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Tips on Trips

Harry Forster, National University of Singapore

A brief overview of the trips I took and if I think they’re worth the buck…

Indonesia

  • Bali 
  • Lombok (a more undeveloped Bali, yet it offers a lot of the same opportunities)

Overall highlights:

  • Amazing food – a vegans dream, cheap cheap… make sure you try the Nasi Goreng & Mei Goreng!
  • Activities, activities and more activities: white water rafting, scuba diving (manta rays, shipwrecks), sunrise hikes and of course surfing all year around – are just some of the things you could get up to!
  • If you like dancing into the night, Bali is home to Asia’s best beach parties … Oldmans & Sandbar is where to be (every night).

**Stay in Canggu, Lay Day Surf Hostel (avoid Seminyak & Kuta)!

Bitchin’ – Canggu, Bali
This view is summit – Mount Batur

Malaysia

  • Kuala Lumpur (the cliché exchangers first getaway)

Overall, it was one the most modern and clean cities I’ve been to in SE Asia outside of Singapore. The Batu Caves are worth going to, most likely for that Instagram post, be ready to be sweaty.

This will most likely be your first escape from Singapore and its prices… However, be aware that Kuala Lumpur isn’t as cheap as you’d anticipate!

  • Tioman island (a divers dream, not much attraction to the island besides its waters)
  • Langkawi (a great short trip)

Langkawi was one of my favourite islands during my time, a great weekend trip. Lots of water sports, cheap motorbikes and white beaches.

*would recommend staying at ‘bed altitude’ hostel!

Overall:

  • Easy to get to/ fast transport – can get the bus from Singapore. 
  • Can be done on the cheap – £20 return bus.
  • The worse food in SE Asia (for me).
Yes, we did crash! – Langkawi

The Philippines

  • Cebu

I only have positive things to say about this island… extremely cheap, filled with some great adventures, beaches and day trips to other nearby islands.

Cliff jumping at Kawasan falls was great – only if you’re prepared for a 15m jump off a waterfall!

Great for diving – Malapascua for the Thresher Sharks, Oslob for the Whale Sharks and Moalboal for the famous Sardine Run.

  • PalawanEl Nido & Coron 
Sunset on Coron – Palawan

Both of these islands are known for their day trips… do you think you’ve got what it takes to hack a full day of lagoon and beach hopping?

It’s a hard life!

Beachin’ – El Nido
A typical day in the Philippines – Siargao

*I’d highly recommend catching the 5 day boat trip from el Nido to Coron (if you’ve still got enough cash to keep you afloat)!

  • Siargao 

This is a little surf island located in the southeast region of the Philippines -making it super hard to get to!

But if you do, it’s home to some of the worlds’ best breaks (recently held the world surf championship).

Like the rest of the Philippines it’s plagued with palm trees and white sands, however it is one of the more expensive spots due to the wave-seekers

Also surfing brings a more bohemian crowd (one that does not only break a sweat over the waves, but also over how instagram-able their smoothie bowl is)!

A Boat Trip from El Nido – Palawan
Cconut Trees View Deck – Siargao

Thailand

  • Bangkok (the shorter stay the better)
  • Koh Tao (a personal fav but an extremely difficult place to get to)
  • Phuket (a means to an end – Phi Phi)
  • Phi Phi islands (beautiful beaches but there isn’t much to do beside party or dive)

Sorry to sound like your mother but… be careful. I’ve experienced a lot of bad things happen in this country:

  • NYE my phone as well as my friends wallet were pickpocketed.
  • Another trip, a friends phone was stolen in the airport and never found.
  • A close friend was assaulted on his way home after a night out.

**I would not recommend visiting the Phi Phi islands out of season, everything from the clubs to the restaurants were closed for renovations. 

  • Goes without saying the food is phenomenal here!

Overall, in my opinion there’s better ways to spend your time and money in this region.

Taking a tour around an exchange student’s home university – Bangkok
In Chinatown with my Korean flatmate – Bangkok

Top Tips

  • Don’t plan before arriving, circumstances change i.e. monsoons, typhoons…
  • Remember low season usually means no nightlife!
  • A trip always costs more than expected.
  • Book last minute as Southeast Asia’s the weather is extremely volatile.

Hope this helps!

An NUS Exchange Student: Checking Out

Harry Forster, National University of Singapore

Last week I received my final grades from the National University of Singapore, officially marking the end of my time as an international exchange student. For me, these grades do not only indicate the academic progress that I’ve made, but they also remind me of the personal development I’ve made over the past year. 

To demonstrate this, I’m going to reflect upon some of the objectives I set out before undertaking my exchange:

  • Experience new culture: I was fortunate enough to be linked with a local Singaporean family for the entirety of my exchange. This benefited me immensely, allowing me to gain an invaluable insight into local events such as Chinese New Year.
  • Learn new skills: previously a scuba diving novice, now I am looking to take this skill to a professional level… also, I’ve mastered the art of falling off a motorbike (that’s definitely one for the CV)!
  • Network: I forged connections and developed lifelong friendships in every continent across the globe. For example, some of my best friends are now situated in: Canada, Germany, Holland and South Korea… (they tell you in your pre-departure meetings that a year aboard is expensive, but they don’t tell you that your post-departure trips are even more expensive)!
  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone: living over six-thousand miles from home, inevitably, I have had to face a wide range of new and unfamiliar circumstances whether that be new flatmates or speaking in a foreign language.
  • Taste new cuisine: I experienced a plethora of different food; frog soup to Filipino Balut
  • Take up new interests: hours of non-stop surfing without a break, actually no, I broke my rib…

I am truly grateful for this unforgettable opportunity and it is something that will resonate with me for the rest of my life.

The Last Ones Standing – Singapore

Top Tips for New Exchange Students

  • “It won’t happen to me”… unfortunately, it most certainly will.

Not to mention the obvious global pandemic during my time… but its almost certain, you’ll to encounter some kind of emergency scenario, whether that be an earthquake, a typhoon or a trip to A&E. 

To paint a realistic picture, all of those events listed above happened to me… an Indonesian earthquake, a Filipino typhoon and multiple medical trips. For example, I tallied up a total of four countries in which I have been admitted to A&E during my time as an NUS exchange student (Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore if you’re curious).

  • You will NEVER have enough money or time to do everything on your travel to do list 😦

For me, I didn’t get a chance to embark upon half of my travel plans… it’s pretty simply really, the more you travel, the more you want to see. You’ll meet people all across various hostels in Southeast Asia that’ll recommend you countless places, which is great, but one day your travel during exchange will come to an end.

A word of wisdom, its more often than not that you’ll go over any travel budget so make sure you’ve got supplementary funds – can you get an over-overdraft?

For my Next Chapter

I am now looking forward to commencing my summer internship at the Department for International Trade within the Civil Service. 

Once again, I believe this will be an invaluable opportunity, and I hope to build upon the skills I have developed over the course of the past year

Sweet dreams, Singapore xxx

Scuba Diving in Southeast Asia

Harry Forster, National University of Singapore

Firstly, my scuba novice journey started right at the beginning of first semester, where I found a fellow exchange student who was also down to take the plunge…

After a bit of scrolling, we came across a Singaporean dive shop that offers an integrated package: including the Open Water certification and a fully funded dive trip to Malaysia – only for £400 (Roughly the same price as what the certification costs alone in other places such as Europe)!

So if you’re another newbie who’s up for starting scuba, Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest & best regions to try it – I really can’t recommend this enough!

Not Your Normal Noel 

The same day as I finished my final exam of first semester, me and a dive buddy jetted off, spending the first three weeks of our xmas holidays in the Philippinescould have been worse!

First things first. We rented motorbikes and headed to Malapascua, small island situated off the coast of Cebu.

The main attraction to this archipelago is to go see the Thresher Shark. But first we had to get our Advanced Open Water certification (so we could dive down to 30 meters).

31.7m Deep – Malapascua, Philippines

The sharks tail grows to the same length as its body, and they use this tail to kill their prey...

Next, we went to Moalboal to see the famous ‘Sardine Run’ – a twisting mass of billions of sardines.

The Sardine Run – Moalboal, Philippines

Then, Oslob to see the Whale Sharks – the largest shark in the world.

Whale Shark – Oslob, Philippines

Finally, Boxing Day did not hold your usual sort of festivities…

No turkey but Thai, no charades but shipwrecks!

Instead of a 3 course dinner, it was 3 dives… The main course was diving the 85m King cruiser wreck.

The King Cruiser Wreck – Phuket, Thailand

The wreck is a passenger transporter that sank in 1997. It hit the Anemone Reef with over 100 people onboard (all survived so no skeletons were seen).

The King Cruiser Wreck – Phuket, Thailand

Just to add to this once in a lifetime opportunity, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the solar eclipse during our dive interval!

A Lil Stinger – Phuket, Thailand

Semester Two Dives

In Semester two, I got in three more dives; they were in the Philippines. Shock.

This time they were off the coast of Coron. There are over 10 shipwrecks off the island…

  • It is said that it takes a month to dive them all (so I will definitely be returning at some point in the future)!
Akitsushima Wreck – Coron, Philippines

Akitsushima is a 115m seaplane tender of the Imperial Japanese Navy, it was sunk during WWII in Sept 1944.

Looking Forward

I’m in no doubt that this hobby has only just started for me. It has already changed my future travel plans dramatically, rather than just looking at where the best weather is, you also start checking when and where are the best places to go diving.

I’ve set myself the goal of completing my divemaster qualification, this is the highest qualification you can achieve before being an instructor. Also, I fancy doing it soon because I want to dive before all the oceans are ruined! So I’ve set myself the ambition to complete my divemaster before I’m 30. For me, the most appealing places are:

  • Gili islands – Indonesia
  • Great Barrier Reef – Australia

I know I have taken up a very expensive lifelong habit, but at the same time, I really can’t thank this exchange experience enough for starting it.

Tioman island, Malaysia

5 months, 17 dives… Till next time!

GOING TO THE ‘FOOTY’

By Issy Jackson (University of Sydney, Australia)

I’m sure we’ve all been to our fair share of football games in the UK. But with four different football ‘codes’ down under, watching live matches is ever so slightly different …

SOCCER

Soccer culture and what Aussies call the ‘English Premier League’ culture could not be more contrasting. I couldn’t believe that I was watching Sydney FC play against Adelaide United whilst sat in the sunshine with a picnic blanket on a small hill next to the pitch. I’m used to being cramped into a damp stand where a roof over your head is an absolute treat. The attendance for the A-League champions numbered only 11,217 spectators, similar to the capacity of League One side Rochdale AFC from North Manchester. As you can imagine, the chants aren’t quite the same as in the UK but I can assure you that the language is just as fruity! If you get the chance, I’d definitely recommend getting your hands on some AFC Champions League tickets. When Sydney FC played against Shanghai SIPG, we got the chance to see big names like Oscar, Ricardo Carvalho and Hulk play on Australian soil. 

AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL

If you refer to ‘football’ or ‘footy’, Aussies from Melbourne will normally assume you are talking about AFL – although those from New South Wales and Queensland might contest this and argue that Rugby League is the ‘real footy!’ A great way to immerse yourself in quintessential Australian culture is by heading to see an ‘Aussie Rules’ match for yourself. I was lucky enough to visit the Melbourne Cricket Ground with my friend whose family are members at Richmond Tigers (big thank you to the Bales!) Unlike in England, four Melbourne-based teams put their rivalries aside to share their home games at ‘The G’ so there is plenty of opportunity to watch AFL at one of the world’s biggest stadiums. Even walking down the Birrarung Marr, the famous walkway towards ‘The G’, was a special opportunity in itself. The Indigenous-titled path was full of fans singing and chanting together. We watched ‘The Tiges’ beat Melbourne Demons on ANZAC Eve, a commemorative occasion that celebrates national unity. Australian identification within AFL is paramount and so this was a perfect way to experience true ‘Aussie’ footy.

RUGBY LEAGUE

Rugby League’s cultural significance is demonstrated through the acclaimed ‘State of Origin’ series between New South Wales and Queensland where they battle for their hegemonic sport. Rather than having a home ground for a particular club and sport like Manchester United exclusively playing football at Old Trafford, the Leichardt Oval in Sydney is used for lots of different football codes and lots of different teams. A big group of us watched Sydney-based NRL teams West Tigers and Manly Warringah –  a great rivalry to witness. West Tigers only have around five home games here per season so their supporters flocked to Leichardt for the nearly sold-out event. Such was the competition between these two teams that you could literally hear the hits of tackles throughout the intimate yet packed Oval.

RUGBY UNION

Although Rugby Union is much more prevalent in the UK, it isn’t quite so popular in Australia. Their love for Rugby League is much more significant. We watched a Super Rugby fixture where New South Wales Waratahs beat Queensland Reds at the Sydney Cricket Ground which was completely different to what I have experienced at the other football ‘codes.’ NRL at the Leichardt Oval was filled with close-proximity viewing, yet Super Rugby at the SCG was the polar opposite. Unlike being part of the vast Aussie Rules audience at the MCG, the Super Rugby fixture only attracted about a third of the SCG’s capacity. Being normally used for cricket or Aussie Rules Football (which is played on a circular field), it was a really interesting experience to be physically distanced from the action. Clearly, the cultural significance of sport internationally is completely different. I’d really recommend going to a Sydney Swans AFL game to see what the SCG would be like when full to the brim.

Overall, watching live sport in Australia is something not to be missed. Australian Rules Football and Rugby League have rightfully earned their title of ‘footy’ which is really interesting to encounter for us Brits who have grown up on just one football ‘code.’ Being able to actually experience the different aspects of this sporting dispute provides a great insight into this great debate amongst Australian culture! Which camp will you choose?

Vancouver on a budget

I didn’t anticipate just how expensive Vancouver and BC would be. I could write all about how I wished I’d saved up more money during the summer prior to departure, but an equally strong case could be made for my spending it- which ensured I had a memorable farewell summer with friends who I wouldn’t see for a while. Given the current circumstances- with summer 2020 being CANCELLED and everything- the no-raaagrets approach is even stronger. I like to avoid doing the whole ‘shoulda coulda woulda ‘ thing (Serves 0 purpose), but before I get on to my ‘Vancouver on the cheap’ tips, I will completely contradict that in the interests of prospective exchange students.

SHOULDA COULDA WOULDA

Get your work permit sorted BEFORE you get there

This first one might not apply to you savvy savers out there, but for those of you who do plan to work AND play, I would recommend looking into this sooner rather than later. A couple of days in, I discovered the extortionately priced phone plans in Vancouver (expect to pay at least double UK prices), a bigger tipping-culture (tip everyone, and don’t insult them with a mere 10% ) and RIDICULOUSLY expensive cheese (which is also pretty gross so I would advise binging on this to the MAX before leaving the UK).

It also became pretty apparent that my study commitments weren’t too time-consuming, and with a couple of weekdays off during the week (if you choose SFU over UBC), I defo had time to be earning a lil moolah on the side. So, I had this realisation that I might need some more money to live out my Vancouverite dreams, but I kept giving myself excuses to the delay the work permit process (e.g “I’m still settling in to the city” or “I don’t have a Canadian bank account yet” or “maybe I can fill out LOADS of surveys online and earn p that way”…). When I did finally get round to arranging a meeting with a study abroad advisor, I’d been notified that i’d need to send off my study permit to be amended, which would take 2 MONTHS. Once I had received my study permit and SIN number (Basically like a national insurance number) I had to complete a BC ‘Serving it Right’ course to enable me to serve booze.

I finally found a job that seemed perfect for me with a hospitality and temporary staffing agency, which would allow me all the freedom to earn money according to my own schedule. I did actually manage to get a few shifts accepted for April, but apart from those, none of the employers accepted my shift requests, as I had no stars or reviews to get me going – I was essentially the equivalent to an uber driver with 0 stars :(( If that wasn’t sparse enough, the 2 shifts I did have planned were cancelled due to COVID19 anyway. I think this was a sign from the universe that I wouldn’t be needing this money for the California-Mexico trip that was coming up. Though a bit of extra money would’ve helped me travel around more, I still had enough to go on weekends away in BC, and managed to secure a Whistler season pass, which allowed for plenty of fun in the mountains.

Anyway, the moral of the ramble is… Get that work permit sorted before leaving the UK and you’ll be good to go!

Find your Lidl/Aldi equivalents pronto

The SFU campus is on a mountain, 40minsish away from the more reasonably-priced food shops, which understandably pushes you towards the Nesters Market on campus. However, If you choose to shop at Nesters every week, you could be paying up to double for your food shop. I know its a bit of a trek away, but a 40 minute bus journey to either ‘No Frills’ (can assure you’ll be thrilled with those cost savings) or Walmart (Asda vibes) will help you to save money aside for the more exciting parts of your study abroad experience. Sometimes I had classes at the SFU downtown campus, so I’d try to coordinate my weekly shop with this- Or I’d make a trip out of it, using the food shop as an excuse to get me off the mountain and out into beautiful VanCity.

Soak up that late-summer sun as soon as you arrive

I arrived in Vancouver a couple of weeks prior to the beginning of my exchange, in Mid-august. The beaches (such as Sunset, English Bay and many more around the Stanley park sea wall) are gorgeous. The ability of Vancouver to shape-shift and evolve throughout the seasons is one of my favourite things about the city. When I first arrived, it had a Venice-beach vibe, with people playing beach volleyball and roller skating along the seafront paths. The city then descends into a rainy Fall season, before pulling through with snow outside the city to accommodate for winter sports. Though all the seasons bring with them new opportunities, I would advise making the most of that late summer sun when you first arrive!!

Fun things to do on the cheap

Yoga by donation

My favourite yoga studio is the Karma Teachers centre (45 W Hastings street) – a place you can indulge in all kinds of yoga/meditation at a price you decide. The studio is volunteer-run and is so beautiful- all round good vibes and a great way to mingle with locals (smiling through your legs in downward-dog) from every corner of the city.

Cycle around Stanley Park

You could walk if you wanna save the cash- which would take like 3 hours- but I defo recommend renting a bike (From Spokes or any of the other shops close to the entrance of Stanley park) for around $7 an hour- a small price to pay to cycle round the sea wall and feel that fresh sea breeze in your face. If you begin the cycle from Spokes rental shop, the first section of the seawall cycle path treats you to gorgeous views of the harbour, Vancouver rowing club, the aquarium and totem poles. Around the next corner, you are hit with views of the ocean and snow-capped mountains facing you, before passing under the infamous Lions Gate bride and finishing through a long stretch of beaches. You get to see so much of the city from the Stanley park peninsula along the sea wall, but if you have some extra time, I recommend checking out the interior of the park- which is actually a temperate rainforest (great for a gentle forest bathe).

Go to Deep Cove- buy a doughnut, and do the Quarry Rock hike

I did this little trip so many times- it’s a proper-gem, only a couple of buses away (which you can use your compass card for) and fulfills the quintessential Canadian coastal village vibe that lacks from Metro Vancouver. First, be sure to cop yourself a doughnut from Honey’s Doughnut’s and let that digest (I promise it’ll be one of the tastiest things you ever consume) before proceeding to the Quarry Rock trail head. This trail constitutes a section of the larger Baden Powell trail- which takes you all the way to horseshoe bay if you fancy a day-long hike. The Quarry Rock section is a 1.5hour journey through densely-green areas with giant Douglas Fir trees surrounding you. The trail leads you through higher and lower terrain, before arriving at the rock viewpoint, where you can indulge in insane views of the Indian arm and mountains around Belcarra. You can actually spot the SFU campus across the water at the top of Burnaby mountain.

Stay tuned for charity ride nights at the local mountains

I never actually attended one of these- as they were all cancelled due to weather conditions and Corona- but the charity ride nights (often advertised through SFU ski & board club) offer cheap lift-pass rates (normally around $15 to ski from 5-9pm) and a chance to experience breathtaking night-time views of Vancouver (if you’re blessed with clear skies). You can rent all the ski gear from the Mt Seymour, Grouse Mountain and Cypress mountain resorts for around $40 if you don’t have your own, but if you’re an avid skiier/boarder I recommend purchasing some second-hand (More on this in the following section).

Iceskating in Robson Square

This is a free winter attraction in Downtown Vancouver, though you do have to rent skates for $5 if you don’t happen to have a pair of your own kicking around! Though it might not mimic the Canadian ideal of frozen lake skating (found in the neighbouring Alberta province) , it is a great inner-city attraction to enjoy on the cheap. I think there’s a similar set-up across in North Vancouver in the Shipyard area which is pretty cool.

Sunset at Burnaby mountain park

If you’re at SFU, you might find that this view point will become an important part of your daily routine- the views across the city at sunset are sure to pull you out of any bad-mood, relieving stress and reminding you yet again why you chose Canada. You can see the lights of downtown melting into the peninsula of Stanley park and densley packed forest, and are surrounded by mountains at every angle. You can also peep the ski-resorts at the top of Grouse, Cypress and Seymour mountains, lit for night-skiing.

Go to Lynn Canyon rather than Capilano suspension bridge

Any list of ‘things to do in Vancouver’ will encourage you to go and see the Capilano suspension bridge in North Vancouver. But those views come with a $50 price tag and crowds of tourists trying to get that insta-perfect shot of Capilano Canyon. The cliffwalk section is pretty cool and is bound to supply you with great views, but a free-alternative and less touristy option is Lynn Canyon, which has a similar suspension bridge overlooking the Canyon and waterfalls. There are also swimming holes with ice-cold glacial water which will defo perk you up if you’re feeling bold.

Get the seabus to North Van – Polygon gallery

I wish I’d done this more, as it gives you a great perspective of downtown Vancouver from afar and has a quirky but peaceful vibe in the Shipyards area. The Polygon gallery is architecturally stunning, and offers by-donation exhibitions whilst boasting views across the water. Pay what ya can!

More expensive things that are worth your money

Paradise night club (Chinatown)

So Vancouver isn’t exactly renowned for having great nightlife- with the Granville street strip of quite mainstream clubs (top-40 vibes)- being the main destination for partygoers. However, the more alternative scene for Techno and electronic music is existent and is mainly publicized through Resident Advisor. The city – once notorious for having a pretty dead music scene- has experienced a boom in recent years in techno and house events , so if this is your cup of tea, its defo out there! Along with Open Studios, Dolly, the Waldorf and Gorg-o-Mish, Paradise (my personal favourite) will satisfy that itch for a proper dance. It’s located in a China town basement, and isn’t easily identified from the street- with no flashy lights or signage. Once you manage to find it though, the descent into the basement is reminiscent of a house-party, with a pop up bar and an intimate dance-floor setting. Paradise is also one of the only clubs open til late.

The Cambie bar and grill

The Cambie has a lil place in my heart. This place is the closest you’ll get to a British style student pub, as its attached to a hostel (meaning lots of young people) and requires you to queue up at the bar to buy drinks- Most bars in Canada pursue a more formal table service, which doesn’t allow for as much mingling or candid conversations with people. The Cambie gets pretty lively at the weekends, and transforms into a cheesy club night which can be quite fun. Cheap drinks too!!

Guilt & Co – Jazz bar in Gastown

If you want a more fancy evening out, Guilt&Co is such a cool spot for live jazz music and some cocktails. It’s very dark in there with candlelit tables and a mildly sensual vibe…

Buy skis from Sports Junkies

Like I mentioned earlier, avid skiiers/boarders may wish to purchase their own gear for the season and I couldn’t recommend Sports Junkies more. I managed to buy a decent pair of skis, poles and boots for around £250- this’ll save money on rentals in the long-run. They also guarantee a buy-back service at the end of the season, so you can easily return your skiis and get some cash for them if you don’t wanna fly them home.

Go thrift shopping in Mount Pleasant

This area, just outside of downtown Vancouver is full of trendy shops and cafes, boasting some great thrift shops if you wanna cop a bargain!

The Vegetarian/Vegan Survival Kit: Singapore

“You’re going to Singapore? But you won’t be able to eat anything!”

“You might be able to get away with not eating meat, but you’ll definitely have to eat fish and animal products”

“Is veganism even a thing in Singapore?”

These are word for word things that were said to me when I told people I was going to live in Singapore. Whether you too are a vegetarian/vegan, haunted by these words of discouragement, or maybe you yourself have said one of those phrases above, this blog post is here to bust those myths!

Continue reading “The Vegetarian/Vegan Survival Kit: Singapore”

It did happen to all of us – dealing with the Coronavirus Pandemic whilst abroad.

On Monday the 23rd March I was, much like the rest of the country, sat at home with my family in the UK, hearing for the first time that we would now be in lock down. Just a week prior, I was saying goodbye to my sister as we both boarded flights after an amazing trip around Quintana Roo and neighbouring Islands, hers back to London and mine back to my hometown in Mexico. To say that, at this moment, I was oblivious to the virus and how it could potentially impact my year abroad would have been a lie. As my sister works in the NHS, and was also keeping herself well informed of the government’s measures, we had daily conversations whilst on our trip about the developments in case numbers, testing and travel restrictions. During this week, the global developments and updates concerning the virus appeared to be increasing in number and alarm by the day. When it was the end of our amazing trip, I was then faced with a busy international airport, Cancun, and found myself surrounded by people across the spectrum of concern for the virus: from those wearing masks continually, those with masks around their necks, those waiting in the boarding gate next to theirs which was empty instead of their own crowded one (me), and those who had absolutely no concern and would happily choose to sit right next to someone else even though there were entire banks of free seats (the woman next to me).  As I arrived back at my home in Cholula, which although is packed with international students and has a big party scene for them, is an otherwise sleepy town, I felt that surely, I’d be able to see out the rest of the year there.

The Monday I awoke to was frantic. It appeared that, almost overnight, panic had taken over the international student community at UDLAP. Flights to some home countries were being cancelled, borders were being closed, embassies being contacted and mindsets were changing and re-changing, including my own, over and over again. At this moment, the internationals appeared to move in packs: first the Americans, declared they were all leaving, then the Italians, then the French. This wasn’t about nationalism as we were, all in all, a very well-integrated group, but it was a case of people not wanting to be stranded without anyone to travel home with in uncertain conditions, especially when we were starting to hear stories of people going to the airport alone for their flights and having them cancelled, or even worse, have their connecting flight cancelled and become trapped in an unfamiliar country with no visa or rights otherwise to leave the airport. This was one of the most stressful days of my life, most of all because, I couldn’t come to a decision that I was happy with. Leaving Mexico almost 3 months earlier than I had wanted to, and so suddenly, felt too gutting a decision to bear. Yet I was faced with the concern that if I didn’t leave now, with the direct flights to London being cut to only 1 per day and a number of those that week already having been cancelled, I might be unable to come home for a very long time, perhaps until a lot later than I had originally planned. Unfortunately, none of us had any real idea of how long the virus, and the response of governments to it, could shut down international travel.

Although there was a fairly panicked group mentality, I was determined to make up my own mind. Two days may have not seemed long enough to make such a finite decision: in leaving Mexico at that point, I would not be returning to my home where I lived with international friends, as a resident of Mexico, for a long time, maybe not ever. However, I came to the realisation that what made me so happy on my year abroad was the freedom I felt; to travel to some amazing places; the nights out with friends; performing on the cheer team in front of huge crowds at football games, and that- whether I liked it or not- this was being taken from me regardless. My year abroad in Mexico had been the most incredible chapter of my life so far, and I wanted to remember it as that.

I knew that, from the amount of information I had read about the virus, I would feel too guilty to attend parties or travel, where it was still permitted. My classes were all now online and the campus virtually closed, all of the bars and clubs were shut and soon the restaurants would probably follow suit, and, most crucially, so many of my best friends and close housemates were leaving. It came to me that, whether I remained in Mexico or not, the year abroad that I knew and loved, was over. So why fight it. At this point I decided that I would make my last week a great one. With money chipped in from the rest of the housemates, we bought an inflatable pool for the terrace, and we had house pool parties every day, and all ate together each night. I also went for meals with other friends and had a final walk of the campus. Once the day of my flight came, I had already had to say goodbye to a few of my housemates and other close friends. Our house, along with a few other friends who had joined to see us off, did the traditional goodbye route we’d developed in the last few days, of all coming down on to the street and hugging goodbye as the taxi arrived to take us to the airport, and as we drove away I watched my house and my amazing friends, shrink into the distance.

The journey home was smooth and fairly stress free – apart from some shuffling of weight around in our jam-packed suitcases and rucksacks, and then as soon as I knew it, I was home. I was surprised by how normal, jet-lag aside, I felt to be at home. I thought that, alike how I was in uk customs just after landing, I would immediately be translating things I wanted to say into Spanish in my head, or resist drinking water from the tap. But it’s amazingly easy to slip back into the normality of home and, at times, almost feel like you were never away at all. I have actually heard this a lot from other year abroad students, that their life abroad feels like some kind of dream, not quite real. For this I am so glad of the decision I made to leave, because once the experience is over, apart from a few souvenirs and the friends you’ve made, all you are left with are the memories of the experience you had. I didn’t want my memories of Mexico to be distorted by the changes the virus had brought.

So, for me, my year abroad is over. I have been continuing with my UDLAP classes online and still in touch with the friends, but this is part of a new chapter for me now.

Although it may not be a particularly interesting read, made even harder by the comparison with the stories before, with my family now close by, facetimes all the time with friends, and knowing that everyone is going through struggles in some shape or form right now, I think that it’s going to be ok.

Mexico City Must Dos

Although I am usually more wowed by the breath-taking scenery that Mexico has to offer, in all of the bustle and traffic, there are some, not so hidden, city gems that have really stuck in my memory as amazing places to visit. And seeing as direct flights from the UK usually land in the Benito Juárez International Airport here, why not take a look around…

Museo Nacional de Antropología

Their collection of artefacts spanning the development of different civilisations, be that Aztec, Mayan or Olmec just to name a few, is divided across 23 permanent exhibit halls. If you wanted to look at every piece and read each plaque it would take days to get around. I would recommend having a fairly sweeping walk through the indoor exhibits, taking note of the information plaque for the overall region, and heading to the gardens, where you can find some recreations of relics tucked away amongst the plants. Also, if you have a Mexican university credential, entry is free! Whilst here, I would recommend also visiting the Bosque de Chapultapec right opposite, for a retreat to nature. There are plenty of attractions such as a castle, botanical garden and zoo, however we chose to take peddle boats on the lake.

Xochimilco

Slightly further out of the city is Xochimilco. This network of intersecting rivers has become a Venice of its kind, as the waters are filled with the most colourful, if slightly haphazard, barges. In a small group it’s not inexpensive to rent a boat privately, and each boat is priced the same – the seller should wear a government identity card. Don’t worry about bringing any food or drink with you, as once you’re on your way you’ll soon be greeted by waiters who will leap on to your boat to offer refreshments, and soon enough bound back over with a tablecloth, quesadillas, drinks and sides, all freshly prepared on a neighbouring boat. You’ll then be passed by a number of mariachi boats, which will offer to play to your liking, although you would have to pay them for this, along with boats selling clothes and gifts. There will be a number of boats selling flower headbands, and it is customary for men to by them for women, although I think that my friends actually bought them for us because they wanted to try them themselves. You can chose tours of different lengths to visit different parts of the channel network, but we just chose a route that was roughly 2 hours there and back, and during this had the opportunity to stop off at a small petting farm and a replica of the island of the dead dolls, although we politely declined the very kind offer to visit (its legend can be found here http://www.isladelasmunecas.com/). Some visitors will choose to make a party of the occasion and bring their own music, however we found it more immersive to just sit back and take in the unique bubbles of activity that passed us by. I returned to Xochimilco for an evening tour, which lead us to a floating stage for a performance of ‘La Llorona’ (the wailing woman) as part of the Day of the Dead Celebrations. The atmosphere was markedly different in this night-time low-lit tour, and the ending of the show was breath taking as the wailing woman all dressed in white appeared to float over the murky water and then suddenly disappeared on to her back as the lights went out. However, the showmanship was slightly overshadowed by the realisation that our boat was taking on water. Luckily, we had a woman onboard who gallantly downed the rest of her michelada (typical Mexican drink) and started bailing the water whilst still watching the performance – a hero to us all.

Teotihuacán

North-east of the city, you can transport yourself to another time and visit a vast expanse of what remains of this ancient Mesoamerican city. There are often a number of options to get there and back such as bus transfers and coach tours, however you can often arrange with your hotel or hostel host to order you a taxi for a fixed, and really not expensive, price for the return journey and your driver will just wait in the car for however long you would like. It is the most impressive archaeological site I have ever visited, and its walkable route connects the temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Sun and Moon Pyramids. I would recommend going early in the morning or late afternoon as the site has almost no shade and can become gruelling in the heat. Whatever the weather, any visit is worth it for the views.

‘It’ll be lonely this Christmas’? Reflections on a Christmas away from home and family.

Ever since I can remember, my Christmas Day has involved being at my own house or that of a close relative, with lots of my family squeezed around a table, or a couple of different shape and height tables, sat on emergency chairs, stools or even the garden bench, with food filling every possible space and bits of cracker debris in your gravy, dogs barking, everyone talking at once and reading out the joke already heard twice so far, and it being my favourite day of the year. So, it may have sounded like a very privileged problem to have, to feel deflated that I would be spending Christmas day on holiday, in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, most likely on a beach, and with 3 amazing friends, but it was how I felt nonetheless.

2/3 of the amazing friends

The preparations for our unconventional Christmas in Cancun had begun a few days before, when on a trip to a nearby town, Valladolid, we had all split up for an hour to scour the markets and shops for our not so secret Santa gifts. The biggest adventure of the evening, however, was having our car locked into the cathedral’s car park. Luckily, we were rescued by an on-site shopkeeper who managed to find a key – a Christmas miracle?

We were then tasked with the compromising of everyone’s ideas for how the festivities were going to be spent. As I was spending this holiday with French friends, this meant we were to be having a traditional Christmas eve dinner cooked by them, and a Christmas day meal, cooked by me. We decided to round it all off with a brunch in between the two, which meant crepes along with, my new found favourite French food, which roughly translates to ‘lost bread’. All of these last minute plans meant we would have to make a trip to the worst place imaginable on Christmas Eve… Walmart. Luckily, we’d split the list and paired off to make the experience more bearable, and had successfully navigated the crowds to find everything we needed apart from the ‘essential’ chocolate spread that was nowhere to be seen. We eventually tracked down the item under lock and key in customer services, it appears that mexico takes its Nutella VERY seriously. With that, the claustrophobia inducing nightmare of a food shop was successfully completed – Christmas miracle number 2, perhaps.  

In all of the festivities, my lowest point was Christmas day morning. Due to the time difference, with my family all so busily involved in the Christmas activities back home that we hadn’t been able to facetime. This was made harder by the fact that all my friends, who’s families had their main celebration the night before, were all speaking to their own families at that time, so I was feeling a bit out of the loop – quite inconsiderate of my family really, to be enjoying themselves without me… However after calls from friends back home, the family facetime, and trip to an absolutely packed beach, I was coming round to the idea that I might actually be having a good time. Following this by my cooking almost entirely, of a Christmas dinner that I was really complimented on, including by our airbnb host and her partner, a chef, made my day.

Side note – our Airbnb host was one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met. On arrival at the property she demonstrated, and had us practice, how to open the gate with two hands so as to not ‘strain the lock’. We then found there to be notes all around the property which reinforced the double sided page of house rules – why by the way was typed and laminated, with emboldening, capitalising and highlighting for emphasis – the most interesting of these notes being an actual metal fork taped to the wall by the sink to remind us not to use metal forks in the pans so as not to scratch them. Just as we were finishing our dinner, we received a message from her to kindly turn off the air conditioning, which had been on to cool the house down from all the cooking. At the point of explaining this, we made the snap decision to invite her over, as we had lots of food still hot that we couldn’t bear to throw away when we left the next morning, and also because, even though she was a character, we were unsure if she had company, and we felt that no one should be alone on Christmas. Her and her partner arrived at our door shortly after and we welcomed them in, after which to our horror she swept round the house, throwing all the windows wide open proclaiming ‘let the air in, it’s wonderful’ – inviting in all the mosquitos for dinner as well… However, after sharing some of our meal with them, we found them our hosts to be so endearing, and ended the night not only with gifts of handmade head massagers – which is still the weirdest gift I think I have every received from a near stranger, but more importantly, had got to know the person behind the notes and the rules, as a friend – Christmas miracle number 3.

Once our esteemed guests had left, we exchanged gifts and then gathered by the pool to dip our legs in the water and take in the ‘wonderful air’ of night that had fallen. At this moment, I realised what a nice Christmas it had been, and how, as I did have the rest of my life for beloved family Christmases, missing it just once, really wasn’t so bad after all.  

Chapter Two: The Honeymoon Ends

I had never imagined that a global pandemic will happen when I went abroad for exchange. I thought once I got to Australia, all the troubles would be left behind and a whole new life would be ready to begin. However, not even after one month, I am stuck in my room, flipping through the album on my phone and lamenting that the amazing month I had has ended!

Some highlights in my wonderful first month:

  1. Two trips to Sydney

Sydney is an amazing city. It is so diverse and gives visitors different feelings. I went to Sydney twice last month. My expression may not be accurate, but I will try to convey what I felt when I visited those places by using other cities to analogise. 

Westfield shopping centre – New York, crowed, lots of big brands

Darling Harbour – the water, building and Ferris wheel are just like the view around River Thames

Opera house – magnificent and breath-taking, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco could be used to illustrate

Beach – made in Australia, nowhere else to see

2. Commencement dinner at uni accommodation

I chose Wright Hall as my accommodation simply because it is the only one with flexible (16 meals) catering, and the choice turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made. They had so many activities going on before the Covid-19 and in the first two weeks, I felt I would never get time to study. One of the most exciting and biggest events during the year was the commencement dinner for the whole hall. It is organised once per year in March when the academic year starts. (A similar event called Valete dinner happens in November when the semester ends.) On that day, everyone dressed up properly. Dinner started from 6pm until 10pm or later. People living in different blocks in the hall gathered at 5ish, took pictures, chatted, and used vouchers to get drinks. Then we came to the dining hall to have a proper dinner, which contained starters, main meals and dessert. Some alumni came to visit, staff announced the list of students who achieved extraordinary results in the past year and student representatives gave speeches. Hall residents were arranged randomly to different tables and had a chance to talk to someone new. After dinner, students could either go back or join the disco at the balcony. It was an awesome night.

3. Breath-taking view at Mountain Ainslie Canberra

Mount Ainslie is just a 20 minutes drive from ANU campus. It has a reputation for being the best spot to see the view of Canberra. We managed to get there before sunset and encountered an amazing night view. The unexpected beauty that I came across that night was the starry sky above the mountain. Even though stargazing wasn’t new for me, this remote mountain which stays away from the city’s light pollution surprised us with a sky full of stars.

4. Canberra Balloon Spectacular

The Canberra Balloon Festival is an annual event that takes place at the lawns of the old Parliament House. People gathered at the lawns before 6am and witnessed balloons taking off. It was exciting to see how the staff lit up fire and inflated big balloons. It costs more than $300 to take a hot balloon trip, but it is free and absolutely worth it to just stand by and watch. Those balloons are in different shapes including animals and cartoon characters. Whether the balloons will take off on that day depends on the weather condition. The official website updates their decision at dawn. That means whoever wants to see the balloons needs to wake up early on the right morning. 

A Guide to Stockholm

The proximity of Uppsala to Stockholm on train is an unparalleled advantage of this student city and should make Uppsala a strong candidate for any prospective exchange student.

To get to Stockholm, visitors have the choice to take either the high-speed direct SJ intercity train, or the slower commuter pendeltåg train which has more stops. In spite of the difference in time, both trains leave Uppsala regulary and arrive at Stockholm central station within an hour and cost around 85 SEK (£7).

Whilst the cost and duration of the journey pose no problem to the foreign passenger, navigating the complexities of Sweden’s code of conduct is an ever-present worry. Whilst in the UK conductors generally turn a blind eye to passengers using their ticket for a missed train, in Sweden you would be fortunate not to be thrown off the train for this misdeed. The uncompromising conductor is a Swedish staple, one which the British eye should simultaneously hold in esteem and be wary of, like the Swede’s flat-packed furniture.

The overzealous train conductors are in keeping with Swedish transport’s ruthless efficiency and punctuality. Neither train nor bus has been delayed or cancelled during my time here, a reflection of the success of Sweden’s nationalisation programme. Though double-decker carriages and well-kept schedules are certainly not ubiquitous across the country, especially in the northern territory.

In Stockholm

Stockholm puts up the pretence of a European capital. The grandiose architecture, such as the Royal Palace (Kungliga Slott), Parliament (Rikstag) and Cathedral (Storkyrken) fosters an atmosphere of stateliness expected in continental capitals. The extensive network of buses and underground trains (115 SEK for a day pass) enables quick and easy transport across the city. And the diverse districts, from the cobbled old town of Gamla Stan to the vibrant bohemian streets of Södermalm, are synonymous with Ile Saint Louis and Le Quartier Latin in Paris.

However, Stockholm deviates from the norm in several ways. Structurally, Stockholm is different because the city stretches across fourteen islands connected by fifty bridges on the Lake Mälaren which flows out to the Baltic Sea. The waterways between the islands comprise 30% of the city, and another 30% of the city is parks and green spaces. Tourists are invited to oversee the reddish, ecclesiatical skyline from the 155-metre-high Kaknäs TV Tower or one of the many viewing platforms across the city.

Demographically, Stockholm is less crowded than many European counterparts with a population of around 900,000 in the city and 1.95 million in the surrounding area. The relatively smaller populace is noticeable around the city making sight-seeing feel less like a touristic venture.

Talking of sight-seeing, the capital plays host to a smorgasbord of cultural, recreational and artistic pursuits. Although Stockholm boasts an underground and offers ferries between Islands, I would recommend walking or using one of the app-controlled electric scooters abundant throughout the centre.

Gamla stan is a maze of tourist shops, boutiques and fine-dining. Built in 1646, the Royal Palace is prominent amongst the colourful 17th- and 18th-century buildings and is often a-buzz with the palace guard. Nestled beneath the cobbled streets in this district are pirate and Viking themed bars which are worthy of a visit despite the pricey menus. Indeed, a round of drinks at one of these venues cost upwards of £30!

Södermalm is another district deserving of your time. This formerly working-class quarter plays the part of a chic and youthful part of town. Here there are many vintage shops, cafes and bars.

Perhaps the most enticing element of Stockholm is the abundance of cultural activities. There are many free museums across the city. Alongside others, the National Museum, the Modern Art Gallery and the Swedish History Museum are three which should not be missed.

Even those museums with a price tag attached are often discounted for students. The Fotografika (photography museum) is a personal favourite. It hosts regular and interesting exhibitions from Swedish and international photographers.

Stockholm is also the home of Greta Thunberg and the origin of the Fridays for Future movement. One of which I was caught in the midst of one afternoon.

Greta: pictured taking selfies with young fans at the 14 February Climate Strike.

Though Stockholm is smaller than its European counterparts, it certainly cannot be conquered in a day. I hope my recommendations will serve as a useful starting point for anyone who wants to get acquainted with ‘the city that floats on water’.

UBC – a final goodbye

One thing I didn’t envisage when hopping on the plane to Canada last August was having to cut the trip short because of a pandemic – to be honest I would have probably thought a run in with bears or a skiing accident would have been more likely! In all seriousness, coping with the coronavirus outbreak was one of the hardest things I have had to do all year. Within a couple of weeks the place I had started to call home began disappearing: university shut and classes went online, residences became empty, and shops and attractions all around me started to close. It was a lot to take in; I wasn’t ready to go home and this was definitely not how I had hoped to say goodbye.

IMG_6023
A Vancouver skyline – a pretty amazing place to call home

UBC decided to move classes online relatively quickly, meaning I would have no more lectures or discussion groups, and campus, normally home to 60,000 students, soon became a ghost-town. Personally I struggled to keep up with the transition to online learning, because without a structure to my days, and all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it became really hard to focus on my upcoming deadlines and assignments. I was devastated that I was having to leave so soon – there was so much I still wanted to do and see. After my exams I had planned to celebrate with all my friends, show my parents Vancouver, and then travel across the rest of Canada. There were also the little things I’d miss, like seeing the views of the ocean and mountains from my window or having classes with friends. However, part of me was also very worried about not being able to get home. Travel advice was changing every day and Vancouver was heading in the same direction as the UK, with stricter restrictions being announced every day. All the uncertainty and having to decide what to do was very difficult to deal with, but in the end we realised it would be safer (and cheaper – there’s only so many loo rolls I can afford!) to fly home.

After knowing that I only had a week left in Vancouver before heading back to the UK, my friends and I knew we had to make the most of it. Fortunately, professors at UBC were very kind and understanding of our situation and gave us all flexibility surrounding final assignment deadlines. This meant I had time to say goodbye to UBC and the friends I had made there. It’s almost as though the weather gods knew we were leaving because we had a full week of lovely Vancouver sunshine (which trust me is a rarity!). We enjoyed our last few sunsets on Wreck Beach, had group meals and played games, and walked around campus in a desperate search of raccoons – I still can’t believe I never saw one! We also took a few last road trips to some local Vancouver viewpoints to absorb the incredible scenery one last time.

Despite a few teary moments, I had a pretty great final week in Vancouver, and in a weird way it made me appreciate my time there even more. It gave me a lot of time to reflect on the year – all the friends I made from across the world, who I can’t wait to visit in the future once this craziness is all over, and all the incredible places I managed to visit, from the Rockies to Hawaii. I even FINALLY learnt how to ski at Cypress Mountain a couple of weeks before COVID-19 hit, so I can definitely leave on a high. Going abroad really was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and as this shows, one thing you can count on is it never being dull. And what better way to end an amazing year than with views of the Northern Lights from the plane – never too late to tick something off the bucket list eh!

Until next time Vancouver (and the raccoons!) – we have unfinished business!!