Thursday, January 13, 2005

And in the end...

Trying to tell someone that you get paid to travel the world photographing hippos in zoos for a living is like trying to explain why you like to wear your underwear on the outside of your clothing. Its just not a normal thing to say.

When I first accepted this job, my mother thought I was nuts. She told me that I was jeopardizing my future by taking it and who on earth was this man who was going to pay me to do it? My brother agreed and after several long phone conversations I was able to convince him that yes, my boss was a normal person and yes, it really was going to happen. When I called my dad to tell him he just laughed in disbelief. I’ll believe it when I see it he said.

I packed up my belongings and shipped them home to my mother’s garage for storage, it was hard to believe what I was about to undergo. I was living and working in Minneapolis at the time and like any recent college grad I was desperately trying to earn money just so that I could travel some day, any day. I wanted to get away from the snow and the cold, whisk myself and my debts away to some place warmer. Some place where sarongs and sombreros are completely acceptable attire. And then this fell right into my lap. After accepting my job, I laid out my world map on the floor of my apartment and mapped out each destination. When my roommates came home I proudly showed them where I was headed. They could only shake their heads. An all-expenses paid year taking photos of hippos in zoos. Who DOES that?

My hippo trek would last just under one full year and would take me from all corners of the earth—thirty-three countries in all to be exact. As I bounced from one country to the next, spending my life in hotel after hotel, zoo after zoo, I met scores of fascinating people—backpackers and business men, elderly couples and taxi drivers, hotel staff and school children—all of with whom I had the pleasure of sharing just a brief snippet of life. Every four days it was a new country, a new city, a new zoo—a most importantly, new hippos. I would wake up each morning feeling bewildered as I tried to remember just what city I was in and at the same time pinching myself to remind myself that this was real. This was my job.

From zoo to zoo I took on the role of the “crazy American girl” whose bizarre behavior and strange questions prodded even the most enthusiastic of zoo keepers. I finagled, pestered, pleaded and haggled left and right, questioning not only the names of the hippos but furthermore needing someone to point out just which hippo was which—which at some zoos was clearly too much to ask.

At home I quickly lost all identification of who I was before this adventure began and I became known solely as “the hippo girl.” I wasn’t referred to as “Sarah” or any other nicknames that I have previously held but rather was referred to as anything relating to hippos (and in some cases rhinoceroses for all those who for some reason kept getting the two confused). To every hippo lover out there (yes, there are plenty) I became the hippo spokeswoman extraordinaire. I even became the hot topic of my friend Barb’s grandmother’s weekly bingo club. Now that was something.

This blog was originally written for my friends and family, as well as those that make up the hippo collector’s world, to keep track of me while I was away. My hope is that after reading about my crazy year, you can all gain a small appreciation for not just hippos and zoo animals, but for those moments in life that are just crazy.

When I first started, I have to admit that I had no particular interest to these lumbering, pigment-sweating beasts. However, it only took but a short time for me to warm up to their hippo ways. I mean, who could resist these magnificent creatures that rank as the “most dangerous animals in Africa” while remaining faithful to their vegetarian diet? Who could resist the only animals that have perfected the art of being both extraordinarily graceful in the water yet supremely unwieldy on land? I certainly could not resist these four legged fiends who grunted and lunged at me, stared aimlessly, and took it upon themselves to shat in my general direction—on more than one occasion. I could not resist these beasts who pressed their noses to the glass as I pressed mine, whose uniqueness shone as they patiently posed and stood beautifully for each and every picture.

I will say, however, that I am not, I repeat NOT fanatically obsessed with hippos now that my trip is over. I am not en route to becoming a full on hippo collector—never will you see MY house decked in hippos from floor to ceiling or me driving a hippo themed car or me toting around my hippo stuffed animals wherever I go. There are plenty of people out there who fulfill that role quite happily.

You will see me, however, at the zoos visiting with the animals that changed have my life entirely. Yes, when you visit your zoo—if they have hippos, of course—you might find me wearing my “I HEART HIPPOS” pin on my bag, proudly taking photos and checking up on my new found friends. But don’t worry, I won’t be asking silly questions like their names anymore.

I already know them.