LONDON - Gauri Kumar, 14, lived in London for three years until she moved home to Singapore last year.
While she was here, she had only seen Buckingham Palace from the outside. On Wednesday (Oct 26), she and fellow Singaporean Tan Wan Gee, 14, were escorted into the palace, put through a rehearsal and taught how to curtsy.
It was to get them ready to meet Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.
The Duchess was presenting certificates to the two teenagers: Gauri came in tops in the junior category of The Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition, while Wan Gee was the runner-up. The senior category was won by Inessa Rajah from South Africa and the runner-up was Esther Mungalaba from Zambia.
They beat 13,500 others from nearly all the Commonwealth countries, earning themselves a "Winners Week" in London which includes cultural and educational activities such as visits to Cambridge University, Houses of Parliament, The London Evening Standard newspaper, British Library and an award ceremony in Buckingham Palace.
Gauri said she was "extremely nervous" about the royal experience. "I haven't processed it yet. Hopefully, I'll be able to understand in a few days. But I'm still really confused about what's been happening," she said after receiving her award from the Duchess.
Wan Gee described the Duchess as "incredibly nice". She had asked the girls about the inspiration behind their winning essays, which had to reflect on the theme of the competition: An Inclusive Commonwealth.
Founded in 1883, The Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition is the world's oldest international schools writing competition. This year drew the most number of entries. Singapore alone sent in 4,585 entries - more than any other country.
The last Singaporean winner was Selina Xu from Nanyang Girls High School, who was senior runner-up in 2014.
The entries were judged by a pan-Commonwealth body of judges from more than 30 countries, who have described the entries as "inspirational", "imaginative" and "moving".
For her winning essay "Tales Of An Insider/Outsider", Gauri, who attends Tanglin Trust School, wrote about her experience of feeling disconnected from her relatives and culture because she does not speak Hindi well.
Wan Gee, who is studying in Temasek Junior College, wrote a poem "Are We Really So Different? Dear Santa", in which she advocated the importance of equality.
The two are voracious readers, with Gauri enjoying dystopian novels and authors like J K Rowling and George Orwell, and Wan Gee finding inspiration in Charles Bukowski and Sylvia Plath.
"There's something about their poetry that resonates with me," said Wan Gee, who confessed to hating poetry before she took a module in school last year.
"I bought a book by Charles Bukowski the other day. It's the way he makes something very ordinary feel very relatable. I really like that kind of expression."
Mr Michael Lake, director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, which organises the competition, said the four winners represent the "very best and brightest that the Commonwealth has to offer".
"Their essays and poems explore contemporary themes with maturity, intelligence and depth beyond their years."
About 70 guests were at the ceremony at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday to celebrate the young writers' achievements. They included Mr Chia Wei Wen, Deputy High Commissioner for Singapore, The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey and Ms Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former prime minister of Denmark and now CEO of Save the Children International.
Watching on proudly were Gauri's parents and younger sister, and Wan Gee's mother.
The girls are only too aware that when they go back to Singapore, their friends will ask them if they met the Queen. They had words of encouragement for aspiring young writers who might now be inspired to join the competition.
"There's no harm in entering the competition and if you do well, that's the most amazing thing," said Gauri.
Added Wan Gee: "Never give up on your writing. You never know where it'll take you, for example, here."