Waiting for our bus to take us to the famous rice field terraces in Yuanyang, we decided to steer away from our "local only" policy and have breakfast at the only familiar establishment in Kunming's bus station area: McDonalds.
Sitting in the upper floor we saw him, "a 12 year old boy with a backpack as big as himself". I approached and asked him if he was heading south and he replied "oui", actually he said "yes" with a heavy french accent. I invited him to join us in waiting for the bus.
Sylvain is 23 years old, and he has spent almost 10 percent of his life wandering the world. He left the small town Grenoble next to Lyon in France, when he realized that traveling was not just for rich people, but for the resourceful ones.
Since he didn't speak any English he set off first to Reunion Island and Madagascar, the French speaking island made sense. Hiking on his own and sleeping in his tent, he spent two months in one of the poorest places on earth, and one of the most dangerous after dusk.
He kept island-hopping to Reunion Island, New Zealand, and Australia, where he bought a 4×4 truck from french tourists and drove 45.000 km with it. Empty funded, he the spent three months working on a dairy farm, disconnected from the world, no TV, no Internet and nobody to talk to.
As I said, he spoke no English, for real, in a way that only French (and Chinese can). This was a great opportunity to learn English, equipped with a dictionary and a book he taught himself to talk. I swear I couldn't believe this guy in front of me couldn't talk any English just a couple of month ago.
The perks of working in a farm in Australia are the money, free of tax and also getting you own calf, to secure you B12 levels for a couple of months, which he butchered and gutted by himself. We're not talking about a blood thirsty Rambo, but this sweet smiling young boy.
Sylvain arrived in China five month ago and has since crisscrossed this massive country. He's the only reminiscent of an "old time" backpacker we've met so far, carrying his own tent, mat, sleeping bag (two, for hot/cold climate), cooker and his own food, including his favorite chocolate spread from Carrefour. Equipped with no gadgets more than his phone and a broad smile.
We traveled together for three weeks, the longer we did with anyone, in which he kept stretching our comfort zone with his easygoing ways and carefree spirit: hiking on nameless uphill paths and exhausting us on Tal's birthday by biking around the Napa lake under the rain, up and down the slopes against striking winds. He only forgot to point out that he used to be a professional bike runner.
His following step is hitchhike his way to Tibet and cross to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan and whichever country will lead him to get home for Christmas, two years after his departure. "If I'm left in the middle of the road and can't get to the next town, I'll open my tent, cook my pasta, and go to sleep: no problem".
When I asked what his plan was once at home, how would he settle down, his answer was plain and definitive: "I'll work and save for a couple of months, find a job in Canada for a while and then travel in North America for two more years".
Sylvain, we miss your tender, young, and restless spirit already, it was pleasure to share out time together. Good travels and we'll meet you on the way. It's a small world after all.