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Diaries Of A Nottingham Student Abroad: Malaysia

Darting across non-existent lanes and weaving messily between vehicles, our taxi narrowly misses passing trucks whose tarpaulin shells billow fiercely in the wind – sprouting wings from their bodies as if at any moment they may take flight.

My first sight of the Malaysian countryside, my new home for the next 5 months (or so I thought), is merely a smudge of green as we hurtle along the highway from Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport to the small town of Semenyih, home to Nottingham University’s campus, standing an hour outside the city. The well-wishes from family and friends echo in my mind as I gulp at the overwhelming blur of colours and clash of horns – my semester abroad has begun!

To say it’s humid is possibly the understatement of the year; when we arrive at university, the sky is swarming with black clouds and claps of thunder slice the air. ‘Not the best start’, I think to myself, as our first monsoon settles in with my raincoat being stuffed right at the bottom of my suitcase (perfect!). We lug our bags – holding as much of our livelihoods as we could cram into them – up to reception, check-in and locate our rooms. After excitedly leaping into lighter clothes, we pile into Grabs (Asia’s equivalent to Uber) and head to Tesco (yes, that’s right, Tesco in Malaysia… bizarre!) to buy bedding, food and other essentials. Yet, upon discovering it is much cheaper to order take-away each day than self-cater, we swiftly toss aside cooking utensils and indulge in our first Malaysian feast!

Every week I become even more entranced by Malaysia

Beneath bunches of bananas delicately hung like jewels, mountains of fresh pineapple, melon and papaya coax us towards the bustling market. Seeping through the exotic displays, thick clouds of steam rise from flaming woks and dance between a sea of plastic tables and chairs filling the street. Everywhere you glance, bowls of piping hot noodles or sticky rice are being whipped up and traders hurriedly slosh sweet coffee or juice into clear plastic bags topped with straws. With each inhale I taste the punchy spices enveloping the air, and carefully pick my way through the crowds munching on satay chicken skewers, slurping rich fish broths and chewing fluffy peanut-doused pancakes. The sheer fusion of flavours and cuisines is almost indescribable and I’m stunned by the hypnotic performance of it all.

Each weekend I become even more entranced by Malaysia, having bundled onto overnight coaches to visit inspiring new cities and areas (sometimes up to nine hours’ drive away!). The colourful streets of Penang emblazoned with street art, the muddled ribbon of houses and temples stretching as far you can see, Pangkor Island, the dense maze of lush tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands. I’m constantly in awe of what this country has to offer! Before coming here, I was sceptical of those who spoke casually about weekend trips between studies to island paradises and exquisite temples in the hills. Yet, here we are bookending a week’s worth of lectures with jaw-dropping jaunts! It hardly seems we have a moment to properly breathe, what with our action-packed schedule, but as my body clock feels like it’s been tossed around in a washing machine lately, it doesn’t perturb me.

Several weeks of studying and spontaneous trips away whizz by. I begin to feel more confident navigating the complex web of streets across Kuala Lumpur and become accustomed to the close heat which hugs us tightly. With each passing day, the kindness and generosity of local people grows stronger and it’s truly special to be welcomed so warmly into this space offering a melting pot of cultures. My mornings are filled with picking up a perfectly ripe mango en-route to a 9am and admiring the turtles sunbathing by the lake beneath the Trent Building’s gaze – a stark contrast from Nottingham UK’s resident geese and the dreaded traipse up Portland Hill in the drizzle! At midday, the sun’s glare is blinding, and we retreat to powerfully air-conned rooms mimicking arctic climates. As evening closes in, the sky is usually a-wash of purples and pinks, and campus springs into life; rapidly, tents pop up for night market stalls, Chinese drumming shudders the ground, and corridors are bursting with students practising K-pop routines for the up-coming dance show.

The next week sees a mountain of change

Despite mirroring Nottingham’s iconic facade, Malaysia’s campus holds so many unique tales. They’re whispered through the palm trees studding the paths and carried in the morning mist covering the grounds in a blanket of momentary calmness. It’s amazing being able to study in such a beautiful landscape brimming with nature and wildlife – images which will remain etched into my mind forever! Malaysia’s treasure trove of scenery becomes even more spectacular as I travel to Sabah, in Borneo Malaysia. Clambering across the root-riddled forest floor, immense trees loom over the steep trail meandering towards Mount Kinabalu’s summit. A chorus of birds and distant howls of monkeys accompany my sharp intakes of breath. At the top, I stand agog at the view above the marshmallow clouds, unaware this would be some of my last glimpses of Malaysia.

The next week sees a mountain of change concerning free movement across the country and with the increased threat of COVID-19, Malaysia goes into lockdown. At the time of the Malaysian government’s announcement, I am travelling abroad and find myself with only 24 hours to re-enter the country before the border shuts. The hours dissolve away, spent hurriedly trying to book tickets on the next flight to Peninsular Malaysia, but to my horror they’re all fully booked! In a state of panic, I rush to the nearest airport without a guaranteed ticket and in the nick of time manage to wrangle my way onto a flight taking me half the journey back. I spend an agonising seven hours in transit, anxiously praying my connecting flight won’t be cancelled!

Miraculously, I find myself onboard a plane to Kuala Lumpur, but can’t relax just yet as our estimated landing time is 11:45pm – only 15 minutes before the border closes! As the plane touches down, I secure the loops of my mask behind my ears and prepare to make a dash for the door. Zipping past other passengers, I sprint for customs, attempting to avoid the many thermal cameras as my body temperature rises from sheer exertion. The minutes tick by with every twist and turn I follow in the never-ending corridor to border control. My heart is pounding, and I scrunch my hands into fists to stop them shaking so much – I begin to fear I won’t make it.

I know this is only the beginning…

Rounding what seems like the hundredth corner, I spot the passport control desks and heave a sigh of relief – the clock shows 11:55pm. I cannot hand my papers over any faster and the security officer jokes about how ridiculously close I am to not being granted entry (like I need him to tell me that!). 11:59pm: I am back in Malaysia – admittedly by the skin of my teeth – but I have made it! In a taxi headed to my accommodation, I try to make sense of the whirlwind of events across the past 24 hours. Instantly, I catch myself and force my thoughts towards concentrating on the next steps – sadly packing up my things and booking a ticket home to the UK.

As we near campus, grey clouds are brewing and the biggest storm yet trembles the earth. This definitely isn’t how I envisaged studying abroad to end, and all of a sudden, I’m hit by a wave of emotion. Although my time abroad has been cut short, I can’t help but beam at the incredible experiences I’ve had out here. I feel so grateful for the people who made it so memorable and thankful for the fantastic moments we shared together along the way. It’s allowed me to peer through the door into the amazing opportunities Malaysia has to offer. As I seal my suitcase, I know this is only the beginning of my encounters with this incredible country and I repeat to myself: I will be returning soon!

Ella Moore

Featured image and in article images courtesy of Ella Moore. No changes were made to the images.

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