Friday, September 03, 2004

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg—Amneville, France—Luxembourg—Day 216

Being woken up by the maid from the hotel is not really the most pleasant way to wake up. Not only do you get a lot of noise with them trying to unlock the door, but you get them even turning on your lights for you then apologizing for waking you up when they see you there, half-awake.

This happened this morning and I was in the middle of a fascinating dream about something (all I can remember is that I was completely fascinated while in the dream) and then couldn’t make out for the life of me what the noises were coming from in my dream. I woke up to the surprised maid who had walked in on my slumber and decided that I might as well get up now that I was awake.

I got ready and went downstairs to have breakfast in the hotel restaurant which was pretty standard hotel breakfast food and then walked across the street to the train station. How nice is it that it is so close! I found my train heading to Thoinville, France (a city that I had marked as being near Amneville where I wanted to go) and as the train started, I wondered just how close my calculations were. I didn’t REALLY know if Thoinville was even close—I just had a big dot next to it on my map of Europe that I had put there, oh, 9 months ago and wasn’t really quite sure if it was right.

I would soon find out!

I got off in Thoinville which was only about a 30 minute train ride. I asked about getting to the zoo and the woman at the ticket desk told me that I had to take the next train (as in the same one that I just got off of) and go to the next stop, then ask for directions from there since it was much closer. Problem was that the next train didn’t come for another hour! It was only a ten minute extra train ride that I was in for so I was tempted to take a taxi instead, but then thought I should just take the train.

So I waited an hour and the train came and I headed back in the direction I was going in the first place. I got off at the next stop and found a much smaller train station. There was a sign for taxis outside the station but no taxis to be seen. I walked around a little bit to see if I could figure it out (if there were buses or something I could take) and then went back inside to ask about a taxi. It seemed that the woman in front of me was also asking for a taxi and what I got from the conversation (again, I don’t speak French so this was just a guess) was that you basically just had to sit out and wait for a taxi to eventually come instead of him calling one for you.

So I went back outside and there was the woman with her two children who asked about the taxi and another old woman. All of us waiting for these mystery taxis to show up.

And eventually one did! The woman with the children was first in line so she went to get in but he then gestured to the elderly woman and I about where we were going. I told him the zoo and I don’t’ know what the woman told him but before I knew it he was beckoning me into the cab along with the older woman and not the woman with her children.

I just shrugged my shoulders and gave the other woman an apologetic look as I climbed in.

We dropped off the older woman first at her house and then the taxi driver drove me to the zoo which was in the kind of huge touristy Mecca. There was a bowling alley, aquarium, zoo, mini-golf—all sorts of things in this once compact area in what seemed to be the middle of the woods. It really was quite something. I headed into the zoo which seemed on the outside to be a pretty nice zoo.

And it was—they even had a hippo “extravaganza” time at 3:30 and 5:30! Whooho! Whatever that meant, I was up for it. Problem was, it was just past noon so I had three and a half hours to kill before this extravaganza. So I went and checked out the hippo enclosure and found two hippos under the water—or at least what I thought was two. I took pictures of all of the signs and then went and found lunch at a small kiosk. I got a HUGE hotdog and a drink and tried to eat as slowly as possible to kill time (I still have to get another book and its killing me!! Argh!) I then actually went around and visited some of the other animals (the otters were quite funny and seemed excited to see me and kept following my hand holding the zoo map around) and finally went and sat down in a few places to figure out my course of action for the next few weeks. I ended up in the polar bear exhibit on these risers for the polar bear “extravaganza” which starts at three o’clock every day. It was about two at this point so I sat there for an hour going over some things and then getting out my phrasebook and trying to teach myself French.

Then the place started filling up with eager zoo visitors all waiting for the polar bear show to start. It did and the two bears came out and were fed fish by an enthusiastic zookeeper. They were just so cute and it was really fun actually to watch them hesitate about going in the water, finally plunging in and then grabbing all of the fish.

At 3:20 I left the crowded area to get my spot at the hippos. I assumed that the polar bear show ended because all of a sudden the huge mass of people migrated down the hill to the hippos and the enthusiastic keeper came over to now talk about the hippos.

I had a great spot but then the keeper kept moving around everywhere for everyone to see—which was good for everyone else but not me! The hippos came out and opened their mouths wide from all sides, so I had to dash around and try and wedge myself into groups of people to get the pictures. Eventually as the talk went on people began to disperse so I did get some really great close ups of both of the hippos. Phew. Now I just need their names.

So after the talk was done, I cornered the keeper when she was coming out of the exhibit (cornering seems like such a weird word to use, but basically I do!) and while she didn’t speak English very much she was able to help me with their names: Mara (the female) and Kinshasa (the male—I have to check on the spelling of Kinshasa—she says that he is named after a country in Africa!) Anyway, turns out that Mara is the mother of Masae, one of the hippos that is at La Fleche zoo and that is a new father! I was delighted—I wonder if Mara knows that she is a grandmother now! I didn’t want to gush to the keeper that I personally knew Masae at La Fleche because then she surely would have thought I was nuts. So I just smiled and said oh really? And kept my excitement low key.

I then went out of the zoo via the gift shop and then walked over to the main tourist information center for this whole entertainment complex thing that the zoo was a part of. The girls working at the desk called a taxi for me (she kept asking me, you really want one RIGHT NOW? And I was like, ummm, no tomorrow, yes of course right now!) and eventually it came and whizzed me back to the train station. The taxi drover dropped me off feeling a tad car sick from his swerving!

Anyways, I got on a train back to Thionville (accidentally sitting in the smoking section which was bad!), and then another to Luxembourg. I then sorted out the hippo pictures from today and then walked back into the city center to find dinner. I saw this cute little Arts Café that I thought would be nice but turned out that they stopped serving dinner for the night! It was only 8pm or so so I was a bit surprised, so I headed into the more touristy area of the city where the center square is (although when I say touristy it really is nothing like any other place I’ve been to since its so nice and small) and had dinner outside at a French restaurant. I had to wave the server over to help me and assure him that yes, I was alone and no I wasn’t waiting for anyone.

A band started playing in the square midway though my meal which was fun to listen to. Afterwards I walked over and watched them for a while (and to see those few odd people who were dancing). I then got a bus back to my hotel—getting off a stop too early but then walking back to the hotel—and that’s that! Another day. Tomorrow it is off to Paris—as I said before—and I will be there for five nights.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Liege, Belgium—Luxembourg City, Luxembourg—Day 215

While most of the day was spent on a train, I overall had a pretty great day. It started off with my trip back to the Monde Sauvage—the animal park near Aywaille. I got up early this morning and checked out of the hotel (and had to deal with the woman at the desk who was trying to overcharge me for the nasty smoky room I stayed in last night) and headed to back on the freeway to Aywaille. My luck from yesterday was still going strong it seems because I found the right way to get back to the zoo. Within a half and hour I was there and was just about first in line for the zoo. It was the same girl from yesterday (so I had missed my chance to rendezvous with the mean ticket woman) and she looked at me with a slight hesitation as I bought my ticket.

I think she was on to me!

Luckily for me several of the cars in front of me (there were only about four really) decided to head towards the parking lot rather than do the safari. Why I don’t know, but this was good for me because it meant that I had no one in my way stopping my from the hippos.

I made my way into the safari entrance and TA-DA! There they were! Three hippos! I was giddy with excitement as I perhaps a little too quickly made my way over to them—hitting perhaps one too many deep potholes on the way. I didn’t care—I was going to get my hippos whether the car liked it or not.

I stopped just feet away from the hippos and started snapping. It was pretty easy to tell which one was Knudell since he definitely the smallest and eating on his own. I didn’t know who was Georgette and who was Marline, but I figured I would take their pictures first. One of them was much larger than the other so I would just have to find someone who would know. I took lots of pictures—of the hippos and of these crazy elk things that were in the middle of the road. It was so exciting! Almost like I was on a small safari with the hippos so close. They even walked RIGHT in front of my car to get to the other side of the road so that was exciting as well. I couldn’t believe how close we could get to them and I was so happy to find them out of the water rather than in like yesterday.

Once I got lots of pictures I zoomed around the rest of the safari park to find some keeper to help me. That’s when I got stuck behind some camels who wouldn’t move and I was afraid of the car getting kicked by one! I finally made it past and found a keeper. I called him over and to my relief he was a different one from yesterday so not only would he not recognize me but perhaps he would know who was who.

Not only did he know but he spoke English and then went over to the hippos to point them out! Why didn’t I run into him the other day when I first came!?!?! I was right about Knundell and he showed me that Georgette was the bigger of the two females. He happily patted Knudell, telling me as I took pictures that he was really very friendly. Obviously it seemed like they were—where else where the hippos free roaming amongst zoo visitors like they were here? I haven’t seen any so far.

I thanked him (if he only knew how really thankful I was!) and drove back to Liege. Miraculously (again with luck still on my side) I found the car rental place and dropped off the car without any problems and took a bus to the train station. Getting on the bus was quite the thing with all of my stuff but I managed it although was given a few not so happy looks by the other bus passengers who had to climb over my things to get to get on the bus.

I made it to the train station and had about an hour to spare before my train left. I checked my email and grabbed a hot dog as I waited. I then boarded the train to Luxembourg and unfortunately had nothing to read since I finished my book. So two hours passed as I listened to music and waited for my stop.

When everyone got off of the train at one point I decided that this wasn’t good—and I didn’t want a repeat performance of what happened yesterday. So I asked the conductor who spoke English and he told me that I had to get a bus to the next station because they were working on the train tracks on this station. So I got off and again had to get on a bus with all of my stuff and headed 12 kilometers on the bus to the next stop, which was quite funny when I was trying to prevent my things from falling into the isles.

We made it to the next stop and all eventually boarded the next train that pulled in. Heading to Luxembourg I still wasn’t quite sure if I really was doing what I was supposed to but eventually found out from the train conductor that I was heading in the right direction.

Despite the train being overwhelmingly hot and a bit crowded, I made it to Luxembourg, eventually. My hotel is right across from the train station so I headed over, checked in and then took a quite nap before heading out to find some dinner. I walked up over a beautiful bridege over to the main center of Luxebourg City (which is quite small) and found the main square. There was a guy standing there with dread locks who was juggling and I thought, hmmm, he looks familiar. Then another guy came over (again with dred locks) and I recognized them immediately as being two jugglers that Sarah and I had seen in Poland two months ago! How funny! Although I don’t know them, I guess it was about time for me to run into something—or someone—again. Anyways, I knew for sure it was them when they both just whipped down their pants and started changing, as they did so as Sarah and I watched in shock in Poland. How funny. Once it was confirmed that it was them (aka when they started taking off their clothes) I decided it was time for me to get something to eat. I stopped at a small Italian place where I started chatting to the girl sitting two tables away from me who just so happened to be from England. We got talking and after dinner, Lanny and I went and had a few beers. It was great—she too is a business traveler so it was nice to talk to her about the woes of traveling alone, among other things of course!

Tomorrow I head to Thoinville, France for the day to get the zoo there and then its off to Paris! Ooohh la la!

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Brussels, Belgium—Entirely the Wrong Place, Belgium—Liege, Belgium—Day 214

Today started off in normal fashion with the whole getting up, having breakfast, checking out of the hotel thing. I dragged my luggage down the metro subway and headed to the Central Station. It was there that things started off on the wrong path—I missed my train by literally three seconds. I just stepped down onto the train platform as the doors closed and it started lurking forwards. Dang. I checked my watch—I was right on time according to it, but I guess not the train.

So I had to wait for another train that was going in the direction that I wanted. Luckily there were two—one leaving about ten minutes from the one that I missed and a second one leaving about a half an hour from that one, so about 40 minutes later. The two new train times both arrived into Liege (where I wanted to go) around the same time—one just took a more direct route and stopped less. I decided to just go with the first train even though it stopped more just because then I would just be sitting on a train rather than sitting in the station.

So I got on the first train that came and headed towards Liege. Or so I thought. According to the time table, it was going to take about two hours for the train to get to Liege and usually it is just about an hour (on the faster of the trains). So I sat back and put on some music and waited for the time to pass (I just finished my book so I am in need of a new one!).

I kept checking my watch making sure that I knew what time I was going to have to get off and the train kept stopping at different stops. Once I made it to about 10 minutes before my train was to arrive in Liege, I started paying attention to signs. I realized something was wrong when we pulled into a station and everyone on the train got off. And they turned off the train.


I sat on it for quite a while before realizing hey, this might be the last stop. I got off and checked the station and time table near it and sure enough, we were at the end of the line. Problem was, we were no where near Liege. Instead I had ended up in Dinant which is so completely no where I needed to be—in fact much more south, almost in France.

Great. I checked the time tables again and found that this train that I had ridden in on was leaving in about fifteen minutes to go BACK to Brussels. I could change trains in Namur (or at least I hoped so—it looked like a pretty big city on my map but I couldn’t really tell) and hopefully that would get me to Liege sooner or later.

I had to remind myself that I should not really stress out about it since really my only obligation is to get to Liege today. Problem was that I had booked the rental car for 10:30am and at this rate, I wouldn’t be getting into Liege anytime around then. In fact, when it all worked out I was about three hours late.

The train conductor came back to check tickets as the train started back from where we came from and he stopped and looked at me. Do you like trains or something? He says to me. Um, no, I…I stammer as I get out my map and try to explain to him what I had done. Ahh, he says. Ahh yes, easy mistake. I have no idea honestly how I managed to not realize that I had to switch trains in Namur the first time but was positive that I had to get off there the second time round to transfer to Liege.

And I did and waited for my train to Liege which eventually showed up despite some bizarre +0H05 signal next to it on the board (hardly any other trains had this so I was racking my brain trying to figure out what it meant) and decided that it was probably late or something. But I still didn’t’ know and when I went to wait for the train, I found that it was on time, to my surprise. Confused, I boarded and crossed my fingers that I would at least arrive in Liege and not some other crazy place.

I eventually did and got a taxi to the rental car place, where the rental car man scolded me for being almost three hours late. Sorry sorry, I said as I explained to him that I couldn’t have called him to tell him I was late because I was on trains for over four hours! He told me that he had already rented my car that I had reserved (“we only keep cars on hold for two hours—no more”) but then magically produced a Ford Fiesta for me to drive.

I filled out the paperwork and was soon on my way following the road to Luxembourg, as told by the rental car man. I followed it for a little while and then realized that I was really close to where the zoo was. Good thing I had my map. I followed the signs to Aywaille (the town it is in) and racked my brain to remember the route that the taxi driver had taken before. I remembered it perfectly and was soon pulling up to the entrance to the Safari Park.

I felt totally in control. Here I was, I MADE it back, and I was going to get my pictures. I was going to show that ticket woman who was boss SO THERE.

Unfortunately, but also I guess kind of luckily, the original ticket woman wasn’t there. Instead there was a nice young girl who was getting tickets and so I got my ticket and asked her about the hippos. She looked at me with a blank you-must-be-crazy look and said she didn’t know what the hippos names were. I would have to find out on the inside.

Ok, so I drove up to the entrance to the safari park and started driving. Ok ok, so it was a tad bumpy and I can slightly understand that a taxi doesn’t want to drive over all of the mud puddles and things, but come on.

I kept my eyes out for the hippos but I couldn’t see them anywhere! Weren’t they supposed to be roaming free eating all of the grass like they did just a few days ago? Where were they?

I figured it was just my luck that they would be gone for the day or something when I spotted them. And of course, where would they be?

In the WATER. Hellooo Sarah. Of COURSE they would be in the big pond in the middle of the safari grounds—it was a beautiful day, hot and sunny and they were doing the typical hippo thing to do. So I pulled my car over in front of the pond and tried to woo the hippos out of the water.

Didn’t work. I instead got some crazy zebras and antelope looking things coming up to my car. The hippos just popped their heads out of the water to breath and went back in. This was no good.

I finally spotted a zoo keeper and decided the best thing to do would be to get their names and then try and come back in the morning when they were more likely to be roaming about. I couldn’t just sit in the middle of the road blocking traffic all afternoon. Problem was that I had to drive around the entire safari part of the zoo before I could get back around to the keeper (who was near the entrance) which meant that not only did I have to stop for passing animals all of the time, but for all of the cars in front of me who were also stopping and taking pictures of everything that moved.

Finally, finally, finally, I made it back around to where the keeper sort of was (like a half hour later) and I called him over. Excuse-moi? He came over and I asked him about this hippos and he gave me their names: Knudell, Gerogette and Marline. He told me that the boy was the smallest (as I learned two days ago) and that he didn’t know the difference (or couldn’t tell me) between the two females. Well, at least this was more than I knew before! I thanked him and headed out of the safari area and back up the huge hill (remember the one that I had to walk up before?) and pulled my car into the parking lot.

I got some ice cream and some postcards and ate my ice cream while watching the billy goats which, if you ever have a chance to watch them, make the most horrifically funny noises. If you thought that a goat makes nothing more than a sweet little baa you were wrong. All sorts of belching noises were coming from them and I just sat there totally amused. Not until a bee came to harass me did I run away (literally) and head back to the car.

I then spent the rest of the afternoon driving around this part of Belgium that I was in. Got a snack at a little café in a place called Spa which was nice and then drove through the country side back to Liege. Surprisingly I made it to my hotel to check in just fine and then magically ended up in downtown central Liege for dinner. How I managed it, I haven’t a clue but I did. And then to top it all off, I made it BACk to the hotel with hardly any effort going a completely new route. Let’s just say that today was a pretty lucky day. Let’s hope tomorrow is even better and that the hippos are actually out on the grass eating when I show up!

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Photo--Green Tree of Knowledge? Brugge, Belgium

Photo--Brugge, Belgium

Photo--Brugge, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium—Brugge, Belgium—Brussels—Day 213

A day off from hippos, today I ventured to the Musees Royauz des Beaux-Arts in Brussels which surprisingly has a large collection of—you guessed it—Belgian art. The museum itself was really sort of hard to follow—there were these different colored routes that you could take depending on which era of paintings you wanted to look at, but I found it a bit frustrating. The museum also seemed to be combining two buildings into one museum so to get from one colored route to the next took a bit of work.

Anyways, after that I headed back to the Grand-Place (the place where the beer garden was) to find it almost deserted (well, compared with what I had seen before) and with hardly any stalls set up. This made the whole atmosphere much different and a little bit more pleasant. I then walked up to the Cathedrale St. Michel which was really a gorgeous cathedral near the central train station in Brussels.

Then I boarded a train to Brugge, which is back in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium in the northwest. The train ride was only about an hour and I got off and hopped on a bus to the “Markt” which I could only assume took me to the center of town. The people across from me on the bus were from Canada so I said hello to them (they had huge Canadian flags on their bags which usually means that that person is actually an American, trying to pretend they are Canadian, or a Canadian not really knowing that they look like Americans. If they only knew, they would probably chill out on the flag usage).

I got off the bus a little bit earlier than the Market Square and started walking along different shops before coming upon the square which was just beautiful—not quite as impressive as Brussels but surely less crowded. I then decided to climb up the Belfort, which is a medieval bell tower with 366 steps (a lot!) but once I made it to the top it was worth it because it had a wonderful view over Brugge. I took plenty of pictures up at the top and had to wait while a small child went back down the stairs slooooowwwlly because he was scared. Finally they let me (and some other people) pass—at the rate they were going I bet they are still trying to make it down!

Anyways, back on ground level, I continued to walk around for a bit and then saw some people watching this street performer who was all dressed in green spandex and had green leaves all around his face. People would put in money and he would then beckon you to come close to him and he would whisper something in your ear and then gesture for you not to tell anyone. I think he was trying to be the tree of knowledge or something. It was fun watching him—although it seemed like people where nervous about having to come up to hear what he had to whisper to them but wanted to do it just to see what he would say. Anyways, while I was watching him I noticed that there were canal boat rides being offered, so I decided that that would be fun. Brugge has all these little canals which are just gorgeous (sort of like Amsterdam on a smaller scale) and so I bought a ticket and got on a little water tour of the canals which was great. The sun was shining and the scenery was beautiful and all in all I was feeling much better that I did yesterday at this time.

After the tour (which was about 30 minutes) I then got off and walked over to the Church of Our Lady which has a statue by Michelangelo called Madonna and Child. I then found the city park called Minnewater (the Lake of Love) and sat down to read my book for a bit amongst several cooing couples. Brugge is, as they say, one of the most romantic cities in Europe and I had to settle with my book.

After a while it started to get slightly chilly and more importantly my stomach was growling so I went in search of dinner—more specifically mussels which are a specialty in Belgium. I found them at a restaurant near where I got the little boat tour and almost devoured an entire bucket full of them. Mussels are kind of gross things really—although I really like eating them, I just can’t actually LOOK at them when I do.

I then walked for a while until I found the train station and caught the next train back to Brussels, where I am now writing this. Tomorrow I’m heading back to the Monde Sauvage (the zoo with the free roaming hippos and unsympathetic ticket woman) and will be driving around Belgium in a rental car.

Wish me luck.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Brussels, Belgium—Antwerp, Belgium—Mol, Belgium—Brussels—Day 211

I first headed back to the Antwerp Zoo to see if my prediction about Hermein being outside. I took the metro to the central train station and hopped on a train to Antwerp, which is about 45 minutes from Brussels. Walked out of the train station and went right to the zoo for the third time in a row. Luckily the ticket person who I've had the past two days wasn’t there so I didn’t have to worry about her recognizing me for a third time. I bought my ticket, headed back to Hippotopia and sure enough, it was Hermein’s turn to be outside.

It was great that she was outside but unfortunately she was turned the wrong way so her back was facing me. I took a few pictures before deciding to head around the exhibit to see if I could get a better view from outside the exhibit. I walked around and found a good spot to stand where I could see Hermein but unfortunately there were trees in the way. So I had to stand on this bench and sort of try and jump to get pictures of her without the trees and wires that were in the way. After a few attempts, I had some good pictures of her but as I tried for my like fifteenth time of jumping and shooting, she decided to start moving around. So I raced back over through Hippotopia and happily found her turned. So I snapped away and soon had my pictures.

I left the zoo for the third and LAST time and needed to get a train to Balen, where the Olmense Zoo is. I knew vaguely where it was in Belgium and vaguely the towns around the zoo. When I got to the train station there was a train leaving for Mol, which I remembered for being on the website for the zoo. So I thought, what the heck, and jumped on it.

As we took off towards Mol (wherever that was) I hoped that I would make it ok to the zoo.

I got off at the Mol train station and found myself to be in a really small town. I looked around and found no taxis or signs saying anything about the zoo. So I asked at the desk (luckily she spoke some English) and was given a number to call a taxi with. At least I wasn’t too far from the zoo! I could have ended up in the entirely wrong place for all I knew.

So after finding the phone booth and then walking back to buy a phone card from the lady at the station again and back to the phone booth, I had a taxi coming to pick me up and take me to the zoo. I started to get worried for a bit after a while since it hadn’t shown up and just as I was about to go back inside the station to ask for help, a bright blue taxi van showed up.

I got in and we headed to the zoo, which wasn’t all that far away, just a few towns over from where I ended up on the train. I thanked the driver and asked if he could pick me up again (he told yes and that I should call him) so I went in the zoo. The Olmense Zoo was one of those municipal type zoos that feel almost as if you are in someone’s backyard, or that perhaps there really shouldn’t be a zoo there at all. I headed in on the dirt path to find the hippos (or hippo for all I knew). It didn’t take me too long to find the lone hippo in his enclosure, surrounded by barbed wire and green rusty metal bars. Poor guy. To take pictures of him I literally had to squat down near the ground so that I could get pictures under all of the fencing. He was mostly submerged in the water and would come up occasionally to take a breath, so I snapped away while other zoo goers threw rocks trying to get him to come up more often. Honestly, do they think that if someone threw rocks at THEM they would want to come up? I shot dirty looks to everyone taunting the hippo, shouting and some of which even had their dogs with them! I couldn’t believe it.

Finally the hippo (whose name I had yet to figure out) got angry with everyone and moved up a bit, opening his mouth and showing his teeth to everyone which of course was what they wanted.

After I got my pictures I walked around the zoo for quite some time trying to find someone, ANYONE who worked at the zoo. I couldn’t find a single soul. Even the information center was locked with no one in it. Sure there were people in the food cafeteria area (which, by the way, was decorated in stuffed animals—as in taxidermy to the max. Who wants to eat a sandwich under a stuffed cheetah at the ZOO?). Anyways, I FINALLY found a guy after finding a closed gate and hearing noises behind it. I thought for sure this is where a keeper would be and sure enough, one came out and so I cornered him and his wheelbarrow. He told me that the hippo’s name was August and wrote it down on my postcard that I bought of a hippo, in the process getting blood from a cut on his finger on it.


But, I had his name and my pictures so I was set. Now I just needed to find a phone, which was another fiasco. I eventually walked back into the cafeteria and asked if there was a phone in there and the woman behind the counter actually took me behind it and got someone to call on their phone for me. You mean, you don’t speak Flemish? She asks me. Um, no.

Note to self, learn Flemish.

So she booked me a taxi (the same guy of course—probably the only taxi driver in the area) and fifteen minutes later he picked me up again. How was the zoo, he asks.

He takes me back to the train station in Mol. I went in and saw that the train I needed was to leave in an hour, so I walked across the street to have some lunch at a café. When I was finished I went back to platform #3 (the only platform really that seemed to be functioning—all of the trains came and went out of it) and was soon on my way back to Brussels via Antwerp.

I made it back to Brussels about two hours later and came back to the hotel to drop off my bag before going out to find some dinner. I ended up walking around a different part of Brussels which then lead into where I was yesterday (the touristy center) so I just grabbed a sandwich instead of finding a sit down place. Maybe tomorrow.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.