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.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Photo--Me...signing off.

Fresno, California—Phoenix, Arizona—Los Angeles, California—San Diego, California—Days 345/346/347

I flew from Fresno to San Diego via Phoenix which was funny because Phoenix is not really on the way. I was glad to be leaving Fresno in search of something a little warmer and more beachy.

After a short layover in Phoenix where I had to de-plane the same plane that took me from Fresno and would take me to San Diego. I arrived into San Diego, rented my car and went straight to the zoo.

I got to the zoo by three o’clock after all of this and the weather was still foggy and misty. I had been to the San Diego zoo before and remembered it being quite a ways from the city. However it is not so my senses must have been way off last time. Anyways, I made it to the zoo and bought my ticket and was warned by the ticket man that the zoo would be closing its gates at 4pm and the grounds at 5pm.

So I rushed off to find the hippos and after quite a bit of searching and dodging construction, I found the 150,000 gallon hippo pool.

There was one hippo in the pool—I would later find out that there were three hippos at the zoo (not five like I had originally found out!—and to my utter joy there was a sign telling us the name and age of the hippo in the water!! Today it was Jabba, the male born in 1983.

What wasn’t so convenient was taking pictures of the hippo as he swam around. I had to go back and forth from one crammed viewing area to the next. When I mean crammed, I mean that there was only one good spot to stand at each of them to get a semi-good photo of him. Plus he was swimming back and forth like there was no tomorrow so I had to rush from one end of the pool all the way around a bend and to an upper level to get a second view. It was madness!

Plus I had to dodge around all of the people that were also looking at the hippo and thinking that they too needed to get a good picture of him. It was the first time too that I had seen foreigners at a zoo—Australians, Japanese, New Zealanders—everyone seemed to NOT be from the USA which was a first at a US zoo.

I spent the rest of the afternoon (the two hours that I had) doing my best to shove people out of the way and to stop Jabba from swimming around (this included waving and calling his name much to the amusement of people around me).

Soon it became dark and I decided to head out of the zoo. I hopped in the car and drove three hours north to Los Angeles. It shouldn’t take this long, however I was stuck in traffic at rush hour AND in the California storm of the century. But I finally made it with enough time to meet up with my brother who lives there and two of my friends Anna and Brian from Macalester who also live there. It was great.

The next morning after having breakfast with Anna and dropping Simon and Brian off at their different work places, I headed back to San Diego. The sun was out and the rain had cleared. It was a truly perfect day to be at the zoo. I made it back to the zoo early in the afternoon only to find Funani (the female hippo) and her baby Jazi swimming in the water.

It was so cute! But unfortunately everyone around me also thought it was pretty darn cute. This meant that they would all move en masse when the hippos did and I had to fight through them to get a good picture. I eventually booted people out of my way when the pair settled down for a bit. The crowds came and left and at the one point when I was finally, FINALLY alone, Jazi and Funani settled into the cutest, most perfect pose ever.

Jazi was mashed up against the underwater window with her nose pressed sideways against the glass (a profile shot if you will) with Funani lying next to her. Both had their heads propped on a rock. I was a great picture and I snapped furiously and feeling pretty darn good that the crowd had disappeared just in the moment of true hippo glory.

People eventually came back and caught on and again I was left with the crowd blocking my perfectly good view.

Never mind, I had some great shots of the pair. I left the zoo and spent the rest of the afternoon driving around San Diego, finding at hotel in the Old Town area. I stopped there and wandered around after checking in, eating at a great Latin American restaurant for dinner.

Because the hotel was full tonight, this morning I had to check out and go in search of another hotel online. I packed up my bags and after breakfast, got my stuff back into my rental car (a white Chevy Impala which is like, huge and boat-like) and I headed back to the zoo.

My last day at the zoo.

Oh, it was so sad. I went back to the hippo enclosure on this bright, sunny day and found Jabba again but this time he was on land. So I spent the morning photographing his various moves and stances until he eventually slumped down for a nice looooooong nap.

Because I didn’t want to leave, I got out my book and read for a bit next to the enclosure. Then I decided that I was being ridiculous and pathetic and gathered up my things. I found a zoo store near the hippo enclosure which sold all things hippo (amazing discovery!) and so after buying up practically the entire store, I went back one last time to say goodbye to Jabba.

To say goodbye to the hippos.

I eventually did leave the zoo—grudgingly of course. I even got my hand-stamped just so that I had the option of returning even though I knew I wouldn’t. Pathetic? You bet. I left through the big gates feeling a sense that almost felt like a loss, and I guess it was. I mean, you spend your whole life doing one thing and then one day its over. The end of an era. Its hard not to feel sad about it.

But I have so much to be happy and grateful for of course and I am leaving this experience with a whole new outlook on life.

That, and just about a bazillion photos of hippos.

Photo--Me with Jazi (in foreground) and Funani (in background), San Diego Zoo

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Article--The Odd Couple...

Article--The little red hippo...

Web link--More about the San Diego Zoo hippos

Web link--San Diego Zoo hippos!

Web link--San Diego Zoo!

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Salt Lake City, Utah—Fresno, California—Days 342/343/344

Well, when my friends heard that I was going to Fresno, those who were California natives said “ewwww---have fun.”

I didn’t know quite what they meant until I landed and found that there is a whole lot of nothing in the Fresno area. I got my rental car and immediately drove to the zoo. I had a map and found it with no problem and pulled into the Chaffee Zoological Gardens parking lot just before a big gust of wind blew a tree over near by.

This was not good.

The weather has been awful while I have been here and Fresno has had its fair share of wind and rain. I headed into the zoo and found it to be seemingly closed (it was just turning 10am when I arrived which is the time it opens in the winter) and there was a sing on the door saying that entrance to the zoo today was “free due to inclement weather.”

So, I wandered in.

Problem was that there were no maps in the zoo and no one around to help me. This left me to a lot of wandering and guessing as to where I thought the hippo would be. Yes, just a lone hippo. According to my notes, I should find only one.

And after a while, I did. I had to ask a keeper who l eventually found cleaning up some debris. He redirected me past the tigers and it was at the end of a short walk that I found the hippo in the water. He had a small enclosure and a big blue ball in the pool with him. He was lying in the water with his head sticking out in a




I took some photos and was happy to see the “hippo feeding 1:30pm” sign by his enclosure. Alright! I decided to just come back at 1:30 to talk to the keeper one on one.

So after taking pictures of the enclosure and the outside of the zoo, I left and headed to downtown Fresno where I found, well, not much.

Fresno’s downtown area is truly out of 1965. I walked around a bit trying to find a place to eat breakfast but only found a homeless guy preaching about how “religion started in Fresno!!!” and that “Jesus is walking the streets right now!!!” I turned, looked, and couldn’t find him.

I finally found a cafĂ© that served breakfast stuff and sat around it for a few hours trying to kill time before going back to the zoo. When 1 o’clock finally rolled around I went back to the zoo and waited in my car until 1:25 to avoid the downpour of rain.

I got to the zoo entrance and found it locked shut. Oh no! I guess due to the weather they decided to hut the entire place down.

Luckily I have two more days to spare to come back to the zoo.

So I headed off in the northern direction, namely to Yosemite. Its about two hours from Fresno so I drove off thinking excitedly about the beautiful views I might see ahead. My adventure began as I passed several signs warning me that I needed snow chains, which I ignored of course (hey, I’ve driven in Minnesota! Who needs chains?!?!) but ended when I finally got up to the top of the mountain where you had to pay to get into the park—and where snow chains were obviously needed. Opting not to get tuck on a mountain overnight, I headed back down and called my friend Dave who lives in San Francisco. We decided to meet up in Santa Cruz the next morning (along with his girlfriend Julie who is also from Macalester) so I drove around the countryside until finding a hotel to stay in overnight (after of course taking several wrong turns and getting on highway 5 where every exit is like 17 miles from each other! I went almost 40 miles in the wrong direction…)

The next morning we had a little reunion at breakfast in downtown Santa Cruz and despite the rain and wind, Dave and Julie took me on a tour of the surfing museum in Santa Crux and of the university there. We then parted ways and I spent the rest of the afternoon driving around Monterrey and to Salinas. Then I headed back to Fresno, staying the night in a slightly sketchy hotel off of the freeway before driving the rest of the way back to Fresno this morning.

I then made it back to the zoo at 10am and found no hippo in his enclosure but instead the keeper who was cleaning it. However the keeper told me that the hippo, named Buldgy, would make an appearance at 1:30pm for the feeding time.

So I left the zoo (again) and made a plan to come back again at 1:30 (again) and hopefully this time the zoo won’t be closed. I bided my time at a local mall (blah) and got back to the zoo just in time for the feeding.

Luckily it was open and the sun was trying to peek through the clouds which was nice (its been raining ALL weekend!). I was of course the only person however at the hippo enclosure and the keeper almost forgot about the feeding time. But luckily she didn’t and eventually emerged carrying a big bag of hippo treats—carrots, gourds, even bell peppers! She told me ALL about hippos (I nodded with enthusiasm as if I didn’t know anything about hippos of course) and I found out that Buldgy was 53! I snapped away as Buldgy got out of the water and came over to be hand fed by the keeper.

I, of course, was loving it and got some great pictures. I thanked the keeper when it was all over (she left Buldgy and I for some goats—GOATS!) and I left Buldgy and headed back out to take on the ever exciting city of Fresno. Whoooopeee.

Well, the time has come. Ok, its not quite here but sadly, tomorrow I head to San Diego.

My last, and final, zoo on my hippo adventure.

Right now I don’t want to talk about, don’t want to THINK about it all being over, so I won’t go into it now. But I definitely know that tomorrow when I am at the San Diego zoo, tears could definitely be shed.

Until then.

Web link--Chaffee Zoological Gardens, Fresno California