It was back to India again. This time I went on my own. The first time I’d gone with a group and I was apprehensive but this time I was genuinely frightened. I had managed to find a voluntary job which paid a small amount of money each month the catch being this school was right out in the countryside in central India. I arrived in the middle of summer, it was 47 degrees and the all the ground was parched, everything was orange as far as you could see.
I had bad vibes about this place as soon as I had arrived. The headmaster was new and kept changing the schedules around. The teachers didn’t like him and the place appeared to be in disarray. It was owned by some guy who lived in Mumbai and he was the one who gave me the job. He’d met me in Mumbai before taking me to Madhya Pradesh. One of the first things he said to me was I needed to change my accent. So I’m thinking ‘who the fuck does this guy think he is? If you can’t understand me it’s your problem not mine.’ If you were to speak to me, you would know I’m from London however I am well able to speak in a clear English accent. Not a good start.
The next problem was the other volunteer teacher. I’m generally respectful towards people but this guy was just fucking weird. He was from the states, I can’t remember exactly where. The kids themselves told me they didn’t like him, the guy had been a primary school teacher but seemed unable to interact properly with the children. He kept preaching about the virtues of vegetarianism. I’ve no problem with vegetarians, the problem I had with him was that he told me the real reason he was a vegetarian was because he had worked in McDonalds and ate too many burgers and so messed up his stomach.
I also had to become a vegetarian because the school was strictly vegetarian. At first it wasn’t too bad, but after a couple of weeks of eating lentils every day you get a bit sick of it. I never thought I would see the day when I’d be excited at getting a veggie burger on a Friday night. The puris were good though, it was one thing I could take away, learning to make puris.
One day there was a knock on my door and it was one of the teachers. He was looking a bit shady, looking around to see if anyone had seen him coming. I’m standing there thinking what’s this guy up to? He said he’d heard I wanted to eat some meat and if I wanted, he could get me a chicken. Of course I wanted a chicken. So for the next few days he’d exchange knowing winks and whispers about the chicken when I passed him in the corridors. After a few days he knocked on my door at about ten o’clock and ushered me up to his room where his wife was cooking a chicken. Best meal I ever had but the whole getting a chicken thing was like doing a drug deal. Apparently, he had to go down to the village in the middle of the night to get a chicken and I wasn’t to tell anyone I’d eaten it.
For the first few weeks they had all been complaining about the lack of rain. The ground was parched and there were no clouds in sight. One day I heard people shouting outside, it had began to rain. Once it started it was like someone had turned on a tap. Within a few days the ground had turned green, there were plants that had not been there a few days before that were three or four feet tall. It was an incredible thing to witness, we moan about the rain in England and Ireland while forgetting in places like this village people’s lives depend on it coming.
After six weeks I’d decided I wanted to go. The place gave off too much of a bad vibe, the other volunteer was strange and not someone I could talk to. There was discontent among the teachers and I’d had enough. The kids were good kids but everything else was too much, especially when there was nothing else to do, the village was a good six kilometres away, when the temperature is 45 degrees you’re not walking that.
I jumped on a train back to Mumbai and then a plane back to London. The guy in Mumbai was pissed off but I didn’t care. The kids had told me the volunteers usually leave early and I’d still not forgiven him for his remarks on my English so as far as I was concerned he could go fuck himself. While waiting for the plane to be called in Mumbai I bought myself a bucket of chicken from KFC, I’d lost about a stone in weight. That KFC was the most satisfying I’ve ever had.
Back home I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d caught the travel bug badly but was skint after my adventures to India. I ended up working in a famous internet company picking and packing. You’d walk miles every day picking things from shelves. I didn’t really mind it, it kept me fit but it gave you too much time to think. I’d been clean nearly three years and I still had no idea what I was doing or where I as going. These days I’m relaxed about the direction life will take me, what happens will happen but at that point I was becoming anxious about having no direction.
It was at this point when I started to write again. I set up a blog on blogger.com, I’m not sure if it still exists as I don’t know which username I used to create it. One person in particular made a comment about what I had written and it gave me the confidence to carry on. I won’t name her but I’m grateful for those words and it shows that just a couple of words of encouragement can spur people on to do better things.
I was commuting about three or four hours a day, earning minimum wage and I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was having a crisis, I’d started to think is this what life is all about? I began looking on the internet for jobs abroad and came across a company who set people up with jobs in China. I managed to somehow get the grand together it cost and in August 2010 I was off to Beijing and then Chengdu, the place which is now my second home.
After my adventures in India getting on the plane to Beijing was no problem at all. Although when I got the visa I couldn’t stop looking at it. It’s funny because since that time I’ve had three passports, all of which are filled with visas for various countries but at that time it was symbolic of how far I had come. The biggest problem I had in Beijing was eating, I didn’t know how to use chopsticks and I also didn’t know a word of Chinese. Beijing isn’t the nicest city, it’s big and it’s polluted and most of the architecture is old school communist concrete blocks. I didn’t care, I was doing something I’d always dreamed of doing and would be going somewhere else within a week
After a few days the people who ran the company put our names up on a board and my name was next to Chengdu. I had no idea where Chengdu was, I’d never heard of it. It’s the fifth largest city in China and in the middle of Sichuan. The most important thing was that someone told me they like spicy food down there. That was enough for me.
Chengdu is the most beautiful city you’ll ever go to but it’s a good place to live. At the time, 2010 there weren’t that many foreigners there. When you passed one in the street there was a good chance you knew them. When I’d be sitting on the bus on the way to school people would be staring at me and shouting out ‘hello.’ People in Chengdu love to eat and the love to go out. Social life revolves around eating hotpots and then going to a bar and getting drunk, or KTV. I hate KTV. I can’t sing and was shit at music when I was at school. As soon as anyone mentioned KTV I made my excuses.
The school I taught in was a middle school which would roughly equate to the last few years of secondary school in England. There were 50 to 60 kids in a class, most of whom didn’t have any interest at all in learning English. They treated me well though, kids would run up to me and ask me to sign a piece of paper because they wanted my signature. I’m standing there thinking, ‘I’m just some dude from London, why the fuck would you want my signature?’
When I had arrived in Chengdu it was in the middle of a heatwave, it was about 40 degrees every day and the humidity was unbearable. Me in my naivety had chosen southern China because I didn’t think they would have much of a winter. By November it was still 25 degrees during the day, me and my friends kept reassuring each other that we wouldn’t get much of a winter. At the end of November the temperature dropped from 25 to 5 in the space of about a week. Within another week it had started snowing, the first time it had snowed in forty years.
All my clothes were summer clothes, so I had to go out shopping. I bought a hoodie which I thought looked quite nice. At the time I couldn’t read a word of Chinese so when a Chinese friend told me the words on the hoodie were ‘Chelsea’ I felt like an idiot. Football has always played a big part in my life. I’ve supported Manchester United since I was a kid, I never chose to support them, my dad did and there was never going to be any other team for me. United got me through some of the darkest times in my life and watching them win the European Cup in 1999 is still the greatest night of my life. Yet, here I was walking around China in a Chelsea hoodie with Didier Drogba on the front. I didn’t give a fuck though, it was China, men ride around on pink bikes and carry their girlfriend’s handbags.
After the first six months I had to find another job. A Chinese friend gave me the phone number of some guy who worked for an agency which was based in Chengdu. I really wanted to stay in Chengdu, it’s a laid back place where life is for living. I contacted this guy and arranged to meet him in a pub called ‘The Shamrock’. Even Chengdu has an Irish bar. I brought my mate with me, when we walked in the door we saw two characters sitting there drinking beer, we both looked at each other as if it to say ‘please don’t let it be them two.’ It was.
The English guy was eccentric. He was obsessed with cinemas and was an alcoholic. If you had to make up an eccentric English person you’d base it on him. He was a nice guy he was just very, very strange and would forget what he was talking to you about a few minutes previous only to repeat it again. He was wearing a tweed jacket with corduroy trousers, his face was red from too much booze. His friend was an American who claimed to be American Indian but looked as American Indian as I do. He said he’d driven trucks before coming to China to teach English. The guy was full of shit and like to tell stories most of which I don’t remember.
After a couple of hours we managed to escape them. Bizarrely I ran into the English guy a couple of years ago in a McDonalds in Chengdu. He had been working somewhere a good eight hours away. He looked at me and then said ‘I know you.’ Another English guy appeared and ushered him away, saying ‘Leave the man alone, Oliver.’ China hadn’t treated him well. He’d given me the card to agency and that was where my next adventure started. I was off to a small city in southern Sichuan where there were no foreigners at all.
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