project review

The best decision I have ever made!

Review submitted by Jessica Man
Review date 1 Apr 2018

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The BEST decision I have made!

From start to finish!

Wow…where to start?! Well I guess it began as a typical day at university, until I noticed one of Frontiers posters about opportunities for overseas volunteering. It caught my eye straight away as I have always wanted to take part in volunteering projects abroad, without having to take a gap year. To my delight when I browsed around on their website, I found that monthly projects were available; it was then that I knew I definitely wanted to look into it. 

I planned my panda adventure with Frontier, who is a non-profit organisation, specialising in conservation, education and exploration, running projects like mine all over the world.

Neil who is the Partners Project Manager at Frontier was a fantastic help in the whole preparation process. I would get frequent emails from him and was guided step by step, from start to finish throughout my trip. In addition to the first introduction letter about it to when I arrived in China, his communication with my co-ordinators revealed to me that my safety and enjoyment throughout the project was a priority.

So why China for me?! Well although I was tempted to choose other countries I have dreamt about going to such as Australasia or Africa, choosing China was for a more personal reason- being a BBC (British Born Chinese) and being brought up in the UK for all my life, it has been difficult to understand my culture fully and the origin/roots of my family. It seemed that something was missing from my understanding of my culture- I felt unconnected to my roots and although my parents could teach me and tell me everything about China, the lifestyle there and it being their ‘real home’, there was a limit for me as they could only tell me so much…it would not be the same without the real experience, so the best way to truly understand the roots of my family was to go back ‘home’, go back to China. Although I have been to parts of the country before as a child, my memory was vague and this time, I could really venture out and gain different experiences and learn different things.

On the 4th July, I boarded the sixteen-hour flight with China Eastern Airlines via Shanghai to Chengdu, in southwest China.

Besides the slight delay I had on arrival I was happily met by my co-ordinator, Tina, along with her her father who took us to our accomodation in his trusty van (which was generally one of our main forms of transportation to places).  Once I arrived at the hostel, I was greeted with a smile by the rest of the co-ordinators.  I knew straight away from everybody’s smiles that everything was going to be fine and that my adventure starts then.  After a quick chat and debrief I was led to my room to rest after the long flight and as it was very late at night.  As I had arrived a couple days later than the other volunteers, I had missed the itinerary for the previous days- Isabella, Tina and Ada would usually take their group of volunteers around Chengdu for a day tour, visiting the iconic places.  Although I was tired from the flight I found it impossible to sleep, the anticipation was something I had not felt before…knowing that a ‘real’ adventure was about to start. I cannot possibly explain the emotions I felt that night.

The next morning I was greeted by my fellow volunteers who were mostly from the UK, as well as Chris from America and Jen from Israel.  We were all early for breakfast which was initially a good thing, as I managed to use the time to get to know them as I missed the previous days when they all met and got to know each other. Isabella, Tina and Ada then met us and took us to breakfast which was just around the corner from the hostel. After breakfast we had a bit of time to pack and gather our belongings before we were to travel to the panda reserve. As there were quite a few of us, the group were split into two, with one group going in Tina’s fathers’ car and the other using public transport. 

This journey took about five hours which was also a good time to get to know the volunteers in my group more. A few hours of playing some English music out loud, singing and moving to it throughout the journey was certainly entertaining for our Tina.  I have to admit, I had an idea of how people drove in China, but not putting on the seatbelt as a driver and only using the horn to alert other drivers instead of indicating was a new thing to me! The roads had no markings or tarmac so the ride on the mountains was not smooth, sometimes being over sheer drops into waterfalls and rivers with no barriers definitely got the heart beating and adrenaline rushing.  

Once we arrived we were showed to our rooms to settle in for a while, waiting for the other group to arrive and know our surroundings. After everyone had arrived and settled in, we all met for a full briefing of what our work was going to involve- this was the time to know who we were going to work with at each base, then we all went to the Information Centre (which was about a ten to fifteen minute walk away) to pick up our uniforms, that consisted of brown overalls and gloves which we would wear during work and our volunteers pass.

The First Night

The first night there was definitely a memorable one! After a delicious evening meal at the restaurant on the base, we were introduced to the bar which was going to be the place to hang out at night. Everyone in the group clicked and it was for sure a night to remember! We managed to attract a few other volunteers (Paige from America and Mark also from England) who arrived a few days earlier, later joining our group and becoming good friends. The whole night was spent playing card games’, listening to music, chilling out and just having a good time getting to know everyone.

The first day had been and gone in a flash so now the working days start! Once everyone got up the next day and had breakfast, we would put on our uniforms and get ready for work!

A typical working day would be waking up around 7am and then going to breakfast at 7:30am, the food sometimes could be rice, congee, noodles, eggs or dumplings and so on- the staff always tried to make different things so it was not always the same. After breakfast everyone heads to work at their bases.

In the morning, work would consist of giving the pandas breakfast which is usually panda cake/bread- this consists of soy, egg, apple, bamboo and other ingredients. These are perfectly fine for humans to consume too, I have to admit to having a taste and it was good…just a bit dry! Once they are eating they would be led outside by the masters/main panda keepers so the enclosures could be cleaned- the great thing about cleaning panda poo was that it does not smell (unless they ingest carrots…then there is a slight scent!).

Cleaning the panda enclosures usually takes just over an hour, so from 8-9am but it can sometimes longer depending on what the masters’ want done. Once the cleaning is finished, inside and sometimes outside (depending on which base you get assigned to) the rest of the work is just feeding the pandas every hour with panda bread, carrots, apples and fresh bamboo shrubs.   After the 11:00-11:30am feeding everyone would all leave and head for our feeding time! Lunch back at the hostel started at 12pm which was always a time everyone looked forward to after the morning work. As the group would eat together, everyone would regularly share about what their morning work consisted of, catching up on the latest panda tales! 

In the afternoon, work resumes at around 2pm which generally consists of giving the pandas another batch of fresh bamboo shrubs and two feedings which the pandas are typically given large bamboo shoots alongside their usual treats. I have to admit it is impressive watching their powerful jaws just break the shoot in half and then seeing the technique they have to peel the skin off the shoot with their teeth.  Although the work is pretty much routine, days do vary as sometimes the masters have to train the pandas (using Classical Pavlovian Conditioning) or weigh them- work can be dependent on various factors such as the weather conditions or simply on how many pandas you would have to take care of. 

The pandas are very unique, consisting of their own characters; you can even see their personalities within a few hours of work at first, so even though you work with the same ones every day, you can never get bored of them! One of the best parts is when that they recognise you after spending time with them- they are such friendly animals. I worked with four pandas (three girls and one boy) with Francis and my roommate Georgina (who also stayed for four weeks) and our pandas were all three years of age. They had a standard sized enclosure at first with a pool outside for them to drink out of, however later on the weeks they got transferred to another enclosure which was much larger outside, with trees for them to climb, a pool, a swing and constructions like play houses made out of large logs. We were transferred along with them and it was a good experience to work in a different area of the reserve, as well as keeping the same pandas and masters, though prior to the moving, our first master Fancy who we were assigned to had to leave and transfer to another reserve to work for three years- this was quite a shock to Georgina and I as it was so sudden, so we said our goodbyes and were assigned two other masters straight away. On a positive note- the pandas seemed to enjoy their new home with their new keepers.

Work would then finish around 3:30pm after the last feeding then it is free time for the rest of the day. The tourist information centre was a place that we would go to sometimes during our breaks or after work.  It has reliable internet facilities that volunteers are welcome to go in and use.  The people are also very friendly and are willing to help if there were any issues.  Back at the hostel, because of the rest of the day is free time, sometimes members of the group prefer to just chill out, usually as a group we would play card games, Ping Pong or Mar Jong, talk, have naps, read and it was basically whatever we wanted to do. The bar/common room was always opened till late and we would all just hang out in there- this definitely made socialising easier!

Tina and Ada were our barkeepers as well as our co-ordinators. They were absolute legends and once we settled in and got to know them within a couple days, it was lovely to have them join in with us and hang out together playing games. We would occasionally share stories and information about each other’s cultures and lifestyle- everything always ended up being a big laugh, there was never a dull moment!

The food at the reserve was amazing! Traditional and authentic…absolutely no complaints there! The restaurant staffs there were conscientious of any vegetarians so it was very considerate of them to provide a decent amount of vegetarian dishes for certain volunteers. Occasionally they would make a couple of western dishes such as chips and even westernise the oriental dishes for the volunteers, as traditional Sichuan cuisine can be too spicy for some. Drinks were not included with the meals but on certain occasions we were provided with water- bottled water, juices and soft drinks were available to buy at the restaurant, the bar or from the stalls by the restaurant. Alcohol and snacks could also be purchased at the bar and everything there was certainly affordable. 

Toilets were the traditional Chinese toilets where you have to squat which people do get use to!

The beds have electric blankets which do help with the cold and damp. The rooms can get relatively damp due to the weather conditions and temperature so it is generally advised to keep the door open when you are around for ventilation. The main thing not to forget as volunteers is that you are in China- a country that is not as developed as the UK or places like America, therefore there will be limitations to what is available, however I personally think it adds to the experience.  Up in the mountainous region of Sichuan, the mountain itself is simply sublime. The journey to the reserve only gives you a taster of what the surroundings are like.  Time at the reserve, besides the working times, is really what you make of it.  I was definitely blessed to have had such an amazing group of people to share my experience with which made every day pleasant and eventful.

I think the first group ‘outing’ was probably a visit to a local show which was just located a bit down the mountain. That was held on a Friday and it was like a theatrical show consisting of a story, music and audience participation. Everyone certainly had a good time, especially for one of our group members Hasan who ended up being a part of the show…getting married!

The usual group outings then started to take place during the weekends when we could take ‘proper’ day trips having not to work.  One of the most memorable nights would definitely be K-TV night for me! It was a Saturday and the group decided to take a day trip to Ya’an city which was about 45minutes to an hour away from the reserve.  After many hours of wandering around like typical tourists, we ended up having a group meal that night- which was lovely and was a special moment in itself as for a couple of the members, it was their last day or couple days left to their trip, so we all took the time to say our goodbyes which also included in a few emotional speeches.  Once the meal finished we all decided to wander around and take in the night life in Ya’an which then ended up in us heading to K-TV (Karaoke). Not knowing that there was an extreme limit to how many English songs were available, this made the night more amusing.   After hours of singing and dancing, it was certainly about time we headed back to the reserve. It was probably around midnight or past then, but luckily we managed to catch a taxi back home, with the help of a lovely Chinese man we met during K-TV who spoke perfect English.  The taxi ride back to the reserve was not one to forget either- consisting of a bit of singing and laughter; we poked our heads out of the window to witness the most incredible night sky I have undoubtedly seen. The sky was crystal clear filled with stars and shooting stars to the point I thought I was dreaming or staring at a picture- it felt so surreal. It was such a beautiful night and one I would remember for a long time.  Once we arrived back at the reserve a few of us decided to lay on the Ping Pong table outside to watch the sky, though after about half an hour we moved to the ground as not all of us could fit on the table!  As soon as we found a dry spot on the ground, we went to get our duvets and made a bed to lie on. After about an hour, it started to get cold so a couple of the crew went back to the dorms to sleep whilst the rest us were still lying on the ground in awe of the sky. As time went on the clouds came and slowly started to cover up the stars, the next thing we knew, there were five of us who ended up falling asleep outside…even with knowing that there were insects and snakes around!  Three of the crew left when they woke up in the middle of the night to go back into their rooms, leaving just Paige and I sleeping till we both got woken up by the roosters wake-up call at 6am! That was certainly a sight for one of the locals to see, who coincidently walked past at that very moment waving!

The next day was also one to remember. The group spent the morning, just after breakfast, to sunbathe and chill out just outside the dorms. After a few hours of embracing the sun, we all decided to go for the scenic walk on the base which consisted of waterfalls, trees, more waterfalls and more trees! It may sound all the same but the views were just beautiful…sights that cannot be seen just once.  The walk took a good few hours- taking us to stunning parts of the mountain with streams and just nature surrounding us. It was a pleasant walk and we always had to stop for ‘photo moments’…but having most of the group jump into the rivers and lakes was, I guess the amusing parts of the walk as other tourists or natives found it very bizarre and would stand to watch for a while!...A fun day out it was! 

The trip to Luodai Ancient Town was additionally a good day although that weekend was going to be a rough one. Prior to this day, a few of us longer stayers have said many goodbyes to our fellow volunteers, and that weekend to Chengdu was also for the same reason.  We went to Luodai Ancient Town with Tina and her family for a tour. It was a nice sunny day and the journey there from Chengdu was not that long. There were many street shops selling food, traditional ornaments and also some bizarre things!  Lunch with Tina and her family was lovely and after some more walking around we travelled back to the original hostel we stayed at in Chengdu.  

The next day was the day Georgina and I had to say our goodbyes to our other roommate Karolina and then later to Alasdair- which was an embarrassing moment as after we saw Alasdair off, Georgina and I ended up bursting into tears outside the train station…but from noticing the people around us staring, we managed to stop and wander off pretending nothing had happened!

Once that weekend had gone we had to travel back to the reserve as we had about two weeks of work left to do. Although nearly everyone from the old group had gone, there were still Georgina, Mark, Francis and I around to welcome the new volunteers who came from Belgium- Jonas, Hanne Mona and Mariet. They were really cool and everyone ‘clicked’ again…so we took the new volunteers to Ya’an during the weekend. This was certainly a pleasant day as we were also joined with Tina and Ada which made communication with the natives much easier, although we did gain a few other volunteers too who were from different parts of China, like Rebecca who was from Beijing and spoke very good English, Steve and Li who were also from China and spoke good English which was great.  

Wednesday the 21st July was a special day for our Belgium friend Jonas as it was his 21st birthday- another day to remember!  After a typical day of panda work we were all looking forward to the surprise we had for him! After dinner we went to the bar as usual then surprised him with two HUGE birthday cakes that Tina and Ada had went to get from town. After hours of cake eating, giggles and games…the night finished pretty quickly…you could say it was short but sweet!  We had to keep it shorter than preferred though as we all had work the next day. Although the rest of the group left to sleep, the thought of walking out in the rain kept Mark and me at the bar with Tina and Ada who were tidying up. The next thing we knew we ended up sleeping in the bar! Tina, Ada and I took a big chair each and Mark given his height ended up lying along the table. Even though we had shelter this time, sleeping on the ground the other night felt warmer- I guess the thunder storm made it a bit chilly in the bar…and it did have the occasional leaks from the roof.  That thunder storm was definitely a ‘real’ one, unlike the ones you see in countries like England! A spectacular sight it was with the lightning…it looked like someone was taking a photo of us from the sky with the flash on…every inch of the sky just flashed and glowed- it was phenomenal!

After a day or two Francis left us but we gained another friend, Miranda, again from England, though she was only around for about three-four days which was a shame because we all became good friends.  Days went in an instant, the next thing we knew, we were saying our goodbyes to Mark and Miranda at the weekend- it was then just Georgina and I left from the first group.

After a few more usual days of work and bar time…it was mine and Georgina’s time to leave.  The last day of work went very quickly- after the last feeding it was then we had to say our goodbyes to our pandas and our masters. After that Georgina and I had to collect our certificates which we got for being volunteers.  

Packing was not an easy task for sure- as we all settled into our new surroundings quickly, it was very much like home for us.  The trip back to Chengdu was very strange as Georgina and I knew that this time we left the Panda Reserve; we would not be going back afterwards. It was very bizarre hearing our Belgium friends say ‘have a safe journey back to England!’

The summer was said to be the busiest time of year for the Panda Breeding Project, so Tina and Ada would frequently have to go back to pick up new volunteers. As I was in Chengdu for a few days, I was able to meet the new volunteers at the hostel and even pick one up with Tina!  It was great getting to know the new volunteers and sharing my ‘panda experience’ with them.  Although I missed the Sichuan Hot Pot meal with my first group, I managed to regain this opportunity with having the meal with the new volunteers. The atmosphere was certainly great and the food was fantastic…even though the Sichuan Hot Pot is known to be one of the trademarks of the province with it being extremely spicy, the hostel provided two sections with the same ingredients but one was spicy and the other was not, so they were able to accommodate to some people who probably are not fans of spicy food.  The Sichuan Chilli Contest was definitely one of the highlights of the night- it was mainly a competition for the males of the group to see who was the manliest! The contest consisted of eating 8-10 slices of potato which were all completely covered in the Sichuan chilli powder/seeds. I have never seen that many boys turn so red, sweat and cry all at once but hats off to them…I was impressed with their efforts!

Aside from picking up new volunteers, I was additionally given the opportunity to visit Ada’s home in Shifang whilst I was in Chengdu, as it was only about an hour away.  Upon arrival I did find it difficult to swallow as Ada mentioned it was one of the most severely hit locations following the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake- this was clearly seen. 

She then took me to her family shop in a market area to meet her father, who then took us to their home for lunch. It was certainly an honour to meet her parents and visit her home; her parents were very friendly and treated me to proper, tradition Sichuan cuisine…amazing is all I can say about the food they cooked!...After food and relaxing in their home, we travelled back to Chengdu.  The last night was definitely emotional for me. Building such close friendships with fellow volunteers and the co-ordinators made it difficult to leave.

Seeing people off was always the hard part and this time it was my turn to go!...I clearly remember feeling unwell, like I was physically going to be sick that morning and it was something I had never felt before…it sounds somewhat corny but I guess the main group I was in was an emotional one as every time someone left, a few of us would get teary…this time I managed to hold it in (not wanting to cry in front of Tina)…till I went past the security check, then I remember hiding underneath a plant at my boarding gate unable to hold back the tears.

My time in China is somewhat impossible to describe just by using words- it was the first time I travelled alone further than Europe and was the most memorable and amazing experience I have ever had.  The people I met there were amazing and we have all become good friends- still keeping in touch and arranging reunions. All of them inspired me, including the co-ordinators and the handful that were not a part of my main volunteer group, however were at the reserve as volunteers such as Margaret, Fabrina and many others- I feel blessed to have met them.  I would just like to encourage anyone to just go for it and try these unforgettable experiences- it was the BEST decision I have made and I cannot wait for the reunions I will have with the friends I made on the trip! I cannot thank everyone I have met and was involved with my trip enough!

Even if you are not a panda or China person and prefer something else, I would strongly recommend browsing through the Frontier brochure or their website as there are many countries across the world to choose from, and not only that but many different projects you can choose to go on, from journalism to wildlife conservation and even sports coaching and many others- there is always something for everyone. No two experiences are the same and words can never describe it- just go for it! 

I have to admit, the four weeks I had went too quickly…hopefully someday I would get to go back and see how big the pandas I worked with have grown. 

There are parts of our world that, once visited, get into our hearts and minds, leaving a profound experience engraved upon us for years- for me, China was that place. 

 

Read more about the China Panda Breeding Centre project.