while being worked as a logging tool in Northern Thailand’s forest a long time ago.
隔天一早，我們啟程前往一座位於泰國中西部Kanchanaburi省的山丘旁，沿著著名桂河所搭蓋的生態保育組織，「大象世界」。 在3.5小時的車程中，眼裡映出的地景逐漸從水泥大樓變成鄉村農田。 我們一群人在下午時終於抵達了大象世界園區扎實的木頭大門前，保羅說：「我們到了，這邊很漂亮吧！是不是」？這股很純實、寧靜般的氛圍與撲鼻而來的草木芬芳是自己抵達時的當下印象。接著與園區的工作人員寒暄了之後，保羅就用放在小木屋裡的第一台黑色亮面鋼琴來歡迎我這位來自遠方的新朋友。常常「彈奏」這台鋼琴的是一頭名為Rom Sai，意思既為神聖之樹的好奇大象。長期在泰國北方叢林裡被作為伐木工具的Rom Sai，左眼早被尖銳的樹枝刺傷，因此已失明許久。
Paul and I moved the piano away from the wall a little and did a thorough assessment. The bottom front panel was squeezed unbelievably deep into the cavity and one of the back posts had some bumps. Moreover, a few treble keys were jammed and shifted to the right. After undertaking a quick fix, I realized that bigger problems had lined themselves up. There was no let-off and after-touch from key 24 to 61, and key dip was way too shallow. Damper timing to the key was out of specifications by a lot, so were the damper pedal and the soft pedal. All things considered, the piano needed urgent maintenance and serious regulation.
保羅與我把貼著牆的鋼琴移了出來並且做了一個詳細的檢查。下前板(Bottom Front Panel)被嚴重的往內部空間擠去，後方的一個支柱(Back Post)也被撞出了一些傷痕。另外，好多個最高音按鍵(High Treble Keys)不只卡住也被擠去右方。在簡單的快速修理後，心裡大概了解這台琴的問題絕對不只這些。從第24到61個琴鍵沒有離脫/擊弦機制與後觸感(Let-Off and Aftertouch)，鍵深也過淺。另一方面，止音器與按鍵的啟動時機(Damper Timing To The Key)也嚴重誤差，更不用提止音與弱音踏板(Damper and Soft Pedal)。在全面考量後，這台鋼琴急需要迫切的維護與仔細的調整。
With all these symptoms together, I told Paul it would take a while. Usually, in clients’ houses, you would not encounter a piano being this far out of regulation, but please do keep in mind the piano was being played by elephants weighing 3000 to 6000 kilograms. Fueled by the desire to make the piano work, I started regulating let-off screws, changing key dip and rechecking every part of the mechanism such as escapements for the next couple of hours.
However, what made it worse is we had been told that power would be switched off at 10 PM due to the generator rationing. Though informed of this in advance, we still prayed that there would be a miracle. All of a sudden, my eyes could not focus on anything as everything turned dark – dark meaning absolute pitch-blackness, with the exception of the shining stars and galaxy above. Now, everything got more complicated. It was extremely challenging to regulate damper spoons in the dark, with moths and mosquitos flitting about in front of my eyes, and crickets and other various insects singing to my ears. Several minutes later, Paul managed to make a temporary torch, attaching it to the side pole of his recording microphone stand. How ingenious!
By taking full advantage of the remaining time left, I completed as much work as I could before hitting the hay around midnight and somehow intrigued by the various sounds and echoes from the deep forest. Based on childhood recalling, I strained my ears and tried to distinguish what kind of birds and animals they were but none matched in the end.
Misty dawn and the soothing sound of river symphony woke me up with breeze the next day. I went straight to the cottage and continued working on the task. After a morning of regulation on the after-touch and damper timing to the keys, Paul drove me to the sanctuary’s dining hall which was composed of tons of artistic wooden bars, tree trunks and boards. He introduced me to other staff working there and several friendly baby elephants and dogs. There are also some sanctuary volunteers and visitors from other countries. The sanctuary’s enormous love and respect of lives surely reflect well on their reputation. The diversity of visitors is testament to that.
Soon after finishing our plates, we were offered a chance to walk with almost 20 elephants and their mahouts to the banks of the River Kwai. Noon is the elephants’ spa time, as we are told. The mahouts generously gave us permission to lead the group (front) and hit the ground running. While padding them gently along, I tried to sense how they felt about me by looking into their eyes and at their trunk gestures. At that moment, I felt like a part of me did slightly perceive their emotions. Without consideration, I asked Paul how long it takes for mahouts to build relationships with their elephants. I felt stupid asking this question,after hearing he responded, “ A lifetime, it takes their lifetime to build that family-like relationship.”
It’s not an arduous effort to know they have enjoyed a lot the path to the shore as they walked faster and faster. To be able to see how they swam in the river and enjoyed their lives was such a very relieving and privileged thing for both Paul and I. Especially after hearing and seeing the stories and scars, I am definitely more aware of what they have been through on their lives in that land. These sensitive elephants have shipped lethal weapons for WW2 countries, helped loggers deforest their own habitat, and acted as toys in the tourism industry for tourists to ride on their backs and heads. What for exactly? Is it our selfishness, superiority, arrogance or just callous fun? Tears fell down silently and my heart broke simultaneously. Their invisible wounds are just well hidden in their hearts and souls. While their destined physical captivity and pain has been relieved somewhat now, what about their mental ones?
The elephants there have bestowed me the valuable legacy of retrospection - to be more comprehending of different lives’ hardships and to be concerned about what we are doing now to the planet. It’s an environmental chain and everyone is included, aren’t you?
While collecting thoughts, I went back to tune the “played” piano. Just like my guess, the pitch dropped as low as 436 Hertz. “Okay, let us do a few tunings and stabilize it as much as we can,” I said to the piano. During the tweaking and setting, unexpected let-off and damper issues would stop by once in a while.
At dinner, Paul invited me to sit with one of his sanctuary friends, Dee. And this is another shock to me.
Dee, one of many helpful staff there and a refugee of Karen People suffering from the internal war of Burma since 1948, laid out the story of his love and empathy to these elephants after a few beers. He said his family had to constantly move him and siblings, running away from the wars from time to time. Thus, many friends and relatives had lost contact with them and probably passed away. Dee told us he came to this place because he loves nature as well as elephants. Though he could try for city jobs, deep down in his heart he knew this is the place he belongs to and cares about. I am not sure if he did relate his life to these creatures, or not, but it caused me to think about why humans have to create so much trouble despite these repeated hard lessons.
The fourth day was the day to take off. After breakfast, I started my day by tuning another piano that there was a moth attached to one tenor hammer tail. Consequently, it was named the “moth” piano. The pitch floated around 436.5 Hz. With two tunings and ample test blows, I hoped it would stay firm at least for few weeks, or even months.
Before leaving Elephants World, we had lunch with the founder and it has yielded into a very in-depth conversation. I could tell from his eyes that he was full of passion about taking care of these elephants and other beings, and conscious of going the right way about it, resembling the feeling I had recognized from Paul and Khwan.
Along this journey interrupted by much trivia, I had been thinking what would be the best for various lives, according to their wills. If elephants, forests and lands could speak, what would they say? And what would they ask? Are they gonna mourn for their fate and mock on humans’ ignorance?
The answer is already obvious. We humans are just little beings on Earth, and I truly hope no matter what kind of profession we have at present, we can all do something for them. Even just a little bit, they have deserved every effort.
In these five days, hearing stories from Paul, the elephants, Khwan, mahouts, the founder and Dee, I witnessed the enormous courage and spirit they have bravely embodied. Trying to pull this off is not easy, but Paul came with determination and love, which are probably the strongest, most necessary things in this world to make it happen.
As a concert pianist and a painter, he chose a very different road and I do see and appreciate its value. To be able to see what we have done bringing the elephants a better quality of life, I am grateful but at the same time, sorrowful for their loss.
R.I.P. Rom Sai
謹紀念 Rom Sai