Last June I filled my suitcase with a summer’s worth of denim shorts and sun-cream, bid a heartfelt farewell to my savings and hopped on a plane to Asia. There are hundreds of Exeter students who jet off on their year abroad, yet few seem to have heard of the summer programme opportunities – which are plentiful and to be totally honest – a steal.
Picture this: Exeter is partnered with a variety of other top-ranking universities around the world; many of which offer summer exchange programmes. So you can take your pick from Toronto to Tokyo, assured not only that the tuition fees will be waived but also that Exe’s international office offer out scholarships of up to £500 to help with your flights and accommodation. I chose to spend five weeks taking courses in digital marketing and creative writing at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, before spending a week with a friend in Osaka, Japan, then heading to the Chinese University of Hong Kong for three weeks trying to learn the basics of Mandarin.
I made amazing memories, a handful of friends who have promised a place to stay should I ever need to crash in Sydney or Paris and curated a stunning Insta starring Singapore’s glittering skyline, my trips to Japanese shrines and Hong Kong’s mountainous hiking trails.
Yet inevitably there were just as many moments when all I wanted to do was grab my hoodie, bank card and emergency pot noodle and head for the airport to catch the next plane home. Like the first night in Japan, when my friend and I found ourselves stranded, alone in Osaka in the dead of night.
Osaka is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city – but the Japanese simply don’t need all their train announcements to be in English. And it turns out that relying on the seemingly wise advice of two tipsy tourists was a bad plan. Unaware that the trains stopped running at midnight, we blithely hopped off two stops before our hostel, to find ourselves on an unfamiliar platform, utterly deserted. The next train didn’t come. There was no free Wi-Fi to get Google maps in gear.
So we fumbled our way through a crumpled Japanese street map picked up from the station, and wandered in the vague direction of home, with nothing but pure instinct and the stars to guide us. I broke out the emergency chocolate an hour in. We thanked heaven for the Japanese demand for 24/7 ramen and begged sleepy convenience store staff for directions. And eventually tripped our way into our hostel dorm at 2 a.m. It was cold and exhausting and utterly miserable. But we made it.
Then there was one night out in Singapore, as I drunkenly danced my way out of the club with my mates, pausing to pose for a selfie. In the messy, tipsy hug, my glasses slid to the ground and cracked. There’s nothing to sober you up in seconds like not being able to see. My eyesight is terrible – I barely made it through the blurred swarms of drunken tourists to the grimy bathroom of the nearest bar to put in my emergency contacts. But more drama was yet to come. It turns out new glasses cost quite a bit more in Singapore. I went from one optician to the next, faced with demands of $300, triple the cost of glasses in England. It took several trips to the mall, with a very patient Singaporean friend to guide me, to hunt down the equivalent of Specsavers and find a pair of frames that wouldn’t leave me penniless. The stress of limited savings and a rapidly dwindling supply of contact lenses gave me sleepless nights. And trying to negotiate with a limited understanding of Singlish (a dialect comprised of snippets of Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay, English and Tamil) left me close to tears of frustration. Not a story I was going to share on my Insta feed.
But these mishaps pale in comparison to catching Hong Kong’s particularly debilitating strain of fresher’s flu and finding myself forced to hunt down the Chinese equivalent of Lemsip in the university convenience store. Which would have been fairly simple, had the campus not been situated in the mountains of the New Territories. Which left me, dazed and slightly snotty, trudging up and down the jungle slopes, with no map to guide me. The hills were treacherously steep and it was 30 degrees, with 90% humidity. The air felt like soup, my limbs were aching and my temperature running high. When I finally reached the air-conditioned relief of the convenience store, I hid in the freezer section to recuperate before buying my meds; a sweaty, sick mess. Not the best time to snap a selfie.
Travelling is hard at times. Being in an unfamiliar environment, acclimatising to strange foods and a different climate, all while trying to find your way and make new friends and have the best experience of your life. I took some beautiful photos and will treasure the good times, but it was riding the ups and downs of my adventure that really gave me the confidence to find my way halfway around Asia and back home to tell the tale.