Monday, April 22, 2013

Back to basics

This morning I took a cab to the airport, and as the car was flying through the empty streets of Paris, I remembered all these times when I took my bags and travelled to another part of the world. Several times to Asia, and this time to another new place for me, New York City… There’s this moment when you’ve got all your stuff with you, you’re not off yet but you’re already travelling, this moment is full of expectations and makes my heart beats a little bit faster. I’m feeling alive now, more than before, because I know that things that I’m not expecting will happen, I will meet new people, see new faces, exchange smiles around a drink and stories from the other side of the world. So when I’m in the car going to the airport, it’s the expectation of all of this happening that overcomes the fright of travelling on my own to an unknown place, and I feel the beat of my heart thumping in pace with the world outside. I feel alive, it’s my time, and it’s now.

Friday, June 3, 2011

China year

This year is China year for me - a bit like the year of China in France, when you have all kinds of events, concerts, exhibitions about China. I spent a whole month in China in April, and I've just booked my tickets to fly to Shanghai again this summer.
This past month in China was really awesome, I cannot believe I had not been there for almost 5 years, 5 years too many without visiting my definitely favorite country! It's not that I do not like other countries, it is just that I know and understand China too well, I will not be able to get the same interest for another country. Been too tiring to get to that level of Mandarin anyway...
So I was supposed to fly to Shanghai beginning of April, but I was extremely needed one week early ^^ to work on a project. Of course this is not an issue, I will pack in a few hours, and Saturday night I am flying out of CdG to Pudong. 8.30 Monday morning, after a short night trying to recover from the jetlag, I am sitting in front of my computer making sense out of what I am supposed to do for that first week in Kunshan - but here I am back in China. And I just love it here - what a surprise!
I spent 3 days in Kunshan, then 2 days in Wuhu meeting with colleagues I had welcomed in France a while ago. We started the training - the original reason why I was travelling to China for work. Good atmosphere and it looks like we are doing a good job together, but two weeks is such a short time to teach them my job! I especially appreciated the very Chinese dinner offered by my very Chinese colleague, excellent food and Chinese wine. I think our cooperation is only just starting...
I took advantage of being in Wuhu at the end of the week, to spend the weekend in Nanjing. As a great coincidence, I have never been to Nanjing, and my friend Clover, met in Malaysia last year, lives there and is adamant I should stay for the weekend! She is absolutely lovely, welcomes me in her home with her parents, and takes me to all the nice places in Nanjing.
Clover in Nanjing park
Ming tombs in Nanjing
Visiting Nanjing also includes some excellent culinary experiences... Clover took me to plenty of different restaurants, and as she enjoys spicy food I will get to enjoy Sichuan vegetable wok, a fish hotpot, then shuijiao (boiled dumplings - from North China), lotus roots filled with sweet sticky rice, xiaolongbao (I call them tangbao in Wuhan), which are dumplings filled with soup - one of my favorite dish in China, very hard to find in France!
Sichuan spicy wok
Fish hot pot
Clover also took me out with her friends: one bottle of Nth year whisky (supposed to be very good), green tea and coke, pick the mix you want to get! I do not enjoy that drink as much a ginzhu naicha, but it brings all kind of good memories back.
That was the first week in China... Soon to come, second week, Kunshan, Shanghai, etc.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A bit more about Morocco...

The funny thing about travelling in a country that people - in my case, my dad, grand mother, uncles and aunts - have been talking to you so much about, is that you do expect a lot. And I did expect a lot from Morocco. The people that had to be nice, the scenery that had to be strikingly colourful and impressive, and a little bit of magic from these family relatives when they where 10 years old scouting for adventure in Agadir and Marrakech.
I have to say that, from expecting so much, I had to be a bit disappointed. Not in the scenery, walking the Dades gorges, or camelling through the dunes while the sun was getting up kept its promises. No, I have to say I was a tad disappointed with meeting people over there. But what was I expecting! I was a tourist just like anyone else, big white tourist with euros by the dozen and a big camera!
Actually, a lot of average encounters made the few interesting ones really worth it. Both happened while I was on the train, travelling on my own from Casablanca to Marrakech. I had made my way into the compartment quite easily the first time, being in a French-speaking country and an experienced traveller paid off. So I had to find a seat without too many staring at me - after 2 days of Morocco I was already getting tired of the stares. So I sat in front of a nice young couple, with the guy being too engrossed into his girlfriend to notice anything else, and next to a old veiled woman. At first glance she looked like an old and nice countryside woman.
We left and did not chat at the beginning. The old lady spoke a bit with the young couple; at some point she dropped something and I tried to catch it for her - we actually both went for it and hit our heads. She was curious of where I was from, and that's how we started to chat. I was really surprised when she explained that she used to be a social worker, and that she had helped young women for all her life, helping them deal with pregnancies, hard family relationships and forced weddings. She would also teach them how to make a living on their own, should they would be raising a child on their own.
Shaman's story was amazing - Shaman is her name; she had been raised in Marrakech in the 60s by open-minded parents, went to school at the Sisters' school, from which she said they never forced their own catholic faith on top of her muslim beliefs. She recalled these Sisters with foundness, and I guessed she had behaved with the women she helped, in the same way as the Sisters had taught her school.
Surprisingly for the times, her father did not force her to marry someone she did not like. Her husband she met where she was working in her twenties, and she felt like she could trust him. After they got married, they waited for two years before getting pregnant, while all her family was wondering why she wasn't expecting. As Shaman said, she wanted to be sure he was the right man to be with.
In her life she behaved with respect for others and thoughtfulness, while in Morocco it's the use of welcoming anyone in the family that comes to visit, she actually refused those visits and kept Sundays as an untouchable day for family, but her close family: husband and children. Once a week the children would be invited for a family gathering and asked to discuss if anything was wrong, they were also in charge of their own pocket money as soon as they asked for it. The pocket money increased to be their monthly allowance for canteen food, clothes and entertainement as they grew older. In summer time they wouldn't visit family but would take a month off to visit different cities and areas in Morocco, camping all 6 of them in the countryside.
Now that her children are all grown up, with only the youngest daughter to finish her studies, some are married and others not. If I remember well she is the grandmother of 2, and has now stopped working to study religion and look after her husband, children and grandchildren.
Her trip from Rabat to Marrakech was made to visit a friend whose daughter, living in Rabat, had just miscarried the day before. Rather than announcing this over the phone, she would take the train to Marrakech and back on that day, to make that difficult announcement to the woman's family.

Writing and reading what I've just accounted, seems a bit surreal... I get the impression that I'm depicting someone perfect, which I know is not the truth. No one's perfect, and I'm sure this lady has some weak points as we all do. But it was all so interesting to discuss for 4 hours on the train and get this deep insight of a woman's life, Moroccan family life, unfolding just for me to remember. If there was one encounter I'd have to remember in Morocco, it'd be that one.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Morocco my darling...

I have been travelling a lot recently, and the last "big trip" abroad was to Morocco for the New Year's Eve. A big group of 5 girl friends, gathering from all the corners of Europe into Marrakech of a few days travelling and celebrating NYE together - although I was the only European one. So along with three Singaporeans and one Japanese, off we went...
Morocco has a big appeal to me. First of all, my dad was born there in 1954, and I had never set foot in Morocco apart from in imagination. I've got children stories going as far as I can remember, my father and his 7 siblings trying all kind of jokes and adventures together or one onto the other. Sometimes funny, such as swimming under the sea pier and ending being tetanos injected by a big black guy pursuing them with a huge seringe in a hospital, or dangerous, trying to force black scorpions to commit suicide by surrounding them with fire... Somehow not the upraising all parents have had from growing up in France, so very appealing to my kid's eyes!
My grandparents have lived in Agadir for 15 years. It looks like after WW2, when everything had to be done in Europe and in Morocco, my grandfather who had fought throughout Morocco during the war with the "forces français libres", did not want to stay in France and took the job to supervise the building of the dam in south Morocco. So they moved to Agadir, and lived a happy though hectic expat life in Agadir, having 7 of their 8 children born there, including my dad and his twin sister.
In 1960 though, an earthquake happened in Agadir. It was a major one and killed 60% of the population in the Medina, but only 10% in the expat quarters. Intensive building and overcrowds in the Medina would have explained the big gap in such numbers. My grandmother's story is part of our family memory.
A few weeks before the earthquake, she made a dream that she couldn't really understand: she was on the beach in Agadir with all of her most precious jewellery. Suddenly a big wave comes, and she finds herself up to her neck with water, alive, and with all of her jewellery floating around her. So she gathers them, and that's how the dream ends. Compelled because that dream seemed to have a significance, my grandmother told the fatma that was working at the house about it. The fatma explained that an event of big importance would happen shortly, and that my grandmother would lose everything, but not her most precious items: her children.
Some time later, the earthquake happened and I remember my dad's story, who was only 6. He woke up with my grandfather knocking at his room's door, and can recall seeing the stars through the roof which had fallen off. My grandfather gathered all 7 children, all alive without a scratch, even the yougest daughter who had a cupboard fallen over her, but with the doors open. All safe and sound without an exception, as the dream had said, including my grandmother 7 months pregnant with the 8th and last child of the family.
My grandfather had them moved to Marrakech and proceeded to help those who hadn't been so lucky, trying to save those still under the fallen houses, for at least 8 to 10 days after the quake. My uncle was born in Marrakech one month after the quake, and the family stayed in Morocco for another 4 years, until they left the country at its independance.

Monday, September 20, 2010

China & Speaking Chinese

The very first time I became acquainted with Chinese was 10 years ago. I was 19 and travelled to China with my younger sister for an older cousin's wedding, and at the time it was my sister who could speak a very decent Chinese. The good point was that we did not have to stay with my grand-mother all the time (we were the youngest of all cousins being there) and we could head just the 2 of us to visit Beijing. At the time, Beijing was still this big city where there were more bikes than cars, and you had to negotiate crossing the streets with all the cyclers coming up to you and not letting you cross the street in peace.
It was all about visiting the city and enjoying the nights out with cousins and cousins's friends who were at least 10 years older than the 2 of us. Restaurants, bars, nightclubs, massage places, you name it, we did it. No wonder why I completely fell in love with the place, the city, the lifestyle, and especially the impression of being in a city that lived life full speed, compared to "Old Europe".
So when I came back to France and got into my Ecole d'Ingénieur then I started to learn Mandarin. Speaking the language was what had made all the difference for our trip in Beijing, and if I ever wanted to go back there, and maybe work there, then I had to speak the language!
The learning was not that good though, because when I graduated and finally got a job in China - Wuhan this time - then I could hardly make my co-workers or taxi drivers or waiters understand me. It took me 3 months of listening and repeating to be understood and follow a simple conversation with Chinese friends.
So I think it started this way... First the need to communicate directly with people, which quickly improved into being able to hold a full conversation (with a lot of hand talk too, though) with my colleagues and friends. But now, having been back in France for the past 4 years (I know!) and still studying Mandarin on a weekly basis, it is the pleasure of speaking Chinese that is the most important. How to explain? Well, I just love speaking Chinese. The rythm of the language, the tones that make it lively and quite physical, the sounds so different from anything you would find in Europe, a bit like poetry on its own... I can enter my Chinese classroom tired from the day, leave all my worries at the door and enjoy the simple fact of reading and speaking Chinese for the evening. This is why I don't think I'll ever stop learning Chinese.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pangkor Island

Sometimes the only thing you want to do is to lie on the beach and soak in the sunshine, running in the sea just to get a bit of fresh water, and coming back to your towel to finish reading the 1000 pages novel you bought just 2 days ago - and which will only last until the next evening, if you keep reading non-stop like this.
Well yes, sometimes the only thing you need is that. This is how I usually spend my holidays when with my family, reading thick novels and playing cards with my brother, sleeping in the sunbed and getting the best suntan I can think of - we're talking of my pale northern skin. But this time no, it wasn't for me. I packed my rucksack and went all the way to Malaysia. I walked and dived and bundled my way through this lively country, loved the pace and heat, the noise and the smells, it all reminded me so much of China, without being China at the same time. I guess it's the travelling I missed...
But then, at some point, I needed the time off. Put the rucksack down, walk in flipflops and sit in the sunshine. So I found a spot in my Lonely Plat which said: Pangkor island - beautiful small island (Pangkor means beautiful in Malay) - fishermen village - long white beaches - not too touristy - not too far from KL - can cycle around the island in 2 hours... This was all I needed.
small fishing boat and the fishermen village right behind

I didn't stop for long though, just one night. But it was worth a stopover. Jamaican style hostel with hammocks hanging outside, beach within walking distance and good fresh food too.
I must admit I was worried, it was the almost only stretch of my trip when I was on my own, and although I like it from times to times, I wanted to visit the island and if possible to share it with people. This is where speaking Chinese helps, as I noticed four women my age speaking Mandarin where I was having lunch. They looked just as much on holidays as I was, and where planning their day trip. I introduced myself in Chinese and we hit it off straight away! They were energetic and curious ladies, and offered for me to go on the boat trip 5 minutes after we met. So we went for a short boat trip in the bay...
Chinese friends from China
and Malaysian Chinese friends
...and then for some snorkelling in the shallow water. Lots of fish and a few sea cucumbers. Unfortunately it seems I'm the only one with another of the Chinese who can swim confidently enough to enjoy the snorkelling, but the other three stand on the shore and can see the fish too, so we all have a good time in the end.

In the evening, after the required shower to take the salt out of the skin, dinner-time! And we're having fresh fish in hot pot, which they call steamboat over there (for those who like hot pot / huoguo / fondue chinoise / steamboat, I've got the best of addresses here in Paris, just ask). Enjoyed the food that we topped with banana and honey pancakes. Not the most Malay dinner ever, but then, when in Rome...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Walking the jungle (2)

After this very first day getting in touch with my inner climber at Bako park, several other days followed for more jungle walking. The friend I was travelling with in Kuching and I wanted to see as much nature as possible, and enjoy the free access to all this beauty... So 2 days later we went walking in Santubong peninsula, the path this time was rougher and steeper, but I actually had fun getting a bit more energetic and pushing the edge of the walk / climb / hanging on a slippery slope with an old rope to prevent from falling (OK I wasn't feeling too good at this point).

Santubong peninsula - waterfalls, slippery rocks...
 and of course after one day of walk, I couldn't resist once again...

another good swim in the sea :-)
After that, the next good walk was in Mount Kinabalu park. I did not go for the whole 2-days-package-climb-that-costs-a-leg-and-an-arm (the ones you don't lose walking at 2am in the dark), but I travelled in and out one day to get a feel of the paths at the bottom of the park. It would have been great should the weather had been nice. But this time, no such luck, it was pouring rain and the thick jungle leaves were offering little shelter once I was walking in the forest. To be honest, I enjoyed it because rain makes all the smells come out from the earth, trees and leaves - at the beginning at least. But after 2 hours of non-stop tropical rain, rather cold temperature as the Kinabalu park is 2000m high up in the mountains, and having my clothes soaked wet I was happy to reach the entrance back, and get myself fanbianmian (instant noodles) and a cup of hot chocolate.

Kinabalu park

After this one, several days went without walks... Kota Kinabalu, then back to Kuala Lumpur, and off for a bus ride in Perak state, where I needed to go to the Cameron Highlands before flying back home. And these mountains kept all their promises! First thing, when you get on the bus from Ipoh and get close to the mountains, you find yourself surrounded by sugar loaf mountains, a bit like Yangshuo in China or Halong Bay in Vietnam. All this got myself really excited, until I got to Tanah Rata and realised most trails were indicated as "hard to find", "not well marked", and of course "don't go on your own, follow a guide"! I found it disappointing that after walking on my own in several parks in Borneo, in the Peninsula I had to get myself a guide to walk in one of the biggest spot of Malaysia. So of course I got myself a map, asked for directions and went on my own.
Trail 10 was a good well-marked path to go through a beautiful camelia garden, then up in the mountain and to the top of Gunung Jasar mountain, 1670m high up, but with a beautiful view over the Highlands and tea plantations. As goes in the season, the weather was beautiful but not as warm as down in the plains, and it was a good idea to climb steep slopes to get a bit of warm in the early morning (9am - ok maybe not so early then!)

Cameron Highlands - trail 10
The path was intricated with roots from the surrounding trees, with beautiful patches of blue sky through the canopy. Climbing up at some point I got out of the forest and up the small mountain top with the nice view on tea plantations...

Gunung Jasar and the view to the tea plantations
After that I tried to find my way forward to another path... After 3 fails and a lot of mud on the pants, I eventually decided to walk my way back to the hostel and spend more time in the beautifully arranged camelia garden. It wasn't a bad idea as the evening rain comes early in these mountains and it was pouring by 2pm :)