The homemade hot chocolate taste test

Revision is a marathon, not a sprint. I am one of those people who cannot cram; if it works for you I am honestly thrilled on your behalf, but I can’t get through it if I don’t have a long haul plan. Each and every day. Up early, work, break, work, break, work, episode of Due South, bed.

This has been my field of view for ten hours a day. For the past two weeks.

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However you do it, though, revision is pretty monotonous. Add in the fact that you can barely be bothered to cook food nor can you spare the time; that you are drinking nothing but tea or coffee at a rate that would be more efficient if replaced by an intravenous drip; and that you are literally sat in the same position day in, day out, it really does get rather boring.

Desperate for distraction the other day, I stumbled across this infographic, which features a tonne of fancy homemade hot chocolate recipes and I thought, why not give them a try? I needed to buy some food anyway, and I was clawing at the windows to be let out and breathe some air that hadn’t already gone through all of my housemates. I could pick up any ingredients I don’t have, and a sugar boost isn’t much different to a caffine boost. At least it’s something different, you know?

And of course, as a firm believer in the Mythbusters adage that the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down, I devised strict criteria of assessment for each recipe I tried. Each of my categories would be ranked on a scale of one to five, with three marking the drink as decidedly average and being no less and no more pleasant than drinking the hot chocolate you get in the university cafe. Categories would be Taste, Texture, Appearance, and Bottom (because come on, all those concentrated chocolate bits at the bottom of a rubbish hot chocolate? Disappointing).

I obtained my supplies. I was ready.

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I went to work.

Pumpkin Spice
1 tsp maple syrup + 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice + whole milk + 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder

I decided to start from the top; my top, that is. As you may have gathered from the little line of soldiers behind my work space, pumpkin pie is rather a passion of mine. An American autumnal and winter classic that has never made its way across the pond, a pumpkin pie is a pastry case blind baked and then filled with condensed milk, sugar, autumnal spices and pumpkin puree. (Waitrose is the only place I’ve found that stocks pumpkin puree, and even then it pops on to and off of the shelves at unpredictable intervals, hence my stockpiling.)

It’s heavenly. It’s my favourite dessert. I was desperate to put chocolate in it and transfer it to drinkable form.

Somewhat unsure of the order in which I should go about combining the ingredients suggested by the recipe, I decided to make a spiced milk mixture, heat it, and then add the chocolate as I would if making a normal drink.

I put maple syrup into the mug, looked at it disappointedly, and then trippled the suggested amount. I made up my pumpkin spice as best I could; they sell pre-mixed spice in America, but I was trying to figure out the ratio of cinnamon:ginger:clove that I usually use for a 9-inch pie and convert it into a half a teaspoon. I probably ended up with teaspoon, but I really didn’t care.

I whacked in the milk, ignoring the recipe’s instruction to use whole milk because I like to remain health conscious even when beginning a journey that will carry me through five mugs of hot chocolate in one day, and fondly watched it fail to spin around in our broken microwave for two minutes.

I removed it, added my cocoa powder, and stirred vigorously.

Without a shadow of a doubt this was one of the best tasting things I’ve recently had the pleasure of drinking. It is like sipping a whole warm, seasonally spiced dessert, though it could have done with thickening up with a side of ice cream. I sat it on a little pyramidal can-throne of its subjects, because it deserves to reign supreme as the chocolate-based liquid-medium form of this dessert.

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Taste: 5/5
Texture: 3/5 – unremarkable, somewhat thin.
Appearance: 2/5 – inconsistent, patches stubborn undissolved spices.
Bottom: 2/5 – gritty from said spices.
Average: 3/5

Verdict: Imagine drinking a roaring fire and autumnal leaves, but in a nice sort of way.

Peanut butter
Few squares of milk chocolate + tablespoon of smooth peanut butter + milk

Though I would have been content to stop at this stage in the game and just make spiced hot chocolate forever more, I steeled my resolve. I added five or so squares of milk chocolate to the mug, then dropped in a loaded tablespoon of chunky peanut butter (my preferred kind, and hence what I had in the cupboard), then covered it to an appropriate level with milk.

After removing it from the microwave it needed a very thorough stir to distribute all the thick bits, which gave me great hope that this would be a pleasant, almost chocolate-custard like drinking experience. It had pleasant appearance with a softly bubbling top. Additionally it also fizzed rather violently whenever agitated, though lack of an experimental control means I’m unsure whether this was some chemical reaction I’d inadvertently created, or merely a by-product of accidentally setting the microwave to four minutes, not two.

Whatever happened, I’m glad it did.

This has the taste and consistency of drinking a melted Snickers. When drinking you are, admittedly, occasionally hit in the face by a floating chunk of peanut, but in my opinion this simply adds to the immersive experience of it being truly intensely peanut butter-and-chocolate-y. It’s almost like those fancy Spanish hot chocolates. Thick, sort of soupy. I really cannot recommend this enough.

Taste: 5/5
Texture: 4/5 – peanut projectiles not withstanding.
Appearance: 3/5 – standard.
Bottom: 3/5 – coagulated peanut butter, not unpleasant.
Average: 3.75/5

Verdict: Imagine drinking a SnickersI will offer this to weary guests forevermore.

White hot chocolate
Few squares of white chocolate + milk

I’ve had white hot chocolate and been blown away in the past, particularly the one from Costa’s winter range. So, at this stage and high on previous successes, I was optimistic. I skipped the lavender recommended by the recipe because, well, I don’t know who you think I am, but it’s certainly not the type of student who grows lavender. I can barely keep a basil plant alive for more than a week.

Once again unsure of the order of ingredients’ addition and repelled by wikiHow’s suggestion that I use two microwavable mugs, I chopped some white chocolate off the bar, whacked it in the microwave with some milk, and hoped for the best.

It tasted exactly like you’d expect, but slightly worse.

It might be the quality of the chocolate I used, but there was a clear and decidedly yellow layer of oil which overlaid the milk, which sadly became startlingly clear every time you tilted the mug to take a drink.

Honestly, be thankful no closer photo than that exists.

The taste itself was actually really quite nice, but it was only remotely possible to enjoy it when I closed my eyes and did not think about the wax-like wash that accompanied every mouthful. I shuddered every time I went to drink, anticipating it contacting my mouth. This was not an enjoyable beverage

I’ve never tried oil pulling but I anticipate it feels something like drinking this.

Taste: 3/5
Texture: 0/5
Appearance: 0/5
Bottom: This would imply I finished it
Average: 0.75/5

Verdict: Imagine melting white chocolate, putting it in hot milk, then adding some olive oil or perhaps a squirt of facial cleanser. You’ll feel the distinct need to eat a salad after this.

Treacle tart
Few squares of milk chocolate + golden syrup + lemon juice + milk

I was unsure, now. Distrustful. I did not believe in the words spoken to me by the friendly infographic. I had been betrayed.

I could trust no one. I was alone in the world.

I came up with my own recipe.

The two previous successes stemming from real-life food options, I realised my best bet was to try and re-create a familiar, enjoyable taste in liquid chocolate form. After pondering briefly for what I desired (and had the facility) to create, I settled upon treacle tarts. They’re not much more than golden syrup and a squeeze of lemon juice, so in the two went to my mug.

The result was, after the white hot chocolate, much needed reaffirmation that there is joy in the world. But I was sorely underwhelmed. It tasted like someone once tried a treacle tart and was trying desperatly recreate it, years later, in the dark, when they had forgotten all the main ingredients and also the type of food a treacle tart is. The result was simply a sweetened hot chocolate with a slightly bitter aftertaste, though the addition of the golden syrup did do it some favours to thicken it and make the drinking experience more pleasant as a whole.

The experience was rather reminiscent of that time in first year when my friends and I did shots of double concentrate lemon squash.

Say no more on this topic. I decided not to come up with any of own my ideas ever again.

Taste: 2/5
Texture: 3/5
Appearance: 3/5
Bottom: 2/5 – consistent with the rest of the drink, and hence not very nice.
Average: 2.5/5

Verdict: Imagine having a very sweet hot chocolate, and followed by a shot of Lemsip.

Nutella
2 tbsp Nutella + 1 tbsp cocoa powder + pinch salt + milk

I was weary, feeling fat, and growing somewhat sick of hot chocolate by this point. I could have quit. But a need to end on a round number compelled me onwards.

Confession: I had to compromise. We don’t actually -gasp- have any Nutella in the house. Instead I stole my flatmate’s Galaxy and Hazelnut spread with the certainty that, when hidden in a mug of milk and under further chocolate products, there would not be a signficant difference in taste. That is perhaps an experiment for a later time.

I squeezed the chocolate spread into the mug (yes, Galaxy and Hazelnut spread comes in a squeezey tube, like a giant toothpaste, it’s disturbing), and added the cocoa powder with no small amount of hesitancy. My experiences have taught me that using the cocoa powder produces a more inconsistent drink, with little undissolved floaty bits, than melting squares of actual chocolate does. I didn’t want to end this whole endeavour on a bad note.

I didn’t.

The thickness of the spread must have evened out the bitty-ness of the cocoa powder, producing a nice even drink with only a very subtle nutty aftertaste. It was vaguely wintery, like you’d had roasted chestnuts after a yule log. That said, next time, I would definitely recreate this with melted squares as my chocolate source.

Taste: 4/5
Texture: 3/5
Appearance: 3/5
Bottom: 4/5
Average: 3.5/5

Verdict: Imagine those hazelnut hot chocolate powders that you can actually buy, then double it in thickness and half it in hazelnut intensity.

Conclusions

So what have we learned?

First and foremost, that attempting to ingest 610 calories of milk and a minimum of 400 calories of further sugary goods is probably not only foolish but also detrimental to your health, particularly when you’re glued to a seat in front of an ocean of notes with no exercise in your foreseeable future. Scientific exploration is not always a valid excuse.

That said?

A clear winner was found. Contributing to not only the taste but also the texture of the drink, peanut butter was a clear winner. Adding to it’s success was, despite Lagrangian behaviour of the peanut pieces both sinking to the drink’s bottom and hitting you in the face when you drank, the use of chunky peanut butter in the place of the suggested smooth.

I’ve done the science so you don’t have to. Go forth and make your drinkable Snickers hot chocolate, everyone.

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On a winter’s Sunday I go

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I have been pretty quiet over the Christmas hols; sorry about that. It’s been a very busy time of year for me, as it is for everyone. I’ve been up early and revising for ten, 12 hours every day. I’ve been jetting here and there with my mum to be present-delivering elves. I’ve been up until 4:00am bent over a sewing machine, finishing my handmade gifts last minute. I’ve been opening the most heartfelt presents with a glass of bubbly on Christmas day, while my dogs wore festive Father Christmas bandanas. I’ve been hiking St David’s Head in the bitter blustery British weather, and dressing up all fancy that evening for a splendid New Year’s Eve party.

(Happy 2015, by the way, everyone! Only 104 more years until we can join Starfleet.)

So it’s not that I’ve forgotten to write so much as that I’ve had an awful lot on my plate, and, at the end of the day, when forced to make a choice between things we have to do and things we’d like to do, we all know which one gets thrown by the wayside.

But I start term again tomorrow, and I woke up this morning with a view to getting a few hours of work in before I needed to pack up my bags and return to uni. So I was sat at my desk with the room light on and the curtains drawn, because the sun hadn’t really come up yet, and it was only when I left my bedroom for one final bubble bath did I actually clock the rather breathtaking scene outside my window.

It was foggy and gorgeous, and made me rather feel like I was in a horror film.

This time of year always makes me nostalgic, or at the very least quietly contemplative. I think it’s partly due to revision and spending so much time in one’s own head. I love the white and the grey and the green; it makes me think about when I first moved house around Christmas 2012, the very day the heavens opened for my first proper white Christmas. I binge drank peppermint tea, revised in rooms full of moving boxes lit only by streetlights reflecting off snow through undressed windows, and listened to Bat For Lashes’ version of I’m On Fire about a hundred times.

(It’s 10AM Gare du Nord this time around. Always with the haunting, broken love songs in the winter.)

January always gets to me, I think, because it’s this time of new beginnings. New year, new promises, new goals, new term. But at least from where I’m standing now, I’ve still got the best part of a month of tiredly trudging through the slew of last year’s stress before I can get on with all the new things. 1/12 of this year is spent tying up the last one. That’s kind of sad, I think.

At the end of the day, though, beginnings are just endings. You can’t start new things without finishing up those that you’ve already started (well, from a point; my workload from last semester would beg to differ).

So I’m happy to work hard in January. Maybe not in the gym or on my non-existant smoking habit, as I’m sure some people’s New Year’s missions entailed, but to just keep pushing through. My song this time of year is always January Hymn, by the Decemberists; it’s where this entry’s title comes from (I honestly didn’t mean this to end up like an extended music rec list, I promise). If you give it a listen, you’ll know why.

The new year is cold and misty and grey, like some sort of pathetic fallacy about my life at the moment, but if we keep moving through, soon everything’s going to change.

#LettuceOnMars

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I was on campus for a good couple of hours today; it’s Christmas Jumper Day! Organised by my housemate, the event was a UK-wide effort to simultaneously get everyone in the Christmas spirit, and raise money for Save The Children. We had great fun selling the 50-odd cakes I baked for the occasion last night, bucket shaking until people took pity on us out in the freezing cold in only our festive knitwear, and blasting the Redbrick with some seasonal Michael Bublé.

There are of course plenty of people outside the Union on any given day, and while we gleefully accepted and read the latest copies of Wessex Scene, we also shared our space with a group of people spreading the word about their project. We got chatting, and asking what they were all about, and we were absolutely blown away.

Mars One is a non-profit organisation, which ones day hopes to build permanent settlements on Mars. In 2018 they are sending an unmanned lander to the planet to test the viability of new and existing technologies, and an international competition is being held to find a group of scientists to design and build equipment for one of the lander’s payload spaces.

This is where #LettuceOnMars comes in.

A group of University of Southampton students have passed through all rounds of the competition, to make it to the final selection process – a popular vote, where they are one of 10 candidate groups.

Their project aims to test the ability of the Martian atmosphere to grow plant life, with only a bare minimum of material imported from Earth. Said plant life has been chosen as lettuce; an edible crop with durable seeds that uses space efficiently, it has been grown in orbit before, and would not be remiss in a human Martian colony.

Frozen seeds will be carried by the powered-down lander in its journey to the planet, which will then heat up and switch on upon landing. This will maintain a pleasant, ideal temperature of 21-24°C; a slight contrast to the ambient one of -63ºC. The equipment will use pressurised carbon dioxide and reacted nitrogen species from Mars’ atmosphere and oxygen from electrolysis to grow the plants by aeroponics, flourishing under both light from both the Sun and LEDs in the payload.

The lettuce will take around four weeks to grow, during which time sensory and video information will be relayed back to Earth to check if anything is growing in unpredictable, or fundamentally different, ways. On Mars.

Honestly, I was nearly drowning out the Bublé with my Bowie after we learnt about all of this. There really could be life on Mars! Admittedly, things we put there and then sadly kill at the end of the experiment to stop possible contamination and being responsible for a lettuce invasion of alien planets, but still!

We were blown away by the enthusiasm and hard work of this team, who number just seven and who come from a variety of science backgrounds, all stemming from the University’s Spaceflight society. The payload module they designed has passed through the technical round, so all that now stops a team of students from a place close to our hearts doing something truly awe inspiriting is only a vote.

The easiest way to vote is to like this photo on Facebook, but you can vote multiple times following the links on #LettuceOnMars’s website. This team of hardworking students are the only UK contenders in the whole competition, and the ability to play a tiny part in establishing real, growing plant life on Mars is only the click of a button away. Beyond easy.

You could even call it a god-awful small affair.

Damn it. So close.

Statistically, Christmas really does start earlier every year

We know the gripe – we’ve all made it or, at least, someone in our family has. “I can’t believe they’re selling selection boxes already!, or, “It’s not even Halloween yet!”, or, “I swear, Christmas starts earlier every year!”. Well it turns out that, according to a study from the Royal Statistical Society, it does.

The matter was on my mind first and fore-mostly because I adore the commercial exploitation of Christmas and am not in the least bit ashamed. That was some of the haul from my December 1st shopping up there or, as I called it when joyously conversing with my professor that day who was playing Christmas music before the lecture and hence seemed one of only a few people adequately enthused about the season, Christmas 1st. I was bedecked in a festive jumper and my big Christmas tree earrings while I bought my first seasonal overpriced coffee and gleefully Instagramm-ed it. Gal pals and I stopped for mulled wine on the way home, and the flatmates and I heated up some mulled cider the other day – before it was even December (though in my defence, mince pies are sacred and are only consumed within the December 1st through 31st window).

But though I revel in every tinsel trimmed moment, even I must admit that Christmas seems like it’s already been going on for months. Particularly this year – I decided to investigate.

Nathan Cunningham of the Royal Statistical Society seemed to think so too, and decided to use freely available web search data to test the clichéd saying.

Figure 1 – Relative search frequency for ‘Christmas’.

He analysed the data using a constrained model-based clustering algorithm, which assumes that the data for search terms arises from statistical distributions with differing mean and variance values. You would expect increased mean search volume of Christmas-y terms as an uninterrupted, truly festive season begins, as people start searching for decorations, gifts, films and other entertainment. He tested the regularity of users searching for seven search terms predominantly associated with the festive season – ‘Christmas’, ‘cards’, ‘elf’, ‘Home Alone’, ‘Scrooge’, ‘presents’ and ‘toy shop’.

The cluster analysis produced a value of probability, of each week’s worth of search terms belonging to both Christmas and the non-Christmas periods – the beginning of the Christmas period in each year was designated as the earliest week that was more likely to belong to the Christmas period than not.

Cunngingham’s data really does show some pretty fantastic trends. Calculated for every intervening year, from a seemingly appropriately late beginning of November 11th in 2007, we have begun turning our minds to thoughts of the festive season progressively ealier. The earliest calculated was the week commencing August 19th in 2012, with last year’s the only marginally more acceptable week beginning August 25 in 2013.

Figure 2 – The statistical beginning of the festive period for 2007-2013, with the dashed line showing linear regression – Nathan Cunningham.

So statistically speaking, Christmas really does come earlier each year.

(As an aside, in my searching I also stumbled across examples of the Royal Statistical Society’s annual Christmas quizzes, which are terrifying.)

Selfridges opened its Christmas display in August this year, whenabouts Clinton’s also expanded its range to include Christmas cards and gifts. Most shops had likely only begun taking down their summer holiday displays, and while the seasonal aisle of my local Sainsburys was largely full of Halloween products, as early autumn progressed the supermarket’s selection of Christmas products began growing in the aisle like red and green bacteria on a petri dish.

I do think that these findings can be partly attributed not only to the increased, but also to the significantly more casual, way we use the internet now compared to how we did back in 2007. We carry around with us pretty much every second of every day devices with the potential to access the human race’s collectively amassed intelligence – in 2007, I didn’t have a phone that could do anything more extravagant than let me play Snake. We probably think far less about a Google search, and its terms, than we would have all those years ago.

Given that just seven observations were tested here, it is difficult to confirm whether this trend reflects a true, progressively earlier arrival of Christmas. And, as Cunningham acknowledged, search terms have applications greater than simply the festive – he highlighted that searches for ‘elf’ were likely higher across the whole of 2012-2013 period for The Hobbit related reasons.

That said; indulge in your shameless seasonal capitalism. Statistically, everyone else seems to have been doing it for a couple of months now.

On communication

So my time in Malaysia ended with a brief but immensely enjoyable stay in the Hard Rock Hotel, Penang. We consumed delectable food, luxurious spa treatments, gorgeous and near constant live music, and sufficient Happy Hour margaritas in the swim up bar that the bartender named Darwin and who liked Pitbull greeted us by name and knew our order by heart.

…See? That wasn’t hard, was it? Apparently so. I mean it’s taken me a month to write that so, surely, we can infer that an awful lot of thought went into it.

Not so much. In fact, that delay originated from an incredibly stressful volume of thought going into other things. I returned back to my beloved university to a piece of coursework as heavily weighted as an exam and a side job writing for the university entertainment newspaper, in addition to having to settle back into required rhythms of student life (bravely facing alarms, tea consumption, and fighting the temptation of the amazing Greek place down the road).

I’m self aware enough to know my failings – I am deeply, damn near religiously committed to things I have been a) told to do, and b) that which would otherwise inconvenience people should I not do them. However to meet these deadlines, self imposed or otherwise, I tend to throw myself under the bus. My sleep cycle and general mental health suffers (I lasted three weeks into term before crying down the phone to my mum, that’s pretty good for me!) and things which I would otherwise do for myself, such as this blog, fall by the wayside.

I apologise for this. For someone who is passionate about discourse, about openness and conveying the important or the personal, this is pretty shameful. But it relates pretty nicely into what I’m going to write about today, so I am shamelessly going to use my personal experiences to give power to a broad, abstract concept. It’s going to be poetic, almost.

When Jess and I met with our supervisor for a post-Malaysia debrief and present exchange, we were keen to show him the value of the science we carried out, what we learnt. He was interested, definitely, although slightly less so than he was regarding the food that we tried and the cat that was named after us. And it was in contemplating, in trying to explain to both him and to friends and family back home, what the take away messages were from our trip that I truly discovered them myself.

Jess and I discovered a lot about ourselves in our time away. Not in a grand, character developing way (at least not that we’re aware of, and my character is perfectly well developed as it is, thank you very much) but rather in a way that highlighted what we are passionate about. Though they are fantastic, neither of us are – it turns out – particularly interested in cetaceans. I know, right?! What’s up with that? Dolphins are great. Whales are proportionally really, really great. I know, I don’t understand it either. Fantastic and slightly magical to observe, I just can’t say that they get my scientific blood pumping. That is an honour still reserved for bioturbation, ecological functioning and sea cows and, for Jess, her newly discovered intense passion for turtles.

Over our time in Terengganu, we spoke at length to Kirat regarding dugongs. Dugongs are sea cows, the slightly morphologically different Indo-Australian cousin of the manatee. An incredibly shy species, particularly in Malaysia, there is a huge amount of mystery and superstition surrounding these animals – they’re seen as holy or magic, good luck charms whose bodies can be broken down and consumed to cure all sorts of ailments. There is a persistent problem with illegal poaching and trading on dugong body parts, or the animals themselves – we heard a story about a man who accidentally caught an individual in his fishing net, and under the stilts of his house set up a net ‘cage’ for it, only releasing it when he was haunted by dreams of the creature’s mother coming for him. There is huge cultural significance and educational misunderstanding regarding these animals. Both boat and aerial studies are incredibly difficult and building a picture of abundance and distribution is a mammoth task. Dedicating herself to her thesis for nearly five years, she has yet to see more of one than a snuffly nose as it surfaces for a split second to take breath. Hence, other means have to be employed.

Kirat explained to me something I had never before heard of – interview surveys. Working alongside psychology researchers to treat people’s personal memories of sightings and opinions as quantitative, powerful and analysable data. She said that, particularly when dealing with species which are so rare and so important to protect, it is imperative to consider the opinions of every day people. Of the fishermen and women who come into contact with these animals most. She explained that publishing a journal article about the patterns of distribution and suggested conservation methods for dugongs would be all well and good, but that paper would just circulate within the scientific community. Unless it’s been commissioned by a government body who will actively employ her suggestions, the information will never reach any one who isn’t already sufficiently educated about the plight of these animals. The information needs to be disseminated down to the people on the ground who can change behaviour, who can help these animals in their day to day lives.

Scientific information has its greatest value outside of the scientific community.

The other week I attended a seminar on Science Communication & Journalism. The former is predominantly of the going into schools, enthusing about science, and encouraging women to stay in STEM fields sort. Science journalism, we were told by Nicole Skinner from UCL, is like any other specialisation in journalism in its simple goal to convey the facts to its readers.

At first thought you could consider academic study and journalism to be poles apart and consequently difficult to mesh. To quote Quentin Cooper of BBC Radio 4

Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting, facts, numbers and being right. Journalism values brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words and being right now.

However, the core of the thing remains the same. We gain vital information about current events in the world through the news,  and how to interact with other people and the world in light of and scientific discoveries with the potential to change our behaviour and the way we see the world should be no different. Understanding the world will let us – the general, news watching, every-man us – make smarter decisions to protect it, and I have a newfound passion to help people do just that.

So long…

After our day with Jelly, Jess and I visited Taman Tamadun – the Islamic Cultural park, which involved a monument park that featured replicas of famous mosques all around the world. These were good fun to go around, and a little bit of proper touristy sightseeing did our little white girl souls good, though my self esteem was irreparably damaged from the bicycle Jess insisted I ride.

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Look at those bastards.

For those out of the know, I don’t cycle. Like, I really, really don’t. It perhaps even deserves capitals. I Don’t Cycle. I mean, I can, for a given amount (or so I thought) – my parents of course taught me to ride a bike as a youngster, but as the road directly adjacent to where I lived was a dual carriageway and not exactly conjunctive to eight old me who could not see a bollard without ploughing straight into it, I just… never really did it again.

After the initial moments where I couldn’t get on, was absolutely mortified by the people staring and behaved – admittedly – like a giant baby, I was outfitted with a smaller bike in the style of those ridden by 12 year old boys, and we were off!

(For a short while, before I tried to use the brakes and apparently ‘broke’ the bike. I didn’t, it was clearly already not working when I got on, okay, alright? Some people like to say I broke it. I didn’t.)

In between my driving into every conceivable tree and/or hedge; getting the flares of my linen trousers caught in the chain and requiring two groundskeepers to come over and help free me; crashing whenever forced to corner; driving across the landscaped grass in an effort to avoid cornering; and falling into the shallows of a fountain, we had a great time and saw some cool stuff.

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First one! The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, in Brunei. I hadn’t driven into anything yet.

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My favourite was the Dome of the Rock, in the distance.

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It had a miniature Rock and everything!

After this, we had only two more days left at work! They went smoothly, us finishing up as best we could, and gathering together all of our thoughts that we’ve assimilated from people we’ve talked to here and the work we’ve done. But the best bits of these last few days were the contast well wishes, the goodbyes, the presents from people who weren’t sure if they’d see us before we left – the extraordinary kindess and generosity of everyone just kept hitting us. And as we collaborated to write an incredibly sweet, tear inducing and really kind of good (if we do say so ourselves) article about our time here for the university newsletter In Focus, it really, really hit us that those were things we’d miss most. Here’s an excerpt –

Malaysia was a dream that became a plan and then was followed by more than we could imagine. Challenges have of course had to be faced in our journey across the world, however at no point have we ever felt alone. This is down to the people here, and the unwavering kindness and generosity they have shown. INOS as an institute is amazing, however in combination with the people here it is truly unique. We could not have imagined we would be so lucky to not just be interning somewhere and taking part in this research but to be interning here, and taking part in research with these people. We were so happy to be able to give a little back in whatever ways we could, telling our own stories from home and sharing a traditional British roast dinner and pudding. Kuala Terengganu has had so much for us to discover, from the beach to Pasar Payang, from China Town’s decorated alleys to hot noodle soup right beside where the fishermen bring in their catches. However the greatest of all these discoveries has been here at UMT in the laughter and friendships we have made. It is with great sadness that we leave, however the blow is slightly softened by the knowledge that these people will remain our friends for many years to come.

On the day before our last, as we departed the office we were presented with some of our favourite gifts. Lionel, a student from the office, was leaving his studies for a job interview for his absolute dream job – a steward with Malaysian Airlines! We shared a cake, dedicated to both ‘Turtle Uncle’, as Lionel was called, and ‘Jelly’. Our cake. We got teary.

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As well, after trying more special foods Acaq brought back from a trip home, we were gifted beautifully beaded pencil covers – a popular thing here – and the most absolutely adorable hand stitched little seahorse, before all the girls in the office cooed over us, and fixing us to try on the hijab!

That night we went out for coffee and cake with Yanti and Nisa, and had an absolutely brilliant time, but not before Jess took charge of baking three lemon drizzle cakes, a Victoria Sandwich and an apple crumble, of which I made the filling for as well as finishing sewing up three lots of little British bunting.

(We also burnt a large white mark into the varnish of the wooden TV shelf with the crumble dish, which made Jess nearly have an embolism and prompted me to call my mother. We ended up leaving a note for Lucy as it was too late at night, and despite all of our panicking, Sideboardgate resulted in a pricey £6 for sanding and revarnishing the mark).

Our last day, we proudly carried in our cakes and crumble, which were met and eaten with great gusto by most everyone in the office, largely including ‘the lads’ Acaq and Bu, who missed dinner at Yanti’s the previous week (and apparently cannot use a microwave, like, genuinely, could not even hazard a guess as to the purpose of the dial and the button that opens the door). We handed out our presents – Awin and Kirat loved their bunting, though the reaction was possibly the best from the lovely girl who’d made us our seahorses. She pretty much started crying there and then. Yanti and Nisa whisked us out for lunch at the noodle soup place with the palm trees and the purple drinks, and we had a teary goodbye as we handed her the fudge we had made. Our day ended by a final meeting and thankful hand shaking with Dr Saifullah, before we were taken out to dinner by Dr Jarina – the head of International students at UMT – and her student of Biodiveristy & Conservation, who over dinner we discovered is the daughter of one of the Lucys who manage the lodge! Small world!

Sadly, Dr Wan was ill – she was not there to receive her present, which we’d ended up having to leave on Acaq’s desk along with a lemon drizzle cake for her. From our car rides, we’d discovered our great shared weakness for love songs. Really, really emotional love songs. So we made her a mixtape. A mixtape composed of 15 of Jess’s and 15 of mine favourite love songs. Jess made adorable cover art, and we were definitely proud – a proud feeling that only increased when we received a text from her, saying she would treasure it forever.

We received this text from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in the afternoon – the afternoon after the morning we left. Bright and early we’d awoken and left William’s Lodge much to, I imagine, the relief of the Lucys. Regardless, they’d given us a leaving present of beautiful little compact mirrors, and when we got into Ina’s car to drop us at the airport, she too gave us a present – little turtle shaped magnets, with handwritten messages on the back wishing us all the best.

Ina stayed with us at the airport, and we had breakfast as we were joined, much to our joy, by Yana, Acaq, and Dr Wan – they’d all come out to send us off! It was really, really lovely, though it felt a little strange that my last meal in Malaysia consisted of a Vietnamese beef soup. With minutes to spare as we finished our food, we ran through the startlingly brief security to board our plane.

Where did we go?

Penang. We went to Penang. And, when I am safely nestled at back home, I shall tell you all about it. But, for now, our Terengganu adventure is over. We will miss the place, the food, the heat; the cool blast of the air conditioning we sit directly under at the office. But what we will miss most from KT, and will remember clearest from our time here, will always be the friends we’ve made.

Working girls

Due to a wedding party’s booking in the lodge, we were unable to return to our beds the night we touched back on blessed dry land. Malaysians are very big on their weddings – people are apparently always very keen to invite absolutely everyone. These people however did not seem to fancy it, and though Lucy tried to wiggle us an invitation to the reception as a kind of cultural experience they weren’t having any of it. Though our room was not actually needed they desired a little privacy, and booked out the entire B&B.

So instead of returning to our cute quilted beds, Lucy booked us at a very good rate into a new hotel, called the ‘J Suites’. Entirely unable to find it on any single form of social media and becoming ever so slightly concerned as to its actual existence, we were much relieved when Yanti kindly dropped us off outside and it proved to be a very contemporarily decorated and entirely pleasant hotel. It had shiny black granite floors, and really cool automatic door locks with light-y up ‘Do Not Disturb’ and ‘Please Clean My Room’ signs.

(It did, however, have a small hole in the bathroom ceiling and an area of spackle on the wall that had not been finished. Made no problem for us, slightly amusing actually).

After being treated to coffee the night before by Yanti and her friend Nisa (I consumed an Americano at midnight that kept me up for about three hours), we decided to cheekily skip off work the next day, due to both the feasibility of getting taxis and also a bone deep need for a 15 hour sleep, and enjoyed the fact that our hotel was directly adjacent to China Town. We had a lovely but slightly rushed mooch around the lantern-filled streets, wherein I completely and utterly pissed off Jess by lackadaisically wandering through the decorated streets taking photographs on my big camera while she urgently tried to ensure we made it in time.

My favourite was the Umbrella Lane, though the Fabric Lane, Love Lane and Weird Kite Thing Lane also placed.

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Without much fuss we caught a taxi back to the lodge on Sunday night and with it, our general pattern of work for the next week began.

Dr. Wan was off on holiday, so we caught a daily taxi in to INOS (with varying success – sometimes a lack of understanding of English/our poor Malaysian led to us being dropped any given distance away from our actual destination out of pure  simplicity). Work was a 9-to-5-what-a-way-to-make-a-living kind of grind, but we really started enjoying it as Jess hit a groove in her graph making and I found my skill in making one giant table which complied species presence data for different Malaysian states, and different countries within the United Kingdom.

The atmosphere in the office was brilliant – every day, someone would bring in some new food for us to try, or we would be taken out for lunch, or… invited to play badminton in the pick up/drop off area outside?

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What I lacked in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm.

Regardless, we had a busy week of playing with databases and making illustrative figures, such that we were glad when the weekend rolled around. After much talk on the boat and explanations of all our favourite British foods, Yanti had expressed an interest in trying them. We had said yeah, that’s totally fine, we can definitely handle cooking for you, what a fun challenge!

Then, Yanti said she’d maybe invite some of her friends over, if that was okay. Again, yes, the more the merrier!

A few friends turned out to be… 11. 11 people. We were making roast dinner and apple crumble for 11 people, in a kitchen in Yanti’s friends house where everyone was genuinely surprised to find there was a conventional oven (it’s really not a thing here).

We were taken out shopping at Giant for supplies, and then Yanti and her boyfriend treated us to lunch at the oft recommended Chicken Rice Shop which was brilliant. In the end, we had a slightly hectic and incredibly lovely evening – there were seven people in the kitchen at any one time and, or course, Jelly.

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Brogan’s comment was, “BRING HOMEEE”.

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The cat whisperer, post-dinner.

Jelly is Yanti’s kitten. She’s a tiny tortoiseshell and she is absolutely adorable. She is kept at Abung Herry (Yanti’s friend, whose house we had invaded)’s house since Yanti herself can’t have pets, and she was rescued from a restaurant that her new mum was eating in when she saw her. She likes chasing after our blue Malaysian Samsung brick phone when we slid it along the floor, and had no name until we turned up to cook. Yanti named her Jelly as a combination of ‘Jess’ and ‘Millie’. Like Bradjelina.

I really, really like the idea that there is going to be a cat somewhere in the Malaysia who will forever be named after us.