Thursday, December 02, 2004

Web Link--Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Tampa, Florida—Orlando, Florida—Day 306

I woke up this morning and headed to Busch Gardens. I had been here during the spring of my senior year of college for a psychology conference and of course didn’t think I would ever come back. I didn’t even remember there being an animal section to the park. I drove in and found a parking spot, then headed into Busch Gardens after paying my ridiculous $58 admission fee. I took my map and quickly found where the hippos were—in the Edge of Africa portion of the park. After a bit of walking, I made it to the area and soon found the hippo’s enclosure with a nice big underwater viewing area.

Unfortunately, there were no hippos. Actually, this was good. This meant that the hippos hadn’t been let outside yet and I would be able to photograph them coming out instead of just them in the water through the glass. So I got myself ready. I picked what I thought would be the best place to stand and made sure no one got in my way. Since I was standing right up next to the glass, I didn’t think this would be a problem. But, as small children came and went, apparently I was standing in a prime spot to see the turtles in the water. So I moved a bit, letting people come and go, always keeping my eyes out for the hippos.

Did I mention that there were a TON of fish in the enclosure? I mean, TONS of fish. I have never seen so many in an enclosure and the water was sparkling blue so you could see every blue and yellow and green and silver fish that swam by with great clarity. It all seemed so fake, yet so stunning at the same time. I stood there for a good hour before anything exciting happened. That’s when a group of elderly people came over—probably five or so all together—and they stood there for a long time with me examining all the different types of fish. “That’s a catfish!” one would announce and the others would turn and try to see just where it was and if it truly was a catfish. I watched in amusement until I heard a big SLASH! “The hippos came out!” one shouted and indeed, they had.

Two hippos had somehow been let out and had seriously plunged into the water causing a great stir with the fish. And I missed it! That’s what I get for watching the funny old people. Dang. I tried to get into a good spot to see the hippos in the water but fortunately the pair decided to get out of the water just as quickly as they went in, but getting out on the opposite side to which they came in.

Ahh, I see. There was a huge pile of hay laid out on the other side and the hippos began munching on it eagerly. This would mean that I would have yet another wait—the time it takes two hippos to devour a pile of hay—and so I took my spot again by the window, this time not budging until those hippos went into the water.

My determinism finally paid off. After about a half an hour and many strange looks (“ What IS that girl looking at?”) the hippos finally finished their breakfast. You could tell that they were a mother and baby pair by their size. Mom finished her food first and nicely eased herself into the water. Click click click. Baby soon followed and I took pictures with my camera as she eased herself into the water with the same grace that Mom had, stopping every so often which was great for me. Click click.

“Oh Ray,” exclaimed one woman to her husband as I stepped down from my perch, “We missed the getting into the water! That would have been a great photograph!”


The hippos swam around a bit and I watched them and tried to take pictures when I can. Problem with hippo enclosures such as this are that they usually draw crowds once the hippos are in the water making it difficult to get a good picture with everyone vying to see the hippos all at once.

When the hippos finally settled down after a bit of swimming and when it seemed like they wouldn’t move again for a while I decided that enough was enough—I would wait until my tour to get any more photos. I left and after catching the end of a stage show (and being the only one in the audience under the age of 65) I got lunch and went to my meeting spot for the tour and waited for 1:15 to roll around.

When it finally did I checked in for my tour and waited for the tour guide to show up. HE finally did and it turned out that the other people on my tour were a family that stayed at my hotel last night (whom I recognized form breakfast). They were an overenthusiastic father with dyed blonde hair with some sort of business that allows him to work whenever he wants while “raking in the money,” the mother who didn’t really talk the entire time which made me wonder how on earth they were even married because he wouldn’t stop talking and their two slightly chubby children who seemed content to be dragged along on Dad’s “dream” to show his children the animals at the park. Both children seemed like they were having a good time (although the poor little boy was too scared to pet any of the animals).

Anyways, our tour guide was Fred—a mid-thirties guy who actually went to Carleton (a college near Macalester where I went in Minnesota) and his trusty assistant whom I can’t remember her exact name. I think it was Christina. Anyways, Fred and Christina took us first to the Clydesdale horses (the Budweiser trademark horse) and we got to pet several of them. I played along and pretended that I was interested in the other animals but of course we all know that I wasn’t! I tired to play it cool when they asked me why I was on this tour alone (as if being alone is some sort of disease) and I told them that my boss loves hippos and sent me to photograph these ones. Their eyes widened and I could tell they were excited. Really? He LOVES hippos? I smiled and played it off—I didn’t really want to go into the whole description of what I was doing. Plus I practically had two more hours to spend with these people and I really didn’t feel up to fending questions the whole time. So I left it at that—my boss loves hippos and I am here photographing them for him, which, I might add, is totally true.

Luckily it didn’t take us too long to get to the hippos. We watched the pair from the underwater viewing area and then headed behind the scenes through a gate around the other side. Alright, THIS is what I was talking about!

We headed in and there had to be six zookeepers standing with one of the hippos. It was like they were all there at once. Since I already had an idea of the hippo’s names (I had emailed Busch Gardens two days ago and got an emailed response with their names) I was able to ask who was who. Turned out that Moxie (the baby) and Cleopatra (the mother) were outside and there was Kiboko (Moxie’s father), Moyo and Eva inside. Apparently it was Moyo standing in front of me. Click click. They were doing a training session wit Moyo, something I had never seen before. They were training him to stand in certain places so that they could do medical checks on him (drawing blood, taking his weight, things like that). They had this huge pole with a white knob on the end which they would place on Moyo’s nose. He was doing a great job and would move back and forth according to their calls and demands. It was great! Luckily my tour group members humored me and we were able to stay for a long time watching them. They eventually brought Eva out too (the oldest of the hippos—and the biggest even though she was just put on a diet and lost 2,000 pounds!) and I was able to get pictures of the two of them.

We left the hippos and I was satisfied. I didn’t get pictures of Kiboko but that was ok, I had four out of the five which was great considering we didn’t even know about them before.

The rest of the tour was pretty cool—we went all around and visited all sorts of animals, listening to Fred and Christina’s extremely enthusiastic descriptions of them all. Feeding the black rhinoceros was the highlight for me since it is SO funny to watch them eat. They have his bizarre nose bit that is just truly weird to watch. We fed the giraffes and rode around on a safari truck, then went to the animal hospital where the babies are raised. The tour ended and I headed out of Busch Gardens back to the car, happy with the day.

I drove back to Orlando, found my hotel and checked in. I then went back to the airport and picked up Lyda, my twelve year old little sister from my dad’s second marriage. Since she was traveling as an unaccompanied minor, I was able to go into the terminal area with a special gate pass. It was odd walking through the airport with absolutely no one in it, and without carrying any luggage! I waited at the gate as she came out. We headed to the grandma mobile and loaded her stuff into the car, then drove back to the hotel. Lyda was unable to hold back her excitement as we planned the three days of Disney that were ahead. As we settled down into our beds, I couldn’t help but think, what had I gotten myself into? I mean, I could handle anything—time zones, language barriers, 5,000 pound animals—but I knew that I was definitely in for it now.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Birmingham, Alabama—Orlando, Florida—Tampa, Florida—Day 305

Today I drove to the Birmingham airport and then flew to Orlando via Charlotte, North Carolina. As I prepared myself for the land of Mickey Mouse, I sat in the Charlotte airport waiting for my plane to board, noticing just how many small children were around. Boarding the plane, I had to squeeze past tiny tots and their parents, making my way to my aisle seat. The plane didn’t seem to be full at first, but slowly filled up. People seemed to be just sitting wherever—several people just chose seats to sit in without them being their real seats. This would normally have been a problem—finding other people in your seats—but no one seemed to mind, their eye glazed over with the thoughts of Space Mountain and Donald Duck.

We landed in Orlando and I went straight to the baggage claim before getting my rental car. It was complete and utter chaos—people and children everywhere. I’ve never seen such a disorganized sight—people were clamoring over each other, trying to get to this black bag and that black bag. Everyone was claiming that this and that bag, only to have someone else say no wait, that’s mine. I watched an elderly man do this several times—take a suitcase off of the conveyor belt only to have a couple come over and argue with him about it being their bag. By the ribbons attached, you would think it would be easy for them to realize it. Turned out to be the couple’s bag, which the man finally succeeded. I think he was just tired of waiting!

Luckily my bag is not just black and I was able to spot it once it finally came into view. Worried that someone would take it, I eyed my bag on its route and dashed forward once it got close enough. I left, passing a woman talking on her cell phone. She was picking up her friend’s bag for him while he was getting the car (oh the joys of listening in on stranger’s conversations!) and he was trying to describe it to her. “Black?” she said, “JUST black??”

She’s going to be here all day!

I left, rented my car (which turned out to be an oh so stylish grandma type red impala) and headed to Tampa. Since I was unable to photograph the hippos in Orlando (damnit) I had located some at the Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay. Tampa is about an hour from Orlando—straight East—so I headed towards the other coast of Florida, feeling appreciative of the heat and humidity.

In my discovery of the hippos in Busch Gardens (which is sponsored by Budweiser beer, btw, and if you don’t know has an amusement park area and an animal part), I also discovered that they offered a variety of tours in the gardens. You could hire your own private tour guide for the park—allowing you to get on all of the biggest and best rides first. This cost some hundreds of dollars. I searched and found special tours for the animals. I could go on a tour called the “Serengeti Safari” which would be a half-hour tour of the animals for thirty dollars. I called to sign myself up but had to leave a message. When they finally called me back at the hotel, I found out that the Serengeti Safari did NOT cover the hippo area (as I assumed) but that I could pay for the adventure tour that was a private 2-hour tour of the animals (behind the scenes) that would definitely include the hippos. Great! Sign me up!

So $100 later, I had my tour booked and was actually looking forward to it. My tour wasn’t until 1:30 tomorrow, so I had all day to get to Tampa, find a hotel and kill time before tomorrow morning where I would head straight to Busch Gardens, try to catch the hippos in action before my tour, then hopefully get pictures on my tour.

I did just that—I made it to Tampa and found Busch Gardens and a great hotel right nearby. I checked in and amused myself on the computer before heading out to find dinner at Panera Bread Company. I brought my dinner back to the hotel and after watching some really, really bad TV (Nick and Jessica’s Christmas Special---sooooo awful), I went to bed.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Birmingham, Alabama—Days 303/304

Well shoot. Being here in Birmingham makes me wanna talk like this. Seriously. It’s a struggle to not want to just pick up the y’alls just to blend right in.

Monday morning I went to the zoo bright and early—in fact, I arrived fifteen minutes before the zoo even opened. So I sat in my silver Pontiac and waited for the gates to open at 9am. Thank god for renting a car yesterday. I would have stood out in the cold if I had been dropped off by a taxi.

The zoo gates finally opened and I continued my tradition of being the first one at the zoo. I paid my admission and went in before even some of the staff walked in behind me. I had a map and figured out where the hippos were and set off.

Finding the hippos wasn’t hard—there were two of them in an inside enclosure. Problem was that the lighting was awful (not to mention the indoor pool that they were in) so I was eager to get photos of them outside where they had a nice big enclosure with a pool, albeit an empty pool.

So I watched them for a bit and decided not to ask the keepers working with the elephants next door about the hippos. I could wait until some sort of non-busy looking person walked by. Eventually, one did and it turned out that he was the hippo keeper! I asked him what their names were (Mama Petite and Tadpole—Tadpole being the male of course) and he enthusiastically told me that they would be fed outside after he did some work with the wolves. So I thanked him and set off to kill forty five minutes or so. I walked around the zoo, snapping photos of the flamingos and various other birds before ending up at the gift shop where I loaded up on zoo paraphernalia. After a substantial time had passed, I headed back to the hippo enclosure and sat on the bench outside, near the hippos’ outdoor area. I waited and waited, and could hear a bit of hippo commotion going on inside. So I went to look and it seemed like Tadpole and Mama Petite were getting anxious about being let outside.

I went back outside and sat down, as different groups of mothers and their children came and went, mostly in search of the elephants. I waited and soon the keeper came out of the door leading to the outdoor enclosure. A few more minutes! He yelled to me. I smiled and waved.

Then he and another girl whom I assumed was a trainee began laying out all of the hippos' food—hay, carrots, big fat brown pellets and lettuce—making four nice little piles of the goods. I doubled checked with the man about Mama Petite’s name (whether or not it was all one word or two separate words) and soon they were done with distributing the food. The keeper than gave Tadpole and Mama Petite their medicine which he did by dumping it into their mouths which were accessible through a small opening in the door between the indoor and outdoor enclosures. The door had been opened just so that they could stick their noses and mouths out but not their whole bodies. Once this was done, the keeper and the trainee went inside and the door opened automatically, letting Tadpole and Mama Petite into their outdoor enclosure.

Boy did they move slowly! It seemed a pained effort for the two to waddle themselves over to their food. Perhaps they were both just stiff—but the sure did take their time. Munch munch munch. I snapped away as they ate up their food. It was almost perfect—the two of them would rotate who was munching on the two piles nearest me (a.k.a. the best photographic shot) and would sometimes end up munching side by side. Click click click. I say “almost” perfect here because there was this annoying fence that was going across their enclosure which was just so that it got in my way. I had to lean over the fence in front of me and put my camera almost to my knee level to shoot through the fence to get a good picture. Sometimes the hippos would stop and look at me with that, what the hell are YOU doing look.

Yes, hippos can make that face. I swear.

I was at the zoo for a good two hours which meant that a lot of keepers would come and go by me, several of them commenting about me coming at the right time to the zoo “cause they sure don’t get out much those hippos” and things like that. Perhaps they were mocking me—I didn’t care. I didn’t think that they were, they were just probably thinking that I was completely nutsy. That’s ok, I’m used to it.

Photographing the hippos in the USA (so far) has been a complete breeze to what I have encountered in the world. I mean, how great is it to just GO UP to the keeper and ask them what the names of their hippos are? There is no gesturing needed, no translation involved, just the pure, simple question. Unfortunately though, what it lacks is the excitement, the stress, the satisfaction that has comprised the past 10 months of my life. Its just point, shoot, and you’re done.

I headed out of the zoo after the hippos were fully done with their breakfast and the two were standing waiting to go back in their indoor enclosure. When Tadpole took the opportunity to spread the love (ahem) all over the door to the enclosure, I figured my time was up. I headed out of the zoo and stopped to take a few pictures of the entrance before getting into my car.

“Get some good shots?” I turned around and saw three keepers walking towards the entrance. I smiled and shook my head, muttering to myself about how it is was my job to take pictures at the zoo thank you very much. They just laughed and I realized that talking to oneself doesn’t really make you seem less nusty. Oh well.

I spent the afternoon trying to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (a.k.a. Museum) but found it to be closed. Actually, I was told it was close by this great homeless guy who not only told me it was closed but proceeded to take me on a tour of the park across the street—the famous Kelly Ingram Park. As he showed me around, reciting the history of the area and the struggles that he and his classmates, family and friends went through in the 1960s, I had to admit I was captivated by it all. When my “tour” was done, I handed him what money I had in my wallet and thanked him for his insight. He told me that giving these tours was just his way of making a little bit of money.

Since the museum was closed, I had an entirely free afternoon ahead of me. This was spent driving around the outskirts of Birmingham and stopping at a local mall just to kill time. IT was killing me, this killing time. I was bored. Bored! Can you believe it! Its been 10 months since I had ever even felt the slightest twinge of being bored and now it was hitting me full force.

Time eventually passed and I made it back to the hotel with the only thing on my agenda for tomorrow being going back to the museum. I did just that—after waking up this morning (Tuesday) I spent a while figuring out the hippo situation in Florida (where I will head tomorrow for five days) and visited the museum in the early afternoon. The museum was truly amazing and I left the museum a few hours later feeling troubled and fulfilled at the same time. Birmingham was the most segregated city in the nation and this is where it all happened—the American civil rights movement. As I walked to my car I noticed my homeless friend from yesterday, standing there with his cane and hat on just as before, waiting as a group of people walked up towards him. He approached them and started talking, then started walking him over to the first sculpture in the park.

I smiled and got into my car, driving away back into the suburbs, the middle of nowhere.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Web link--Birmingham Zoo

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Columbia, South Carolina—Birmingham, Alabama—Day 302

After dropping off the rental car and checking in for my flight to Birmingham (via Charlotte, North Carolina) I sat in the Columbia airport terminal slumped in my seat, barely being able to keep my eyes open.

I was exhausted. It wasn’t even that early and I was just ready to go back to sleep.

I wasn’t able to sleep on the flight over to Charlotte, nor in the airport waiting for my slightly delayed departure to Birmingham. I arrived into Birmingham and was hardly in the mood to deal with anything except taking a nap in my hotel room.

That’s when I decided to take a taxi to the hotel, rather than just renting a car. This was to be my big mistake of the day.

After getting my luggage, I hailed a taxi and climbed in. My taxi driver, a middle-aged man of Indian origin, asked me if he should take me to the hotel going via stoplights or on the freeway. I told him whatever was fastest—I guess the freeway.

He agreed.

Perhaps was this way of getting me to agree to the longer route. It seemed to take ages to get to the hotel and I noticed a bit of double backing as we turned from one freeway to the next.

The hotel seemed to be in the middle of nowhere!

I was so tired and irritated that I thrust my money at him as I climbed out of the taxi, leaving a mediocre tip. I took my bags and ignored the driver’s insistence that I call him whenever I needed a taxi. I went inside the hotel where I was greeted with warmth and reassurance and was even shown to the elevator (as if I could have gotten lost or something).

I was tired. I was cranky. I needed a nap.

I got into my room and shut the curtains and climbed into bed.

I woke up an hour and a half later, feeling slightly more rested and slightly out of it. You know, that woah, I just took a nap in the middle of the afternoon feeling. I got up, took a shower (much needed after two days of avoiding getting clean) and headed downstairs to seek the “rental car” desk that the hotel boasted. When I found that there was none, I was told that I could call one and they could bring a car to the hotel for me.

So I went back to my room, found the numbers to call and then found the car rental places to be closed. I checked on the internet and discovered that the car rental places that were open were at the airport.


So I tired to get a cheaper shuttle to the airport (the hotel doesn’t provide one despite the exorbitant cost to stay here) and I was reluctant to call a cab but had no other option if I wanted to do anything while I was here. I dialed downstairs and asked them to call me a cab. Shortly thereafter I headed downstairs to wait.

As I stood outside a big basketball-type looking guy came out and asked me if I had called a cab. I told him yes, and he proceeded to tell me that he needed to go to the mall. He was about my age (actually a bit younger since it turned out that he was on his college basketball team) and was in town because his such-and-such team had a game against the University of Alabama’s team.

Pretty soon my “cab” pulled up---turned out to be a bright red Lincoln continental. That’s your cab? The basketball guy asked. I smiled and shrugged.

The cabbie was a big black man in his mid fifties. I opened the door to sit in the back and my new basketball friend asked the cab driver if he could take him to the mall. I said it was no problem and the guy jumped in the front seat after the driver moved all of his stuff off of it.

We headed to the mall—wherever it was, surely it was not on the way to the airport—and I became very much amused by my two driving companions. The basketball player guy introduced himself to me (his name I didn’t really catch) and asked me if I had any lotion. When I told him no, the cab driver told him that he might have some in the glove compartment.

So basketball guy looks in the glove compartment (by the amount of junk in the car I would assume that he had to dig to find anything) and I listened to him and the cabbie debate as to whether or not the cocoa butter that he scrounged up in the compartment was lotion or not. Basketball guy kept looking and finally produced some lotion and proceeded to slather it all over his hands.

Then the cab driver put on rap music. Quiet at first, then slowly increasing the volume until my butt was vibrating from the booming of the bass behind me. Both of the guys did that head bopping guy dance thing (you know, that thing) and were clearly enjoying the music. Basketball guy even knew the words, most of which I cannot repeat on here due to profanity. Mostly because I can’t remember them.

We cruised along and pulled up to some stoplights and I thought, how funny this must look to other people. Two big black guys cruising in their continental jamming to the music and, what’s that awkward white girl doing in the back seat?

We cruised along as the two conversed about the music and the taxi driver whipped out several mix cds that he just so happened to have in his car. The basketball guy flipped through them and ended up buying one for “five dallas” from the cabbie. Nice.

We pulled up to the mall, basketball guy got out (saying goodbye to me) and we pulled out of the parking lot. The cabbie turned down the music—in fact, turned it on to STING—and we headed out of the mall towards the airport. Shoot, he says, you know, I just hadda show that guy where its at, you know? He says to me.

I knew. I knew that if basketball guy hadn’t come in the car that I would have not been shown his music. That I would have been driven to the airport in basic silence (or polite conversation) and would have listened to Sting—or perhaps Michael Bolton—the whole way. I knew that once the driver dropped me off he would put his rap back on and cruise back to the hotel, where he would switch back to Yanni and then some. I knew this, and for these reasons, it made me sad.

After a mini tour of downtown Birmingham (driving past it on the way to the airport) the cabbie dropped me off and as I headed into the airport (again) the cabbie shouted, good luck gettin’ back! Shoot—yo’ hotel is in the middle of nowhere, girl!
He was right. Luckily I did make it back just fine and spent the rest of the afternoon idling around the hotel and the various shopping plazas nearby, which I was able to explore now that I had a car. Tomorrow I will go to the zoo bright and early to get my pictures. Until then.