Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 10. Follow the yellow brick road

Not to see the ‘Wizard of Oz’ but to experience the ‘Magic of Oz’!

During the 19 years I worked in the Philippines, I had opportunity of visiting Australia on three occasions: once on business for 10 days in 2000, traveling to Canberra (and into the Riverina), Adelaide and Melbourne; and twice on vacation, with the whole family over Christmas and New Year 1997-98, in the Sydney area, and again in 2003-04 with Steph when we drove down the coast road, the Princes Highway, from Sydney to Melbourne. Our 2003 trip took some planning, and we certainly packed a lot in during the 10 days we were actually in Australia.

I had originally wanted to book a fly-drive holiday, but by the time we’d decided to take enjoy the long Christmas-New Year break in Australia, all the fly-drive holidays I found on the Internet were all booked up. So it was a case of DIY. I booked direct flights from Manila to Sydney on Qantas, and then began to search for hotels in Sydney and Melbourne, and all stops in between. Getting a flight was no hassle whatsoever, since we actually flew out of Manila in the evening on Christmas Day. Making a rental car reservation was plain sailing as well. But how to plan a journey from Sydney to Melbourne, and how to pace the trip and find suitable accommodation?

The fly-drive options on the web also provided a map of the itinerary and listed the hotels that would be booked – if they had been available. I looked for other hotels in the same towns but, it being Christmas, the was no room at the inn. Instead, I identified the nearest towns to those listed on the fly-drive schedules, and easily booked hotels all the way down to Melbourne, spacing our overnight stops – and to have plenty of time to make side-trips and stop along the way.

Manila – Sydney, dep. 25 December, arr. 26 December
Since the flight from Manila arrived early in the morning, there was plenty of time to get to our hotel (Park Regis City Centre) and even have a short rest before our friend and former colleague, Duncan Macintosh from IRRI (who was on home-leave in Sydney) dropped by to take us out to lunch. We headed to Bondi Beach, chose Ravesi’s Hotel on the main drag for an excellent fish and chips lunch, and (as it was Boxing Day) watched the yachts in the Sydney to Hobart Race sail past the headland. Later on in the afternoon, Duncan dropped us at the main rail terminal where we collected out tickets for the return journey from Melbourne.

Sydney, 27 December
We headed down George Street early, stopping at a few stores on the way to the harbour, where we spent a few hours exploring The Rocks (just under the Bridge), and finding somewhere to have lunch. There’s no shortage of places to eat at The Rocks, as in the rest of downtown Sydney. In the afternoon, we decided to take the river trip to Parramatta, which is about 25 km west of Sydney. There are still many colonial era buildings to see in the town.

Sydney – Nowra, NSW, via Royal National Park (180 km), 28 December
This was the start of our road trip to Melbourne. Heading south from Sydney, it wasn’t long before we made our first diversion through the Royal National Park, rejoining the Princes Highway just north of Wollongong.

There was plenty of time to sit on the cliffs at Stanwell and watch the aerobatics of members of the Sydney Hang Gliding Centre

We also went to see the Blowhole at Kiama, and Seven Mile Beach, before finally reaching our first stop for the night at Nowra, staying at the Pleasant Way Motel (it had another name when we were there).

Nowra – Tathra, NSW, via Central Tilba (263 km), 29 December
Continuing south along the coast, we stopped off at Huskisson on Jervis Bay,  to see what are supposed to be the ‘whitest sands in the world’. Well, we only found out that fact afterwards, then Ulladulla, and for an ice cream in Central Tilba. The landscape around Tilba is lovely rolling country, dotted with small farms. It reminded me of the landscapes in the movie Babe – not surprising really as one of the main locations used was in the same coastal range north of Central Tilba.

We stayed at the Tathra Hotel – nothing to write home about, a regular motel, but it was convenient and relatively cheap.

We had dinner at The Wharf Locavore, now a coffee shop and art gallery but in 2003 also served dinner. It was great eating dinner with the waves crashing underneath – you could see them through the floorboards!

Tathra – Bairnsdale, Victoria (329 km), 30 December
Crossing into Victoria from New South Wales, we took a side trip into the forest, hoping to see some wildlife. We caught one glimpse of a kangaroo but that was about it. In fact, during our whole trip south we saw very little wildlife – probably because the weather was very hot and everything was hiding in the shade.

We stayed at a very nice hotel, The Riversleigh, in Bairnsdale. Unfortunately Steph had come down with a cold, but I managed to enjoy a nice cold beer or three, sitting on the balcony of our room.

 Bairnsdale – Wonthaggi, via Wilson’s Promontory National Park (392 km), 31 December
The highlight of this day’s travel was the excursion around Wilson’s Promontory, which is the southern-most point on the Australian mainland. Lots of Banksias to look at, and many other exotic plants that I had no idea what they were.

We headed to Wonthaggi that had once been a coal-mining center, long since closed down. We stayed at the excellent Jongebloed’s B&B on Berry’s Road south of the town, towards Cape Paterson. The B&B was excellent. The house had once been located in the town proper, but a couple of years or so before our visit, it had been cut in two, transported towards the coast and reassembled on a spacious plot of land, with an exquisite garden. We just managed to grab a bite to eat in the town before all restaurants were taken over for the New Year’s Eve customers. But we spent a wonderful evening afterwards on the beach near Cape Paterson, watching the sun go down over the Bass Strait – next stop Tasmania, then Antarctica!

Wonthaggi – Melbourne, via Warburton (280 km), 1 January
We didn’t take the direct route into Melbourne this day, but headed north through the Yarra Ranges, and came into Melbourne from the east from Yarra Junction, Warburton and Healesville. I don’t remember the name and exact location of our Melbourne hotel, but it was central and also close to the rental car deport where I dropped off the car the morning after our arrival. And we’d arrived – after a journey of almost 1500 km.

Melbourne, 2 January
We had only one full day in Melbourne so had to pack a lot in. It was very hot, but that didn’t deter us getting around on foot. In the morning we decided to take the Yarra River ferry to Williamstown, arriving back in Melbourne just after lunch. Then we walked along the Yarra River to the wonderful Royal Botanic Gardens, taking the tram back into the city. My legs were giving out by then.

Melbourne – Sydney (by rail), 3 January
The XPT (express passenger train) journey back to Sydney should have taken under 11 hours, departing Melbourne at 8:30 and arriving in Sydney just after 7 pm.

Due to 65 kph speed restrictions around Albury (just over the state line in NSW), because of the high temperature causing buckling of the rails, we didn’t arrive in Sydney until just before 10 pm – rather tired. Fortunately our hotel was just a few blocks from Sydney’s Central Station.

Sydney, 4 January
The next day we headed off to the Opera House and walked around Farm Cove to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, from where there is a great view of the Sydney skyline, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. (In 1997 we’d watched the firework display over the bridge from the same viewpoint. Just one word to describe that. Spectacular!). Then, in the evening, we enjoyed a three hour Sydney Harbour dinner cruise, courtesy of Hannah and Philippa. We took a taxi back to the hotel – it was just too far to walk after a fine meal and a bottle of wine.

Sydney – Manila, 5 January
Our Qantas flight departed Sydney for the Philippines late morning, getting us into Manila in the early evening. Tired but contented we still had to endure the 2-3 hour journey back to Los Baños. Then it was a quick shower and into bed – I had to be in the office by 8 am the following morning.

And just to finish off, some panoramas from the whole trip:

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me . . .

There are occasions, I hasten to add, when a frontal lobotomy might have been a better option.

I’m not a very good committee sort of person, and I have quite a low tolerance level for poorly planned and chaired meetings. A particular grouch of mine is an unrealistic agenda. I remember one meeting more than 15 years ago that had an agenda with 14 or more items for discussion. After almost three hours we’d only worked our way through a couple of these. I don’t think we ever did get back to some of the points – although they must have merited some attention having been included in the first place. Better for the meeting chair to seek endorsement of various options by email than wasting everyone’s time (and at what dollar cost) sitting around a table getting nowhere. It’s no wonder that some organizations have taken radical measures in the way they organize meetings – and who they invite. Oh, and woe betide a meeting convener who hadn’t organized coffee and cookies!

Some meetings also appear to challenge the very laws of physics: time stands still (or even seems to go backwards), while other meetings expand to fill the available time and space. Much better in my opinion, on many occasions, is simply to bring together a group of informed folks to carefully work up some options, and actually get something done than sitting around ‘democratically’ and interminably discussing pros and cons – and in many instances identifying just what isn’t possible. Frustrating!

Over the decades I’ve had to sit through my fair share of meetings that I wish someone else had been deputed to attend. Perhaps the most mind-numbingly depressing meetings were those of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture I often had to attend on behalf of IRRI in the 1990s. Having accepted a job offer at IRRI at the end of January 1991, I couldn’t actually join the institute until the beginning of July as I had teaching and examining commitments until then at the University of Birmingham. But in April 1991 IRRI asked me if I would travel to Rome and represent the institute at the Commission’s meeting that year. I’d only been to Rome once before, so was quite keen to visit again, as well as get a better perspective on what was happening in genetic resources internationally. After attending several more meetings during that decade, my enthusiasm quickly waned.

The Commission has just celebrated its 30th anniversary, and has (and I quote directly from its web site)  ‘. . . provided a unique intergovernmental forum to reach global consensus on policies relevant to biodiversity for food and agriculture. It has prepared global assessments, negotiated global plans of action, codes of conduct and other instruments relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources for food and agriculture.’

No doubt. There have been achievements and agreements – but at what cost and at what pace? The Commission meets periodically – usually at FAO headquarters in Rome – to discuss and agree (and I use that word advisedly) policies relating to the management and use/exchange of genetic resources for food and agriculture.

Forum? Read ‘talking shop’, because that was what it felt like on many occasions, square brackets [  ] notwithstanding. It’s a wonder that anything is ever agreed in these international meetings when so many different perspectives, by country or even geopolitical blocks, ‘confront’ one another. In the early 1990s there was clearly an expectation among several countries that their genetic resources would make them rich. After all, this was the decade of the Convention on Biological Diversity that set frameworks for the exchange and use of biodiversity and the expected benefits that would stream therefrom.

Negotiation by committee. I don’t even recall how many years it took to agree a revised set of genebank standards, for example – something that you would never imagine, in a thousand years, could be controversial. Always detailed scrutiny of the draft language of any document/agreement in the five official languages of the United Nations (and the French always complaining that the English and French versions of drafts did not agree). And of course constant use of the famous square brackets – enclosing text that had yet to be agreed. Again, it fades into the mists of boredom how often I had to sit (as a mere observer) through discussions of [  ]-enclosed text. International diplomacy – don’t you just appreciate it? Get two lawyers in the same room and there’s trouble – and lawyers were prominent in many of the delegations of FAO members. While agreements were completed or policies approved, it always seemed like an eleventh hour thing, with discussions continuing late into the night before agreement was reached, and after what appeared earlier in the day as irreconcilable positions were overcome as one [  ] after another was removed.

And it was at these Commission meetings that I first thought that a frontal lobotomy might just be happy release. The two saving graces about the whole experience were the many opportunities of visiting and getting to know Rome, its sites and excellent restaurants; and some of the friendships I made with delegates to the Commission from around the world. Not all totally hopeless, after all.

Around the world in 40 years. Part 9. That is the trouble with flying: we always have to return to airports . . . (Henry Minizburg)

Maybe you’re a frequent flyer. Maybe not. How many of the flights you have taken were memorable? I hardly remember one flight from another (unless they were the two occasions when I was invited on to the flight-deck, on LH and EK flights, for the landing at Manila (MNL, RPLL). On the other hand, how many airport experiences – good or bad (mostly bad) – have you experienced?

Unless a flight was really bad – lots of turbulence, poor service, etc., you’re more likely to remember your airport experience. After all, for some journeys, you can spend more time getting to and from the airport, waiting for your flight to leave, or passing through immigration and customs on arrival, than you actually spend in the air.

Ever since I flew for the first time in 1966 – a short flight from Glasgow Airport (GLA, EGPF – then called Abbotsinch) to Benbecula (BEB, EGPL) in the Outer Hebrides on a British European Airways Viscount – I’ve passed through at least 180 airports worldwide. Since then, Glasgow has become quite an important hub for the west of Scotland, with many international airlines flying there. Benbecula is probably still the same – a small hut for a terminal building.

Now of all these 180 or so airports, some were just a transit stop en route from A to B; and others just a single visit or two.

On the other hand there are airports like Birmingham (BHX, EGBB) , Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila and Juan Santamaría International Airport in San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO, MROC) that I must have passed through many, many times – since they are/were my home airports for many years. And yet again others, like Hong Kong International (HKG, VHHH that replaced Kai Tak), the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St Paul International, MSP, KMSP), or Narita in Tokyo (NRT, RJAA), are important hubs that I’ve passed through frequently over the years. Furthermore, I have traveled through MSP a lot (and still do) because my elder daughter Hannah and her family live there.

So what makes a good or a bad airport experience? And I’m sure we all have different criteria and tales to relate. As I was thinking about this, these are some of the ideas that came to mind:

  • the airport itself, its facilities, and capacity to handle passengers; travel to and from the airport; does it have one large terminal (such as Amsterdam Schipol, AMS, EHAM) or several like London Heathrow (LHR, EGLL) or New York JFK (a nightmare, JFK, KJFK) with all the headaches that can bring;
  • the check-in experience (depends on the airline to a large extent);
  • the immigration and customs experience;
  • connecting time between flights and the ability of the airport to handle tight schedules;
  • and then there’s the physical location of the airport and whether that can affect the takeoff and landing experience – as I’ll illustrate later on.

Some airports are well past their sell-by dates, and should have been demolished years ago. Although a new airport terminal was built at Manila a decade ago, it didn’t open for several years (a dispute with the company that financed its construction). Terminal 1 at NAIA is certainly not one of the most comfortable to travel from. The operators are always patching up the services, and there never do seem to be enough seats for everyone who needs one. But after almost 20 years of traveling through NAIA many times a year I can state unequivocally that the airport works and, most of the time on arrival, immigration, baggage handling and customs are really rather efficient. And of course (most of the time) one is greeted by a beautiful Filipino smile. I wish airport staff around the world were half as courteous and friendly as those you meet in Manila.

I was always wary of traveling through Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos (LOS, DNMM) in Nigeria in the 90s. Immigration and customs staff could be quite menacing, and would always look for something in your bags to confiscate. The common question was’ What do you have for me?’ I’d always reply: ‘A big smile’ and then gave a big cheesy one. But they never did get anything off me. I wonder how things have changed since I was last there, more than a decade ago.

In Asia there has been an incredible airport boom – at Singapore’s Changi International (SIN, WSSS), Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport (KUL, WMKK) in Malaysia, and Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK, VTBS) in Thailand, and Hong Kong, of course. Another iconic airport, with a terminal building over a kilometer long, is Kansai International (KIX, RJBB) in Osaka, Japan, constructed (like Hong Kong) on an artificial island in Osaka Bay.

Some of the most difficult airports to pass through are in the USA. Many don’t have a transit area and even if you are only changing from international flight to another, you have to pass through immigration and customs. Not the easiest thing to do if you have a tight connection and there are a couple of other jumbo loads of  passengers waiting in the immigration queues ahead of you. US border staff are often not the friendliest. It must be tough sitting there facing a sea of faces every day. London Heathrow has become renowned for its difficult immigration, and that was a major concern ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games.

As I’ve been fortunate to travel business class on many long-haul flights, I’ve been able to take advantage of airline lounges in which to relax while waiting for a flight – a boon if there are delays. The Emirates lounges at Dubai International (DXB, OMDB) are superb.

In many airports it’s now difficult to view aircraft traffic easily from inside the terminal building. One of the best – when the airport was open – was the Cathay Pacific lounge at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak, with a view looking right down the runway from one end to the other. It was fascinating watching even the biggest jets manoeuvering above the apartment buildings and making the final sharp right turn to line up on the runway. It’s also quite an experience on board!

Now Kai Tak could be challenging for many reasons, as is the ‘new airport’ because of frequent crosswinds. But the landing on the short runway after a challenging approach at Tegucigalpa’s Toncontín International Airport (TGU, MHTG) in Honduras takes the biscuit. I flew in and out of there quite a few times in the 70s – never a comfortable experience.

I never visited Bhutan, but one of my staff, Eves Loresto, traveled there several times between 1995 and 2000 in connection with our Swiss-funded rice biodiversity project. Paro Airport (PBH, VQPR) in the heart of the Himalayas is considered one of the most demanding airports in the world, as this landing video shows. Only small jets operated by Drukair land there.

As I started this post, I suggested we’d all have our own stories to relate. And certainly while I have had some excellent flights (like when I was upgraded to First Class on my first A380 flight from DXB to BKK on EK), most of what I remember about those journeys has invariably to do with my experiences of the airports. What are yours?

Study botany and the world’s your oyster . . .

You bet!

Botany or banking? Is there really a serious choice? I saw a report last year in which botany graduates received higher initial salaries after graduation than many other professions, ranking third after medicine and dentistry, in the UK. That’s hard to believe really. Bankers might certainly reach for the giddy heights in terms of salary packages (and bonuses) but I’m sure that more botanists go to bed each night with a clearer conscience than bankers. And when was the last time you heard of a botanist being reviled by society at large? Well, perhaps if you are in the GM business . . . ?

Not convinced? Well let me tell you why. There is, however, a small caveat. It might be more appropriate to talk about ‘plant sciences’ in the widest sense, because many of the people I’ve met over the decades who do scientific research on and about plants didn’t necessarily study botany per se at university. I don’t think that diminishes my point, however. In the UK, I don’t think there’s a single botany department any longer in the university sector. They all morphed into ‘plant sciences’ or ‘plant biology’ (supposedly more appealing names) or became part of  biological sciences departments. If you were lucky there might be a ‘plants stream’. Botany appears to be in a healthier position in North America.

Plant scientists, it seems, are in great demand. And the traditional image of a botanist couldn’t be further from reality. Whether employed as molecular biologists, geneticists or biochemists (the distinctions are diminishing by the day), plant or crop physiologists, plant breeders, plant pathologists, ecologists, biodiversity and conservation specialists, or even taxonomists, there’s never been a greater need for people to study plants. After all, life on earth depends on plants. Where would we be if we could not successfully grow the crops needed for survival, to adapt to climate change, to keep one step ahead of evolving pathogens, or simply try and understand this wonderful world of ours and its glorious diversity?

Botany has been my ticket to a successful and fruitful career. It’s taken me to many countries in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania over four decades – as plant hunter, researcher, teacher, project manager, and speaker. I worked on two important plant species: potato (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa) and their wild relatives as a taxonomist, germplasm expert, seed physiologist, agronomist, plant breeder, and plant pathologist. My work has been both lab and field based. What more could I have asked for? And I’ve worked with some inspiring colleagues who came to work on potatoes and rice – and other crops – through one avenue or another, not necessarily as botanists, but perhaps through an interest in and love of plants as part of agriculture.

I can’t deny that I have been fortunate – when opportunities arose I was well-placed to take advantage. I studied with some inspiring heavyweights in my chosen fields. But a love and study of plants has made me a happy person – on the whole.

I was out and about yesterday on one of my daily walks. It was a beautiful day, Spring was definitely in the air (at last), and the hedgerows were creeping back into life. In one spot, the bedstraws (Galium spp.) were in their first flush of new growth,  profusely spreading over the bank beside the road, and responding to milder days we have begun to experience recently (in any case it really has been a mild winter). And it was that sight that made me think back to my student days in the late 60s as an undergraduate at Southampton University. There were times when I did wonder if I’d ever use again some of things we were taught and how relevant they might become – like plant anatomy, for example. It’s interesting to know how important anatomy studies have become in the search for and development of a C4 rice to make its photosynthesis more efficient. Researchers at IRRI have studied the leaf anatomy of hundreds of samples of wild rice species, since C4 photosynthesis in plants is associated with the specialized Kranz anatomy.

As an undergraduate I took several plant ecology courses with Dr Joyce ‘Blossom’ Lambert who had worked on and discovered the origin of the Norfolk Broads in East Anglia, UK – not as natural lakes but flooded peat diggings abandoned by the 14th century. But once I’d discovered the ‘link’ between ecology and genetics, I was hooked, and that led to my focus on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. The rest, as they say, is history . . . 

The fruit that keeps on giving . . .

So my Facebook friend, and IRRI’s coffee-shop entrepreneur Christine Jimenez (CJ to all her friends) told me, after I posted a story a couple of days ago from The Guardian website about the forthcoming sale in the UK of durians. Sounds almost philanthropic.

Reportedly one of the smelliest foodstuffs around, durian is definitely an acquired taste – that’s if it can be acquired at all. As another Filipino friend and former staff member of mine, Tom Clemeno, also commented: It’s the fruit that smells like hell but tastes like heaven.

Pass.

I have tried durian on just one occasion, and that was once too often. You definitely have to get past the smell in order to savor the fruit. I found the fruit extremely rich and ‘custardy’, that left me with a lingering aftertaste for a couple of days and, unfortunately, ferocious heartburn.

So what’s all the fuss about? Durian (Durio zibethinus), one of about 30 or so species, several edible, is quite a large fruit weighing up to several kilos. And although it is prized as a fruit delicacy in Southeast Asia (where it’s a native species) it is also one that is banned in many public venues. Just take a look at all the images here of public signs. There was a piece about it on the BBC One Show last night, and it was only at the very end of the program that a raw fruit was unwrapped – even though they had tasted durian products like ice-cream earlier on. One of the presenters, Matt Baker, became visibly distressed and almost threw up!

A former colleague, fish expert Roger Pullin, was traveling on Singapore Airlines one time, and as the passengers were settling into their seats the purser announced that there was a durian on board and asked the owner to approach one of the cabin crew. Nothing happened. The announcement was made a second time, and on the third occasion, the Captain announced that he would cancel the flight unless the owner of the durian was identified and the fruit removed. Sheepishly, Roger mentioned that he had a durian in his suitcase, in the hold. But this durian was in the cabin, and the odor was being distributed through the aircon system. Eventually a fruit was discovered in one of the overhead compartments, and unceremoniously thrown off the aircraft. It’s that sensitive an issue.

Why subject yourself to the unpleasantness of the durian when there are so many other wonderful tropical fruits to enjoy? Having lived in Peru, Costa Rica and the Philippines for almost 30 years in total, and having traveled throughout the Americas, Africa and Asia, I grew fond of several in particular. In the UK we have ready access to bananas, mainly from the Americas, the long, perfectly-formed Cavendish varieties. In the Philippines there is a wealth of diversity of delicious bananas: big ones, little ones, starchy or sweet, and some that have an exquisite apple-like flavor.

Then there’s the rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) – arguably my favorite. The fruit is covered in soft spines, and this ‘shell’ is easily removed to reveal a fleshy covered seed inside. Sweet and juicy, they are hard to resist. One of my former staff, Amy Juliano, had several wonderful trees in her garden, and each September when they were in fruit, she would arrive in my office with several bags (kilos) of ripe fruit. Steph and I decided to plant some of the seeds. We should have done a little more botanical investigation beforehand. Although in just a few years the seed grew into quite a large tree, we had planted the seed of a male tree – not a single fruit!

A rambutan tree (on the left), in 2004, at the entrance to our house in IRRI Staff Housing

The Philippines does not have a large citrus industry like many other neighbor countries because of virus epidemics in the past. There are no oranges, limes or lemons to be had locally, but instead a native fruit not known in the wild, the calamansi (a hybrid species, × Citrofortunella microcarpa) – which, although small, does produce lots of juice – is great substitute for lime in a gin & tonic, or sprinkled over a sweet portion of papaya. One of its common names is ‘Philippine lime’. Another wonderful citrus fruit, imported into the Philippines as far as I’m aware, is the pomelo (Citrus maxima), rather like an overgrown grapefruit. The individual segments separate very easily. We found it just a couple of weeks ago on sale in our local supermarket, imported from China.

In Costa Rica one of the favorite fruits – but not mine – is the water apple (Syzygium samarangense, syn. Eugenia javanica). Once or twice a year the tree in our garden on the CATIE campus in Turrialba was covered in fruit, and lots of employees from the center would stop by to gather sacks of the fruit. I never did enjoy them.

In the Philippines we were fortunate to be able to buy a complete range of local and imported tropical and temperate fruits (like apples for example – still one of my favorites). The Fuji apples (imported from China) are certainly big enough to share between two. And that continues in the UK. So with all these wonderful fruits available I’m certainly not going to offend my taste buds by sampling again such a potent one as the durian. It won’t be on my shopping list any time soon even if it does arrive on the shelves of our local store.

¿Donde esta el baño?

I’ve just begun reading Anchee Min’s memoir The Cooked Seed (published by Bloomsbury in 2013). I’m only on page 58, but I’ve already reached the description about her arrival in Chicago, aged 27, in August 1984. Escaping from an impoverished upbringing in Shanghai and all the tribulations of the earlier Cultural Revolution that had so dramatically affected her life, she had applied (on false pretenses) to study in the US for a bachelor’s degree in art. She had one huge drawback: although indicating on her application and during her visa interview that she was fluent in English, she hardly spoke or understood a word of English. Her sense of utter helplessness leaps off the pages. A new language, new alphabet, as well as the challenge of a new consumer-driven culture and society, something way beyond her experiences until then.

And that got me thinking about how we adapt to new situations, cultures and language. I can empathize with Anchee Min, although of course my life experiences in childhood and my teens prior to moving abroad do not hold comparison with hers.

Before I moved, aged 24, to Peru in January 1973, I had traveled outside the UK on only two occasions, the first time in 1969 to Czechoslovakia, and then in April 1972 to attend a EUCARPIA genebank conference in Izmir Turkey. I’d flown only three times, never intercontinental, and Turkey was my furthest destination. So it was with a certain degree of trepidation I set out for Peru.

While I had made some (rather pathetic) attempts to begin to learn Spanish before I moved to Peru – I’d known for about a year that I would be working there before I actually left the UK – I didn’t make much progress. I was a graduate student at the University of Birmingham, and decided to take advantage of the language laboratory to begin Spanish lessons. I didn’t find it inspiring whatsoever – sitting alone in a booth, listening to a tape on headphones, and attempting to follow along with a text. Until then, my foreign language skills were minimal. I’d studied French at high school, passed the necessary exam (‘O Level’) in 1965, and not bothered subsequently. Well, at the language lab I thought I was making some progress until, that is, someone walked off with the only copy of the course text. On reflection I should have stuck with the audio tapes but being (at that time of life) a bit of a procrastinator, I gave up. With the consequence that when I landed in Peru I had hardly a word of Spanish.

In fact, when I came down to breakfast on my first morning in Lima – it was a Friday – I couldn’t even order my own breakfast! I must admit that I felt rather confused for several weeks, maybe months, until I began to understand a little more how things worked, and I’d picked up a basic vocabulary. I certainly used a lot of single words and waving of arms to get by.

In some ways there was less language pressure because many colleagues at the International Potato Center (CIP) at La Molina (then on the outskirts of Lima), where I worked as an Associate Taxonomist, were bilingual. Many of the support staff were not, and being able to communicate with them was a priority. I began intensive Spanish lessons with Maestro Jorge Palacios, who had taught ‘generations’ of ex-pats on the Peru-North Carolina State University Potato Program mission, and CIP staff. By mid-1973 I was much more confident and had begun to string sentences together – not particularly competently – but i was getting by. In May 1973 my colleague Zosima Huaman and I made a three-week germplasm collecting trip to the provinces of Ancash and La Libertad. I could never have made that trip alone. In one village we were greeted by everyone in the community. It was clear I would have to respond, having been identified as a ‘representante de la Reina Isabel‘. I quickly jotted down some phrases on the palm of my hand that Zosimo gave me. Afterwards, everyone (about 200 people) came and shook my hand!

By the time Steph joined me in July 1973 (and we were married in Lima in October that year) I was becoming a little more competent, and within a year I could make germplasm collecting trips in the boondocks (originally a Filipino word) on my own with just a support driver. It wasn’t until I moved to Costa Rica and Central America in April 1976 (where I stayed for almost five years)  however, that I became more or less fluent in Spanish, although my written Spanish has never really been competent. At CATIE in Turrialba where we lived English was used very little. In my potato work with farmers in various countries and researchers from national research institutes, I always spoke Spanish. It’s such a lovely language to learn and speak. And that’s one of the legacies of my time abroad. I got to learn a second language, and although I haven’t spoken Spanish for 30 years or more, it’s still locked away in the further recesses of my brain. So it’s quite fun when something in Spanish is broadcast on the TV (as the other night, in a program about Easter Island) trying to follow along without reading the sub-titlkes.

Faced with the difficulties of a new language and adjusting to a different society and culture – as I did in 1973 – I think made me better prepared to help graduate students who came to study genetic resources at the University of Birmingham when i taught there in the 1980s. Most were overseas students with English as a second language; and quite a numbered really struggled. As part of our teaching commitments we worked with the staff of the English as a Second Language Unit in English Department to provide weekly remedial classes. Each week one of the course staff would record a lecture that then formed the basis of a tutorial with the students. In this way they not only learned about the technical use of English, but also how the lecturers would sometimes (often?) unknowingly use colloquialisms, or maybe repeat the same idea but in a different way, using other descriptive terms.

I’m afraid that when I moved to the Philippines in 1991 I never did make an effort (shame on me!) to learn Tagalog, although I picked up a smattering of words, and was  able after some years to understand the gist of a conversation in Tagalog. But I’ve rarely been in a situation, as Anchee Min found herself, completely at sea and unable to communicate. As English has become (much to the chagrin of the French) the world’s lingua franca, it’s no longer unusual to find public signs and notices, even announcement on public transport, in English in Japan, China, Thailand and elsewhere that use a different alphabet.