Travel tales

18th January 2018

News, Student news, Alumni news

Planning your summer? Take inspiration from Wadham students who, with the help of alumni funded travel grants,  discovered marine biology's secrets; recreated Auden's 'Journey to Iceland'; and introduced Big Band sounds to Bangladesh.

Discovering the secrets of marine biology, Oliver Cheung (Biology, 2016) joined the Cap Blanc aquarium internship program in San Antoni, Spain.

“Cap Blanc aquarium program brings students from across the world together to get hands-on experience in the field of aquaculture, and marine conservation.

“On 15 July, I embarked on my journey and soon found myself, one of five interns, in the self-catered budget hostel.

  • Oliver Cheung discovers the secrets of marine biology

"Unsurprisingly, with a common interest in marine biology, we quickly gelled, potentially forming a network of international contacts that may prove to be very beneficial for future employment in this sector.

“Much of the internship revolved around the development of practical skills suited to this field of study, otherwise excluded from a typical (marine) biology degree. For instance, we were instructed on how to propagate coral polyps, which involved a similar method to taking cuttings from a plant, in order to create genetically identical clones. This was not only a cost effective method to fill one’s tank, but also alleviated the demand for coral harvested from our oceans.

“In order for delicate organisms like sea sponges or shark eggs to thrive in a tank, we were taught how to maintain their specific optimal environmental conditions, whether it was the correct wavelength of light, water temperature, pH, or even salinity and nutrient levels, regulated by the use of a hydrometer and coloured chemical tests respectively.

“What’s unique about the Cap Blanc aquarium is that it was built into a natural cave. Therefore, the seawater creates large rock pools that contain a vast array of local Mediterranean species, which are segregated based on their compatibility with one another, otherwise the larger predatory fish like the Grouper, may feed on smaller fish.

“Thanks to the optimal water quality and natural characteristics of the pools, these installations were also home to the Recovery Centre of Marine Species. Therefore, we gained an insight into the methods used to treat injured marine animals, particularly turtles, for their subsequent return to the sea. I found it particularly interesting how the food source would vary over time, starting with soft bodied mussels (with shells removed) and concluding with live crabs and fish, in an attempt to re-acclimatise to the wild.

“I soon learned that the vast majority of rehabilitation cases were induced by humans, whether through vessel collisions or marine litter. One outing was to head down to the local beach and conduct litter dives, in addition to a clean up on the shore – to my surprise, we were actually approached on numerous occasions by the locals who thanked us for our efforts, as we were informed that the local authorities only clean the promenade, not the beach itself. Rather than throwing the litter straight into the bin, we carried it back to the aquarium, where we sorted the items based on whether they were recyclable or not. ‘Unrecyclable’ items were sent to the Proarsto organisation, which uses the debris to construct giant sculptures of marine animals for art installations along the promenade.

“Later in the week, we engaged in outreach work with locals and tourists, distributing leaflets and discussing the various issues facing our oceans today. Personally, I was alarmed by a section of the flyer which described how to react if you find a turtle trapped in plastic – apparently a sight all too familiar along the coastline of these tourist hot-spots.

“I would like to thank the donors of the travel grants for providing such an amazing opportunity for me to develop my passion for biology and build upon my employability skills. And thanks to the skills that I have attained through the internship, I can now apply my knowledge to finally set up my own salt water fish tank at home.”

As would-be ‘poets’ Sam Dunnett and Haroun Hameed (English, 2015) recreate Auden’s ‘Journey to Iceland’ they discover that those with Oxford travel grants are not equipped for Iceland's 'incendiary prices.'

“This summer, Sam Dunnett and Haroun Hameed were awarded a generous travel grant from Wadham College to carry out supposed literary activities in Iceland. They were not the first to get such ideas into their heads, but followed in the footsteps of William Morris, Louis MacNeice and W.H. Auden, the latter of whom, declaring a distaste for mountains and rivers, preferred to spend three months consuming over 1500 cups of coffee and chain-smoking in his sleep. In his 1936 poem, ‘Journey to Iceland,’ Auden criticised the escapism that drew nature-lovers and literati to the island in search of thundering waterfalls and quaint medieval folk-history. Perhaps Sam and Haroun ought to have read the last stanza before setting out:
Tears fall in all the rivers: again some driver
pulls on his gloves and in a blinding snowstorm starts
upon a fatal journey, again some writer
runs howling to his art.

“The die, alas, had already been cast. Flights were booked, bags packed in a frenzy of amateur celebration. Without any appropriate footwear, without even knowing what the word ‘romanticism’ meant, the unlikely duo blundered off into the tundra armed with notepads and pencils. It occurred to neither of these wastrels that hiking the variable terrain of southern Iceland would be a physically and emotionally demanding task. So, when notions of driftwood cabins, fresh-caught herring and sumptuous hours of poetic reverie gave way to ash-storms, ringworm and hours of fumbling with wet-wipes, both were initially unwilling to admit defeat. For either to let on his ineptitude to the other would have been the worst possible outcome. If they had read Auden’s poem, they would have known:
‘A narrow bridge over a torrent,
a small farn under a crag,
are natural setting for the jealousies of a province.’

“As it was, they didn’t even know what a ‘farn’ was. (Why say ‘fern’ in English when you could say it in Old High German?). After a grueling day of macho posturing under the shadow of Vatnajökull, 8100 square kilometers of glacial ice that appeared simply unmoved by their affairs, it seemed the only sensible course of action was to scramble up several miles of backbreaking scree to the valley’s highest point, where they could cry for help or just dive headlong into the void. Unfortunately, as was becoming a pattern, this journey would have to be undertaken together.

‘Remember the doomed man thrown by his horse and crying: 
“Beautiful is the hillside, I will not go.”’ 

The pair returned several hours later, as the last crepuscules of pinkish light were flecking from the glaciers (those ‘good-for-nothing ice-cold layabouts’, as one Icelander referred to them), stricken and self-loathing, permanently cowed, only to find that neither could afford a plate of fish and chips at the campsite lunch wagon. Even the beneficiaries of Oxford travel grants are not equipped for the incendiary prices of tourism in Iceland. That night, holed up in sleeping bags, each man pretended not to hear his companion’s sobs.

“All was not yet lost. After a mesmerizing day of walking among the glacial lagoons of Jökulsárlón, a strike of fortune brought Sam and Haroun into the care of Anna Gillespie, a Wadham alumnus who was travelling Iceland’s perimeter with her husband Giles and teenage son Joey. When Anna offered to drive them onward to Skogafoss, away from the Skaftafell region whose stunning contours were scarred with memories of disenchantment and hunger, the two could hardly believe their luck. Whatever hope they had waned fast, however, when Anna revealed herself to be a sculptor – not a fellow impostor who runs ‘howling to his art,’ but a patient artisan working with environmentally sourced materials to expose social and ecological injustice. The pair’s dismay was palpable and awkward. Even worse, Joey turned out to be a geological prodigy, a GCSE student who could explain the south coast’s hexagonal basalt formations with such panache that Sam and Haroun were totally floored. Had they read ‘Journey to Iceland,’ they could have consoled themselves with the knowledge that Auden would not have been impressed. He infinitely preferred the word ‘rocks’ to the things themselves:
Then let the good citizen here find natural marvels: 
The horse-shoe ravine, the issue of steam from a cleft 
       In the rock, and rocks, and waterfalls brushing the 
       Rocks, and among the rock birds. 

“Rocks, Sam and Haroun soon discovered, were eternally watchful. As if it weren’t enough to be hounded through the wilderness in the vice-like grip of each other’s presence, the pair set off on their five-day trek through Iceland’s Laugavegur region with the uneasy sense that they were being examined, perhaps sneered at, by rocks that echoed back their barbed comments and poked indecorously at their heels.

“Hours, days, whole geological epochs passed without colour. Sam wrote fragments for a long poem about birch trees, interlaced with coded assaults on Haroun’s character. Some nights, when the Northern Lights performed their ghostly dance above, Haroun snuck away to the banks of a nearby river and screamed in perfect iambic pentameter. Immobilised in the tent, Sam plotted and massaged his temples. Haroun faked death by disappearing down a ravine to fetch water from a glacial stream, and, despite himself, Sam grew worried. It was as if the chasm between them was breached by a zip-wire to which they were both harnessed, hurtling in forced matrimony towards their doom.

“Five days later, they were dropped off at a motel on an intersection not far from Reykjavik. In a small overheated cabin, they scribbled feverishly over their drafts for two days and two nights. Occasionally, Sam read a passage aloud to Haroun, who responded with a barely masked disparagement and stormed out for a shower.

The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow; 
And North means to all: “Reject”.

“Then, without further ceremony, it was over. The pair washed up at London Gatwick at 6am, rubbing their eyes and cradling their abortive poems. They had not written anything that could be called literature. Instead, they had become the stuff of literature, protagonists in a bad story that nobody would want to read.”

  • The Donut Kings in Bangladesh

Patrick Bapty (Human Sciences 2015) introduces Bangladesh to the delights of The Donut Kings Big Band.

“In March 2017, after months of careful planning and intense musical preparations, I was fortunate enough to head off with the other 21 members of The Donut Kings Big Band for a two-week tour of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is by no means famed for its jazz or big band music and so it was set to be a particularly interesting trip, and very much lived up to this.

“We played five gigs during our time in Bangladesh, two of which were for our primary sponsor, BBF; one for their tenth anniversary conference, another at an event put on by them for students in Dhaka. We also performed at the Shilpakala Academy, Bangladesh’s national performing arts centre, which was attended by members of the government including the minister for culture and the high commissioner, who were instrumental in helping make this tour happen. This was the most important performance, not only given the distinguished guests, but also due to the grandeur of the venue.

“We also made a TV recording at R TV, Bangladesh’s main TV station, which was broadcast at the beginning of September to a large audience. Finally, we performed for the students at Daffodil International University when we visited their campus in Dhaka. These were all well enjoyed and in a way uncommon in Britain, featuring lively dancing and heavy use of mobile phones for thorough documentation of the performances, and only tarnished slightly by illness that had gripped almost the whole band. It was a very interesting experience to be treated as minor celebrities and to bring such excitement to some large crowds.

“Cultural exchange was a very important aspect of this tour, especially given that big band music is something that the vast majority of our audiences had never come across before. At Daffodil International University this involved several presentations given by members of the band about living in the UK, studying at Oxford, and so on, as well as opportunities to talk to the students in a more informal environment through workshops and a meal together. We visited Dhaka University, where Wadham alumnus and tour organiser Mustak Ayub (DPhil Oncology, 2012) is a lecturer in Oncology. After looking around and meeting the students, we enjoyed an informal cricket match with them. Additionally, we saw an installation at the old jail in Dhaka commemorating the anniversary of the 1971 genocide and the headquarters of a charity involved in eradicating Bangladesh’s seasonal hunger, as well as some of the sights of the city.

“The most important aspect of this cultural exchange however was of course the music; beyond just showing the audiences what big band music is, our musical director wrote two adaptations of well-known traditional Bangladeshi pieces. This engaged the audiences, and showed our appreciation for Bangladeshi culture and music. Both pieces are adaptations of music by Rabindranath Tagore, an esteemed polymath and national treasure of Bangladesh who was the first non-European laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature and is described as the ‘Bengali Shakespeare’. Initially we had only one of these in our repertoire, ‘Ekla Cholo Re’, but after a great reception from Oxford University Bangladesh Society at a concert at St John’s College leading up to the tour, we were encouraged to make more of this and so our musical director, Tanzil Rahman, wrote an adaptation of ‘Hriday Amar Nache Re’ too. These were very well received in Bangladesh.

“Working closely with the British High Commission, diplomats and sponsors security was critical to the planning of this tour. However, a terrorist attack in the tea-growing area of Sylhet, which we had planned to visit, meant that we had return early. Although this was a great disappointment, it was a relief to know we were safe and that we had achieved most of what we set out to do in our time in Bangladesh.

“This was a very exciting and unique opportunity to bring a big band to Bangladesh, for cultural exchange in an area of the world that was completely new to me, and to perform to a degree that will very likely be the pinnacle of my musical career. I am very grateful for those involved in organising the tour, both in the band and those working closely with us, and to Wadham and the benefactor for the very generous Vicky Philo Travel Grant.”