"I thought the secret of life was obvious: be here now, love as if your whole life depended on it, find your life's work, and try to get hold of a giant panda."
~ Anne Lamott
A great thing to do while traveling and living abroad is to go off the beaten path and experience something you wouldn’t be able to back home. While traveling for leisure and enjoyment is always great, breaking the traveler habit of comfort and ease can be just as refreshing and recharging for mind and body.
This past week, I broke the expatriate redundancy and tried something that I normally wouldn’t. I take photos of wild animals all the time, but rarely interact with them. So, last Monday I got my hands dirty and engaged in a one-day panda keeper program in Chengdu, China at the Dujiangyan Panda Base. Before I get into the details, I want to commend my tour guide. I reserved this program tour through China Highlights, which made on the ground traveling simple. My tour guide saw me from the airport upon arrival, all the way up to security for my flight back. She was hospitable and helpful.
Now onto the pandas. If we take away the fact that pandas are extremely endangered, the life of a panda is great; almost like a house-cat. They lounge about eating close to thirteen hours a day and sleeping. As they age, of course their activity decreases, but while young, they are spritely little things. Cubs nag their moms, chase each other around and sleep in tree limbs that they occasionally fall out of. They are funny, cute, and squishy.
My panda keeping day started early with a 6:00 a.m. wake up call, breakfast at 6:45 a.m. and transport at 7:20 a.m. It took almost two hours to reach the base. My guide and I found the office, and geared up after, of course, signing necessary paper work. By 10:00 a.m. we were in the panda enclosures cleaning the grounds, picking up feces and separating remaining bamboo from the mulch. The climb to the enclosure, I must admit, let me know how out of shape I am because I felt it all in my thighs and lungs. Then, the soreness took over in my arms lugging trash cans, tools, and bamboo.
After cleaning the enclosures, we traded places with the pandas. While they got to roll around in their freshly cleaned enclosures, we then cleaned their containment areas down with hoses and scrubs. Next, was preparing breakfast by breaking down the bamboo. Then finally a break! During the break, my guide and I were able to slow our pace. We visited all of the enclosures, seeing what the pandas were up to. My guide knew all of their names and ages, along with partnered international zoos they came from.
When the break time ended, we returned to the enclosures to feed the pandas their midday snacks of carrots, apples and bamboo shoots. Now that they had their snack, it was lunchtime!
After lunch, we headed over to the kitchen to make panda cakes. Since most of the pandas’ diet consists of bamboo, the keepers supplement their nutrition with these cakes made of pressed soybeans, rice, corn and eggs. They are shaped by hand, baked and then broken apart for the pandas to munch on.
Now the point of the panda keeper program is to not only contribute, but also learn. So, about 2:00 p.m., we settled down to watch an informative documentary about Dr. Zhang’s work on conservation of the giant panda. China’s national effort in conversing the giant panda, is especially comprehensive, an awesome undertaking that can be well learned from.
My panda keeping day ended around 3:00 p.m., but not before seeing the pandas once more and feeding them an afternoon snack. Before returning to the hotel, I wandered the gift shop, and came out with a pair of cute pandas of my own and a bag of Lays for the long ride back to the hotel.
I do wish I had more time to explore Chengdu, but I had achieved the objective of my trip. A new experience that I probably won’t have anytime soon, yet will always remember.