Trunk and disorderly (Page 2)
Words and photos by Paul Oswell
Sadly, it was something of a baptism of fire as far as sporting debuts go, the Hussars having to conduct their own personal charge of the Light Brigade into the qualifying round’s ‘group of death’, and endure their first ele-polo lesson courtesy of the all-singing, all-dancing, all-scoring Chivas Regal team.
Number one seeds for good reason, Chivas included in their number a man talked about in hushed tones of reverence – the one they called Angad Kalaan. That being his name. Angad is apparently known as “The Dark Horse of Delhi”, one of the few players there with a nickname that didn’t refer to their drinking habits. Angad was as close to A-list as anyone on an elephant is going to get, combining unreasonable good looks with a polo-playing history that verged on pre-natal.
The Brits gingerly lined up to shake Angad’s hand before the match, flashing their best officer and a gentleman and “it’s all just a bit of fun, really” smiles. Any hopes that he might go easy on the new boys were quickly dashed, though, and Angad rather unsportingly spent the entire match hefting in improbable goals from the half way line. The final 14-3 scoreline would have been less hard to take had the British goals not been entirely garnered from the 3 points head start they were given by the handicap system.
Oh, well. Everyone needs a warm-up and a chance to get used to the delicate nuances of the sport. I hadn’t actually brushed up on these myself, having been distracted by the rounds of Bloody Marys that were being dished out in the team tent. My knowledge stretched only as far as ascertaining that the job of being the person running onto the pitch with a basket to clean up the shockingly enormous elephant droppings during breaks in play was not on my list of enviable career paths.
The rules of elephant polo are much the same as those of horse polo, in as much as no-one really gives a tinker’s toss about them unless you’re actually playing, the spectators preferring to concentrate on looking well off and necking cocktails all afternoon.
In a nutshell: bad teams are given a head start depending on how relatively deplorable they are, the elephants are swapped at half time, and it’s the Thai elephant drivers, or ‘mahouts’ – who work the business end of the beasts and have lived with the elephants most of their lives – that are secretly doing all the donkey work. The players bark out instructions, which the mahouts swiftly ignore, making for a much more entertaining and skilful match.
Outside of that, balls are hit with sticks towards the goals. However, hooking your opponent’s stick with your own to prevent them from hitting the ball is as frowned upon as wearing brown shoes to a black tie dinner party. Hookers are strictly not tolerated, though judging by some of the more colourful ‘local supporters’ that some of the Mercedes team had whipped up the previous evening, this sentiment didn’t apply in every sense of the word.
A team as universally admired as they were secretly feared were the Screwless Tuskers, a team of Thai Ladyboys. Patpong’s finest, strung out on hormone replacement pills, were not only able to turn heads wherever they went, but had also managed to throw the laws of Elephant Polo into disarray with one swish of a sequin-strewn tracksuit.
In the spirit of equality, the rules state that females may handle their mallet with two hands, whilst male competitors are restricted to just one. And so it became a matter of some importance as to just how much lady each of the boys actually entailed, and discreet enquiries into their operational statuses were made so that they could be classified satisfactorily.
None of the teams were particularly keen to lose to the Tuskers, but some were more belligerent and un-gentlemanly about the matter than others. Charity or no charity, being beaten at elephant polo by a bunch of screaming drag queens was clearly beyond the pale for some of the more macho players.
This was especially true of the men who early on, had assumed them to be actual ladies. One crusty old goat posed for photos with them, leering excitedly at their skimpy uniforms. As they pulled away, he returned to his team mates, only to be informed that the Tuskers were not all that they seemed.
“Ugh!” he squealed, “The very thought of it!” Yet moments earlier who knows where his lecherous mind had been racing?
Even without paying attention to the arena, it was easy to tell when the Tuskers were involved in a match, the high-pitched squealing either an involuntary reaction to the tense sporting drama or a highly effective piece of games(wo)manship.
The elephants themselves, on the other hand, behaved like complete gentlemen. They had been specially trained to pick up the ball with their trunks and hand it back to the referee in the case of a dead ball situation, something they did with surprising grace. During one of the Tuskers’ matches, though, the referee was slightly bewildered to be handed – or trunked, rather – a strange, squishy spherical object – it turned out to be fake plastic boob padding which had popped out of one of the ladyboy’s sequinned tops in the heat of competition.
Speaking of on-field boobs, I’d long since lost interest in the Hussars and their quickly-acquired losing streak. I’d been hoping to write up stunning performances from some of the country’s most physically able soldiers, but their defence was leaking like a decommissioned submarine and I’d taken to lying in bed of a morning rather than dragging myself up to watch them lose yet another game to a ragtag bunch of local barmaids.
Sadly, this hadn’t gone unnoticed among the ranks of the army wives who had travelled out to support their brave boys. They were uniformly blond, had all had four kids by the age of 23 and had voices that could pierce a Kevlar bodysuit at thirty paces.
“Where were you this morning?” one of them snapped at me as I arrived, just the two hours late for one of their less glamorous fixtures.
“Er, I wasn’t feeling too well,” I croaked, hoping that she hadn’t just seen me pour myself my second Bloody Mary.
“I’m not surprised,” she replied pointedly, as if she had seen me in the bar at 3am the night before. I tried to remember if she had seen me in the bar at 3am the night before. “I thought you were meant to be shadowing the team.”
“Oh, I have been!” I said, knowing full well that I’d mostly been shadowing them to the basement bar of the local Hilton Hotel, where the previous night they had bought a four foot plastic tower of beer that, in a ceremony that made you misty-eyed about the British Armed Forces, they took turns in to lay under and drink straight from the tap until cheap Thai booze exploded all over their faces.
In the interests of getting close to my subjects, I had joined in, but only four or five times and strictly as a show of solidarity. I thought of mentioning this, but I figured she wasn’t going to salute no matter what I ran up the flagpole, and I meekly said that I would be there for the next day’s match come hell or high lager.
“I know you will be…” she said cryptically, turning on her heel in that way that well-off girls are really good at. I suspect it’s a move they teach at expensive Swiss finishing schools.
In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to point the finger at her for sneakily arranging alarm calls to my room to make sure that I was awake for her husband’s matches. After all, SHE had to heave herself out of her five star suite and endure the sumptuous breakfast buffet before being chauffeur driven to the drinks tent, so why shouldn’t everyone else? It’s the upper class sense of fair play, after all, so I shouldn’t despise her for it. Especially with her connections to heavily-armed men.
And so it was, with qualification for the Hussars merely the stuff of a madman’s dreams, that I hauled myself down to watch their final game with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “This is people playing polo…on elephants!” I kept telling myself. “How many people get to have this much fun for five straight days?”
As I arrived, I made sure that Mrs. Wife saw me with my notebook poised and fixed her a smile. She in turn flashed me a smouldering look that I thought said “my plan worked and you are nothing more than my docile plebeian plaything”, though she may just have been eyeing up The Dark Horse of Delhi’s bulging jodhpurs.
Almost unavoidably, and as with so many international sporting competitions, for the Brits, salvaging some semblance of pride finally came down to beating the Germans. I remembered from our lunch all those months ago that administering some Teutonic trunk humiliation was high on the list of desirable achievements – a list that had, to be fair, been hastily reconsidered as the competition had progressed. By day three, for example, it had been amended from competing in the final to just not losing too heavily to any transsexuals.
Perhaps, just perhaps, beating the Germans would provide a grand finale for the Hussars. Perhaps they would finally get to grips with the sport and give them a plucky fight worthy of the sport. Perhaps my buttocks would recover from the half hour I spent interviewing the tournament referee in his elephant box. Anything could happen.
Well, it was close, but no cigar. Actually, the final score was 16-3, which in cigar closeness terms is like getting a lifetime ban from Cuba. For the Brits, the competition was over. Game, set, trumpety trump, and say goodbye to the circus.
In a display of sportsmanship that made you proud to be British, though, that evening, they commandeered several cases of champagne from somewhere and treated the entire tournament to an impromptu party on the beach. They served us all dressed in full regimental uniform that matched their perfect manners. They truly were officers and gentlemen. I even toasted them with my wifey nemesis. I noticed she had chosen to accessorise that night with a bag that had some minutes earlier been in use as a receptacle for the in-room hairdryer, so for once it was easy not to feel too inferior.
It was incidentally the night before the final, and in a dastardly move, the Mercedes team sneakily co-opted the charity auction at the gala dinner, ostensibly a fundraiser for the conservation efforts of the local elephant camp. The Germans stormed the stage and started to flog off some crapola joke book to raise money for the mahouts. You’d have to be a cynic and a fantasist to suggest that this was a mercenary tactic designed to get the Thai drivers onside for the next day, but just for the record, the final disproportionate bid was from the German captain.
The next day, the tournament came to its climax, and the teams from Chivas and Mercedes fought it out in a torrential rainstorm that made it heavy going even for the likes of the Dark Horse of Delhi. It was such a stinker of a day that I assume the players would much rather have just arm wrestled for the title in the hospitality tent, but they were being watched by an important spectator, no less than the one and only King of Thailand’s Official Stand-in.
A short, wrinkled walnut of a man in a uniform with more ribbons than a gay pride float, he looked to be enjoying himself. At least, he stopped bickering with his subordinates at least a couple of times long enough to squint into the sheet rain and ask what he was here for again.
Somewhere in the quagmire, the match was won and lost, but for me, the real winner that week had been Elephant Polo itself.