Beware: Red Squirrels

To kick off the very first day of 2015, I present to you seven short texts I encountered while on the Isle of Wight over this past Christmas.

7. The Homesick

2014-12-29 09.48.30

I live on Longstone Avenue. Oh – and the irony of going uphill to The Downs.

6. The Charitable

2014-12-27 10.17.19

Quite a catchy rhythm, no? “Donate a Gate. Donate a Gate. Donate-a. Donate-a. Donate a Gate.”

5. The Sheltered

2014-12-29 13.56.36

Not much of a safe haven, is it?

4. The Solemn

2014-12-29 11.54.59

This one is quite sad actually – I am pretty sure the rose was not there when we walked past the first time.

3. The Sheepish

2014-12-28 15.21.46

I quote: “It is an offence to worry or harass livestock.” The RSPCA at its best.

2. The Seasonal

2014-12-29 13.55.09

T’is the season to not pay for parking. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

1. The Dangerous

My shutter-speed was too slow, so this is courtesy of www.red-squirrels.org.uk. Red squirrels!

My shutter-speed was too slow for the road, so this is courtesy of www.red-squirrels.org.uk. Red squirrels FTW!

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Applying to Oxford: my journey

My silence on this blog can in part be attributed to the busy-ness of this particular stage in life: my university application. I do apologise though, as I was planning on writing loads of articles about South Africa and never got around to them. I only just finished one on Kayamandi Township for the school magazine SHOUT after being hunted down by the editor (I exaggerate, but you get the idea: I have been procrastinating). It is probably too late to write more on SA at this point, but I still have my notes from July should I change my mind.

But enough on my problems: I want to share with you the particularities of my recent busy-ness. Though I will be writing primarily about Geography, hopefully an aspiring applicant will read this and decide to give Oxbridge a try – it really is not as daunting as it sounds. I will mention though, that given its style of teaching Oxbridge is not for everyone; for example, one of my friends who aspires to be a medic has decided not to apply to Oxbridge as she finds the courses too academic and would rather undertake a more practical three years. Do not apply just because it is called Oxford or Cambridge.

To be honest, I used to be quite undecided about whether I wanted to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. Both have beautiful colleges. Both offer high quality one-on-one teaching, which I enjoy. Both require more effort than the standard UCAS application. I had visited both places a few times over the years for various reasons (with family, to visit friends, for open days, to attend lectures) and quite frankly liked them both. Being a Londoner, both universities are close enough for visiting family yet far away enough for the feeling of independence. The contender at Cambridge was Girton College, out-of-town with vast grounds and comprehensive facilities; my maths teacher had taken a few of us on a tour of his past university.

In the end, I think two things led me to pick Oxford over Cambridge. Interestingly, both happened in the holidays after Year 12. Firstly, I attended the UNIQ summer school. I stayed at Keble College and as a result of that week I still think of Keble as my college. Though I got sick (quite literally) and tired of having chicken every evening, I loved the accommodation and the close proximity to the Geography Department and Radcliffe Science Library, not to mention the chance to see some of the lecturers do their thing and to use a tiny sliver of the resources available. This turnout is somewhat fateful actually: I was unable to apply for the Sutton Trust at Cambridge due to the trip to South Africa. I am clearly biased towards Oxford, but meh. What happened has happened.

The second decisive event happened on Results Day. I got my grades back and I was pleased. However, my UMS marks were statistically too low for a competitive application to Cambridge. This sounds like a very crude way to pick between the two, but I will explain. According to the admissions tutor that spoke at an Oxbridge Preparatory course at Harrow School, the typical successful applicant achieves more than ninety percent UMS since Cambridge places heavy emphasis on AS marks. It was therefore safer to pick Oxford, as their criteria instead revolves around GCSE grades.

On the subject of Oxbridge preparation, I must thank my school for being very supportive and sending me in numerous directions: Harrow School, St Paul’s School, the OxbridgeApplications day courses, the various tasters and master-classes. Through the generosity of private schools like Harrow and St Paul’s, I received expert advice on my personal statement, the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), and the interview process. As my mother always emphasises to me, the UK is a country full of opportunities (many free, for those very economical ones like me) if only we looked for and grabbed at them. The same applies for the plentiful grants and bursaries out there, lonely and unclaimed; a notable example I heard at a Student Finance course was one offered by the Vegetarian Society to those who gave up meat for the duration of their course.

I suppose now is also a good time for state school students to strive for Oxbridge. The two institutions are becoming more open to state school students as ordered by the government in exchange for charging £9000 tuition fees, and while some may disagree, I believe this to be true. In fact, all universities are becoming more open. I think I will set the University of Leeds as my insurance choice; they have given me an Access to Leeds BBB conditional offer (the standard for Geography and Maths is AAB), and I suspect it is because I live in the ‘deprived’ NW10 postcode.

Onwards then. I had my personal statement checked by many (too many?) people with (too many?) different opinions. For Oxbridge, having a more academically orientated statement helps, as these universities accept applicants almost exclusively based on academic achievement. I have heard ratios from 70:30 right the way to 90:10 (academic:extracurricular). In mine, I mixed in geography with my volunteering at BAGG and my trip to South Africa, which is justifiable since I had the subject in mind when I chose to undertake these extra activities; Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award and the violin took up the last two lines only.

I sat the Oxford TSA on 5th November, which turned out to be harder than the past papers I had tried. I actually ran out of time and had to guess some of the answers in the multiple choice section. Apparently most applicants score 50% and a 70% would easily set you apart from the rest; it truly is a tricky test. There is not much revision possible either, since it is supposed to test how you think. A strange objective perhaps, but one that Oxford wants to include in their decisions. There is also a choice of three discussion essay questions, with thirty minutes in which to write one. If I had applied to Cambridge instead, for Geography I would have had to submit school essays separately for review.

{09-02-2015 EDIT: I suddenly remembered I could get my TSA results online, and just in time too because they will be taken down in six days. Overall, I scored 71.9% which was enough to set me above the middle-masses in the normal distribution. As I said, the TSA is difficult. There is no way of finding out about the timed essay I did, as that was sent straight to the tutors at Keble College.}

Needless to say I was very relieved to see the Keble College return address on an envelope one day when I returned home, and even more so when I opened it to see I had been called for interview. I was one of the last in my school to receive a letter from Oxbridge, so as you can imagine I was getting quite anxious. I kept telling myself that Oxford is allowed to wait until a week before the actual interviews to send out these letters (patience is a virtue, etc., etc.).

In fact, as I write this, I have just finished my two interviews at Keble College. It is surprising the amount of free time I am having to burn. My interviews were quite early on, so perhaps I was lucky. Beforehand I was rapidly trying to brush up by finishing some books on Human Geography (apparently most geographers here are Human and do not know the existence of the laboratories used for soil analysis). Now I am tempted to sleep the day away! I told my teachers I would catch up on schoolwork in the Christmas holidays, not knowing about these spare hours at Keble College; I brought geography work to do, of course, in keeping with the subject mind-set.

I arrived on Sunday evening and was told I may be required to stay until Wednesday afternoon, as Oxford does all their pooling in one sitting (if there are more good applicants than there are places at a particular college, some are referred for more interviews at other colleges). For Cambridge it is different, as they do their pooling later on, in January I believe. Random fact: I think I am currently staying in the same room as my time on the UNIQ summer school – the view is the same and the blinds are broken (conspiracy!). It was quite a welcome break from life in general actually, and quite the foretaste of studying Geography at Oxford: talking with likeminded students and for once not being ridiculed for choosing a Geography degree; plenty of time for self-study and reading in a quiet environment; not having to worry about cooking meals (true for Keble at least); even the weekly contact time with tutors was reflected in the interviews. In the end I was not one of the three applicants who were pooled, and so was able to leave on Tuesday afternoon.

The interviews themselves were not as bad as they perhaps could have been; in my mind, I think of them as ‘chats about a mutually-enjoyed subject’ to reduce my stress levels. In the first, I was given a choice of two articles to read half-an-hour in advance; I picked the one on climate models, as I currently lean towards the Physical aspects of geography. The questions were quite challenging as expected, but definitely not impossible, and in retrospect I realise some of the better answers I could have given. I was also asked about my personal statement in this first interview, which surprised me as most admissions tutors had suggested Oxbridge hardly ever do this. We talked about an environmental topic I was interested in (badgers), a lecture I had attended (insects), and my trip to South Africa (this was the biggest surprise, which threw me off-balance, and I ended up saying that I did not get much out of volunteering to paint tyres at the Sustainability Institute – eek). Aside from having adequate knowledge, I think coming across as motivated and friendly also helps, since these tutors are effectively picking who they will converse with in their weekly tutorials for the next few years.

My second interview was again with both a Physical and a Human tutor (just to clarify at this point, in case you are very confused, that all tutors are human but there are arguably two sides to this discipline: Physical Geography and Human Geography). The Physical gave me a graph on carbon emissions to interpret, and climate change mostly dominated that discussion. The Human (this sounds so ridiculous out of context – what next? ‘The Alien’?) asked me about traffic congestion, which was personally quite interesting and refreshingly different. I think the rumours about tricky and quirky questions are unfounded: I did not experience anything of the kind, though Professor Washington (the main Physical tutor at Keble) did mention in our briefing that geography was a down-to-earth subject (puns galore) and did not favour such tricks. Perhaps the only weird question I was asked, when taken out of context, would be: “What would happen if we planted trees and shrubs in the desert?” Even that is not too strange, especially with geography in mind, and I managed to answer it.

All-in-all I have quite enjoyed the whole Oxford application process despite it consuming significant amounts of time from my life. I have waited before publishing this piece because I am not supposed to share details of my interview with other applicants (though the chance of them ever reading this is almost zilch). There is also the fact that we were not allowed to use Keble Wi-Fi and my 3G is acting horribly in Oxford. Anyway, all that is left of this particular journey is the waiting game. Oh, and A2 exams, but never mind them for now.

{07-01-2015 EDIT: I have been given the standard A*AA conditional offer to read Geography at Keble College. Now the last hurdle really is the exams.}

{16-12-2015 EDIT: I achieved the necessary grades and was accepted into Oxford! I have just finished my first term here, which was challenging but enjoyable, and also stayed on to help with (incidentally) the 2016/17 admissions. Seeing all those nervous yet determined faces on potential future Keblites made me think of this article, out of the blue. This blog has not seen much attention I will admit, but hopefully I will find the motivation to resurrect it once more.}

South Africa: An Overview

Because I am not yet bothered to pen in depth reports about townships and lion sanctuaries, I have decided to begin with this jumble of goodness. Though you will get a general flavour of the trip as a whole by only reading this, as I go along I will be adding links and the like to expand on various highlights in the two weeks. Oh – and it is in chronological order, because I cannot think of a different order to put them in. Here we go: the most …

{Some of the media I have yet to acquire off others on the trip.}

Turkish

And the prize goes to … [drumroll] … Turkish Airlines – duh. I actually quite enjoyed the flights. Turkish Airlines is affordable but not budget, which translates to relatively comfortable chairs and adequate leg room. If you do not mind smelling humid Turkish air half-way through your international flight, Turkish Airlines is the way to go. My one complaint goes to the tray tables – no grip at all.

Out-of-sync moment

Airplane meal at 0200 hours – what can you say?

Generous portion of food

We stayed at the Hotel Graeme for the first two nights, and our plane-ridden selves were recommended a pizza restaurant just two doors down – a very fortunate location as it was pouring with rain when we arrived in Capetown. I paid about R90 (the equivalent of £5) for a nominally small pizza which was controversially very large and generously topped with toppings. To sum it up: lots of food, good service and very wicked knives.

Unfortunate turn-out of events

We decided to go forward with the bicycle tour of Capetown anyway, despite the possibility of continued bad weather. Those of us with waterproof-ish gear donned the said clothing; those without went and bought some of said clothing and likewise donned it. After seeing various statues on pedestals, the inevitable happened and we ducked into Capetown Station to avoid the rain. Our bike troop must have been quite a sight. Surprisingly, the downpour stopped fairly soon. We continued to the District Six Museum and listened to a once wealthy Muslim man talk about his experiences of apartheid, which has transformed him into the anarchist he is today. Onward we pedalled, sweating, uphill to the “muslim” sector where I made the critical mistake to put my coat in my bag. True to its nature, the weather decided to misbehave once more and drench me on the final section of the tour. Sigh.

Unique dish

It was advertised on the menu as “Cornish Foldover – Pie in a pizza”. The little icon next to the name branded it a new dish. I decided to order it for the sake of seeing what it looked like. I have heard of many weird and wonderful food combinations, the most famous perhaps being the American “Pizza Burger”, and wanted to experience some of this wackiness.

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To be honest, it was quite nice. Vovo Telo, bakery and cafe, on the V&A Waterfront – I highly recommend this restaurant. We revisited twice more – the food was that good.

Lasting legacy

I managed to be in a rugby fan’s selfie, and only realised the slip afterwards. That’s a legacy of sorts, I suppose.

Silly technological mistake

The Hotel Graeme charges for its Wifi: R10 for 20MB, R50 for 100 MB. The 100MB I bought on the first night proved to be too much, especially as the connection was too slow for Skype. So, I made the logical decision to buy 20MB the next night just to WhatsApp my parents; the allowance ran out faster than I could read and reply to the messages. Awkward me walks up to the guy on night duty and buys another 100MB. Impatient me decides to log in with the new username and password before thinking the situation through. Analytical me eventually shows up and realises the Camera Upload for Dropbox is still auto-running in the background. Sigh.

Nostalgic

Remember when your primary school teacher gave you a stamp on the hand for good work?

2014-07-06 09.26.14Due to bad weather and other unforeseeable circumstances, we were told we could not visit Robben Island on the third day before heading to the Sustainability Institute (SI). We stuck around for a bit longer before suddenly being ushered away – down the stairs, through security, stamp on hand, out to the boats and on to the Sea Princess. Somehow some extra spaces became available at the last minute. The sea was very choppy however, and I spent most of the journey cramped next to some smartly dressed Japanese tourists. At least I was not being soaked out on top deck by rain and hail.

Touching

Our tour around Robben Island Prison was by an ex-political prisoner. He presented the details in a matter-of-fact manner, from the gruesome and inhumane to the ingenious and entertaining. However, I was most touched by his attitude; despite the fact that his now paraplegic father was shot multiple times by “security police” for trying to visit him in prison, our guide had already forgiven his tormentors (in his words, “I have sat down and had tea with them”). Indeed, a very different outlook to our anarchist from District Six.

This is not a museum to hatred. Visiting Robben Island should provide a lesson in reconciliation. ~ Sparks Mlilwana, former member of the African National Congress [interview by Alex Duval Smith, The Guardian]

Colourful activity

Our first whole day at the SI had us volunteering for the school (or, as they call it, the Skool). As we arrived in the holiday period, there were only three little kids present; in hindsight, perhaps this was more of a blessing than I first realised. We were tasked with painting tyres, which would eventually be stood upright to form a “worm” for the kids to crawl through. At one point, the kids thought it would be funny to splash water at us.

{Insert photo here.}

I suppose I was too conservative with the paint; one of my friends later proved that even yellow can shine brightly on a car tyre.

Random

Our teacher decided to take us on a walk to nowhere. True – it was very beautiful and I got some amazing shots of South African countryside.

2014-07-07 16.07.40One of us even found cacti!

2014-07-07 16.26.06In the end, as with most random walks, we got lost. The gate staff at Spiers Winery directed us the wrong way, before a particularly kind one drove up to us in his pick-up truck and gave us the correct directions – back the way we came. Disheartened, we slowly trudged along the dirt road. Suddenly the pick-up truck returns and this happens:

2014-07-07 17.09.40Rest assured, we gave him a generous tip for driving us right the way back to the SI. The journey did however allow me to take this unique panorama:

2014-07-07 17.16.51Educational find

I happened to open the bedside drawer in my room at the SI and found an old copy of “Introduction to Sustainable Development” along with some previous student’s notes.

2014-07-23 11.53.13The SI receives students and runs a wide variety of courses, one of which is a Postgraduate Diploma in Sustainable Development. I may consider returning to South Africa to undertake this course in the future, as sustainable development is one of my geographical interests. However, for now, the material will serve as a springboard for independent reading and exploration.

Oddly coloured

Green and purple cabbage-like plants decorate the roadside in Stellenbosch; I am reminded of my alternative lyrics to “Black and Yellow” that I jokingly made up years ago to eliminate racial references in the song: Green and purple, green and purple …

2014-07-08 16.27.33People in uniform

How many parking marshalls does it take to issue a parking ticket? I assume it is the end of their shift … Lovely hats though – just thought I should point that out.

2014-07-08 16.30.41Out-of-place item

Anyone for luxury bread rolls (or delicious fruit)? Straight out of the DVD section for only £8!

2014-07-08 16.54.52Shocking price

2014-07-08 17.01.11Yes – that is £1.50 worth of South African sushi.

Seafood ever

We ate out after our visit to Stellenbosch university, at Ocean Basket. This was their “Platter for One”, which I as “one” person barely managed to finish.

2014-07-08 18.53.43Also, our waiter was Anakin – no joke. Darth Vader likes fish.

Unexpected speech

At the end of our second day with them, I was tapped on the shoulder by one of the Kayamandi students and through some hand gestures directed to a group huddle. Very few people knew what was going to happen, so it came as quite a shock to me when one of the girls spoke up about unity and one-ness within our group. The English was a bit shaky, but I was very moved by her bravery to stand up and address an important issue, as relations between us Londoners and them had been somewhat limited prior to that moment; she did not end up giving a speech as part of the workshop on the final day, but I feel she already did her part. As a result, we were giving each other hugs and smiles; I even learnt a few secret handshakes off some of the guys.

Lofty piece of furniture

2014-07-10 10.55.08Table Mountain of course! I kid. It was a breathtaking walk, in more ways than one.

Harmonising

On our final day together, just before they left, the Kayamandi students presented an amazing choral display for us.

{Insert video here.}

Triumphant comeback

2014-07-09 16.31.27A pack of cards is always the one thing that people love to play but forget to pack. My friend managed to purchase a pack at the V&A Waterfront, so for the remainder of the trip we were able to enjoy scenes from Capetown while playing Rummy. This was a new game for me, and on the first day I ended up scoring a big fat zero. The next two days I managed to turn the tables around and win both times with 4 and 5 games won respectively. To some degree, Rummy is a game of luck; an important lesson to learn from any game is to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.

Awkward assumption

2014-07-11 19.23.03When ordering drinks at a restaurant, I asked for the “Mango Cocktail” under the Juices section. The waiter asked me in return, “You know it’s not a real cocktail, right?” – to which I replied, “Yes, I don’t drink alcohol.”

Down-to-earth problem

2014-07-12 11.50.18Being an avid geographer, the tour around the Kayamandi township was a truly “in-your-face” experience. It is one thing reading about the issues of hyperurbanisation in low-income countries; it is another to actually be there and see it. Despite numerous problems (high teenage pregnancy rate, slow and corrupt provision of government housing, multiple fire hazards, few medical services), the people I saw were quite happy. Some of the Kayamandi students moved here from the Eastern Cape. They sacrificed their families and their homes in return for a better education; they now live in shacks, yet they are so optimistic and focused on the future.

Racist

Township kids displayed their martial arts skills while shouting, “Ching Chung China!”

2014-07-12 10.58.42No worse than what I experience here in the UK, I suppose.

Scary night

At the Lion Sanctuary, a laminated card informed us that “None of our nice guests have been eaten before.”

2014-07-12 15.58.04“If it sounds like there is a lion outside your tent in the night, there isn’t one, don’t worry.” Despite knowledge that the lions were safely on the other side of a wire fence, I do not think many of us had a good night’s sleep.

Uncomfortable journey

We were promised, prior to the trip, a six hour drive to begin our second week in South Africa. It only lasted five in the end, but a certain lengthy section of highway reminded me of “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.” (OK, I know it is supposed to read “bumpy night”, but forgive me for misquoting one of the most misquoted movie quotes.)

Unsettling

A stroke of misfortune on our schedule perhaps, but the lion sanctuary visit was followed by the ostrich farm visit.

2014-07-13 16.20.39It is wrong to speed breed, can hunt, abuse, beat up, sedate, domesticate, underfeed, entertain using the lion; does the same apply to the ostrich? On the other hand, if it were not for these ostrich farms, the ostrich population would have disappeared from South Africa long ago.

Creepy

2014-07-14 09.48.32Soil creep is very creepy indeed.

Deep and humid

I went on the Adventure Tour at the Cango Caves. Those were quite small gaps I had to fit through; the few children that were there simply slittered through like slippery snakes.

{Insert photo here.}

Exhausting

A 3 hour session of sea kayaking – never will I undertake such a strenuous task again, even if I get to see a hundred times more seals than I saw that day. We did pass over a couple of sharks and a shipwreck on the way though, but I missed out on whale-watching (turns out it would be the only opportunity on the trip to see the world’s largest mammal in action).

Disappointing

We did not get to see the southern-most point in Africa, as it would have been a 2.5 hour detour. We did not get to see the penguin colonies in Africa, as there was a fire along the road.

Surprising anatomy

Whales have “fingers” (in their fins)!

2014-07-17 10.04.17They are mammals after all.

Thought-provoking

I put this title here when I planned this article – I have forgotten what was so thought-provoking near the end of the trip. Apologies. Maybe I will figure it out eventually.

{EDIT: I remember – hallelujah! On our final night in Capetown and in South Africa, we went to the Fugard theatre to watch ‘The Shadow of the Hummingbird’ by none other than Athol Fugard. The man himself was on stage, sensitively portraying the character of an aged grandfather. The play brought up many thoughts in my mind, and got me thinking about the distant future. I cannot accurately describe what I learnt that night, but it was a good end to our two weeks abroad.}

Rain

The rain on the first two days did not compare to the downpour on the last two. I sat in my room in 4 on Varneys on the last evening in South Africa. listening to the rooftop drumming and not at all envying those who had chosen to go out.

Anne

{I found this in my drafts folder, lonely and long forgotten about – out of sight, out of mind. Apologies from May ’14.}

I am honoured today to introduce you all to Anne:

2014-05-03 16.07.07

Looking rather grim, Anne …

To be honest, there are thousands upon thousands of other Annes that have that same look. Although it has a male torso, it is named Anne and none of us on the Emergency First Aid training course knew why. Curious me decided to do some research about the origins of Anne:

Some time in the late 19th Century, the drowned body of a young woman was recovered from the River Seine. As was customary in those days, her body was put on display at the Paris mortuary, in the hope that someone would recognise and identify her. The pathologist on duty became so entranced by the face of the girl with the enigmatic half-smile that he asked a moulder to take a plaster cast of her face. ~ Jeremy Grange, BBC News

With that wonderful thought in mind, let’s move on swiftly. There were ten of us trainees that day – well, eleven if you count the trainee First Aid trainer (that is so confusing). My wonderful Project Officer Laurence from TCV sprung this opportunity on me two days before the actual event. It was actually in a text that I received while at school and only noticed until afterwards; I see: “Let me know before 4pm please.”, I check the time: 15:38 – eek.

There were extra spaces on that course, so I ended up as a sort of tag-on. Almost everyone else there knew each other; there were rangers and day leaders all from the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park area. To make matters worse, I arrived late because I spent fifteen minutes wandering around the area trying to find this Greenwich Meantime Nurseries. Luckily, they were a friendly bunch and we quickly got stuck into the training itself.

As our instructor Clif rightly stated, Emergency First Aid courses tend to be very pessimistic, assuming that every incident involves some form of unconciousness. I got plenty of practice on dear Anne: squashing her chest thirty times then inflating it twice (apparently you are meant to do it to the tune of “Nelly the Elephant”, a rhyme I felt no prior connection to at all); squeezing her torso and thumping her back to dislodge the intangible choking hazard. There was also plenty of other talk about asthma attacks, strokes, medical shock, burns; I also got some practise in wrapping a bandage to stem an arm injury – the most common type in a Green Gym that frequently sees usage of saws and billhooks. Contrary to popular belief, paramedics actually prefer if first aiders did not do too much; cutting open a thirty-layered tourniquet contraption only delays treatment.

During the break, I also had some time to wander around the Ecology Park and take in some of the beauty (as opposed to running around frantically). I heard the following conversation between a father and his son: “Can I play in the park?” “It’s an ecology park – it’s for the animals to play in.”

Greenwich Meantime Nurseries is quite an innovative place for nature conservation. The entire area seems to be a concreted brownfield site, so everything is grown in raised beds or waterlogged enclosures:

In case you were wondering, I did pass the training. I can confidently say I am now Emergency First Aid trained, though I would probably still freeze up in shock at the sight of an unconcious body … sigh.

2014-05-03 Emergency first aid at work certificate

One week more!

Another week, another destiny!

Excuse the Les Miserables pun (I am still basking in the afterglow of the school’s amazing production last year), but this time next week I will be high over Europe and fast approaching the capital of Turkey! As we will be flying with Turkish airlines, it is only fitting that we can enjoy a three hour stint as airport-bound tourists in Istanbul before another plane whisks us away over the African continent.

I realise I have not contributed to my personal blog in a long time due to exams and whatnot, so I decided to take an hour’s break and jot down the latest happenings. Now that I think of it, it almost seems surreal, as if the reality of being many thousands of miles away from home has not yet fully hit me. Here I am, tapping away at my keyboard, pondering about League of Legends, worrying about the presentations I have been assigned from my subject teachers. Of course, I have been aware of the impending departure; in fact, I was (mistakenly) hassled about due payment and various bits of paperwork only this past week. However, despite this immense experience that I am about to embark on, life carries on as usual until the day of departure.

For example, last monday I had the priviledge of attending an Oxbridge Application Course at St Paul’s school; it is sorted under “Community partnerships > Academic partnerships” on their website, so I suppose it is a way for them to gain some extra “kudos” from the less economically affluent. Being a highly-rated, highly-expensive private school, I was not surprised at the size of the grounds; rather, it was quite a nuisance to walk around to the entrance. However, I was intimidated somewhat by the sea of blazers and ties that I found my polo shirt among; the fact that my two friends (with hoodies) from QPCS arrived late did not help at all. All in all it was a very informative few hours; I met with their Head of Geography and got plenty of helpful insight into the whole Oxbridge application process.

The following evening, I was up (literally) in Harrow-on-the-Hill in this sprawling subunit that goes by the name of Harrow School, for an information evening for the Lumina course participants and their parents. This time, we turned up late due to ridiculous traffic through Fryent County Park, and missed out on refreshments to walk straight into a very grand meeting room filled with oil on canvas and busts on pedestals. I anticipate a few: “Another Oxbridge Application Course?!” – for this, I quote my Head of Sixth Form: “You really cannot have too much.” To be honest, it is well worth attending both as I have already noticed different opinions and tactics being conveyed in these early stages. The Lumina course runs next week, and I will be missing the last day of interview practise in favour of a train ride to Gatwick airport.

Those courses along with many other bits and pieces have, in a well-timed coup d’etat, completely congested my timetable. In these few days before I leave, I have to: attend the Lumina course; finish two presentations and one essay question for school; read at least two of the PDFs that the UNIQ summer school sent me, scans of books about “The future of the state” (eek – very human-y geography coming up) – which reminds me, I still have to figure out what to wear to the Bop; manage BAGG’s email account, through which I have already informed five individuals that our chairperson is on holiday; decide on an EPQ-style essay topic for writing over the summer break; complete the student leader application (I have gone for “Green Champion”, obviously). I am sure I have forgotten something … does mastering half of a Grade 8 violin piece count? There is no way I will finish everything, and in the end someone will get annoyed. I want my quiet self-study revision time back!

The events of this evening are in fact what prompted me to write this post. We had a meeting, parents and youngsters alike, about the final arrangements for the South Africa trip. The itinerary is all planned out: we will explore Capetown upon arrival; then, the Sustainability Institute is hosting us and the Kayamandi students for a week or so while we collaborate on a journalism project; after that, we head out under the care of a tour company to experience some of South Africa’s natural environments; a final evening in Capetown at the theatre before flying home again. The more I type, the more enthused I am becoming; psyched up through tapping keys – fancy that. I look forward to it all, both the volunteering and the sightseeing. All of it will be a very valuable and possibly life-changing experience, and I guess I should take this moment to thank all who have purchased my Chinese cooking and made this trip possible.

Aw … but I am afraid I have to cut this short – the Economist beckons.

The best(ish) of southern France

Before I lose my will to write and get stuck in with my arduous revision, I am going to quickly jot down the touristic features of the BYSO tour. Kindly organised by the tour company, kindly checked for (surprise, surprise) health and safety by the staff, and kindly paid for by me – all in all it was a meaningful exploration of culture and history.

{For the sake of ease, and because I am lacking in time, I am going to skip out most of the accents. Advance apologies to Mr Gunot and any other French readers out there – please condone.}

Nimes

On our third day on tour, we visited Nimes and all of its Roman splendor. I have in the past been to structures similar to the Arena of Nimes, the latest being Arena di Verona in Italy when I was on the annual music trip with my school. However, I guess with academic maturity you begin to appreciate the historicity of different areas – even if it is delivered through a grindingly slow commentary. From the way they designed it, with all the lengthy fanfares and clashes of steel upon steel, it is almost as if they want you to sunbathe on the reconstructed seating. Nevertheless, it was an enlightening experience. Here are some random facts you can impress your friends with:

  • Built in 95AD, the giant structure held twenty four thousand spectators in its heyday.
  • The amphitheatre design came about as a combination of two theatres back-to-back.
  • People sat by class, with the richest etching their names into the stone seats on the lower tiers.
  • Animal fights happened in the morning, with gladitorial combat in the afternoon.
  • Noon was the hour of execution, and most people actually left – save the gruesome Emperor Claudius.
  • They had to replace the sand everyday! It breaks falls and soaks up blood – lovely.

And most surprisingly for me personally was learning about the true nature of gladiators. The media likes to feed us horrific stories of gore and murder, but in fact:

  • Gladiators were generally free men who trained in schools in this art all their lives.
  • Referees were present during fight, had authority similar to those in boxing, and could sanction a draw.
  • The overall aim was to force the opponent into giving up, not to kill them.
  • 80% of the time there were no fatalities; the magistrate would usually spare a well-fought gladiator to avoid having to pay compensation to the family and the school.

At the Maison Carree, we watched a half-hour dramatic documentary about the history of Nimes. It was quite fascinating actually, and although I am no historian I still enjoyed it. The Maison was once a temple dedicated to Lucius and Gaius Caesar; later on in its life it hosted art and plays. Using it as a modern theatre is somewhat insensitive to the original purpose of the place, though I must agree it is a good way to make money for the continued restoration and maintenance of these historical sites.

We got to the Tour Magne after a long uphill walk, by which time I was very tired and need of a break despite already having lunch. Luckily, we ended up staying in the beautiful gardens around the tower – it was great to lie back in the sun and enjoy the cool breeze. There were also some impromptu activities:

The climb to the top was definitely worth it. With the skies clear, the view from the Tour Magne is breathtaking. I was able to spot both the Arena and the Maison, as well as dozens of other important places around Nimes. Another skill, or rather feature of my smartphone, that I realised and developed recently is the “panorama”. I had previously met this on older cameras, and it required me to try and piece together positions on a tiny screen. Luckily, with the wonders of new technology, smartphone cameras can do this automatically. The result is not always perfect, especially if most of the frame is blue sky, but by and large it makes things much easier. It feels appropriate now to rudely interrupt this narrative with the said panoramas:

Marseille

The next day was extremely sunny and we travelled to the seaside town of Marseille. It was a very busy area, with lots of residents and tourists alike milling around the port. We hopped off the coach and on to a “train” – essentially a set of carriages pulled by a car that looks like a steam engine. As we were such a large group, we took up most of the seats and had the luxury of taking photos without being hindered by a courtesey towards strangers. Mostly it was either the stunning sea or iconic buildings – unfortunately we did not get to go specifically to any of these due to time constraints.

On the way up the hill towards the Notre-Dame de la Garde, the recorded commentary said, “And now, to your right, you can see the statue of the Virgin and the Kid.” We were laughing too much to hear the rest of the history about the Notre-Dame, and not only because it was delivered by a lady with a hilarious accent. I guess someone tried to save money and stuck the whole french text into Google Translate – tututut.

The Notre-Dame receives an estimated one and a half million visitors a year, be it religious pilgrims or view-hungry tourists. Indeed, the view from the top was absolutely fantastic. From the various locations around the Notre-Dame, I looked out and saw the entire city arrayed beneath me, with nature’s backdrop of mountains reaching for the sky. There was a regal feeling at that moment – it was the kind of view kings enjoy of their kingdoms. I was also surprised to see the wooden cross so prominently displayed, though I suppose at the time of construction France was a very Roman Catholic country; I immediately was reminded of the worship song “The Cross Stands” by Matt Redman – a great encouragement to stand strong in faith.

Twenty minutes was just enough time for a brief walk around, snapping pictures and panoramas like excited little children before being herded back to the “train”. This time, being such a large group slowed us down – we had to wait for three “trains” to pass before there was one that could fit us all!

By the time we got down however, I was feeling rather sick and dizzy – the harsh sun was the main suspect. We had lunch in a shaded area – thank goodness – next to an enclosed body of water, and many decided to take advantage of the stones to practise skimming. I think the record that day was a very respectable seven jumps. Oh – and someone almost received damage to their nether regions. After that, the staff decided to ditch us and head to the pub, so we ended up wandering around aimlessly for two hours. Despite having little cash, I saw this cute thimble with an engraving of the Madonna and Child statue and thought it would be a unique souvenir for my mum; she is tired of the miniatures and the fridge magnets we bring back every year.

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The giant mirror

There was this huge metallic shelter-type thing near the ferry port – quite out of place among the multistorey hotels and open-air restaurants. It did however allow me to rest from my fatigue, as well as a mirror selfie on a grand scale. Our small group eventually ended up sitting on our red hoodies and playing “I spy” for some reason – we were that bored. Apart from the long queue out to sea, there were charity bucket collectors and street performers in and around the seafront, including a electric violin/drum father-son duo and a human statue of three. The ferris wheel was far too expensive – using the money we saved, we went to McDonald’s.

Beach

We were actually supposed to go and see some more Roman architecture somewhere, but because we performed so well the night before (flattering, I know), the staff treated us to a day out at some beach. Not much to say here I suppose – there are not that many things you can do at a beach. We had some ice-cream, played some football, tanned a bit, raced a bit more. One of the staff decided to run up and down the length of the beach, so we cheekily started to sing the theme from “Chariots of Fire” as he went past – someone even got a video in slow motion!

Avignon

Our final morning before getting on the coach back to the UK was spent in Avignon, the town where our hotel was situated. The main attraction was this bridge, Pont Saint-Benezet. A world heritage site, today the bridge does not actually span the whole river; the arches tended to collapse when the river Rhodes flooded and its maintenaince was abandoned in the seventeenth century due to financial issues. Out of the twenty-two original arches, only four remain. As it would cost another 10 to get on to this one-fifth of a bridge, we simply admired it from afar, snapping photos as usual.

The weather was actually brilliant for the duration of our trip save the last day when little rain showers started threatening us. Apparently the UK was not doing so well during that week.

I have never been to France before. The QPCS music residential trips always avoided France and Spain, as those were in the dominion of the Languages department. That is another European country ticked off – I have been to: UK, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and now France! My parents were going to pick us up after the tour and we would have another week holidaying in Paris, but this plan turned sour. Instead, we took a trip to the beautiful Lake District, Cumbria. Maybe I will blog about that too, maybe not – watch this space.

Travelling, eating, rehearsing

The title pretty much summarises what we did on our first two days.

I am writing this post a whole month late, so there is no way I can give a detailed day-by-day description of my experiences on tour in France with Brent Youth String Orchestra (BYSO). I suppose this is just my way of apologising to my empty draft that has been abandoned in its box for ages. For some reason, it is very easy to become demotivated to blog, and then a sudden spark initiates a legion-long chain of posts – basically, keep your eyes peeled for more. OK, enough of my rambling – onwards.

Travel

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Aboard the Spirit of France

I have not been on a ferry for almost two years now – let’s just say I was surprised at the renovations. From my limited knowledge of ferries (i.e. the ones that do Dover-Calais), they are built to impress. With a grand total of nine decks, they can really pack a lot of motor vehicles in them; the P&O Ferries website gives a very precise figure of 1059 cars.

They also take advantage of the legislation (most likely health and safety, for obvious reasons) which require passengers to vacate the lower decks during the journey. If you asked a member of staff, they would claim that passenger comfort is their number one priority – but with a bar, a Brasserie restaurant, a Club lounge, an arcade, a huge shopping area, a bureau de change … you get the idea. They do try and drain your wallet by commercialising the upper two floors in a not-at-all discrete way, but then again 50% off UK high street prices is uber tempting.

You will discover a spacious, stress-free environment where you’re free to stretch out, do nothing, or pack a lot more enjoyment into your travelling time. ~ P&O Ferries

Yeah right.

By sheer coincidence, there was another group of young people aboard. Not only were they travelling by the same coach company, they were also wearing red hoodies! So much for picking a unique uniform set of casualwear, though I am glad they did not purchase burgundy ones for us – the colour reminds me far too much of my primary school years. Apparently, one of us almost ended up playing sport in Spain. Not a detrimental alternative, I suppose.

Unfortunately we were not allowed out on to the open deck. Health and safety – sigh.

Food

What I always find when I am on such tours is that whenever the staff tell us to find our own lunch, the group auto-steers towards McDonald’s. Firstly, it is cheap. With limited foreign cash, diets are given up for the sake of a full stomach. This was especially true for the first day in France. We had slept overnight on the coach and woke up in time for breakfast at a service station. The twenty-or-so of us turn up at the restaurant area and all order Full English. It was something like six o’clock in the morning, and their unpreparedness was evident in their cooking. Apparently, since I ordered the complete menu while Sze-Tat opted for the basic one, I was meant to have two slices of bacon – twice that of Sze-Tat. Check out the photo – we both ended up with an elegant pile of bacon bits. Oh – and the hash browns looked so much more tasty on the menu. I would hesitate to even call them hash browns – more like potato pieces.

That day, due to logistical reasons, we did not have lunch until half-two. By then, my stomach was rumbling profusely, summoning any edible substance. We ended up at McD’s and I ate so fast I forgot to take a photo. However, if I remember correctly, I felt much more satisfied – for a cheaper price. It is not just “asian-ness”, OK? Because of flipping TNCs, it makes so much more sense to eat at fast food outlets. As a geographer and environmentalist, I am deeply ashamed of myself. As a desperate tour member with only 50 to spend, meh.

The evening meal at the hotel that day was also quite a spectacle. Among our tour group there were many dietary requirements, from gluten-free to no pork. We were clearly overstretching the hotel too, since there were many makeshift cardboard signs in and amongst the more official “reserved” signs. It was quite fun figuring out who could not eat what while waiting for the food: “And what does the green dot mean?”

Naturally, those that required certain food types were served first. The first course was most interesting: the vegetarians got a plate full of salad; the gluten-frees got a plate slightly less full of salad (very strange); the no-porks got a plate slightly less full of salad with a few slices of chicken ham; everyone else got … a block of pork quiche. We started wondering to ourselves: “Are vegetables only for non-omnivores?” We waited a long while, and I was beginning to believe my dinner was a block of quiche – so I quickly grabbed another one.

Hungry especially after the long rehearsal, I was delighted when meatballs and rice appeared. By the time the serving bowls got passed down the table, I was slightly less so. Sitting on a table with a dozen other hungry males is not a good idea, especially if you fall into the same category. I scooped my miniscule heap of rice and topped it up with ten huge meatballs. Overkill I know, but I was hungry. Thankfully more food appeared later and I ended up having a third helping – better full than empty anyday. The dessert rounded the day off nicely.

Thereafter, it was continental breakfast at the hotel, packed lunches from the hotel, dinner at the hotel. There was one dinner we had to get ourselves, and by popular vote we went to (surprise, surprise) McDonald’s. Ordering from restaurants and cafes can be a bit daunting – at least at McD’s you are familiar with what they offer, so explained one of the university helpers. Personally I like to be adventurous, but due to (surprise, surprise) health and safety we had to stick in groups.

To be honest, by the fifth or sixth day, I was very bored of the packed lunches: half a cheese sandwich, a ham sandwich, original crisps, a small madeira cake, and a bottle of water. It was on the very last day that we finally went to a restaurant and had a scrumptious pizza lunch. Unfortunately, we still had the packed lunch at four o’clock in the morning when waiting for the Eurotunnel train.

There was other food as well; two out of three concert venues were generous enough to provide refreshments, and Sze-Tat decided to buy a little something in exchange for using the toilets. The only disappointment with these tours is I never get to experience some local delicacies …

Rehearsal

It is amazing how much instrument playing improves on a tour. Being immersed in a different environment and devoid of daily bothers really does help with focus. I think the three hour rehearsal on our first day in France greatly helped get us into the right gear, and from then on it was an upward spiral, with each subsequent performance better than its predecessor. It is amazing that we managed to pull off our hour-long repetoire, and the concert venues were amazing too, but I will talk about those next time.

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OK – they were not as grand as the Arena in Nimes, but still …

With the tour finished, everyone is geared up for the biennual Brent Makes Music at Wembley Arena! The music is ridiculously hard, but with the tour experience I am sure BYSO will triumph again. I, sadly (or not), will be exploring South Africa then. That is what happens when you have too many commitments – they tend to disagree with each other. I am sure it will be a great concert, and I will be attending in spirit. Do get a ticket if you can (booking is not open yet).