Sunday, March 14, 2004

Taipei, Taiwan--Day 44

Today started off in the usual way, getting up and going to the zoo. I feel back to normal heath wise so that is much better. I headed downstairs to get a taxi and asked for one that could speak a little bit of English so that s/he could come in with me and help me out in the zoo. No luck--I was told by the concierge that “no taxi drivers speak English” (hmmm, I wasn’t so sure about that) and unfortunately the one that took me to the zoo didn’t. Never mind, I could handle this on my own.

What’s hippo in Mandarin Chinese again?

Anyways I get dropped off at the zoo and head inside, buying my ticket and refusing to buy binoculars and other various things that were being sold outside, including cobs of corn. Everywhere I looked there were people eating corn. I had my temperature taken on my forehead as I entered the zoo (for SARS) and was allowed to enter and headed over to the Information desk to find a map in English. The girls working at the desk hardly had to even glance at me before handing me an English language map. I got my map and stopped at the restroom and to get a drink and managed to lose my map in the process so I had to go back and get another. Finally I was on my way to see the hippos.

I walked uphill to the hippo habitat which was in the African Animals section. The Taipei Zoo was a full-on zoo, with a huge tram system (luckily I could get to the hippos without using the tram!) and was jam packed with people since it is Sunday today. I guess I haven’t really thought about the fact that most of my trips to the zoos have been during the week, when less people visit, and I was pleasantly surprised to see all of the people since it added more to the zoo’s character so to speak.

Anyways, I finally found the hippos and walked up to their habitat to peer down onto them in the water. I counted one, two, three…..six, seven, eight….oh god, ten, eleven…THIRTEEN HIPPOS! Oh my god! THIRTEEN! There were eleven of them on one side of the bars closest to the people watching pond that they were in and two on the other side (I assumed one side was for the females and one was for the males, but I wasn’t sure). I couldn’t believe it. Boy, I was sure in for it today! How on earth was I going to tell thirteen different hippos apart??!!?

I took a load of pictures but then realized how useless it was going to be to have the pictures but not have anyone to help me tell them apart then and there since there were so many. Plus they were all moving about so fast (as fast as hippos move really) and going around in the water so it made it even more problematic. So I walked back towards the entrance, which was a fair amount of walking, and found the “Administration Building” halfway back to the Entrance. There I ran into three zoo employees sporting bright orange and green vests and I thought for sure that they could help me.

No luck, they simply told me that there were thirteen hippos and that they didn’t have names, just numbers. One through Thirteen, and no, they couldn’t help me tell them apart, and no I couldn’t speak with the hippo keeper, and maybe I could look it up on the internet.

Great. That was no help, what do you mean they don’t have names? I decided to head back to the Information desk at the front of the zoo to see if they could help me there. I got back to the desk and tried my best to explain my situation to the three girls working there, all of which could speak just a little bit of English. I told them that I needed to take pictures (gesturing with my hands) and got out the pictures of the hippos on my camera that I had already taken to show them what I meant. One girl got on the phone while the others told me that sorry, I had to book a private tour 10 days in advance for 30 people if I wanted to have someone tell me the names of the hippos. Hmm…

The girl gets off the phone and hands it to me. Hello? I start talking to the woman on the other line and try to explain to her what I am doing, and why I am here. I tell her that I am from the States and doing a project for a friend and I need the hippo pictures along with their names. She seems wary of my intentions but only do I realize later that it was because it was almost time for their lunch break so she couldn’t help me until after 1:30. Fine, we agreed to meet up at the hippo habitat at 1:30 and she could help me figure out which hippo was which. Perfect! I hung up and thanked the girls at the information desk, not being able to believe my luck that they actually understood me and that someone was going to help me!

So the next hour and a half I spent getting a corn dog from a vendor and walking around the nocturnal animals exhibit trying to make the time pass. I sat outside for a while reading my guidebook and waiting for Ellen (my new guide) to show up. At 1:20 I headed over to the hippos and stood by them waiting for Ellen but realized that I had absolutely no idea what she would look like. I waited and waited, and fifteen minutes later she still hadn’t shown up. I looked and looked for the green vests that I thought she would be wearing until a woman came up to me and held out her hand.

Oh, I said and shook her hand excitedly. She could tell it was me just from they way I was looking around, and I was probably sticking out more than I realized amongst all of the Taiwanese. We walked over to look over into the hippo enclosure and she said that I should wait right there for the hippo keeper to come. Hurray! The hippo keeper was coming! This could only mean good things. I asked her about the thirteen hippos, but she looked at me all confused. Thirteen? She says, there are SIXTEEN! What?!?! I looked and counted fourteen outside (I must have missed one) and apparently there were two being kept inside away from the others. SIXTEEN!! Goodness gracious. Ellen said that she would be right back and went to go check where the hippo keeper was in his office. She walked back off in the direction that she came from and I stood there waiting for fifteen more minutes until she eventually came back. She said that she would meet me back near the hippos at 3:15 because at 3:30 they were to be fed, according to the hippo keeper. She also assured me that each of them had their own specific Chinese name and that no, they weren’t just numbered one through thirteen (or rather sixteen!).

So she left, and I at down and waited some more. I was sitting outside and it was absolutely freezing and with the 50 percent chance of rain predicted in the forecast, the weather wasn’t looking too great. I was convinced that it was going to start raining and I would have the same luck as I did in Malaysia where they wouldn’t feed the hippos because of the rain. I got some meat ball soup and read my book while I waited. Three-fifteen finally rolled around and Ellen showed up and told me that we had to ride “there” on her scooter.

Where is there?

So she leads me over to her scooter and reverses it and gestures for me to hop on. We zoom off and I am led through several back roads and underneath an old bride and over to a building complex which turned out to be right next to the hippos! We were at the hippo keeper’s office! He greeted us with a big hello and grabbed his wheelbarrow full of hay and gestured for us to follow him INTO the hippo enclosure!!

So we follow and before I know it I am standing INSIDE the hippo area. He opened up several gates and led me to where I could get a really good picture of the hippos, with the only thing separating us being a big gate across the middle of the enclosure. People were standing all about up on top looking down on us and I couldn’t stop laughing because it was so funny that there I was in the pen with the hippos! So the keeper starts banging on the gate and all of the hippos in the closer side of the pen (twelve of them) start making their way out of the water and walk towards me. I couldn’t believe it and snapped away on my camera. They all came right up to the gate but were really weary of me with my camera and backed off a bit. I snapped away while Ellen tried to hold me back (literally) and the keeper got out his book and tried to figure out which hippo was which. I wrote down names and snapped pictures while Ellen translated for me. It was great. I didn’t however get to get individual shots of each and every hippo since we weren’t able to stay in the pen all afternoon, but I did get some really good group ones I think.

Then we headed over to see the males which were on the other side of the pen (the two that were separated from the females). Ellen started climbing on top of a grassy area over to the pen, but then we headed back down and walked through a few gates over to the males, who looked at me with as much apprehension as the females, one of which opened their jaws wide to show me who was boss! I got a few pictures of them and their names, and headed back inside where there were two other males being kept and attempted to get pictures of them. Apparently the adult males are separated from the females to prevent them from breeding, and every day the four males rotate which ones are out in the pen area and which ones are kept inside (there are two baby males on the female side with their mothers). It also turns out that each hippo has a computer chip in their back to keep track of which is which since even the keepers have a hard time telling them apart!

To make matters worse, here are the actual names of the hippos, and you can see why it would make things even more confusing: Bambam, Feichang, Feichung (not to be confused with Feichang), Meihsiou, Feifei, Nanamei, Nalichung, Nalan, Nai, Nanachung, Nali, Nahsiao, Natziu, Naichung, Natzuchung and Nana. See a pattern?

How on earth was I going to be able to tell which hippo was which when looking at the group pictures? Ellen assured me that if I could send her a copy of the pictures she could identify them for me and then email me which hippo was which, which seemed to be my only option of setting things straight at this point since I couldn’t go back into the pen with them!

After thanking the keeper, whose name I learned to be Isaac, and getting all of the names straight with the hippos Ellen and I zoomed back on the road and she dropped me off near the elephant staff entrance to the zoo. I thanked Ellen and walked back through the zoo over to the hippos to get some more pictures of the females in the water. I would have to go back tomorrow to get pictures of the other males outside, as well as more pictures of the females since the weather had turned the sky very dark gray and it started to sprinkle with rain.

I headed back towards the entrance and was surprised to hear Brahms‘ lullaby being played over the loudspeaker. I made my way through the crowds and to a taxi which I got back to the hotel. I got back and did some picture transferring, and was interrupted by a phone call. The ring on the phone here sounds like a laser stun gun or something so I was startled to hear it ring. I picked it up and it was the Center for Disease Control. Hello, Sarah? Yes, I say. This is the Center for Disease and Control….and they go into how they saw that I had marked down on my SARS sheet yesterday about my tummy trouble and asked me a bunch of questions about when and where I got sick. I explained to them that I didn’t think that I had SARS and that instead it was just a bad orange juice that did me in, and the woman I was speaking to seemed ok with my answer and warned me to take medical action if I felt any worse.

Well at least they checked up on things! I finished with the pictures and headed out to a local mega mall to find a movie theater to spend the evening watching but didn’t find any good movies on. So I had some dinner which was made right in front of me and was just great (your ordered it up and then they fried it right in front of you then left it on grill sizzling right in front of where you ate and you ate it off of the grill) and then it was back to the hotel! I’m heading back to the zoo tomorrow to get a few more pictures (hopefully the weather will be good) then I’m heading to Japan the next day!

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.