I Can Identify Elephants

I have never seen an elephant before in my life. Well, I’ve never seen an elephant  in person before (but I have been to the zoo), but I’ve seen pictures in biology text books, read articles in National Geographic, and seen TV shows involving elephants in some way.  So much, that I dare say I can identify one in a picture or in real life if the opportunity so arose.

In fact, I bet that if you’re reading this you are easily imagining an elephant right now; with long ears, the big nose, thick grey leathery skin (or pink if you’ve been drinking), possibly rolling on top of some kind of circus ball.  

But not everyone can readily identify an elephant. 

And to be fair, it’s odd that I know a lot about elephants even though I’ve never really studied them, and that none live or roam anywhere I’ve ever been in the world.  But I realized today that identifying elephants is not the easiest task in the world, especially if you’ve never seen an elephant.

Max is around my age, and has a wife and two young daughters. He had a few years of schooling, but nothing to brag about.  But he does well – he runs a small store in his house, the only one in his small community.  I first got to know him and his family during the Viviendas Saludables project and through conducting the house visits.  They completed the project and contributed to their dry bathroom, so I got to spend a lot of time with them just talking and sharing a few meals (his wife always serves me a second helping which is usually bigger than the first plate).

So while I was waiting for the bus, which comes every two hours or so, I was just chilling in Max’s store and I pulled out a National Geographic magazine someone had sent me, and we got to an article about an elephant orphanage.  And Max asked me;

“Mateo, what’s that animal?”

“An elephant.  Haven’t you ever seen a picture of an elephant before?”

“No.  Do they live near you?”

Then there was an article on Antarctica.  Same thing; Max nor his wife really didn’t know what Antarctica is, why it’s special or where it was.  Then there was a picture of camels, and while Max couldn’t identify them, he saw pictures of them carrying heavy loads and made the assumption that they were like llamas.

That’s when I realized I had been (lucky enough to be) know about such a wide world.  Between high school and the internet (not to mention college), I could pretty much ‘travel’ anywhere.  My world view was wider and knew more concretely of other places even though I had never been.  Max knew there were places outside of where he lived, outside of Peru.  But that topic rarely came up – probably no one else in his town had heard of elephants or camels and really had no reason to.  It wasn’t very likely they were ever going to run into one, and schools in rural places focus on teaching the basics – and without many visual aids and understanding of a wide world, science can be pretty confusing. 

So when I was with Max, to me what was just pawing around a National Geographic to kill time and break the silence, it was opening a whole new world for him.  But it reminded me that the world is very big and very different, and I’ve just been lucky enough to know a few small parts of it.


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