Saturday, August 28, 2004

Photo--Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium—Brussels, Belgium—Day 210

After getting a taxi to the train station (coincidentally the same driver who took me to the train station yesterday! He asked me how I liked the zoo) and another train ride to Antwerp, and I was back at the zoo.

Well, first I had to store my luggage at the train station which meant finding the train station luggage storage area (following the signs that led me in circles until I found it) and then figuring out how the dang things worked. IT would have been easy if someone had written on it “exact change only” but I kept popping in coin after coin (after a few had gone in at first) and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why it wouldn’t take my last coin. Then I saw the light and soon my luggage was safely stored while I went next door to the zoo.

Again, I bought a ticket and headed to the hippos and Hippotopia! I found Hermein to be inside while Heini was swimming away outside in the huge pond that they had. So I went outside and luckily caught Heini in the act of getting out of the water, walking up to the entrance to the indoor enclosure where Hermien was, and then turning around and getting back into the water. Perfect.

Hermein was another challenge. She was inside and it seemed like she was going to be in there all day long. So I took a few pictures of her the rare times she would pop her head out of the water for more than like three seconds. There was an older woman standing next to me the whole time and she was saying things to me in French that I just couldn’t understand. Maybe she was another hippo aficionado?

So I decided that I would just have to come back tomorrow. From the looks of it (and based on what I saw yesterday) I was pretty sure that they rotated the hippos—one inside on one day, then outside the next—so coming back in the morning seemed like the best bet.

So I had lunch at the zoo before getting on the train again and this time heading to Brussels, where I spend a good four days using Brussels as a “base” for me to go to all of the other zoos in Belgium since they’re all pretty much about an hour and a half in different directions from Brussels.

When I arrived in Brussels I had to wander around a bit to find a bank to actually get money for my taxi, and then finally I found a Citibank around the other side of the train station (of course). I got some cash and a taxi and was soon at my hotel. I checked in, got a metro map, and headed out to explore Brussels.

Brussels is a beautiful place, if not supremely touristy in the main city center area. I took the metro to the Parc de Bruxelles which is a nice big park near the National Palace. Walking through the park I discovered an “Invisible Concert” going on (that really was the name for it) which was basically a man conducting a synthesized recording of a symphony under what looked like mosquito netting. How amusing! I sat down (along with several other people) and watched for a while before head onwards.

I toured the National Palace where the King and Queen actually live (they are on vacation now so they open up their “house” to the public) and if you are ever in Brussels, you have to go. Not only because there are more chandeliers in there than I have ever seen, but there is the most bizarre thing that I have ever seen in a Palace or Castle or anything really, and it was only recently added in 2002. Apparently an artist decided that a certain room needed a little pizzazz so he decided to put thousands upon thousands of green june bug shells all over a chandelier and on the ceiling. It was sooooooooo strange because it didn’t match anything in the room at all. Everyone who walked in would just stop and stare up at the ceiling in disbelief. And the chandelier! It was ridiculous! Looked like someone had poured a green mess all over the chandelier which, based on the other two matching ones (yet remained clear of the green bug covering), used to be quite pretty.

After visiting the palace I then walked along down to the Grand Place which is a huge square which is very beautiful but very touristy. You couldn’t walk anywhere without the fear that you were blocking someone’s camera or cutting off a tour group. I managed to weave my way around people the best that I could. In the center, this huge sort of beer garden has been set up with all sorts of booths to test of different Belgian beers. So I had a drink of this cherry flavored beer which was quite interesting.

I then walked around for a bit and happened upon the famous Mannekin Pis (a statue of a boy who is urinating continuously). The statue itself is actually very small but based on the number of tourists lining up to take pictures of him, it was like he was a celebrity. The funny thing is is that he has all sorts of little costumes that have been made for him so they change his clothes regularly, and of course all of them have little holes for his you-know-what that is still you-know-whatting. It was pretty funny and I had to be the tourist and take a picture.

I then walked around some more and decided to go back to the hotel for a little bit (the beer was getting to me—I’m pathetic!) and then went back out on the town for dinner a little while later. I didn’t make it far—only to a restaurant down the street from my hotel. I did a great job of spilling my drink on the floor next to me and ordered something that turned out to be some sort of cat-food looking entrée (it was salmon but it definitely looked like cat food). I didn’t know what or how to eat this, so I had to pick apart chunks of salmon and put them on my bread. It was thoroughly disgusting, but I wouldn’t blame it on the restaurant or the food here. I’ll blame it on my inability to read French menus.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Photo--Hippotopia!!! Zoo Antwerpen, Belgium

Amsterdam, NL—Antwerp/St. Niklaas Belgium—Day 209

Today I left The Netherlands and headed to Antwerp, Belgium, the land of all things chocolate, or so I’ve heard. The train ride was fine-I’ve been engrossed in this book called “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson, and so the time on the train goes by quickly.

While the zoo that I needed to go to was in Antwerp, the place that I had my hotel reservation was in St. Niklaas, which is about 11 km from Antwerp. This is because I didn’t’ get my act together reserving a hotel in time which meant that all of the hotels in Antwerp where surprisingly full when I tried to book into one. So, St. Niklaas was my next choice.

I got off of the train in Antwerp and started walking with my bags to find a train that would some how take me to St. Niklaas. I looked up at the sign next to my train just as I was walking away and lo and behold, it read “St. Niklaas.” So I got back on the train I just got off on and pretty soon was heading towards St. Niklaas, although I realized that I didn’t really know if the train ended in St. Niklaas or what, so instead of reading I obsessively looked out the window checking train signs as we made several stops.

St. Niklaas was the last stop and I got off and got a taxi to my hotel. I then unpacked a bit and sorted some hippo details out and then got yet another taxi back to the train station. I was going to just go ahead and take a taxi to the zoo because I didn’t even know for sure where the zoo was in Antwerp and I might just save time and money getting a taxi there in the first place.

The taxi driver hesitated and told me that it would take an hour and a half to get to the zoo. Really? Oh, gee, well…I stammered as I looked at my watch. HE told me, but you can take the train and it will only be 20 minutes. Really?

Turns out that there was a ton of road traffic en route to Antwerp at the time and the zoo is RIGHT NEXT to the train station. Really, like RIGHT next to the train station? The driver assured me that yes, it was RIGHT NEXT to the station and dropped me off in front of the St. Niklaas station. (Literally, he drove up onto the pavement and dropped me off RIGHT NEXT to the station entrance). So I went in, bought a snack and waited for my train to come.

It did (there are trains almost every twenty minutes to Antwerp from St. Niklaas) and I got off in Antwerp and immediately saw signs for the zoo. Perfect!

I went outside and there it was, right next to the station. I went in and bought my ticket and brochure and headed for the hippos. I got a bit lost on the way there, amongst the bird exhibits and giraffes, but eventually found the hippos.

Oh, not just the hippos. I found… (Drum roll please)


Yes, it exists! Hippotopia exists right here in Belgium. The actual exhibit for the hippos here is called Hippotopia. How funny and totally perfect! And what made it more perfect was that walking through Hippotopia to get to the hippos (which meant walking through a wooden walkway over water) there were not only sound effects which made it seem like other sorts of animals were lurking in the water around you but there was FOG! Man made fog was shooting out of these jets along the base of the walkway which made you feel like you truly were walking into something cool.

I was impressed.

Turned out that the hippos were not outside like I thought they would be, but inside (Hippotopia had two parts to it—a cool outside part and a standard inside part) so I headed into the inside area and found the two hippos Heini (the male) and Hermien (the female) inside, both happily starting on what looked like a nice big hippo dinner—a huuuuuge amount of hay, carrots, cabbages, apples and other hippos goodies.

This was going to take a while.

And it did—two hours later I was still standing there waiting for the hippos to be done with their dinner. Unfortunately while they were out of the water, the bars in the enclosure where just so that you could not get a good picture of either of them without them in the way. The two hippos were separated (there was a sign saying why but I couldn’t really understand it) but luckily there were signs saying their names and pointing out who was who.

I stood there the entire time that they ate, ready with my camera for any possible move around the bars, but there were hardly any. Finally I got this eerie feeling that I was the only person in the zoo (I hadn’t seen another visitor in quite some time) and then I realized that I almost was the last person in the zoo. The keeper came in around 6 o’clock and kicked me out of the enclosure, turning off all of the lights and locking the door. I headed out of the zoo with a few pictures, knowing that I would be back in the morning to get them both out in the open water outside.

I took the train back to St. Niklaas, got dinner at a restaurant near the station and then a taxi back to the hotel. The taxi driver must have been about my age and within the three minutes it took us to get back to the hotel he had managed to ask me out. Seriously. I thanked him but told him no, that I was leaving in the morning thank you very much, but he was still adamant that he could really show me around town that night.

I just smiled and shut the door on him.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Amsterdam, NL—Emmen, NL—Amsterdam, NL—Day 208

In terms of hippos and zoos, today might as well be a landmark. In fact, I would go so far as to say that today was probably the best zoo that I’ve been to so far.

Why? Well, I’ll start from the beginning—you want to know all of it, right?

So I got up at the crack of dawn and headed out to the tram which thankfully is not far from my hotel. I boarded, along with several other people who just so happened to be up and needing to go somewhere at 6:30am. The girl standing next to me at the tram stop was smoking like a chimney and all I could think, isn’t TOO early to be smoking?

I got the tram to the central train station in Amsterdam where I wanted to get a train up to Emmen, where the zoo is. So I had to get my nifty euro-rail pass out and get it validated, since I hadn’t used it yet. So I got in line at a ticket counter in the train station and was told to head upstairs to get it validated. Fair enough. So I head upstairs to the international ticket counter, get a number (I’m the only person in the place and I needed a number?) and went to the desk. I handed over my ticket for her to validate and the woman just looked at me.

I can’t validate THIS, she says. Uhhh, why not? Well, she says, you’ve written on it. Now this was true, I did. I filled out my name, passport number and my travel dates. So what? I can prove that it is in fact me based on my name and passport number, so why couldn’t she validate it?

Well, she says, not only are you NOT supposed to fill it out (as she points to me in the miniscule type where it says that I am not supposed to write on it) but you filled it our WRONG.

I didn’t know what to do—cry? Would that help? I just looked at her as the panic started to rise in me.

So after a while she says to me, well, I can either NOT validate this, or you can pay a 30 Euro fine to get a new one to validate.

Hmm, let me think…gee.

So 30 Euros later, and a lot of huffing on her part, I am set with a new Eurorail pass and on my way to Emmen to see the hippos. I think she just wanted to scare me and she definitely did for sure, but telling me in the first place that I had made a mistake and that she could fix it would have been nicer.

So I got on my train to Emmen and two hours later I was almost there but thought that I had missed my stop. Ok, so I didn’t really find out if there was possibly more than one stop in Emmen. As I looked up from my book and at my watch, I knew that I shouldn’t quite be at Emmen, but then I saw an Emmen station sign pass us by so I thought great, I missed it.

But luckily that was just the sort of suburbs of Emmen. We pulled into downtown Emmen shortly thereafter and I had just enough spare time to walk over to the zoo right as it opened. Lucky for me the zoo was just within walking distance of the train station and in the downtown area (Emmen is actually quite small of a town) so I got my ticket and went in felling pretty sure that I would have a long day ahead of me, being 10 hippos on my list for this zoo.

I found the hippos with not too much trouble and sure enough, there were plenty of hippos in there. I watched for just a few minutes and everywhere I looked there would be another hippo swimming around, or popping his head up. It was almost like in 101 Dalmatians where they’re counting and it just seems like there are more, and more, and more of them.

So I started on the search for someone to help me and stopped a girl with a bicycle who seemed to work at the zoo. She did, but didn’t know anything about the hippos.

I then stopped another guy shortly thereafter and to my surprise, he did work with the hippos! And yes, there were TWELVE hippos (not ten) and in fact, he knew all of their names by heart. He just had to go drop something off and then he would come back and help me.

Are you serious? Could this be happening?!? He’s going to willingly HELP me?

So I waited for him to come back (I assured him that I wouldn’t leave) and several of the hippos actually came over to me and opened their mouths for me in anticipation for food. How fantastic!

The keeper came back and I learned that his name was Hank. Once the hippos saw Hank, they too came back and we were in the company of probably six different hippos all looking up at us with eager, hungry eyes. Hank first wrote down all of their names for me but realized was missing one of them. So we walked inside to the indoor enclosure where all of their names were written down and Hank showed me their indoor pens and pool (where they do their business so to speak in the mornings before they are let out into the open outside enclosure) and finally he was able to think up the last of their names: Balenga. So we had Suze, Liza, Saar (which means Sarah in Dutch by the way!) Loeuje, Rikke, Jetje, Louise, Kabura, Lukulu, Dhony, Bulaula and lastly, Balenga. Thankfully their names all didn’t start with the same letter, as in Taiwan.

Anyways, Hank started to point them out as I snapped away on my camera and wrote down who was who. It was awesome and I couldn’t believe my luck. In just under an hour I had pictures of all of the hippos, several in the water and some out of the water. When some of the hippos didn’t make their presence known for us in the water, we threw out a huge watermelon for them to chase (which brought most of them over to us) and then went back behind the enclosure and threw grass out for the hippos (which I excitedly watched and took pictures of) and then back around the front to get the smallest of the little hippos Lukulu. I was thrilled and told Hank all about the project. His reaction to the idea that his hippos were going to be on a porcelain service was sort of a disbelieved shake of the head but I assured him that they would turn out great and gave him the website to check out all things hippo.

So twelve hippos in under an hour. I was stoked and headed out of the zoo not even knowing what train to catch back since I anticipated getting out of the zoo really late. I walked back to the station in the rain (a theme it appears in The Netherlands right now!) and figured out my train. Soon I was on my way back to Amsterdam.
I made it back and spent the rest of the afternoon much like the previous two—taking in the Rijksmuseum and generally walking around and eating a lot.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Photo--Along the canals, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Photo--A rainbow! Amsterdam

Photo--Ahh, the canals, Amsterdam

Amsterdam, The Netherlands—Day 207

So I started the day by oversleeping by an hour, which meant that I woke up at 8:30 instead of 7:30, so I was late for the zoo! I wanted to get there spot on when it opened at nine o’clock but I ended up being a few minutes late. Dang. I had forgotten to switch my stop watch an hour ahead (the time difference between London and Amsterdam). Anyways, on to more important things.

So I headed to the zoo and got pictures of Tanja, still inside, but in much fresher and shallow water which was nice. Turned out that my few minutes being late didn’t really matter much. I found her just sitting in the water, trying her best to submerge herself in the water but it was hardly enough to cover her. It was still drizzling outside but it seemed apparent that Tanja spent most of her time indoors. A few people came and went while I was watching her—several troublemaking young teens and one super cute guy who came up and told the boys Tanja’s name (he knew!) and stood there for quite a while looking at her. It was just us and I it was so funny—I started to think about how funny it would be if I actually met someone over a hippo (literally, we were standing just about over her). The guy turned to me and we smiled in that sort of, yes, I’ve been watching hippos for too long type of way, and then he left, leaving me with Tanja who, while being cute, was totally unappreciative of my commitment to HER.

After watching her for quite a while and getting the pictures I needed, I decided to head out of the zoo. With map in hand, I made it over to the Van Gogh museum on the tram which was complicated at first but I eventually made it there. The museum was impressive and took an audio tour which is I think the way to do it at a museum so that you can all of the juicy details about a work of art. I then stopped at a supermarket for lunch where I briefly spoke to a girl who was from England (through the woman in the middle of us in the check out line who spoke to both of us in Dutch first) and then got back on the tram.

I got off near a market place that I had passed before and decided to check it out. I found a cute old café and had lunch there, meanwhile outside the rain turned yet again into a downpour so I was happy to be inside this time instead of out, and when I finished I walked around a bit more, took the tram to an internet café, checked out the shopping district, had falafel for dinner on the sidewalk (feeling that I single handedly cause a huge increase in falafel sales as I sat there eating and advertising my falafel. So many people walked past me, went ooooh, that looks good, and then went it). I then walked around some more, found a place for dessert, watched the rain pour down while I ate apple pie, and then went out again. This time when I walked back to the tram to get back to the hotel I stopped to take pictures of the fantastic rainbow that had formed over the city which was quite beautiful. I stopped in at a movie theater to catch Fahrenheit 911 (finally!) and then made it back to the hotel. Basically I did a lot of walking, tram riding and eating today. :)

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

London, England—Amsterdam, The Netherlands—Day 206

I arrived in Amsterdam early this afternoon from London. I arrived at the main terminal at the airport, was thankful to find all my bags had arrived with me (I’ve now got two smaller bags which are more suitable for trains) and made my way out to the main area in hopes to find a taxi to the hotel. I was happy to realize that I won’t have to be on a plane again for another two months, which is nice. I’ll be seeing the rest of Europe via train.

So I went to find a taxi so I walked up to the taxi counter knowing already that there was probably some other better way for me to get to the center of Amsterdam considering the airport was also connected to a train station. Hmmm. I decided to go for a taxi to see how much they thought it would be to get into town and before I knew it I had agreed to a taxi before even really thinking about getting a train. The taxi guy adamantly told me that it would be the same price either way, but again I wasn’t so sure. And, as he said, why would I want to bring all of my luggage on public transportation of all things?

He made it sound like public transportation was this eerie, gross thing that I would want to avoid at all costs.

So I got into a cab and a ridiculously large fare later, I was at the hotel which, I might add, was perfectly situated RIGHT NEXT to the zoo. A first and hopefully not the last. I was so excited to be right near the zoo. I could just cross the street and go in! How perfect.

So I checked in and checked out the guy working at the desk, shamelessly flirting my way up to the fourth floor where I put down my things, sorted a few things out, and then headed back out of the hotel to the zoo.

On my way (this is across the street, mind you) I almost got killed by a speeding bicyclist and passed through a cloud of smoke that was clearly NOT tobacco smoke (if you know what I mean) and I had not a faintest idea on where it came from. Ahh well, my first taste of Amsterdam.

So I found the zoo and got my ticket and headed in to the hippos. A light drizzle had started and I found the hippo enclosure before it started turning into full on rain. The hippos were not outside, so I moved inside to a large hall that had not only the hippos (or hippo as I found out) but gorillas and other animals. Turned out to be just one hippo, Tanja (her name was actually posted! What luck!). Tanja is the last remaining hippo at the zoo. Apparently her mate died of a heart attack in the late 1990s and now Tanja is sort of “waiting out her twilight years” as the brochure suggests. Basically they are just waiting for Tanja to pass on as there are no plans for the zoo to get anymore hippos due to lack of space. Fair enough, but I feel sorry for poor Tanja who is surely lonely.

I got a few pictures but decided it would be best for me to return in the morning to perhaps catch Tanja outside. I grabbed a sandwich at the nearby food area and sat down under a tree just as it began to pour. Luckily I was pretty well protected from the water but I still got pretty wet.

I checked on Tanja after I finished my sandwich and decided for sure to come back in the morning and headed out of the zoo—the rain had let up a bit at this point. I started to walk down the road towards the main center of Amsterdam (or at least, where my map pointed to where it was—I wasn’t sure if I was going in the right direction really) and made it a fair way down from my hotel when it honestly felt like the sky just opened up and it began to POUR. Like, POUR. I’ve never seen so much rain all of a sudden ever, let alone standing in the middle of it. Then the lightning and thunder began. I dashed under a small overhang from a building but even that and my umbrella couldn’t stop me from getting sopping wet.

Then I almost got struck by lightning.

Ok, maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but I was standing there and BAM! Lighting and thunder all at once. No time in between. Nothing. Just this huge bolt of lightning right in front of me. I jumped back (into the building) and my heart almost stopped from being so, and sorry for the pun, jolted from it. I looked up into the dark grey sky that was thundering away and ready to strike anything underneath it and also realized that I was standing RIGHT under some power lines for the tram. Nice.

So I decided, hey, this isn’t such a good thing to be standing near, so I raced out to find different cover that was further away from power lines but couldn’t run very far before getting SOAKED. It was so funny—almost hilarious—to go from completely dry and walking along to completely drenched and running for cover from lighting bolts. Anyways, I stood near another building with a little bit more overhead cover this time and smiled at the man down a bit who was doing the same thing. There were a few people riding along on their bikes in the rain—undoubtedly soaked to the bone but not minding it, or at least, riding home to change clothes—but the streets had basically cleared and there were people all along huddled in doorways and in shops.

The rain finally let up a bit and when it got to just a drizzle I decided to head back to the hotel, wait for it to all pass, and then go back out. I did just that and walked into the hotel trying to avoid eye contact with the cute desk guy.

The rain finally cleared up and I changed my clothes. I went back downstairs and decided to buy a ticket for the tram instead of trying to walk this time (it would have made more sense to hop on the tram while it was raining but never mind) and I got a three day pass so I was set.

I got on the tram near the hotel and went down town where I spent the afternoon wandering around Amsterdam, visiting the Anne Frank house (where she lived for just over two years in hiding and wrote her famous diary) and basically acting the tourist. It was nice to walk around a get a feel for the city. I got dinner at a great Indonesian place and then took a canal tour on a boat around Amsterdam which was really gorgeous.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.