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.

WechatIMG200

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.

WechatIMG201

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.

WechatIMG193

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.

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 2.29.44 pm

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.

Cardwell5

Cardwell3

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.

Cardwell2

Carwell 1

Carwell4

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.

Cardwell7

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.

 1238814_10151645565788651_239146114_n

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 5.10.30 pm

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.

20130904_155317

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!

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 2.05.49 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 2.22.28 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 2.24.47 pm

20130917_165038

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.

20130927_164713
Our beautiful raft with the tricolor flag, whose approximate floating system has led us straight to sinking and hysterical laughter!

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 2.53.56 pm

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

…feed Ducky, the baby duckScreen Shot 2018-04-04 at 5.14.27 pm

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

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 5.16.06 pm

…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.

1235925_10151645565978651_910624673_n

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.

 

 

Advertisements

10 Random facts about China

After 10 months of observation and getting more acquainted with my Chinese life, I have to say that the customs and habits in China are pretty fascinating. Especially the behaviour towards the digital world.

Here’s a list of 10 random facts about China that strike me the most.

#FACT 1: CHINESE PEOPLE LIVE IN A DIGITAL WORLD

In China, you can order EVERYTHING online and get it delivered to you. I insist on the word “everything”. It literally is. Food, clothes, furniture, groceries, plants, anything you can possibly imagine. My friend even bought some tropical fish that arrived two days later in a special container! The best part is that it gets delivered to your door or left in those electronic mailboxes each building has. 

Digital life

Chinese people always have their heads down looking at their phones. It’s very common to see motorbike riders typing on their phone while driving!

driver

******

#FACT 2: CASH IS DEAD – LONG LIVE TO MOBILE PAYMENTS! 

Cash is pretty much dead in China as the country is living the future with mobile payments.

Chinese people don’t use cash or coins anymore to buy things. They use their mobile phones. They have a digital wallet with money and all you have to do when you purchase something is scan a barcode and type in the amount. The first time I saw Yance paying the taxi driver this way, I watched it with my mouth wide open. I thought it was the coolest way to pay for stuff. It actually made me want to buy something just to try it out.

The online payment technology is incredibly advanced. No wonder why China’s economy is one of the world’s fastest-growing in the worldThe Chinese mobile payment volume more than doubled to $5 trillion in 2016*.

WeChat

The two most popular online payment apps are WeChat and AliPay. They are the major players in China.

alipay-wechat-payment

In many ways, using digital money makes your everyday life easier. It’s just more convenient and faster. There’s no need to carry cash or a credit card. You only need your phone.

I like the “transfer” function. If you owe money to a friend, you can just look for his/her contact in WeChat and transfer the amount. It’s so much faster than getting their bank account details! I was a bit concerned regarding the safety, but my digital wallet is locked up with a passcode that I have to type in every time I make a payment.

The only crucial thing is not to lose your phone! You can’t live in China without a phone!

*Source: Analysis data cited by Hillhouse Capital. 

******

#FACT 3: WECHAT, CHINA’S “APP FOR EVERYTHING”

WeChat is a magical app that makes the impossible possible. It has been called China’s “App for Everything” because of its many functions and platforms. It is one of the world’s most powerful apps.

If China lives in a digital world it’s mainly due to this kind of multi-purpose social media mobile app. It has such a huge social impact on Chinese behaviour. With WeChat you can order, pay, book and pretty much do everything. It’s crazy to think that an app has replaced real life and physical actions like going to the supermarket or getting cash out at the ATM. It fascinates and scares me at the same time.

Wechat

******

#FACT 4: THE GREAT FIREWALL OF CHINA

With the rise of the Internet in China in 1994, the country has struggled to strike a balance between “opening up” to the Western world and keeping its people away from the Western ideology. The Great Firewall of China, formally known as the Golden Shield Project, is the Chinese government’s internet censorship and surveillance project developed in 2000.

FIrewall China

This Golden Shield Project caught my attention as I think it reflects pretty well the position of China towards Western countries. I believe it poses one of the most interesting dilemmas in modern history.

On one hand, the Chinese government wants to use the information technology that comes with the Internet to build its blooming economy and make it thrive. On the other, the Internet inherently encourages diversity of ideas and represents a tool for democratising society. While the Internet is important to China’s economy, its very existence also undermines the political stability of the country. China is constantly seeking to strike balance between these two ends.

With the firewall, much to my desperation, I must say, many popular websites are banned in China. You can say goodbye to search engines like Google, Yahoo, but also media (Youtube, The New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist, Le Monde – Yes, even French media!). Social media are of course the focal point and are completely banned (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and more).

You can check out the list of banned websites here.

But don’t panic if you’re planning to go to China. There’s a way to bypass this firewall (otherwise you would not be reading this post!) and still get access to your favourite websites. You will need to download a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Any mobile app store will have VPNs. On my end, after trying at least 3 different ones, I have purchased Star VPN which works pretty well and costs me $3 a month.

You just have to be aware that there’s no perfect VPN and sometimes the connection can be slow or not functional. All you need is a lot of patience!

******

#FACT 5: A WONDERLAND OF DISCOUNTS

But only if you have a trained eye! The first time I saw a shiny 90 sign, it really enticed the western shopper in me. I thought “Wow! 90% off?! That’s the best sale ever!” However, I was just a fool. 90 isn’t as great as it seems.

I found out that Chinese discounts work in a completely opposite way to western discounts. While a western shopper sees 90% off, a Chinese shopper sees that you pay 90 percent of the price. That means 90 is actually only 10% off!

Discount

But generally speaking, there are always ways to get cheaper things in China. They have insane discounts and special deals that defy the rules of competition. Especially when it comes to food. Let’s say you order online and reach a certain amount, you can sometimes get 30  50% off. It’s also very common to see sales guys from restaurants giving away vouchers in shopping malls to get 50  100 RMB off your meal.

Online prices are cheaper than retail stores. My friend Yance buys all his clothes online and I have started to do this as well. In case we’re not happy with our purchases, we just call the courier who comes to our place to pick up the items and we get a refund straight away online!

*******

#Fact 6: CLICK THE RED PACKETS! 

A red packet is a monetary gift in a little red envelope which, in the Chinese tradition, is offered during holiday seasons or for special occasions (weddings, graduations, births etc).

OEM-Recycled-Paper-Red-Packet-with-Logo

But there’s also a digital version of the red packet that blew my mind the other day. After working hard for Thanksgiving at the school where I work, our managers, as a reward, sent to our WeChat group a rain of red packets! The concept is simple: someone sends in a group a red packet with a defined amount of money and chooses how many people he/she wants to share the amount with. The first person to click on the red packet earns a random amount of money.

For instance, I can send to the group a red packet of 100 RMB and choose to share the amount between 5 people. Once the red packet appears in the group conversation, its members have to quickly click on it to see how much they’ve earned. That’s when it gets funny and exciting because the whole concept of the red packet is based on luck. The first 5 people who’ve clicked earn a random amount. One can get 30 RMB, another one can get 2 RMB and so on until it reaches 100 RMB. The amount of money you earn goes automatically into your WeChat wallet!

Wechatredpacket

For Chinese NYE, people send big rains of red packets and the amount can go up to hundreds of RMB! It’s probably the easiest way to make money just by clicking some links on your phone. There’s no doubt, Chinese people love playing with money! No wonder why they love gambling so much.

******

#FACT 7: CHINESE PEOPLE LOVE DRINKING HOT WATER

In China, the tap water’s not clean and you’re better off not drinking it. The first day I got here it was so hot that I poured a big glass of tap water and started drinking it.

“What are you doing?! yelled Yance laughing at me. Don’t drink tap water in China, you’re going to be sick!” I emptied my glass and I suddenly missed the clean and fresh water of New Zealand.

why_do_chinese_people_drink_hot_water

Chinese people drink hot water (even under 30 degrees) and it took me quite some time to get used to it. It’s not even tea, just boiling water. When I ask a Chinese person why they drink hot water, the answer is usually “it’s better for your health”. I did not really get it at the beginning. Apart from burning my throat, I could not see the benefits. Now that I’ve reviewed my habits, hot water has become my new tap water.

But to be honest, hot or cold, water is water and both are fine to drink! It’s just a question of beliefs and habits.

******

#FACT 8: THE MOST TYPICAL DISH IN FUZHOU IS…

Hot pot! Each region of China has its own food specialty. In Fuzhou, you will find many hot pot restaurants. Hot pot is a soup with a variety of East Asian foodstuffs and ingredients, prepared with a simmering pot of soup stock at the dining table. While the hot pot is kept simmering, ingredients are placed into the pot and cooked at the table.

Typical hot pot dishes include thinly sliced meat, leaf, vegetables, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings, tofu, and seafood. The cooked food is usually eaten with a dipping sauce.

It’s the perfect dish to share with family and friends as it’s very convivial and can last hours! I absolutely love it, it’s delicious!

 

#FACT 9: CHINESE PEOPLE KNOW HOW TO PARTY

I wrote about the nightlife in Fuzhou in a previous post. I am still amazed by the Chinese hospitality when it comes to party or going out. The nightclubs are insane and they really make an effort to put on a big show. People in nightclubs talk to you and naturally buy you drinks. They don’t expect anything from you except having fun.

25289315_10155292698603651_559564669022261144_n

 

#FACT 10: A NEW SKYSCRAPER IS BUILT EVERY 5 DAYS

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

23732207_10155217787793651_816218617_o

 

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.

WechatIMG14

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.

23732207_10155217787793651_816218617_o

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.”

 

 

Teaching in China

Fuzhou, China – Friday 3rd, November, 7 am,

The squeaking sound of a jackhammer brutally pulls me out of my sleep. I can’t recall a night since I am here without being awakened by these bloody machines.

The building and area where I live in Fuzhou are still being constructed and the noise has become part of my new world. Somehow I got used to it.

It’s time to go teach at the school.

“Wake Up Yaaanceee!” I shout at the door of his bedroom.

(Yance is my Chinese friend I met in Sydney. He helped me attain a position as an English teacher at the school where he works, which has brought me to China. Teaching a second language to young children has always been one of my aspirations).

15 minutes later we’re running late to the school. Thank God it’s only 200 meters away from our apartment. In Fuzhou, no one wants to be stuck in the insane morning traffic.

The school is brand new. A month ago when I arrived, it was still a construction site and I thought it would never be ready on time. I was wrong. In a month, the site has transformed into a beautiful school.

 

What really caught my attention is that this school is not a primary school or part of an academic system. It’s a creative educational school that offers 3 courses: English, Drawing, and Dancing.

When Yance told me about it, it sounded like a dream. I have always wished to be able to teach languages in a fun and creative way, using games, music, art and role play.

 

22552564_10155152262023651_1020410889930016100_n

The challenge was also to discover a new country. China sounded ideal. A real disruption of culture that would push me far out of my comfort zone. Again.

France, Australia, New Zealand and now China. I like to think that I have lived many lives in my life. I am a traveler at heart and there are so many things to discover about the world.

I have started to teach my own class and I have met so many different types of children with different personalities. From the shy little girl who does not want to leave her Mum to the exuberant boy who disturbs the class. I find extremely interesting and challenging the fact that no matter what, I need to engage with the children enough to catch their attention.

Once it’s done, it feels so good and rewarding to see the cutest happy smiling faces, having fun while learning another language.

 

I am discovering how to make teaching plans, curriculum for the year, and the greatest part is that we have the freedom to be creative. We incorporate songs, dance routines, games, art, role play. It’s so much fun. Way more fun than my old school memories.

Teaching and playing with children is a therapy to me. When I teach, nothing else matters. Worries and problems are gone. My only goal is to make the children happy and teach them the love of learning.

I do believe that Education is the foundation of a better future for humankind.

When I was a child I remember being so bored at school and not interested in the class. I used to daydream a lot and imagine crazy stories. I wish I had more encouragement from teachers to see above and beyond. And that it is okay to be different.

I want to encourage children to pursue their dream and I want them to feel great about themselves. Because that is just what youngsters are. Great.