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Lara Cotton - General Care Projects in China

Panda sanctuary

Despite a delay due to a typhoon in Hong Kong, I left for China on a heady cocktail of excitement and nerves. Armed only with a leaden case, a phone number and a dim memory of High School Mandarin, I left my friends to the festivals and embarked on my own little adventure to Chengdu.

Arriving in China

After a three hour delay on the tarmac at Shanghai excitement had worn thin and I found myself desperate for a bed – preferably the one I’d left. My spirits were lifted when I was greeted at Chengdu airport by two beaming Projects Abroad staff who replaced the case I held in my hand with a much-needed bottle of water and bundled me into a taxi to take me to the apartment I would be sharing. On the way I was given maps, an emergency card, keys and assurance that I would be met the next day for an orientation.

Sechuan cuisine

I was apartment-sharing with three other volunteers and was located nearby to two other volunteer apartments. On my first meeting with the other volunteers I had fears about not making friends to explore the city with but these were immediately quelled – they were all lovely! It was great to have an opportunity to mix with people from different countries and backgrounds who all shared the same interest in China.

Living in Chengdu

Chengdu itself was a busy, exciting city with lots of places to see within the city and the surrounding area. I could be in a quiet temple one moment and a bustling market wondering at the appeal of a rabbit’s head the next! Just a walk to the supermarket would offer sights and smells that would baffle, wonder or amuse me and I found the cultural difference from England refreshing and stimulating.

Volunteer in China

Near to Chengdu is the temple at Leshan – home to the giant Buddha and the largest panda sanctuary in China is roughly a half hour taxi away. Both were places I had heard about and wanted to visit before I left and neither disappointed me! Spare time in the evenings and at the weekends were brilliant opportunities to go on any trips or experience the hospitality of Chinese clubs.

My Care Placement

During my month in Chengdu I worked at a disabled children’s day center at The First People’s Hospital Chengdu. To get there I had to walk to a bus stop and take two different buses – no mean feat when half asleep in the morning! However I soon got my bearings (with some help) and would have a daily giggle at the seemingly non-existent traffic rules – I once saw a girl who was riding her push-bike whilst reading a book in rush hour traffic!

I found the hospital experience invaluable, not only because I could be much more hands-on than in previous hospital experience in the UK, but because it enabled me to practice my (shaky!) mandarin on a pretty forgiving audience. I also found the mixture of western and Chinese treatments interesting and the children were adorable. Within a week I was ‘djie djie’ (older sister) or ‘aiye’ (auntie) to many of the patients and I looked forward to seeing them and their carers every day.

The Experience

Volunteer trip

Aside from the friendly, hospitable people and their wonderful creations which included a bike laden with a fridge, a baby’s carry chair made of an old garden chair and cloth, palm-leaf fans and straw over-shoes to name a few, the thing I missed most about Chengdu was the food. Sichuan is famed for its cuisine – especially its liberal use of chili. A self-confessed chili wimp I resigned myself to a month with a numb tongue but far from weeping my way through meals I found myself quickly accustomed to the spice as well as enjoying many delicious chili-free dishes – often for as little as 90 pence.

I had a brilliant time in Chengdu, exploring the city and enjoying the freedom of being somewhere so different from home. I won’t forget the feeling of walking home at 10pm past communal dancing in the square having just filled my stomach with noodles for 60p.

Lara Cotton

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