*This started life as an article, then became the beginning of a new book. I am still undecided on its future.
I was not seeking the backdrop to a dystopian nightmare vision of the future, but I found it in Bangkok. From the outset it was evident: the all encompassing heat – like a hot flannel that can’t be shaken, the vast concrete structures of the overhead Skytrain stations that cancel out the sun, the rising steam from the street food barbecues that exacerbates the oven cauldron I found myself in. Then there’s the monsoon rains, the neon, the chronic traffic and the characters that inhabit the metropolis. Indeed the only thing missing from Asia’s city of angels is flying cars!
I am somewhat undercover; like so many others hiding behind the guise of English teacher, while secretly pursuing the dream of being a writer – it’s close but it will take a final push to get me there full time. In only a week I’ve chanced upon some that are already doing exactly that and from what I’ve gathered they’re nowhere near as experienced as me. How could that happen? Had I taken a wrong turn somewhere? For now it was back to the familiar treadmill; find a job, find a home and rebuild from a Turkish nightmare that had cleansed me of most of my savings. And that’s another thing. My bank of 30 years had – unbeknown to me – decided to stop my bank card creating a set of events that I really could have done without. For one, I must wait for the UK to awake and the are several hours behind meaning that by the time they do, I only have a window of half an hour to speak to people, highlighting my predicament. There was nothing worse than being in a place and the terrifying aspect of waiting at the ATM realising that your money is not coming. This would occur many times throughout my travels in Asia.
What possessed me to go there? I was pushed the way of the orient for its seemingly ‘cheap’ lifestyle but was it really? To some extent it worked out more expensive than the west. The rents are definitely more agreeable but that doesn’t factor in food (eating out is a normality here) and the fact the most basic things to westerners like breakfast cereal and shampoo can be up to twice the amount as home (wherever that might be). The heat plays its part here. Two (or more) showers a day means twice as much shampoo. Then comes water and electricity. So cheaper? Not really, just more swings and roundabouts.
The transport seemed modern but was in reality an organisational shambles. The BTS (Skytrain) and MRT (Metro) scratch only the surface while most of the city is only reachable by surface: taxi, bus, tuk tuk and the Bike taxis (in Orange shirts) – an experience in itself. It’s scarier when they slow down! While most cities combine their transport systems, Bangkok at the time did not. A separate card for the BTS and MRT was needed, although I’ve heard this has since changed. As of my time there in 2011, Bangkok had the fare paying passenger sucked in for the ride. A monthly card was no more than lip service with only ‘journeys’ available which meant a top up during the month – unless feeding it with 1000THB notes which would have been possible (if on a good salary).
In the end that would never eventuate. What did happen was I got employed pretty rapidly in a great school with great kids so what could all of these sandbags be for? Surely there was not another coup going on. In my naivety everything seemed normal to me, but it was the calm before the storm. The worst floods for several decades were encroaching on the Thai capital. There was a government melt-down, prime ministerial tears at question time. There were in the region of 2000 schools affected and while mine remained bone dry on the third floor of an inner city building, the government ordered all schools to be closed. Within only a week Bangkok was more or less over. The person who hired me had absconded to New Zealand answering e-mails only when she felt like it. Other teachers said it could be 2 months before things return to normal and of course I couldn’t afford to hang around.
I spent another month trying to avert the inevitable but in the end two months rent and a visa run could not be afforded, it was better to cut my losses and run. An administrator from my school summoned me into one of the empty classrooms to pay me. It felt as if I was being dismissed and I’d done nothing wrong except walk into a natural disaster. I then entered a strange existence of limbo between the airport terminal floor (to try and recoup some of my lost income), a 3 star hotel, a 5 star hotel (as a reviewer) and a backpackers dormitory. Personally I thought the school should have marketed themselves to the affluent among the city centre, quite why they hadn’t was perplexing to say the least. They didn’t take too kindly to me enquiring as to why they hadn’t either by ignoring my mails – evidently, a strong point of theirs.
Aside from losing my job I also lost £200 on my condo (apartment) which might not sound a lot but at that point in time was. Unfortunately Thai’s follow a contract to the letter. My reasoning did not matter, the smiley slimy bastard simply didn’t want to return my money, or not all of it anyway citing a ‘breach of contract.’ The flood which had by then reached Chatuchak Market, a mere 2 stops away did not seem a worthy reason to them. Put simply; easy money.
All of that meant I had to find a nearby country where a demand for teachers was so high I couldn’t fail to land work. There was only one. China. I got my visa in December heat. The passport photos taken by the Taiwanese in Auckland I had been carrying around for months would finally prove their worth. 30 days were granted to make things work in the land of dragons or the middle kingdom as it is sometimes referred to. Had I not lost my nerve, courtesy of the negative forum posts I’d read in London, I could have got 90. Only now did my mistakes become ever more resolute. Going back to Turkey and then to Thailand had both been catastrophic failures and I should have filled in the forms in London if not for the confusion dished out by the Chinese Embassy and said comments. All I could do was move forward and hope I had enough juice in the finance department to make it work.
Airport rep: Where are you going?
Airport rep: China?
Me: Yeah, you know.. Panda’s and stuff.
Entrancing the terminal hall, I half expect another night on the floor. There is only one thing that could prevent this; a Pakistan Airways flight to Hong Kong which I’m aware of but don’t think I have much hope of catching with less than an hour before boarding and take off. However as luck would have it I was wrong and they gladly took my cash allowing me to run for the gate, fortunate to be on the only flight connecting with the Beijing train, though it would still mean a night at the airport, HK however does at least offer free internet. Why, you may ask, was I going to Beijing in the winter when I swore to myself that I would never go there at that time? There was a chance of media work at China Daily. My contact said it would be a good time to go and better still, there was a spare room available. Well that would be my reasoning anyway.