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.