Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—Day 290

It seems fitting that my reintroduction to the US begins in Philadelphia—the place where it all began, where Americans severed their British ties back in the 1700s.

More importantly, its also home to America’s very first zoo, The Philadelphia Zoo.

After a shaky night’s sleep—going to be at midnight and waking up every hour until finally getting up at 5 a.m.—I spent some time poking around on the internet before getting ready to go to the zoo. I finally made my way downstairs to find out the best way for me to get to the zoo.

I asked the woman at the reception. She proceeded to tell me driving directions (all of which I was unable to follow of course) and I had to interrupt her to tell her that I didn’t have a car, but could I walk?

She just started laughing. No way could I walk, but I could take a taxi.

Fair enough. Before heading to the zoo I found a UPS store and sent off the last of my European hippo cds to their respective places and got some breakfast at a Cosi café—ordering my “tall chai tea and vanilla-cherry scone” feeling very American. The ability to just order exactly what I want and not scan the menu for translations is astonishing to me. I sipped on my latte and ate my scone (which, by the way, lacked cherries) feeling on one hand happy to be back in a place where you pay four dollars for a drink but its exactly what you were expecting (except the cherries of course) but on the other hand feeling great sadness for the anonymity I have so cherished the past year. Seriously, its been wonderful to know that you can’t understand people or be understood.

I finished I found a cab. The driver was blasting “Sports Talk Radio” or something of the sort on his radio and the commentators were ferociously debating some touchdown of some game of some team—all of which they were getting quite enraged about. As the cabbie laughed, I sighed and looked out the window again struggling with what I was feeling.

We avoided going on the freeway and drove on side streets to the zoo, passing the infamous Philadelphia Art Museum. Its not necessarily famous for its art—it could be, I didn’t go—but because that is where Sylvester Stallone ran up in the “Rocky” movies. We drove on and twenty dollars later, I was at the zoo entrance.

Handing my twenty and then some to the cab, I couldn’t stop thinking about how expensive it was.

Just under two years ago, I had been right here at the Philadelphia Zoo. I was in New Jersey for my previous job (yes, I did have a life before hippos) and that brought me, my friend Rachel, and the boy that I worked with Jonty to the Philadelphia Zoo for the day. We must have missed the hippos while we were here but it was funny that I was back in Philadelphia twice in just under two years, all just to go to the Philadelphia Zoo. Considering that I hadn’t even been to Philadelphia before—or since then—I thought this was pretty funny.

I went in ($15 dollar entrance fee!) and quickly located the hippos. The day was warming up so they well could have been outside but instead they were to be found in an indoor enclosure despite the sparkling clear pool in their outdoor enclosure looking quite inviting. I went in the hot and humid pachyderm room and pushed my way through school children to get up to the hippos—two of them—who were down on a lower level which was being filled with water. From the hay remnants around them, I couldn’t tell if they had already been fed. It was 10:45 or so at this point (the zoo opened at 10am) so I was worried that I had missed feeding time.

So, as kids and teachers came and went (and as the screams of “ewwww! It SMELLS!” subsided) I took pictures of the two hippos but was anxious for them to start moving around. Luckily, eventually, they did. One hippo was lying down and it got up and started trying to drink the water that was pouring in while the other turned around and looked at me. The whole enclosure had this trippy blue light filtering in through the skylights which were making all of the pictures bluish. Tré Picasso.

Then, to my delight, both hippos turned around and looked at me. I gestured for them to open their mouths and one of them did (that’s my girl!) and I snapped away while the custodian just looked at me laughing. He came up a few times to look over the edge and see what the hippos were doing (and how they were responding to me) and just laughed.

There was a guy who was in the room (which had other animals the further you walked down) who was showing the school children the animals. Finally, when no groups were taking his attention, I walked over and asked him what the hippos names were. He didn’t know, but said that there was someone else I could ask. Just then the hippos started to move more and a keeper appeared through a doorway behind the hippo enclosure.

She came out and put some lettuce and such things on a small gated area that the hippos had to walk up some steps to get to. (It was their entrance to and from the indoor pool). Once she finished, she left through the doorway again, despite my “M’am! M’am!” trying to get her attention. The gate between the enclosure and the pool opened and the hippos rushed into it. The gate then shut again which prevented the hippos from going back into the pool. The hippos began devouring their food (which looked more like just treats to get them out of the pool) while the water pressure into the pool increased and started to fill it up faster.

I snapped away at the two hippos for a while and was delighted to find them looking at me and opening their mouths on my cue. I then saw the woman reappear again and went over to ask her. She seemed to be avoiding me as she moved away from me (again, despite my “hello”) but finally I got in her way.

“Um, what are the names of the hippos?”

“Unna and Cindy” she said shortly.

“Well, what’s the difference between them?”

“Nothing. They are the same,” she replied.

“Okkk, are there ANY differences?” I probed.

“Well, Unna has two white spots between her eyes. That’s it.” she replied as she quickly walked off, leaving me unable to ask any more questions.

So I went back to the hippos and sure enough, Unna had two white spots between her eyes. Thank goodness—I don’t know what I would have done. Find another rude keeper?

So I filled up my memory card with pics of the two hippos (250+ pictures) and as my battery began to run out, I said goodbye to the pair and went outside to take pictures of their outdoor enclosure and of zoo signs, stopping at the shop on the way out.

I asked the two ticket taking girls about how I could get back into the city.

“Well, what part of the city are you going to?” one asked me.

“uhhh, I don’t know. The main part?” I replied, making an apologetic “I-don’t-live-here” look.

“Well, shoot,” she says as she surveyed me up and down. She starts going off on where I could go—taking bus number such and such here, then transfer there, or take bus number yadda-yadda and then transfer here.

I told her to tell me whatever was easiest.

She nodded and told me, “Ok, walk under the bridge and take the #15 to Broad street. Buy a transfer on the bus and that will get you on the subway at Broad street. You can take the subway in to City Hall.”

I thanked them and headed under the bridge where I found the bus stop and a nice girl who told me how much the bus cost.

“It’ll be $2.60 for the ride and a transfer.”

Two-SIXTY? Geesh!

So the bus finally came and I got on. It was so packed and I had no idea where I was supposed to get off. Luckily the girl whom I asked before was keeping an eye on me and after about twenty minutes she told me that the next stop was mine. She got off too and showed me where the subway was. Then a nice guy—a skater type who was munching on a hot dog—showed me which train to catch into the city.

I stepped out of Philadelphia’s City Hall station feeling grateful for the kindness of strangers. I spent the afternoon walking around the city, making my way back to my hotel on 4th and Chestnut. Passing the liberty bell and all of the historical landmarks, I promised myself that I would be a tourist tomorrow. After catching a movie near my hotel (another guilty pleasure of being back in the USA—I saw a film in Spanish though which is kind of ironic!) and had dinner at the Sassafras Café down the road. Tomorrow its another day in Philly and then I head to Pittsburgh on Thursday.