school

Shame, Catholicism, and Sex Education

If I am being honest, my sex education never came from school but from books, film and television – like most teenagers. When the time came for me and my year nine form to have our allotted hour of PHSE sex ed, it felt a bit pointless; this was sex education from a Catholic perspective. This, of course, meant no talk of contraception or the range of contraceptives available, no talk of the lgbtq+ community, and ultimately being taught that sex was purely for procreation. The only privilege of my non-Catholic school friends was being able to put a condom on a banana, but as I look back I realise that in the confines of a Catholic school when discussing sex, it’s what isn’t talked about that creates the most damage.

When writing on Catholicism and its teachings on sex, a quote from the actor Rupert Everett – of all people – comes to mind. Upon being asked about his Catholic upbringing and how it affected his life as a gay man, he didn’t speak of the Catholic belief around homosexuality, but rather the damaging effect Catholic teachings can have on women. I sadly can’t find the exact quote so forgive me for paraphrasing: “When it comes to the Catholic church, women can’t win. The only two female roles models are Mary Magdalene, a prostitute, and the Virgin Mary, who conceived through immaculate conception. Women are being compared to the one woman in history who could give birth without committing a sexual act, no wonder the church attach sin and shame to sex.” On reading this, all my questions on why and how the church view sex, in particular female sexuality, were answered.

After reading Everett’s thoughts on Catholicism, it shocked me that this one way of looking at the world can be perpetuated through schools to teach such an important part of life. It rang true with my own problems surrounding sex and religion, for example, I have never understood why the strict teachings on sex are taught solely by men who have chosen to take a vow of celibacy. In life, the general rule of thumb is that when looking for advice you go to an expert, or a least a person with some knowledge and experience of your problem. However, when I look back on my sex education taught through this narrow prism, the residue that is left is shame.

For most of my teenage years, actually until I discovered feminism and feminist literature, I always felt a degree of shame about sex. As a young girl, the lack of information, and the age-old story of sex for reproduction left me with so many unanswered questions. I felt ashamed of having sexual feelings, of wanting to find out more through books and films. I was scared of the internet for the same reason I was scared of talking to adults; the embarrassment of googling, of asking, being expected to know more. It’s the catch twenty-two of being too naive in front of school friends and growing up too fast for your parent’s liking.

The mix of teenagers, sex and rumours cause misery and years of problems. Teenagers battle enough questions about their future without having to fight off the invasive questions: have you done it yet? Who with? Why are you waiting? Then again the shame that comes with both a yes and no answer. Slut shaming can come in all shapes and forms, from people you would least expect. Teaching sex using Catholicism seems to give people permission to judge a woman’s sexual behaviour, because as Rupert Everett pointed out, the church has the perfect spectrum on which to judge.  

The age-old tale of secrecy being more exciting is never truer than when sex comes into the equation. The Catholic veil of guilt and mystery does nothing to educate teenagers or even take away the fear and shame from the shy and anxious like myself. Most importantly, by not teaching teenagers about contraception, STDs, and how to practice safe sex, you are doing them a disservice. The more people know, the more power they have over their own lives and their choices. If a school must bring in the Catholic church’s teachings, then perhaps it should be one part of a much broader education. Sex education can’t be a cross between a biology lesson and a confessional. It must be taught with the same importance as the three core subjects and with the same enthusiasm and improvisational skills as a drama class.

Teachers, I implore to use every teaching tool in the box. Be brave, be honest, talk about the gory details, the joyous details. Point kids in the right direction and talk about sex’s place in culture. Even take inspiration from Channel 4’s recent documentary on sex education, and give teenagers a sex quiz. Make it competitive, make girls want to know what contraception is right for them, the importance of knowing their rights to their own body. Make boys want to know about a woman’s pleasure as well as their own, talk about the clitoris and masturbation as an important and healthy part of men and women’s lives. Hell, give UCAS points to everyone who acknowledges that NO means NO!

Give them an education void of other people’s shame and uncertainty. Take away the fear and replace it with the knowledge they will need to go out into the world. Give them knowledge they can use.

 

Words by Lara Scott
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.

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The Absence of LGBTQ+ Sex Education

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At the start of 2017, our government blocked compulsory LGBTQ+ sex and relationship education. On reading about this decision, and being asked to write on sex education for Anthem, I realised how lacking my own sex education was in the mid-noughties. It is a crying shame that my friends and I were so ill informed back then, let alone as teenagers are now in 2017.

We were taught about biology, not pleasure, and definitely not consent. It was very male centric, with the attitude that ‘boys will be boys’. Girls were taught to allow boys to experience these new feelings and to be kind to them if they get an unwelcome erection in your presence. Female masturbation, however, was an afterthought; described to us using a video of a woman on an exercise bike (which made exercise bikes very confusing for a time). 

Being taught sex education in a Catholic school meant that the word ‘contraception’ was mentioned once in reference to the use of a condom, but no instructions on how to use one. Again sex was seen as a means to an end, that end being babies. We were not taught about consent, what it is to be in a healthy relationship, porn, sexting, mental and physical abuse, and I never once heard the word clitoris.  

I was taught that sex was all about the sperm fertilising the egg, and a woman’s main role was as a mother. This left no room for discovery or intimacy, certainly not if you identified as anything other than heterosexual. We were taught sex education with the same attitude that my great grandmother had about LGBTQ people. When my grandma informed her that there were lesbians in the WRENS (Women of the Royal Naval Service), her mother replied: ‘”Don’t be silly, women don’t do that”. She didn’t even think it was possible. When I had my sex education, sex seemed a far off thing as the boys at my school either annoyed me or scared me. At this point, an attraction to women didn’t seem to be an option. It was not until I was twenty, and watching The L Word that this part of life would make sense to me. Coming out as bisexual in 2016 put a lot of things into perspective, especially how society views sex, and how culture comments on it. I was looking for representations of myself and found them to be few and far between.

When I had my sex education, sex seemed a far off thing as the boys at my school either annoyed me or scared me. At this point, an attraction to women didn’t seem to be an option. It was not until I was twenty, and watching The L Word that this part of life would make sense to me. Coming out as bisexual in 2016 put a lot of things into perspective, especially how society views sex, and how culture comments on it. I was looking for representations of myself and found them to be few and far between.

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On researching the reasons behind this absence in sex education, the common train of thought behind not teaching LGBTQ inclusive sex ed was the worry behind promoting the lifestyle. This thought process is wrong on many levels, the worst being that like all prejudices, it puts one person’s life above another; it teaches that heterosexuality is the norm. I mean, when was the last time someone came out as straight? I have read many articles and watched many videos on heteronormativity, and can see that this is where the absence stems from. From the government right down to schools and parents, people assume people’s sexual orientation, therefore assuming LGBTQ+ are in the minority. This leads to exclusion, and people feeling devalued. I have never understood why when teaching teenagers about sex and education, you wouldn’t teach them about every colour of the rainbow, no pun intended; it is of invaluable importance to their education. If I was an MP, a teacher, or a parent I would want thought-out, informative, joyful lessons on the subject that required more than just an hour before lunch. I would want young adults to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships, pleasurable sex, safe sex, attraction, affirmation of the LGBTQ+ community, dating, online dating, and the myth of virginity.

I have never understood why when teaching teenagers about sex and education, you wouldn’t teach them about every colour of the rainbow, no pun intended; it is of invaluable importance to their education. If I was an MP, a teacher, or a parent I would want thought-out, informative, joyful lessons on the subject that required more than just an hour before lunch. I would want young adults to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships, pleasurable sex, safe sex, attraction, affirmation of the LGBTQ+ community, dating, online dating, and the myth of virginity.

As a graduate of English and drama, I would also discuss how our culture views sex; the difference between a sex scene and sex, the difference between pornography and sex. I would teach people where to find LGBTQ+ representation, where to find feminist representation, and what it means to be a feminist, especially when it comes to sex. When it comes to sex we don’t give teenagers (especially teenage girls) the credit they deserve. Your teenage years can be the hardest as a period of constant pressure, questions and uncertainties about all that life can offer. The least adults can do is give them some certainty, and show them that they understand. School is meant to be a place where we learn about the world, about ourselves, and what we can become. I came out at the age of 24 – a whole decade after I learnt about how a sperm fertilises an egg. I had ten years to read all the sexy books and watch all the sexy films, and I had The L Word to confirm my bisexuality. I still think of the joy I missed out on, the stupid things I could have avoided, the days spent questioning and not acting. I think of that anxious lonely girl or boy who doesn’t have the strength to wait ten years. What if one person telling them their feelings are valid, or hearing that ‘love is love’ gives them the permission to start finding joy?

School is meant to be a place where we learn about the world, about ourselves, and what we can become. I came out at the age of 24 – a whole decade after I learnt about how a sperm fertilises an egg. I had ten years to read all the sexy books and watch all the sexy films, and I had The L Word to confirm my bisexuality. I still think of the joy I missed out on, the stupid things I could have avoided, the days spent questioning and not acting. I think of that anxious lonely girl or boy who doesn’t have the strength to wait ten years. What if one person telling them their feelings are valid, or hearing that ‘love is love’ gives them the permission to start finding joy?

 

Words by Lara Scott
Image courtesy of Showtime
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.

Growing Up

I’ve been having a bit of a freakout. I’m nearing the end of my degree, my time at university is nearly over, and soon I will have to get a real job and be a real person and live my life without an academic structure (I know, woe is me).

I think a lot about ‘real life’ and ‘real jobs’ like I’m some sort of infantilised child, but the thing is, it just seems so unachievable. Aside from the student debt, the rising house prices that mean that really I’m just never going to buy a house, the lack of jobs available in the arts, aside from all that, certain people just seem to have their lives together and unfortunately, I don’t think I’m one of them.

And the thing is, it’s very easy to beat yourself up about that.

There’s been a shift, among everyone I know recently. They just seem much more… grown up. They’re dedicating time to working hard and looking after themselves and making dinners and sleeping properly. And I’m starting to do it too, a bit. Sleeping proper nights and waking up before 11 am and leaving the house before 9 on some mornings. Noticing when my mood drops, and assessing why, and doing the right things about it. I even went running. For a week. We can’t have everything.

And I think that’s the key thing – you can’t do everything. You can’t be this person who exercises and sleeps and eats healthily and has a buzzing social life and a healthy mental state and gets good grades. And that’s okay. If I learned anything from a combination of CBT and a very good Simon Stephens playwriting talk, it’s that success does not equal happiness. I thought it did, for a long time. I thought that if I did a million things then that was success, because I was running myself ragged and loudly telling everyone how tired I was. That I had to be the best, making the best things, and having other people tell me how good they were. But self-validation is so much better. Letting yourself fail, or get it wrong, or even, to just doing nothing is one of the kindest things you can do to yourself if you’re happy doing it.

It’s particularly easy to not feel good enough when you’re constantly living your life through a screen, constantly comparing your reality to the social media posts of everyone having a nice time, the Instagram stories of what you wish you were doing, those people who are 5 years ahead of you in both career and life-planning and got their play on at the Royal Court aged 21 (I am not bitter, I promise). But comparison is dangerous, because it’s easy to while your days away wishing you were someone else, without fully appreciating who you are, that your hair looks great, and that you are great fun to go to the pub with.

I think that’s being a grown up. Learning to stop constantly punishing yourself about not being grown up. And I’m getting there. I might even start running again.

 

Words by Sian Brett.

 

 

 

Caring About Self-Care

I’ve been learning a lot recently. I’ve been at a school, for the mind.

I’ve had a bit of a revelation about life, the universe, and everything.

Ok, are you ready? Listening? Ears tuned to Sian frequency? Eyes ready to be widened in shock?

Here we go:

It’s important to look after yourself.

I KNOW. Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure.

It turns out, that it’s quite important for your mental and physical wellbeing to care about yourself, and your body and your mind. It’s makes a difference if you shower, and change your bed sheets, and give yourself evenings in to watch Netflix. Eating proper meals makes you feel better!

And not just in the obvious ways. It turns out that doing nice things for yourself means that you start to believe that you’re worth those nice things (or not even nice things just normal looking after yourself things) and then you feel better and give yourself more of those nice things and then you feel better and then-

Wait… you guys don’t look as surprised as I was hoping. Oh you… you already knew? Who told you? You just knew? How did you just know? Oh. Okay yeah, fair enough. Common sense. Yeah.

For me, this is pretty big news.

Here are some things I have done since I learnt about self care:

  • Got a job
  • Bought myself fresh flowers
  • Did my washing more regularly
  • Bought nice shampoo
  • Wore clothes that made me happy

I thought that self-care was just showering and sleeping. But, it turns out, it’s so much more than that. It turns out that if you make yourself feel nice, then you’ll feel nice. And that if you look after yourself properly and dedicate time to thinking about the way you feel, you’ll actually feel better.

I’m in about week 6 of therapy. I’m trying so fucking hard to undo negative thoughts, and feelings, and relearn what happy is. No, not even what happy is, just what okay is. And that alone, that act of making myself go and talk to a lovely doctor every week about why I feel the way I do, is a kind of self-care. Because I’m learning to value myself, and what I need. And that’s so important

I can’t believe I didn’t know it was important! Why did no one tell me it was so important! Why aren’t we taught it in schools – why don’t we have sex education, and drug education, and then mental health education about how the world is big and scary but you are valid, and real, and how we are all just blobs of being and we are what we make ourselves and we should look after ourselves because it’s so self-validating?

I wish I had been taught that I am worth looking after. I wish everyone got taught that, because you are, you so so are.

 

Words by Sian Brett.

 

Maintaining Friendships (How To Lose a Friend in Ten Steps)

The thing about friendships is that you don’t plan for a future in the way that you do with a romantic relationship; there is no natural path to follow, or a map with which you can navigate the success or lack thereof. It’s blindly attaching yourself to someone because at one point in time you shared something. Whether it’s school, a job or an interest, you make a connection with someone, often it is superficial yet other times it is not, and that person becomes someone you can’t imagine not being in your life.

Part of growing up is that you lose friends. Maybe it’s the girl you used to walk home with, or the person from work who you’d always catch up on all the gossip with, but sometimes they’re more important, they’re the people you grew up with, the people who helped you navigate your torturous teenage years, the ones who calmed you down after blowouts with your parents, and sometimes those friends disappear from your life and you’re not really sure why.

Moving away from home and going to university mean that people change, circumstances change, and opportunities change. Rather than being in the same place at the same time, friendships start to require upkeep; you need to plan visits to make sure that you keep in touch. Although our generation has it easy with the invention of social media (meaning keeping contact with people is at our finger tips), there is still the dreaded moment of sending a message after not speaking to one another for a while. What do you say? Do you say anything? That’s how most friendships die, not because of massive fall outs but because no-one is prepared to put themselves out there for fear of rejection.

There are many people in my life who I wish I could ask how their day was, or what they’ve been up to, but I don’t due to the fear that they want nothing to do with me, or that we don’t talk anymore not because of a series of inaction but rather because their life is better without me in it. I should hazard a guess that this is rarely the case, and on every occasion where I have reached out to someone I haven’t spoken to in a while, they seem as happy to have reignited a lost friendship as I am. Sure there will be people out there who are lost to you, but you’ll never know if you never try. This means reaching out to someone you haven’t spoke to in a while and hoping that they want to grab a cup of coffee, and then it’s hoping that you still have things in common with each other and that you’re not sat in uncomfortable silence until someone calls it quits. It’s not always easy. People have different schedules and will want to do different things, so it’s about compromise. It’s deciding that despite your differences it’s worth being in each others lives.

Getting over a lost friendship can be more difficult on the occasions where someone has unforeseeably cut you out of their life. You’ll wonder why, or what you did that could make someone not want to spend time with you anymore. The most important thing in this circumstance is to put yourself first, and that does not mean desperately trying to understand why, or what you could have done differently, or trying to change their mind. You have to accept that they have made a decision and attempt to move past it in your own way. Let go of any hostility you hold towards that person.

There will be times when you have to cut people out of your life, because their friendship is toxic. Part of being younger is believing you have to be friends with everyone but this is not the case. If someone only brings negative energy with them, or the best side of you isn’t brought out when you’re around them, then say goodbye. You’ll realise it’s better to have a handful of great friends who you trust, than a load of people you keep around because it’s what’s expected of you.

At the end of the day you’ll experience a lot of things growing older, and although it’s rough at the time, letting go of people and resentments can be liberating, and so can throwing caution to the wind and getting back in contact with someone only to rediscover a friendship you thought was lost.

Hello First Year

Welcome to university, and sincere congratulations on getting here. Yes a lot of people are at university, but that doesn’t mean you getting here is any less of an accomplishment. No doubt your family and friends and maybe even teachers are proud of you, and you should be proud of yourself too. The joyful feelings of getting in are fleeting, so absorb them and revel in them until the reality hits. The reality first that you need to go to IKEA stat before everyone else goes and you spend 5 hours in a queue, but also that you have no idea how to go to university. What do you wear? Should you bake something? Is that weird? Should your parents stay the first night? When can you go home? Do you need an NUS card? Saucepans? How much underwear do you take? All of it?

University is weird. It is three years (occasionally four or more), and it is not necessarily going to be the best three years of your life. That is a popular saying I know, but it doesn’t make any sense. It is your life, and every year is better or worse or about the same as the last one. How the hell are you supposed to know which years are the best? Every year is happy and sad in equal parts. Why is it the best anyway? Because your parents aren’t there to get mad if you come home late? Personally I’ve yet to have a year where I’ve thought ‘this is the best so far’. Point being, don’t push your expectations so high up that you’ll never reach them. It’s only uni. It is three years of writing essays and doing exams, making new friends and learning to live without adults. It’s like school except you won’t get reminded to eat when you get home from classes.

University, contrary to what some schools believe, is not for everyone. So it’s not the end of the world if you don’t like it. However, you cannot leave before you’ve tried one whole term. My heads of sixth form were very clear; “don’t leave before Christmas”. They are so right, you have no idea. If you don’t like it, stay until Christmas. At Christmas you can go home, catch up with all your friends, spend time with family, and probably go back to working a till somewhere. After Christmas you can go back and try again, you can think straight, you can work out your game plan, and chances are, the second semester will be much easier. If you do want to leave university, unfortunately you will still owe them money, and if you got a grant you’d have to pay that back – but don’t worry they scrapped that. Now you will just owe them even more. Yet it is still an option. Do not think of university as a trap. There are options. I know many people who have done year one again, who have re-applied to the same university for a different course and people who have switched uni after one year. There’s loads of things you can do. You can even take time out.

General advice from me would start with ‘go to your lectures’. I skipped so many in first year when I realised it wasn’t like school and they had no idea who I was so they didn’t know if I was there or not. The lectures can be shit, to be perfectly honest, but they are there to help you. In second year you can at least make sure you go to the lectures that will be relevant to your essay topics; notice what and who the staff are talking about, and what texts they reference. You’ll get way higher marks if your writing is relevant, particularly to what they were actually teaching. Secondly, although I would advise against it in first year, is extensions. Up-to-a-week extensions are available if you are struggling. If mental health, family or illness is getting you down and you’ve not done as much work, then you can apply to your lecturers for a week extra. I’ve used them before when I’ve needed them, and I would recommend them if you are really struggling. It’s only a couple of days but it can make all the difference. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for using them.

You shouldn’t let anyone make you feel bad. People fail modules all the time, most people I know in third year had extensions, most people struggle. It’s university. It is hard, otherwise they wouldn’t have wanted your best grades to get here. If they wanted As at A-level, it’s because they want to know you can cope. University is a step up, but it’s so achievable. Honestly, just sit down and do your work. I’m not saying you need a really strict routine in which you never do anything but read, write, and go to classes. I’m saying, if a reading is important, or they’ll test you on it then read it. It’s quite simple. If you have an essay deadline in a week then go get your books out and start planning. Once you realise you can do it, it becomes a lot easier to start work in other years. As you get higher up, the word count will probably increase from the hundreds to thousands until you’re telling yourself you can write a 10,000 word dissertation. Which you can. The important thing to remember at uni is that you can do it. Never tell yourself you can’t. You got here on your own, you did the work and you made your way into a university that wanted you. You can do the rest too. You can do it, and there’s nothing wrong with asking for help if you don’t feel like that.

As for freshers, girls and boys I’m going to start by saying don’t buy any bloody club wristbands. Honestly it’s £30+ that you will need in a few weeks. I went out twice in freshers, but spent plenty of nights in playing cards, learning about my housemates, talking, watching films and drinking on the kitchen floor. You really don’t need to buy a wristband for anything, and if you do go out every night that’s great – you can always buy tickets on the door. Don’t let anything pressure you into the idea that you’re supposed to be doing something else at university. Do what you want.

Be yourself. It might take a while for that to happen, I’m still learning in my third year, but you will not make friends trying to be someone you’re not. If you like something, someone else will like it too, I guarantee. You’ll never know if you don’t ask, or if you don’t tell people. Don’t hide what you believe in. Christian? Feminist? Conservative? Great, there is literally a society for all of them. There’s societies that drink, play sport, play games, dance, sing, run, read and whatever you’re interested. True, you don’t know anyone there, but that’s because you haven’t been yet. Go, meet people, and try things because the harsh reality is that it will only get harder once you leave university.

University is hard, but the world outside is much the same. You made the choice to come here, so embrace it. You could meet the love of your life, the friend you’ll keep forever. You could find your passion, your calling in life, or you might not. You might get the placement of your dreams and hate it. You might realise you never really liked your course and that you regret your choice of degree. Whatever way it turns, you’ll only know if you try. Listen to the bounds of advice people give you about uni because it will help you whilst you’re there, and it will probably be just as valuable after too. The world is your oyster, do with it what you will.

My final advice is merely to try, because even if you fail, you learn something new every time, and if you succeed, you’ve opened up another door for yourself. Be proud of yourself, look after yourself, and don’t forget that university, like life, is what you make it. Good luck fresher.

Q&A: Laura Pettitt’s Gap Year

Hi Laura! Thank you so much for speaking to Anthem about your gap year. I definitely feel like a gap year wasn’t seen as an option as I never found out anything about them, so I’m hoping speaking to you might help other people see it as one!

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BMP Farmhouse on Elephant Care Day

So to begin, you’ve been back home for a little while now, what’s it been like settling back in after a 3 month trip?

It was crazy how quickly I adapted to being back actually. I’ve been home for just over 2 months but within a few days of being home I’d settled back into old routines and full time work. I was really worried about getting proper post-travelling blues and even cried on the plane coming back, but as much as I loved travelling, there is something so comforting about being home that you can never properly replicate in a hostel, especially as I spent the last few weeks travelling on my own. I don’t think I’d realised how much I missed my friends, but the second I look back at my photos or someone mentions somewhere I went, the prospect of booking a flight for the next day becomes very tempting.

 

Is there anything you miss?

Ah so much! Probably the most prominent thing was how cheap travel is over there; we did a couple of internal flights in Malaysia for £8. I’d pay that for a 20 minute train journey here. Obviously living costs are cheaper in the parts of Asia I visited but even relative to that travel was seriously cheap, and it makes it so easy to do and see more. Asia especially was so chilled and laid back. You run to get a bus that’s due to leave and end up sitting on it stationary for 2 hours. In India we asked about paragliding and 2 hours and £25 later we’d been driven up a mountain in a Jeep to paraglide off the Himalayas. It’s weird because it felt like life was moving at a much faster pace while we were travelling but it was also like the calmest and most stress-free time of my life.

 

Is there anything you’re glad to have back?

It is so nice to not sweat all the time. Honestly between landing in Bangkok on March 2nd and flying to Singapore at the end of May I’m pretty sure there was just a constant layer of sweat on my skin (which resurfaced a month later when I returned to Asia). The heat was great when lounging around on the beach but it was borderline unbearable at times so I don’t miss that. Although there’s obviously poverty in England, it’s so much more blatant in parts of Asia that it’s almost nice not to see it. That’s the most awfully privileged sentence I know, but it becomes depressing seeing all these people living in unimaginable conditions who you just can’t help. Sure you can buy them some food or sponsor a child or whatever but it just becomes a bit depressing knowing you can’t sustainably change their lives. You kind of have to detach yourself from it after a while or you’d just spend the whole time deeply depressed over it

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Halong Bay, Vietnam

Could you walk us through the trip?

So I flew out to Bangkok with 2 of my best friends from school on March 1st, we spent a couple of days there looking around markets and temples, and then got a night train to Chiang Mai. We spent about a week there, did a 2 day jungle trek and an elephant care day (it was so great we got to feed them and swim with them), and then spent 20 hours on buses to Laos. We stayed in Luang Prabang for a few nights which we loved, right on the Mekong River where there was a really good night market and waterfalls. They also randomly did such good baguettes in Laos! Then we got a bus to Vang Vieng, also in Laos, the most bizarre place with loads of “happy bars” and everyone goes tubing (going down the river in a massive rubber ring). Just a really bizarre place! We then had a 32 hour adventure on buses (on my birthday so that was fun) to get to Hanoi in Vietnam. It was the craziest place which was just constantly loud and we almost got run over so many times.

We spent about a week there and then flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for a week. There was so much to do and see and we went on a lot of day trips to places like the Cu Chi Tunnels, and Halong Bay. It was really cheap, and a nice mix between traditional and western, and the street food was incred. Then we got a night bus to Cambodia where we stayed in Pnomh Penh. We went to S-21 and the Killing Fields and learned about Cambodia’s horrible history (would definitely recommend a quick google or a watch of the film The Killing Fields to learn more) which were so shocking and sad but definitely worth learning about. Then we went to where there are loads of temples, the main one was Angkor Wat, and we went to them at sunrise. After Cambodia we headed back to Thailand, this time to the south islands. We went to Phuket, Krabi and Ko Phi Phi which were all idyllic honeymoon type places where I went scuba diving. Then we headed to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. We basically booked our main flights in England so we just knew we had to be in Singapore by the end of May, and so ended up with a couple of weeks in Malaysia. I knew nothing about it but ended up loving it! After a few nights in KL we got a bargain internal flight to a little island called Langkawi. We spent a few days lounging on the beach and then flew to Penang, which is described as Malaysia’s food capital. It was amazing and we ended up missing our return flight (it was only £12 to be fair) on purpose because we weren’t ready to leave.

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Monkey Island, Thailand

From there we got a coach to the Cameron Highlands which were so much cooler (in temperature) than everywhere we’d been previously, and we spent a couple of days doing a bit of walking and visiting the tea plantations. We got a coach back to KL and after a couple of nights got a coach to Singapore. We spent 3 or 4 nights here, looking at the quirky little shops, food halls and a trip to Universal Studios before an overnight flight to Melbourne. Here we had a week in a vile 16 bed dorm but spent the days looking round the city before being joined by my friend from work, Abi. We then picked up a camper van and set off on a 2 week adventure. We went to Great Ocean Road where we saw koalas up close (they’re so soft!) and then drove to Sydney. We made a spontaneous decision to go all the way to Byron Bay which made a couple of long days of driving and some nights parked at the side of the road (and one in a stranger’s back garden). We only stayed in Byron for 2 nights but all loved it and then headed to Sydney. Abi flew home and we went to spend a week with Lauren’s (one of the three original travellers) family friends in a place called WoyWoy. We had a really nice week living in a proper house eating home cooked meals exploring the little town and also spent a night in Sydney and one in the Blue Mountains before the others flew home.

Originally we were all due to fly back together on June 2nd but I wasn’t ready to leave so flew back to KL, spent 2 nights there, and then went to Delhi. I was met at the airport and spent 16 days volunteering, helping women learn English and helping slum children with their English and Maths, and the evenings and weekends visiting Delhi, the Taj Mahal, and an amazing place called Dharamshala. The whole thing was incredible and so surreal, we were followed round a water park like celebrities, asked for photographs by virtually everyone we met, and I went paragliding in the Himalayas. Sadly after 16 days it was time to leave, and I had 2 flights to get to Bali. This was my first proper extended solo travelling, and I spent a couple of nights in a place called Ubud. I saw lots of monkeys, did some yoga, and ate a lot of green vegan food. It was so chilled out there, but I spoke to virtually no one and it was all just a bit surreal. I then got a mini bus and a boat over to Gili T, possibly one of the nicest places on earth. It’s such a small island that the only public transport is horses and carriages. The sunsets are amazing (though I never witnessed them properly because I got lost). It’s beyond beautiful and I spent a couple of nights there, went out with people from the hostel I was staying in and also got practically adopted by a lovely Indonesian family I met on a snorkelling trip who kept taking me out for food and said I was welcome to stay with them any time. On June 25th I had to head to the airport which I was very sad about, and had my final 2 flights to get home. I finished off my 4 month adventure on a trusty national express coach driving through rainy England.

 

How did the idea to travel these places begin?

I’d always had a strange fixation with India and Vietnam (which ended up being among my favourite places). India became a bit of an obsession after a year 8 Geography project, but I remember discussing Thailand/Laos etc in the common room at school in year 12. A couple of my brother’s friends had travelled a similar route a couple of years before, and then we spoke to people at STA and came up with a route, but pretty much everyone does the same thing. Everyone you speak to out there has stayed in virtually the same places as you – it’s almost funny.

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Torquay, Victoria

 

Did everything go to plan?

Amazingly yes! I was constantly expecting to miss a bus or a flight, be scammed out of all my money and so on, but everything was fine! I feel very lucky because a few things could have ended in disaster; I left my card in an ATM in Bangkok and someone shouted after me and gave it back, I left my passport in a hostel in Singapore and managed to just hop on a bus to get it back. I even managed to get on the metro in Delhi and have the doors close before my friends could get on, but even during rush hour when it was packed, nothing bad happened to me.

 

What was it like travelling with friends?

Most of the time it was great, but I just think being with the same people all the time is always going to cause a few minor disagreements. We never really argue at home but obviously you’re not spending every moment together. I mean, we shared a room for 3 months, and sometimes you just won’t all agree on something, or someone will just be in a bad mood. I definitely argue a lot more with my family at home. It was really nice to be able to experience everything together, and laugh at funny stories both at the time and now. I did enjoy the little bit of travelling I did on my own, but I’m really glad I was with them for the bulk of my trip.

 

Could you tell us about the preparation for your trip?

So I told my family I wanted to take a gap year back in about year 11, no one took much notice and just kind of assumed I’d change my mind. When it came to UCAS and stuff suddenly they all got a bit like “is this a good idea, should you be doing it” but I’m very stubborn and I think they probably realised I was going to go regardless of what they thought. In August after year 13 we went to STA and booked our flights to Bangkok, from Singapore to Melbourne and Sydney to home (I ended up changing my last one) and started discussing stuff like budgeting. My summer job let me stay on and I worked until February with the goal of saving £4000 to spend out there plus the initial £1500 for flights and loads of other little costs. We had to start getting vaccinations about 4 months before. We needed Hep A (and a booster after we flew home), 3 Hep B ones (they’re meant to be around £100 but for some reason I wasn’t charged…), and a typhoid vaccination. We also had to get malaria tablets – you just book an appointment with a nurse, tell them where you’re going and they advise you on what to get. You can get other optional vaccinations like rabies but after a bit of research I opted against it. Also just a tip for anyone going travelling; malaria tablets are about half the price of high street pharmacies if you go to the ASDA pharmacy. Don’t pay double for the same drug!

I didn’t start packing until a couple of weeks before, and I basically bought loads of back up stuff for my phone and camera because I was so paranoid about not being able to take a million photos of everything. With packing it’s definitely a case of less is more, and I wish I’d taken less clothing, especially as a lot of what I packed was too warm to wear. You just need a couple of thin cotton tops, dresses, and shorts. We took a lot of medical stuff though you can buy everything out there. I would advise anti-sickness and Imodium just because you don’t want to find you don’t have any on a long bus journey, trust me. I also really recommend a portable phone charger for the same reason. Packing isn’t too difficult because everything is so cheap out there that if you’ve forgotten something it doesn’t matter.

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Taj Mahal, India

 

Were there any surprises?

I was surprised by how western everywhere is! Walking down the road in Cambodia and coming out of the airport in Delhi to see Costa Coffee or Domino’s is so surreal, and that took some getting used to. Also nearly everyone we encountered spoke such good English which I kind of expected but like crazy good! It was so impressive and made me feel a bit stupid!

 

What were the highlights? What wasn’t as good?

Oh God I can’t narrow it down! I did some crazy things like seeing the Taj Mahal, scuba diving in Thailand, paragliding in the Himalayas. All of those were so amazing, but just lying on a beach with friends and even just bus journeys through such interesting landscapes were fun too. Getting street food in Vietnam and the curries in India also just stand out in my mind. But it was just so good. Night buses are definitely not something I miss, though. They’re cheap and convenient but honestly after spending a couple of hours trying and failing to find a comfortable position, and the one time my friend was sick all over my stuff at the start of the journey… That I wouldn’t mind skipping. I also found the heat difficult to deal with, it made it hard to do things during the day and I was tired a lot as well. It was great again for beach days but that was about it.

 

Would you do it again? Where would you like to go next?

It’s practically all I think about! I would love to go back to where I volunteered in India to see the children again, and stay for a longer time, but I would also love to revisit Vietnam and Malaysia. I wouldn’t turn down a trip to anywhere I went though! Eventually I would like to travel around South America but I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough of Asia yet!

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

What’s next for you now that you’re home?

I’ve spent my summer working full time at my old job, now I’ve just got a couple of weeks left and then I’m off to Bath to study psychology.

 

Do you feel you learned anything from travelling that’s affected you or changed you?

I have definitely relaxed with money a lot. I used to kind of fuss over spending but I’ve just calmed down and realised that spending a bit more for something fun is worth it. And after you see the conditions some people are living in you realise how fortunate you are to be able to do stuff like go out to eat and plan holidays. I haven’t gotten crazy generous but definitely more so. I also feel more appreciative of pretty much everything. Even just appreciative or the place I live, and having a house, and healthcare system. It isn’t until you see first-hand what it’s like not to have those things that it hits you how lucky you are.

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Penang, Malaysia

Finally, do you think it was worth the money you spent?

I really do. I know we could have done things for cheaper and in future I would book flights myself, and skip the luxury Contiki holiday, but I still think we budgeted well. I was very fortunate to be in the position of living at home, not paying bills or having financial obligations which meant that almost everything I was earning could go towards travelling. Although the 12 hour shifts in the run up were a bit hellish, it was so so so worth it when we were out there. It’s easy to limit yourself, and not do expensive activities but I definitely think it’s important to find the balance between travelling on a budget and missing out.

 

You can read even more about Laura’s travels on her blog: http://the-perks-of-being-laura.blogspot.co.uk/ 

 

Words by Briony Brake and Laura Pettitt
Photos by Laura Pettitt