One Udon, Please
After having spent the last seven weeks in the constant company of forty other English teachers, I was finally alone. When I first planned my summer volunteering programme, I had expected it to be an empowering experience. Spiritual. My first year at university had been filled with other people’s chaos and I was excited to take my first steps as an independent woman.
My plan had been to spend six weeks teaching, one week travelling with the other volunteers, and then bask in two weeks of solace, solo backpacking around China. However, after a friend’s travel plans had fallen through, I invited him to join me in Chengdu where we could sightsee together before we parted ways: me returning to the UK and him continuing his way through China all the way up to Beijing.
Within a matter of moments, my two weeks alone had been transformed into a meagre two hours. Most of which I would end up spending at an outdoor noodle restaurant in the dusty mountains of Yangshou county, a mountainous region in southern China’s Guangxi province. Known for its tourist resorts, many visitors come to the area to glance at the mountainous backdrop from the 20-yuan banknote. I, however, had randomly travelled to this area with a group of 40 other English teachers on a summer exchange programme.
My first year at university had been filled with other people’s chaos and I was excited to take my first steps as an independent woman.
Frying in the midday heat, I sat myself on the back of a cracked wooden bench. The only one shielded by a tree. Chilli spices and garlic competed in the air, racing to see who could make me hungrier. A hunched Chinese man waved me over, asking in broken English ‘what would you like to order?’ Thank God he speaks English, I thought. I really hadn’t paid enough attention during my Mandarin lessons. ‘One udon, please,’ I mumbled.
Filled with awe, I felt invincible. I was in China. On my own. I had ordered food in China on my own. If I could travel halfway around the world like it was nothing, I could truly do anything. My worries from home had dissipated like the ice in my knock-off cola.
Within ten minutes my meal had arrived, carted over by a middle-aged woman dressed entirely in a murky yellow. Dropping the bowl halfway between me and the couple opposite, I looked up quizzical. ‘Is this for me?’ The couple didn’t bother look my way; they were far too occupied in their conversation. Tentatively inspecting the bowl, I figured I might as well adopt these noodles. After all, it looked like what I ordered.
After all, it looked like what I ordered.
Clumsily wrapping my ringers around the chopsticks, I pinched a knot of noodles, raising them to my mouth. The noodles were soft and flavourful, they had been cooked in a beef broth absorbing all the juices and nutrients the soup had to offer. I had never tried noodles like it. Usually, the noodles I had encountered would either be too hard or too mushy, yet these were the perfect balance. On top, sat a forest of buttery spinach and cooling tomato chunks. Both of which complimented the spicy beef stock. Best of all was the beef brisket, rich and tender, melting as soon as it reached my mouth.
Having practically inhaled the food, I spent the next hour nursing my food baby. It’s surprising how quickly noodles can bloat you. Filled to the brim, my stomach couldn’t help but scream out every few minutes, gurgling from digestion. The couple from before couldn’t help but look up now. Embarrassed, I paid the bill and wandered aimlessly around the town centre. The streets were filled with smoke and the suffocating smell of barbequed meats. Really, I shouldn’t have gorged this much, I thought to myself, even the brief smell of pizza was enough to make me gag.
My abdomen cried out again.
My abdomen cried out again. Oh, come on. This is humiliating. It was at that moment I realised my stomach was begging for me to find a toilet. Rushing through the streets like a criminal fleeing the police, I sprinted to the closest loo I could find. McDonalds, you’ll have to do. I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. I was betrayed.
Fooled by the bright and cheerful appearance of my meal, I had been stabbed in the back. Well, backside to be more accurate. Nauseous and delicate, I pulled myself away from the lavatory and shuffled back to the hostel. Each step felt like a missile launch straight to the gut. Why did I think I could do this? Solo travel? What a joke. I could barely manage a few hours on my own, let alone a fortnight. I felt like a complete failure.
Slumping into bed, I struggled to find a comfortable position to lay in. Laying down hurt, sitting was dangerous, and moving was pure hell. I couldn’t fathom how I would meet my friend for dinner that night. Defeated, I began crafting my apology but before I could hit send, I received a notification from him: ‘Got food poisoning, see you tomorrow.’
Why did I think I could do this? Solo travel? What a joke.
A smile spread across my face and I began to bubble with an uncontrollable laughter. We were supposed to be travelling across the country to Chengdu, Sichuan, on a standing train tomorrow. I felt relieved to know I wasn’t the only one to have made this silly mistake and realised that while I had made a mistake, I wasn’t something that could be helped. Life is about mistakes and part of the charm of solo travel is overcoming these flaws. I tapped my response.
‘Crap, we have a fourteen-hour train tomorrow,’ I clicked reply.