Most days you can find me bashing my head against a wall, having a quiet word with an animal as I weep uncontrollably or collapsed on a bench with an array of bemused looking zoo keepers staring at me. It’s a tough gig. It’s frustrating on so many levels and even the highs from successes are often short lived and overlaid by yet more frustrations. From the naivety of my first month working at Hanoi zoo to the second month full of unexpected challenges, we have have landed at my last few weeks. This is the time when the most changes can be made. I’m trusted, I understand routines, I know what is likely to succeed and what is not therefore I cannot afford to waste any time.
This results in a lot of running.
Running around that zoo in intense humidity and high temperatures ensures I make the most of the limited time opportunities, but it is incredibly exhausting. I walk home with a determined stride, listing everything that needs to be done that evening and mentally making preparations for the next morning, only to collapse in a heap unable to string two words together. I once nearly even fell asleep in a plate of spaghetti – my face was literally mere inches from a bolognese face plant.
And yet I have grown to love it.
I love the changes we are making, the successes we are celebrating, the keepers who now feel like family and a city that no longer scares me in the way it used to do. I am still not a fan of Asia but Hanoi is weaving a very complicated and tangled web of magic over me and I am slowly being overcome, gradually submitting, grudgingly. And from what many of my expat friends have told me, this is a common occurrence. They have arrived wanting to leave but the more they stay the more they see and slowly they succumb just like I did.
When I first arrived in Hanoi I fought it. I fought everything about it. I wanted familiarity which I was not going to find no matter how hard I looked. But the more I have looked through curiosity rather than fear, the more I have found to revel in.
But however much I myself may have changed, the changes within that zoo are what I am ultimately proud of. From simple enrichment devices that work to keepers who are now more knowledgable and passionate about their charges to push forward more changes on their own.
This zoo is still a complete world away from everything I knew before but it is gradually changing its ways to explore what it could be. In the same way I have let Hanoi change me, the zoo has let me change it. There is more furniture for the animals, better keeper routines, more opportunity and provision of enrichment, more training, more understanding, more joy in general. The keepers and I laugh together, train together, build together and watch in amusement as our animals investigate all our hard work. And to have been a part of that change is a phenomenal feeling.
It has been difficult, I have wanted to quit countless times, it has caused several panic attacks, a questionable diet, a world of worry, plenty of sacrifice and an even heavier reliance on sarcasm than normal but it has also made me smile. I have run around that zoo unable to wipe the grin off my face after witnessing an animal happily interacting with a new toy or benefitting from a new routine. I have grown genuinely fond of some of the keepers and realise how much I will miss them when I leave.
Initially I believe I may have shocked them with the way in which I would shift logs, prepare diets, muck in, get dirty, and generally be a keeper. I am very much a lead by example type of person and once they got over the shock of a skinny sweaty girl with no discernible muscle and a penchant for hideously bright trousers mucking in alongside them they realised that I wanted to work WITH them instead of be in charge of them. Change comes from within. And that can easily transcend any language barrier there might be.
Situations with some of the animals also allowed opportunities to trial new things which both the keepers and I were slightly unsure of. And yet we all watched and marvelled together as they exceeded expectations. I have watched the faces of these keepers in relief, in joy, in worry, in laughter, in effort and, yes, in sleep as well. But now that I know who they are and what they are about I find myself viewing the end of this experience with mixed emotions.
Yes I am counting down the days until I can get a decent sleep or maybe even the hint of a lie in. The thought of NOT profusely sweating until after 10am and not resorting to google translate for every day conversations is also wonderfully appealing. And, of course, I am counting down every minute until I can be with Peter again. But being so aware of how close the end of this Vietnamese adventure is makes me realise what I will miss too.
The very loud “XINH CHAO” from one particular keeper, the high 5 from another after a successful day, the smiles from these people when they see how happy their efforts have made me, the random group dances we partake in when building something. And yes those animals too. I will miss those animals painfully like I have missed others that I have had to part with before. A shy female Sun Bear who decided to trust me, a Horse that has shown her keeper what he is capable of, a group of Moon Bears which have challenged me and rewarded me in equal measure. An Elephant full of curiosity and a Macaque that forced me to remember. Goats that have made me cry, Kudu that have shown me more of what I did not know, Gibbons that sing every morning and even a Parrot that speaks fluent french.
The animals made it all worth it, as every animal on this trip so far has done. Animals around the world will always guide Peter and I in our onward destinations and despite the fear, the frustration, the panic, the pain and the sheer amount of raw determination needed, I am actually very grateful that I was lead here. It may not be paradise but it is certainly a place to discover what you’re capable of. And that in itself can constitute a little piece of heaven.
Dedicated to the army of zoo keepers across the world that have helped inspire change. You will never understand how much you are owed.