Sumatran environmentalist wins Whitley Fund for Nature award

Great article by Annette Gartland about the inspiring Panut Hadisiwoyo winning the Whitley Fund for Nature, and fantastic work by Orangutan Information Centre.

CHANGING TIMES

10010033_386833914848126_6860987801774639263_oThe director of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Sumatra, Panut Hadisiswoyo, has won a prestigious Whitley Fund for Nature award.

The Princess Royal presented Hadisiswoyo with the 2015 Whitley Award for Conservation in Ape Habitats, which is donated by the Arcus Foundation, at a ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in London yesterday (Wednesday).

The Whitley Fund says their awards honour “exceptional individuals who, through their outstanding conservation work in developing countries, are redefining the way people engage with the natural world in the 21st century”.

Hadisiswoyo has been awarded £35,000 (about 54,000 US$), which will be used to expand the OIC’s network of conservation villages and its Community Agroforestry, Reforestation and Education (CARE) programme to a new region bordering the Gunung Leuser National Park.

The OIC will establish sustainable agriculture schemes with 100 farmers, and plant 66,000 trees at the new site. The team will also focus on…

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Into Borneo

I stepped into the car, plonking my bags down in the back. I sat silently for the first few minutes, looking around out the window, at Borneo. I had finally arrived.

I had just met Professor Owen Lewis in the airport, and he alongside Dr. Eleanor Slade were the principal investigators of the project I was working on. Kikiy had come from the SAFE camp to pick us up and we chatted about the life at camp as we set off.

After some time I fell silent, thinking about where I was, and how recently I had just been in England. I imagined zooming out from where I was and seeing where I really was, nested in the midst of a thousand islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. I became a bit unstuck with this thought, and drifted into a long silence.

As we drove off I considered that I was about to see the true extent of oil palm cultivation and the etcha- sketch destruction of the landscape. I had heard and read so much about the agricultural practice behind this crop and its ecological impact since working with Ape Alliance charity in Bristol and it had since become a very important, pivotal issue for me. I sat absorbing the view and talking to Owen and Kikiy, as the hills rolled by, and forest yawned back, giving way to an immesne sweep of oil palm.

Dark green and monotonous, the oil palm landscape blurred by. The term monoculture is completely accurate. As a whole landscape, a primary forest, of ecological complexity beyond what we currently know, is now reduced to a single, alien species. This is one of the most biologically rich places on this planet, and we have erased that rich ecological history, marginalizing and endangering a wealth of life that has taken millions of years to evolve, and replaced it with a single species that didn’t even originate on the same continent. As we drove by, I lapsed into sleep, thinking as I drifted off that I hadn’t actually felt the pang of sadness or loss that I expected. Mostly just excited to be here.

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My reaction to the first time I saw the landscape wasn’t apathy. I have strong feelings about the palm oil agriculture and its ecological ramifications. But upon seeing the landscape, it failed to stir in me what I had expected. There was nothing to compare it to. No primary forest on the border, hunched in retreat. It just seemed like one big piece of farmland. After a while Kikiy stopped the car and we got out. Owen and I walked up to a lookout shed that stood at the top of a hill, and we could see the valleys plains from all directions, a single colour.

From a distance I could see a single, massive tree, far away and distinct against the crinkled edges of distant valleys. It moved softly in the hot, dry breeze. Owen explained that some of the large trees had silica in the wood which ruins the teeth of chainsaws, so they left these alone. Kikiy said that they are also believed to contain ghosts. These were the last remnants of the old growth forest that was once here, dwarfing the squat little oil palms by several times their height. They looked sad, standing isolated, and at the same time surrounded by the crowd of ecological strangers.

We drove on and it grew on me where I was going, deep into a landscape I had never been. The fact that this landscape is human modified is what had really perked my interest to begin with. A previous project I had worked at the University of Bristol was investigating the trophic networks of saltmarsh islands and how they responded to seasonality and habitat destruction. Disturbed landscapes, as human modified landscapes usually are, have a dynamic nature which I find really fascinating. As we rolled over endless hills and patches of forest dressed by swathes of oil palm, it dawned on me that this would be an incredible example. Enormous fragments of secondary forest, with orangutans, elephants, a huge diversity of birds and a huge complexity of plant and insect life. It felt amazing to be here, in the middle of such an experiment.

I had come to work on a study by Dr. Eleanor Slade on the effects of habitat fragmentation and degradation on dung beetle ecology. These were a group of beetles I’ve always had a fascination with, and now to actually have the opportunity be here studying them in Borneo. I was practically giggling with excitement.

We reached camp in the late afternoon and hauled our stuff out of the car. Trestled tables, corrugated tin roofs, vines, grass and happy faces greeted us. This place suited me at once. We met Ryan, a beaming Aussie who showed us around the camp and we dumped our stuff in the dorms. I’ve spent time at rainforest research stations before, in Thailand and Hawai’i, but this seemed very different, bigger and very active. The rest of the day swirled by as I took it all in, wide eyed and absorbing my new surroundings. I had a lot to look forward to.

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Morning Song

The next morning I woke up to a distant looping call. Sad and high pitch, the cry pulsed through the cold, still air. My toes ached with cold and my mouth tasted sour. The gash on my foot from the previous week throbbed painfully as I stood up to redress the ragged bandages in the faint morning light.

Pins and needles bit at my legs as I hobbled down the hill to the kitchen.

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A few people were already up, even though it was about 5 in the morning and light had only just begun to penetrate the thin, dry canopy. There were a few couples at camp, standing in silent company as they completed the ritual of making food for the day in the field.

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It reminded me of the beautiful morning routine in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl- “When Kino had finished, Juana came back to the fire and ate her breakfast. They had spoken once, but there is not need for speech if it is only a habit anyway. Kino sighed with satisfaction – and that was conversation.”DSC_0639 (2)

I took a few photos of the tender preparation of the food, but after a few moments felt like I was somewhat intruding, and decided to leave the kitchen in its calm, quiet zen.

I turned to the forest and trained my ears on the morose hoots of distant gibbons. On my way I noticed that the thermometer read 16C. I didn’t expect to be able to see my breath in Thailand.

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I walked on and up into the woods. Fallen dipterocarps bridged gaps in old, dried gullies, deep gouges bitten into the hillside by ancient rivers. It was my favourite time, early enough that the cold air holds sound with delicate clarity, and the light is soft and clean. I breathed deeply and followed my feet.

DSC_0628I followed the mournful whoops deeper, feeling clumsy in my approach and watching where I stood, so as not to crunch the deep layers of dry leaves and twigs that would betray my presence to the forest. I imagine all the big animals present had noticed me from a mile off anyway.The calls became clearer, and I felt like I was close to the source. I rounded the top a small hill and stood silent. I blurred my eyes and stared into the canopy. This is something I’ve always done, since looking for monkeys in the trees in the garden in Barbados. The Vervet monkeys, or green monkeys as they are locally known, are beautifully camouflaged, and against the deep green, brown hue of the old mango trees they blend in invisibly. But if I blurred my eyes, I could see the change in light in the canopy, the opening and closing of gaps to the sun, the tell-tale sign of something in the trees, dipping a branch with its weight. Now whenever I walk into a patch of forest, I blur my vision to see if anything is slinking through the woods.

I still couldn’t see anything, but had to trust my instincts that I was close, because I could hear the call so strongly that I felt it was coming from directly above me. After about five minutes of staring into the branches I felt like it was some hearing trick. I began to lose hope that I would see anything, but continued to look up. I blinked. There it was.

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From nowhere, the gibbon appeared. I had been staring at the exact spot it materialized, and never saw it emerge. Maybe it had always been there. It peered down with a calm curiosity, and I gazed back.DSC_0671 (2)

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I feverishly clicked away with my camera, trying to get as many pictures as I could while it was still there. After about two minutes, it still showed no sign of leaving, just looked at me, and out into the broccoli tops of the open canopy. I think it was a Lar Gibbon (Hylobates lar).DSC_0650 (2)

It must have been a solid ten minutes we stood there, staring at each other. I stopped taking pictures, the distraction of the camera kept me from engaging with what I was actually looking at. It peered down, sent a long, deep hoot into the sky, and once again, vanished.

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We got back to the camp, had some lunch and snoozed in the shade. I was exhausted by the effort of concentration that morning and fell asleep deeply, but woke with a start soon after, as I realized how little time I had left here, and how much I still wanted to see.

Komg sensed my restlessness and started putting things in the truck. He said I could charge my batteries at the ranger’s station down the road, as there was no electricity during the day at the research station. Piak and Ooh climbed in the back with the drone and I got in the front with Komg.

We bounded down the rocky path, churning dust and pausing to see some animal we had disturbed, or to move debris from elephant tracks across the road.

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I asked Komg what elephants were like here. His expression darkened but he continued to smile, as he withdrew his phone and tapped the translation app on his phone. He held up the screen to show me a single symbol-ดุร้าย with only one translation- fierce.

We chatted with the rangers at the station and they let us their power to recharge the batteries. I had a lost in translation moment with one of the rangers, as I answered one of his questions in broken Thai. He assumed I knew more than I did, and launched into a speech about (I think) the forest and borders, which had I understood it, would have probably been very interesting. However at the end of his spiel he looked at my slightly exasperated and blank smile, registering that I understood nothing, he stomped back inside to watch TV.

We drove a little way with one of the batteries to one of the forest plots known as Kapuk Kapeang and launched the drone from there. Something burst out of the forest right behind me, and I turned the airborne camera around to find it, the footage didn’t actually show any thing in the end, so I assume it was a frightened deer or a lurking macaque. After a long flight over the plot with video and photos, I brought the drone down and we drove back to the station to collect the last battery. On the way we passed a truckload of soldiers, off to patrol the border.

We drove in the direction of camp along a steeper and narrower road. After about an hour of being thrown around in the cab, I realized we weren’t going to camp. I asked Komg where we were, he looked back at Ooh and Piak and burst into laughter. ‘We going to see Chang.’ He smiled- chang means elephant.

Salt licks are a very important feature for forest mammals. The sediment, usually clay, is rich in minerals and animals travel huge distances, risking predation and lack of food to get these scarce vitamins. The clay is rich in iodine and calcium, and are vital to the health of the mammals that feed here. Predators will therefore often come here to hunt, so deer are on high alert for the approach of predators.

As we got out of the car, I felt slight electricity in the air, or a heightened sense of stillness. The leaves beneath my feet crunched loudly. I swallowed nervously and the wet grind of my throat sounded loud and obvious. As we got out of the car, Komg impressed upon me again that elephants are not be messed with. He put this succinctly, “When we run, you run.”

We walked down to the first opening in the trees, where a dry mineral lick simmered in the grey, evening light. The canopy was very open, so I sent the drone zipping up overhead easily. Once hovering happily above us, we started walking to the main mineral lick, about 300m away. I noticed big, round footprint indenting the ground next to the river, it was around this point that everyone made an effort to keep quiet. I noticed that Piak when Piak snagged his shirt on a rattan vine, he stopped to carefully unhook the little thorns, rather than pluck it off loudly. The same vine caught my sleeve. We walked until the path opened up to reveal a small ledge. Piak waved a hand for us to stop. Piak has been working in Haui Kha Khaeng for about ten years, and the forest completely. He also understood how to move without scaring things, which is a difficult skill to grasp. I took two short steps and tottered to a halt, my flip flops slapping the wet ground loudly. He squinted into the forest and we waited. I sent the drone higher, quieter.

The forest fell silent as we waited. I peered hard into the forest. The words ‘Jurassic park’ rattled through my head. Something crunched distantly, soft enough to have been imagined. Something shimmered distantly, like light being blocked for barely an instant by some big movement. I narrowed my focus on a long corridor into the darkening, hazy forest and gaze shimmered with the concentration. No one moved.

“AAAIIHHHHK!”

I practically shat myself.

A barking deer plunged out of the forest. It scrambled onto the path in front of us, gave another truly ear splitting shriek and launched itself back into the forest on the other side. I let out a huff of relief and the guys laughed at me, my other hand was white and red, grasping the hem of my jeans tightly.

We stalked a little closer, just past the bottleneck before the mineral lick. I noticed that this path wasn’t man made, but rather cleared by the persistent trampling of generations of elephants. I stepped into a fresh, wet elephant footprint, the size of a dinner plate. Piak stepped forward and then stopped in frame, knee crooked in the air. His left flapped wildly while his eyes remained unshifting on some distant point. The tree crown of a dipterocarp twitched, betraying the presence of something very big beneath it.

I was scared, definitely, but not terrified, despite what I had heard. I felt aware of my surroundings, ready for my instincts to kick if we had to move quickly, I had a sense of being in control. How naive.

Somewhere not far from where we stood, several liters of air had just vanished from the forest undergrowth. Only moments before, it had been wafting lazily through the canopy, enjoying the lazy nibble of the mosaic of a billion tiny stomata covering the dense chatter of leaves. A second later it found itself being sucked down a long, dark tube, with incredible force and speed. It whooshed into an enormous organ and felt itself swirl and compress into the gigantic chamber. The chamber was inside of an even bigger, greyer animal that was gearing up to do something very scary. It tightened tremendous muscles in its diaphragm, pinching its stomach and expelled the contents its massive lungs between two small, but incredibly strong muscles in its head, and out again through the long tube. The hot, humid air shot back into the forest, looping up into the canopy in a whippy little vortex. A few milliseconds later, this powerful exchange of air produced an immense and horrifying sound that reached the eardrums of four humans who had been waiting nearby. The terrifying sound precipitated the shrinking of their own smaller, different organs and they leapt into action, running as fast as their clumsy legs could carry them as glands emptied panicked hormones into their bloodstream. The hot jet of air continued to rise high above the canopy, until it reached the propellers of a small robot. The robot had been observing whole process with a keen, vacant eye, and merely gave its flight stabilizing algorithms a quick squeeze as the warm air offset its tilt.

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Can you see the elephant? (Left hand corner by the stream). Sorry about the quality of the picture, screenshot from the video I’m editing.

The sound of the elephants scream was probably the most horrifying noise I have ever heard. It thumped out of the woods, with such depth, weight and strength that I think I could see it. It flicked a deep seated, primordial switch and knew to run. Not to slink of gracefully back into the woods, or hold our ground for some standoff. Just get the fuck out. So we did.

Ha- sib/ Ha- sib

Hi everyone! I’m really sorry about the lack of blog posts! Been a long time and there’s a lot to catch up on. I’m in Borneo now, which needs a whole bunch of new posts, but I’ll start from back in Thailand, using the drone too survey the forest plot in Haui Kha Khaeng.

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We covered ground much faster than in Khao Chong, as the ground was dry and flat, compared to the deluge down the sometimes actual cliff faces I was used to. We made it to the end of the plot where the trees were supposed to be thinner and I set up the drone.

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The canopy was pretty thin, but pioneering arms of lianas leaned out into the space above us, and I could imagine getting tangled in the propellers easily. Still, we’re here, only one thing to do. I showed Komg how to safely hold the drone on the flats of his palms for takeoff and I sent it up.

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In the car on the way to the camp the day before, Komg had asked me what was the likelihood of just losing the drone in the forest. I had read about drones sometimes just flying away, taking all the equipment with them and disappearing, this image seemed very real and plagued my thoughts whenever I took it out of the case, thinking that my last rough landing would have dislodged something and introduced a bug into the system. In theory when the drone is almost out of battery, it should fly back to the controller using its GPS. However I had no desire to test this theory for myself, so I had no idea what would happen if it ran out of battery, out of sight and above the dense forest. So what was the likelihood of just losing it here? “Ha- sib/ Ha- sib.” I answered, laughing. 50/50.

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“Ha- sib/ Ha-sib!” yelled Komg as it took off over the forest, rising with tinny whine into the air and over us. I gulped and laughed, it was time to be brave and test the limits of my ability with the drone, launch it through tight spots in the canopy and pilot it with limited visibility in between the trees. I sent it on a long sweeping arc over the forest, taking photos and then again in a zig zag to get the whole area.

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The sun was really bright and it was hard to spot the drone in the sky, but the little engine made enough noise for us to figure out where it was when I lost it in the air.

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After a good, long flight that would I hoped capture as much of the site as I could, I brought it back down, there was no space to actually land it on the ground here, but I had found a soft bush which I would strategically crash into, in theory. I brought it down slowly, seesawing to avoid branches. Finally I brought it until was about eight feet from the ground and let it hover. What I forgot however, was that Ooh was standing behind me, on a large log, I brought the drone up again and set it down on a course much farther away from us, while Ooh stood his ground defiantly against the misdirected robot.

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We did a few more flights, and with every one, I kept thinking Hahn- seep/ Hahn- seep. After a good, long flight that would I hoped capture as much of the site as I could, I brought it back down, there was no space to actually land it on the ground here, but I had found a soft bush which I would strategically crash into, in theory. I brought it down slowly, seesawing to avoid branches.DSC_0728 (2)

I did one flight taking pictures to map the plot and another to film flying over it, then crash it neatly into the soft undergrowth. While flying it was hard not to get distracted by the forest around me, absolutely fizzing with the sounds of life.

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We wandered back to the camp and fired up the computer to see what we had got, my hands drumming against the flaky bench top I was perched on, itching to view the landscape from a perspective seen by no one before us. To top it, the drone was tucked safely between my feet, dusty and defiant having beaten the odds.

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Who Will Save the River Dolphin?

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I’m working for the Tropical Dolphin Research Foundation, based at the moment out in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh, filming a documentary on a population of Ganges River Dolphins around the UNESCO national park in the region.

The documentary focuses on four young conservation biologists doing everything they can to save the maybe 1000 Ganges River Dolphins left in the wild. The dolphins face many problems including water pollution, sound pollution preventing them from hunting, getting caught in nets and drowning and being persecuted by fishermen.
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Farhana Ahktar (Education coordinator for Cetacean Diversity Project in Bangladesh) Sits for an interview about the struggles she faces staying in conservation biology.
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Subhasis Dey (center) (research associate with dolphin lab in Bhalglapur, India) talks with fishermen about their observations on the river.
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Ganges dolphin researchers (Dr. Sunil Choudhary and Subhasis Dey) from NE India.
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Manish Datta (left) (graduate student Khulna University, Bangladesh) talks to fellow students about his work between classes.
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Gopal Khanal (student Nepal) prepares for a meeting with villagers about least destructive fishing methods.
However whilst filming was taking place, as you may have heard, an oil tanker crashed in Shela River, off the Sundarbans, spilling over 75’000 gallons of crude oil into the national park.
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Its hugely important that we got this documentary produced as we investigate the government’s response to the crisis, such as asking local to clean it up themselves for the government to sell back to the Pamda Oil Company.
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The mangrove ecosystem is tidal, and the roots of the trees actually need to be exposed to air in order to breathe, so the layer of oil is effectively suffocating the trees in badly affected areas.
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First dead dolphin spotted- not sure of the species, but its undeniable that this is already having a severe impact on animal populations here at the UNESCO National Park.
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TDRF has set up an Indiegogo campaign to fund this production and see it through filming in the region and need all the help we can get to come close to our target.
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Ganges River Dolphin
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Please watch the trailer and make a donation to the project. All donations will go toward the film, so even if we don’t meet our target in time, there will still be funding for the production of the documentary. So Please let us make this documenary happen, as this is a very important story.
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Sepak Takraw- Man vs Physics

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After a long day’s trekking across the forest plot at Huai Kha Khaeng, scouting for spots to fly the drone, we arrived back at the camp. Another group had already come back and were playing boule, stretching and taking off their shirts like some bizarre ritual. I asked Nong what was happening and he replied with a grin “Takraw”.

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Takraw is a game between the players and the laws of physics. You can’t use your hands and the objective is to keep the ball from landing on the ground in your side. You can use your feet, legs, body and head, which inspires the most creative bodily contortions to knock the ball back in the other side.

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Someone serves, throwing it to a team mate, DSC_0417

they kick it up

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The first side getting the most points in three sets wins. DSC_0405

The ball itself is made of tough, flexible plastic, weaved into a ball, so that it bounces under its own tension and lasts pretty much forever. Its hard plastic, so you need to be tough to play this game. One of the guys kicked the ball straight into his own face, to the roaring amusement of everyone, but I imagine it must have hurt.

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The game was going amazingly, bodies flinging themselves with ease across the court as a tantrum of hot dust clouded their feet. The game pushes completely past the limits of my own flexibility,

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and sometimes theirs too.

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We watched and drank ice cold beer while the points played out. The game was going really well, even after a day in the field, walking kilometres through the forest. After a few glasses of whiskey, Nong hoisted up his white shorts until they were level with his belly button and strode confidently into the court like an enormous, tattooed baby.DSC_0596

And then I pranced in. There was a lot of banter around the court, I watched bemused at they pointed at me and did a mime for ‘boobs’. Must have been an inside joke.

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And then I actually scored a few points.

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We rotated the games, playing a few and then sitting back to drink and watch the next set.

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After a few more games I collapsed back onto the bench and proceeded to get pretty drunk on the continuous shots of what I think was whiskey, handed to me copiously by the loveliest, friendliest people.

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The talent, hilarity, swiftness of the game and amazing people filled me with so much sheer joy that my smiling muscles ached as I stumbled off the court.

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