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The premature ending of my Canadian adventure: COVID-19

I’ve been holding off from writing this blog post for a few weeks now, as I knew it would be a little painful to look back on my final days in Vancouver and think about this dystopian film we’ve all been sprung into. As I sit here writing this, it doesn’t even feel real to think my year abroad ended so prematurely, and so abruptly. However, I find some solace in the fact that my final months at SFU were stolen from a global pandemic- one which has disrupted everyone’s lives, in a situation from which no one is exempt. Though I regret not travelling outside of British Columbia (saving money for a California-Mexico trip at the very END of my year) I feel like entertaining such regret is futile. The best way to make peace with this situation is to reflect on all the amazing experiences I did get to have- and the ways which study abroad has changed my life for the long-haul. Firstly, I’m going to document my final days spent in Vancouver- both those during which I was blissfully ignorant to the encroachment of a pandemic, and the ones where I was aware. Then, maybe I’ll talk about the ways study abroad has impacted me more broadly. This all has a very dramatic tone, it’s meant to be nice and reflective lol.

Following on from my previous blog post

A month ago I had written a blog post about the first half of semester 2, including the event I organised for Ban the Bottle and the things I was really looking forward to- most notably, my family coming out to visit (saving the expensive activities I couldn’t afford for this week), and a trip travelling through California and Mexico with some friends at the end.

After my last blog post, a couple of weeks of normal life followed. We were aware that the Coronavirus situation was worsening, but still felt untouched by its reach. The weather in Vancouver was amazing, so naturally we fled the SFU campus and headed downtown. Me and Maddie explored the neighbourhood of Kitsilano – one of the first places I went to last August, when the outdoor pool was open and the bikini-weather flowing. After this, we headed towards the yoga studio in downtown, but were sidetracked by a massive thrift shop and jumped off the bus to have a lil browse. We tried on summery clothes, imagining ourselves on the beaches of Mexico, ice-cold corona in hand. Instead, we were dealt a very different kind of corona, as the situation worsened over the following few days. We hadn’t been skiing in Whistler since reading break, so planned a day trip that weekend- not expecting it to be our last :((

Skiing that day was perhaps my favourite ever. I kept saying ‘lets just assume this is our last time, since this corona thing is escalating’- but everyone brushed it off, already making plans to ski again the following week. The ‘last-time’ mentality helped though, and the day was filled with a combination of off-piste, trees and jumps, with bluebird conditions. We found out that the resort would be closing the following day for the remainder of the season. At this point I began to realise the magnitude of the situation, and started to grapple with the reality that we might be flying home very soon. Everyday, me and my other exchange friends would gauge the feeling of the group- deciding whether we’d risk staying in Canada and potentially getting stuck, or if we should just fly home and admit defeat. Another idea we toyed with for a couple of days was to escape to Mexico for a few weeks, after which we would more willingly return to the UK. Each day, our plans would change drastically, and it was stressful not knowing how much time we had left in Canada. Reluctantly, we all booked flights for the end of the week, with the intention of having a proper send-off- visiting our favourite spots for the final time.

The final days

The final days- I mean the ‘flight booked’ actual final days- were weirdly similar to my first days spent in the city. Me and friends went to see our fav views for the final time, and I went off freely exploring the city on my own just as I did last August. I drank boujee coffee, took way too many photos, and chatted to friendly Canadians. I opened my eyes more, and noticed little things about Vancouver that I had taken for granted (helped by the teasing sunshine).

On our final day together, we walked down the mountain to Barnet Marine park for a chill day and a casual spot of crabbing (??). Another gorgeous day:

So that concludes my time in Canada, how strange. Being home for the last couple of weeks has been weird, almost as if Canada was all a dream. It’s been nice to just focus on my wellbeing and getting fit again (The super-fit, healthy Vancouverite lifestyle doesn’t stretch to exchange students, oh noooo), but this isn’t the return I had anticipated, and its hard not being able to wrap my arms around friends and family who I haven’t seen for ages. However, I haven’t felt the need to wallow in self-pity about what could have been – after all, everyones lives have been impacted by this, and I know I’m incredibly lucky to be in safe position back home. This definitely is not the end of Canada’s influence on me though- it has only given me greater wanderlust to keep on exploring new places. I hope to return someday, but for now, I’m staying home xoxo

Chapter One: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Australian National University

Going on exchange while the Coronavirus is spreading in the world isn’t a fun thing. I did not want to start the blog with the virus, however, without all the troubles prior to the beginning of my semester abroad, the story will not be completed. 

After taking the final exam at Manchester, I took a flight the next day back to China, planning to stay home for seven days during Chinese New Year and then embark on a journey to Australia. However, it was at that time that the Coronavirus outbreak started in China. On the 1stof February, after I checked in at the airport and started shopping in the duty-free area, my friends texted me that Scott Morrison has set a travel ban for visitors from China. “Are you kidding me?” I walked to the airport departure board and saw flights to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane… all cancelled! 

sdr

As you can imagine what happened next, the airport turned into a huge mess. People queuing for luggage, staff unloading and distributing them to the passengers. Each individual was wearing a mask, pushing through the crowd to get their luggage. I felt like even a healthy person could get sick or be affected under that circumstance. I finally got home with all my luggage, tired like a horse. 

sdr

It was a Saturday night, I sent emails to anyone who I thought may help. I kept telling myself to calm down, wait at least until Monday to see what they will reply. However,  I also worried that with one more day of hesitation, Britain will shut their door. Friends at uni texted me: “Hey, Ziqi. You can still come back to Manchester. Don’t have to gap.” Was this it? Were all my efforts for exchange ended up in this way? It was one of the most difficult weeks in my life. I was desperate: checked news, checked email boxes, texted Australian oversea students in China…

After struggling for one week, I weighted different options and decided to go to Thailand with two other girls for 14 days of isolation. It was my third time going to Thailand. Upon leaving there, I promised myself to never visit Thailand again. 

Hope is an important thing. Once there is hope, you will feel much better. In the flat we rented, we cooked, watched movies, chatted, and counted the 14 days down. It is true that plans can never keep up with changes. Just as I first planned to get to ANU campus early and mix up with all other students, I have now undergone an unexpected two-week vacation and missed O-week.  

Lapland: lockdown edition

As Covid-19 rolled ominously across Asia and into the West, initially causing a deluge of cases in Italy, eventually the cloud burst over everyone. The distant, fluffy, cumulus cloud metastasized into an irksome storm cloud which proved to be the ultimate rain check for everyone on placement.

We first heard about the coronavirus shortly after arriving in Sweden in January. We heard distant reports of a new illness affecting East Asia, like the lockdown of Wuhan and the quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan. Though saddening news for those impacted, such stories made the threat of coronavirus seem distant and almost unimportant from our perspective, like a small white cumulus cloud in a sky of bedazzling blue.

Yet as Covid-19 rolled ominously across Asia and into the West, initially causing a deluge of cases in Italy, eventually the cloud burst over everyone. The distant, fluffy, cumulus cloud metastasized into an irksome storm cloud which proved to be the ultimate rain check for everyone on placement.

What was to be begin with a trickle of stories concerning the spread of the virus became a monsoon of messages from parents, university staff and government urging for the repatriation of international students.

What were drips and drabs became a torrent of international students fleeing Sweden. They left for different reasons, for some it was the demand of their home institutions, for others it was the fear being stranded. But, one by one, students left and dutifully echoed the mantra of ‘get out whilst you still can’ to those who chose to remain.

But returning home doesn’t shrug off the shadow of coronavirus, does it?

Indeed, for many international students returning home was a step into the eye of the storm. Some countries have more cases of coronavirus and more stringent measures to enforce social distancing. Whereas Sweden is something of a pariah among the international community when it comes to Covid-19 responses. It only recently prohibited social gatherings of fifty or more and schools, shops, club and pubs remain open for business.

Nevertheless, the gaping hole left by fleeing students is irreparable. The remaining months for those remaining will be uncertain and possibly lonely. And I ,writing from a UK under lockdown, cannot help but reminisce back to brighter times.

Through the rose-tinted glasses I see through when looking back on my time abroad, one memory which stands out is my time in Lapland in late February, when coronavirus was but a dot on the horizon.

I arranged to go with three other Brits (Ben, Kirsten and Emily) through a tourist company called TimeTravels who produce an attractive itinerary of activities quintessential to Lapland. Though each of our experiences in their own way deserves a separate post, I will attempt to condense my experiences to the what I think is essential, whilst paying lip-service to the truth.

The trip began at the end of a hum-drum day in Uppsala. We met our group with whom we’d be spending the next week alongside and waited to be collected by coach to embark on the 19-hour bus journey to the Arctic Circle.

Our journey was punctuated by occasional outbursts from the group leader, Nico, an exuberant employee of TimeTravels who’s passion for adventure and lust for knowledge shone out of him like sunbeams.

He and the satisfaction of seeing the coach thermometre inch incrementally lower from 5°c to -20°c throughout the night made the time pass a little easier.

In the afternoon, the next day, we arrived at our accommodation, a ski-resort which, judging from the bustle activity that greeted us, was yet to be opened. Snow ploughs and staff shovelled snow frantically to clear paths from an astronomical amount of snow that had fallen during closed season. One employee told us that the region had experienced 3m of snow since January.

The next four days flew by. In fear of sounding repetitive, I’ll provide some photos with captions rather than exhausting descritptions.

The 6am sunrise at Riksgränsen, Sweden’s northernmost ski resort.
A pair of huskies, tethered to a sleigh and resting before the next run.
A traditional Sámi hut, used to dry meats in the summer months.
An inquisitve reindeer following the smell of lichen.
An Ice Hotel: international sculptors competed to design rooms inside.
The town of Kiruna. Due to the activities of a nearby iron mine which provides most of the jobs here, the entire town is in the process of being relocated.
Not sure who these guys were, but here they are at a Norweigan Fjord.
The Norweigan city of Narvik as seen from the 16th storey.

Of all of the experiences making up this trip, only one deserves a proper description. That is our sighting of the Northern Lights. Thanks to an app, we could track the movement and visibility of the lights throughout the trip. And on one fateful night, the clouds parted.

Faint at first, from a snowy perch outside our bedrooms, we saw them stretching across the sky. They moved constantly due to solar winds which blew the charged particles and created a rippling effect.

Yet, to call it a visual experience fails to convey the experience authentically. The tendrils of an illuminous lime-light unfurling before us in the sky transcended beauty and produced simultaneous feelings of awe and cosmic insignificance. It was what Kant, Hulme and Burke would compare to the sublime. And what the Sámi People would describe as the dancing souls of ancestors.

Both interpretations touch on a feeling that we were invited to witness something ineffable, that cannot be put into language, and that inability to describe represents our impotence in nature. It is the same feeling one gets from being stranded in the middle of the ocean with mountainous waves crashing against the side of a ship. A demonstration of the power and beauty of nature and reminder of how small we are.

What will we see when the coronavirus cloud parts?

Taiwan in a Weekend

Singapore -> Taipei

One of the great things about living in Singapore is the travel opportunities, and getting to go away on weekends. Last term me and my friends went to watch the lantern festival in Pingxi and spent the weekend in Taiwan, here’s how we did it.

Day 1: Taipei

So the flight to Taiwan takes around 4 hours, depending on which flight you get, so after arriving we made our way to our hostel. To get to the hostel we took the MRT, in the airport you can buy both phone sims and travel cards. The Taiwan metro card is also a key chain, and they’re very cute, for example mine is a Snoopy key chain! The first thing we noticed was the change in temperature, as we visited in February the temperature was around 16 degrees Celsius, which is quite a change from the 33 degrees we had gotten used to. We spent the afternoon going around the old town in Taipei and visiting some of its beautiful temples. This was all free and the photos were beautiful! We made our way to the walking street for dinner and shopping. The main thing worth noting is looking up, most shops and restaurants are upstairs rather than at street level. There’s lots of cool and quirky bars and restaurants for example, ours was underwater themed and had swings!

Day 2: The Festival

The festival is held in Pingxi / Shifen which is not in Taipei. Instead we decided to first visit Jiufen and then go to Shifen. To get there we were able to take a bus direct from Taipei. Jiufen is an old town in the mountains, with great views of the coastline and lots of market stalls and things to buy. If you have time it’s definitely worth staying for lunch and watching the view. From here we went to The Lantern Festival. The transport to the festival is fairly organised, as you’re able to get a bus or a train. Once you get there you can buy dinner and drinks from the stalls and have a look around. It gets busy very quickly, and the transport back does end before midnight – so it’s worth checking times and giving yourself enough time to be there (for reference we spent just over two hours at the festival). You also have the option of buying a lantern with your friends, you can decorate it and set it off with the others. Whilst there we got very lucky as a local resident offered us tickets to set off a lantern inside the venue which is where the main lantern releases happen. This was just by pure chance what we were able to do this but if you get the chance I would really recommend it, as it was a very special experience.

Day 3: Taipei

On our final day we spent time going around Taipei some more. We visited the Chiang Kai – Shek memorial which was beautiful, there is also a changing of the guards ceremony which is very elaborate and cool to watch. Whilst it was the start of cherry blossom season we didn’t have time to get out of the city to find any, but the people who did really recommended it! Another recommended activity is Taipei 101, however because of the time of year we were not able to go outside to see the view. An alternative to paying for the view is to climb Elephant Mountain, which is beautiful for sunrise and sunset.

We only spent three days in Taiwan, but it’s definitely somewhere I would go back to! It’s a great mix of city life and culture.

“It won’t happen to me”: Pandemic Edition

“Students who can safely leave are urged to do so.”

Kasha Yip, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

(TL;DR at the end.)

You really don’t think a worldwide, society-stopping, economy-crumbling, mass panic-inducing virus would become a big problem in your lifetime, especially not when you’re studying nearly 5 and a half miles away from home for a year. Luckily for us, the coronavirus came to say hello for who knows how long.

So… how do you prepare? What do you do?

Honestly, that’s the question I’m asking myself right now. The past week has been so turbulent with the various updates either from UCSB or about how other countries are doing.

On Tuesday 10th, the Chancellor told us that the rest of Winter quarter (dead/the last week and finals week) and Spring quarter until the end of April were turning into remote instruction. Between then and Thursday 12th, I found out 2 of my finals would be online, my last final would be optional and we could use midterm grades if we wanted (yes), and the musical production I was involved in would be cancelled.

Sure, okay, I have 2 weeks spring break now because my finals end early, and then 4 weeks of home schooling with no commitments because everything is cancelled. Doable. My aunt lives in DC and asked if I wanted to stay with her during this time, but my grandparents are also staying with her so I told her I’d think about it.

On Friday, it came out that there might have been suspected cases in Isla Vista (IV). Some people went to a music festival in San Diego with their friend who just came back from Italy, and they were now self-quarantining. I was definitely not going to stay with my grandparents, and it was probably for the best to stay put here just in case.

Just yesterday, Saturday 14th, the Chancellor updated us that the whole of Spring quarter would be remote instruction. “Students who can safely leave are urged to do so.”

Excuse me? What on earth do I do? I can’t go to DC or go home – I don’t want to have or catch the coronavirus in the airport or on a flight and give it to my family. But what if all my housemates leave and I have to stay here by myself? How depressing and isolating is that? And what if I stay here and then get stuck here, because who knows how this will develop by summer? Should I go and stay with my family when it’s the end of the world? So much overthinking, so many questions…

In a time where it can already feel lonely and away from so many people you care about, not having any choices to do anything and being forced to stay inside and away from people really hits hard. It’s isolating, feels hopeless, and gives you so. much. anxiety.

It’s hard to talk about; everyone’s affected in different ways. Some people have sunk (back) into depression, some people have overwhelming anxiety, some people have immunocompromised friends and family, some people don’t care and think everything has been over-exaggerated.

I definitely did not expect this to happen on my year abroad. There is no way to prepare. There is nothing you can do.

I still don’t know if I should go home or if it’s better for me to remain in IV and just not leave my house. Things are changing so rapidly, and there’s no way to predict what will happen next. At this time, we can only wait and see.

So, yeah, “it won’t happen to me” until it does. But I was thinking more of, you know, an “I broke my leg, and now I have to pay a lung and a kidney to deal with it” type situation, or maybe a “there are campfires and we should evacua—”. Oh wait, that already happened the week of Thanksgiving. Never mind. You know what I mean.

I have no useful information in this post besides to tell you all to practice social distancing and stay safe. I know this has affected everyone around the world, including home students. I don’t know how other students abroad are dealing, or what’s happening with them (I know a girl who has to go back to the UK from Toronto in the next few days), but this is what’s happened in the little old town of Isla Vista this past week.

I’ve tried to keep this as neutral and panic-free as possible, and I’m sure there will be updates along the way. Stay safe everyone! (And don’t let a global pandemic stop you from studying abroad. It’s great apart from this. I promise.)

TL;DR: Pandemic = online classes + ??? + big sad.

Food Tourism in Flogsta

Not too long ago, I heard a rumour about an Ethiopian restaurant run from a bedroom somewhere amongst the brutalist blocks in Flogsta. Though I was told so little about it that it seemed mythical and even absurd. How could someone possibly do that? Where would they sleep? Is it profitable?

Not too long ago, I heard a rumour about an Ethiopian restaurant run from a bedroom somewhere amongst the brutalist blocks in Flogsta, Uppsala, where I’m living this semester. Though I was told so little, the prospect seemed mythical and even absurd. How could someone possibly do that? I thought. Where would they sleep? Is it profitable?

My mind raced and I struggled to believe it. Perhaps it was an urban myth made up to taunt international students with the promise of a cuisine that had more to offer than picked herrings and meatballs. Nonetheless, when I caught wind of the rumour I was struck by insatiable curiosity and felt compelled to find out the truth.

Over the next few days, after asking the same questions many times, I found out that there was indeed a restaurant run from the comfort of a bedroom. However, the discovery of this fact was only half the battle if I were to eat there.

Making a reservation was a tricky business but eventually, through a friend of a friend, I managed to obtain the name and phone number of the restaurant.  Perhaps this was due to the dubious legality of the set-up, the restaurant is not well advertised except for an obscure Facebook page which provides only a mobile number. Nevertheless, I called it to make a reservation for my flatmate Marie and me with the hope about finding out more about the identity of our host.

A man’s voice answered, he spoke quickly and abruptly as if he had been interrupted from doing something more important and curtly told me than now wasn’t a good time. Over a subsequent SMS exchange, he asked two questions; what time we’d would like to book and how spicy we’d like our food. Though the only nugget of information I gleamed from this interaction was that the food would have some level of spiciness, I was glad that my fantasy was fast becoming a reality.

With a ravenous curiosity and even deeper appetite, we approached the restaurant. As we neared, my apprehension for what we would find grew. A torrent of questions bombarded me. What sort of man would do this? Is he mentally okay? Why would I willingly go to a restaurant so ostensibly lacking food and hygiene regulations?!

It now dawned on me that my appetite for adventure had dampened my much more rational fear of the unknown. Such questions stewed in the back of my mind as we walked down a corridor that was so familiar to my own flat yet distorted unrecognisably by the potential danger that awaited us.

Even being a Hotelier at the Hotel for the Unexpected would not have prepared anyone for what awaited us behind his door. Could you imagine? What if someone had done this in Owens Park tower?

The restaurant, geometrically identical to mine and every other in Flogsta yet different in every other imaginable way, was dimly lit by single lamp nestled in the corner. Its light illuminated everything, from bookcases brimming with beer bottles to shelves stacked with CDs, vinyl’s and vintage magazines. In this archive of antiquities, lit up by a ghostly white light, stood our host, a man on the right side of 70 dressed entirely in khaki beachwear with a crop of greyish pink hair in a bun.

He was everything you’d expect and everything I deserved. He was old, Swedish and vivacious. After a short round of pleasantries, in which he refused to shake our hands and we admired his vast collection of collectibles, he spoke a little about himself. Though he never mentioned his name.

It turns out that he belonged to a group of residents who privately rented before the University bought out several blocks for student lettings. So, since 1989, he has lived here. Whilst Flogsta is little more than a half-way-house on the way to a career, mortgage and a family for most students for him it is, and has always been, a home.

It had also been, for a shorter time, an Ethiopian restaurant. Evidently, his room served as both the front-of-house and the kitchen. Amongst his collection of nostalgic knick-knacks were hotplates, saucepans and four hurriedly arranged chairs where Marie and I made ourselves comfortable.

A collection of beer bottles thats taken decades to grow

When asked what drew him to Ethiopian food, rather than a cuisine a little closer to home, he was unapologetic about his distaste for European food. What he disliked particularly about it was the absence of spice, a crucial ingredient which he used in spades in his restaurant.

He described his introduction to spice as a sort of religious awakening. Whilst hitch-hiking in the Scottish Highlands around the time Kraftwerk’s first album came out, he stumbled upon an Indian restaurant which served him a simple vindaloo which converted him to a new cuisine. I know a lot of people re-evaluate life after eating this dish. But who knew a vindaloo could transform a worldview?

It transpired that his love for Ethiopian food came from a flatmate from 25 years ago who had taught him the recipe for injeras, a kind of sourdough-risen flatbread with a slightly spongy texture, traditionally made out of teff flour. It was her recipe he’d been perfecting all these years, testing on the new batches of students who heard about him, through friends of friends. A legacy which Marie and I were to become a part of.

Alongside the national dish of Ethiopia he served spiced spinach and an ambiguous-looking meat sauce. Everything was laden with a smorgasbord of spices which overwhelmed every other flavour the dish had to offer. It is only now looking back that I question if he deliberately disguised the flavours…

But reflecting on my experience, I realise that what we ate is irrelevant. He wasn’t selling dishes, but rather himself. I had gone there to satiate a curiosity about a rumour, to find out about the man behind the myth. Not to be wined and dined in a Michelin star establishment. And to that end, my appetite for adventure was gone.

SFU Semester 2 so far…

In my experience, study abroad can sometimes feel like living in a different world, (especially at SFU, which is so different to UoM), in which you feel like everything back home has paused, and you’re sprung into this new life- one which you never would have encountered without the study abroad programme at Manchester. In that sense, it’s easy to keep breezing along and riding the wave, but I wanna make sure I’m savouring every experience- even the seemingly mundane moments- I encounter here. I’m over half way through my 2nd semester at SFU, and in light of the limited time I have left here in Vancouver, I wanted to look back at the spring term and all the special moments that have made a lasting impression on me.

Returning to snowy Vancouver

It was weird going back home for Christmas for 3 weeks- there were things I started to appreciate about England that I hadn’t ever really noticed. My hometown looked like an idyllic toy-town with tiny winding roads (compared to the contrast of Vancouver’s wide, airy grid-system) and it felt great to be able to order a casual pint of beer at the bar (They’re all about table service and formality over here…) and hear Brits chatting spiel in the background- the bar culture in Vancouver isn’t as lively, but I would say the beer is better (They love a weird craft beer out here).

Anyway, I was feeling a bit nervous about returning to Canada- I think because I knew that this would be the last time I’d be coming back, and we’d no longer be able to use the excuse of ‘it’s calm we’ve got another semester’. I didn’t know what the spring term was gonna bring- especially having lost some great friends (Aussies, Kiwis, Germans etc) who returned to their home universities at Christmas. Thankfully, I can say that this semester has been amazing- with the frequent skiing as the main factor in that. I had been itching to get on the slopes throughout semester 1, so you can imagine how good it felt to start using our season passes and own [very battered] skis.

Within the first few days of being back at SFU, Vancouver lived up to its reputation of being a cold, snowy, Canadian city- though one that defo doesn’t know how to function with snow. So for a couple of days, Vancouver kinda shut down and travelling around was slow (got stuck in the cold a few times). But this didn’t stop me and my bestie from home (she flew all the way from Brighton!!!) getting out (see pics below).

Trips to Whistler

One of the major reasons why I chose Vancouver as my study abroad destination was because of its great outdoors and access to world-class skiing. Within Vancouver itself, there are 3 mountain ski resorts (Grouse, Seymour and Cypress) which are small, family-oriented resorts that offer day and night skiing. So far I’ve only been to one of these; Mt Seymour, for an evening of night skiing. Unfortunately, it was super foggy and the vis was bad (which was worsened by my dark, reflective goggles- look good but so impractical haha), but I’ve heard that on clear days you can see over the whole city. I intend on doing a ‘ride night’ with the ski club here, since they offer discounted evening passes to these resorts.

Though Vancouver itself boasts lots of options for skiing, Whistler (2 hour coach drive away) was the real-deal, and the £450 student season pass made this so worth it, baring in mind a day-pass costs upwards of £100. During the first few weeks of the semester- when uni commitments were low- we tried to get up to Whistler once a week, using Whistler Rides and Skylynx coaches to do day trips. Though this was tiring- having to wake up at 5am to catch the coach from downtown and returning to campus around 9pm- days spent in Whistler always fill me with gratitude, and offer a mental reset, a good cure for home sickness/stress etc.

My highlights of Whistler so far are spending the reading week there with 3 other exchange friends, staying in the H.I hostel and being able to apres and party without rushing for a coach back to the city (Whistler is known for having decent nightlife, where only Friday and Saturday nights are dead??). There’s no shortage of Aussies in Whistler either, which can only be a good thing right? All 4 days spent skiing over the reading break treated us to blue skies and sunshine (though very icy), and we were lucky enough to go inside an Ice cave near the top of Whistler mountain. See pics below for my highlights so far.

Midterms & what’s next…

Coming back to reality after reading break in Whistler was weird. As much as I love the city-life aspect of Vancouver, I sometimes find the SFU campus (located 40 min bus ride from downtown) a little isolating and boring. However, sometimes all it takes is a little reminder of the beauty surrounding me, and I head over to the mountain park view point (I’ve taken endless pics of the views from up here- it’s defo my favourite spot) or drag myself off campus to go to a yoga class at KarmaTeachers (a beautiful studio that offers free or by-donation yoga). After all, the stereotypical Vancouverite lives n breathes yoga, hiking and Lululemon- so I might as well try and milk that before heading back to Manchester.

I had a couple of midterm exams after reading break, which I tried not to stress too much about… hopefully that’s all good. Last semester I joined student-led activist club ‘Ban the Bottle’ as their new events coordinator, and I’m so excited to have organized my first event for them last week. The main goal of our club is to literally, ban the [plastic] bottles on campus, urging people to utilise the water refill stations located all around campus. After lots of back-and-forth communication, we successfully hosted an event screening of the beautiful documentary ‘The Heart of the Fraser’, which deals with the issue of environmental degradation the Fraser river, a declining salmon population and the associated issues with operating industry and agriculture on the river’s floodplains. The screening was followed by a Q&A panel discussion with the film’s director, professor Ken Ashely (who was very involved with the project and film) and the Pacific Water Research Centre’s (PWRC) executive director Zafar Adeel. We also gave out free ‘Ban the Bottle’ reusable bottles to everyone in the audience, as well as popcorn and logo stickers for promotion.

We’re super happy to have confirmed with the SFU facilities team that plastic bottles will be removed from all shops and vending machines on campus in Summer. The next event to plan will be a celebratory social/party at the end of semester, hopefully with the announcement of an exact date. See pics from the screening event below (credit to Ryan De Jong).

Right now my focus is on making the most of every last day in this beautiful city, as well as saving money for travelling- hopefully through California and Mexico- at the end of the semester!

Ummm HELP??! – Tips on living in Brisbane

So it’s been over a year since I was in Brisbane, Australia – over a year of sarcastic ‘sO yOu WeNt tO AuStRaLiA?! You never mentioned that!’ and of answering the questions of prospective Aussie travellers. I’ve noticed a trend in the questions i’ve been asked so I thought i’d write a somewhat practical blog telling the story of my fears and big questions, and some tips on day-to-day life as a student in Brisbane. I hope that this shows the big stresses of studying abroad aren’t really as big as they seem!

What about the BUGS??!! 

Thought i’d mention this first. It’s Australia right? And yeah, it’s all true, they still have dinosaurs over there, and there’s flying spiders as big as your face buzzing about ready to eat you alive as soon as you step out of your house.

Nah just kidding, but I was pretty on edge when I first arrived. I mentioned in an earlier blog that I was greeted by Jonathan, a beast of a spider sitting in a web right outside my ground floor window. I also remember checking under my covers and pillow every night for the first 2 weeks in the hope there was nothing under there to ambush me. Turns out mutant insects don’t exist, and giant spiders, especially when you live in the city, are pretty rare.

The worst experience I had with the Aussie bugs was during a road trip down the east coast. We decided to visit a hidden spot on the edge of a tropical forest where there was a rope swing and a big pool of water. It was so sick, but the only problem was the plague of horse-flies surrounding the water, and as soon as they caught wind of you they would swarm. The only way to escape them was dive under water or run for your life.

Getting away from the airport…

Don’t forget to book an airport pick up!! UQ and many other universities provide them depending on what uni you are going to, so book one a week or so in advance. I was silly and forgot to do this, but was saved by Jonno, a contact I was lucky to have in Brisbane.

Getting around in Brisbane

For a normal day of university or just exploring the city, having a ‘GO card’ is absolutely necessary in Brisbane. They are super easy to pick up, any Coles, newsagent or 7/11 (a small shop similar to Co-op but cheaper, and can be found on nearly every street) does them. All you have to do is beep them on their beeper on a bus/ferry at the start and end of every journey. Top them up by just handing them in at the 7/11 till or online at translink.com.au. I used to live in West End, so to get to UQ i’d take a bus and then a ferry across the river, which took me straight to campus. Also, I would be so lost in the world without google maps. Keep your phone and that trusty app always!

Food + shops

The two big supermarkets in Brisbane are Woolworths (yeah it still exists?!) and Coles. There is a sort of rivalry between the supermarkets, and most Aussies decide to be either a ‘woolys’ or Coles shopper. Both are similar in price. I used Coles, because they were closest to me, and they used to do these really cool mini plastic vegemite toys if you spent over $40 in a shop.

Speaking of money…

I used ‘Transferwise’ to convert my English £ to Australian $. There’s an app which is super easy to use, you simply type what amount of money you want to convert, it shows you the rate at which it will convert and then sends you the money within a day or so.

I set up a bank account with Commonwealth bank, which are also really easy to use and have an online banking app. There are Commonwealth banks scattered all around Brisbane.

What time did you have to travel?

If you’re organised and do work in weekdays, that leaves weekends free for travel, which is the most common strategy for study abroad students it seems. You also get a break in the middle of the semester of a week or 2. Many students also travel after their exams, which is probably the longest and most stress free time which is definitely worth taking advantage of!

My thoughts

Study abroad is full of random things to get stressed about. It seems like there’s so many things to keep on top of, especially before you leave! And yet, from my experience, the worries are certainly not as big and bad as they all seem. The important thing is to keep an open mind and HAVE FUN 🙂

Guelph; why you should come here, even though you’ve likely never heard of it.

When I found out I was coming to Guelph I was a little underwhelmed. Here are some of the reasons you should consider a town whose name sounds like a cough.

The eco-friendly vibe

I have got a free reusable mug, free metal straws, and a free menstrual cup within the first month being here. The farmers market is one of my favourite places, and if you get food on campus you can either get a plate, or get food in a reusable container which is then returned and washed.

Small size

Small is boring right? Wrong! In a big university you can feel a bit like a small fish in a huge lake. Being in smaller classes makes it much easier & much friendlier to get involved in different projects & initiatives. This also means I have the option of talking to professors about assignments and lectures, and a lot of support. I know all the physics students in my year,

The location

I went to New York for spring break. I never thought I’d go to New York; it’s expensive, and it’s far away. Now it’s only one of those things.

I’d say that, in general, the whole of the US and Canada is quite awful for travelling in; everything is so big, and far away; even crossing the street sometimes seems a bit daunting, but Guelph is in a pretty good spot; Montreal, Ottowa, New York, Detroit and Chicago are all either few hours or a night-bus away.

The price

It’s hard to comment on the places I didn’t go, but I’d guess Guelph in on the cheaper side. For me, living expenses have been comparable to Manchester (but a little more expensive). In some of the more northern parts of Canada, groceries can be very expensive, and rent here is more accessible than the more famous cities like Toronto.

The climate also means I didn’t have to buy any of the new clothes I budgeted for; I’ve survived all year in my doc-martens and coat from superdry. I wear two pairs of socks, a bobble hat, scarf and gloves, and I’m happy and snug and warm.

The weather

The autumn leaves are a beautiful, surprising shade of red and gold. I love the snow. Snow is amazing; it’s soft and clean and its so satisfying to walk through a pristine layer. Icicles fascinate me; they’re so sharp and glassy.

Canada is a beautiful place, and a big part of that is the weather. Don’t be too scared of the cold however; the southern-most point of Ontario is further south than the northern-most point of California. Guelph is pretty temperate; this winter we’ve had mornings of -15 to -23 degrees, but the cold doesn’t bother me as much as -1 in Manchester, because the air is drier.

In short, I love Guelph. It’s a wonderfully friendly, supportive university, whose small size makes it really easy to explore. I’ve had a great time, there is so much discover in the locations around the town, including Toronto and Algonquin Park, and I’d highly recommend Guelph to anyone who wants to go on study abroad in Canada.

Laos: Recess Week

During your studies at NUS you will get one week recess half way through the semester (after week 6). In this week me and my friends decided to travel Laos, from Houayxay – Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane, over 8 days. Here’s a breakdown of how we did it.

 

Houayxay (Gibbon Experience)

The whole trip to Laos started with us wanting to go on The Gibbon Experience in Houayxay. To get here we flew to Chiang Rai, Thailand, and then took a bus across the border into Bokeo. For this we needed $35 (USD) and a passport picture for the visa for Laos (which is mandatory regardless of stay length). The only tricky issue some we encountered was needing proof of exit from Thailand when the bus to Laos was a local one. So we had to book tickets online and then cancel them once we were in Laos.

We stayed the night in Houayxay then left to The Gibbon Experience. We took a Tuk Tuk to the jungle and then hiked for about 1-2 hours uphill to reach the top of the tree line. Although the website says this is an intermediate hike I would recommend good hiking shoes and plenty of water as in places it was quite steep. From there we zip lined across the tree tops of the jungle and it was honestly one of the best experiences of my life. We booked the express tour, so only spent one night in the jungle. For this night we spent it in a tree house with panoramic views of the jungle at sunset, and an open view bathroom. The only issue was lots of bees due to the close proximity to The Tree King, but these go by night fall. The following day we zip lined and hiked back the bottom, again with beautiful views. I can not recommend The Gibbon Experience enough, it is expensive for budget travel but worth every single penny.

Luang Prabang

 

To get to Luang Prabang we took a night bus (12 hours), and in all honesty was not fun! We got a bus at 5pm-5am which is the earlier less busy bus – having spoken to others this is a really good idea. In Laos night bus beds are shared between two – so by having fewer passengers we all got our own bed. As we arrived in Luang Prabang at 5 am there wasn’t a lot to do – however we soon were able to go to an Alms Giving Ceremony. This was where local monks walk around the town as locals give rice and food for them. After this we went to Kuang Si Falls which were beautiful. There are two swimming pools – one at the bottom just as you enter and one at the top of the falls after a steep hike (again take good shoes)! The pictures are great but the water is freezing so take a towel! Luang Prabang itself is a UNESCO heritage site and is a great place to walk around and the night markets are a great place to practice your haggling skills (they close around 9pm so go early). If you want to view some temples there are hundreds all of Luang Prabang and are very peaceful to walk around.

Vang Vieng

To get to Vang Vieng we took a 5 hour bus along some very bumpy roads (I would not recommend doing this drive at night). Vang Vieng is a good party town so if you want to have a fun night out it’s cheap and easy. However there are also some great spots of natural beauty. We went to Blue Lagoon 2 and despite being warned it would be packed it was basically empty. It’s a great swimming spot with platforms and zip lines to play on and jump in. From this we hiked / climbed Nam Xay. The viewpoint from the top is definitely worth the hike which gets quite tough towards the end where you have to climb. It closes at 6 so you can’t watch sun set but you can get the sun dipping if you go between 4-5. Although we were exhausted this was possibly one of the best views of my trip so far. Before we left we also checked out the secret lagoon, which you can walk to. There’s a cool cave system here and really clear water which is a great swim. You can even swim into the caves!

Vientiane

We took another bus to Vientiane which was about 4-5 hrs because of traffic in the centre. I would say that you don’t need a lot of time here as most of the monuments can be done over 1/2 days. Whilst here we walked to Pataxai, which you can climb to see views of the city, and Ho Pha Keo. We also visited the big markets which were nice but more commercial than the others in the north.

Overall Laos was nothing that any of us expected, it has a slower pace of life, and a relaxed vibe, centred on community and family.

Tips you may have overlooked to help keep your mental health in check

There’s no doubt that, as an international student in a foreign country, you’ll emerge from the experience with new knowledge about a different part of the world but also about yourself! However, getting out of your comfort zone can be a struggle. Whether you’re completing a course overseas or taking part in a shorter exchange programme, international students are required to adapt to a completely new environment, culture, group of friends, education system, and sometimes even language; and all in a very short timeframe.

I have found the work-load at the University of Amsterdam pretty difficult to keep up with among everything else I’ve been trying to juggle. I had a lot of deadlines and an exam period which I found pretty overwhelming, and it was easy to fall into the habit of comparing yourself to friends who were doing well (grades wise) and in every other aspect you could possibly (over)think of. In this moment I asked myself, am I taking care of myself and my mental health? So instead of trying to tackle the rest of my reading list I’m here writing a blogpost, because looking after ourselves is more important than pretending I know what’s going on in tomorrows seminar.

Here are a few tips to look after yourself whilst on study abroad and a list of some resources that are available to you if you live or study in Amsterdam more specifically.

Continue reading “Tips you may have overlooked to help keep your mental health in check”

Returning and Reflecting

Reflecting on my time in Sweden after half a year back in the UK, I can notice a few differences between the two. Some are obvious, and some are far more subtle. 

The first thing that I found strange when going about my day to day back in the UK was the language difference. This may seem obvious, but I had got used to either zoning out among a background chatter of Swedish, or tuning in to try and passively learn a few words. The difference on public transport or in a busy space is quite clear when you are forced to listen to everyone’s conversation!

The more welcome changes included the usual home comforts, firstly, of course, a very welcome decrease in the price of a beer! However although I loved to moan about the fierce cold in Sweden, I find myself missing those dry, crisp freezing mornings when cycling into uni through soggy, grey Manchester. It is always nice to reacquaint with old friends, however I do miss the vibrant diversity of my multinational friendship group in Sweden, and try to stay in touch as much as I can.

A notable change in workload has welcomed me back to final year university life, making me very glad I was able to enjoy a much less challenging year before stepping into the fire. One of the best things to come out of this was the time to reflect and formulate ideas for my dissertation. I am writing this on an urban development in Copenhagen, and living in close proximity for a whole year gave me the chance to visit and learn more about it, making final year a lot less stressful. I also get to tell myself that through visiting Copenhagen vicariously every day, I never really left!

20190324 AHII plan phase 3

The Holmene urban island development – the focus of my dissertation. ( I wish I was on this island in Copenhagen rather than in the library! )

To summarise and finalise this blog, the year abroad experience was not only a great thing during my stay in Sweden, it also continues to offer more to my life as I reflect on my academic and personal life back in the UK. I would urge anyone reading this, or considering the Erasmus programme to go for it! Before it’s too late!