Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 26: A sojourn in Sri Lanka

I visited Sri Lanka just the once. However, I don’t even remember which year or month. Only that it was the early 1990s, probably around 1993 or 1994. That was when I was planning a major rice conservation project at IRRI, and I wanted to determine if or how any Sri Lankan organizations would participate. As it turned out, for reasons that I’ll explain in due course, Sri Lanka did not join the project.

The Sri Lankan genebank, The Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) is based in Kandy in the island nation’s Central Province, of which it is the capital. It lies amongst the hills of the central plateau. The hills surrounding Kandy are covered in tea plantations. And, in many ways, Kandy is a magical place to visit. The scenery is outstanding.

Although I don’t remember in which hotel I stayed, I do remember it was perched on the summit of one of the hills, with views in every direction, as you can see in the gallery above. In the stillness of the dawn, I woke each morning to the sounds of birds calling to each other across the valleys. What a wonderful start to the day.

Kandy is home to a magnificent botanical garden (the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya just west of the city) and one of Buddhism’s most sacred places of worship, the Temple of the Tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa, is located in the city center.


The Plant Genetic Resources Centre was opened in 1990. Its construction was a donation from the Government of Japan in 1989. So when I visited it had been open for just a few years—and looked like it. But, unlike one or two other genebanks whose construction Japan had supported in other Asian countries, the staff at PGRC were certainly making the most of their expanded facilities to store seeds and tissue culture or in vitro conservation.

Once again I am unable to name most of the people I met at PGRC, with one exception: Mr CN Sandanayake, who was one of my MSc students at the University of Birmingham in 1986.

CN Sandanayake talks with one of his colleagues at PGRC.

And as you can see from one of the photos in the gallery above, everything stops for tea!

When I discussed participation in the IRRI-led rice biodiversity project, it was clear that Sri Lanka had already made significant progress to collect and conserve indigenous rice varieties and wild species. My former colleague at IRRI, Dr Duncan Vaughan had visited Sri Lanka in the 1980s to help with the collection of wild rices.

Furthermore, PGRC had a cadre of excellent technical staff, and as you can see from the photos, excellent facilities for germplasm conservation. And, given the ongoing civil war there were many no-go areas in the country, especially in the north and east. However, in Kandy, there was no tangible signs of the conflict.

I made a side trip, with Sandanayake, to the Rice Research & Development Institute at Batalagoda, some 50km north of Kandy. Here are a couple of photos I took on that journey.

There I met with MS Dhanapala, a rice breeder who had also come to Birmingham in the 1980s to attend short courses on plant genetic resources, and also spend some time in the Department of Genetics.

Sitting, L-R: Dhanapala, me, Sandanayake. I don’t remember the names of those standing.

Sri Lanka has had a very successful rice breeding program, and many of its varieties have been adopted throughout Asia, after being shared and trialled through INGER, the IRRI-led International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, that I wrote about in 2015.


Now to return to Kandy tourism.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya cover almost 150 acres. There are wide open spaces to wander around, but also exquisite orchid houses to enjoy, with a multiplicity of species and varieties to take in.

As I mentioned, the Temple of the Tooth is a sacred shrine to Buddhists, and although not overrun with pilgrims during my visit was, nevertheless, quite busy.

One of the most impressive exhibits, in a side room, is a huge, stuffed elephant that died in 1988. This was Raja, a tusker who led ceremonial processions from the Temple for over 50 years.

All too soon my stay in Kandy was over, and I headed down to Colombo on the west coast to take my flight back to Singapore, and from there to the Philippines. It’s certainly a country I would like to return to.


 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 24: A Laotian experience

Laos or the Lao PDR (the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – actually a Unitary Marxist–Leninist one-party socialist republic) is one of the few landlocked countries in Asia. But it does have a connection to the sea, down the Mekong River where, through its mighty delta in Vietnam, it disgorges into the South China Sea. For a considerable length, the Mekong is the international border between Myanmar and Laos, and Thailand and Laos.

During the 19 years I spent in Asia (with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines) I visited Laos more than any other country, probably a couple of times a year over a five to six year period. Why? Because it was a focal country for the major rice conservation project that I managed between 1995 and 2000, funded by the Swiss government.

The Swiss, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), also funded an in-country Lao-IRRI Program. So, as we were looking to strengthen the collection and conservation of indigenous rice varieties and wild rices in that country, it was a logical step to associate our rice biodiversity project administratively with the Lao-IRRI Project. The scientist who we hired for the Lao component of the project, Dr Seppana Appa Rao (originally from a sister center, ICRISAT, in Hyderabad, India) was based in the Lao capital Vientiane, and reported on a day-to-day basis to the leader of the Lao-IRRI Project, Australian agronomist Dr John Schiller (who passed away a couple of years ago).

Enjoying dinner with Appa Rao and John Schiller at John’s home in Vientiane.


In February 1997 I was joined on one of these visits to Laos by my wife Steph. IRRI had a generous travel policy. For every so many days a scientist was travelling outside the Philippines (but discounting the days of departure and arrival), his/her spouse or partner was entitled to one trip to a destination in Asia. So, we took advantage of that policy for a slightly extended visit to Laos (to take in some of the sights) as well as a weekend in Bangkok, through we had to transit in any case. A trip to Laos inevitably involved an overnight stop in Bangkok on both legs of the journey, taking a late flight out of Manila to Bangkok (about three hours) then the first flight on Thai Airways or Lao Aviation the next morning to Vientiane.

When I first visited Laos in 1995, the population of Vientiane was less than 400,000. It’s now reported at over 800,000. Back in the day it had the feel of a small town hugging the banks of the Mekong. But even then the traffic could become snarled at times. I wonder what it’s like nowadays? Looking at a satellite image the other day, the spread from the city center is clear. Even back in the 1990s, the city had begun to rapidly spread eastwards. The National Agricultural Research Center (NARC) of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) had its research station in this area, and where a rice genebank was constructed with financial support from the Swiss.


On this particular trip, Steph and I spent time with Appa and his Lao colleagues, Dr Chay Bounphanousay and Ms Kongphanh Kanyavong at the research center, looking at the genebank, field plots and various other facilities used to conserve the rice varieties collected throughout the country. This was also of interest for Steph as she originally trained in genetic resources, and has an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation  and use from the University of Birmingham (where we met in 1971/72).

L-R: Kongphanh Kanyavong, Appa Rao, and Chay Bounphanousay

We also visited a research site where wild rices were being monitored in a joint project with Japanese scientists. It was hoped that data from that project would inform the establishment of field or in situ conservation sites around the country.


Driving around Vientiane as tourists, we noted that two buildings dominate the skyline in the city center. The first, the Patuxai monument, is a huge war memorial that commemorates the struggle for independence from France. The other, a short distance away to the northeast, is Pha That Luang, a large, gold covered Buddhist stupa.

And after a hard day in the field, or touring the city and markets, what better way to end the day than a stroll along the banks of the Mekong.

That’s Thailand on the far bank.

On another day, Appa, his wife, Chay, and Kongphanh took us for a boat excursion round the Nam Ngum Reservoir, about 70 km north of Vientiane, and afterwards to the Lao Zoo nearby.


Steph and I were also invited to participate in a Baci Ceremony at John’s home, which involves the tying of white cotton strings around person’s wrists and the prayer saying or well wishing for the person that the ceremony is intended for. I had been to one of these ceremonies before, during my first visit to Laos. Another new IRRI staff member, agronomist Bruce Linquist and his family, were also welcomed to Laos at this particular ceremony.


But the tourist highlight of our visit was a weekend in Luang Prabang (a 40 min flight north of Vientiane), an ancient city standing on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan River.

In 1997 there were few tourists in the city besides ourselves. As we walked through the streets of the ‘old town’ the locals we passed would smile and say hello, and go on about their business. They paid no attention to us whatsoever. Luang Prabang has become a mecca for tourists from afar, and must be a very different place nowadays.

After checking into our hotel (I don’t remember which one—it was new and on the southwest of the city center), we set out to explore the sights.

First on our list was the sixteenth century Buddhist temple Wat Xieng Thong, or Temple of the Golden City, at the northern end of the peninsula. It is one of the most important shrines in the country.

The architecture is breathtaking, and as we wandered around the temple, there was a just a feeling of serenity.

Later in the day before sunset, we climbed 100m high Phousi Hill to enjoy the 360° panorama from the summit, looking north over the old town and the Nam Khan River.


I guess the highlight of our trip to Luang Prabang was the 25 km or so boat trip we took upstream along the Mekong to visit the shrines at the Pak Ou Caves, which are opposite the mouth of the Ou River as it flows into the Mekong.

As I already mentioned, Luang Prabang was very quiet, and we hired a river boat to ourselves. The journey took about two hours, during which we had the chance to take in, close-up, the majesty of the Mekong.

At the landing stage where we took our boat. You can see several of these boats behind Steph, looking north along the Mekong.

Approaching the landing stage at Pak-Ou, our boatman carefully positioned his boat so that we could disembark safely. While we were ashore, he turned the boat around ready for the return, but also a short diversion into the mouth of the Ou River.

There are two caves: Tham Ting is the lower; Tham Phum is the upper. Both are filled with hundreds if not thousands of Buddha sculptures.

We were the only visitors on this day, and had the site to ourselves. Nowadays, it’s rather different as this photo (copied from the website http://www.viajeasean.com) clearly shows.

After a late afternoon meal overlooking the Mekong back in Luang Prabang, our visit to this ancient city came to an end, and we flew back to Vientiane the following morning, and on to Bangkok.


 

Have [botany] degree . . . will travel (#iamabotanist)

One thing I had known from a young boy was that I wanted to see the world; and work overseas if possible. Following somewhat in the footsteps of my parents, Fred and Lilian Jackson.

Who would have thought that a degree in botany would open up so many opportunities?

Come 1 January, it will be 47 years since I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and the start of a 37 year career in the plant sciences: as a researcher, teacher, and manager. Where has the time flown?

After eight years in South and Central America, I spent a decade on the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Then, in 1991, I headed to Southeast Asia, spending almost 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, before retiring in 2010.

However, I have to admit that Lady Luck has often been on my side, because my academic career didn’t get off to an auspicious start and almost thwarted my ambitions.

While I enjoyed my BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (in environmental botany and geography) I was frankly not a very talented nor particularly industrious student. I just didn’t know how to study, and always came up short in exams. And, on reflection, I guess I burnt the candle more at one end than the other.

It would hard to underestimate just how disappointed I was, in June 1970, to learn I’d been awarded a Lower Second Class (2ii) degree, not the Upper Second (2i) that I aspired to. I could have kicked myself. Why had I not applied myself better?

But redemption was on the horizon.

Prof. Jack Hawkes

In February 1970, Professor Jack Hawkes (head of the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham) interviewed me for a place on the MSc Course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, that had opened its doors to the first cohort some months earlier. I must have made a favorable impression, because he offered me a place for September.

But how was I to support myself for the one year course, and pay the tuition  fees? I didn’t have any private means and, in 1970, the Course had not yet been recognized for designated studentships by any of the UK’s research councils.

Through the summer months I was on tenterhooks, and with the end of August approaching, started seriously to think about finding a job instead.

Then salvation arrived in the form of a phone call from Professor Hawkes, that the university had awarded me a modest studentship to cover living expenses and accommodation (about £5 a week, or equivalent to about £66 in today’s money) as well as paying the tuition fees. I could hardly believe the good news.

Prof. Trevor Williams

By the middle of September I joined four other students (from Venezuela, Pakistan, Turkey, and Nigeria) to learn all about the importance of crop plant diversity. Over the next year, discovered my academic mojo. I completed my MSc dissertation on lentils under Course Tutor (and future Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, now Bioversity International), Professor Trevor Williams.

Starting a career in international agricultural research
Just before Christmas 1970, Hawkes traveled to Peru and Bolivia to collect wild potatoes. On his return in February 1971, he dangled the possibility of a one year position in Peru (somewhere I had always wanted to visit) to manage the potato germplasm collection at CIP while a Peruvian researcher came to Birmingham for training on the MSc Course. Then, in mid-summer, CIP’s Director General, Dr. Richard Sawyer, visited Birmingham and confirmed the position at CIP beginning in September 1971.

But things didn’t exactly go to plan. Funding from the British government’s overseas development aid budget to support my position at CIP didn’t materialise until January 1973. So, during the intervening 15 months, I began a PhD research project on potatoes (under the supervision of Professor Hawkes), continuing with that particular project as part of my overall duties once I’d joined CIP in Lima, under the co-supervision of Dr. Roger Rowe. That work took me all over the Andes—by road, on horseback, and on foot—collecting native varieties of potatoes for the CIP genebank.

Screening potatoes in Turrialba, Costa Rica for resistance to bacterial wilt.

After successfully completing my PhD in December 1975, I transferred to CIP’s Outreach Program in Central America, moved to Costa Rica for the next 4½ years, and began research on potato diseases, adaptation of potatoes to warm climates, and seed production. This was quite a change from my thesis research, but I acquired valuable experience about many different aspects of potato production. I learnt to grow a crop of potatoes!

But this posting was not just about research. After a year, my regional leader (based in Mexico) moved to the USA to pursue his PhD, and CIP asked me to take over as regional research leader. Thus I began to develop an interest in and (if I might be permitted to say) a flair for research management. In this role I traveled extensively throughout Central America and Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands, and helped to found and establish one of the most enduring and successful research partnerships between national research programs and any international agricultural research institute: PRECODEPA.

Then, just as I was thinking about a move to CIP’s regional office in the Philippines (for Southeast Asia), an entirely different opportunity opened up, and we moved back to the UK.

Back to Birmingham
In January 1981 I successfully applied for a Lectureship in my old department (now named the Department of Plant Biology) at Birmingham. I said goodbye to CIP in March 1981, and embarked on the next stage of my career: teaching botany.

The lectureship had been created to ensure continuity of teaching in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (and other topics) after Professor Hawkes’ retirement in September 1982. I assumed his particular teaching load, in crop plant evolution and germplasm collecting on the MSc Course, and flowering plant taxonomy to second year undergraduates, as well as developing other courses at both undergraduate and graduate level.

In addition to my continuing research interest on potatoes I assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species and one PhD student from Malaysia made an excellent study of species relationships of the one cultivated species, the grasspea, L. sativus. I successfully supervised (or co-supervised) the theses of nine other PhD students (and at least a couple of dozen MSc students) during the decade I spent at Birmingham.

I generally enjoyed the teaching and interaction with students more than research. Having struggled as an undergraduate myself, I think I could empathise with students who found themselves in the same boat, so-to-speak. I took my tutor/tutee responsibilities very seriously. In fact, I did and still believe that providing appropriate and timely tutorial advice to undergraduates was one of the more important roles I had. My door was always open for tutees to drop by, to discuss any issues in addition to the more formal meetings we had on a fortnightly basis when we’d discuss some work they had prepared for me, and I gave feedback.

While I appreciate that university staff are under increasing pressures to perform nowadays (more research, more grants, more papers) I just cannot accept that many consider their tutor responsibilities so relatively unimportant, assigning just an hour or so a week (or less) when they make themselves accessible by their tutees.

The 1980s were a turbulent time in the UK. Politics were dominated by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. And government policies came to significantly affect the higher education sector. By the end of the decade I was feeling rather disillusioned by university life, and although I was pretty confident of promotion to Senior Lecturer, I also knew that if any other opportunity came along, I would look at it seriously.

And in September 1990 just such an opportunity did come along, in the form of an announcement that IRRI was recruiting a head for the newly-created Genetic Resources Center.

Dr. Klaus Lampe

A return to international agriculture
It was early January 1991, and I was on a delayed flight to Hong Kong on my way to the Philippines for an interview. Arriving in Los Baños around 1 am (rather than 3 pm the previous afternoon), I had just a few hours sleep before a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr. Klaus Lampe and his two deputies. Severely jet-lagged, I guess I more or less sleep-walked through the next three days of interviews, as well as delivering a seminar. And the outcome? IRRI offered me the position at the end of January, and I moved to the Philippines on 1 July remaining there for almost 19 years.

For the first ten years, management of the International Rice Genebank (the world’s largest collection of rice varieties and wild species) was my main priority. I have written about many aspects of running a genebank in this blog, as well as discussing the dual roles of genebank management and scientific research. So I won’t repeat that here. Making sure the rice germplasm was safe and conserved in the genebank to the highest standards were the focus of my early efforts. We looked at better ways of growing diverse varieties in the single environment of IRRI’s Experiment Station, and overhauled the genebank data management system. We also spent time studying the diversity of rice varieties and wild species, eventually using a whole array of molecular markers and, in the process, establishing excellent collaboration with former colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.

Dr. Ron Cantrell

Then, one day in early 2001, IRRI’s Director General, Dr. Ron Cantrell, called me to his office, asking me to give up genebanking and join the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications. As I said earlier, I really enjoyed management, but wasn’t sure I wanted to leave research (and genetic resources) behind altogether. But after some serious soul-searching, I did move across in May 2001 and remained in that position until my retirement in April 2010.

Even in that position, my background and experience in the plant sciences was invaluable. All research project proposals for example passed through my office for review and submission to various donors for funding. I was able not only look at the feasibility of any given project in terms of its objectives and proposed outcomes within the project timeframe, I could comment on many of the specific scientific aspects and highlight any inconsistencies. Because we had a well-structured project proposal development and submission process, the quality of IRRI projects increased, as well as the number that were successfully supported. IRRI’s budget increased to new levels, and confidence in the institute’s research strategy and agenda gained increased confidence among its donors.

What a good decision I made all those years ago to study botany. I achieved that early ambition to travel all over the world (>60 countries in connection with my work) in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. But the study (and use) of plants gave me so much more. I used the knowledge and experience gained to help transform lives of some of the poorest farmers and their families, by contributing to efforts to grow better yielding crops, more resilient to climate change, and resistant to diseases.

I’m sure that a degree in botany would be the last in many people’s minds as leading to so many opportunities such as I enjoyed. Knowing that opportunities are out there is one thing. Seizing those opportunities is quite another. And I seized them with both hands. I never looked back.

I should also mention that I also ascribe some of my success to having had excellent mentors—many mentioned in this piece—throughout my career to whom I could turn for advice. Thank you!

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If you are interested, a list of my scientific output (papers, book, book chapters, conference presentations and the like) can be seen here.

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Three score and ten . . .

18 November 1948. Today is my 70th birthday. Septuagenarian. The Biblical three score and ten (Psalm 90:10)!

Steph and I have come away for the weekend to celebrate my birthday with The Beatles in Liverpool.

We are staying for a couple of nights at Jurys Inn close to the Albert Dock. Later this morning we’ve booked to visit the National Trust-owned Beatles’ Childhood Homes (of John Lennon and Paul McCartney). And after lunch, we will tour The Beatles Story where I’m hoping to see, displayed there, something special from my childhood.

How the years have flown by. Just a month ago, Steph and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary. And I find it hard to believe that I started university over 50 years ago.

That got me thinking. I’ve written quite a lot in this blog about the years after I graduated, my time working overseas, about travel, and what Steph and I have been up to since retiring in 2010.

However, I written much less about my early years growing up in Cheshire and Staffordshire. This is then an appropriate moment to fill some gaps.

A son of Cheshire
I was born in Knowlton House nursing home in Congleton, Cheshire (map), third son and fourth and youngest child of Frederick Harry Jackson (aged 40), a photo process engraver, and Lilian May Jackson, also aged 40, housewife.

Mum and Dad, around 1959/60 after we had moved to Leek

My eldest brother Martin has been able to trace our family’s ancestry (mainly on my father’s side) back to someone named Bull, who was my 13th great-grandfather, born around 1480 on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border, just one of my 32,000 plus direct ancestors then. I must be related to royalty in one way or another (as are most of us), although looking at the occupations noted for many of them in various official documents (birth and marriage certificates, census data), we came a long way down the pecking order. Definitely below the salt! We’re Irish on my mother’s side of the family.

A punk before it was fashionable!

I am also a child of the National Health Service (NHS) that was founded in July 1948. In fact, I’m (approximately) the 190,063rd baby born under the NHS!

Knowlton House on Parson Street in Congleton – it’s no longer a nursing home.

I wonder who assisted at my birth? It could well have been our family Dr Galbraith, or Nurses Frost and Botting.

Dr Galbraith (R) was our family doctor, who (with his partner Dr Ritchie) often attended births at Knowlton House, and is seen here with resident midwife Nurse Rose Hannah Frost, who assisted at more than 3000 births. There is a very good chance either Nurse Frost or Nurse May Botting (who ran the nursing home) assisted at my birth. In this photo from 1936, Dr Galbraith and Nurse Frost are holding the Nixon triplets. Photo courtesy of Alan Nixon, who was apparently named after Dr Galbraith.

My dad registered my birth¹ on 22 November (Entry No. 442). There are few ‘Michaels’ in the family; Thomas is my paternal grandfather’s name.

My eldest brother Martin was born in September 1939, just a couple of days before war was declared on Germany. My sister Margaret was born in January 1941. Martin and Margaret spent much of WWII with my paternal grandparents in rural Derbyshire. My elder brother Edgar (‘Ed’) is, like me, one of the baby boomer generation, born in July 1946.

The difference of around 55 years – 1951/52 and 2006

I’ve often wondered what sacrifices Mum and Dad had to make to give us all such a good start in life.

Growing up in Congleton, we lived at 13 Moody Street, close to the town center’s High Street.

There’s not much to tell about my first couple of years, other than what I can surmise from a few photographs taken around that time when I was still in my pram or just beginning to walk. Two things I do remember clearly, though. The hens my father used to keep, and even the large henhouse he constructed at the bottom of the garden. And our female cat, Mitten, and all her kittens. That must have been the start of becoming an ailurophile (cat lover).

My best friend was Alan Brennan, a year younger, who lived a little further up Moody Street at No. 23 (and with whom I reconnected through this blog, after a gap of around 60 years!).

With Alan and his parents (and friends) at Timbersbrook, in 1955. I clearly remember Mr Brennan’s Vauxhall car – a Wyvern I believe.

We didn’t go to the same primary school. Like my brothers and sister before me, I was enrolled (in September 1952 or April 1953, maybe as late as September 1953) at the small Church of England school on Leek Road in Mossley, south of the town. By then, Martin had moved on to grammar school in Macclesfield; Margaret had also transferred to secondary school in Congleton.

Each morning, Ed and I would catch the bus in the High Street together for the short, 1½ mile ride to Mossley. And even as young as five, I would sometimes walk home alone from school during the summer months, along Leek Road and Canal Road/Street. How times change!

I remember the headteacher, Mr Morris, as a kind person. My class teachers were Mrs Bickerton (on the left) and Mrs Johnson (on the right). Courtesy of Liz Campion.

There was a real community of children around Moody Street, Howie Lane/Hill, and Priesty Fields. In summer, we’d all wander up to play on the swing bridge over the Macclesfield Canal (beyond the cemetery – where we would also play in a WWII air raid shelter). The bridge has long been replaced, but from comments on a Congleton Facebook group I belong to, it seems that over the generations, many children enjoyed the swing bridge as much as we did.

In winter, we had fun in the snow at Priesty Fields just round the corner from Moody St. And, as you can see below, we enjoyed dressing up. Happy days!

In the upper image, taken on Coronation Day in 1953, I’m fifth from the right (carrying the stick). Alan Brennan is the little by to the left of the ‘clown’, and in front of the ‘pirate’, my elder brother Ed. The lower image was taken on May Day, probably 1953 or 54. I’m on the left, carrying the sword, uncertain whether to be a knight or a cowboy.

c. 1955. L-R: Veronica George, Carol Brennan, Jessica George, my elder brother Ed, me, Margaret Moulton, and Alan Brennan. Taken in the garden of No 13 Moody St. The George sisters lived at No. 21 Moody St.

I often joined my father when he went out on photographic assignments for the Congleton Chronicle (where he was Chief Photographer), often to Biddulph Grange when it was an orthopedic hospital, also to Astbury, and out into the beautiful Cheshire countryside.

I remember one outing in particular, to Little Moreton Hall in May 1954. This is my father’s photo of Manley Morris Men dancing there, an image that stuck in my mind for many years. So much so that when I went to university in the later 1960s, I helped form a morris dancing side, the Red Stags, that’s still going strong (albeit in a slightly different form) 50 years later.

The Manley Morris Men at Little Moreton Hall on 8 May 1954.

For family holidays I remember those in North Wales, at a caravan park or, on one occasion, a camping coach, a converted railway carriage alongside the mainline to Holyhead next to the beach at Abergele.

During these early years, until July 1954, rationing was still in place that had come into effect at the start of the Second World War. I often wonder how my parents managed to raise four children during these difficult years. One thing I do recall, however, is how we shared things, particularly confectionery. No individual treats. My father would buy a Mars bar (I’m sure they were bigger then) and cut it into six pieces. Funny how these things stick in one’s memory.


The move to Leek
April 1956. A big change in my life. My family upped sticks and moved 12 miles southeast to the market town of Leek in north Staffordshire, where my father took over a retail photography business. As I was only 7½ when we moved, I’ve come to regard Leek as my home town. My parents lived there for the rest of their lives. My father passed away in 1980, and after my mother had a stroke in 1990, only then did she move away from Leek to spend her last couple of years in a care home near my sister in South Wales.

We lived at No. 65, St Edward Street, and within a couple of days of arriving there, I’d made friends with three boys who lived close by: Philip Porter (next door), Geoff Sharratt – whose father was publican at The Quiet Woman pub a few doors away, and David Phillips who lived over the road. Geoff’s younger sister Susan sometimes joined in our games, as did Philip’s sister Jill. We were the ‘St Edward Street Gang’.

Here we are in the late 1950s (probably 1958), in the yard of The Quiet Woman pub. L-R: Sue, Geoff, me, Philip, and Dave. And again in 2018.

Geoff was my best friend, and we spent a lot of time playing together. There were several upstairs rooms at The Quiet Woman, one of which was the Lodge of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB, the Buffs, a fraternal organization somewhat similar to the Freemasons). During inclement weather, we often took refuge in the Lodge, playing among the benches and high chairs.

Playing with my Hornby ‘O’ gauge clockwork train at ‘Congleton’ station – it would be a collectors’ item today. Taken around 1958.

I was also a cub scout, as was Ed.

Around 1960, the lease on No. 65 came due, so my father decided to to find a better location for his business. First, he moved across St Edward’s St to No. 56 (while we lived in a flat at the top of the Market Place). In 1962/63 my father acquired No. 19 Market Place as premises for his photographic business, with living accommodation above. This was just what he had been looking for, centrally located in the town, lots of footfall. But the whole property had to be refurbished; there was only one water tap – in the cellar. He did much of the refurbishment himself. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at his DIY talents, something I sadly have not inherited to the same degree. My parents remained at No. 19 until they retired in 1976.

Sandwiched between Jackson the Optician (no relation) on the left, and Victoria Wine on the right, No 19 Market Place was my parents home for 14 years.

Around the same time, Geoff’s parents left The Quiet Woman and moved elsewhere in the town. I was also traveling every day to school to Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent (a round trip of about 28 miles), while Geoff continued his education in Leek. As a consequence, we drifted apart, but through my blog we reconnected in 2012.

Mr Smith

My mother’s family were Irish Catholics, and although we had not been brought up in the faith while in Congleton, both Ed and myself were enrolled in St. Mary’s RC primary school on Cruso Street, a short walk away from home. We were taught by Sisters of Loreto nuns. Headmistress Mother Elizabeth or my class teacher, Mother Bernadine, were never averse to wrapping us across the knuckles with the sharp edge of a ruler. In my final year at St Mary’s (1959-60), we were taught by Mr Smith. But my recollections don’t tally so much with many others who also attended St Mary’s. And I have been horrified at some accounts of how unhappy they were at the school in the 1950s and 60s.

In the late 50s and early 60s, just Ed and I would join our parents for holidays in Wales, most often camping or in our own caravan.

Some of my happiest memories though come from our visits to my grandparents² (my father’s parents) in Hollington, a small Derbyshire village between Ashbourne and Derby. My grandfather was almost 76 when I was born; Grandma was 68.

Family picnic at Hollington, c. 1952, with cousins. Grandma in the center, my mum is on the left. I’m center front ‘guarding’ the bottle.

With Grandad and Grandma Jackson, and our cousin Diana, c. 1959 at Ebenezer Cottage.

Grandma and Grandad celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1954, the occasion of a large gathering of family and friends in Hollington.


Enduring high school
I passed my 11 Plus exam to attend a Roman Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College, at Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent. Founded by Irish Christian Brothers in 1932, the school took boys only (but is now co-educational). I had to be on the bus by 07:50 each morning if I was to get to school by 09:00. This was my daily routine for the next seven years.

On reflection, I can’t say that I found the school experience satisfying or that the quality of the education I received was worth writing home about. Yes, there were some good teachers who I looked up to, but much of the teaching was pretty mediocre. I’ve written elsewhere about the gratuitous use of corporal punishment at the school.

Perhaps one of the school’s claims to fame was the priest who attended to our ‘spiritual needs’. He was Father John Tolkien, son JRR Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. My first impressions of Fr Tolkien were not favorable. He came across as cold and authoritarian. When I got to know him later on, however, I found he was a warm person with a good sense of humor. I was saddened to learn that his last years were blighted by accusations of abuse, later dropped.


On to university . . . and faraway places
I was lucky to secure a place in October 1967 at the University of Southampton to study botany and geography, beginning three of the happiest years of my life. I’ve already blogged about various aspects of my time at Southampton, and you can read them here. Little did I think that I would have a career in botany, and that would lead me to fulfill one of my ambitions: to visit Peru.

Even though I graduated in 1970 with only an average BSc degree, that didn’t hold me back. I had ambitions.

I was fortunate to be accepted into graduate school at the University of Birmingham, where I completed MSc and PhD degrees in plant genetic resources, and returned there in 1981 for a decade as Lecturer in Plant Biology.

After my PhD graduation at The University of Birmingham on 12 December 1975 with my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jack Hawkes (L) and Prof. Trevor Williams (R) who supervised my MSc dissertation.

My international career in plant genetic resources conservation and agriculture took me to Peru and Costa Rica from 1973-1981, to work on potatoes for the International Potato Center (CIP). And then in July 1991, I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for the next 19 years as head of the genebank then as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

I had good opportunities to publish my research over the years, in terms of journal articles, books and book chapters, and presentations at scientific conferences.

I retired in April 2010, at the age of 61. But I haven’t rested on my laurels. Scientifically I have:

In the 2012 I was honored to be made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to international food science (in the New Year’s Honours).

I set up this blog in February 2012, and have written more than 460 stories for a total of around 470,000 words since then, and posted thousands of images, most of which I have taken myself.


Family
Steph and I were married on 13 October 1973 in Lima, Peru. We’d met at Birmingham during 1971-72, and after I’d moved to Lima in January 1973, she joined me there in July and also worked at CIP.

At La Granja Azul restaurant near Lima (on the left) after our wedding in 1973. And on the right, exactly 45 years later during one of our walks at Croome Court in Worcestershire.

Hannah, our elder daughter was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. Philippa was born in Bromsgrove in May 1982, a year after we had moved back to the UK (in March 1981). When we moved to the Philippines in 1991, they both attended the International School Manila, and then went on to university in the USA (Macalester College in Minnesota) and Durham in the UK, respectively. In 2006 and 2010, they completed their PhD degrees in psychology, respectively at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

PhD graduands! On the left, Hannah is with her classmates in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Emily and Mike, on 12 May 2006. Philippa (on the right) is with one of her PhD supervisors, Prof. David Kennedy of the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre in the Dept. of Psychology at Northumbria University on 7 December 2010.

In those same years Hannah married Michael, and Phil married Andi. We now have four wonderful grandchildren: Callum (8), Elvis (7), Zoë (6), and Felix (5). The family came together for the first time in a New Forest holiday in July 2016.

On holiday in the New Forest in July 2016. L-R (sitting): Callum, Hannah, Zoë, me, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael and Andi

The 2018-19 school year started for Callum and Zoë in August, and for Elvis and Felix in September. It was also Felix’s first day at school.

In September, Steph and I spent a week in Cornwall exploring many National Trust and English Heritage properties around the county.

Foldes and Fenner family photos in July and September


So, as I look back on the past 70 years, I can’t say I have much to complain about. Steph and I have a beautiful family. An interesting career took me to more than 65 countries (and Steph to some of those). We’ve lived and worked in three countries and made some wonderful friends.

Je ne regrette rien

At 70, though, what does life have in store?

I think Fleetwood Mac (one of my favorite bands) sum it up quite nicely. If it was fine for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for me.

Retirement is sweet. Who could ask for more?


¹ I no longer have my original birth certificate. That now sits in an archive somewhere in the Miraflores Municipality building in Lima, Peru. When Steph and I married there in October 1973 we had to present our original birth certificates, not realizing these would be filed away in perpetuity and never returned to us.

² I did not really know my mother’s parents, who died before my sixth birthday. They lived in Epsom, Surrey.

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.