Moroccan M’hanncha, Spiced Vegetables in a Pastry Casing

This looks a lot more complicated than it actually is.

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If there is ever a dish that I have struggled to photograph: it is this one right here. From the disasters I had rolling up pastry to the dilemma of how to make a blob of pastry look pretty: I’ve been through it all. The traditional m’hanncha spirals several times like a snake as you can see from the cookbook image, whilst mine looks more like a curled up sloth. However, I can assure you that for what my version of this dish lacks in aesthetics, it has in flavour.

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During my second attempt at this much beloved dish I miscalculated the amount of pastry I would need and let’s just say that the results left much more to be desired (see embarrassing photo below). Granted, the original recipe from Jamie Oliver had called for filo  pastry instead of puff pastry, I was clearly destined for failure. Nevertheless, this story is one of perseverance and you can tell from the other (less embarrassing) photos that I eventually prevailed.

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The combination of sweet dates and spicy veg works wonders and makes for an epic journey for your tastebuds. Everything is wrapped up in a crispy, flaky pastry crust and that just sends it right over the edge!

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Moroccan M’hanncha                                                                    Adapted from Jamie Oliver

Ingredients:

  • 1 and ½ cups of wild rice (can substitute quinoa, barley or brown rice)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon dried red chilli flakes
  • 1 heaped teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 heaped teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped into ½ inch cubes
  • 2 red onions, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 red peppers, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup dates, soaked and deseeded
  • ½ cup dried cranberries (can substitute dried apricots)
  • The juice of half a lemon
  • 2 sheets of puff pastry
  • 1 cup vegetable broth (optional)

Method:

  1. Start by cooking the wild rice according to the packet instructions. In this case, 1 and ½ cups of wild rice translates to 2 cups of water in a pot. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes with the lid on. Allow to steam for 10 minutes before using.
  2. Whilst the rice is cooking, add the olive oil, chilli flakes, cumin seeds and coriander to a large frying pan on medium-low heat and cook for 30 seconds or until the spices are fragrant. Throw in the butternut, onions, garlic and red peppers and stir to coat in the spices. Cook the vegetables with the lid on for about 20 minutes, or until the butternut is fork tender. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Chop the dates finely add them to the vegetable pan with the cranberries and wild rice. Squeeze the lemon over the veg mix and stir to combine. Make sure to really mix everything together.
  4. Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F. Dust a worktop with flour, you don’t want your pastry to be sticking to the counter! Roll out your puff pastry into a large rectangle that’s about 70cm × 30cm. Spread your filling in an even layer over the top of the pastry, leaving a ½ inch border. I recommend wetting your hands for the next part because we’re about to rolllllllll this up!
  5. Be careful with this part, as you’ve seen this can end in disaster. Carefully roll up the pastry into a long roll, being careful not to tear the pastry. As we are using puff pastry as opposed to the traditional filo roll, this is going to be a lot bulkier than the traditional m’hanncha. Curl the ends of the roll towards each other, if you can, try to get it to spiral like a snake. Th first time I made this, I was able to get 2 curls but the last time attempts haven’t been as successful…..
  6. Bake the pastry in the oven for 40-50 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Slice and serve with the vegetable broth if desired, enjoy!
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Roasted Vegetable Sheetpan Shawarma with Spinach Hummus

A flavour party in your mouth.

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Hello and welcome to the first recipe of 2018! Having survived my first year of college without a kitchen, I felt like I needed to take baby steps in the kitchen. You’d be surprised by how unsteady your hands can be when you haven’t handled a knife in ages.

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So here we are: right back at the basics. There’s nothing complicated here: just chopping some vegetables, making a marinade and handling a blender, surely I could get that right? If you want to go a step further, then you can make your own naan bread (which is precisely what I did) using this recipe.

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Quick rundown: you’ve got your brown sugar carrots, your curry roasted cauliflower and the creamy spinach hummus that ties it all together. This is a really weekday lunch idea, if you want you can roast some extra broccoli and have different variations of vegetables throughout the week! I can also see this as a post-workout meal, you’ve got to load up on all those healthy vegetables!

Roasted Vegetable Sheetpan Shawarma

Ingredients:

For the shawarma:

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 5-6 medium carrots
  • 250g cauliflower, roughly chopped into florets
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 red onions, roughly chopped
  • 1 lemon, sliced in half
  • 4 pieces of naan bread or 4 pita pockets

For the spinach hummus: 

  • 1×400g can of tinned chickpeas
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ½ cup fresh spinach, chopped
  • A handful of fresh parsley, torn

Method:

  1. Start by preparing the vegetables. In a small bowl, toss together the olive oil, brown sugar and cinnamon. Chop the carrots into sticks that are about an inch long. Toss the carrots and brown sugar mixture together, ensuring that the carrots are completely coated in the sugar. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, throw together the vegetable oil, turmeric, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper and black pepper and stir to combine. Toss the cauliflower with this curry mixture and make sure that the cauliflower is completely coated in the mixture.
  3. Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F. Lay the brown sugar carrots, curry cauliflower and sliced red onions in a single layer on a large sheet pan. Place the lemon halves on opposite ends of the sheetpan. Drizzle some olive oil over the vegetables and top with a crack of salt and pepper.
  4. Roast the vegetables in the oven for about 25 minutes or until the cauliflower is soft. Whilst the veg are in the oven, combine all the ingredients for the spinach hummus in a food processor and pulse for about 2 minutes. The texture should be smooth but slightly runny, closer to ricotta cheese.
  5. To assemble, spread the spinach hummus on the naan/pita and top with an assortment of the roasted vegetables. Squeeze some of the roasted lemon over the shawarma. Enjoy!

 

 

Competition is an Illusion: My First Year at an Ivy League School

The moral of the story is: Run your own race.

After an incredible last year of high school that surpassed even my own expectations, I was feeling pretty good. With impressive A Level results, the Melbury Cup tennis trophy and an award from the Government of Zimbabwe, I was on top of the world. It felt like nothing could touch me, I was on Cloud Nine, running my own rave, and winning. You can imagine just how much my head inflated after being admitted to one of the most prestigious schools: The University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school and as of 2017, #10 in the world. Another notch added to my winning streak.

In many ways, my first year of school matched my expectations: my workload was heavier, my room was smaller and the food wasn’t exactly Michelin star. In writing this post, I don’t want to embody what every other article tells you about going to a competitive school because no matter where you go you will find kids who are smarter than you, more athletic than you and have more savoir-faire than you. Starting university is a huge transition for anyone, and it took a long time for me to realise that that’s true whether you go to college in the same town you grew up in or if like me, you moved 17,000 km across the globe. You will feel awkward, insecure and unprepared. How on earth do you compete with the kid who has been doing research since he was in diapers, or the kid who started their own successful business at 16? What I’m here to tell you is that you don’t. You compete with previous versions of yourself.

I spent a lot of time in my first year trying to outdo my classmates, teammates and at some point, even my own roommates. If I wasn’t at the top of my own mental leader board then I was letting myself down. This toxic cycle of thinking can easily discourage you as you start to feel as though you’re not as brilliant or capable as you thought you were. This led to a loss of self because it felt like I couldn’t do the things that I enjoyed doing if someone was going to be better than me anyways.

It’s easy to fall into the trap when you spend all your time looking at what other people are doing and weighing it against your own accolades. You panic and start to feel that what you have achieved is insignificant or that you haven’t been working hard enough. You put in hours and hours of hard work trying to follow someone else’s path, chasing something that was never meant for you, pursuing something that you will never attain. Nothing hurts your self-esteem more than putting all your effort into a project and not seeing the results especially when it seems as though other people are more successful than you are. This can apply to studying techniques, sports training or getting a startup off the ground.

We need to remind ourselves that this is not a race. Success doesn’t have a timeline. In comparing yourself to others, you start to believe that everyone is looking at you and judging your actions. You feel as though everyone will be disappointed by the fact that you haven’t managed to produce a spectacular project by age 20 or that you haven’t made Forbes’ 30 under 30 by age 25. The truth is that you don’t need to feel the pressure to be sensational in order to please everyone around you. This pill becomes even harder to swallow when you’ve been a high achiever since preschool.

In the end, it became important to recognise that my own individuality is what makes me unique and is the reason why I shouldn’t strive so hard to compete with someone else. It is your unique brand of characteristics that makes you who you are and makes it impossible for you to compare yourself to someone else. So what if they played lacrosse at a national level and you couldn’t get further than your school team? The fact that they have a superior career shouldn’t invalidate the fact that your school team was the best in the region that year. We should learn to stop being critical of ourselves based on what others are doing and instead start congratulating and appreciating ourselves for our accomplishments, no matter how small. I made it all the way down an expert ski slope without falling! I completed a coding assignment without going to office hours! I didn’t miss my 9 am class today!

As I have discovered, college is extremely forgiving. You have the freedom to join a sports team even if you’ve never played the sport before, and you’re allowed to suck at it, at least you put your pride aside and ventured outside your comfort zone. You’re allowed to change your major every other week, and decide to venture into finance even if you don’t really know how the stock market works, it’s admirable that you are chasing your dreams. You’re allowed to start a business that eventually fails, it’s impressive that you were brave enough to try.

The only person you can truly compete with is yourself. I encourage everyone reading this to go out and be the best versions of themselves today. I believe that true happiness comes from self-fulfilment: you feel overjoyed when you set a new record for your fastest 5k, and that is incomparable to the fleeting tinge of satisfaction you feel when you get a higher grade than the person sitting next to you. You shouldn’t have to ‘be better’ than someone in order to feel accomplished. Run your own race and try to beat yourself each time.

 

Marinated Tomato and Mozzarella Caprese Ciabbata Sandwich

Well that recipe title is a mouthful, but not as delicious as the mouthfuls of hot cheese sandwiched between some incredible toppings.


To the person who decided to marinate cheese- THANK YOU. I first came across the concept on The Kitchn and stopped in my tracks to try it. The only cheese I had in the fridge at the time was halloumi, and you can see for yourself how much I’ve enjoyed using halloumi. I marinated it in a tandoor paste to make these killer skewers a couple of months ago- seriously so good!


Whilst in Europe, I fell in love with sandwiches. I know, so terribly common of me. There was one particular sandwich that sealed the deal and it was this caprese sandwich. Made by an Australian man in Interlaken, Switzerland, I had this sandwich alongside a blood orange cocktail; incredibly incongruous but in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. At that point, I had been without family for 3 weeks and I was feeling that ache in my chest commonly known as homesickness.


There’s a reason why a large portion of Zimbabweans choose to migrate to Australia. Their culture is very similar to ours, our weather patterns are almost identical and our accents are indistinguishable to the average European/American. Seriously, I have been asked way too many times if I’m from Australia or New Zealand. For this one plucky restaurant owner, his friendliness and sage in helping me choose a meal I’ll never forget uplifted my spirits after a long day of hiking.


Upon my return to Zimbabwe, I spent my time in the kitchen trying to recreate the magical sandwich. To some extent, my circumstances created some of the magic around the sandwich; I had been travelling alone for a week and I hadn’t had anything to eat that day since descending the mountain. The prospect of a new friend and a killer cocktail made me enjoy the meal so much more. Cheers to familiar faces in strange places!

Marinated Tomato and Mozzarella Caprese Ciabbata Grilled Sandwich

Ingredients

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp chilli flakes (optional)
  • 250 g mozzarella cheese, sliced into ¼ inch thick slices
  • 2 heirloom tomatoes, sliced thinly
  • ½ cup spinach pesto, homemade or storebought
  • 1 loaf of ciabatta bread, sliced in half horizontally then cut into sections.
  • Optional for serving: balsamic reduction, just boil 1 cup of balsamic vinegar until thick and reduced by half.

Method

  1. Combine the olive oil, garlic cloves, honey, lemon zest, black pepper and chilli flakes in a large airtight glass jar. Seal tightly and shake the jar to combine everything. Normally I would microwave the jar for 30 seconds to infuse the olive oil with the spices but this isn’t necessary.
  2. Throw the mozzarella and tomatoes into the olive oil mixture, seal the jar and shake to soak the tomatoes and cheese in the oil. Allow to sit at room temperature for at least an hour but for best results, leave overnight. Meanwhile, make the balsamic reduction if using.
  3. Heat your grill/broiler. Spread both halves of the ciabatta bread with the spinach pesto. Layer one half of the sandwiches with the tomatoes followed by the marinated cheese. Add both halves of the sandwiches to a baking tray, with the empty half pesto-side up.
  4. Grill the sandwich until the cheese has melted, about 5 minutes. If desired, you can leave it until the cheese is starting to turn golden brown, about another 5 minutes. Serve hot whilst the cheese is still gooey with the balsamic reduction!

Herby Halloumi Heirloom Tomato Bake

That alliteration in the recipe title actually gave me goosebumps.


My mum’s been at it again folks, we have ripe tomatoes in our garden! If you don’t follow me on Instagram, firstly hop to it my username is @lifeisohsodandy! Secondly, you wouldn’t know about our chickens. Yes, we have chickens. You may have seen the first hen who was a gift to my mother from a friend in this post, her name is Butters. We thought that Butters was lonely, so we arranged for a rooster to keep her company and his name is Rodney. Don’t they make a sporting pair?


Whilst they are fascinating creatures to observe, they are wreaking havoc in the vegetable garden. Our gardener has recently locked the gate to the vegetable garden to stop them from getting in. In their hunt for earthworms and various insects, our beloved chickens have been digging up dirt en masse and uprooting the vegetables- not good.


Aside from the mischievous chickens, my mother has been successful in her tomato growing venture. We have beautiful heirloom tomatoes! I did what I do best- turned them into a delicious dish, of course. This makes a wholesome appetiser, best served with garlic bread or just plain toast as I’ve done. Throw in some olives and hummus and you could turn this into a winning platter!

Herby Halloumi Heirloom Tomato Bake

Ingredients

For the tomato bake:

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ tsp dried oregano
  • ½ tsp dried basil
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • a sprinkle of chilli flakes (optional)
  • 100g halloumi, sliced
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
  • 2 tbsp mixed Italian herbs
  • 4-6 heirloom tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 medium potato, unpeeled and chopped into bite sized pieces
  • 2 tsp castor sugar (optional- most of the time I find this unnecessary but if you think that the sauce is too bitter then throw in the sugar)

For the crusty bread: 

  • 3 slices white bread (sourdough also works really well)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • some salt and pepper

Method

  1. In a small bowl, mix together the olive oil, oregano, basil and thyme. Add the halloumi and toss to coat in the herb mixture. Set aside and allow to marinate for at least 10 minutes.
  2. Reserve 2 of your tomatoes for the top of the dish. Dice the remaining tomatoes into small pieces. Heat some olive oil in the bottom of a large saucepan and fry the onion on high heat until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, carrot and mixed herbs to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally until the carrots are soft and the garlic is fragrant, about another 5 minutes.
  3. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato paste (if using) and water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring the mixture to a boil  before adding the sweet potatoes and reducing the heat to low. Simmer until the tomatoes have cooked down and the sweet potatoes are soft, between 15 and 20 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, slice the tomatoes you had reserved earlier into thin slices. Heat up your grill/broiler and adjust your oven rack to the top shelf. Once the sweet potatoes are fully cooked, remove the saucepan from heat. Taste and season with salt ad pepper if needed; if the sauce is too bitter then add the castor sugar. Layer the top with the sliced tomatoes and top with the marinated halloumi. Grill for 8-10 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is golden brown, serve hot with crusty bread!

For the crusty bread: 

Slice the bread in half diagonally and lay on a rimless baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill for 5-7 minutes or until golden and crusty.

Crispy Curry Vegan Potato Pancakes

Because savoury pancakes beat sweet pancakes any day.


As much as I will always be a sweet tooth at heart, coriander beats chocolate in my book. Whilst we’re on the topic, what do you think about chilli infused chocolate? Is it the best of both worlds or an utter hit and miss?


This is a ridiculously easy snack recipe. It’s a variation of potato croquettes but with an Indian twist with the addition of the curry spices. If you’re shy of spicy food then feel free to either reduce the cayenne pepper added or serve with a dollop of yogurt on top! As much as I detest tomato sauce in every other context, I have to confess that it does compliment this particular dish.

Spicy Vegan Potato Pancakes

Ingredients

  • 2 large Russet potatoes, peeled
  • ¼ cup soy milk or any other plant based milk
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp ground cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ¼ cup fresh parsley
  • ½ cup plain flour

Method

  1. Fill a large saucepan with boiling salted water. Boil the potatoes until fork tender, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool. Pour the soy milk into the saucepan with the cool potatoes and mash until smooth.
  2. Add the mashed potatoes to a medium bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Mix until combined. Shape into 8 patties and place on a baking sheet. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  3. Add enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom of a large frying pan and allow to heat until almost smoking. Fry the patties until golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm with tomato sauce, fresh parsley and fresh mint. Enjoy!

PennQuest, PennQuest The Best!

Sit down because I am about to tell you about the wildest 3 days of my incredibly short lifespan.

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Back in April when I received the email from Penn with information about the different pre-orientation programs, I was instantly sold. A chance to get on campus a week before everyone else sounded like a dream. Browsing the list of the different activities, there was one that stuck out to me- PennGreen. Not what you were expecting me to say, huh?

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I’ve always been interested in sustainability and the preservation of the environment, and a student-run club that puts those policies into practice sounded like perfection. Eager to get in, I promptly began my application, filling out every question effortlessly until I reached the last essay prompt: Write a love letter to your favourite vegetable. Huh? I’ll give them extra points for creativity but at that point, my brain just wasn’t prepared to conjure up a polished exaggeration of my love for spinach. And so, I shelved my application.

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2 months later, I was sitting pretty in Geneva, Switzerland when I received an email from Penn. Just as background knowledge, that was when I used to jump with excitement at every email they sent me, after having arrived at campus, I cower in fear from the 25 emails they send me every hour: This is a reminder that you haven’t submitted your assignment that is due…. Back to the issue at hand, I, an excited Penn pre-frosh eagerly opened my email that contained a reminder that the applications for pre-orientation programs were due in a week’s time. At this point, I had completely banished the thoughts of love letters to spinach from my mind. I decided to refresh myself with the different activities and this time, a different program called my name: PennQuest. 

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PennQuest is an outdoor orientation program…”- the magical words that sold me. I won’t bore you with that application process nor the official description of the program, but I will tell you about PennQuest from my eyes. The night before we departed, there was a pizza night and briefing meeting scheduled to allow us to get to know each other. I remember walking into the Bodek Lounge into an insane party. Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ was blasting from the stereo, students were dancing on top of tables and bouncing off the walls tirelessly. The mum in me screamed internally, ‘Be careful! Slow down, you might slip and fall!’. I had no idea what to make of it and was convinced that I had made a mistake by applying to PennQuest.

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I know now that I shared the same thoughts as the other 133 pre-frosh in the room. We were terrified and had no idea what to expect from the 3 days to come. The wonderful Laurie McCall who coordinates the program conducted a presentation in which she assured us that “what makes PennQuest such a successful and popular program is the leaders who go on the trip with you.”. If she means this bunch of lunatics, I thought, this is bound to be an interesting experience.

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134 students were divided into groups of 11 and assigned 2 upperclassmen as leaders. We had Hannah, a sophomore, and Nico, a senior, and as I grew to knew them, they became my new PennParents. Having met my group, we said goodnight and headed to our dorms to pack for a trip that strictly forbade toiletries, electronic devices and watches from the packing list. You heard me, I spent 3 whole days without my phone, without a toilet or shower, in complete ignorance of the time AND even better, I survived it all without the slightest withdrawal symptoms.

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The next morning we boarded the East-Coast-esque yellow school buses on the way to Camp Towanda. Our camp leaders were eager to capitalise on our nervousness by refusing to divulge any information on the trip. Asking how long the bus ride would be would yield the response, “Oh we’ll be there in about 8 hours”.

What time is it?

“I think it must be 2 in the morning now.” 

How far will we have to hike every day?

“So our goal is to hit 30 miles but that’s at the very least, we expect you guys to be able to do 50 miles without breaks.” 

What do we eat on the trail?

“I hope you read the course information that we posted on the Facebook group. It detailed all the proper techniques for spear fishing and laying traps for the deer we’re going to hunt. There’s also a test you have to take when we get to camp about identifying the top 10 most poisonous plants we’ll see on trail! You should also have reviewed the material about the proper squatting position for when you poop in the woods because I promise you that you WILL need to poop sometime over the next 3 days. Aren’t you excited? GET H-Y-P-E!!!!!!!!” 

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We learnt pretty quickly that it was better to not ask questions and to just go with the flow. No camping trip is complete without loud, out-of-tune singing on the bus ride and i did not expect any less from PennQuest. WELL YOU CAN’T RIDE ON MY LITTLE RED WAGON, THE FRONT SEAT’S BROKEN AND THE AXLE’S DRAGGIN’, CHUGGA, CHUGGA, CHUGGA, CHUGGA, CHUGGA! SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST, A LITTLE BIT LOUDER AND A WHOLE LOT WORSE! Other bus activities include: musical chairs which is played to the death, mooning any other PennQuest bus that passes you- if you’re lucky, you’ll even score an unsuspecting traveller in the lane next to you, and jamming out to white girl classics such as “Mr Brightside”.

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After spending what I believe to have been 4 hours on the bus, we arrived at Camp Towanda, rushed through lunch before being split into groups (different from our hiking groups) and heading off to complete different activities.

  • Scavenger Hunt: items included finding the most disgusting thing on the camp and having a member of our team lick it (Spoiler alert: it was Michelle’s foot), having 2 members of your team switch clothes (underwear is completely up to you), assigning every leader a celebrity lookalike and finding the funniest bathroom drawing on the campsite (the one below is my personal favourite).

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  • Capture The Flag: my team failed miserably at this game. We were all captured within minutes, making our flag easy game for the enemy team.
  • Tackle: this game means exactly what the name implies. My brother plays rugby for the school team so I am a total expert at delivering crippling tackles. Especially when the players are twice as heavy as me. Why haven’t the Blue Bulls signed me yet?
  • Meditation: I am convinced that I fell asleep sometime during that (30 minute???) session but all I know is that I felt so zen at the end. I wasn’t daring enough to attempt the eye contact meditation, which involves as you probably guessed, staring into a stranger’s eyes for some 15 minutes without breaking eye contact. It leaves you vulnerable to the other person and we have a running bet that one of the pairs is definitely going to get married. You read it here first, folks.
  • Bonfire + S’mores= YAAAAAAAAAAAAS.

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  • Astronomy night hike: every camper had to close their eyes and hold the shoulders of the person to the right of them. We walked blindly, only following the person in front of us. This is how I met Robbie, who I still hang out with now, our friendship cemented by the one time I almost suffocated him because I was terrified and held a death grip on his shoulders. That night was made memorable, not only because I had to walk blindly, in the woods, behind Robbie who seemed to be speeding away making it hard for me to keep up, but because when we eventually were told to lie down and open our eyes, I witnessed the most beautiful display of the heavens above. The leaders then read us inspirational poems and proceeded to motivate us by detailing how amazing life at Penn is. I can truthfully say that I have never felt more inspired than in that moment. Lifesaver mints were then passed around, and in the pitch black darkness, we could clearly see the spark produced when our partners bit into them. It only took Robbie 7 tries to get it right.

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The next morning we set off for the Appalachian trails. I will not lie to you, the first 30 minutes were brutal, soul-crushing, steep uphill climbs. Our group was quick to rename the trip QUADQuest in honour of our beautifully toned quad muscles. We stopped to watch the solar eclipse, which is a once-in-a-38-year-chance, but in Pennsylvania, there was only 80% coverage so we didn’t get a total blackout, but that didn’t make it any less spectacular. I can’t answer your questions of how far we hiked or for how long but I can tell you that it was great to interact with all the different members of the group and get to know them better. We set up camp or the evening and dined on the luxurious selection of white rice, red kidney beans and flour tortillas- so gourmet.

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The second day was definitely more eventful. We met up with one of the other hiking groups and trekked to a nearby river. The murky waters of the Delaware River were warmly welcomed after 48 hours without a shower. Did I forget to mention that this is also where we retrieved our drinking water for the remaining leg of the trip? Relax, it was purified with iodine which has the most peculiar aftertaste. Top camping tip: make sure to carry lemons in your pack- not only does drinking lemon water make you look boujee, it also eliminates the gross taste of iodine.

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Highlights include: scaling the top of a lookout tower, spotting a baby blackbear (my first bear!), pooping in the woods for the first time and avoiding the snakes in the muddy marsh we crossed.

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The icing on the cake, the crème de la crème and the top experience of that day was the freak thunderstorm that hit that night. After dining on gourmet pasta and tomato sauce, we were sitting around the fire talking about everything and nothing, dreading the end of the trip. The thunderstorm had been playing out in the background but we hadn’t been paying attention to it. Nico gets a message from the upperclassmen back at base camp: Miranda Cosgrove has passed away in a car accident. (Remember that the leaders had to carry their mobile phones in case we ran out of water or someone got injured). Our initial reaction was shock and sadness which eventually dissolved into silence. iCarly was my childhood! It was then that Nico received a second message from base camp: the storm was heading in our direction.

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Picture this: 13 adults crammed into a tent that sleeps 6 people, savouring the end of what has been a spectacular trip. To add to the ambience, we had lit a candle in what is known as the ‘PennQuest Candlelight Ceremony’. In the background: deafening thunder and torrential rainfall. All of a sudden, we hear the crackle of a tree succumbing to the lightning that struck it. That could only mean one thing: we were dangerously at risk of being struck by lightning.

Calmly yet swiftly, Nico and Hannah urged us to get our raincoats out and our shoes on, and to evacuate the tent. Rushing to get out, we were instructed to spread out about 5 feet from the nearest person and get as close to the ground as possible: as lightning only ever strikes the tallest standing object in the vicinity. My initial response was fear, ‘It’s absolutely freezing out here, we saw a bear earlier and who knows what could be lurking in these woods? I’m drenched in rainwater, there is no way that I won’t be sick tomorrow morning.’ It is only through the reassuring voices of my leaders and groupmates that I managed to calm down and view this as an interesting story to tell in the future as opposed to an annoyance. For what I believe to have been 45 minutes, we shouted our most embarrassing stories to each other, combated pesky frogs and insects, and laughed about the past 3 days.

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When it came time to board the buses the next morning, I was sad to be leaving but content with the people that I had the privilege of spending time with. I can’t think of any better way to have kickstarted my university experience. PennQuest, you truly were the best.

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Just for the record: Miranda Cosgrove is still alive, that was a ploy by the mischievous PQ leaders.