A stroll in the park . . . at Croome

Croome Court, some 20 miles south of our home in Bromsgrove, and nestling beneath the Malvern Hills, is one of our ‘local’ National Trust properties. In fact, it was the second property we visited, at the end of March 2011, just after we’d become members of the National Trust.

And a couple of days ago, on a very bright but cold morning, we made our fifth visit to Croome. The ideal setting for a bracing walk, and not only to recover from some of the excesses of Christmas, but also take a peek inside the house since we’d not done that since 2011.

We can see the Malverns from Bromsgrove, and there is often a clear view south down the valley of the River Severn near Croome, with the Costwolds outlier of Bredon Hill on the east side and, more spectacularly on the west, the line of the Malverns stretching some eight miles north to south and separating Worcestershire from Herefordshire.

As we drove south along the M5 motorway I wasn’t expecting to see the Malverns as we did that morning, covered in snow, and looking even more stately, impressive, and higher than we normally see them. What a surprise! Once at Croome, we had magnificent views of the whole line of hills due west. The snow had somehow ‘etched’ new landscape perspectives that we’d never observed before.

The magnificent Malvern Hills, looking more like the Alps than a modest range of hills on the Worcestershire-Herefordshire border.

The northern end of the Malverns, with Croome’s Temple Greenhouse on the far right, and the Croome River snaking past trees towards the left.

The Panorama Tower has a view westwards towards the Malverns, and east towards Croome Park itself. It lies about 1 mile as the crow flies due west from the house.

First things first, however. We arrived just after 10:45, after a 30 minute drive from home. Fortunately although the night before had been very cold, with a little dusting of snow and some icy patches on rural roads, we did not encounter any holdups at all. Nevertheless, the first place we headed to was Croome’s 1940s-style canteen to enjoy a cup of frothy cappuccino to set us up for the walk around the park.

In the past we’ve taken in the whole circuit of the park, to the far end of the Croome River (see map). But on this day, we walked as far at the Island Pavilion (21 on the map), and back along the far side of the Croome River to the Chinese Bridge (16). After touring the house, we headed to the Rotunda (13) and along the east side of the Walled Garden to exit through the Visitor Centre. It was a walk of around three miles, and most welcome.

A painting by Richard Wilson in 1758 is on display in one of the ground floor rooms. Not much has changed in the intervening 260 years.

Since our first visit, the main entrance to Croome Court is now through the Hall on the north side of the building. Inside, there are few significant changes from our last visit, although I think there were more rooms open on the first floor.

The Robert Adam ceiling in the Long Gallery is a sight to behold. The decorated plaster-work of the dining room is as delightful as ever, likewise the main doorway and ceiling of the Saloon. The bare wooden walls of the Tapestry Room are testament to what was; the tapestries now hang in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom on the first floor caught my eye, as did the portraits of the 9th Earl of Coventry and his wife propped up against the wall of an adjacent room.

Two exhibits stand out above the others. I love porcelain, and in the dining room there is a stunning exhibit, The Golden Box (designed by Dutch artist Bouke de Vries, whose War and Pieces we saw at Berrington Hall in April this year), of some of Croome’s porcelain. The Golden Box took my breath away.

On the first floor, in what was Lady Coventry’s Dressing Room, is the recently opened ‘I AM Archive’, a vortex construction that will eventually house information and documents about Croome. A truly inspirational design.

Finally, it was outside again through the doors of the Saloon, and on to the south-facing steps flanked by two sphinxes. In the early afternoon sunshine, the light coloured stone of the façade glowed a deep gold. At the Rotunda there was a good view over much of the park to the west and south.

Croome was heaving with visitors, all taking advantage of the lovely day, many following children along the ‘Gingerbread Trail’, or taking dogs for walks in the park’s wide open spaces. Everyone seemed to be having fun, as we did, and we look forward to our next visit some time during 2018.

 

And pigs might fly . . .

Steph and I made two road trips together to the small town of San Ramón (see map), that lies at just over 800 m on the eastern slopes of the Andes in the Department of Junín.

Nothing particularly special or interesting in that, you might ask, especially if you know the region. The International Potato Center (CIP) opened an experiment station there in the 1970s, as somewhere it could evaluate potato breeding lines against several pests and diseases that appeared more regularly at this site than at higher elevations. But also for testing potatoes in their ability to grow under higher temperatures than usual for potatoes, a temperate crop that evolved in the Tropics. This emphasis on adaptation to high temperatures, with the aim of potentially expanding potato production worldwide into less favorable environments, was work I would continue once I moved to Costa Rica in 1976.

San Ramón today has a population of 30,000 inhabitants but was very much smaller when we first visited. It was not normally on our itinerary, since Steph’s and my work only took us to Huancayo high up in the central Andes, at over 3000 m.

Our first trip, in August 1973 (with CIP plant pathologist John Vessey and physiologist Ray Meyer) was just a few weeks after Steph joined me in Peru. This was our first experience of the hot and humid lowland tropics. Little did we imagine that just a few years later (from 1976) we would spend almost five years in Costa Rica living under those conditions in Turrialba, nor that almost two decades later we would move to the Philippines for 19 years.

Our second and short vacation trip was in September 1974.

I’ve been back only a couple of times, once in early 1976 before we headed off to Costa Rica, and another¹ in the mid-1980s when, working at The University of Birmingham, I had a research project with CIP, and took the opportunity of a visit to Lima to travel from Huancayo to San Ramón.

Dropping down to San Ramón the only road passes through the town of Tarma, famous for its flower production. What a delight. Higher up, the road sweeps round broad valleys with it patchwork of fields, one of the most attractive views I think I’ve seen in all my travels across the Andes.

Below Tarma, the valley narrows, and winds its way beside a fast flowing river (that becomes the Chanchamayo River beyond San Ramón), with numerous tunnels carved through the rock, and barely wide enough in places for two vehicles to pass. There are steep precipices into the river below at numerous locations.

And given that the San Ramón region and beyond is (was) a particularly important fruit-growing one (especially for papayas), there was always a constant stream of lorries loaded with fruit grinding their way out of the valley to climb over Ticlio (at almost 5000 m) before dropping rapidly to Lima on the coasts.

Steph’s first trip to Huancayo (and San Ramon) in August 1973.

On the second morning of our September 1974 trip, we set off after breakfast along the Chanchamayo River towards La Merced, stopping frequently to look at the vegetation, explore the river bank, and take photos. It’s hard to imagine that La Merced now has a population approaching 170,000. Beyond La Merced we had thoughts of eventually reaching Oxapampa, but as the road deteriorated so did our expectations of being able to travel there and back in a single day. With some regret we turned around. Oxapampa was (is) an interesting community, founded in the 19th century by German immigrants, and retaining much of that influence today.

Our trip on the third day was much more eventful. Following a suggestion by John Vessey, we decided to take advantage of the local light aircraft flights from San Ramón servicing communities further out in the lowland areas (the ‘jungle’) and visit one such beside the Pichis River, Puerto Bermúdez (some 550 m lower in altitude than San Ramón). Today, Puerto Bermúdez is connected by road to La Merced and San Ramón, a drive of some 176 km, and about four hours. There was no road in 1974, and flights were the only option. From satellite images, the town does not appear to have an airstrip anymore. What looks like a former airstrip is flanked by buildings and criss-crossed by streets. Maybe with the road now reaching the town, an air bridge to San Ramón or other towns is no longer economically viable.

Having purchased our tickets, we arrived at the airfield early the next morning, and found ourselves squeezed into the rear seats of a single engine plane (probably a Cessna) for the 45 minute flight to Puerto Bermúdez. We were scheduled to return mid-afternoon, and had decided that we’d try and rent a boat for a trip along the river.

In 1974, Puerto Bermúdez was a very small settlement, and the area is home to one of Peru’s largest indigenous communities in its Amazon region, the Asháninka².

We soon found somewhere to buy a quick cup of coffee, and someone who would rent his boat to us for several hours for a trip along the Pichis, a river that flows north to join the even bigger Ucayali River south of Pucallpa, being some of the headwaters of the River Amazon.

In this gallery of photos, you can see the type of dugout canoes that are common along the river, with their long shaft outboard motors. In the distance along the river you can also see the Andes rising in the west. And also some of the communities we observed along the riverbanks, and the rafts carrying fruits. This was our first experience of an environment like this, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Everyone was most friendly.

After a quick bite to eat for lunch, we headed back to the airstrip for our mid-afternoon flight back to San Ramón.

And that’s when we had our next surprise. There was an aircraft waiting for the return flight. We were the only passengers. But the aircraft had no seats for us. There was some ‘freight’ to take: several dead pigs that were loaded along with empty beer crates that we were to use as seats. No seat belts!

Communicating with base back in San Ramón, the pilot told us that the weather had ‘closed in’ and that our departure would be delayed. And there we sat, looking westwards towards the Andes and wondering when we would be able to take off. After about an hour, the pilot told us that there was still ‘weather’ along the proposed return route, but ‘bugger it’ or words to that effect in Spanish, he said we should leave, and we’d better climb aboard if we wanted to return to San Ramón that same day.

With some trepidation—that I can still feel after all these years (I’ve never been the world’s best flier)—Steph and I climbed aboard, settled ourselves on our respective beer crates (or maybe they were cases of beer), and held on for dear life to anything we could as the plane hurtled down the runway and took to the air.

All was well for the first half of the flight. We gained height easily (after all the plane was carrying quite a light load  and I was very much lighter than I am, unfortunately, today). We could see the foothills of the Andes approaching, with rain squalls across our path. Needless to say things became rather more uncomfortable as we crossed that weather system, and bounced our way into San Ramón. But we lived to tell the tale.

Given the chance to make a journey like that again, I’d probably decline. The enthusiasm of youth, the risk taking. In any case one might hope that today, safety regulations are much more assiduously applied. The only time I’ve ever shared a flight with three dead pigs.

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¹ The 1980s were the Michael Jackson years. The singer, not me. Arriving at our hotel in San Ramón, it didn’t take long before a very large crowd of children had assembled outside the hotel and chanting ‘We want Michael Jackson‘. Some mix-up!

² Puerto Bermúdez’s Asháninka suffered during the years of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla insurrection of the 1990s, and many inhabitants of the town were massacred.

He had the patience of Job

21 December 1972. How 45 years have flown by.

I’d left my apartment in Birmingham, said goodbye to many friends in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham, and headed the 60 miles north to Leek in Staffordshire to spend what would be my last Christmas in the UK for almost a decade with my parents, my elder brother Ed who had arrived from Canada. Then after Christmas, I spent a couple of days in London with my girlfriend, Steph; we married in Lima later in 1973.

I’d turned 24 a month earlier, and two weeks hence on 4 January 1973 I would be on a flight from London to Lima, Peru to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist. I can’t deny that I faced that journey and joining CIP with a certain amount of trepidation. I’d only been outside the UK on one occasion (to Turkey in early 1972). My horizons were definitely limited.

Furthermore, I spoke hardly a word of Spanish. Now that was my fault. And it wasn’t. I’d had ample opportunity while at Birmingham once I knew I’d be working in Peru to make an effort to learn some basic Spanish. But I was rather dilatory in my approach.

On the top of the university’s Muirhead Tower, a language laboratory was open to all staff and students to improve, at their own pace, their existing language skills or ones that they wished to acquire. The laboratory was equipped with a number of individual audio booths where you could listen to classes on tape, and follow along with the standard text from which the classes had been developed.

I started, and really intended to continue. Then the only copy of the text book went missing. I gave up.

So, my language skills were essentially non-existent when I landed in Lima on Thursday 4 January 1973. Staying at the Pensión Beech on Los Libertadores in the Lima suburb of San Isidro, I couldn’t even order my breakfast the following morning. Fortunately, Mrs. Beech, the formidable British-born proprietor, came to my rescue. Thereafter I quickly gained enough vocabulary so I didn’t starve. But it was a month or two before I plucked up enough courage to visit a barber’s shop (peluquería) to have my hair cut.

The secretarial and some of the administrative staff at CIP spoke English, and I was indeed very fortunate to receive great support from them, particularly in my first months as I found my feet and started to pick up the language.

All expat staff were offered Spanish classes, provided by freelance teacher Sr Jorge Palacios. And it was that gentleman who had, in my opinion, the patience of Job, listening, day after day, to our pathetic attempts to make sense of what is a beautiful language. Some long-term CIP staff never really did become that fluent in Spanish. I’m sure my old CIP friends can guess who they were.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photo of Sr Jorge*. Yesterday, I placed a comment on a Friends of CIP Facebook group page asking if anyone had a photo. An old and dear friend from my very first days at CIP, Maria Scurrah replied: I certainly remember that thin, never-aging but already old, proper Spanish teacher. And that’s how I also remember Jorge. It was impossible to tell just how old he was, maybe already in his 50s when I first knew him in January 1973.

It was arranged to meet with Sr Jorge at least a couple of times a week; maybe it was more. We agreed that the most convenient time would be the early evening. He would come to my apartment (in Los Pinos in Miraflores), and spend an hour working our way through different exercises, using exactly the same text that was ‘lost’ in Birmingham! Anther colleague who joined CIP within a week or so of me was German pathologist Rainer Zachmann. He also took an apartment in the same building as me. I was on the 12th floor, he on the sixth. So Sr Jorge would call on me, then descend to spend an hour with Rainer, after which we would all go out to dinner at a local restaurant. Through these Spanish classes, and dinner conversation, Jorge introduced me to the delights of Peruvian Chinese cuisine, and there was a good restaurant or chifa just a block or so away from our apartment building, perhaps further along Av. Larco.

It didn’t take long, however, before my classes became intermittent. I was travelling to and spending more time in Huancayo, and in May that year, my germplasm colleague Zosimo Huaman and I spent almost a month exploring for potato varieties in the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad. With the basics that I’d learned from Sr Jorge, and being put in situations where my companions/co-workers did not speak English, I was ‘forced’ to practice—and improve—my rudimentary Spanish.

End of the road – getting to walk into several communities, May 1973

During that trip to Ancash, Zosimo and I found ourselves in a remote village that had been very badly affected by the May 1970 earthquake that had devastated many parts of Ancash. I don’t remember the names or exact locations of the two communities we walked into, except that they were deep in the mountains beyond Chavín de Huantar. It was their fiesta day, and we were welcomed as auspicious visitors, particularly me, as once it was revealed that I was from England, I became a representative of La Reina Isabel (Queen Elizabeth II).

The schoolmaster and his wife and son, with Zosimo Huaman on the right.

A ‘town meeting’ was quickly called and organized by the rather inebriated schoolmaster. Zosimo and I were the guests of honor, and it became clear during the schoolmaster’s speech of welcome that I would have to respond in some way. But what about my lack of Spanish? The schoolmaster explained that the community felt abandoned by the Peruvian government, and even three years on from the earthquake had still not received any material assistance. He implored me to bring their plight to the attention of the British Government and, as the ‘Queen’s representative’, get assistance for them. What was I to reply?

I was able to follow, more or less, what the schoolmaster was saying, and Zosimo filled in the bits I missed. I asked him how to say this or that, and quickly jotted down some sentences on the palm of my hand.

It was now my turn to reply. I congratulated the community on its festive day, stating how pleased Zosimo and I were to be there, and taking note of their situation which I would mention to the British ambassador in Lima (my position at CIP was funded through the then Overseas Development Administration, now the Department for International Development, and I would regularly meet the ODA representative in the embassy, or attend social functions at the ambassador’s residence).

As I sat down, everyone in that room, 150 or more, stood up and each and everyone one came and shook my hand. It was quite overwhelming.

I found that trying to use what little Spanish I had was more useful than having continuous lessons. Nevertheless, the solid grounding I received from Sr Jorge stood me in good stead. When we moved to Costa Rica in April 1976, I had to speak Spanish almost all the time. Very few of the persons I worked with in national programs spoke any English; my two assistants in Turrialba none at all.

By the time I left Latin America in March 1991 I was pretty fluent in Spanish. I could hold my own, although I have to admit that I have never been any good at writing Spanish. During the 1980s when I had a research project with CIP, I travelled to Lima on several occasions. By then, Sr Jorge was no longer freelancing and had become a CIP staff member. We always took time during one of those visits to having lunch together and reminiscing over times past. By the time I visited CIP once again in the mid-1990s he must have retired, as I never saw him again.

My Spanish still resurfaces from time to time. I can follow it quite easily if I hear it on the TV, and during my visit to CIP, CIAT, and CIMMYT in 2016 (as part of a review of genebanks) I was able to participate in the discussions easily enough that took place in Spanish. My Spanish teacher had obviously given me a very good grounding of the basics.

Sr Jorge Palacios – a real gentleman, with the patience of Job.

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*  If anyone who reads this post has such a photo, or knows how/where to get hold of one, I’d appreciate hearing from you and receiving a copy. Thank you.

Heading south to the highest lake in the world

At 3812 m above sea level, Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia, and is the ‘highest navigable lake in the world’. It’s more than 1200 km south from Lima by road, and was the destination of a trip that Steph and I made in November 1974. Our first idea was to drive to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, some 256 km southeast from Puno. However, we decided that would be one sector too far in the time we had available.

Most of the drive follows the Panamericana Sur for 850 km through a coastal desert, one of the driest in the world.

The highway crosses the Nazca Plain about 450 km south of Lima, and is the site of the world famous Nazca Lines (yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Peru!), ancient geoglyphs that can only be appreciated from the air. Sadly, we never took the opportunity for a flight over the Lines¹.

The Nazca monkey. Photo taken by renowned archaeologist Maria Reiche in 1953.

Much further south, at Camana, the road branches north towards the southern city of Arequipa, some 180 km away, and at an altitude of around 2330 m. Puno is reached from Arequipa after a climb to well over 4000 m before dropping to 3800 m on the shore of Lake Titicaca, crossing (among other locations) the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca (and its flamingos).

We had already decided to drive ourselves just as far as Arequipa, then take a colectivo (a communal taxi) for the rest of the journey to Puno, and use taxis to move between the various sites we wanted to visit around Puno. On reflection we could have taken our VW the whole distance given some of the other trips we made around Peru and the state of some of those roads. From Arequipa to Puno we left the asphalt behind, travelling on a graded dirt road.

We spent the first night in Nazca, traveling on to Camana and its turista hotel on the second day. Like most of our travels there were frequent stops to admire the landscape, take photos, and investigate the local flora, especially the various cactus species, a particular hobby of Steph’s at that time.

This cactus, possibly an Echinocactus species, was less than 3 inches in diameter.

The highway crosses quite a number of rivers that flow down from the Andes. In the desert, and along the valleys themselves, irrigated rice cultivation is quite important. I had no idea when looking at these rice paddies in the 1970s that I’d be working on that crop across the other side of the world two decades later².

In Arequipa, we found a garage where we could leave the car safely for a few days while we traveled on to Puno. And then spent the next day and a half walking around the city to enjoy some of its sites.

Arequipa, founded in 1540, is (was) an elegant city, with a skyline dominated by the symmetrical cone of the Misti volcano, rising to over 5800 m. It is seasonally snow-capped, but with the effects of climate change affecting so many mountain ranges in the Andes today, I wonder to what extent Misti now has any snow cover at all during the year.

There were two sites we wanted to visit: the Basilica Cathedral, located on the north side of the Plaza de Armas, Arequipa’s central square. It has a facade of beautifully carved white stone, like the cathedral in Cajamarca that we visited in June 1974.

It was constructed over more than two centuries beginning in the 1540s. Progress was interrupted many times by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and the church had to be reconstructed several times. As recently as June 2001, one of its towers was toppled by a powerful earthquake that shook southern Peru. It is a building of great beauty, and dominates the Plaza de Armas.

A short distance north of the Plaza de Armas, the 16th century Dominican Convent of Saint Catherine (Monasterio Santa Catalina) is a quiet haven among the bustle of a busy city, and open for tourists to visit. Well, that was the situation four decades ago, so it must be even more so today. It has the feel of a small Spanish village, with winding streets, open doorways off to the side, and colonnaded hidden courtyards. And all decorated in a glorious umber.

The nuns could not receive visitors inside the convent, but could communicate with the outside world through grills. Natural light brightens the visitors’ corridor through skylights hewn from rock crystal. Inside the convent there are beautiful murals dating from as early as 1516. That’s interesting, because in the article about the convent on Wikipedia linked to above, the founding date is given as 1579, and Arequipa was not founded until 1540. Maybe some early buildings were incorporated into the convent. Nevertheless, there are some date inconsistencies I need to check further.

In Puno, there were three attractions we wanted to visit: the harbour and its large steamships; the floating islands made from the local totora reeds (Schoenoplectus californicus subsp. tatora), and home to a community of indigenous Urus; and the pre-Incan archaeological site of Sillustani, some 32 km northwest from Puno towards the airport town of Juliaca.

Some of the vessels that ply (or used to ply) Lake Titicaca are remarkable for their size. So how did they come to be sailing around the lake? The SS Ollanta was built in 1929 in Kingston upon Hull in England, in kit form, and sent out to Peru in pieces. The original Lego! Transported from the port of Mollendo to Puno by rail, it was riveted together on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and launched in 1931. It is still sailing today, but no longer on any scheduled services.

Tourism was, and must still be, a significant source of income for the Uru community that lives on the totora reed islands just offshore from Puno. Steph and I took the short motor boat trip from Puno to spend a couple of hours there. It is quite a remarkable community, seemingly self-sufficient, and getting around on their beautifully-crafted reed boats (the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II expedition).

Given my interest in potatoes, I was fascinated to come across this brilliant example of potato hydroponics. Now that’s a good use for an old totora reed boat. Ingenious!

Although we didn’t make it into Bolivia, we did head out along the south shore of the lake towards the border, as far as Juli, just over 80 km southeast from Puno. As with so many small communities in the Andes, the town is dominated by a Catholic church, that we took the opportunity of visiting. The opulence of its interior was quite unexpected.

Our final visit in the Puno area was to the pre-Incan cemetery of Sillustani constructed by the Qulla people on the edges of Lake Umayo, and comprising a series of round towers called chullpas. The stones making up the chullpas are smooth and regular is shape, and one is left, yet again, with a sense of awe, at how such beautiful pieces of architecture were actually constructed. Interestingly, the Qulla are an indigenous people of western Bolivia, northern Argentina, and Chile. Sillustani must have been at the northern limit of their territory and range.

And then the vacation was over and we were headed back to Arequipa, to pick up our car and drive to Camana on the coast for an overnight stop. I think we made it back to Lima from there is one very long day of driving.

Besides this visit, I’d been in Puno on two previous occasions. One of my abiding memories was to seemingly acquire a taste for the algarrobina cocktail, made with Pisco. While I love a delicious Pisco sour, the thought of this rather sweet concoction now sends shivers down my spine. Happy days!

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¹ The Greenpeace delinquents who staged a protest on and defaced the Lines in December 2014 should have faced the full force of the law.

² In about 1996, the then President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori (now disgraced and serving a prison term for various human rights crimes, among others), visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. I showed him around the genebank, and then joined discussions with IRRI’s Director General George Rothschild about rice production in Peru. Peru grows a number of IRRI varieties that have fallen out of favor in other parts of the world because of their susceptibility to pests and diseases. These, including IR43 and IR48 were less affected in Peru.

Laos – jewel in the rice biodiversity crown

From 1995 to late 2000, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) through its Genetic Resources Center (GRC, now the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center) coordinated a project to collect and conserve the genetic diversity of rice varieties that smallholder farmers have nourished for generations in Asia and Africa. The collecting program also targeted many of the wild species relatives of cultivated rice found in those continents as well as Latin America.

With a grant of more than USD3 million from the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) the project made significant collections of rice varieties and wild species at a time when, in general, there was a moratorium on germplasm exploration worldwide. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force at the end of December 1993, and many countries were developing and putting in place policies concerning access to germplasm. Many were reluctant to allow access to non-nationals, or even exchange germplasm internationally. It’s not insignificant then that IRRI was able to mount such a project with the full cooperation of almost 30 countries, and many collecting expeditions were made, many of them including IRRI staff.

As Head of GRC from 1991 to 2001, I developed the project concept and was responsible for its implementation, recruiting several staff to fill a number of important positions for germplasm collection, project management, and the research and training components. I have written about the project in more detail elsewhere in this blog.

One of the most important strategic decisions we took was to locate one staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao, in Laos (also known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) where IRRI already managed the Lao-IRRI project for the enhancement of the rice sector. This project was also funded by the SDC, so it was a natural fit to align the rice germplasm activities alongside, and to some extent within, the ongoing Lao-IRRI Project.

The leader of the Lao-IRRI Project was Australian agronomist, Dr John Schiller, who had spent about 30 years working in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and whose untimely death was announced just yesterday¹.

Until Appa Rao moved to Laos, very little germplasm exploration had taken place anywhere in the country. It was a total germplasm unknown, but with excellent collaboration with national counterparts, particularly Dr Chay Bounphanousay (now a senior figure in Lao agriculture), the whole of the country was explored and more than 13,000 samples of cultivated rice collected from the different farming systems, such as upland rice and rainfed lowland rice. A local genebank was constructed by the project, and duplicate samples were sent to IRRI for long-term storage as part of the International Rice Genebank Collection in GRC. Duplicate samples of these rice varieties were also sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault when IRRI made its various deposits in that permafrost facility inside the Arctic Circle.

Appa Rao and John Schiller (in the center) discussing Lao rice varieties. Im not sure who the person in the blue shirt is. In the background, IRRI scientist Eves Loresto describes rice diversity to her colleague, Mauricio Bellon.

Of particular interest is that Lao breeders immediately took an interest in the collected germplasm as it was brought back to the experiment station near the capital Vientiane, and multiplied in field plots prior to storage in the genebanks. There are few good examples where breeders have taken such an immediate interest in germplasm in this way. In so many countries, germplasm conservation and use activities are often quite separate, often in different institutions. In some Asian countries, rice genebanks are quite divorced from crop improvement, and breeders have no ready access to germplasm samples.

Appa Rao was an assiduous rice collector, and spent weeks at a time in the field, visiting the most remote localities. He has left us with a wonderful photographic record of rice in Laos, and I have included a fine selection below. We also published three peer-reviewed papers (search for Appa Rao’s name here) and seven of the 25 chapters in the seminal Rice in Laos edited by John and others. 

The rices from Laos now represent one of the largest components (maybe the largest) of the International Rice Genebank Collection. Many are unique to Laos, particularly the glutinous varieties.

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¹ Yesterday, I received an email from one of my former IRRI colleagues, Professor Melissa Fitzgerald who is now at the University of Queensland, with the very sad news that John Schiller had been found in his apartment just that morning. It’s believed he had passed away due to heart failure over the course of the weekend.

I first met John in November 1991, a few months after I’d joined IRRI. He and I were part of a group of IRRI scientists attending a management training course, held at a beach resort bear Nasugbu on the west coast of Luzon, south of Manila. The accommodation was in two bedroom apartments, and John and I shared one of those, so I got to know him quite well.

Our friendship blossomed from 1995 onwards when we implemented the rice biodiversity project, Appa Rao was based in Vientiane, and I would travel there two or three times a year. In February 1997, I had the opportunity of taking Steph with me on one trip, and that coincided with the arrival of another IRRI agronomist, Bruce Linquist (with his wife and small son) to join the Lao-IRRI Project. We were invited to the Lao traditional welcoming or Baci ceremony at John’s house, for the Linquists and Steph. I’d already received this ceremony on my first visit to Laos in 1995 or 1996.

John also arranged for Appa and Chay to show Steph and me something of the countryside around Vientiane. Here were are at the lookout over the Ang Nam Ngum Lake, just north of the capital, where we took a boat trip.

L to R: Mrs Appa Rao, Appa, Kongphanh Kanyavong, Chay Bounphanousay, Steph, and me.

After he retired from IRRI, John moved back to Brisbane, and was given an honorary fellowship at the University of Queensland. He continued to support training initiatives in Laos. As he himself said, his heart was with those people. But let John speak for himself.

My other close colleague and former head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel, overnight wrote this eloquent and touching obituary about John and his work, that was published today on the IRRI News website. Just click on the image to read this in more detail.

 

Coast and mountains – remembering a 1974 road trip in northern Peru

During the three years that Steph and I lived in Peru between 1973 and 1976, we made several long-distance road trips. In those days, once you turned off the main coastal highway, the Panamericana, you left the asphalt behind and traveled only on graded dirt roads.

We also drove a car—a Volkswagen Variant—that had good clearance, and traveled comfortably on these roads. We had also fitted heavy-duty shock absorbers as well as a good set of radial tyres. So we were never concerned about leaving the paved highways. In fact, we often spent time during the weekends visiting one of our favorite destinations on the eastern side of Lima, climbing route 116 into the Andes mountains in the Santa Eulalia valley near Chosica. We enjoyed hunting for wild potatoes on the higher slopes.

In the Santa Eulalia valley, hunting for wild potatoes

In May 1973 and May 1974 I’d made two trips into the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad, and Cajamarca, respectively to collect cultivated varieties of potatoes to add to the world germplasm collection curated by the International Potato Center (CIP) for which I was working as a germplasm expert and Associate Taxonomist. Steph also worked in the germplasm program as an Associate Geneticist.

Both trips took me through some stunning landscapes, and interesting cities like Cajamarca. So, in June 1974 we made an eight-day trip to visit some of those same places. Joining us on the trip were our friends and fellow Brits, John and Marion Vessey. They were our witnesses when Steph and I married in October 1973, in the Lima suburb of Miraflores.

After our wedding ceremony in the Miraflores Municipalidad, we enjoyed lunch at the Granja Azul near Chosica.

John also worked as a plant pathologist at CIP on the same bacterial wilt disease that I’d spend several years studying when I transferred to Costa Rica in 1976. John’s work often took him to Cajamarca and beyond, almost always by road, a round trip of almost 1700 km.

Anyway, our plan was to visit the Callejon de Huaylas in Ancash, see the highest mountains in the country, and from there returning to the coast and traveling north to Cajamarca via Trujillo, taking in several interesting archaeological sites on the way both in the mountains and on the coast.

This was a round trip of almost 2800 km or thereabouts, and John and I shared the driving. Setting out from Lima early one morning, our first destination was Huaraz, the departmental capital of Ancash, in the heart of the Callejón de Huaylas, with the highest mountains of the Cordillera Blanca on the east side (including Peru’s highest peak, Huascarán) and the lower Cordillera Negra on the west (or coastal) side.

Looking north along the Callejón de Huaylas towards Nevado Huascarán.

The gallery below shows Cordillera Blanca mountains at the southern approaches to the Callejón de Huaylas, near the turn-off to Chavín de Huántar. The last image in the gallery shows the Cordillera Negra on the western side of the Callejón de Huaylas.

The Callejón de Huaylas runs north-south, parallel to the coast, and was the site of a major earthquake in May 1970 that destroyed the towns of Ranrahirca and Yungay north of Huaraz, and killing tens of thousands of inhabitants. The gallery below shows where the landslide fell from Huascarán, with boulders the size of houses, obliterating Yungay and Ranrahirca. In Yungay, just a few palm trees and a statue of Christ at the cemetery were all that remained of the town in 1974.

We spent three nights in the turista hotel in Huaraz, traveling on the day after our arrival to Yungay, and then higher still to a lake nestling in a valley beneath Huascarán, Laguna de Llanganuco at 3850 m above sea level.

The day after we made a side trip of just under 100 km each way to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, to visit the ruins at Chavín de Huántar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built by a pre-Inc culture at least 3000 years ago.

On the journey to Chavín (I was driving at the time), and only a few km short of the town, I was coming round a blind bend, and found myself facing some difficulty to avoid a rather large rock in the middle of the road. So I attempted to straddle it, but was unsuccessful; some part of the chassis connected with the rock. It sounded bad, but a close inspection underneath the vehicle showed no visible damage, so we carried on. The next morning we loaded the car and set out due west from Huaraz to cross the Cordillera Negra before dropping down to the coast near Casma, where we planned to stop at the archaeological site of Cerro Sechín.

As we climbed out of Huaraz, I could hear unnerving creaks and groans emanating from behind me. So after about 30 minutes we stopped to make another inspection underneath. To my horror I saw that there was a visible crack in one of the shock absorber mounts. I could see daylight! I hadn’t realised just how hard I’d hit that rock the previous day.

Well, we couldn’t continue with that sort of damage, so I carefully reversed the car and we returned—slowly—to Huaraz and found a repair shop alongside the road. When the mechanic jacked up the car, the absorber mount gave way. In such a remote location there was no chance that any dealer would have the exact mount in stock. However, all was not lost, and with great skill the mechanic welded a piece of steel around the fracture, taking less than an hour to make the repair. And we set off, much relieved with a vehicle almost as good as new, although we’d lost about 4 hours in total, putting back our destination for the night at Trujillo further up the coast until after dark.

Cerro Sechín, a few km inland from the Casma, is a very unusual site. Excavations began there 80 years ago, and the site has been dated to almost 4000 years. Its outstanding features are the stone bas-reliefs depicting victorious warrior-priests and their dismembered victims. What do they all mean? Some suggest that this is the site of a battle, others that it commemorates the vanquishing of a rebellion. Perhaps we’ll never know. What I can say is that I never saw any other archaeological site in Peru with any similarity to Sechín.

After spending a night in Trujillo, we took a morning to visit the extensive ruins of Chan Chan just west of the city, whose mud walls and reliefs have survived the ravages of time in this extremely arid desert. Dating from the mid-ninth century AD, it was the capital of the pre-Incan Chimú, who were defeated by the Incas in the fifteenth century. Chan Chan is now a UNESCO World heritage Site.

Along the coast, and even in some of the valleys heading into the mountains, there are mud brick pyramids, known as huacas standing proudly in the landscape, reminders of ancient pre-Incan cultures that once thrived there.

Huacas erected in coastal valleys.

In 1974, the highway to Cajamarca diverged from the Panamericana just north of Trujillo. It climbed along a fertile valley with rice cultivation alongside the river, then crossing over into the valley of Cajamarca at around 2500 m or so.

I’ve visited Cajamarca three times. It is undoubtedly one of my favorite cities in the whole of Peru. Located in a broad and fertile valley, it has an agreeable climate. No doubt it has expanded considerably since I was last there in about 1988.

Cajamarca (from the north) in the early morning light. You can see the steam from the Inca baths on the east of the city.

The beautiful Cathedral of Saint Catherine (Santa Catalina) occupies the northwest side of the main square, the Plaza de Armas. Begun in the seventeenth century, it has the appearance of a half-completed building. But this does not take away anything from the exquisite construction and carving of white stone on the entrance facade.

The Plaza de Armas, with the Cathedral of Sant Catherine on the left.

To the east of the city, by about 3 km lie the Baños del Inca, a site of geothermal hot springs where we luxuriated in the spa’s deep and soothing waters.

It was also in Cajamarca that the army of the last Inca emperor Atahualpa was defeated by Francisco Pizarro and his band of adventurers. Captured and imprisoned by Pizarro, Atahualpa was executed in July 1533 bringing an end to the illustrious Incan culture, and the subsequent colonisation not only of Peru but much of South America by the Spanish.

I’m sure we must have stayed at the turista hotel in Cajamarca close to the Plaza de Armas. Around the square were many small restaurants where, as in so many Andean towns and cities, you could enjoy an excellent and reasonably-priced meal. But Cajamarca is famous for one dish, and a sweet one at that: leche asade (crème caramel), one of my favorite desserts. There was one restaurant on the northeast corner of the Plaza renowned for its leche asada.

After a couple of nights in Cajamarca, we headed back down to Trujillo on the coast, and made it back home to Lima the next day. Quite an eventful trip, taking in some breath-taking sites and landscapes. As I reflect on all those magical Peruvian experiences, I realise more than ever, just what attracted me to want to visit all those years ago when I was just a small boy. Ambition fulfilled, and beyond expectations!

Has global warming changed the landscape?

During the three years Steph and I lived in Lima, working at the International Potato Center (CIP) at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of the city (now totally enveloped by it), one or the other of us had to travel almost on a weekly basis between December and April from Lima to Huancayo. At an altitude of more than 3000 m above sea level (over 10,000 feet), Huancayo was the location of CIP’s highland experiment station.

During the first season I worked there (between January and April 1973, and before Steph joined me in Peru) most of the potato hybridization work I did was carried out in the garden of the parents of one of my colleagues, Dr Maria Scurrah. CIP didn’t have any facilities of its own during that first year, and also rented land north of the city to grow its large germplasm collection of indigenous potato varieties.

It was only after I’d moved to Costa Rica to become CIP’s regional leader in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean in 1976 that permanent laboratories, greenhouses, and a guesthouse were constructed (put in jeopardy by the rise of the terrorist organisation Sendero Luminoso in the late 1980s and 1990s).

A distance of almost 300 km by road on the Carretera Central, the journey would take around six hours. Usually we’d leave CIP before mid-morning, and aim to reach San Mateo (about 95 km) a couple of hours or so later, in time for lunch. Sometimes we’d drive as far as La Oroya on the eastern side of the highest point of the road. La Oroya, a town dominated by ore smelters and awesome pollution is one of the most depressing places I have ever visited. The fumes from the smelters have blasted all the vegetation from hillsides for miles around.

The road to Huancayo crosses the Andes watershed at the highest point, Ticlio, at 4843 m. From there the road drops quickly towards La Oroya before flattening out along the Mantaro River, and southeast into the broad Mantaro Valley.

We usually travelled, after 1974, in a Chevrolet Suburban (like the one illustrated below) that carried about four passengers plus driver, or in a pickup.

In early 1974, when I took the photo on the left, snow covered the ground at Ticlio. Two decades later during a meeting of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources, there was hardly any snow to be seen.

One of my colleagues at CIP, and Head of CIP’s Outreach Program from 1973-76 or so, was Richard ‘Dick’ Wurster who had spent some years with a potato program in East Africa (Uganda I believe) before being recruited to join CIP. Dick was independently wealthy, and a licensed pilot. He brought his own aircraft with him! And CIP took advantage of that to use it to ferry staff to Huancayo, landing at the unmanned airstrip in Jauja, now the Francisco Carle Airport served by scheduled airlines. It was a six-seater I believe, maybe a Cessna O-2 Skymaster. Anyway, CIP had a full time pilot. A year or so later, CIP purchased its own aircraft, a much more powerful model with a longer range.

To fly to Jauja safely, the flight path had to cross the Andes at around 22-24,000 feet. Dick’s plane was not sufficiently powered to climb directly from Lima over the mountains. So it would take off from Jorge Chavez Airport (Lima’s international airport) on the coast, and climb inland, more or less following the Carretera Central, before turning around and heading back to the coast, climbing all the time. Then it would head east once again, having gained sufficient height in the meantime to cross the watershed, and miss all the mountains that stand in the way.

Flying on a cloudy day was always a tense trip, because the pilot had to dead reckon where he was, then, seeing an opening in the cloud cover, dive down to come in over the Mantaro Valley, making at least one pass over Jauja airstrip to check there were no human or animal obstacles blocking the runway.

That’s looks like Dr Parviz Jatala (one of CIP’s nematologists) alongside the pilot.

Anyway when I recently came across the photos below (taken around 1974), on a clear day crossing the Andes, I was struck by the amount of snow and ice cover, glaciers even. And that made me wonder, in these times of global warming, how that phenomenon has affected the snow cover on these Andes peaks today.

A serious decline in snow and ice cover would have considerable knock-on effects in terms of water availability east towards the Mantaro Valley, and more seriously to the west, down the River Rimac to Lima that depends so heavily on this source of water from the mountains.