Monday, August 30, 2004

Brussels, Belgium—Aywaille, Belgium—Brussels—Day 212

Getting myself up this morning was difficult and for probably the first time on this trip I was just not in the mood. I think it was just one of those days that we’re all allowed to have once in a while, right? The ones where you would just rather sleep in and be lazy than do anything at all.

Needless to say, I got up and ready, had breakfast and was at the train station heading for Aywaille, Belgium by 8 o’clock in the morning. The train wasn’t quite direct—I had to change in Liege, which is in the sort of Eastern part of Belgium. Aywaille isn’t too far away after that, and all in all it probably took me about an hour and a half to get there.

Then there was the problem of getting to the zoo from Aywaille. Assuming that it was out of the town, I knew that I either had to get a bus or a taxi. The buses around the train station didn’t give any hint of heading towards the zoo so I decided to walk around a bit to see what I would find. Heading down a small street that I thought looked like it might lead to something bigger, I eventually found what I was looking for. A bank AND a taxi stand. Perfect. I got out some cash for the taxi and then went to the little shop where the taxi guy was waiting. He locked up his shop and then took me in his big van over to the zoo.

We pulled up and I realized that it was a Safari Park, not just a zoo. You know, the ones that you have to drive though. Dang. These are the good and bad zoos all wrapped into one. Good because you can actually drive around and see the animals, but bad because (as what happened in Woburn) sometimes you don’t know how the animals will be displayed.

So the taxi dropped me off after the woman at the ticket booth said that I could walk around and take the zoo safari bus, no problem. So I bought my ticket which was supposed to be 12 Euros, but I gave the woman 22 Euros and expected change. Due to the confusion with paying the taxi driver and her at the same time, I realized as I put my wallet away that she didn’t give me back my change but when I asked her then about it, she claimed that she did.

Um, ok, no you didn’t.

That was the start of my dissatisfaction with this woman.

So 10 Euros short, I had to walk up this massive dirt road over a hill to get up to the parking lot, where supposedly the zoo trams were. It was again one of these, is this really a zoo types of place where you felt like you were wandering in someone’s backyard.

I walked up the hill (as cars passed me) and felt miserable. The weather was horrible and so cold, and I wasn’t properly dressed for it in my skirt and cotton shirt. I had left my jacket at home hoping that it would be as nice as it was yesterday, but I was so wrong.

I got to the top of the hill, passing the elk on one side and some other animals on the other (I didn’t really take a look) and made it up to the top of the hill. That’s when I realized that I didn’t even have a map to the dang place. So I wandered inside to find a map (surely they would be somewhere) and found the bathrooms, a restaurant and a souvenir shop, along with a man shouting at me to leave (in French of course) because apparently the place was closed. I tried to ask him where I could find a map (basically me opening and closing my hands saying “map”) and he shooed me away.

This was not going well.

So then I needed to ride on the stupid tram (can you sense my attitude about this whole situation?) but there was no one around showing any indication of when the trams were going to leave. No signs or anything. There were trams all right, but nothing else.

Fortunately for me, a family asked a keeper who was scrubbing up things near the sea lions (who were just near the trams) what time they were going, and then I asked them and they gestured to me 11 o’clock. Ok, so I had a half and hour to go.

I decided to walk back down the annoyingly long dirt road and get a map from the ticket lady. I trudged down there and stopped a bit to look at the animals on my left who I didn’t really look at when I first walked up.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

There were the hippos!!! Three of them, WANDERING AROUND. Like, in with the deer. And the zebras, and giraffes. Just walking along, eating grass. And people were driving right up to them and taking their pictures!!! Oh MY GOD. I couldn’t believe it. I just literally stopped in my tracks and started laughing. Could it be true? It was and the hippos paid absolutely no attention to the people taking pictures of them.

Oh man, this was going to be perfect!

I started to get really antsy about having to take the tram (why didn’t I just keep the taxi and make him take me through?) but decided to get a map anyways from the woman. She made me pay her 2.50 Euros more for the silly thing—a ridiculous amount for a piece of paper. Anyways, map in hand, I walked back up the huge hill and went to see about the tram.

The people waiting for the tram boarded even before anyone came to drive it. I got on too, making sure that no one sat next to me so that I could man both sides of the tram, in case the hippos were on either side of them. Finally a keeper showed up, turned on the tram, collected our tickets, and we were off.

We entered the safari area (the keeper had to jump out of the tram to open and close the gates to it) and started chugging along. I set my sights on the hippos and saw how the path conveniently went right past where they were munching on grass. Perfect! I started to get my camera ready and waited in anticipation for us to turn around the corner to the hippos…

No! Where were we going! We turned AWAY from the hippos. I couldn’t believe it. The hippos were just to our right and the tram veered off to the left to the giraffes and things. Noooooooo!

I just had to sit there while we turned away from the only reason I was there (ok, the three reasons).

I had to sit through the entire safari tram ride without seeing the hippos up close. I saw all of the other animals of course (the giraffes even came up and licked the top of our tram and then galloped around it) but my gloom had returned. Plus it was absolutely freezing AND starting to rain.

This wasn’t going good.

So we finally made it back to where we started and I got off and went for the keeper to ask him about the hippos. He kind of, sort of, really did not speak English but he managed to tell me that the boy hippo (who is the smallest) was named Knudel (yes kathRyn and Sarah—Knudel!! Isn’t that funny?!?!) but he didn’t know what the two females’ names were.

At least this was a start. So I thanked him and decided that the best bet would be to call for my taxi, have him come and take me through the zoo again and then have him ask the horrible ticket woman what the other hippos names were. Luckily the three look quite different (from what I could make of them) with one being almost a pinky white color—not quite albino but seemingly so.

So I went inside the restaurant (where I was shouted out before) and avoided the waiter who had scolded me. I used the phone to call the taxi but he obviously didn’t remember me or something because he kept asking (or at least I think) where I was. Hellooo, the zoo? I kept telling him and maybe he wasn’t asking me that, but you would think he could remember me as the crazy American who went to the zoo just a few hours before.

So I hung up and found the other waiter and asked him to call for me. He did and said that the taxi would wait for me down at the bottom of the steep dirt road.

So I walked back down there and had to converse with the ticket lady again, this time asking if I had to pay for the driver’s admission fee, with several people in line for the tickets translating for us. Before I even said anything one of the guys tuned and said to me, oh YOU’RE the girl having hard time getting around the zoo. What? Oh yes, the woman (he points to the ticket lady) says that you are having a hard time and got lost. Lost? Just because I came and asked for a map doesn’t mean that I was lost?

OH MY GOD. I was losing it.

After much confusion and not really getting anywhere with this woman in terms of an answer (she kept saying, I don’t know, I don’t know and asking other zoo patrons what they thought—should I pay her or not, as if it was up to people NOT working at the zoo to decide).

Finally the taxi driver pulled up and she went over to talk to him. What exactly she said I wasn’t sure, but I think the gist of it was that the ticket lady told the taxi man, she has already taken the safari tram and wasn’t she silly because she wants you to take her around again. She did a lot of shaking her head and pointing at me.

He just looked baffled and shook his head no, then saying something along the lines of not in my taxi.

I just looked at them. What? Even if I pay for his admission? I got out my wallet and said so (the woman spoke a tiny bit of English, the taxi man did none at all).

No. Absolutely not.

The taxi man REFUSED to take me, saying that it was too dangerous and bumpy for his car. WHAT?!?! Bumpy, BUMPY? You mean, driving on a dirt road is going to kill your car? He had this like huge van, not some sports car or anything. Meanwhile there were all of these like mini coopers driving around the safari and he wouldn’t take me even if I was going to pay for it?

The woman then told me that the zoo wouldn’t allow it (oh reeeally) and I just couldn’t believe it. I just looked at both of them and felt completely and utterly dejected.

Today wasn’t going well.

I got in the taxi and he then drove me to the train station, trying to tell me again that the safari was too bumpy for him. Whatever, I didn’t care. I started to cry.

I think I was just feeling so overwhelmed all of a sudden (did I mention that I felt bad already this morning) and this just hit the spot. I tried not to sniffle and suck it up but for some reason, from the woman taking my money, it being freezing cold and raining outside, to this mean taxi driver I had had enough.

I got the train back to Liege and decided that the best thing for me to do was to rent a car and come back on another day. I decided that tomorrow would be a non-hippo day (I’ve done six days in a row now) but that on Wednesday I would show up, in my own freaking’ car, and get the hippo pictures, along with their names. I’ll show that ticket lady.

So I got off in Liege and asked the woman working at the information desk where the nearest rental car place was and she directed me down to the end of the main street and then to the left. I thanked her and began walking. And walking. And walking. She did tell me that eventually the street would dead end, but it never seemed to. I must have walked for about forty-five minutes before I saw ANOTHER car rental place and just went in there instead. I booked a car for Wednesday and then got completely lost on the way back to the train station. I stopped at a grocery store to get a snack (and had a confused moment with the check out lady about weighing my banana—I didn’t see the scales by the exit door, but who would? They were by the exit!) but eventually made it through some sketchy part of Liege before miraculously ending up at the train station on some other road. This all took almost two hours and I had some time to check my email on a computer in the train station before getting my train back to Brussels.

What a day. Hopefully Wednesday will probe to be much better. I think I will be able to handle driving here but we will see. That will be another adventure, I am sure. I just hope that it all works out a little bit better than today did.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.