The report of my death was an exaggeration.
–– Mark Twain
By Michael Keith
Ellie Murphy was finally leaving on the trip she had dreamed about her entire adult life. Her fascination with the Far East was born of a desire to track her great-grandmother’s roots in a tiny village fifty miles north of Bangkok. She was part Thai and wanted to know more about the relatives her grandmother had talked about so often before her death.
Michelle Murphy had not been as smitten by the urge to learn about her ancestors as was her daughter, and Ellie’s father was Irish with only a passing interest in his forebears. Ellie’s maternal grandfather had been Irish, too, which accounted for her fair complexion and auburn hair. No one would have ever guessed she was of partial Asian descent. In her heart, however, Ellie felt a great connection to the part of her that was Thai.
“I worry about you traveling to Thailand alone. Can’t you find a companion? It’s always better to be with someone in new and strange places,” observed Michelle Murphy, and her husband concurred.
“Your mom has a valid point, honey. If you were going to Ireland it would be different, but that part of the world is a whole other matter.”
“Don’t worry, you two. I’m going to join a biking group that is traveling through Thailand, and they’re right here in Belmont.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so? That makes me feel a hundred times better, Ellie. Doesn’t it, Phil?”
“God, yes! We’ve been losing sleep over the whole thing, sweetie.”
In truth, however, Ellie was not meeting up with anybody. She hated lying to her parents, but she felt it was the only way to ease their worries about her planned trip to the other side of the planet.
“But you’re not really a biker, Ellie,” commented Michelle, her expression filling with apprehension all over again.
“You don’t have to be, mom. It’s not a race. Just touring. We’ll be renting bikes there. There are even some old people doing it . . . uh . . . your age.”
“Hey, watch it kiddo. We’re not old. Just nicely ripened. Sixty is the new 50, you know.
What a wicked web we weave, thought Ellie, excusing herself in order to escape the conversation.
Two weeks later, she flew out of Boston toward her dream destination.
* * *
In preparation for her trip, Ellie had researched her ancestral home and found that there was little information about Ban Chai and its 200 inhabitants. She had also engaged a genealogy service for information about her great grandmother’s name––Sudarat Phraphasiriat. After spending hours on the Internet, as well as $100 on the ancestral search, all she was able to ascertain was that the name was fairly common in the region in which her great grandmother had lived. Well, that’s better than nothing. Just have to do a CSI when I get there, Ellie concluded.
As prepared as she thought she was for her adventure, she found the 19-hour plane ride tedious, if not grueling. What compounded her discomfort was the fact that the passenger next to her spent most of the trip snoring and passing gas. Several times Ellie sought refuge in the restroom where she remained for extended periods until someone knocked on the door. This guy must have overdosed on some kind of bean sleeping aid, she thought, trying unsuccessfully to cheer herself up. When the plane finally landed, all she wanted to do was take a long shower and sleep away the jet lag, if that was possible.
From home she had booked a room for six days at a two star hotel in Bangkok, called Erawan House. After looking at dozens of affordably priced hotels, she had decided that it looked safe and respectable. Ellie had even showed it to her parents, but they had suggested she upgrade to a three star hotel, offering to pay the difference. Despite their entreaties that she stay at a better place, she held her ground, secretly uncertain whether she had made the right decision.
When the taxi pulled up to the entrance of the modest establishment, she believed she had. At least from the outside, it appeared to be very well maintained. The neighborhood around it was hectic and noisy and exuded what she felt was a positive kind of energy. This is going to be just fine, she told herself, climbing from the car she’d hired. To her relief, the inside of the hotel was as pristine as its facade. So far so good.
Ellie had no trouble falling asleep, despite the time difference between Bangkok and Boston, and she slept soundly for 14 hours. When she awoke, she was elated to realize where she was.
“Thailand! Oh my God, I’m here. I’m really here. It’s not a dream,” she squealed rapturously.
She toured the city for two days and soon connected with other visitors to the country, especially a professor of Asian studies from Orono, Maine, who was traveling around the whole of Southeast Asia. During her time in Bangkok, Ellie inquired as to how to reach Ban Chai and learned that a bus ride of two hours would take her there. She had no idea about accommodations in the village and hoped it would not be a problem. Several Internet sites indicated that even in the smallest towns there were places to stay. She prayed that her great-grandmother’s birthplace was prepared for visitors. She needed a place to put her head for a night or two, figuring that it would not take longer to gather information about her ancestors, given the small population of the place.
* * *
The bus got Ellie to Ban Chai by mid-morning. It continued on to Kamphaeng Phet before returning in the late afternoon for Bangkok. She watched as it drove away. An old man squatted across from where she stood. Before leaving home, she had written several basic Thai words down on a piece of paper, including her great-grandmother’s name. Realizing there would be a language issue, she had found a way to translate her relative’s name in Thai. She walked across the narrow road toward the elderly man, planning to show him the piece of paper in the hope he might recognize the name.
“Mai,” said the man, looking up at her quizzically.
He then pointed to a building next to where the bus had dropped her off.
“Khaap khoon,” answered Ellie, reading from her list of Thai words.
The structure she approached had something of an official look compared to others along the street. Might be the town hall, thought Ellie, pushing against its weathered door and finding it locked. There was no bell so she knocked. After a moment the door opened a crack, just enough to reveal a face.
“Sa wat dee khrap. I am looking for information about my relative,” said Ellie knowing it was unlikely she would be understood.
To her surprise and relief, the man seemed to understand her.
“Oh, you speak English . . . great. This is my great-grandmother’s name,” said Ellie, displaying the piece of paper. The man moved his face close to it. “Of course, she is dead, but there must have been other relatives of hers . . . of mine living here.
“No more here,” said the man. “No more here.”
“Can you tell me where they lived? Do you know what happened to them?”
“Do you know where?”
The man opened the door slightly and pointed upward.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“They die. All gone now.”
“Yes, I know my great-grandmother would not be alive, but other relatives might be.”
“No, they go . . .” repeated the man, gesturing toward the sky again.
“So no one is here?”
“No, they trampled by chaang.”
“Yes, chaang . . . elephant.”
“Huh? I don’t . . .”
“Chaang . . . elephant kill.”
Ellie was at a loss for what to say next, and as she stood speechless, the man closed the door. Okay, now what? For the next several hours, she approached several of the village’s inhabitants with the name of her great-grandmother. But only one responded by repeating what she’d been told earlier––“trampled by chaang.”
By late afternoon Ellie caught the bus back to Bangkok feeling frustrated and disappointed. Trampled by elephants. So, that’s it, huh? By the time she returned to her room at Erawan House, she was in a blue mood and wondering what to do next. What can I do? There’s nothing to do. Trampled by elephants? All of them? That’s bizarre.
* * *
With more time on her hands in Bangkok than she expected, Ellie booked a tour to a town on the south Thai coast where she was told a noted festival was taking place. On her way there, to her pleasant surprise, she ran into the female professor from Maine she had met two days earlier.
“So how did your search for your Thai ancestors go,” she inquired.
“Not so well, I’m afraid.”
Ellie proceeded to tell the woman about her experience in Ban Chai.
“They told you your relatives were trampled by elephants?”
“Yes. I thought that was very strange.”
The woman smiled knowingly. “Oh, dear. That is a common reply to strangers, especially Westerners.”
“People in tiny villages in the country frequently distrust outsiders. When they’re asked questions about their town or neighbors, they typically respond with that pat answer. Or if they don’t know what to say or don’t understand something, they use that phrase. I don’t know where it came from.”
“No, you’re kidding. Really?”
“I’m afraid so,” replied the professor sympathetically.
When the tour bus reached the festival village, Ellie was amazed at the massive crowds.
“We should stick together,” suggested the professor. “Things can get pretty crazy at these celebrations. The Phukai Elephant Parade is especially popular. People come from miles away to participate and watch the long march of beautifully decorated pachyderms.”
As the two women squeezed their way through the undulating crowd, there was a sudden surge followed by screaming.
“Stampede,” shouted several people.
Ellie lost her balance and fell. When she regained her footing, she could not find her purse or her companion. It took her several minutes to find shelter, and there she remained until a semblance of calm returned. During that time, she had witnessed several people being carried to what she assumed was a medical center. As she prepared to rejoin the crowd, there was yet another surge, accompanied again by screaming voices, and she quickly retreated to her doorway sanctuary to wait it out.
The chaos continued, on and off, for what seemed hours, and Ellie realized she had missed the tour bus back to Bangkok. After a great deal of effort, she discovered that the only transportation back to the capital city left the next morning. With all available lodging taken because of the festival, Ellie found herself spending the night on a bench in the town’s small square.
* * *
Back in Boston the Stones had heard about a tragic event involving elephants at a parade somewhere in Thailand. Mrs. Murphy could not but wonder if their daughter had been at the festival, and she became concerned.
“Why would she be there?” reasoned Mr. Murphy. “I mean she didn’t say anything about going to something like that, honey.”
“It’s just my maternal instincts. Several people were hurt there, some died. I’m going to call the Embassy over there just in case.”
“Oh, that’s really not necessary. It’s so unlikely. She’s fine. Don’t get so upset and let your imagination take over your common sense.”
“I guess, but if we don’t hear from her when she usually calls at 4 o’clock, I’m going to contact the officials.”
Ellie’s mother nervously paced the living room floor for several hours waiting for the time she would hear from her daughter. But less than a half an hour before the designated call the phone rang.
“There she is! Early, too,” shouted Mrs. Murphy.
But it wasn’t. Someone speaking in broken English said he was calling about a Miss Ellie P. Murphy.
“Yes, what’s the matter? What about my daughter?” asked Michelle Murphy, collapsing onto the couch.
“Sorry, she die. We have purse and ID card. It how we call you to tell you. She had bad accident . . .”
“How?” choked Michelle.
Mrs. Murphy listened in shock and then let out a wail and dropped the phone.
“What’s the matter? What happened?” asked Ellie’s father, frantically.
Ellie’s devastated parents huddled on the couch and wept. Twenty minutes later the phone rang again, and this time Phil Murphy answered.
“Hi Daddy,” said his daughter.
“Oh my God, is that really you, baby? It’s Ellie, Michelle. It’s Ellie. We thought . . .”
Michelle Murphy all but yanked the phone from her husband’s hand.
“We thought you were dead. We just got a call from someone there in Thailand.”
“I’m okay, but I’ve had better days. What did the person tell you?”
“He said you had been trampled by elephants.”