Around the world through 191 airports . . . and counting

I took my first flight, in the summer of 1966 when I was seventeen. Fifty-three years ago.

It was a short hop, just 137 nm and less than one hour, on a four-engine Vickers Viscount turboprop from Glasgow Airport (GLA, then known as Abbotsinch) to the low-lying island of Benbecula (BEB) in the Outer Hebrides, between North and South Uist. I was to spend a week there bird-watching at the RSPB’s newly-established Balranald reserve.

In the intervening years, Glasgow Airport has become an important international hub for the west of Scotland. In 1966, Benbecula had just one small building, almost a hut, serving as the terminal. When I passed by a few years ago during a vacation in Scotland, it didn’t look as though it had grown much.

Since that first flight I have taken hundreds more and, as far as I can recall, taken off from or landed at a further 189 airports worldwide. Navigate around the map below, or use this link to open a full screen version to see which ones.

Each airport is identified using its three letter IATA code. Just click on any symbol to see the full name, and a Wikipedia link for more details on each airport.

The airports I have departed from or traveled to are shown as dark red symbols. Also included in this group are the airports (actually quite a small number) where I changed flights, to the same airline or another one, but did not leave the airport itself. Airports that were operational during the years I was flying regularly, but have now been superseded by new ones such as in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hyderabad (India), and Durban (South Africa), to name just four cities are listed in this category. In most cases, the old airports still operate commercially in one form or another, but not generally for international flights.

If passengers could not disembark during a lay-over or only spent a brief time in the airport terminal before continuing on the same flight, then I’ve used a blue symbol.

Three airports (shown in yellow) have since closed. In Hong Kong, the infamous Kai Tak airport in Kowloon was closed in July 1998 when operations moved to Chek Lap Kok, west of the city. The site is being redeveloped.

When I visited the Caribbean island of Montserrat in November 1979, we landed on a small strip on the east coast. It now lies under several meters of volcanic ash following the disastrous eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano between 1995 and 1999.

A third, at the Mayan city of Tikal in the rainforest of northeast Guatemala, is no longer operational. I can see from a satellite image on Google Maps that buildings now line either side of what appears to have been the runway. Steph and I flew there in August 1977 on an Aviateca DC-3. Nowadays, I assume that visitors to Tikal must either travel by road (there were none in 1977) or fly into the international airport (FRS) at Flores, a city north of Tikal.

An Aviateca DC-3 at Tikal in 1971.

Finally, three airports (all in central Peru) are shown in green. These were airfields or landing strips not served by commercial flights where I traveled by light aircraft.

Steph and I flew from San Ramon (SPRM) on the east side of the Andes to Puerto Bermudez on this Cessna. We didn’t have seats, and on the return flight sat on empty beer crates, sharing the cabin with three dead pigs!


The second flight I took, in early 1969, was back to GLA from London Heathrow (LHR) to attend a student folk dance festival at Strathclyde University in that city.

My third flight (and first outside the UK), in April 1972, was to Izmir, Turkey to attend an international conference on plant genetic resources. With my friend and former colleague, Brian Ford-Lloyd, we flew from Birmingham (BHX) via LHR to Izmir (IGL – now replaced by a new airport south of the city) through Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport (ISL) formerly known as Yeşilköy Airport. On the return journey, Brian and I almost missed our flight from Istanbul to London. With all the ambient noise in the terminal and inadequate tannoy, we hadn’t heard the flight departure announcement and were blithely sitting there without a care in the world. Eventually someone from Turkish Airlines came looking for us, and escorted us across the apron to board the 707 through a rear door. Embarrassed? Just a little.


The first long-distance flight I took (5677 nm, and only my fourth flight) was in January 1973, to Lima to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist. On a Boeing 707 operated by BOAC (the predecessor of British Airways), this was a long flight, with intermediate stops in Antigua (ANU) in the Caribbean, Caracas (CCS) in Venezuela, Bogota (BOG) in Colombia, before the final sector to Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport (LIM).

Steph joined me in Peru in July 1973, and flew the same route (but starting at LHR), only her second flight (the first being school trip to France in the 1960s).


In compiling this list of airports, I’m also reminded of the many flights that passed through them, and my impressions of each terminal and facilities. After all, transit through an airport is an important part of the overall trip experience. In some instances you can spend almost as much time in the airport as in the air, having to cope with the hassle (challenges in some cases) of checking in, passing through security, the boarding process (which can go smoothly or not depending on how ‘friendly’ the ground staff are) on departure, and immigration, baggage pickup (always stressful), and finally, customs control on arrival. So many steps. So many opportunities for something to go awry. I think we tend to almost discount trips when everything goes to plan. It’s what we hope for, expect even.

However, let’s have a look at the particular challenges of some airports, based just on where they are located, and their difficulty for pilots. Now I’ve never landed in Paro (PBH) in Bhutan (regarded as one of the most ‘dangerous’ airports in the world, flown visually throughout (check out this video to see what I mean), or the gateway to Mt Everest, Lukla (LUA) in Nepal.

But landing at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak¹ was always interesting (even when there were no weather issues), and that I’ve seen referred to as the ‘heart attack’ approach, banking steeply to the right on final, and seemingly skimming the roof tops.

 

While in Lima (1973-1976) I made a few internal flights but nothing international.

I flew into Cuzco (CUZ) a couple of times. It is surrounded by mountains, and flights can only land from and take off to the east. A new international airport is being built (controversially) at Chinchero north of the city, an important area for indigenous agriculture (potatoes and maize!) and cultural heritage.

The airport at Juliaca (JUL, for Puno on Lake Titicaca) lies at 12,500 feet (or 3800 m), and has one of the longest runways in Latin America. I’ve been there two or three times.

It wasn’t until I moved to Costa Rica (1976-1980) to lead CIP’s research program, that I began to travel more regularly around my ‘patch’ from Mexico to Panama and out into the Caribbean Islands.

San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is surrounded by volcanic peaks up to 3000 m. This was my local airport for almost five years (we lived in Turrialba, 82 km to the east), and it could be quite badly fogged in from time to time. I remember one time returning from Guatemala City on the late evening Pan Am 707 flight. We had to circle overhead the airport for more than half an hour, until the fog cleared. However, just as we were about to touch down, the Captain applied full power and aborted the approach. At the last moment, the fog had obscured his view of the runway. He banked away steeply to the left and, according to the driver who came to pick me up, our aircraft skimmed the terminal building!

One could always expect a white knuckle approach into Tegucigalpa’s Toncontín  International Airport (TGU) in Honduras. Just before landing, aircraft have to bank steeply to the left then skim a hill at the end of the runway, before dropping quickly on to the runway and braking hard to avoid skidding off the end of the runway (which has happened several times). Here’s a B-737 cockpit view of landing there, the aircraft (but generally the 737-100 or 737-200) I often flew into TGU.

 

 

The take-off roll at Mexico City (MEX) can last a minute or more, because of the altitude of the airport (7300 feet, 2230 m). The airport has parallel runways almost 4 km long. In 1979, I was returning to Guatemala City with a colleague, and we boarded an Aviateca B-727, a new aircraft. The take-off seemed to last forever. In fact, the Captain lifted the nose just before the end of the runway, and we skimmed the landing lights by only a small height. Then, on landing at Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport (GUA, also surrounded by several volcanoes which can make for a tricky approach) we burst a tyre and skidded off the runway, coming to a halt some distance from the terminal building.

Turbulence always makes me nervous. The airspace around the approach to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (NRT) is always busy, and often subject to bumpy air. Many’s the time I’ve bounced into and out of NRT, but fortunately never experiencing the very severe turbulence affecting some flights.


It wasn’t until I moved to the Philippines in 1991 (until April 2010) that I began to fly on a regular basis, mostly intercontinental flights to the USA or Europe, but also around Asia.

My first foray into Asia was in 1982 when I attended a conference in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, flying into the old Halim Perdanakusuma International Airport (HLP) on a KLM B-747 from Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport (AMS).

AMS and Frankfurt (FRA) became hubs for many of my flights, business and pleasure, until I discovered Emirates (EK) in 2000 when they commenced flights out of Manila to Dubai (DXB) and on to BHX, on a wide-bodied B-777.

And it was during these years that I got to travel into Africa for the first time. In January 1993 I flew to Addis Ababa (ADD) from Manila (MNL) via the old Bangkok Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) on an Ethiopian Airlines flight. On another occasion I took Singapore Airlines from MNL to Johannesburg (JNB) via Singapore (SIN), with a South African Airways (SAA) connection in JNB to Lusaka (LUN), Zambia. It was 27 April 1994, and South Africa was holding its first democratic election, won by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) Party. Having traveled on Business Class, I was settling into the the SAA lounge at JNB when a bomb was detonated in the departure hall above my head. We were all evacuated on to the grass outside, passing through the devastated hall on the way, until we were allowed back into the terminal after several hours. Fortunately it was a fine autumn morning, bright and sunny although a little chilly.

Arrival at Lagos Murtala Muhammed International Airport (LOS) was, for many years, quite stressful. Greeted on arrival with sinister looking individuals not in uniform demanding one’s passport was one thing, but on departure there was always pressure from immigration and security staff at every point in the departure demanding to look through one’s hand-luggage and ‘ask’ for a bribe, a token of ‘friendship’. It didn’t matter what the item might be, one was always faced with the same old question: ‘What have you got for me in your case?’ Invariably I would answer: ‘A nice big friendly smile’ and passed on with no further toll levied. By the time I made my last visit in the early 2000s, those practices had more or less disappeared.

I’ve always found immigration into the United States somewhat intimidating. Whether immigration officers are told to be generally difficult, I don’t know, but they do ask some rather strange questions. On one occasion, in September 1978, when our elder daughter Hannah was just four or so months old, we flew back to the UK from Costa Rica via Miami (MIA). This was Hannah’s first flight – and she nearly didn’t make it.

In those days, MIA (and probably many other ports of entry into the USA) did not have a transit facility. Even if just changing flights, you had to pass through immigration requiring a US visa. Hannah was registered in Steph’s passport, and we did not realize that Steph’s visa did not cover Hannah as well. At first, the immigration officer was reluctant to allow us to pass, but after discussing the situation for more than 30 minutes, she did allow us to proceed to our next flight. Needless to say I had to get Hannah a separate visa at the US Embassy in San Jose on our return, attending an interview on Hannah’s behalf to answer all those silly visa application questions. No, Hannah had never been a Communist, or convicted of war crimes.

This transit situation reminds me of another instance when I was traveling with a Peruvian colleague to the Caribbean islands from Santo Domingo (SDQ) in the Dominican Republic via San Juan (SJU) in Puerto Rico. I had a US visa, Oscar did not. We had a lay-over of several hours between flights in SJU. Eventually Oscar was permitted to join me in the airport terminal, on the condition that he was accompanied by an armed guard at all times.


In 2005 I was caught up in a major strike at Northwest Airlines (NWA, now absorbed into Delta Air Lines). I had a business trip to the USA, to attend a meeting in Houston, Texas. By then, Hannah had been living in St Paul, Minnesota for several years, and I’d schedule any trip to the US at a weekend via Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP) so I could spend time with her and Michael (now my son-in-law). The day after I arrived in St Paul, a strike was called at NWA that lasted for some weeks, causing my travel plans to be thrown into considerable confusion. Fortunately, NWA handled the situation well, and transferred me on to other airlines, mainly United. I flew to George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston via St Louis (STL). From Houston, I traveled to New York (JFK) for meetings at UNDP. But because of the NWA strike, there was no flight home to the Philippines from MSP. Instead, I flew direct to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to connect with a United non-stop flight to Hong Kong (HKK, at Kai Tak). And that’s how I came take the world’s longest flight in those days: 17½ hours, 6773 nm. The flight was full. I already had a First Class upgrade from NW that was honored by United, so was rather more comfortable than those in the back over such a long flight. But would we make the flight non-stop? That was the concern raised by our Captain as we taxied out to the runway. He told us that because of the length (and weight) of the full flight, and expected headwinds, there was a 30% chance we might have to land in Beijing (PEK) to refuel. In the eventuality we must have glided on empty from PEK to HKG. Then, in HKG, I transferred to a Canadian Airlines flight for the last sector into MNL.

The whole trip covered more than 17,000 nm.

Then in November 2016, when making a review of genebanks, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I flew to Melbourne (MEL), Australia for four nights, on EK from BHX via DXB. The DXB-MEL sector was the second longest flight I have ever taken at 14 hours or so, and 6283 nm, fortunately on the great A380. This trip was, in total, longer than the US trip I just described above, at 18,625 nm.

Enjoying a wee dram at the bar at the rear upper deck of the A380.


Recently, I came across an item on the CNN travel website, listing Singapore’s Changi Airport (SIN) as No. 1 on its list for 2019, the seventh year in a row that it had received the accolade. Even LHR was on the list, at No. 8. That surprised me, given the problems it has experienced in terms of processing incoming passengers through immigration. It’s an airport I have avoided for many years.

When I first began flying, five decades ago, airport terminals were quite rudimentary in many respects, and even until recently some international airports have failed to make the grade. Many airports didn’t even have air bridges to board the aircraft, and you had to walk to the aircraft in all weathers, or be bused out to the aircraft.

Airports have become prestige projects for many countries, almost cities with many opportunities to fleece us of our hard won cash, flaunting so many luxury products.

It’s no wonder that SIN is No. 1. It’s a fabulous airport, almost a tourist attraction in its own right. As are airports like Dubai (DXB), the airport I have traveled through frequently on home leave. EK via DXB also became my airline of choice for flights into Europe on business.

Some like Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) are so huge, there’s an internal transportation system to move from one part of the airport to another. New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) is large – and badly designed. I remember one time arriving there on American Airlines (AA, from MEX I think) to connect with a British Airways (BA) flight to BHX. All the terminals at JFK are arranged around a circle, and there were shuttle buses—in one direction only—connecting them. I arrived in the American terminal which was next door to the BA terminal, but to its right. There was no way to walk from the AA terminal to the BA one. I had to take the shuttle bus all the way round, stopping at every terminal on the way to drop-off and pick-up passengers. It was a busy afternoon. It took almost 90 minutes, and I thought I was going to miss my flight, that was, in any case, delayed. I haven’t been to JFK for a couple of decades so don’t know if this set-up is the same.

On these long-haul flights, we were permitted to fly in Business Class. Having picked up so many air miles I could, on occasion, upgrade my seat to First Class. What a privilege. Flying Business Class also meant access to airline lounges where one could escape to a more relaxing environment before boarding. Given the parlous state of many airport terminals (especially the toilets) this really was a boon.


And to wrap up this post, I’ve been thinking of some of my favorite airports. On clear days, the approaches into SJO or CUZ could be marvelous, with fantastic views over the surrounding mountains. Likewise GUA. In Asia, the approach to Luang Prabang (LPQ) was scenically very beautiful.

But I guess the airports that have caught my attention are those that just worked, like SIN or DXB, BHX even. Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport or NAIA (MNL) Terminal 1 (which we used throughout our 19 years in the Philippines, before the new Terminal 3 opened to international traffic in 2011) lacked many facilities, with little space for passengers to wait comfortably for their flights. However, I have to admit it was one of the fastest and easiest I’ve ever transited in terms of immigration procedures. In 1996, I flew back to the Philippines with our younger daughter Philippa on a KLM flight from AMS. We touched down, on time, around 16:30, and we were leaving the airport with four bags, having taxied to the terminal, disembarked, passed through immigration and customs, within fifteen minutes. That’s right, fifteen minutes! That must be a record. But that was NAIA for you. I was only delayed seriously on one occasion in all those years.

So many airports, so many flights. So many memories, also. And, on reflection, mostly good. After all, that’s what has allowed me to explore this interesting world of ours.


¹ It’s also noteworthy how many of the aircraft shown in the video are B-747s, a plane that is becoming an increasingly rare sight at many airports around the world, many having been pensioned off and replaced by more fuel efficient twin-engined aircraft like the B-777 and B-787 from Boeing, or the A330 and A350 from Airbus.

Walking with my mobile: [3] Water and steel

Milestone, near the Queen’s Head pub, a couple of miles south of Tardebigge.

It’s 1807, and fields around Tardebigge, a small settlement east of Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, are swarming with hundreds if not thousands of workmen, known as navvies (from the name by which canals were also known at the end of the 18th century: ‘navigations’) facing their next challenge in the construction of the 29 mile Worcester and Birmingham Canal that would finally open in 1815 after reaching Worcester on the River Severn. That’s what I imagine it must have been like.

Tardebigge is almost equidistant between Birmingham and Worcester. It had already taken 15 years just to dig this first level section of the canal, on the same level as Birmingham (at 453 feet above sea level).

While engineers had avoided building any locks as far as Tardebigge, they had to construct four tunnels, the longest (at 2726 yards) taking the canal under the Lickey Hills (the Wast Hills Tunnel). North of Tardebigge they also constructed the Bittell Reservoirs, to feed the canal.

The Tardebigge Tunnel entrance.

South from Tardebigge the engineers and surveyors had to drop the canal almost 430 feet over the next 15 miles to Worcester, constructing 56 narrow (7 foot) locks, and two larger ones at Worcester where the canal meets the River Severn.

The Tardebigge Flight south of the Tardebigge Reservoir.

Tardebigge Bottom Lock near Stoke Pound.

Immediately below Tardebigge there is a flight of 30 locks, the longest in the country, in the space of under three miles. And another reservoir, and a pumping house (now converted to luxury apartment).

Following the Tardebigge flight is one of my favorite walks. On 11 April, I made a walk of just over six miles, covering much of the same route I described in an earlier post. On this latest walk, I went beyond the Tardebigge Reservoir, leaving the towpath where London Road crosses the canal, and less than half a mile from the last lock of the flight, Tardebigge Top Lock (the deepest of all the 56 narrow locks).

Take a look at the route of this walk. There is an image (or more than one) linked to each of the red via points.

Overlooking the canal at Tardebigge is the late 18th century church of St Bartholomew. From there one can see  the spire of 12th century St John’s Church in the center of Bromsgrove itself. In the image below, the spire can be seen just to the right of the chimney on the right. Click to enlarge the image.

Looking east to Tardebigge church and the canal, from Dusthouse Lane.

What I find myself thinking about, as I walk the towpath, is just what it took to dig the canal, and construct the locks. How did they achieve all this without recourse to machinery? Each of the locks is brick-lined, and some are edged with large and beautifully dressed sandstone blocks. Were the bricks made on site, or transported to each lock? Where did the sandstone come from? And the lock gates (double on the lower side, single on the upper), made from huge oak beams, weighing (when assembled) over a tonne? You can’t help wondering how they managed to position all these into place. On many sections there are no nearby roads linking with the canal. How many navvies were injured, or killed even, during the whole construction.


For 25 years, the Worcester and Birmingham Canal had no competition. However, in June 1840 the railway came to Bromsgrove with the opening of its station on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, linking Birmingham with the Bristol and Gloucester Railway at Gloucester. Constructed just east of Bromsgrove town center, the line climbs the famous Lickey Incline, a gradient of 1 in 37.7 over a distance of two miles, that begins immediately north of Bromsgrove station.

My walk route also parallels the rail line south to Stoke Pound, crosses underneath there, and again at Finstall on the north side. Approaching the line one cannot but be impressed by the engineering needed to raise level embankments over undulations in the landscape, yet climb the gradient of the Incline to its summit north at Barnt Green.

How many more thousands of navvies swarmed once again into Bromsgrove and surrounding areas while the line was being constructed?

Today the line through Bromsgrove carries commuter services on the recently-electrified Cross City extension (of West Midlands Railways) from Birmingham (and connecting with Lichfield in Staffordshire), or on diesel units south to Hereford via Worcester and Malvern. CrossCountry services hurtle through Bromsgrove (as seen above) on their way south to Penzance at the tip of Cornwall, via Bristol, or north to Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland, via Birmingham, York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh.

So much industrial history to absorb, and so much to think about while enjoying the tranquility and beauty of this north Worcestershire landscape. I never ceased to be awed by what was achieved.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 23: An Anglo-Italian connection

I’ve twice traveled by train, in 2004 and 2006, from my home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire to Rome in central Italy. And if I had my way, I’d travel everywhere by train, if that were possible.

When visiting government agencies that provided financial support to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) when I was Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), I tried to combine as many visits into a single trip as possible, thus making the best use of my time on the road. In Europe, traveling by train was by far the most convenient (and comfortable) way of visiting several cities on the way, rather than hopping on and off planes for relatively short flights. Not to mention the inconvenience of additional waiting time at airports and the hassle of actually getting to and from them.

Train travel in many European countries is reliable and, compared to the UK, competitively priced. Purchasing a Eurail pass was by far the cheapest option, even for First Class tickets, and could be bought online from the Philippines.

This was my itinerary on both occasions:

  • Bromsgrove – Birmingham New Street – London Euston (into Birmingham on London Midland—now operated by West Midlands Trains—then Virgin Trains to London; around 2 hours or so; map)
  • London Waterloo (Eurostar now operates from London St Pancras) – Brussels Midi (on Eurostar; around 2 hours; map)
  • Brussels Midi – Cologne – Bonn Central (on the Thalys to Cologne, and Deutsche Bahn, DB; just over 2 hours; map)
  • Bonn Central – Basel – Bern (Deutsche Bahn to Basel, then Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS), along the Rhine Valley (around 5½ hours; map)
  • Bern – Milan Central (on Swiss Federal Railways; around 4½ hours; map)
  • Milan Central – Rome Termini (on Trenitalia; 3 hours; map)

On the second trip I traveled with IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler (and his wife Crissan) to visit donor agencies in Brussels (Directorate General for International Cooperation or DGCI of Belgium, and the European Union, EU), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Bonn, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in Bern (and a side trip to Basel where Bob gave a seminar at the Syngenta Foundation), and finally, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, an agency of the United Nations) in Rome – all members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

Crissan and Bob Zeigler


We met at London’s Waterloo station for the Eurostar service to Brussels, arriving there mid-afternoon. Since no meetings had been arranged that same day, we enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine for a stroll around La Grand-Place (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), before enjoying our dinner at one of the many cafes close by.

Bob and Crissan feasted on one of the local delicacies: moules (mussels).

I like mussels, but in moderation, just a few added to a fish pie or a fish soup. Not a whole meal. In any case, our meal was accompanied, of course, by several glasses of excellent Belgian beer.


The day after our meetings, we caught the Thalys (the Belgian TGV) to Cologne, and then a regional service for the short hop to Bonn. We had just one day of meetings in Bonn, with the German aid ministry (BMZ), and then spent an excellent day touring the vineyards of the Ahr Valley just south of Bonn. Our main contact was my old friend Marlene Diekmann who I’d known for many years before she joined the BMZ when she was a plant pathologist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome.

On previous visits to Bonn, in all weathers, Marlene and I had gone walking along the terraces of the Ahr Valley, as I described in this blog post. On this current trip with the Zeiglers, as in the past, we sampled some of the fruits of the vintner’s art. And very good it was.

Each time I have visited the Ahr Valley I have never failed to be impressed at the cultivation of the vines on such steep slopes. In the early evening we headed to Rheinbach (map) to join Dr Hans-Jochen de Haas, who was Germany’s representative to the CGIAR, and became a good friend.

I’d last seen him the previous year in Bonn and presented him with a book on rice culture.

A few years later (and before I retired in 2010) he sadly passed away after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

Bob and I (with Marlene) also made a one-day visit to Hannover (again by train) to visit the Volkwagen Foundation to try and tempt them to support a research project on rice and climate change involving a German scientist seconded to IRRI.

Commitments in Germany completed, Switzerland was our next stop, so we took the train along the River Rhine to Basel, and transferring to Swiss railways to Bern.


I first visited Switzerland in July 1984 when I attended the 9th Triennial Conference of the European Association for Potato Research (EAPR), that was held in Interlaken in the heart of the Bernese Oberland.

A group of us from the UK flew from London Gatwick to Bern (Switzerland’s capital city) on a Swissair BAe 146, and then taken the train for the 1 hour rail journey to Interlaken. There are no flights to Bern nowadays; Switzerland is served by two major international airports in Geneva (in the west) and Zurich (in the north central part of the country). And, in any case, rail services across the country are frequent, convenient, and comfortable.

In 1984, I’d taken a trip up to Wengen (1274 m) from Interlaken, with the last leg on the funicular railway from Lauterbrunnen. The Zeiglers and I repeated this trip. And after lunch in Wengen, we took the cable car up to Männlichen (2343 m), before dropping to Grindelwald (1034 m) on Europe’s longest gondola cableway (and third longest in the world).

At Männlichen there are fabulous views of the Eiger, Jungfrau and other mountains.

Watch this video that I found on YouTube of the cable car ride to Männlichen and the gondola cableway down to Grindelwald.

All too soon, our Swiss visit was over, and we took the train to Milan, an impressive journey through the Alps and the Italian lakes.

In Milan, we transferred to the high speed train to Rome. That was an interesting journey. In 2006, the 18th FIFA World Cup was hosted by Germany. Although Mexico had been eliminated from the competition by then, our train was full of supporters from Mexico on their way to Rome to enjoy the sights. Bob, Crissan and I all spoke Spanish. Bob and Crissan had actually lived in Mexico for a few years before returning to IRRI in 2005. So we had a great time with the Mexicans, and our fast train journey to Rome (a city I have visited numerous times) passed even faster it seemed.


 

You can do better than this, Network Rail (updated 18 February & 14 April)

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, and it won’t go away. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Let me explain. Please bear with me.

My home town, Bromsgrove, lies at the foot of the Lickey Hills in north Worcestershire (map). The rail mainline from Birmingham to the southwest (through Worcester and Cheltenham, on to Bristol and the West Country) passes to the east of the town, having descended the Lickey Incline, ‘the steepest sustained main-line railway incline in Great Britain. The climb is a gradient of 1 in 37.7 (2.65% or 26.5‰ or 1.52°) for a continuous distance of two miles (3.2 km)’.

A new station was opened in 2016, and the line was subsequently electrified.

The new electric trains (operated by West Midlands Railways in their bright gold and silvery grey livery) came into service in July 2018 as part of the Cross City line connecting Bromsgrove with Lichfield to the north of Birmingham.

I wrote a blog post about the station in 2016, and updated it last November.

There are three bridges over the railway near the new station, one to the south (at a housing development known as Breme Park that had been built on the site of the former Garringtons Ltd or United Engineering Forgings), and two to the north (one over St Godwald’s Road, and the other over the B4184, Finstall Road), indicated by arrows on the map below. All three bridges are owned by Network Rail, which ‘own[s] and operate[s] the railway infrastructure in England, Wales and Scotland on behalf of the nation. That’s 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges and viaducts and thousands of tunnels, signals, level crossings and points’.

Until recently these bridges were great vantage points to watch rail traffic up and down the Lickey Incline. No longer. During the installation the overhead electrification it wasn’t necessary to raise any of the three bridges in Bromsgrove. However, as a safety feature to prevent anyone leaning over the parapets, steel cladding was erected on both sides of each bridge, as illustrated in this photo to the right. I didn’t manage to take any photos of the bridges with all this cladding, but you can now imagine what it must have looked like. Very unsightly.

Now the cladding has been replaced on all three bridges—for better or worse. That’s why a bee is busy buzzing. Let me show you, bridge by bridge.

To the south of the station, there is a steel and brick bridge that connects with public footpaths on the east side. It’s just a muddy track, but wide enough for a vehicle to cross. From here was the perfect spot to watch trains approaching, at speed, round the bend from the south. Almost all the steel cladding has gone, except at each end of the bridge on both sides. I cannot understand why Network Rail would leave the bridge with four sets of steel cladding, unless workmen will return at a later date to replace the remain panels. Click on each image to enlarge.

In the center and right below, can be seen the view, north and south from the bridge, from the ends of the bridge. On the left is the view south towards the bridge from the station platform.

Just north of the station (close to where the old station was sited until 2016), a concrete bridge crosses St Godwald’s Road. On the top of the parapet has been placed a single course of ‘plastic bricks’. Since the parapet itself is flat, Network Rail made a better job here. It wasn’t so complicated. Yet, on the rail side of the north parapet, there is much to be desired, as the ‘bricks’ don’t appear to be fully secured.

Then there is the bridge further north carrying the B4184 Finstall Road over the mainline. This is actually a concrete structure, but the parapets were faced with pink sandstone blocks that have weathered over the decades, and are in keeping with the surrounding area.

But what a botched job Network Rail has made of placing a course of ‘bricks’ on the top of each parapet. This a view of the bridge from the south (rail) side.

On the bridge itself, south and north sides, it’s hard to believe that anyone signed off on this as a completed job, well done. Just look at how they have placed the ‘bricks’. Let’s look at the south side first.

And on the north side, it’s almost as bad. And in the process, some of the stonework has been damaged.

On one of my walks a couple of weeks ago (on 21 January to be precise), I took a few photos on my mobile and sent a couple of tweets to Network Rail:

To their credit, Network Rail did reply within an hour, and through emails they have now referred this issue to a local team to investigate: Your service request has been assigned to our RAM Structures team to investigate further. They will report back shortly with their findings and your local contact and communities team will be in contact to confirm the next steps in due course. There’s even a job number, #190121-000205.

Nothing has happened yet, but I’ll keep monitoring the situation—and bugging Network Rail—until the buzzing has gone away*.

But why have I become so incensed about this situation? The casual use of resources is unacceptable in these difficult fiscal times. But maybe I’m just becoming a grumpy old fart.

I have no idea what budget was allocated to, firstly, install the steel cladding, and secondly, the replacement panels and ‘bricks’. Thousands of pounds, undoubtedly. How many person-days so far? And, for the bridge on the Finstall Road, because there is a pavement on only one side (the south) the road had to be partially closed (with traffic signals) for about three weeks, disrupting traffic for the local community.

But as I’ve already said, I can’t imagine how anyone could think that this workmanship was acceptable, up to standard. And that goes against my sensibilities of doing something right the first time!

These are the only views now possible from the bridge on St Godwald’s Road. The middle image below was taken from the car park of the old station, and shows a West Midlands Railways train departing from Platform 3, and then crossing over on to the up line. Diesel trains (shown here) to and from Hereford via Worcester stop at Bromsgrove.


* On 12 February, I received a further update from Network Rail, which I reproduce here in full:

Dear Mr Jackson,

Thank you for your recent communication to our National Helpline on the 21 January 2019.

As part of the scope of works of the Bromsgrove electrification, our project team have had to ensure that at all bridges over the railway a minimum of 1.8 metre high parapets have to be in place to protect users of the bridge from the presence of live electrification equipment below. From July 2018 this was permanently energised at 25,000 volts.
In some cases (such as the new Bromsgrove station footbridge and newly-reconstructed bridges in the Barnt Green and Blackwell areas), this height separation has been provided from new. At bridges which have not needed to be reconstructed, we have raised the heights of the parapets, there being three such structures in the Bromsgrove area.

The designs for parapet height extension have gone through a number of approval processes, which have taken some time. Temporary steel screening has been installed at the bridges – including Finstall Road – to provide the necessary separation in the interim between energisation of the electrification and the approval and delivery of the permanent works. Planning consent has been sought and received, with an inert colour incorporated into the material used (GRP).

Volker Rail is the contractor undertaking the works (under subcontract to MPB), and over a number of weekends has progressively installed the cladding and when able, removed the temporary steel cladding. As per the photos supplied by you the temporary gaps left between the GRP panels, some of which were filled in the interim with plywood panels, were of work still in progress whilst the GRP ones were being fabricated.

While I appreciate this may not be the answer that you were hoping for, and there may still be some work outstanding, the work to date is as per the design.

For the rest of your enquiry about the costs involved in this project, if you would like to pursue this information, we would kindly request for you to make a separate enquiry as this would require a Freedom of Information request.

Kind Regards
Community Relations

Now, there’s a couple of points I’d like to make. First, I have never questioned the necessity of meeting health and safety issues by installing raised parapets. I completely see the need for these, while feeling disappointed (along with many others, I’m sure) that the views up and down the Lickey Incline have now been reduced or lost. Second, the reply from Network Rail is ambiguous whether the job at the bridges is a ‘work in progress’ and yet to completed, or whether this is now the finished article, so to speak. If it’s a ‘work in progress’ I’m surprised that Network Rail did not agree with the contractor (Volker Rail) a more convenient start date when all the materials necessary for the job had been assembled. If the contractor has to return that will mean more expense and road closure inconvenience perhaps.


Update (14 April 2019)
While out for a short walk yesterday I decided to check if any more work had been carried out on the bridge on the Finstall Road. I’d noticed that the parapet on the south side had been repaired a week earlier. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that the north side had also now been brought up to standard.

Parapets on the south side of the bridge.

On the north side.

After I’d downloaded the images from my phone, I decided to send a tweet to Network Rail:

Network Rail seemed pleased with my tweet.


 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 21: Taking in Tokyo (and Tsukuba)

I recently wrote about a trip to Bali in 2005 when the IRRI Board of Trustees (BoT) held one of its biannual meetings there.

Four years later, in September 2009,  Steph joined me when I attended the BoT meeting in Japan that was held in Tsukuba, the science city just over 60 km or so northeast of Tokyo, followed by a couple of days in Tokyo itself. Since  the meeting was held in the week before Steph’s 60th birthday, we decided to stay on an extra couple of nights and see something of Tokyo. I had been in Tokyo just once before¹, around 1994; Steph had never visited. However, we’d both passed through Tokyo’s Narita airport many times while flying to the USA.

In the good old days, before Northwest Airlines merged with and was taken over by Delta. Narita was a major hub for NW flights to and from the USA, as is the case now with Delta.

Leaving Manila for Tokyo on the early morning flight (a very early start from Los Baños to check-in three hours ahead of the flight) was not without its challenges, and we weren’t entirely certain we’d be able to fly. The Philippines had been hit the day before by Typhoon Ketsana (known in the Philippines as Ondoy), the first of two typhoons to hit the country within one week. There was extensive flooding in parts of Manila (which we saw as the Delta 747 climbed out of the city). At Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport or NAIA there was chaos at the check-in and in the departure areas. Many flights had failed to leave the previous day, and with so many passengers with nowhere else to go, the airport was heaving with people hoping to get a flight out.

Since Steph was traveling with me, I used air miles to upgrade our booking to Business Class as a special treat. The flight to Narita takes four hours. On arrival at Narita, we had a short wait for the bus to Tsukuba, around an hour northwest from the airport. We stayed at the Okura Frontier Hotel (the square building on the right) in the center of the city.

The Board and IRRI Management (and scientists as needed) met for three and a half days at the Tsukuba International Conference Center (just over a five minute walk south from the hotel).

The entrance to the Tsukuba International Conference Center.

Meanwhile, Steph joined the other spouses for several excursions in the surrounding region, as well as into Tokyo, to visit markets, see local handicrafts, take part in traditional Japanese flower arranging, a tea ceremony, and the like.

Then, after four days in Tsuskuba, we all decamped to central Tokyo, to the the Sheraton Miyako Hotel where, close-by, several events were organized by IRRI’s Japanese partner organization, the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences or JIRCAS.

The Sheraton Miyako Hotel (on the left) in the Minato district of Tokyo.

As I mentioned earlier, Steph and I stayed on for an extra couple of nights, so we could explore parts of Tokyo at the weekend, on Saturday 3 October, departing for Manila on the Sunday evening flight.

I’ve marked the places we visited on the map below.

We took full advantage of the extensive Tokyo subway system. We were able to purchase day tickets that gave access to the whole of the Tokyo subway system, over both the Toei Line and the Tokyo Metro Line. However, our first challenge was to purchase two tickets using the ticket machines. Eventually a very kind Japanese gentleman saw we were having a little difficulty, and helped us successfully navigate the menu.

The entrance to Shirokanedai subway station.

Starting at Shirokanedai Station (station I02, center bottom left on the map) on the Mita Line (Toei Line system), we traveled to the commercial district of Akihabara (I08), well known for its many electronics outlets. From there we visited Hibiyakōen (via Hibiya station, I08/H07), a park (near the Imperial Palace) where an agricultural exhibition was being held, that also featured a booth for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (including IRRI). Then it was on to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (via Shinjuku-Gyoemmae station, M10), and back to the hotel.

One thing struck us quite forcefully during this day excursion: how quickly one could get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It was a haven of peace and tranquility. Early October was perhaps not the best time of the year to see the garden. But it was lovely, nevertheless, and being enjoyed by locals with their families, although not at all busy.

Here is a 17 minute video that I made of the day.

One day is surely not enough to explore a city the size of Tokyo, but we did get to visit three areas that we had chosen. Getting around Tokyo was much easier than I anticipated, and more so than I remembered from my visit in the 1990s.

Of course there are many other places in Japan that we never had the opportunity and maybe one day we will return. The only other city I have seen—from the airport constructed on an artificial island—is Osaka.


¹ During that trip, when I was hosted by a former member of IRRI’s Board of Trustees, and another who was currently serving on the Board, I visited both Tsukuba and Tokyo. In  Tokyo I met officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF), and there I came across one of my former students, Yoshi Nishikawa, who attended the University of Birmingham plant genetic resources MSc course in 1987-88.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 20: Volcanoes, temples, and rice in Bali

During the 19 years I worked at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, I traveled to most of the countries in Asia, some repeatedly (Laos, for example) and others (such as Sri Lanka) just the once.

I must have visited Indonesia half a dozen times, mostly to Jakarta (on the island of Java) and to Bogor, about 64 km south of the capital, where one of IRRI’s sister centers, the forestry institute CIFOR, has its headquarters.

My first visit to Asia, in 1982, was to Indonesia. I stayed in Bogor for a couple of nights at the famous botanical garden there before returning to Jakarta to attend a genetic resources conference. However, it wasn’t until 2005 that I experienced the beauty of Bali for the first and only time.

Bali’s landscapes are dominated by three volcanoes in the north and northeast, the highest of which is Mt Agung, active since 2017.

These landscapes have been molded by generations of rice farmers who built and still maintain terraces to grow their precious crops. The soils, volcanic in origin, are fertile, and appear very productive.

IRRI’s Board of Trustees (BoT) meets twice a year. One meeting, in April, is always held at the institute’s headquarters in Los Baños, some 70 km south of Manila. The other meeting is often co-hosted by one of the institute’s national program partners with which IRRI collaborates to develop better rice technologies. Such joint meetings are often the opportunity for Board members (who come from a wide range of backgrounds, not necessarily agricultural) to better understand national rice production issues, and to see first hand how technologies are being tested, and disseminated to and adopted by farmers to increase agricultural productivity.

Rice varieties on display (above) and technologies (below) at a field day for IRRI’s Board of Trustees.

In 2005, the September BoT meeting was held at the Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali Resort 27 km west of Bali’s capital Denpasar. Steph joined me on this trip for only the second time (she did join me on a trip to Laos in 1997, then to Japan in 2009). We flew from Manila via Singapore on Singapore Airlines.

The BoT meeting lasted three days, and while we were locked away in presentations and discussions, the group of IRRI wives who had come along for the trip took various excursions around the island. Fortunately, we scientists and management also got to see something of Bali, the fertile volcanic landscapes, and rice agriculture on the picturesque and iconic rice terraces typical of the island.

Bali has a thriving tourist industry, but at the Nirwana resort we saw very little of the multitudes that flock to Bali each year. In any case most tourists stick close to Denpasar and its nightlife, in resorts located to the east and south of the capital. The coast west of Denpasar still remains unspoiled and uncrowded, however, according to an article that appeared in The Guardian today.

The hotel was very comfortable, and we enjoyed a large room with a balcony overlooking the restless Indian Ocean (next stop south: Antarctica!). The resort lies in the middle of an 18 hole golf course, interspersed with rice fields and lotus ponds, so there were ample opportunities for long walks at sunset. Several bars and restaurants are dotted around the complex, most with views over the golf course or the ocean. There were several pools to relax in.

Lotus ponds

Once the IRRI Board meeting was done and dusted, Steph and I decided to extend our stay over a long weekend.Just a short distance along the coast from the resort stands the famous and revered 16th century Hindu temple at Tanah Lot with access along the beach.

Unlike much of Indonesia (which is the world’s largest Muslim nation), Bali is primarily Hindu, and that is reflected in its culture, dances, and customs, some of which we experienced at a reception one evening.

In just over a week, we just sampled the flavor of Bali, but it would take an extended stay to become immersed in its vibrant culture. While I would like to return, one day, there are so many other places that I just have to explore first, given the opportunity.

 

 

 

 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 19: O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Steph and I really enjoy our visits to the USA. Over the years, we have experienced much of what this beautiful, fascinating, diverse, challenging, often bewildering (to the outsider, at least), and HUGE (or should that be ‘yuge’?) country has to offer.

And now that we have family there (our elder daughter Hannah studied in Minnesota, was married there in 2006, and she and her family live in St Paul), there’s an added incentive to visit the USA annually.

Since retiring in 2010, we have made some spectacular road trips to explore the country. In fact there are now few states (shown in white) that we have not visited, and just two (Nevada and Alaska) where sitting in an airport was as close as I got. Just click the various links below to open earlier blog posts or photo albums.

On one flight from Japan to the USA on Delta Airlines, we were diverted to Anchorage, Alaska because of a medical emergency, then spent three hours or so on the tarmac before continuing our journey. In Las Vegas, Nevada we transferred to a domestic flight having arrived from the Philippines.

The first time we ever set foot in the USA was in April 1975, but that was only to transfer flights in New York’s JFK airport. Steph and I had left Peru about a week or so earlier on our way back to the UK where I would write and present my PhD thesis at The University of Birmingham later that year.

I was working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, and the center’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, had offered me a postdoctoral position (provided I successfully defended my thesis) and a posting in Central America. So our trip home took us to Costa Rica for about 3-5 days (via an overnight stop in Panama City), a brief stopover of about the same length in Mexico to visit former CIP friends, and then on to New York on an Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, the first wide-bodied aircraft we had flown. From New York we took British Airways (on our first Boeing 747) to Manchester.

In April 1976 Steph and I moved to Costa Rica and remained there until November 1980. As CIP’s Regional Representative (and potato production specialist), I worked throughout Mexico, Central America, and several countries of the Caribbean. Travel from Costa Rica out to the Caribbean islands (mainly the Dominican Republic, but occasionally other islands where potatoes figured in the agricultural cycle for at least some period of the year) inevitably involved flights through Miami in Florida, and I soon got to know Miami International Airport intimately. Because transit through Miami was a good opportunity to stock up on items we couldn’t readily purchase in Costa Rica, I would always try and schedule my return flights via Miami, arriving there in the early morning and taking the late LACSA flight to San José, giving me several hours for shopping in one of the nearby malls in Dade County. Each year when we flew back to the UK on our annual leave, we took flights via Miami to London.


However, the first big challenge of any visit to the USA is actually entering the country. The immigration experience is not always a pleasant or easy one.

When traveling in the 1970s, unlike today when we enjoy visa-free ESTA travel (unless Brexit changes that), it was necessary to have a visa to enter the USA, even if only transferring flights, as was frequently the case in Miami. There were no transit facilities.

In September 1978, when our elder daughter Hannah was about five months, we traveled to the UK on leave. Things started to go pear-shaped on presentation at the immigration desk in Miami. Although Hannah was registered in Steph’s passport she apparently needed her own visa; Steph’s visa was not good for the both of them. After some intense discussion for perhaps 30 minutes or more, we were finally allowed to enter the USA (and headed straight to a day room in the airport hotel), but with the advice/warning that Hannah’s visa needed to be sorted in London.

To cut a long story short, we chanced our arm on the return journey without a visa for Hannah, and I sorted that soon after at the US embassy in San Jose. I had to take six month old Hannah for an ‘interview’ and answer, on her behalf, all the nonsensical questions that one has to answer, about ever being a Communist or a Nazi. I felt like providing sarcastic responses to these, but held my tongue. All babies are communist, right?

On another occasion I traveled with a Peruvian colleague, Oscar Hidalgo (who was based in Mexico), to the Dominican Republic, and from there to St Kitts and Barbados, starting our trip in Nicaragua. If memory serves me well, we took a flight operated by the Spanish airline Iberia from Managua to Santo Domingo. So far, so good.

But to travel on to St Kitts, we had to transit in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I had a US visa; Oscar did not. Our transit time was about four hours, and although Oscar was eventually permitted to enter the airport, he had an armed guard by his side throughout the whole period, ensuring that he didn’t become an illegal immigrant!


Steph and Hannah at the Golden Gate Bridge, on the north side in Marin County, in July 1979

In July 1979, I attended the annual meeting of the Potato Association of America in Vancouver, and Steph and Hannah (then 15 months) came along for the ride. Flying from Costa Rica via Guatemala City (a hub for American airline Panamerican in those days), we took a short break of about three days for sight seeing in San Francisco, our first and only visit to that extraordinary city.

From Vancouver we drove to Edmonton, then flew down to Madison, Wisconsin where I visited the university for a couple of days, and also the USDA Potato Introduction Station at Sturgeon Bay in Door County alongside Lake Michigan in the northeast of the state.

In March 1981, after I had resigned from CIP to return to an academic post in the UK, we flew to New York (on a Lufthansa DC-10), spending three nights there before heading on to London with British Airways.

Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building in New York, in March 1981

During the 1980s, I visited the USA only once, to attend a scientific conference in St Louis, Missouri, held at the Missouri Botanical Garden in the summer of 1982. This was the first time that I saw the Mississippi River, and also the Missouri a few miles upstream where we had a conference dinner at a restaurant on its southern bank. I had no inkling then that the Mississippi would eventually become a regular feature of our visits to the USA.


When we moved to the Philippines in 1991, my work with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) took me the USA on a regular basis, to visit the USDA genebank in Fort Collins, Colorado, to attend meetings at the World Bank in Washington, DC (a city I visited many times), or scientific conferences in Seattle (Washington), Minneapolis (Minnesota), Charlotte (North Carolina), Baltimore (Maryland), Stuttgart (Arkansas), and Salt Lake City (Utah).

Steph and I also visited old friends in Seattle in May 2000, and toured the Olympic Peninsula with them.

L: Sea stack at Ruby Beach on the Pacific coast of the Olympic Peninsula; R: snowfield at Hurricane Ridge on the north of the Olympic Peninsula.

When Hannah joined Macalester College in St Paul in the autumn of 1998, I would, as far as possible, route my trips via the Twin Cities, and got to know the area quite well.


But it wasn’t until after I had retired that Steph and I really set about exploring the country.

Our first road trip in May-June 2011 took us to canyon country in Arizona and New Mexico, beginning in Phoenix, AZ and ending in Albuquerque, NM taking in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, the Painted Desert, and Bandolier National Monument, among a number of locations.


A year later we explored the Minnesota Riviera along Lake Superior, and north to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area.


In 2016, after I’d broken my leg in January, we made just a short trip to find the source of the Mississippi in central Minnesota.


June 2013 saw us on the Oregon coast, spending time with Hannah and family in a house overlooking the spectacular coastline at Oceanside just south of Cape Meares, where the photo below was taken.

Then Steph and I headed south into northern California to take in the coastal redwoods. But not before stopping off at Crater Lake, OR.

Crater Lake, OR


In 2014 we made the first of three road trips of more than 2500 miles. Heading west from St Paul, we took in the Badlands and Mount Rushmore of South Dakota, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, before heading up the Beartooth Highway (America’s most beautiful?) to enter Yellowstone National Park from the north.


In September 2015, having made a long tour of Scotland in May, we decided on just a mini-break in the Windy City, Chicago, and traveled there by train from St Paul on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.


In 2017, we made the long road trip from Atlanta in Georgia to St Paul, taking in eleven states: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and back into Minnesota. Among the many attractions were the streets and parks of Savannah, the Appalachians, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and following the meandering Mississippi north through Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa.


That was 2017. Last year we drove from Massachussetts to Minnesota (there is a link to the other four posts in this series), crossing Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.


So what does 2019 hold in store. We’d like to explore the Deep South: Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but also taking in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and south as far as San Antonio (and The Alamo) in Texas. But we have no firm plans yet. It all depends on how the UK leaves the European Union (Brexit!) at the end of March, and whether this affects our ability to travel easily. There are so many unknowns, but we are not booking any flights or car rental until the situation is clearer.

I think we would fly into Atlanta, and head southwest into Alabama. I’d like to visit Vicksburg in Mississippi (site of an important siege during the American Civil War), and on to New Orleans of course. We wouldn’t try and drive back to Minnesota; it would be too far, so we’ll need to look into flights from San Antonio to MSP. Another consideration is when to travel. Mid-summer would be too hot and humid; not comfortable at all. So I guess it could be in September or early October, but will we come up against the hurricane season?

Although I have visited Washington, DC many times, I’ve never really toured the city. Steph hasn’t visited. So a visit there and to Virginia (Williamsburg, Monticello, and Mount Vernon), the Civil War battlefields of Virginia, Pennsylvania (Gettysburg), and Maryland, and the other Atlantic states (Delaware and New Jersey) is another trip we must plan.


At the beginning of this post I mentioned that the USA is beautiful, fascinating, diverse, challenging, bewildering, and huge country.

From the distances we have traveled there’s no doubt about just how huge the country is; the landscapes go on forever. These landscapes—forests, river valleys, mountains, plains, deserts, and coasts—are stunningly beautiful. In fact, I find it hard to describe them, so will let my photography speak for me.

The USA is so many countries rolled into one. The people are so different from one region to another, with very different perspectives on life. And challenging perspectives for me as an outsider, on religion (which plays such an important, and perhaps overly so, role in daily life), the love affair with guns, and the election of someone as President who is clearly not fit to hold that office. A political system that permits a president to be elected although losing the popular vote by 3 million votes or more seems bizarre (not that the first past the post parliamentary constituency system in the UK has much to commend it right now).

But it’s the paradoxes of the USA that I find bewildering.

We always enjoy returning to Minnesota however, and although we have mostly visited during the summer months, we did experience a Minnesota winter at Christmas 2007. Apart from the winters, Minnesota and Minnesotans are mellow!


One last point. If I had to choose to return to just one of places we have visited, which would it be?

Without a doubt – the Canyon de Chelly. It was one of the most remarkable places I have ever visited. The closest town is Chinle, and that’s in Navajo Reservation territory. No alcohol in the restaurants, so I’d have to make sure I brought some cold beers along. It was quite a shock when we visited in 2011 and I couldn’t order a beer with my steak.