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.
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).
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.
* 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.