Have grant - will travel

27th October 2015

News, Student news, Alumni news

Generous donations by Wadham alumni enable current students to travel in relation to their studies. From comedy in the US to mountaineering in the Georgian Caucasus, Wadham students report their extraordinary travel tales.

Francesca Forristal (2014, English) tours America’s East Coast with improvisational comedy group, the Oxford Imps, learning new techniques and eating a lot of Mexican food.

My first lung-full of hot, dry Chicago air, and the neon glare of a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise (seemingly the second largest controlling entity in the USA, aside from the president himself) sent a shiver of excitement right down my spine.

It didn’t matter that we were jet-lagged, heavily-bagged and a little disorientated; we had finally begun the first leg of the Oxford Imps’ whirlwind tour of America’s east coast!

This two weeks has been the most jam-packed, exhilarating, life-lesson-learning trip I have ever been on.

Cesca Forristal

I had been with the Oxford Imps for a year now - Oxford’s improvisational comedy group - and had returned from a month long stint performing at the Edinburgh Fringe not days before we set off for the USA, so we were thoroughly warmed up, and ready to show the audiences across the pond what we could do.

Although yes, as the name suggests, we Imps make things up out of whatever suggestions are hurled our way (producing songs, raps, scenes, puns, one liners, parodic Shakespeare Plays, James Bonds, Musicals… you name it) we were aware that improv is not an excuse to rest on one’s laurels. America is the home of improvisation. And we couldn’t wait to absorb new improv-forms, styles, and mind-sets…

Upon arriving, Adam – a native imp back on home territory – was quick to establish priorities. So, after dumping our luggage in our hostel, we were introduced to a national delicacy: “Chipolte”! This bangin’ burrito place was to be just the first of many Mexican restaurants Adam took us to throughout our tour, and the portion sizes never disappointed! (So much beany goodness…)

Despite our sleep-deprived state, we dedicated improv-troopers marched on down to the Improv Olympic theatre – a theatre dedicated to our beloved craft – to watch the Americans do what they do best. That is, of course, non-narrative long forms, performed by talented groups such as the Deltones! During our stay, we witnessed Harolds, Armandos (a personal favourite being the “Armando Diaz Experience and Hootenanny”), touching personal monologues and some wonderful character work. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Armando on our second night was the monologist’s bare-faced candidness, and willingness to share intimate details about his life, which were then sensitively, and hilariously picked apart and used to inspire scene work. (We found out that the famous Armando Diaz – inspiration for the popular non-narrative form – was not an improv maverick, or genius, but instead some bloke that told tangential, quirky stories, which a group of improvisers found inspiring to work with!).

Soon, it was our turn to take to the stage: It was thrilling to perform in front of an audience who were so utterly willing to shout out suggestions, and utilise the strange addition of doors along the back wall of the stage! The imps were so excited about the doors that opened and closed “just like real doors” on the set that we spent the first 5 minutes of our warm up running in and out of them… (We vowed to make the Wheatsheaf pub, in which we perform every Monday, install similar appendages to our tiny stage…) Yes, I had seen Armandos before in England, but I had never experienced the American’s attitude from the moment they stepped on stage. They were unbelievably slick, and took joy in the celebration of each other’s’ ideas.  Thus, when it was our turn, I decided to nab a little of the Chicago spirit, and left my anxieties at the stage door. We were there to have fun, and laugh with each other on stage! This tiny attitude shift changed the way I improvise, and meant that for the rest of the trip, I was guaranteed to be one of the first bounding on stage without inhibitions. It seemed as if things were more amusing to the audience the more one commits to one’s ideas, and the more joy you find in the idiosyncrasies.

Indeed, we were ready to learn, not only new improv skills, but also how to play WhirlyBall – a brilliantly chaotic and competitive American sport in which teams of bumper-cars attempt to hurl a ball into a net with lacrosse sticks. However, I think I speak for all of us when I say that nothing could have prepared us for the bold, blunt brilliance of Chicago’s very own Susan Messing, and her workshop. With Messing, we were encouraged to make big character decisions and stick to our guns on stage. If you “make a funny”, you need to stop and really explore what that throw away comment meant; does your character kill puppies for fun? Let’s see it then! Sometimes dark, but always hilarious, we left Chicago with much to mentally munch on during the two flights towards Providence…

Providence is home to the Improv festival at which we would have the privilege of performing two nights in a row. And what an audience they were! Each night, we were exposed to the most stunning array of skills; narratives and free-form, improvised dance, quirky spin off scenes and genius tap outs, from groups all around the country. The first night, we whipped out some of our snappy short form. However, on the second night, we attempted an Armando, having been so inspired by the enthusiasm and talent surrounding us. Improvisers by night, but eager tourists by day, we went on a very steep walk up to Brown University, and around downtown Providence. We were led by Deena – an absolute marvel of a woman, doing tours 20 years into her retirement – who brought a town suffused with religious and colonial history to life. We were, nevertheless, quick to counter-balance such interesting culture with Providence’s humungous Mall… to eat more Mexican food… (Curse you Taco Bell!).

It seemed as if no time had passed until we were zooming down the highway towards the prestigious university of Princeton. Little did we know that Adam Mastroianni, an ex-student of Princeton and current director of the Imps, would be such a BNOC (big name on campus)! We were welcomed onto campus with unbelievable hospitality by his old improv troupe Quipfire, and dispersed into the crowds of a Princeton Lawn Party, in full swing. There was music blaring in front of every eating house, sorority and frat house, endless food and drink, not to mention a huge ‘festival style’ main stage. Partying on down with Quipfire made us feel somewhat as if we had stumbled onto a movie set, with the stereotypical red plastic cups of beer (ft. in Clueless and suchlike) causing particular excitement. That being said, the most surreal moment of the trip for me had to be performing in the esteemed McCarter theatre, in front of over 800 people, alongside Quipfire and the Cambridge Footlights! A sea of smiling faces gazed back at us as we cavorted around stage, as only the Imps can; delighting in such an exciting opportunity. By day, we were guided round campus, and truly grew to love both the university, and our charming hosts, who treated us to Princeton hoodies, cupcakes with our logo on them, pizza bigger than my torso, and above all, genuine kindness. Safe to say, Quipfire will always have a lil’ place in our impish hearts…

With performances over, it was time to slap on our tourist caps, our “I
Needless to say, this two weeks has been the most jam-packed, exhilarating, life-lesson-learning trip I have ever been on. Yet as I attempt to chart our journey from place to place, I am left with the overwhelming inability to express just how much it changed me. Indeed, not only me, but our group dynamic. I love the Imps, and I love them not only as performers, but as genuine friends. Not a second passes without a smile, a song, or a snort of laughter, and no matter what stupid thing you suggest, everyone jumps on the band wagon 100% until you make something fun. As cheesy as it may sound, we are all somewhat governed by the central tenets of Improv: support your partner, make them look good, and always, ALWAYS say “yes and…”

  • The Oxford Imps in the US

    The Oxford Imps in the US

James O’Sullivan (2012, Physics) braves wind and weather on a challenging mountaineering expedition in the Georgian Caucasus.

“ANDY!!! I can’t see the way up; I think it’s a massive cornice up there - I’m not walking on that…”
It’s about 3 O’clock in the morning, I’m screaming through gale force winds and thick cloud at 4700m and I can hardly hear or see Andy down at the other end of the rope, 10m away. To my right the ground steepens to a sheer ice face dropping a couple kilometres to the valley floor, to my left is the top of the ridge; I won’t go any closer for fear of falling through the snow and down the other side. The summit of Tetnuldi is somewhere in the darkness just 100m or so ahead of me and we’ve slowed to a crawl in the thick snow. I’m starting to think we might have to retreat.
“Can you see the way back?!!”

Not good, I thought. We might be in trouble now.

It’s always a little difficult to convince people to come along on these trips. Two weeks earlier, the expedition had started badly. We hadn’t even reached Georgia when James, the third team member, called us in Istanbul to tell us he wouldn’t be meeting us later, having injured himself hiking in Wales (I suppressed the urge to angrily order him to man up and get on the damn flight). So it was down to just myself and Andy.

The mood improved when we arrived in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. Forking out the equivalent of a princely 6p for the bus into town, and after mistakenly wandering into an abandoned subterranean shopping centre, we made our way back to the surface to find our hostel, hidden away on a narrow alley off a quiet leafy cobbled avenue in central Tbilisi. It’s a city with a lot of character and a great atmosphere. However, our objectives were elsewhere. We headed out of Tbilisi after a day, and hopped on a small 16-seater Czech built plane which took us into the region of Svanetia, 200km to the North-west.

Svanetia (the V is pronounced like a W) is a province in the north-west of Georgia, between the breakaway states of Abkhazia further to the west, and South Ossetia, site of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and still a definite no-go zone (Abkhazia, we heard, is actually fine to travel to, and people can cross the border from Georgia). Neither region is recognised as a separate country by most nations, with the notable exception of Russia, to whom they are essentially puppet states, heavily reliant on Russian economic and military support.

Fortunately for us, Svanetia is stable and safe; it’s just very difficult to get to if you don’t fly there. Surrounded on all sides by high mountains, with the highest peaks of the Caucasus immediately to the north and east towering to heights of over 5000m, Svanetia has its own distinct language and culture (though very few people now speak Svan). Svan towers are scattered throughout the region and are present in every village. Apparently these were the result of numerous disputes and blood feuds between neighbouring Svan families – each tower defended a family.

We stocked up on food and fuel in the central town of Mestia – the capital of Svanetia. There are numerous unfinished alpine style buildings scattered amongst the farms and towers, no doubt the result of heavy investment by the government to turn the area into a tourist hub. However the area is still largely undiscovered, and many buildings are empty shells. Thankfully, Mestia was the only place that had seen this development, which had turned parts of the town into a rather characterless imitation of a small European ski town.

The night before heading off, we went in search of a place to eat with less of a touristy vibe to it, and wandered over to a small (and cheap) café bar. Out on the balcony overlooking the valley we were invited over to join a group of locals who had evidently been tackling a heroic amount of beer and chacha (Georgian Vodka). We hardly spoke a word of Georgian, and they didn’t speak a word of English, but that didn’t matter, especially after several shots of chacha. Unfortunately, at some point that evening, one of the guys got hold of Andy’s glacier sunglasses and threw them off the balcony - we never managed to find them.

The next morning, the expedition really began. Our objective was to climb Lyalver, the westernmost mountain on a ridge that forms the Bezingi wall – a line of huge peaks that mark the border with Russia. The peaks further east were where the toughest Soviet mountaineers trained. Only the most experienced mountaineers can hope to ascend them; a full traverse of the Bezingi wall, across enormous 5000m+ peaks including Shkhara, the highest in Georgia, is considered one of the greatest challenges of the Caucasus. Novices with decent fitness and a lot of cash can ascend Everest, but the Bezingi wall, nicknamed Little Himalaya, is beyond reach for most. Lyalver, however, is the only easy peak on the ridge, and doable for mere mortals like myself and Andy.

We hiked from the tiny village of Tchoolashi up the densely forested Tsaneri river valley towards the Tsanner Glacier, high in the mountains next to the Russian border. We quickly realised our map was wrong – the route shown was on the wrong side of the valley and would have been impassable. We also realised that a path or trekking route in this part of the world means a slightly flattened patch of shrubbery or grass here and there, and little else. Progress became very slow.

Forest turned into a steep rock outcrop and then the rocky moraine alongside the Tsanner glacier. After two days of hiking, carrying around 30kg of supplies and camping and climbing gear (more for me as I had camera, tripod and lenses with me), we were significantly behind where we had planned to be. The glacier was in sight, but had retreated further up the valley than we expected, so we couldn’t travel on the ice as soon as we had hoped. We had to battle our way across the moraine a little longer. Seeing the next pass a few kilometres ahead, up a steep rocky slope with the next section of glacier spilling over the top in a heavily crevassed mess of steep ice, we realised it would be a full day before we made it up there, and potentially the same time to get back down again. We simply hadn’t allocated sufficient time to do this section of the trip. We dug out a platform for our tent in the rocky slope and made camp, and reluctantly, without even touching the ice, made the decision to turn back early. Lyalver was a failure.

Back at Mestia, we resupplied and planned our assault on the main objective of the trip, a mountain called Tetnuldi. We teamed up with Barak and Or, a couple of Israeli trekkers who we shared a lift with, for the approach to the mountain. Israeli military training seemed to make them decent navigators in the fog too, which was handy for us. However after a day of exchanging stories and Lord of the Rings knowledge we parted ways and they headed back down into the valley as we approached Camp 1. Nicknamed the nest, it’s a saddle point tucked away behind a rocky outcrop that extends outwards from a steep ridge of sub-peaks that guard the Kasebi glacier plateau above. Shortly before reaching the nest, we bumped into two Polish mountaineers coming down from Tetnuldi. They hadn’t summited, they told us. The temperature was unusually warm; the snow was too deep and soft to move on, so they had turned back at 4500m, 300m below the summit. Not great news for us then, these Polish guys looked like they knew their stuff.

A steep scramble the next day led us to the Kasebi glacier plateau and Camp 2, at 3600m. From here we had hoped to set up camp and venture up higher to acclimatise, then return. However the weather rapidly closed in after setting up our tent and we had to stay put. Wind and snow picked up rapidly and we soon found ourselves engulfed by a thunderstorm; in our tent on an exposed plateau the noise was pretty incredible. However by about midnight everything was quiet; I woke up and poked my head outside to see if the Milky Way was visible. It turns out that when you’re far away from any major towns and above the first few kilometres of atmosphere, the view of the stars is unparalleled…

The clear(ish) weather persisted into the morning, allowing us to press onwards and upwards to camp 3, just below the ridge at 4300m, from where we would make our final summit push. By this point we were starting to feel the altitude; digging out a platform in the snow for our tent was exhausting. However, we woke up ready for our summit push at 01:00 the next morning to howling winds, heavy snow and poor visibility. We opted to wait another day and hope for better weather the next morning; and use the extra day to rest and acclimatise. From this camp we could see right over the Caucasus mountains, the striking twin peaks of the brutal mountain Ushba (known as the Matterhorn of the Caucasus, but far harder to climb) piercing the clouds. Across the border, the unmistakable volcanic cone of Elbrus rose up alone, the tallest mountain in Europe, and home to a small shack on its lower slopes frequented by mountaineers that has been voted the worst lavatory in the world.

01:00 the next day and waiting appeared to have paid off – the wind was lower and visibility was much better. We set off soon after and began our ascent along the narrow ridge to the summit in total darkness. Typically we would go around 2 hours later than this, but given the reports of poor snow conditions, we planned instead to be up and down before the sun could warm the ground up too much. My head torch being brighter, I led the way up. The ascent started off well; we were making excellent time, and despite the discomfort of being so exposed on a narrow ridge in complete darkness, we were both actually feeling fairly good. However, it seems Tetnuldi wasn’t going to let us up so easily. Clouds rapidly closed in, the wind picked up and visibility dropped to the point that I could no longer see or hear Andy. We shortened the rope between us and pressed on, hoping for a break in the clouds so we could glimpse the summit and confirm we were on the right track. However, the clouds refused to oblige, and we had to slog our way up blindly, hugging the top of the ridge. In mountainous terrain, wind often blows the snow at the top of a ridge over to one side, creating a dangerous overhanging lip known as a cornice. I kept us well away from the edge just in case.

Despite the weather, we were still blitzing it up, setting a rapid pace and ascending well ahead of schedule. It was around 100m from the summit that the snow became essentially impassable. The Polish team had stopped some 200m below here; presumably due to encountering similar conditions 2 days ago. Every step and we would both sink chest deep; moving anywhere was painfully slow. This alone probably wouldn’t have stopped us, but with a gale blowing all around us, visibility still down to 10m and the peak somewhere 100m away, engulfed in dark cloud, things were starting to get desperate. It was at this point I asked Andy if he could see the correct way back down. Glancing at the emergency distress satellite beacon secured to my harness, I quickly realised it would be no use if we were to get stranded here; we were on our own. We dug ourselves a snow hole and took shelter in the hope that sunrise might make it easier to progress and perhaps the cloud cover would break. However as the sky began to light up, there was still no sign of a break in the weather. We had to make a move, either up or down. We pushed upwards but could hardly progress at all.

The time had come to call it; I shouted back down to Andy that I thought we should turn back. He didn’t take much convincing. Exhausted, we made our way back down and eventually found our route back. Sure enough, as we approached camp, the clouds parted and the peak once again revealed itself, tantalisingly close. We briefly considered turning back up and trying again, but tired and unsure of whether this window would hold long enough, we continued down the mountain. We had given it our best shot, and had snow conditions been more favourable, I don’t doubt we would have had the summit. But such is the reality of mountaineering; sometimes you have to quit when the summit is just a stone’s throw away.

On our way back down we met 3 other groups making their way up. First, two grizzled Germans, then a Czech group with 2 local guides, and finally a group of Russians (we think), all trying for the summit. From our cozy spot at camp 3 we sat and drank tea and watched as the little dots inched their way up towards the summit, the clouds still holding off. The dots then bunched up, precisely where we had turned back, and didn’t move for some time. Eventually we saw a pair turn back – presumably the Germans, and another group returned shortly after. The peak was then quickly engulfed in cloud once more and we never saw the last group after that. We later met one of the mountain guides (who didn’t speak a word of English) and from his gestures we learned that they too had encountered the chest deep snow, but they had pushed forward slowly and eventually made it up, while all the other groups had retreated. We’ll have to come back some day…

The entertainment wasn’t quite over yet though. Making our way down from the ridge, the snow had softened since we were last there; we found out first hand that there were numerous hidden crevasses beneath and cautiously tested the ground as we went ahead. Halfway down the glaciated spur I felt the rope go taut as I stepped forward and looked back up to see what the problem was. Andy’s legs were missing. He called down to me to tell me that a snow bridge collapsed under him and his feet were dangling in a crevasse. Fortunately for us he had fallen into a narrow point; he was wedged in there at the chest and wasn’t going to sink any further. Naturally, I stopped, laughed at him for a while then took a picture, before helping him haul himself out (as I was going down first, had he fallen further he would have had to drag me upwards, so we were in a rather benign situation, as crevasse falls go).

After a long slog back down we arrived the next day at the curious mountain village of Adishi. Semi - abandoned, 13 families still lived in the village, though about 60% of the buildings were derelict. The only road into this remote mountain village was a dirt track down the valley. This was essentially the end of our trip, and a rather unique place to finish. Two local kids showed us how to get into one of the old Svan towers. The entrance is about 3m off the ground, accessed by a ladder which extends about 2m up – we assumed this was intentionally short to make it difficult to get in (in fact, all the ladders inside were similar). The rain clattered down on the roof as I looked out across the collapsed buildings from the top of the tower. There are many countries with high mountains which we could have gone to. I was glad we chose Georgia.

We had given it our best shot, and had snow conditions been more favourable, I don’t doubt we would have had the summit. But such is the reality of mountaineering; sometimes you have to quit when the summit is just a stone’s throw away.

James O’Sullivan

  • James O'Sullivan

    James O'Sullivan mountaineering in the Georgian Caucasus

  • View of the stars

    "When you’re far away from any major towns and above the first few kilometres of atmosphere, the view of the stars is unparalleled…"

  • Wadham Image - jamesosullivan6_0

    Andy’s legs were missing. He called down to me to tell me that a snow bridge collapsed under him and his feet were dangling in a crevasse.

Ben Balmford (2013 Biological Sciences) discovers lantern bugs and bristleheads in the biodiverse peninsular Malaysia and Borneo

With the kind generosity of a Wadham Travel Grant, I was able to travel to Malaysia to attend a two week tropical forest ecology field course as one of my third year options. I also explored the region further, in three weeks of independent travel, to try and experience first-hand the ridiculous diversity of tropical rainforests.

As well as the insights that first-hand experience of the staggering diversity gave me, and the techniques I learned, I also had a very enjoyable time seeing some of the most spectacular creatures on the planet: lantern bugs, with their bright green wings, yellow dots and fantastic blue noses; Bornean bristleheads with orange-red heads and yellow caps; and trees over 60m tall and sometimes hundreds of years old. This was on top of exceptionally good food, and a very helpful, kind culture.

Before I left the UK, I had been required to write an essay on the way that tectonic plate movements shaped the diversity of the Indo-Australian Archipelago through both bringing once separate taxa together, and through splitting ranges with new geographic barriers. With time in both peninsular and Bornean Malaysia (they are on separate plates), I was able to witness and begin to understand the great impacts this has had on shaping diversity. Moreover, it was interesting to see species that clearly had made it and those that hadn’t, and wonder why some seemed better at dispersal. Furthermore, there was obvious replacement between the two areas – for example, on the peninsula wild boar filled the pig niche, while on Borneo it was bearded pigs.

Another great aspect of travelling around before the field course was getting to witness Reduced Impact Logging (RIL) in action, at a forest reserve that is Forest Stewardship Certified (FSC) as sustainable. Along with oil palm plantations, unsustainable harvesting of timber is the greatest driver of loss and degradation of lowland forest in South East Asia, therefore the FSC is crucial in preventing the loss of lowland forests. As part of RIL the reserve operates selective and directional felling, and clears the tree of any material connecting it to nearby vegetation a year in advance, all in an effort to reduce ‘by-catch’. The skid trails, along which the logs are dragged out, are also designed to reduce harm; and the 40 year rotation allows enough time for regrowth. Despite all this, nothing could prepare me for actually seeing a 100 plus year old tree being brought to the ground. Everyone seemed saddened.

While on the field course, we visited a local oil palm plantation and, having driven through thousands of kilometres of plantations, the contrast with rainforest was staggering: the sheer lack of wildlife is haunting. In the primary forest that surrounds Danum field station – our base – we were able to learn methods for beginning to study the diversity I had been gazing at in the weeks before. For birds we used mist nets; for mammals, camera traps; and for insects both light and bait traps. These same methods underpin many studies into the diversity of regions, as well as being modified to understand particular aspects of one place’s ecology.
As part of the course we were also able to carry out small, short-term, projects. In a group of four I was involved in trying to understand why juvenile cicadas build hollow mud turrets above their tunnels. One of the best aspects was being able to design the experiment ourselves, and having to take account of a wide range of variables. For greater insight we paired the design, and wanted to understand the role of rainfall in mound construction – we’d noticed quite often more mounds popped up after rain. The greatest challenge proved, unsurprisingly, to be a lack of data, though despite this we were beginning to see some patterns.

We visited a local oil palm plantation and, having driven through thousands of kilometres of plantations, the contrast with rainforest was staggering: the sheer lack of wildlife is haunting.

Ben Balmford

Oliver Robshaw (2012, Chemistry) explored China while working as a research intern studying biomass power generation in Wuhan.

Thanks to the generosity of a Wadham College Travel Grant, over the Long Vacation of 2015 I was able to undertake an uncompensated internship at the Institute for Clean and Renewable Energy (ICARE) in Wuhan, China. I worked in a research group under the guidance of Professor Jin Shiping whose group is studying biomass power generation. I was charged with producing molecular dynamics simulation models of various hypothetical diffusion scenarios on a very small scale.

Everybody I met was incredibly friendly and a very warm welcome was extended to all the Oxford students by the ICARE team. During the initial adjustment period of settling into life in China, they offered lots of support and guidance, including leading us through the complex, lengthly, and often bizarre process to become registered with all of the relevant local authorities. Our colleagues took us out on many trips to show us the sights around the city and, perhaps most importantly, where the best food could be found.

Our accommodation was based on the campus of Huazhong University of Science and Technology inside the international students building, known as the Friendship Apartments, which by Chinese student accommodation standards was positively palatial, yet still cost less for three months than a week living in a leaky, moldy hovel on the Cowley Road. Dotted around the leafy campus (HUST is also known as the forest university, providing cooling shade and a welcome relief from the oppressive humid heat) cavernous canteens fed ravenous masses with impressive efficiency and at a subsidized price that was hard to believe. The heat of the food was surprising and the sheer oiliness was, if not concerning, almost impressive. "Noodles with Oil Ontop" became a firm favorite.

Wuhan itself, a sprawling, baking, smoggy city of ten million, is not the most beautiful or touristic place in the world. The view from the top of the hill at the back of the campus gave a panoramic view of cooling towers and duplicated apartment blocks fading into the grey distance. However, an evening walk down the banks of the Yangtze, as locals bobbed merrily about the water, with the sun setting behind the skyscrapers proved to be an extremely photogenic affair. The trip also provided the opportunity to discover more about China's unique history and culture. Local highlights centered around the Wuchang Uprising and the Revolution of 1911 with brand new museums (with the exhibit texts showing the full might of the CPC propaganda machine) and tours available of some of the historic sites.

Further afield, the opportunity to go to cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Xian highlighted the stark contrast between the ancient temples, palaces and burial sites and the massive, westernized, commercialized, metropolitan centres that have undergone modernisation and urbanisation at such a rapid pace. A personal highlight was being able to go hiking in some of the famous granite peaks such as Huangshan and Huashan, and getting up at 4 am to watch the sun rise through the mist behind the jagged rocks and precarious pines from the top, giving a spectacular view reminiscent of the traditional Chinese artwork painted on hanging scrolls.

Overall this trip has been an incredibly worthwhile. I have gained invaluable experience working in a research environment and had the chance to explore one of the most interesting countries on the planet. I must once again express my extreme gratitude to the Wadham College Travel Grant scheme for making this possible.

I have gained invaluable experience working in a research environment and had the chance to explore one of the most interesting countries on the planet

Oliver Robshaw

Oliver Mills (2014, Jurisprudence) eats his body weight in deep-dish pizza and raps about hedges while touring America with the Oxford Imps.

After convincing a grumpy border official that I did not want to move to America to take up full time employment I was let into the country.

The first stop on our tour was Chicago. Chicago is home to the iO one of the most famous improv theatres in the world that produced Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and many other American comedians, actors and writers. At the iO we watched amazing performances and attended a challenging and though provoking workshop. Then on our penultimate day in Chicago we were given the opportunity to perform. We waited backstage trying to suppress our mixed feelings of excitement and terror. The announcer called out our names, “THE OXFORD IMPS!” We ran on stage to the thunderous applause of 12 people. Sure the audience was small but the performance was fun and we able to perform on the famous iO stage. Luckily Chicago was also not all work. We took a tour of the city by boat before exploring the culinary delights the city has to offer. We ate delicious Polish Pierogi,  the aforementioned deep-dish pizza and mountains of Chicago Hot Dogs that under no circumstances can be eaten with ketchup but under all circumstances must be eaten with pickles.

Leaving Chicago heavier but happier we headed for Providence, Rhode Island. There we performed at the 12th International Providence Improv Festival. The people in Providence were lovely and did not care what we said as long as we said it in our supposedly adorable British accents. We, however, could not soak up this praise as we quickly moved on to Princeton University.

The director of the Imps is a Rhodes Scholar and his alma mater is Princeton. He clearly made a mark while he was there because they welcomed us with a warmth and generosity I have rarely encountered, treating us to the full Princeton experience. On our final night we were scheduled to preform in the biggest theatre I have ever been in. We waited backstage trying to suppress our mixed feelings of excitement and terror. The announcer called out our names, “THE OXFORD IMPS!” We ran on stage to the thunderous applause of 788 more people than had greeted us at the iO. This gig was the highlight of the tour and a personal highlight for me was being able to rap about hedges with my good friend Adam to 800 of his former peers. The moment was recorded and sometimes when I miss the tour I relive it by watching the YouTube clip below.

After Princeton we had no more performances ourselves but we had many performances to watch and workshops to attend in New York. We learnt much and had an incredible time doing it. On our last day we were free to explore the city with the plan to all meet at a specified restaurant for out end of tour meal. However, three of us got lost in Brooklyn. We were feeling very foreign when a huge and intimidating man approached us. He was an ex-marine recovering from an injury. He warned us that we were in a dangerous area (who knew!) and ordered us a cab to whisk us away to the sadly gentrified areas of Brooklyn. We had been supposedly saved but we did not care because it was our last night. We drank beer and watched the lights of the Manhattan Skyline blink at us.  America had been good to us.

Play Oxford Imps

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