Into the Wild

Tuesday, 3rd September 2013, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.

I jump off the taxi and hug my traveling companions. My sunglasses hide the tears rolling down my cheeks. After a memorable journey traveling and wandering around Queensland, I am on my way to explore the far-flung lands of Australia. Alone.

On the bus that departs from Townsville, I realise that my personal quest starts now. The challenge, the adventure, the real one.

I get off at the bus stop in Cardwell, a small coastal town located 2 hours from Townsville in Far North Queensland. It pretty much comes to one long street, a few shops, and a petrol station. I breathe the heartland of Australia and a very provincial area.

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I am standing in front of the Deli Café, the place where I have been asked to wait to be picked up. It certainly that does not go unnoticed with its huge red crab on top of the roof. The perfect spot for a meeting point.

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I hear a woman hailing me. It’s Chris, the mother of the family with whom I am going to spend a few weeks. I will be helping her with the daily tasks at the farm she owns with her husband Wes.

After quitting my job and leaving everything behind me to move to Australia, I have decided to spend my year traveling and volunteering. It’s as if all those years working in the bowels of a money maker pushed me to run away from it. I am seeking authenticity, wildlife, wilderness, breathtaking landscapes, new lifestyles and cultures but I want to associate something useful with it. Volunteering has appeared the best compromise to me.

Chris warmly welcomes me. She carries my big backpack and puts it in the boot. I open the door of the truck, an old Land Rover over-used by the years. A dog jumps on me and licks my face. I make my way through and sit in the middle of petrol cans, dusty objects, and rusty tools.

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Chris starts the engine. We’re sinking into the Australian bush. Deserted dirt roads, mountains, endless pastures, trees and grass burnt by the sun are all around. After a 10 minute drive, she stops the pickup. We have arrived at the farm.

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I get off the car and look at my surroundings: a vast ground with green trees and a wooden shack covered by a tarpaulin. No walls, everything is open. I spot a “living room” and a “kitchen” under a roof built in sheet metal. A bit farther away, a “shower” and the “toilets” are made of wood and scrap iron.

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I can see two old shaky caravans and some abandoned treasures: an old Mercedes, a broken Jaguar, a van, some carcasses of boats all over the place. There’s also a barn filled with a nameless mess. I can sense a place where all sort of objects, useful and useless, have been stocked for many years.

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I catch glimpse of two horses walking around freely, some dogs and cows. I am not surprised to see some spiders and a few dead snakes. I see in that place everything hostile that the Australian fauna and flora has to offer.

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No electricity, or running water. Life here relies on a generator that needs to be filled with petrol every day. Someone has to start it every morning and stop it every night. To get some hot water, we need to turn on the fire in the wood burner of the kitchen.

Chris tells me that a violent hurricane ravaged the town of Cardwell two years ago. The farm has been entirely destroyed.

Everything that I am seeing could have made me run away. But somehow, it’s making me want to stay even more. The change is extreme and without any transition, but this is what I wanted. These people need my help and the lifestyle is far beyond anything that I have experienced in my life.

I can feel that I am about to live in this place the most memorable and crazy adventures.

******

7 am, 15th of October 2013, Cardwell, Queensland, Australia.

The deafening sound of the generator pulls me out of my sleep. I had an awful night. The gusts of wind haven’t stopped shaking the old caravan. I thought everything was going to collapse.

I get up to have breakfast. The boys are already awake. Since the destruction of the farm, Chris and Wes have been taking a few backpackers to help them in the daily tasks at the farm. I end up with two French boys, Aurélien and Franck, to share my adventures with. Rosie, the old mare, is already waiting for her piece of toast.

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It’s now time to work. I sit at the back of the old pickup. Jo, the dog of the farm loves coming with us. As usual, he jumps on the passenger seat. Aurélien starts the engine and after a 10 minutes drive on a stony dirt road we stop in the middle of nowhere.

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This morning we are going to do some fencing which consists in fixing the fences to prevent the cows from escaping from their pen. We have to remove the damaged poles, replace them with new ones, stretch the lines of barbed wire and fix them. The very physical and hard work has left a few scratches on my arms and legs.

After a couple of hours, we are back on the farm for a quick break. Then Wes takes us in the bush to cut and pick up big tree trunks. It’s boiling hot and the place is infested with snakes. I stomp my feet every 5 minutes to scare them away. The heat is unbearable, I can feel my whole body melting. I wanted to know what it was like to work hard under the blazing sun, I know for sure by the sweat of my brow!

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It’s finally lunchtime and we’re heading back to the farm. Chris has made some tasty sandwiches and salads that disappear in a flash. We promised Wes to sand the floor of the “living room”. It’s 50 degrees in the sun and the heat is intense but a promise is a promise. With courage and good humor, equipped with pickaxes, rakes, and buckets, we joyfully start the work.

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At 4 pm, we stop our duty. Time has come to relax and rest. As usual Aurélien, Franck and I go down the river. There’s not much going on near the farm and the river has rapidly become our main playground.

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I find interesting the fact that without nothing to do around, there’s actually more space for creativity. We have come up with the idea of building a makeshift raft with two wooden pallets and two inner tubes from a truck. Let’s see if the floating system is on point! Jo, our loyal companion, is always the first one to dive into the fresh and crystalline water of the river.

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Our beautiful raft with the tricolor flag, whose approximate floating system has led us straight to sinking and hysterical laughter!

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After a happy return to childhood acting like kids, it’s time to get back to the farm to…

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…fill the generator with petrol so we can get some electricity.

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…turn on the fire in the wood burner to have hot water.

…and eat a generous dinner! Chris has cooked and the smell tickles my nostrils. It’s a gravy dish with meatballs, mushrooms, onions, mashed potatoes, some cheese and some bread. Not the healthiest but definitely very tasty and well-deserved.

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After dinner comes animated conversations, laughter, and endless card games listening to the sweet sounds of nature.

9 pm, lights out. Time to turn off the generator. Silence takes place, finally. A dark night envelops the farm whose presence can be only guessed under the light of the starry sky.

Life at the farm is far from being easy. The work is hard and the living conditions are difficult. However, I feel like home. I push and challenge myself every day, I learn, I discover and discover myself. I had no idea that I could achieve that much.

Fix cars, build a henhouse, run after chicken and ducks, drive a tractor, a Jaguar, a pickup, fix and repair fences, feed animals, sand the floor, pick up woods, cut it, garden, dig holes, clear lands, load trailers, unload them, work in the bush under a blazing sun, live with insects, spiders, snakes, frogs, toads, and all sorts of poisonous creatures…

I feel like living a second life, thousands of miles away from everything I have known, far away from my familiarities, my habits, my routine and the turpitudes of the modern world. Here, I manage to live in the moment intensively, without fearing what tomorrow will bring. I am not scared of it. I embrace it.

 

 

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Lost in Translation Part III – China’s nightlife

My new life in Fuzhou is slowly taking shape and after a difficult start, I finally feel like my time in China is going to be amazing. I can see myself living here for a while, learning what I have to learn, discovering and experiencing as much as I can. 

I remind myself every day the reason why I came here and where it’s going to lead me. It makes me feel good.

I am eventually feeling what I love so much about my life: enjoying my freedom.

*******

Fuzhou city, a night at the Life Club, 2 am.

The music is so loud that I have to shout in the ear of a guy who’s asking my name.

“My name is Juliiiie!!” He says something back but I cannot understand a word. I shout a very ungraceful: “Whaaat??”

That’s pretty much the only conversation you can have at the Life Club, the place where you lose your memory (or your consciousness) while having countless shots of vodka and feeling the vibes on the dance floor.

I’ve never really been a party girl but this place is probably the craziest club I’ve ever been to. Going to Life Club is like doing a triathlon of drinking, jumping and dancing. You need a full day to recover.

Clouds of mist and confetti spray on my face every ten minutes, huge balloons floating in the air, free bottles of vodka on every table, performers are diving into the crowd on inflatable boats and DJs are dressed up as pandas. It’s a fun madness. Jumping and dancing on the bouncing stage in front of the DJ booth has been the best exercise. I have to say it, Chinese people know how to party.

 

Fuzhou’s nightlife is quite lively and offers a diversity of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and pubs. Wherever you go, no matter what the time is, you will always find a place to entertain yourself. Chinese youths go out a lot and love hanging out to play games, to party, to have drinks or to eat a festive dinner with friends. There are many ways and places in Fuzhou to socialise and meet people. You just have to get out there.

One night, I randomly ended up in an underground club. A dance battle competition was on. I am not a dancer but I stayed all night. The Chinese dance scene is unbelievably good and it was interesting to observe something new. I’ve found the dancers to be crazy free, bold and really daring. Like they were freeing themselves from a strict and pressured everyday life.

It’s so easy to get carried away here. The Chinese hospitality when it comes to partying is limitless. Chinese people love making toasts shouting: “Gan bei!” (cheers) every 5 minutes, offering drinks and giving cigarettes to everyone. Not the best way to stay healthy but definitely the best way to bond.

I’ve been meeting more foreigners lately which has considerably diminished the feeling of isolation. I am feeling again what traveling and what being an expat is truly about. New encounters are such a huge part of it. It reminds me of when I left France to move to Australia 5 years ago. I was on my own, but I met along the way some amazing friends to share beautiful adventures with.

Moving to a new country and experiencing such a strong cultural shock really pushes you to open your mind in a big way and to accept different customs and habits. Adaptation and acceptance are fundamental.

Applying these principles are making my life in China way easier and because of that, I feel happier. Even if the language barrier is still omnipresent, I am finding my own way to create a new life and to fit in a completely new environment.

 

 

Lost in Translation – Part II

I am feeling fear as I’m standing on the corner of an intersection. A hundred of motorbikes are sitting there, waiting impatiently for the green light.

“Don’t hesitate, just go and don’t stop. They will avoid you.” says my Chinese friend Yance.  I grab his arm tight and dive into the madness.

I am still trying to overcome my fear when I cross the street in Fuzhou. Motorbikes are like pedestrians here, so they use pedestrian crossing…It is so impressive (and scary!) to see on the other side of the road, an army of motorbikes that literally ploughs into you.

China is a real cultural shock that I am still in the process of getting used to. It will happen in the end but it takes time. Everything is so different and it’s a big change from my western life.

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My life in Fuzhou is challenging. I am feeling a mixed bag of emotions that make it quite intense. I am so excited to discover a new culture and immerse myself in a new environment. But it is also alienating as the cultural shock is so strong.

It reminds me of the turmoil of Vietnam. Insane traffic, a hustle and bustle in the streets that never stops, a cacophony of horns and the smell of Asian food emanating from every corner.

Fuzhou never sleeps, it’s constantly developing and expanding. Buildings, skyscrapers, and massive shopping malls are popping up like flowers. Towers appear in no time and in a couple of months, a new suburb is born. China is like a giant tree whose branches keep growing.

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I have observed a curious mix of advanced technology, modernism, tradition, and conservatism. It’s everything and its opposite. They fancy the luxury of the Western world but forbid you to be truly exposed to the outside world (Google, YouTube, social media are banned). The access to information is restricted and controlled. If I am still able to update my blog and socials it’s thanks to a VPN (Virtual Private Network) that I have downloaded.

It’s for sure one of the most difficult things to cope with as a foreigner. I was born in a democratic country whose main principle is liberty.

But the most challenging part is definitely the language barrier. I did not really think of it before leaving. I was way too excited about the amazing teaching opportunity. I naively thought that people would speak English. At least a little bit.

The reality is no one speaks English in Fuzhou. All the signs are in Mandarin and I have no clue of what’s happening around me.

Luckily, my Chinese friend Yance is with me. He’s been guiding me so patiently but relying entirely on someone is somehow, alienating and frustrating. Not being able to communicate or understand people are the biggest frustration I’ve ever felt in my life.

I remember the first group dinner we had. I felt so diminished and powerless not to be able to interact with the rest of the group. It’s a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling. I have never faced a struggle like that before and I did think: “What am I doing here”.

I am so out of my comfort zone that it scares me. The thought of going back to Australia has crossed my mind many times. This natural instinct that pushes you to go back to what you know because it’s safer and easier…

I do miss my Western lifestyle, but I do know I need to put in the effort to build a new life in Fuzhou if I want to make the most of it.

I have to think about the long-term and I want to recall this experience 5 years from now saying:

“My year in China has been the most enriching and challenging experience in my life. I am proud to have given myself the chance to live over there and open my mind to a new world.”