While we were in Nepal, in Chitwan (where there is lots of jungle and presumably tigers), we had the option of doing three things with elephants.
We did all three, but the best part was the elephant washing. After the jungle ride, in which we saw a mother rhinoceros and her baby, we headed back to the Sapana (means "dream" in Nepali) hotel/resort to get in our bathing suits and relax a bit before the elephants showed up.
To see elephants coming down the the dirt road with a mahout on their necks was amazing. Each mahout led their elephant down to a mounting place— a sandy place where the elephant lay down and let us climb on using a step ladder. Mom, Ileana, and Ioan all got on one elephant… but I had my own. The only thing you can hold on to is the mahout. You can, however, clasp the elephant with your legs. It's completely different from horse back riding, though— for one thing, the elephant is a lot bigger than a horse, and a bit too broad for leg-clasping.
Once you're on, the elephant will stand up and walk down to the river. First she has to go through a smaller creek, and for a moment I'm afraid I'm going to slide off as it climbs up the creek bank. But it lumbers onward, and I don't even slip.
Once we reach the river, the mahout tells the elephant to lie down. This usually means that the elephant looks a bit like your cat when its basking it the sun. And it means that people who don't move quickly slide off into the water. Because I'd watched the others in front of me, I was moving away from the water as the elephant was laying down. I don't like cold water, hence the moving.
The elephant's head is a mottled pink and grey. The pink is from age. It has scars from the tools the mahout uses to guide it, but they're superficial and it doesn't seem to feel them at all.
An elephant has tiny, tiny eyes that are a bright, clear brown. And so many wrinkles around them that they look old and wise and as if they know exactly what you're feeling. An elephant's trunk is soft and rough at the same time, and it pokes inquisitively into my hand as the mahout and I scrub its head and sides with water and our hands.
An elephant's skin feels like… well, think of really wrinkly, hairy leather. It's not a romantic description, but it's accurate. It's like nothing I've ever felt before, but it's one of the nicest things I've ever touched. It's calming. This huge animal is letting you touch it, and it's humbling.
The elephant looks at me as it's lying on its side in the water, and I would be happy to just sit there on this great big elephant's stomach and relax.