Launching a career in agricultural research

Over a career spanning almost four decades, I spent more than 27 years in international agricultural research in South and Central America, and Asia. And a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham.

It all started on this day, 50 years ago, when I joined the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru as an Associate Taxonomist.

But first, let me take you back a couple of years, to September 1970.


I’d enrolled at the University of Birmingham for the MSc degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, taught in the Department of Botany. It was the following February that I first heard about the possibility of joining CIP.

The head of department, potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes had just returned from a six week expedition to Bolivia (to collect wild species of potato) that was supported, in part, by the USAID-North Carolina State University-sponsored potato program in Peru.

The American joint leader of that program, Dr Richard Sawyer (left), mentioned to Jack that he wanted to send a young Peruvian scientist, Zosimo Huamán, to Birmingham for the MSc course in September 1971, and could he suggest anyone to fill a one-year vacancy.

On the night of his return to Birmingham, Jack phoned me about this exciting opportunity. And would I be interested. Interested? I’d long had an ambition to travel to South America, and Peru in particular.

However, my appointment at CIP was delayed until January 1973. Why? Let me explain.


In 1971, Sawyer was in the final stages of setting up the International Potato Center. However, a guaranteed funding stream for this proposed research center had not been fully identified.

At that time, there were four international agricultural research centers:

  • the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, the Philippines (founded in 1960);
  • the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) near Mexico City (1966);
  • the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria (1967); and
  • the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia (also 1967).

All received bilateral funding from several donors, like the non-profit Rockefeller and Ford Foundations for example, or government agencies like USAID in the USA or the UK’s Overseas Development Administration.

In May 1971 there was a significant development in terms of long-term funding for agricultural research with the setting up of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR (an umbrella organization of donors, run from the World Bank in Washington, DC) to coordinate and support the four centers I already mentioned, and potentially others (like CIP) that were being established.

Since its inception, CGIAR-supported research was dedicated to reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition, and ensuring more sustainable management of natural resources.

For more than 50 years, CGIAR and partners have delivered critical science and innovation to feed the world and end inequality. Its original mission—to solve hunger—is now expanding to address wider 21st century challenges, with the aim of transforming the world’s food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis. More on that below.


Back in 1971 the question was which funding agencies would become CGIAR members, and whether CIP would join the CGIAR (which it did in 1973).

Throughout 1971, Sawyer negotiated with the UK’s ODA to support CIP. But with the pending establishment of the CGIAR, ODA officials were uncertain whether to join that multilateral funding initiative or continue with the current bilateral funding model.

Decisions were, in the main, delayed. But one important decision did affect me directly. The ODA gave me a personal grant in September 1971 to remain in Birmingham until funding to CIP could be resolved. I therefore registered for a PhD on potatoes under Jack Hawkes’ supervision, and spent the next 15 months working on ideas I hoped to pursue further once I could get my hands on potatoes in the Andes, so to speak.

With Jack Hawkes in the potato field genebank at Huancayo, central Peru (3100 m above sea level) in early 1974.

In the event, the ODA provided £130,000 directly to CIP between 1973 and 1975 (= £1.858 million today), which funded, among other things, development of the center’s potato genebank, germplasm collecting missions around Peru, and associated research, as well as my position at the center.


Arriving in Peru was an ambition fulfilled, and working at a young center like CIP was a dream come true, even though, at just 24, I was somewhat wet behind the ears.

However, there were some great colleagues who taught me the ropes, and were important mentors then and throughout my career. I learnt a lot about working in a team, and about people management, very useful in later years as I moved up the management ladder.

For the first three years, my work was supervised and generously supported by an American geneticist, Dr Roger Rowe (right, with his wife Norma) who joined CIP on 1 May 1973 as head of the Breeding and Genetics Department. I owe a great deal to Roger who has remained a good friend all these years.

Always leading from the front, and never shy of making the tough decisions, Roger went on to fill senior management positions at several CGIAR centers. As a former colleague once commented to me, “Roger was the best Director General the CGIAR never had.” I couldn’t agree more.

When I joined CIP’s Regional Research group in 1976 and moved to Costa Rica, my new boss was Ken Brown (left). Ken had been working as a cotton physiologist in Pakistan for the Cotton Research Corporation, although he had previously worked in several African countries.

Ken never micromanaged his staff, was always there to help set priorities and give guidance. In those aspects of people management, I learned a lot from Ken, and he certainly earned my gratitude.

Aside from my work on potato genetic resources (and completing my PhD in 1975), I enjoyed the work on bacterial wilt and setting up a regional program, PRECODEPA as part of my Regional Research activities.

Jim Bryan (right, with Costarrican assistant Jorge Aguilar) was my closest friend at CIP. A native of Idaho, Jim was CIP’s seed production specialist. Down to earth and pragmatic, Jim taught me the importance of clean potato seed and seed production systems. He came to work with me in Costa Rica during 1979/80 and together we worked on a successful project (with the Costarrican Ministry of Agriculture) for the rapid multiplication of seed potatoes.

But by the end of 1980, I was looking for a new challenge when one came to my attention back home in the UK.


In April 1981, I joined the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed since I graduated).

I have mixed feelings about that decade. Enthusiastic for the first few years, I became increasingly disenchanted with academic life. I enjoyed teaching genetic resources conservation to MSc students from many different countries, and particularly supervision of graduate students. I also kept a research link on true potato seed (TPS) with CIP, and around 1988 participated in a three-week review of a Swiss-funded seed production project at four locations in Peru.

With members of the project review team, with team leader Carlos Valverde on the right. Cesar Vittorelli, our CIP liaison is in the middle. I don’t remember the names of the two other team members, a Peruvian agronomist, on my right, and a Swiss economist between Vittorelli and Valverde.

But universities were under pressure from the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. It was becoming a numbers, performance-driven game. And even though the prospects of promotion to Senior Lecturer were promising (I was already on the SL pay scale), by 1991 I was ready for a change.


And so I successfully applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI, and once again working under the CGIAR umbrella. I moved to the Philippines in July, and stayed there for the next 19 years until retiring at the end of April 2010.

I was much happier at IRRI than Birmingham, although there were a number of challenges to face: both professional and personal such as raising two daughters in the Philippines (they were 13 and 9 when we moved to IRRI) and schooling at the International School Manila.

Whereas I’d joined CIP at the beginning of its institutional journey in 1973, IRRI already had a 30 year history in 1991. It was beginning to show its age, and much of the infrastructure built in the early 1960s had not fared well in the tropical climate of Los Baños and was in dire need of refurbishment.

A new Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe (right) from Germany was appointed in 1988 with a mandate to rejuvenate the institute before it slipped into terminal decline. That meant ‘asking’ many long-term staff to move on and make way for a cohort of new and younger staff. I was part of that recruitment drive. But turning around an institute with entrenched perspectives was no mean feat.


With responsibility for the world’s largest and most important rice genebank, and interacting with genebank colleagues at all the other centers, I took on the chair of the Inter-Center Working Group when we met in Ethiopia in January 1993, and in subsequent years took a major role in setting up the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP). This was a forerunner—and a successful one at that—of the programmatic approach adopted by the CGIAR centers.

The Swiss-funded project to collect and conserve rice varieties from >20 countries, and the innovative and pioneer research about on-farm conservation were highlights of the 1990s. As was the research, in collaboration with my old colleagues at Birmingham, on the use of molecular markers to study and conserve germplasm. A first for the CGIAR centers. Indeed a first for any crop.

Helping my genebank staff grow in their positions, and seeing them promoted gave me great satisfaction. I’d inherited a staff that essentially did what they were told to do. With encouragement from me they took on greater responsibility—and accountability—for various genebank operations, and their enthusiastic involvement allowed me to make the necessary changes to how the genebank was managed, and putting it at the forefront of CGIAR genebanks, a position it retains today.

My closest friend and colleague at IRRI was fellow Brit and crop modeller, Dr John Sheehy (right). John joined the institute in 1995, and I was chair of his appointment committee. Within a short time of meeting John for the first time, I recognized someone with a keen intellect, who was not constrained by a long-term rice perspective, and who would, I believed, bring some exceptional scientific skills and thinking to the institute.

Among his achievements were a concept for C4 rice, and persuading the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to back a worldwide consortium (now administered from the University of Oxford) of some of the best scientists working on photosynthesis to make this concept a reality.

By May 2001, however, change was in the air. I was asked to leave the Genetic Resources Center (and research) and join IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, to reconnect the institute with its funding donors, and develop a strategy to increase financial support. I also took IT Services, the Library and Documentation Services, Communication and Publication Services, and the Development Office under my wing.

IRRI’s reputation with its donors was at rock bottom. Even the Director General, Ron Cantrell, wasn’t sure what IRRI’s financial and reporting commitments were.

We turned this around within six months, and quickly re-established IRRI as a reliable partner under the CGIAR. By the time I left IRRI in 2010, my office had helped the institute increase its budget to US$60 million p.a.


This increased emphasis on funding was important as, by the end of the 1990s, several donors were raising concerns about the focus of the centers and how they should be supported. Furthermore, a number of external factors like the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, agreed by 150 countries in 1992), the growing consensus on the threat of climate change, the adoption of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, and subsequent Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) meant that the 15 CGIAR centers as they had become could not continue with ‘business as usual’.

Until the end of the 1990s, each center had followed its own research agenda. But it became increasingly clear that they would have to cooperate better with each other and with the national programs. And funding was being directed at specific donor-led interests.

There is no doubt that investment in the CGIAR over 50 years has brought about great benefits, economically and in humanitarian ways. Investment in crop genetic improvement has been the mainstay of the CGIAR, and although research on natural resources management (NRM, such as soils and water) has been beneficial at local levels, it has not had the widespread impact that genetic improvement has.

The impact of the CGIAR is well-documented. Take this 2010 paper for example. Click on the image for more information.

My good friend from the University of Minnesota, Professor Phil Pardey and two colleagues have calculated the economic benefits of CGIAR to be worth about 10 times the cost. Impressive. Click on the image below for more information.

I have watched a couple of decades of CGIAR navel gazing as the system has tried to ‘discover’ the best modus operandi to support national programs and the billions of farmers and consumers who depend on its research outputs.

There’s no doubt these changes have increased bureaucracy across the CGIAR. One early development was the introduction of 3-year rolling Medium Term Plans with performance targets (always difficult in agricultural and biological research), which led to perverse incentives as many centers set unambitious targets that would attract high scores and therefore guarantee continued donor support.

I did not favor that approach (supported by my DG), encouraging my colleagues to be more ambitious and realistic in their planning. But it did result in conflict with an accountant in the World Bank – a ‘bean counter’ – who had been assigned to review how the centers met their targets each year. I don’t remember his name. We had endless arguments because, it seemed to me, he simply didn’t understand the nature of research and was only interested if a particular target had been met 100%. Much as I tried to explain that reaching 75% or perhaps lower could also mean significant impact at the user level, with positive outcomes, he would not accept this point of view. 100% or nothing! What a narrow perspective.

A former colleague in the CGIAR Independent Evaluation Arrangement office in Rome and a colleague have written an excellent evaluation of this performance management exercise, warts and all. Click on the image below to access a PDF copy.

Now we have OneCGIAR that is attempting to make the system function as a whole. Very laudable, and focusing on these five highly relevant research initiatives. Click on the image below for more information.

What I’m not sure about are the levels of management that the new structure entails: global directors, regional directors, program or initiative leaders, center directors (some taking on more than one role). Who reports to whom? It seems overly complicated to my simple mind. And there is certainly less emphasis on the centers themselves – despite these being the beating heart of the system. It’s not bureaucrats (for all their fancy slogans and the like) who bring about impacts. It’s the hard-working scientists and support staff in the centers.


Nevertheless, looking back on 50 years, I feel privileged to have worked in the CGIAR. I didn’t breed a variety of rice, wheat, or potatoes that were grown over millions of hectares. I didn’t help solve a water crisis in agriculture. But I did make sure that the genetic resources of potato and rice that underpin future developments in those crops were safe, and ready to be used by breeders whenever. I also helped IRRI get back on its feet, so to speak, and to survive.

And along the way, I did make some interesting contributions to science, some of which are still being cited more than four decades later.

I’m more than grateful for the many opportunities I’ve been afforded.


 

The importance of being Ernest

Ernest Marples

Ernest who? Ernest Marples. Minister of Transport in the Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home Conservative governments between October 1959 and October 1964.

As Minister of Transport he introduced parking meters, the provisional driving licence, the MOT test, yellow parking lines, and traffic wardens. He also oversaw an expansion of the road network and the opening, in November 1959, of the first section (53½ miles) of the M1 motorway, between Luton and Crick (although it had been inaugurated a year earlier).

The M1 was not the country’s first motorway, however. That honor is given to an 8¼ mile section of the Preston by-pass, opened in November 1958, and which became part of the M6 motorway.

I remember the first time my father took us on the recently-opened first section of the M1. It must have been around 1960. What an experience on such wide carriageways, and very little traffic. That’s hardly the case today. More like Chris Rea’s The Road to Hell, released in 1989, supposedly about the London Orbital Motorway, the M25, although, to be fair, it could be about any of our motorways.

So much congestion, lines of juggernauts traveling nose-to-tail. I never relish having to take one of the motorways for my journeys, but they are a necessity. Many motorways were constructed with three lanes in each direction, but some like the M5 (opened in 1962 and connecting the West Midlands with the southwest of England) had only two for much of its length, but later widened to three.

From those humble beginnings more than 60 years ago, the motorway network in Great Britain (not including Northern Ireland) now extends over 2300 miles (out of a total of 247,500 total road miles). Another 29,500 miles are A roads, major routes connecting cities, but only about 18% are what we in the UK call dual carriageways (divided highways in the US).

Originally there was no speed limit on the motorways. In December 1965 a temporary speed limit of 70 mph was introduced and made permanent in 1967. That remains in force today on motorways and dual carriageways, with 60 mph the limit on other A and B roads. The limit in urban areas is generally 30 (maybe 20) mph.

But if you want to really explore the countryside, as Steph and I like to do, then you have to get off the main routes and take the B roads, as you can see in this video, which I made recently as we crossed Northumberland (in the northeast of England). In any case, for me it’s never about the trip itself but the many interesting places and sights along the way.

I passed my driving test (at the second attempt) in May 1966, six months after my 17th birthday, the earliest age when one can apply for a driving licence here in the UK. I got to drive my father’s car from time to time, but while away at university between 1967 and 1972 I didn’t have much opportunity to drive, until I had my own car (in October 1971), a rather battered Ford Anglia. In September 1972 I bought a new left-hand drive Volkswagen Variant to export to Peru, where I moved in January 1973.

Between 1973 and 1981 we lived in Peru and Costa Rica (in Central America), and from 1991 spent almost 19 years in the Philippines (from where we traveled to and down the east coast of Australia). We also made two road trips around Ireland in the 1990s while on home leave from the Philippines. Our road trip experiences were very different.

Since retiring in 2010, however, Steph and I have enjoyed several road trips around the UK. taking in Scotland in 2015, Northern Ireland in 2017, Cornwall in 2018, and Sussex and Kent in 2019.

And, since 2010, we have (until the Covid pandemic struck) visited the USA every year and made some epic road trips that are described briefly later on.


Touring Peru
A couple of months after I arrived in Peru, the ship carrying my Volkswagen finally docked at Callao, the port for Lima. It was just the right sort of vehicle for the rugged roads that Steph and I traveled exploring that fascinating country. Solid suspension (although I did add heavy-duty shock absorbers) and an air-cooled engine.

Almost five decades ago, there were few paved roads in Peru, the main one being the Panamerican Highway stretching the whole length of the country, just a single carriageway in each direction. And the Carretera Central from the coast to the central Andes at Huancayo, crossing the high pass at Ticlio on the way.

Most elsewhere, apart from in the towns and cities, the roads were unpaved. And through the Andes, these roads followed the contours of the valleys. Often you could see your destination in the valley below, but know there would be many kilometers to travel as the road snaked down the valley, as you can see in these photos.

Then there was the ever-present danger of landslides which might take hours if not days to clear, or precipitous drop-offs at the side of the road. I remember on one occasion driving along one road (in fog) in the north-central part of Peru, and afterwards checking the maps to discover that the drop was about 1000 m.

Three of the most interesting trips we made were to Arequipa and Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca in the south of the country, to Cajamarca in the north, and to Ayacucho and the central Andes on another occasion.


In Costa Rica
Many of the roads in Costa Rica were paved when we lived there in the mid-70s, with some notorious exceptions. Turrialba, where we lived, lies 41 km due east from Cartago (San José lies a further 19 km beyond Cartago). From Turrialba to Cartago, there’s a climb of almost 800 m, passing through a cloud zone (zona de neblina) on a narrow and twisting road that was, back in the 1970s, unpaved for most part.

Further this was the main route from the Caribbean port of Limón on the east coast to San José, and was always busy with one juggernaut after another. Not to mention the tractors towing a dozen or more sugar cane carts along sections of the road, without any hazard lights whatsoever.


The Philippines
Mostly, the Philippines has good roads. It’s just the congestion and the lack of driver discipline that makes driving in that country stressful. Also, farmers drying their rice or maize harvest along one side of an already narrow road.

Drying maize along the highway in Nueva Ecija, north of Manila. The more numerous rice farmers do the same.

We lived in Los Baños, the Science City of the Philippines, location of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños, the Institute of Plant Breeding, a local office of PhilRice, as well as the headquarters of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) where I worked for almost 19 years.

Los Baños is sited along the shore of Laguna de Bay, and on the lower slopes of a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling. It’s almost 65 km south of Manila and, on a good day, a little under 90 minutes by road. Back in the day we used to joke that it took anywhere between 90 minutes and a lifetime to make the journey. Major road improvements took almost 15 years to complete and with traffic congestion (caused mainly by tricycles and jeepneys) the journey could take several hours. Here’s a short video of a trip to Tagaytay (a town that overlooks the Taal volcano), about 50 km west of Los Baños by the quickest route (map).

In 2009, my staff, Steph and I made a long-weekend trip to the world-famous rice terraces in the Ifugao-Mountain Province of northern Luzon. Staying in Banaue, we took a jeepney to the end of the trail leading to the Batad rice terraces.

From there we had to hike for well over an hour deep into the valley.

Steph and I would also spend about eight weekends a year on the coast at Anilao (map) where I scuba dived and she would snorkel.

When we first visited Arthur’s Place in March 1992, there was no passable road from Anilao to the resort, and we had to take a 30 minute outrigger or banca ride. By 2009, the road had been paved.


Touring the USA
I really enjoy driving in the USA, once I’d become familiar with a number of the driving norms and the various road signs. Our elder daughter lives in Minnesota so our trips have begun or ended there. Thank goodness for the interstate highways whose construction was begun under President Eisenhower in the 1950s. We prefer to follow the US or state highways mostly if we can, even county roads.

These are the trips we have taken:

  • 2011 – the southwest states of Arizona and New Mexico, taking in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, among other wondrous sights.

Monument Valley, AZ

  • 2015 – since we had already traveled round Scotland earlier that year, we visited Chicago by train instead.
  • 2016 – I’d broken my leg in January, so when we visited in September, we spent a few days seeking out the source of the mighty Mississippi in Minnesota.

Mt Washington, NH


And, along these travels, one thing that caught my attention. In the UK, road construction has involved the building of just a few major bridges, over river estuaries, the most recent being a second bridge crossing the Firth of Forth west of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Not so in the USA. East-west or north-south, immense bridges had to be constructed across the many rivers that criss-cross that vast country. Some of the most impressive have been along the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers.

Here are a few more over which we drove.

A few weeks ago I read a novel that was set on the Lincoln Highway, the first to connect the east and west coasts from New York to San Francisco. I have traveled parts of the highway during the trips I’ve already outlined, but wasn’t aware of that at the time.


 

 

 

Nine towns and cities, four countries, four continents . . .

Do you remember all the places and houses where you have lived? I do. Such varied and (mostly) happy memories.

I left my parents’ home in Leek (a small market town in North Staffordshire) at the beginning of October 1967, almost 19 years of age, to study at university; I only went back for short visits during vacations. Less than six years later I was headed for new adventures overseas living in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines (with a break in between of 10 years back in the UK) over the next 40 years.

Early days in Congleton
I was not born in Leek however, although to all intents and purposes I consider it my home town. We moved to Leek in April 1956 from Congleton in Cheshire. I’d turned seven the previous November.

In Congleton, we lived at 13 Moody Street just a few minutes walk away from the offices and print shop of the Congleton Chronicle newspaper on the High Street where my father worked as staff photographer. No. 13 was owned by the Head family, then proprietors of the Chronicle.

It is a three-storey property. Back in the day, the attic rooms on the top floor weren’t furnished, and we used them as play rooms on wet days. On the ground floor, it seems to me that we hardly ever used the front parlor. A room, the width of the building at the rear of the house, served as dining and living room, with a kitchen and larder off to one side.

Taken in Congleton in about 1952 or so. L to R: Mike, Martin, Margaret and Edgar

My best friend Alan Brennan, a year younger than me, lived just a few doors further up Moody Street. But we didn’t go to the same school. I was enrolled at Mossley C of E village school, a couple of miles south of the town, like my two brothers and sister before me. Each weekday morning, my elder brother Edgar (just over two years older than me) and I took the bus together from the High Street to Mossley. Sometimes, in the summer, I’d walk home on my own (something that parents wouldn’t even contemplate today).

In the early 1950s we made our own entertainment. We didn’t have television. (In fact my parents didn’t own a B&W TV until about 1964). During the summer we’d play outside until dark, even walking the mile south to the Macclesfield Canal where we had fun on the swing bridge (now replaced by a static bridge), or hiding in the old air raid shelter near the cemetery on the way to the canal.

May Day, early 1950s. The kids of Moody Street. That’s me on the extreme left.

In the winter, we tobogganed on Priesty Fields nearby. We also had the Saturday matinee at one of the local cinemas, the Premier on Lawton Street (now demolished and the site of Congleton in Bloom Community Garden) enjoying Laurel and Hardy, or B movie westerns with the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy, to name a few of the movie stars we emulated in our games. Happy days!

Thinking of my early years in Congleton makes me realize we did not have the luxury of central heating either in the house or at school. In fact, at home, we must have sat around a small fire in the living room to keep warm.

At school, we actually had a large coal fire in the classroom. Can you imagine? No Health and Safety Executive to put a stop to that. All that separated us from the inferno was a large fire guard. Even when I was in high school in the late 1960s each pupil was entitled to a small bottle (1/3 pint) of milk daily. I doubt that continues today. Anyway, at Mossley during the winter, we would place our frozen bottles of milk in front of the fire to thaw.

65 St Edward St, Leek

Moving to Leek
My parents decided to set up on their own in Leek, and took over an existing photographic business at 65 St Edward St, on the edge of the town center. Not an ideal location, but as an ongoing concern, I guess it was the most appropriate approach to enter the retail trade.

It was by no means a large property, for a family of six. We three brothers shared a bedroom on the front of the property (the top window in the photo on the right). My parents had their bedroom at the rear. That property didn’t have central heating either.

On the first floor was the bathroom/ toilet, and at the front of the house, an L-shaped living room. My sister Margaret (then 15) had her own private space and bed in the ‘L’ of that room. Not an ideal situation, but there was no other alternative. In July 1957 my eldest brother Martin left  to join the Royal Air Force, and thereafter we saw him at home only on leave.

The kitchen was located on the ground floor, behind the shop and we ate most of our meals there, only moving to the first floor room for special family meals like Christmas. My father converted the cellar into his photographic dark room.

A side entrance led to an enclosed yard, Court No. 3, with three or four cottages, none with toilets or bathrooms, but probably just one tap of running water. These were demolished not long after we moved into No. 65, and we then had a large open space to play in.

With my best friend Geoff Sharratt (who lived at The Quiet Woman pub a few doors away) playing with my Hornby clockwork train set.

Winter fun and games with my brother Ed (center), me (crouching), and one of our friends, behind 65 St Edward St, after the cottages had been demolished.

I remember well-attended Christmas parties at No. 65, Christmas lunches around a table in the first floor living room.

Around 1960 or 1961, the lease came due on No. 65 and my parents decided not to renew the tenancy, opting to try and find a better location in the town. That took a couple more years.

In the interim, they moved the shop across St Edward St to No. 56, that was a fine porcelain retailer at the time. When we visited Leek in 2019 it was once again the premises of a photographer, and we discovered other earlier historical links.

My dad took on that fine china business, moving his photographic business there. For about six months we didn’t actually have a house. We had a room behind the shop, and a small kitchen, and a caravan on a farm a few miles north of the town. Somehow we managed, until an apartment became available at the top of the Market Place, at No. 26, above a building society.

No. 26, the red-brick building on the right at the top of the Market Place. We occupied the two upper floors.

We stayed there about two years, even over the coldest (and longest) winter I can remember, 1962/63. Everything froze and we had no running water for almost 10 weeks. Dad’s business was still operating from No. 56 St Edward St.

Then, a semi-derelict property (formerly a watchmaker’s) came on the market at No. 19 Market Place. Despite considerable trepidation on the part of my mother, Dad sold her on the idea of purchasing the property because of its central location in the town, and renovating the two upper floors into a comfortable apartment.

No. 19, with the yellow and black ‘Jackson’ sign, in between Jackson Optician (no relation) and Victoria Wine in the early 1960s. No. 26 is the building on the extreme right at the top of the Market Place.

The renovation was no easy task. There was only one tap in the property, in the cellar. No bathroom or toilet, and no central heating. These all got added and we must have moved in by late 1963, since my sister Margaret had married David by then and they took over the tenancy of No. 26.

The views over the Market Place from both No. 26 and No. 19 were great, being right in the heart of the town. Each Wednesday there was a busy market (you don’t see many of those any more, and I don’t think Leek market runs in the same way any more).

And both were great vantage points to watch the Club Day (or Walking Round Day) procession each July, which I used to take part in when a small boy.

Assembling in the Market Place on Club Day. This was taken around 1960 or so. The awning over the premises of  J Cosgrove (watchmaker) is clearly seen at the top of the image. That is No. 19 Market Place before it became my father’s premises.

University days
Mum and Dad lived at No. 19 until 1976 when they retired. But I had moved out almost a decade earlier, when I headed south to study at the University of Southampton from 1967 to 1970. For the first two years I lived in South Stoneham House, one of the halls of residence just under 1¼ miles from the campus. I lived in the 16 storey tower block, not the original Queen Anne house to which it was attached. I’ve since learned that the grounds were designed by 18th century landscaper, Capability Brown. The tower was condemned for occupation in 2005, partly because of the asbestos in the building. But also the fabric of the tower (built in the 1960s) had deteriorated, and conditions for students were described as ‘squalid’.

South Stoneham House

It was due to be demolished earlier this year. This is how it looked until then, shrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheeting. Very sad. We had happy days there.

In my final year (1969-70), I moved to digs (half-board accommodation) at 30 University Road, just down from the newly-opened university administration building and bookshop on the southeast side of the campus. Within a year or so of leaving Southampton many of the houses along University Road had been bought up by the university and became annexes to university departments. No. 30 was demolished.

This is No. 28. No. 30 to its right has been demolished and stood where the trees now stand.

In September 1970, I moved to Birmingham to begin a 1-year MSc course in genetic conservation. I rented a room in a house on Portland Road in the B16 Edgbaston area of the city, and a 2 mile walk to the campus. I think it was the one on the extreme left. But it was more than 50 years ago, and many properties along Portland Road look different today.

After one year, as I started my PhD research, I joined two engineers in an apartment south of the campus on Abdon Avenue. It was certainly one of the apartments on the left of the entrance, but I don’t remember if it was the first or top floor.

I stayed there until December 1972 when I prepared to leave the UK and head to warmer climes, in Lima, Peru to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist.

Off to South America
Arriving in Lima at the beginning of January 1973, I lodged for about three weeks in the Pensión Beech (now demolished it seems) on Calle Los Libertadores in the San Isidro district of the city. Then I had to start looking for an apartment to rent.

I found a furnished one-bedroom apartment on the 12th floor of a tower block on Los Pinos in the Miraflores district, close to the Pacific Ocean coast. I don’t have any clear images of the building. I’m not sure it’s even still standing after 50 years. In 1973 it stood apart beside a vacant lot, and next to a Todos supermarket (long since disappeared).

Steph joined me at the beginning of July that year, and very soon we decided that the apartment was too small. We married in Miraflores in October that same year.

At our Los Pinos apartment, just after Steph arrived in Lima in July 1973.

We quickly found a furnished two-bedroom apartment on Avenida Larco just around the corner. Parking was on the first floor, accessed by a lift from the street. At street level, there was an ice cream parlor, Veinte Sabores (20 Flavors), now replaced by a commercial outlet named Mardigras.

The apartment was on the top (12th) floor, on the rear of the building with a view to the coast.

A view to the Pacific Ocean over the Miraflores rooftops.

In October 1974, the coast of Peru was hit by a major earthquake, more than 8 on the Richter Scale. Living on the 12th floor was not so comfortable then, and for many weeks there were countless aftershocks which didn’t do much for our nerves.

So by Christmas that year, we’d moved out to house-sit for several colleagues while they were on home-leave, until the following May when we were returned to the UK for six months. I had to complete the PhD residency requirements at the university and defend my thesis.

We landed in Birmingham at the end of May 1975 having returned to the UK via Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico. We found a one-bedroom apartment in a large house on Farquhar Road close to the campus, which had been converted to about five apartments, with the owner occupying the ground floor.

The ‘bridge’ connecting the house to the garage was our bathroom.

We stayed there until the end of the year before returning to Lima, spending a few months in the CIP Guesthouse. But we didn’t remain in Peru for much longer. CIP asked me to move to Costa Rica in April 1976 to set up a potato breeding program focusing on Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Moving to North America (actually Central America)
CIP signed an agreement with CATIE, a regional research and training center in Turrialba, some 70 km east of the capital, San José. It was a campus institute, nestling below the Turrialba Volcano, and was the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) from 1942 until 1976 (when it moved to San José).

The Turrialba volcano from the town below.

Initially, we stayed in CATIE’s guesthouse, then moved into a rather run-down house in the #109 sub-division just outside the campus before eventually moving on campus. We rented a two-bedroom detached house with a lovely garden, full of fruit trees, and the most wonderful wildlife: birds, mammals, and reptiles (some very venomous). Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978, so these were very special years we spent in Turrialba.

I don’t have any decent images of the house that we occupied until November 1980 which, after we left, became additional space for the international school nearby.

Hannah visited Costa Rica in 2002, and took these two photos of the house. The upper image shows the car port and rear door to the house (which we used as our main entrance). The lower image shows the front door and living room to the right and Hannah’s bedroom left of the door.

By the end of 1980 I was looking for a new challenge and asked CIP’s director general for a new posting. We returned to Lima and several more months in the guesthouse. In the meantime, however, I had successfully applied for a teaching and research post at the University of Birmingham. I resigned my post at CIP, and we returned to the UK in March 1981 in time for my 1 April start date at Birmingham.

We then set about finding somewhere to live. Within a week of so we had put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, a market town in north Worcestershire, about 13 miles south of the campus.

Back in the UK – Bromsgrove
Located just under a mile east of the town center, our three bedroom house was built in 1975. In 1982, just before our second daughter Philippa was born, we extended the kitchen on the front of the house. In 2015 we installed an electric garage door and had the front drive re-paved.

The garden was Steph’s pride and joy, that she carefully nurtured over almost 40 years.

Growing up, Hannah and Phil attended the local schools, and had a wide circle of friends living close by. The house always seemed filled with a small group of girls. And each year there were two birthday parties to organize.

Philippa’s 6th birthday party in May 1988. She is sitting facing the camera on the left, and Hannah is standing.

But that’s not the whole story. Yes, we owned No. 4 for 39 years, but for 19 of those, we lived in the Philippines, only returning to the UK in May 2010. In fact, our stay in the Philippines has been, to date, the longest continual period I have lived anywhere.

In July 1991, I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, some 70 km south of Manila. From the outset we decided to keep No. 4 empty but fully furnished, which we could occupy when we returned to the UK on our annual home-leave. We thought having tenants and the like just wasn’t worth the hassle. In any case, we had a ‘bolt hole’ should our assignment in the Philippines not live up to expectations or the civil/political situation deteriorated to an extent that we might have to leave.


Asia calls
IRRI provided houses for its senior, mainly non-Filipino staff in a gated community about 10 minutes drive from the research center, across the campus of the University of the Philippines – Los Baños (UPLB).  IRRI Staff Housing or ISH as it became known, was developed on the lower slopes of a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling that dominated the skyline over the town.

Mt Makiling from the IRRI Research Center.

Founded in 1959/60, the construction of the IRRI research center and housing began in 1961.

ISH takes shape in July 1961, with Laguna de Bay in the distance.

On the lower slopes of Mt Makiling, ISH takes shape in December 1961, and almost ready for occupation. Our house, No. 15, is the fourth from the bottom, middle column.

Los Baños has grown along the shore of shallow Laguna de Bay (911 km²) that stretches all the way north to Manila, a little over 65 km by road. (Click map to enlarge).

The video below (from my good friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel who has retired in the Philippines near Los Baños) shows the panoramic view over the volcano and lake.

By 1991, ISH was unrecognizable from the site thirty years earlier. Mature trees covered the compound, and everywhere was lush with vegetation. The houses however, were beginning to show their age, and some of the facilities, like the kitchens had never been updated, and that remained the case for House #15 that we occupied until we left the Philippines almost 19 years later.

We had the use of a swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, and the ISH compound was a safe place for all the children to play, often inventing their own games that were passed down from year to year over the decades. I guess an important downside of living in Los Baños was schooling for the children, most of whom attended the International School in Manila, entailing for many years a two hour journey each way, and an ungodly start time (by the end of the 1990s) of 4:30 am!

While Peru was a country of earthquakes, Costa Rica had its volcanoes, the Philippines had both of these AND typhoons. Several would sweep in from the Pacific Ocean each year and cross the country leaving a trail of destruction in their path. These images show some of the damage around ISH and the UPLB campus in the aftermath of Typhoon Milenyo in September 2006, which passed almost directly overhead, with winds approaching 150 mph.

As often as we could we’d get away to the beach, at Arthur’s Place south of Los Baños where Steph would snorkel and I would scuba dive.

8 Dec 2002: in front of Arthur’s Place

All things come to an end, and by 2009 I’d already decided not to seek another full contract, just extending my current one by a year and then retiring. We returned to the UK and our Bromsgrove home in May 2010.


However, by the end of 2019 we had eventually decided to leave Bromsgrove and move north to Newcastle upon Tyne where our younger daughter Philippa and her family live. (Our elder daughter lives in Minnesota).

So, in January 2020, we put No. 4 on the market, just before the first Covid-19 lockdown. By the beginning of June we’d received an offer that we accepted and began making plans for the move.

We completed the sale on 30 September and moved out that same day.

The removers on their way north!

Goodbye to No. 4.

The following day we moved into a 3-bedroom detached house that we rented for the next six months in the West Allotment area of North Tyneside (east of the city center) while we looked for a new home to buy.

Move-in complete at Cloverfield by 15:55 on 1 October 2020.

We took a week to get ourselves settled and find our local bearings. But then began the search in earnest for a new home. And found just the house almost immediately, viewing it one morning and putting in an offer that same evening. The conveyancing to purchase the property was not as straightforward as we and the vendors expected, but the sale/purchase was finally completed on 15 February last year. We moved in on 6 March.

Finally settled.

Yes, finally settled. A warm, well-appointed home. Only the garden to sort out, and almost from Day 1 Steph has been busy designing, planning, and developing her new garden.

April 2021 and beyond.

And although we enjoyed living in Worcestershire, the prospect of many more treats to come in beautiful Northumberland is something we look forward to.


 

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside . . .

. . . Oh, I do like to be beside the sea.

So sang Florrie Forde in her November 1909 recording of the popular 1907 British music hall song of the same title.

A few days back, the weather being the warmest and sunniest of the year so far, Steph and I took a walk along the coast south of the River Tyne here in the northeast of England, and about 11 miles from home. And as we sat down on Marsden Beach to enjoy our picnic lunch, I told Steph that I still had to pinch myself that we now lived so close to the coast.

The magnesian limestone cliffs at Marsden Bay.

We moved to North Tyneside (just east of Newcastle upon Tyne city center) 18 months ago, and whenever we get chance, we head off to the coast to enjoy a bracing walk along the beach, the dunes, or cliffs. At its closest, the coast is less than 4 miles as the crow flies.


I hail originally from Staffordshire in the north Midlands, which is almost equidistant from the west and east coasts. So, when I was growing up, a trip to the seaside was always a treat, and holidays with parents were almost always spent camping at or near the coast.

Steph, on the other hand, comes from Southend-on-Sea and the closest beach to her family home was just 5 minutes walk.

Moving away to university in 1967, I chose Southampton on the south coast in Hampshire. However, apart from the odd day trip or field excursion connected with my botany and geography degree, I didn’t see much of the coast at all. Not so a decade earlier. Southampton is a major seaport, from where my father sailed when he worked for the Cunard company in the 1930s. And he took us visit the docks in the late 1950s/early 1960s just when both of Cunard’s Queens were in port.


When Steph and I moved to Peru in 1973, we lived just a few hundred meters inland from the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the Lima suburb of Miraflores. During the ‘summer’ months between January and March, we’d spend at least one day each weekend on the beach at one of the resorts about 50 km south of Lima.

Moving to Costa Rica in 1976, we made only two trips to the beach in the northwest of the country to Playa Tamarindo on the Pacific coast of the Guanacaste peninsula (map). It was about 350 km (almost 7 hours) by road, but new routes have probably made the journey quicker since then. And just one trip to the Caribbean coast at Limón.


In the Philippines, we made about eight or nine weekend visits each year (over almost 19 years) to Arthur’s Place, a dive resort at Anilao on the Mabini Peninsula (map), a drive of just under 100 km south from Los Baños that, in 1992 (until about 2005), used to take about 3 hours. I’d go diving and Steph would snorkel.

In December 2003 we traveled to Australia and drove down the east coast from Sydney to Melbourne, around 1000 miles, enjoying each stretch of coastline every day. At Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria we stopped off at Tidal River, the furthest south (at almost 39°S) I’ve ever traveled. Antarctica next stop! And that same evening, New Year’s Eve, we sat on the beach near Wonthaggi and watched the sunset over the Indian Ocean (map).


Since retiring, we’ve visited the west and east coasts of the USA in Oregon and California, and Massachusetts and Maine, the coast roads right round Scotland, the coast of Northern Ireland, as well as Cornwall, and the southeast of England in East Sussex and Kent.


While here in England’s northeast (North Yorkshire, County Durham, and Northumberland) we don’t enjoy tropical temperatures, the region does boast some of the finest stretches of coastline and beaches in the country.

Dunstanburgh Castle and Craster
This is a rocky coast and the castle itself was built in the early 14th century on the Whin Sill, an outcrop of igneous dolerite that cuts across Northumberland. The castle is a walk of about 1¼ miles from the fishing village of Craster; there’s no road into the castle.

Craster itself has ample parking away from the harbor. The village is also famous for its smoked fish, especially kippers.

At Dunstanburgh a healthy population of kittiwakes nest on the cliffs.

To the north there are excellent views of Embleton Bay that we have yet to visit.

View north from the Great Gatehouse

Alnmouth
A tricky pronunciation. Some say ‘Aln-muth’, others ‘Allen-mouth’. I have no idea which is correct. It’s a pretty village at the mouth of the river of the same name. There’s good paid parking behind the beach for a couple of hundred cars.

Warkworth
We’ve only visited the beach once, back in April 2018. It’s a nice long stretch of beach accessed from the north side of the town, which is more famous for its 12th century castle.

Looking north along Warkworth beach towards Alnmouth.

Warkworth Castle

Amble
Standing at the mouth of the River Coquet, we’ve found the beaches very pleasant on the south side of the town (where there is free parking), and facing Coquet Island which is now a bird reserve with an internationally important colony of roseate terns in the breeding season.

The view south along the Amble beach with the Lynemouth power station in the far distance.

Coquet Island.

Druridge Bay and Hauxley Nature Reserve
This must be one of the longest beaches in Northumberland, with massive dunes at the rear of the beach in its southern portion.

At the northern end, and just inland is Hauxley Nature Reserve, owned by Northumberland Wildlife Trust. When we visited last week, we observed 37 different bird species in the space of two hours. It really is a wonderful site, and we must go back there on a regular basis. There’s no entrance fee, but parking costs £2 all day. There’s also footpath access on to the dunes and beach, which lie just beyond the reserve’s perimeter fence.

The Tern Hide from the West Hide at Hauxley Nature Reserve.

The North Sea can be seen in the middle distance beyond the dunes and reserve perimeter fence.

Cresswell Bay
This was one of the first ‘northern’ beaches that we viisted in 2021, just 17 miles from home. It’s both sandy and rocky, and we saw somone collecting sea coal that had been washed up on the shore. All along the Northumberland and Durham coast there were once extensive coal mines. Waste from the pits was dumped in the sea. In places the beaches look quite black.

Blyth and Seaton Sluice Beaches
These are the closest to home, but are in effect a singe beach. Both are very popular with dog walkers, and we enjoy often heading there on a Sunday morning, weather permitting, for a late morning stroll.

At the Seaton Sluice southern end of the beach, there is a small harbor, that had originally been constructed in the 17th and refurbished in the 18th century to handle coal shipments from local mines.

Seaton Sluice harbor, showing ‘The Cut’ in the middle distance.

St Mary’s Lighthouse and Whitley Bay
The lighthouse was built in 1898, but there had been lighthouses on the island for centuries. This lighthouse was decommissioned in 1984. The island lies at the north end of Whitley Bay, a popular resort.

The island is approached across a causeway that is submerged at high tide. On the visits we have made we’ve often seen the grey seals that bask on the rocks.

King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth
This is a small bay that lies beneath the headland on which Tynemouth castle and priory (now owned by English Heritage) were built.

From the headland there are magnificent views north along the Northumberland coast.

To the immediate south is the mouth of the River Tyne, and beyond the shore at South Shields and the coast south into County Durham.

Souter Lighthouse and the Whitburn coast
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988. It stands on the edge of magnesian limestone cliffs, that stretch both north and south.

To the south of the lighthouse, there was a colliery and this area has been reclaimed and opened (under the National Trust) as a recreational area.

Immediately outside the walls of the lighthouse to the north is the site of a former mining village, Marsden, that was demolished soon after Whitburn Colliery closed in 1968.

The longer grass indicates where the two lines of terraced cottages once stood.

Marsden beach was very popular holiday or day-out destination in the early 20th century.

The cliffs are home to colonies of cormorants (one of the largest in the UK), herring gulls, kittiwakes, and fulmar petrels.

Whitby Abbey
The abbey, built in the 13th century, occupies a headland that juts out into the North Sea above the town of Whitby. It’s the furthest south we have ventured over the past 18 months.

The approach from the north along the A174 high above the coast affords the most spectacular views over the town and right along the North Yorkshire coast. Most impressive.


I don’t think I’ll ever tire of visiting the seaside. There’s something magical, inspirational about the interface between land and sea. Solid and liquid.

Discovering pre-Columbian humanity in the Americas

Over recent weeks, Steph and I have been enjoying the latest series of Digging for Britain on BBC2, hosted by Alice Roberts who is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. In this ninth series (as in the earlier programs) she visited digs all over the UK where archaeologists were busy uncovering our distant (and not-so-distant) past, and the lives of the people who lived there.

In one program she visited a (secret) site in Rutland (England’s smallest county in the East Midlands) where, in a farmer’s field, the most remarkable Roman mosaic floor had been uncovered, depicting scenes from the Trojan War. This was only one of many treasures that were ‘discovered’ during the series.

The British landscape has been transformed by multiple waves of immigration and conquest over thousands of years. But scrape away the surface, as archaeologists are wont to do, and fascinating histories begin to emerge, from prehistoric times through to the arrival of the Romans in AD 43, and in the centuries afterwards.

Sites like Stonehenge or the Avebury Stone Circle remind us that humans were living in and modifying these landscapes thousands of years before the Romans arrived on these shores.

Avebury Stone Circle.

Northumberland in the northeast of England (where I now live) is particularly rich in Roman remains. Besides the iconic Hadrian’s Wall, forts like Housesteads or Chew Green, and towns like Corbridge and Vindolanda are a visible reminder that these islands were once under the military control of an empire the like of which the world had never seen before. Northumberland was the northwest frontier.

And after the Romans departed in the 5th century AD, northern tribes such as by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from continental Europe made these islands their home.

However, I often view our landscape as essentially post-Norman (that is, after 1066) since the Normans (and their descendants) left so many statements of their hegemony: magnificent castles (such as Prudhoe, Warkworth, and Dunstanburgh that stand as proud ruins even today), manor houses, churches and abbeys, and royal hunting parks.


I guess our appetite for the archaeological past was whetted when we moved to Peru in 1973. Within two weeks of landing in Lima in January I had already visited Machu Picchu while attending a meeting in Cuzco. Then, after Steph arrived in Lima in July, we spent many weekends exploring the coast and heading off into the numerous valleys that lead inland from Lima. In December, I took her to Machu Picchu (for a delayed honeymoon!)

Over the three years we spent in Peru, five in Central America, and more recently in the southwestern United States, we have visited a number of iconic pre-Columbian archaeological sites, and others less well known.

It’s not just the remains that various cultures have left behind, however. It’s also understanding their connection with the environment, the types of agriculture practiced for example, and the crops that were domesticated and brought into cultivation (a particular interest of mine).

So permit me to take you on a brief archaeological travelogue through the Americas.


Hiram Bingham III

As I’ve already mentioned Machu Picchu, perhaps I should start there. I guess it’s not only the location of this Incan refuge, but something of the mystery that surrounds it until it was ‘discovered’ by Hiram Bingham III in 1911 (although there are earlier claimants).

But tales of a lost city in Peru certainly caught the public imagination, and soon Machu Picchu was a notable tourist destination. In 1973, the rail journey between Cuzco and Machu Picchu was slow and left early in the morning. Nowadays the line has been upgraded and beside the river (way below the ruins) a small town has sprung up to accommodate the multitude of tourists who descend on Machu Picchu daily from all over the world.

I made just a day visit there in January 1973. However, Steph and I were lucky to reserve a room at the turista hotel that once stood just outside the ruins. So, once most tourists had returned to Cuzco late in the afternoon, we (and a handful of other hotel guests) had the ruins to ourselves. Next morning we breakfasted early to watch the sun rise, and enjoy the peace and quiet of this iconic site until, late morning, it was thronging once again with a trainload of tourists.

In many ways it’s not surprising that Machu Picchu remained ‘undiscovered’ for so long, five centuries after the last Inca took refuge there. Other ruins, further out into the jungle, have been uncovered in recent years, like Choquequirao, a two day hike from Cuzco.


What is remarkable about Cuzco, the Inca capital before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, is the juxtaposition of Incan and colonial architecture, in many places the latter built over the former. The beautiful Incan stonework is epitomized, for example, in the 12-sided stone in Calle Jatun Rumiyoc, east of the Plaza de Armas (the city’s main square).

Or the foundations of the Qorikancha temple (right) on which the colonizing Spaniards built the Santo Domingo convent five centuries ago.

Outside and overlooking Cuzco from the north is the impressive Inca fortress Sacsayhuamán (below). It’s not only its size, but especially the precision with which the stones have been placed together, some stones (like that shown below) weighing tens of tons at the very least.

Just 32 km to the northeast of Cuzco, and standing at the head of the Sacred Valley of the Incas is the market town of Pisac. Even in 1973 it was a major tourist attraction, even though it had changed little from almost 40 years previously when my PhD supervisor Professor Jack Hawkes had visited as a young man of 24. Check out these photos I took in 1973, and compare them with scenes in the film that Jack made in 1939 (after minute 25:25).

Above the town, 15th century terraces or andenes stretch up the hillside, where there are also temple remains; due to limited time we didn’t have an opportunity of exploring those nor travel further down the valley to Ollantaytambo where there are also impressive Inca remains.

Andenes above the town of Pisac.

But what is particularly remarkable about the Incas is the relative short period (perhaps a little over 300 years until the Spanish conquest in the mid-16th century) in which they held domain over many of the other cultures that had gone before them. Not only in the mountains, but on the coast as well, as I shall describe a little later.


But talking of terraces, I was fortunate to visit the small town of Cuyo Cuyo in Puno in the far south of Peru, in February 1974 while undertaking some fieldwork for my PhD research. Agricultural terraces built centuries ago are still being farmed communally today (at least when I visited almost 50 years ago).

Potato terraces at Cuyo Cuyo, Puno in southern Peru.

While some terraces had fallen into disrepair, the majority were still being carefully tended, and planted with a rotation of potatoes-oca (a minor Andean tuber crop)-barley or beans-fallow over about an eight year period. Impressive as they are, terraces like those at Cuyo Cuyo can be seen in many valleys all over Peru, but perhaps not so actively farmed as there.


Puno is one of the highest cities in the world, at just over 3800 m (12,556 ft), alongside Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake.

On a peninsula overlooking a lake about 33 km northwest of Puno stands a cluster of rather peculiar round towers, known as chullpas, of the most exquisite masonry, mostly ruined. Some of these stand 12 m tall. This is Sillustani, a pre-Incan Aymara cemetery site.

It seems that once this area came under Inca control, many of the chullpas were redressed with Incan masonry, much of what we see today.


One could be forgiven for imagining that the coastal desert of Peru is one huge cemetery, such is the extent of the burial sites where Moche (AD 100 -AD 800) and Chimú civilizations (AD 900 until about AD 1470 when the Incas arrived on the scene), and others, held sway leaving behind a vast array of artefacts that tell us so much about them. Having no written language, their pottery tells us much about the crops they grew, the animals they kept, even their sex lives.

Mummy bundles have been excavated in their thousands, and many of the contents are now carefully stored in one of Lima’s most prestigious museums, with just a fraction on display at any one time. Take a moment to read about the museum and its contents that I published in 2017.

All along the coast there are temples built of mud bricks, like the one below. I don’t remember exactly where this was located, but I think maybe in one of the valleys inland from the coast, 4-500 km north of Lima.

One of the more important ones lies just 40 km (or 25 miles) south of Lima. Pachacamac covers about 240 hectares, and was continuously occupied from about AD 100 until the Spanish conquest, 1300 years later.

North of Lima there are two interesting sites.

Just outside the coastal city of Casma (about 350 km or 165 miles north of Lima) stand the unusual remains of Cerro Sechín, an archaeological complex covering many hectares, and one of the oldest sites in Peru, dating back about 4000 years. The striking elements of this site are the bas-reliefs etched into the stonework depicting war-like scenes, of warriors, mutilation and the like. It really is a most unusual site. Steph and I visited there (with our CIP friends John and Marian Vessey) in 1974.

At Sechín, as at other coastal sites, the archaeological evidence shows that not only did the inhabitants practice agriculture (maize and beans being the domesticated staples) but depended on the abundant marine resources close by.

Further north, outside the city of Trujillo stand the degraded remains of Chan Chan, once the great Chimú capital covering 20 km², and built of adobe bricks. It’s regarded as the largest adobe-built city in the world. The complex comprises plazas and citadels, and because of the extremely arid conditions, many of the walls (and their carvings of animals, birds and marine life) have survived to the present.

While the coastal desert is one of the driest in the world, it does rain heavily from time-to-time, and when we visited the walls were being protected from further rain erosion.

Unfortunately, I never got to view the world-famous Nazca Lines from the air. As you cross the Nazca plain (over 400 km south of Lima) you can see some of the lines stretching into the distance but with no comprehension of what they might represent. Furthermore, indiscriminate vehicular access to this area in the past (even army manoeuvres!) has left indelible tracks across the desert, desecrating some of the incredible figures there.

The Nazca Plain from the Panamericana Sur. You can see vehicle tracks heading off into the desert.

The monkey on the Nazca lines.


On the southeastern side of the Cordillera Blanca in the Department of Ancash the ruins at Chavín de Huántar, a site that was occupied over 3000 years ago, and regarded as the oldest highland culture in Peru.

‘El Castillo’ at Chavín de Huántar.

A stone head or tenon at Chavín de Huántar.

I visited there in May 1973 when collecting potatoes in that part of Peru, and again with Steph and the Vesseys a year later.

Just outside the highland city of Cajamarca (2750 m, about 180 km inland from the coast between Trujillo and Chiclayo) are the Ventanillas de Otuzco, and ancient necropolis (over 2000 years old) carved in the rock face.


Steph and I lived in Costa Rica in Central America for almost five years from April 1976. There are few remains of indigenous cultures around the country (unlike Guatemala or Mexico for instance).

However, just under 20 km north of Turrialba (where we lived) lie the enigmatic remains of Guayabo National Monument, which I wrote about in October 2017.

There’s good evidence however that this site was first occupied over 2000 years ago, until the beginning of 15th century.

In the jungle of northeast Guatemala stands the ruins of ancient Tikal, a Mayan complex dating back more than 2400 years, surely one of the most iconic archaeological sites on the planet (and which even featured in the very first Star Wars movie).

Steph and I flew there in 1977, on an Aviateca DC3, spending one night in one of the lodges. Back in the day it was possible to reach Tikal only by air, but the whole region has now opened up via roads and even an international airport in the nearby city of Flores, just 64 km to the south. I guess the site must now be overrun to some extent by tourists, much like has happened at Machu Picchu. We were fortunate to visit here, as with many of the sites I have described, before they appeared on the everyday tourist routes.

We spent hours wandering around this huge site, and managing to see just a fraction probably. It’s hard to imagine just how steep the temple steps are. No wonder Steph was out of breath. We later learned that she was pregnant when we were there.

It seems that Tikal was conquered, around the 4th century AD, from Teotihuacán from the valley of Mexico. And it’s there, north of present day Mexico City that the important temple complex of Teotihuacán can be found. Its famous Temple of the Sun and others are significant Mesoamerican pyramids standing on a site that covers 21 km². We visited there in April 1975 on our way back to the UK, staying with our friends John and Marian Vessey who had left CIP to join a sister research center, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) that is located not far from Teotihuacán. I’ve been back there a couple of times in the 1990s and 2000s.


Our elder daughter Hannah moved to Minnesota in 1998 to complete her undergraduate degree at Macalester College in St Paul, then registered at the University of Minnesota for her PhD in psychology. In 2006 she married Michael, and they set up home in St Paul. Grandchildren Callum and Zoë came along in 2010 and 2012, respectively. And since I retired from IRRI in 2010 and returned to the UK, Steph and I have visited them every year, and made some pretty impressive road trips across many parts of the USA. That is until Covid 19 put paid to international travel for the time being.

In 2011, we had the opportunity of fulfilling a lifetime ambition: to travel to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. So we flew from Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) to Phoenix (PHX) to take in the Grand Canyon, and travel extensively through Arizona and New Mexico. We visited three sites on this trip, but only one, the Canyon de Chelly, was a pre-trip destination. We fortunately came across the other two during the course of our travels.

We stopped in Flagstaff on our first night, having traveled north from Phoenix through the Sedona valley and having our first taste of the magnificent red-rock buttes. Then, the following day as we headed north on US89, we saw a sign to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.

Checking the map, I saw that we could make a useful diversion, and also taking in further north Wupatki National Monument, a 100-room pueblo and other buildings in the surrounding small ‘canyons’. It is believed that peoples first gathered here around 1100 AD, just a century after the Sunset Crater Volcano erupted. Even today, Wupatki is revered by the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo tribes.

After a couple of nights at the Grand Canyon (South Rim), and a detour to Monument Valley we found ourselves in Chinle, in northeast Arizona.

In the heart of the Navajo Nation, Chinle is the gateway to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Occupied for thousands of years, Canyon de Chelly is a very special place, and somewhere in the USA that I would return to tomorrow, given half the chance.

It was settled by ancient Puebloans at least 4000 years ago, finding the steep-sided canyon an ideal place to settle, raise their families in a safe environment, and raise their crops. These included, after the Spanish arrival in the Americas in the 16th century, peaches that were destroyed during reprisal raids by the US Army in the late 19th century, led by Indian agent and Army officer Kit Carson. In fact, it was reading a biography of Kit Carson in February 2011 that was the impetus to visit Canyon de Chelly.

We viewed the canyon from the rim only. Access to the canyon floor is limited to just one access point to visitors on foot, who can climb the long way down (800-1000 feet) to view houses built into the cliff face. We could see that from the rim, as well as two others at different locations and at different heights on the canyon wall. The Navajo must have felt they were safe from invaders, but unfortunately not, making a last stand at the tall pillar Spider Rock that you can see in one of the images below.

The Navajo do provide guided tours into the canyon, and if I ever return, I’ll spend several days there and take the tour.

On the penultimate day of our road trip, passing through Los Alamos (where the first atom bombs were designed) in New Mexico, we’d seen signposts to Bandelier National Monument. There’s good evidence of human settlement in this area over 10,000 years ago; ancestral Puebloan peoples settled here 2000 years ago, but had moved on by the mid-16th century.

Rooms were carved into the soft rock or tuff, with ladders used to scale the cliff face. In a few places rock art can be seen. There is also good evidence of agriculture based on the staple triumvirate of maize, beans, and squashes, as well as hunting for deer. Since we had to make progress towards Albuquerque for the last night before flying back to MSP, we were not able to spend as much time exploring the site as we wanted.

Nevertheless, with our visits to Wupatki, Canyon de Chelly, and Bandelier, we gained an appreciation of ancient lives in these desert environments. Of course there’s more to see and learn about the Chaco culture that thrived in New Mexico. Ancient settlements are scattered all over Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.


 

 

 

That’s not a fair question . . .

I worked overseas for much of my career—just over 27 years—in three countries. For those who are new to my blog, I’m from the UK, and I worked in agricultural research (on potatoes and rice) in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines, besides spending a decade in the UK in between teaching plant sciences at the University of Birmingham.

I have been asked, from time to time, which of the three countries Steph and I enjoyed the most. That’s not really a fair question.

Each country was a totally different experience, reflecting to a large extent that stage of our lives. We were young and newly-married in Peru in the early 1970s, our first time abroad. We raised our elder daughter Hannah in Costa Rica in the late 1970s, and were already in our early 40s when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, with two growing daughters: Hannah was 13, and Philippa just nine (born in Worcestershire in the UK). I got to learn a second language, Spanish, and became quite fluent by the time we left the Americas in 1981.

Now that I’ve been retired for over a decade, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on those years spent abroad.


laurent_amerique_du_sud_politiqueI won’t deny that I have a particular soft-spot for Peru. It was a country I’d wanted to visit since I was a small boy, when I often spent hours poring over maps of South America, imagining what those distant countries and cities would be like to visit. 

I don’t know why I was particularly drawn to the map of South America. I guess it’s the iconic shape for one thing. But, when I first moved up to high school in 1960, just before my 12th birthday, our geography lessons focused on several South American countries. I wrote to a number of embassies in London asking for information packs, and was rewarded over the following weeks with a host of brochures, maps, and the like.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (I have posted several stories elsewhere about my early days in Lima), I was offered, in February 1971, the opportunity to work in Peru, initially for just a year from September that year. Things didn’t go to plan, and it wasn’t until January 1973 that I actually landed in Lima, which became my home for the next three years.

19731013 003 Wedding

13 October 1973

Steph joined me in July, and we married the following October in the Miraflores suburb where we rented an apartment. Working at the International Potato Center (known as CIP through its Spanish acronym) we both traveled frequently to the center’s research station in Huancayo, an important town in the central Andes of Peru, in the broad and fertile Mantaro valley, a 300 km journey that often took six hours or more. The highway, the Carretera Central, crossed the Andes at a highest point of 4,843 metres (15,890 ft) at Ticlio (around Km 120).

peru-037

In my own work collecting indigenous varieties of potatoes, I traveled to many parts of northern Peru, in the Departments of Ancash, La Libertad, and Cajamarca in 1973 and 1974.

And to the south around Lake Titicaca in the Department of Puno and near Cuzco, where I continued my research towards a PhD.

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Collecting potato flower buds for chromosome counts, from a farmer’s field near Cuzco, in February 1974.

Steph and I also took great pleasure in taking our Volkswagen deep into the mountains, and on long trips down the coast to Arequipa and up to Lake Titicaca. And north to the Callejón de Huaylas in Ancash, below Peru’s highest mountain Huascarán, and on to Cajamarca further north.

Peru 050(1)

Looking north to the Callejon de Huaylas, and Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu just a week after I arrived in Peru, and had great pleasure taking Steph there in December the same year. In fact we delayed our honeymoon so we could book a stay at the tourist hotel at Machu Picchu (a hotel that closed many years ago).

Enjoying Machu Picchu in December 1973.

Our years in Lima were special. As I said, it was the first time Steph and I had worked abroad. CIP was a young organization, founded just over a year before I joined. There was a small group of staff, pioneers in a way, and there weren’t the layers of bureaucracy and procedures that bedevil much larger and longer-established organizations.

Peru is a stunningly beautiful country, and lived up to all my expectations. I was not disappointed. It had everything: culture, history, archaeology, landscapes. And wonderful food. You name it, Peru had it. 


But, after three years, it was time to move on, and that’s when we began a new chapter in Costa Rica from April 1976 a new chapter. Professionally, for me it was a significant move. I’d turned 27 a few months earlier. CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program to adapt potatoes to hot and humid conditions, so-called ‘tropical potatoes’. I was on my own; I had to rely on my own resources to a large extent. It was a steep learning curve, but so worthwhile and stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.

We remained in Costa Rica for almost five years, based at a regional agricultural research institute, CATIE, in the small town of Turrialba, some 70 km east of San José, the capital city.

The CATIE administration building

We enjoyed trips to the volcanoes nearby: Turrialba, Irazú, and Poás, to the beaches of northwest Costa Rica, just south of the frontier with Nicaragua on the Guanacaste Peninsula.  Also to the north of Panama where potatoes were the main crop in the volcanic region just south of the international border.

Hannah was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. It was a great place to raise a small child. In 1980 we took her the Monteverde National Biological Reserve in the northwest of the country (and many hours drive from Turrialba) in search of the Resplendent Quetzal.

Professionally, I learnt a lot about potatoes as a crop, about the management of potato diseases, and seed production, and contributed to setting up one of the first multi-country programs among any of the CGIAR centers. PRECODEPA as it was known set the standard for multilateral cooperation between national programs for many years to come.

I had a great team, albeit small, working with me: Jorge, Moisés, and Leda, and I wrote about them and catching up again after 40 years in a recent blog post.

Costa Rica is such a beautiful, green country, a tropical paradise, with about 25% of its land area set aside for national parks and the like. It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and I spent many hours sitting on the doorstep at home, sipping a super ice-cold beer (Cerveza Tropical was my beverage of choice) watching the multitude of birds that visited our garden. On one Christmas bird survey in the Turrialba valley, me and my birding partner spotted around 100 different species in half a day! And mammals as well: skunks, armadillos, and coatimundi among those found in the garden, not to mention some of the world’s most poisonous snakes.

After almost five years there, it was time to move on, with the expectation of a posting with CIP to the Philippines. Instead we returned to the UK in 1981, and didn’t actually make it to the Philippines until a decade later. An archipelago of more than 7600 islands; the Land of Smiles.


By the end of the 1980s I was much less enamored of academic life, and had begun to look out for new opportunities. One particularly interesting one came along in September 1990 when I applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

Having been interviewed at the beginning of January 1991, I was offered the position a couple of weeks later, and I moved to the Philippines (without the family) on 1 July that year. Steph and the girls joined me just after Christmas.

We had a comfortable single storey residence at IRRI Staff Housing, a gated community that nestled under a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling.

Mt Makiling, from the IRRI research farm.

The IRRI research center was about ten minutes from home, and an institute bus took us to and fro over the course of the day. Staff Housing had tennis courts and a swimming pool, as well as basketball and volleyball courts, all in regular use by my colleagues and their families. Lilia was our full-time, live-in helper for almost the whole 19 years we lived in the Philippines.

In the early 1990s there was also a large group of children the same age as Hannah and Philippa, and Staff Housing was a safe environment for them to play, although I have since learned that they all got up to some daring escapades at night. Like climbing the water tower!

Steph kept herself busy with her daily swim, and a range of hobbies, including her small orchid collection, and beading (one hobby that has grown and grown!) I had a busy time at work, and less time for leisure at home. I enjoyed a barbecue whenever we could, and for many years I kept a small aviary of budgerigars. Just after I arrived in the Philippines I adopted a Siamese cat, Pusa, who finally succumbed to the ripe old age of 20 in 1998, when we acquired another Siamese, Tara. I wrote about our feline companions in this post.

But one thing Steph and I shared in common, though not to the same degree in one respect, was our love of the beach and sea. Before moving to the Philippines, I had never even snorkeled. That all changed in February 1992 when we made our first (and only) visit to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Shortly afterwards, Hannah learned to scuba dive, and I followed a year later in 1993 eventually completing more than 360 dives, all at Anilao south of Los Baños. Philippa learned a few years later when she was old enough (you had to be 13), but Steph never did take to scuba diving, being content with snorkeling the stretch of beach in front of our favorite beach resort, Arthur’s Place.

Road travel in the Philippines was always a bit of a nightmare. Inadequate roads, too many vehicles, and not enough road discipline, especially among the jeepney and tricycle drivers.

The drive to Manila could take a couple of hours, often more, and it wasn’t until just before we left the Philippines in 2010 that the main highway to Manila, the South Luzon Expressway or SLEX was finally upgraded significantly. Likewise the road connecting SLEX to the south coast where we went to the beach.

Hannah and Philippa attended the International School Manila (ISM) that was, in those days, located in the heart of Makati, the main business district of Manila. The school day started at 07:15 which meant they had to be on the road by 06:00 in those fist years. By the time Philippa graduated from high school in 1999, the buses were leaving for Manila by 04:30, and not returning home until about 16:00 or so (the school day finishing around 14:00). Phil would often go for a swim, have her dinner, and in her final two years at ISM, when she was studying for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB), she would have homework until about midnight. Then she snatched a few hours sleep before heading off early the next morning to school once again. All the children took blankets and pillows on the bus and caught with what sleep they could.

For both Hannah and Philippa these were stressful, but ultimately fulfilling, school years. The system was very different from the English system, the academic side very demanding and competitive, especially the IB curriculum. However, both girls did flourish and the hard work and discipline required to get through saw them in good stead later on in their university careers, with both earning a PhD degree in psychology!

Professionally, my years at IRRI were very rewarding. As Head of GRC, one of my most important responsibilities was to manage the world’s largest and genetically most-diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species (with more than 130,000 different seed samples) in the International Rice Genebank. I had a staff of about 75 researchers and assistants. I learnt a lot about people management. However, my task were made so much easier by having so many dedicated professionals to support me.

After a decade genebanking, I moved to IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), and set up an office to handle the institute’s interactions with its donors and fund-raising. And I remained as DPPC until my retirement in 2010.

Much as I had enjoyed my years with GRC, setting up the DPPC Office with hand-picked staff was very rewarding. I had a great team: Corinta, Zeny, Sol, Yeyet, Vhel, and Eric, and they never (well, hardly ever) let me—or IRRI—down.

Christmas 2004 at Antonio’s in Tagaytay. L-R: me, Sol, Eric, Corinta, Vhel, and Zeny.

30 April 2010, and my last day at IRRI. L-R: Eric, Corinta, Zeny, me, Vhel, and Yeyet.

We had such a lot of fun together. There was a lot of laughter in the DPPC Office. We even played badminton together once a week.

But we took our work seriously enough, and helped raise the institute’s annual budget to USD60 million.

In 2009, Steph and I had the opportunity of our first and only long road trip in the Philippines. We always took our annual leave in one block and returned to the UK each summer, so spent little time exploring the Philippines, something I now regret. Anyway, me and my DPPC team decided that we’d take a few days off (with Steph joining us) to visit the world famous (and World Heritage Site) rice terraces in the north of Luzon. That was a fantastic trip, which I wrote about here.

The rice terraces above Banaue.

Enjoying a beer together after a long day in the sun. L-R: Corinta, Zeny, our driver, Vhel, Yeyet, Eric, and me.

At the Batad rice terraces, after a long walk down the mountain. L-R: Yeyet, Steph, Eric, Vhel, and Corinta.


So there we have it: a short trip down memory lane. I have been very fortunate, blessed even, to have worked in three remarkable countries and alongside some of the best professionals I could have hoped for. I have no regrets about making that decision, in early 1973 to move abroad. It has been a fulfilling career in international agricultural research, and I’ve certainly been able to explore this wonderful world of ours, as you will have discovered if you ever perused my blog to any depth.

Growing potatoes – growing professionally

November 1980. After almost five years (from April 1976) Steph and I were preparing to leave Costa Rica, the small Central American country sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978. But our time in that beautiful country was coming to an end, and we were headed back to Lima.

So how come I ended up in Costa Rica working on potatoes, since agriculture there is dominated by rice and beans? And coffee and bananas, of course. Potatoes are small beer [1].

Let me explain.

It all started in January 1973, when I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima and, in the process, fulfilled an ambition I’d had since I was a small boy: to visit Peru.

During the three years I was based in Lima, working as an Associate Taxonomist and helping to conserve CIP’s large collection of native Andean potato varieties, I completed research for my PhD degree, awarded by the University of Birmingham in December 1975.

Earlier that year, in April, I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my degree, and to submit my thesis (which was examined in October). However, before leaving for the UK, I had discussions with CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, about rejoining CIP after I had completed my PhD. I wanted to broaden my horizons and learn more about and contribute to potato production around the world, rather than continue working with the potato collection or taxonomy research. He offered me a post-doctoral position in CIP’s Outreach Program, being posted to one of the regional offices.

Exploring options
In 1975, CIP’s Region II program, encompassing Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, had its regional office in Toluca, Mexico (about 64 km west of Mexico City). Potatoes are not a major crop in this region—maize and beans being the staples—although they are locally and economically important in each country.

It was a year of transition. CIP’s regional representative at that time, Ing. Agr. MS Manuel J. Villareal González, had just been named leader of Mexico’s national potato program (in Toluca). My Lima colleague, Ing. Agr. MS Oscar Hidalgo, a plant pathologist, took over as Region II leader and moved to Mexico.

Manuel Villareal and Oscar Hidalgo

The other members of the CIP team in Toluca were local support staff: José Gómez and secretary Guillermina Guadarrama, formerly employees of the Rockefeller Foundation potato program, and some field and glasshouse technicians.

Jose and Guillermina

CIP management proposed setting up a sub-regional office in Costa Rica, without yet deciding what its programmatic responsibility and research focus might be.

To explore various possibilities, Steph and I were asked to visit Costa Rica and Mexico in April on our way back to the UK. And that’s what we did. I should add that I was nervous the whole trip. Why? I was carrying a briefcase full of my thesis research data. I was paranoid that some light-fingered individual might relieve me of the briefcase. There was no computer cloud storage in those days, let alone floppy disks or flash drives.

For many years it was not possible to fly direct between Lima and San José, the capital of Costa Rica. The journey inevitably required a stop-over in Panama City, usually overnight. On our trip north we stayed at the airport hotel but had time enough to explore parts of the city center (not the Canal Zone, unfortunately). And that’s when we had our first McDonald’s hamburgers. I have this distinct memory of my immediate boss, head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Breeding & Genetics, Dr. Roger Rowe, coming back to Lima from one of his home leaves in the USA and telling us all about these ‘new’ hamburger joints that we should try when we had the opportunity. I had thought that, in 1975, McDonald’s was new to Panama, but from what I have found on the internet, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant there in 1971. Notwithstanding, it was a first for us.

Drs. Luis Carlos Gonzalez (L) and Rodrigo Gamez (R)

My Lima colleague, bacteriologist and head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Pathology & Nematology, Dr. Ed French made arrangements for us to visit with fellow bacteriologist Dr. Luis Carlos Gonzalez Umaña and plant virologist Dr. Rodrigo Gámez Lobo (who, in later years went on to found and become President of the renowned INBio, the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad) at the University of Costa Rica.

Luis Carlos and Rodrigo made us very welcome and, with the leader of the Costarrican potato program, Ing. Agr. Luis Fernando Cartín, took us to see potatoes growing on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano east of San Jose, to labs in the university, and, as a side ‘tourist’ visit, to the Instituto Clodomiro Picado nearby where anti-snake venom serum is produced on a large scale (often in horses). Costa Rica has more than 20 highly venomous snake species.

I think we spent about four days in Costa Rica before travelling on to Mexico. We certainly came away from Costa Rica with a favorable impression. San José is dominated by a stunning landscape of volcanoes (Poás, Irazú, Turrialba), some active or recently active, covered in lush, tropical forest and, on the lower slopes, coffee plantations for which the country is famous. Back in the day, San José was a small city of about 456,000 inhabitants.

In Mexico, we stayed with our friends from Lima, John and Marian Vessey who had moved there in 1974 to work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City. Apart from a visit to the potato program in Toluca, we had the opportunity for some sightseeing, with a memorable visit to the pre-Columbian pyramids at Teotihuacán about 32 km north from CIMMYT.

Steph and me on the top of the Sun Pyramid looking towards the Moon Pyramid at Teotihuacan (April 1975).

Ken Brown

Settling on Costa Rica
Steph and I returned to Lima just after Christmas, all set to move on later in 1976. But where? A decision had not yet been made about Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, a new Director of CIP’s Outreach Program, Dr. Ken Brown, had been appointed while I was back in the UK, and joined CIP in January. In due course, Outreach became the Regional Research Program. As both Ken and his family (wife Geraldine, and five boys) and Steph and I were staying in the center’s guest house for several weeks, we got to know the Browns quite well.

Prof. Luis Sequeira

In order to hasten our move to Region II, we needed to identify an appropriate international institute to host my posting in Costa Rica. So, Roger Rowe, Ed French, and I flew to Costa Rica for a week in early January [2]. There we met with Luis Carlos and Professor Luis Sequeira from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a world renowned plant bacteriologist (and Costarrican by birth) with whom Luis Carlos had completed his PhD, who happened to be visiting family at the time.

We visited sites on the Irazú Volcano and near Alajuela (a regional town northwest of San José) where Luis Carlos was testing potato breeding lines for resistance to bacterial wilt.

We also visited the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), a regional center in Turrialba dedicated to research and graduate education in agriculture, and the management, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, established originally in 1942 as the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Sciences (IICA).

The CATIE ‘Henry Wallace’ administration building

CATIE plant pathologist Dr. Raul Moreno from Chile explains the focus of the center’s farming systems research to (L-R) Luis Sequeira, Ed French, and Roger Rowe.

Turrialba is a small town just over 70 km due east of San José, although at a much lower elevation—around 650m compared with almost 1200m in the city.

The drive to Turrialba from San José via Cartago was not straightforward. Until around 1978 (or maybe later) the section between Cartago and Turrialba was a dirt road, and quite dangerous. It was also the main route from the Caribbean port of Limón to San José so there was a continual stream of heavy (and noisy) trucks travelling between the two cities. The road passed through a zone of frequent low cloud (neblina) with reduced visibility, sometimes quite severely. And, passing through several sugarcane plantations, there would be tractors towing ‘trains’ of carts carrying harvested cane snaking along the road to local sugar mills, and often without displaying any hazard lights. With the state of the road, the frequency of the heavy traffic, and limited visibility, one could get stuck behind one of these slow-moving ‘trains’ for many kilometers. Very frustrating!

At CATIE, we met with the Acting Director, Dr. Jorge Soria (a cocoa breeder) to discuss signing an agreement between CIP and CATIE that would allow me to work from CATIE as a regional base, and set up a research program to breed potatoes for hot humid climates. Turrialba has an average annual temperature of 22.9°C (73.2°F), and more than 2854 mm (or 112.4 inch) of rainfall per year. The wettest months are May to December, with heaviest rainfall in June and July. This, we assumed, would be an ideal, if not challenging environment in which to attempt to grow potatoes.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, an agreement was signed between CIP and CATIE, under which I was to be attached to CATIE’s Crops Department. It was also agreed that CIP would contribute to CATIE’s cropping systems program (funded through USAID’s Regional Office for Central America and Panama, ROCAP) once suitable potato varieties had been identified.

Steph and I headed to Costa Rica in early April 1976, and we remained there until the end of November 1980. I’ve been back there just once, in 1997.

Getting started in Turrialba
Back in 1976, I can’t deny that I was rather daunted about setting out on my own. I’d turned 27 only the previous November. And communicating with colleagues back in Lima was not straightforward, as I have described in another post.

We didn’t plant our first potato experiments in Turrialba until May 1977 to check whether any varieties would yield under the warm and humid conditions there. Instead, we were faced with bacterial wilt, a devastating disease of potatoes and other related crops like tomato (as well as bananas!), about which I have blogged before.

Between arriving in Costa Rica the previous year and then, I’d had to renovate screenhouses for our research, acquire a vehicle (that took several months), hire a research assistant and a secretary, as well as attend to other regional duties that Oscar Hidalgo asked me to undertake. In fact within a few weeks of arriving in Costa Rica he whisked me off to Mexico for a month to participate in a potato production course, leaving Steph on her own in (to her) a very strange Turrialba.

Within a couple of months or so, I’d hired a young man, Jorge Aguilar Martinez, as my research assistant. Jorge lived in Santa Rosa, a small village just outside Turrialba, where his father grew coffee on a small farm (finca). Jorge was 20 in June that year, recently married to Carmen (a secretary in the animal husbandry department at CATIE), and with a small boy, Leonardo (who is now Head of Information and Communication Technology at CATIE).

Jorge Aguilar

Jorge had applied for a position in the Crops Department at CATIE before I arrived there, but there were no vacancies. He seemed an ideal candidate: keen, interested to get on in the world. He was studying at night at the local campus of the University of Costa Rica for a qualification in business management. Apart from his coffee background, he had no field experience in crop agronomy, let alone potatoes! But Jorge was a quick learner. In fact, we learned a lot together how to grow potatoes. What particularly impressed me about him was his willingness to innovate, look for solutions. And have a flexible attitude to how we worked. We got the job done, and that often meant leaving for our experimental field plots higher up one of the nearby volcanoes before daybreak, and not returning to Turrialba until late in the afternoon once everything had been completed.

One of our isolation plots for seed multiplication high on the slopes of the Turrialba volcano.

Then a young woman, Leda Avila, from Alajuela joined my project as a bilingual secretary. Her support was fantastic. She had a bubbly and confident character, and was always curious to understand exactly what we were doing in the field. One day she asked me if she could join us on one of our visits to experimental plots we had planted on the slopes of the two local volcanoes, Irazú and Turrialba. She told me that as she typed research reports for Lima she had no idea what the work involved, but wanted to find out. So, one day, and donning her field boots, Leda joined the CIP team in the field.

She was so enthusiastic about her first field experience that she would join us thereafter as and when circumstances permitted. Much to the consternation of our CATIE colleagues. They’d never heard of such a thing. But to me, it just made sense to include Leda as a key member of the team.

Moisés Alonso Pereira

In late 1977, Oscar Hidalgo registered for his PhD at North Carolina State University, and left for the USA. On Ken Brown’s recommendation, Richard Sawyer asked me to take over leadership of the Region II Program. As a consequence, my travel schedule increased significantly (especially as we were developing an important cooperative program on potatoes involving six countries, PRECODEPA), and I had to find permanent technical support for Jorge. I hired Moisés Alonso Pereira as Research Technician, who was 17 or 18 then.

Searching for resistance to bacterial wilt (caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum) and ways to control it became an important focus of our research in Turrialba. But we also developed rapid multiplication techniques for seed production, and that work accelerated once my colleague and dear friend, Jim Bryan, joined the project in Costa Rica for one year in the late seventies, seen in some of the photos below passing on his encyclopedic knowledge about seed production and rapid multiplication techniques to Jorge and others. We also trained potato scientists from neighboring countries about these techniques through PRECODEPA.

At the same time as we were developing these rapid multiplication methods, my colleagues Bob Booth and Roy Shaw in Lima were adapting diffuse light potato storages for use on farm. We took one of their designs, and adapted it for use in Turrialba. With a double sandwich of fiberglass panels, a wide roof overhang to shade the sides, and an air conditioner to drop the temperature to a reasonable level (it was often more than 30ºC outside) we could successfully store potatoes for several months.

Turrialba became a prime site for testing potato varieties for their resistance to bacterial wilt, and CIP scientists from Lima would pass through to see for themselves how we were getting on. Given his interest and expertise in bacterial wilt it wasn’t surprising that Ed French visited us on at least one occasion.

Ed French and Jorge Aguilar checking the yield of some potato varieties after exposure to bacterial wilt. This plot is surrounded by the remains of wilted plants.

We also worked with colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (MAG) in San José to test different potato lines against various diseases such as viruses, and worked with farmers to find ways to increase productivity.

The productivity of many potato farms was quite low. Why? Overuse of fertilizers and agrochemicals, and not applying these in the most effective way to control pests and diseases, especially control of the late blight disease to which the two main varieties Atzimba and Rosita were highly susceptible. Many farmers worked on the basis that twice the dose of a fungicide, for example, would provide twice the control. Sadly that was never the case. Working with individual farmers was possible, but having the potato growers association on side was important. And their president was a young and forward-looking farmer, Olman Montero.

With Olman Montero on his farm on the slopes of the Irazu volcano.

Our work led to a few publications. Scientific publication was always welcome, but was never a driving force in our work. We were more concerned to make a difference in farmers’ fields by providing clean seed, improving productivity, identifying resistant potato varieties, or managing diseases in the field.

  • Bryan, J.E., M.T. Jackson & N. Melendez, 1981. Rapid Multiplication Techniques for Potatoes. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.F. Cartín & J.A. Aguilar, 1981. El uso y manejo de fertilizantes en el cultivo de la papa (Solanum tuberosum L.) en Costa Rica. Agronomía Costarricense 5, 15-19. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T. & L.C. González, 1981. Persistence of Pseudomonas solanacearum (Race 1) in a naturally infested soil in Costa Rica. Phytopathology 71, 690-693. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.C. González & J.A. Aguilar, 1979. Avances en el combate de la marchitez bacteriana de papa en Costa Rica. Fitopatología 14, 46-53. PDF

The five years that I spent in Costa Rica were among the best of my career. I really had to become self-reliant, learning to stand on my own two feet and grow professionally as a scientist and a project manager. There was no alternative. Being so far from CIP headquarters in Lima, and with communications vastly slower than today, I just couldn’t call on someone if I found myself in a spot of bother. Phone calls had to be booked at least a day in advance, or we could use telex – who remembers that? Otherwise I just mailed quarterly progress reports to keep everyone up to date with what was going on in Central America, and whether I was keeping to the work plans developed in December each year when the Regional Research staff from around the world congregated in Lima for a two week planning meeting. Ken Brown was an excellent Regional Research director; he let me and my Regional Research colleagues get on with things with only minor adjustments as and when necessary (keeping his staff ‘on a light rein’), so different from today when scientists are assailed frequently and from many quarters to account for their work and performance.

I owe a great debt to Jorge, Moisés, and Leda for all their contributions to the success of the CIP project in Costa Rica. And all my friends and colleagues in Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, as well as other programs contributing to PRECODEPA.

It was with some sadness that Steph, Hannah, and I upped sticks and moved back to Lima. You might ask why we would make such a move when things were going well in the Costa Rica program. By November 1980 I felt that I had achieved what I’d been sent there for, and even if I stayed on for another year or so, the scope of the work wouldn’t have changed significantly. In any case, the PRECODEPA project was ticking along quite nicely, managed by the national programs themselves, and everyone felt that a more distant relationship with CIP would allow the project to grow and mature. In any case, I was also looking for another potato challenge. And I expected that to come with another Regional Research posting. Little did I know, at the end of November that year, what life would have in store for me in 1981 [3].


Where are they now?
Since leaving Costa Rica at the end of November 1980, I have only been back to Costa Rica once, in 1997 when I was managing a worldwide project on rice biodiversity for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) funded by the Swiss government. I did meet both Jorge and Leda on that trip; I don’t recall if I saw Moisés during that visit to Turrialba. I stayed a couple of days in Turrialba. Maybe Jorge, Moisés and I spent an evening at the hilltop bar-restaurant at Turrialtico (now a fancy lodge) near CATIE where we would venture to enjoy a few beers (and some typical bar snacks or bocas) after a day in the field. And I had mostly lost contact with all three former colleagues—until quite recently. Such is the power of social media!

Jorge, Leda, and Moisés are all now retired, more or less, although involved in various volunteer activities. They would be in their early to mid-sixties now.

Jorge continues to live in Turrialba, and still manages a small finca on a part-time basis. He and his wife Carmen have three sons and two granddaughters. Sofía and Amanda are Leonardo’s daughters.

Jorge and Carmen

L-R: Fabian (40), Leonardo (44). Carmen, Jorge, and Daniel (30).

Sofia (7) and Amanda (2)

After leaving CATIE in early 1980, Leda returned to Alajuela, and spent many years working at the headquarters of IICA on the outskirts of San José. She has enjoyed traveling in her retirement, most recently in Myanmar in 2019.

She has one son, Enrique (29) who I met in 1997. I stayed with Leda for a couple of nights in Alajuela, and Enrique graciously gave me his room.

Enrique and Leda on 9 November 2020 in her garden in Alajuela.

Moisés now lives in the La Pitahaya neighborhood of Cartago, a city at the heart of the Costarrican potato industry, lying more or less halfway between San José and Turrialba.

Leda, Moisés, and José Alonso

With his second wife Leda, he has one son José Alonso, who celebrated his 11th birthday just a few days ago. Moisés also has two daughters Ana Amelia (26) and Karen (24) from his first marriage. He also has two granddaughters aged sixteen and fifteen.

It’s wonderful to have reconnected with old friends.


[1] In 1983, I contributed a short piece on potatoes in Costa Rican Natural History, a book edited by eminent tropical biologist, Daniel Janzen who spent many years studying biodiversity in Costa Rica.

[2] I have two enduring memories of that trip. Actually, of the flight from Lima to Panama, and the return. As I mentioned earlier, there were no direct flights from Lima to Costa Rica back in the day. We took an early morning flight (around 06:30 or so) on Air Panama from Lima to Panama City, with an onward connection there to San José. Hardly had the aircraft (a Boeing 727) lifted off the runway in Lima when it was ‘open bar’ for the remainder of the flight. I think Roger, Ed, and I all enjoyed rum cocktails before breakfast! Then on the return flight from Panama (I have this idea at the back of my mind that it was a Braniff DC8 flight), we hit an air pocket somewhere over the Colombian Andes, and it felt as though the plane dropped 1000 feet. Bang! That was my first experience of some serious turbulence, but not the last by a long chalk over the next 45 years.

[3] We returned to Lima, with the expectation of moving to Brasilia (for the southern cone countries of South America). When that fell through, the next option was to join the CIP program for Southeast Asia, based in Los Baños in the Philippines. In the event, that didn’t come about since I had applied for a faculty position in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at the University of Birmingham, being offered the position in January 1981. We moved back to the UK in March that year. It would be another decade before landing up in the Philippines. But that’s another story.

Living the life in Costa Rica . . . 1970s style

For almost five years, from April 1976 until the end of November 1980, Steph and I had the great good fortune to live in Costa Rica in Central America (it’s that small country with Nicaragua to the north and Panamá to the south). I was working for the Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP) in its regional program for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. How the years have flown by since then.

We lived in Turrialba, a small town around 70 km east of Costa Rica’s capital, San José, on the campus of The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (known by its Spanish acronym as CATIE). Although many features of CATIE’s 900 ha campus have changed since our time there, this recent official video simply highlights its beauty. Surrounded by lush tropical forest, with the Reventazón River snaking around the campus on the east side, it is a haven for the most incredible wildlife (particularly birds), and made it a special place to raise our elder daughter Hannah who was born there in April 1978.

We occupied a single storey, two bedroom residence on the south side of the campus, next door to the International School. Since our time, the school has been expanded, and our house is now part of the school.

Water apples in a San Jose market

Our garden was full of fruit trees, some of which (like lemons and papayas) we planted ourselves. Just beside the house entrance there was a mature and very tall water apple tree (manzana de agua, Syzygium malaccense, Myrtaceae) that produced abundant fruit each year. Loved by the locals, I never really did acquire a taste for them. If taste is the right word. I just found them bland and watery.

Common animal visitors to our garden included white-nosed coatimundis (known locally as pizotes), skunks, the marsupial opossums (which often made themselves noisily at home in the roof of our house), and armadillos. Snakes were also quite common, and fierce; Costa Rica is home to many different snake species. In fact one of the world’s most venomous snakes, the fer-de-lance (terciopelo in Spanish), was quite common on the CATIE campus. Poisonous coral snakes sometimes found their way inside the house and we had to call someone in to rescue them. Not something I was ever up for!

The bird life in Costa Rica is extraordinary. Something to write home about! One year, I took part in the annual Christmas Bird Count (number of different species, and their abundance) organized by the National Audubon Society. We set off in pairs, counting all the birds we observed over a six hour period, in our assigned area of the Turrialba valley. Altogether the spotters observed more than 100 species.

And around our house, on the edges of the Reventazón ravine, and behind my office we saw so many different species. The sunbirds and hummingbirds were always amazing. As were the motmots with their swinging pendulum-like tails, and several migrant species that stopped off in Turrialba on their travels between North and South America. Like the summer tanager (Piranga rubra) below, one of the brightest birds that showed up each year in the garden.

However, two of the most flamboyant—and vocal—birds, seen in abundance high up the trees around the campus were the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and Montezuma’s oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) [1].

My work took me away frequently from Turrialba, to meetings every couple of weeks or so at the University of Costa Rica or the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in San José, to the potato-growing areas on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano, or outside the country to work with colleagues in government potato programs in the region.

Potatoes at Llano Grande, Cartago Province, on the slopes of the Irazu Volcano.

In the 1970s (until just a year or so before we left) the road between Turrialba and Cartago (about half the way to San José) was unpaved, and rather tricky to navigate. Steph and I didn’t travel around the country much, exploring the Caribbean coast for instance near the port city of Limón just once.


On our first visit to Costa Rica in April 1975 (on our way back to the UK from Lima) we drove to the summit of the Irazú Volcano (at over 3400 m or 11,200 ft), looking down into the deep turquoise lake that fills the crater. Since potatoes are grown on the slopes very close to the summit, I would often take visitors to the summit while in the field.

On another occasion, a CATIE entomologist colleague and his wife, Andrew and Heather King, and I ascended to the summit of the Turrialba Volcano.

The Turrialba Volcano from CATIE’s experimental field plots.

It was quiet in those days, just some steaming vents around the large crater into which you could descend.

Inside the Turrialba crater.

Occasionally we felt an earth tremor that was probably associated with rumblings inside the volcano. But Turrialba started to show signs of activity in 2001, and became explosively active after 2014 (video), although it’s quiet again now.


For the first three years, we traveled around in our white VW Brasilia, even taking it south to Boquete, a small town in the heart of the potato-growing region of north Panamá, just south of the border with Costa Rica. The Inter-American Highway heading south crosses the Talamanca Range of mountains. Its highest point, Cerro de la Muerte (Summit of Death) is notorious for catching out careless drivers who pay the ultimate price. The road is winding, and often covered in cloud. [2]


We enjoyed short breaks on the northwest coast in the province of Guanacaste at Playa Tamarindo, more than 350 km from Turrialba, and a journey of more than eight hours. There was a gorgeous stretch of beach, and on both occasions (in March 1977 and 1979) we were the only residents at our chosen hotel. During our second time there, Hannah was a toddler, her first time at the beach. It’s much more developed now, and I’m sure the highway between Liberia (where there’s now an international airport to accommodate all the ‘snowbirds’ from the USA) and Tamarindo beach (almost 80 km) is now paved. Back in the day, it was a haven of tranquillity.

Apart from one evening that is, in March 1979. We’d enjoyed dinner, and getting Hannah ready for bed. We had chosen a suite with two rooms, so Hannah could sleep alone. I was reading her a story, when my foot accidentally tipped over an open bottle of Coca Cola. It was ice cold. I don’t know whether it was the temperature, or how the bottle made contact with the tile floor. The bottle simply exploded, and we found ourselves covered not only in frothing Coca Cola but shattered glass fragments. Everywhere! Hannah’s bed was full of glass. And soaking wet. There was no alternative but to ask the hotel management to quickly change our suite for another.


Besides the Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes, there’s another, Poás, northwest of San José. In 1978/79 when we visited, it was at least a four hour road trip from Turrialba to the summit, even though it was only 116 km or so. Poás has one of the largest craters (in diameter) in the world. When we arrived there it was smothered in cloud and we didn’t see anything!

Steph and Hannah on the summit of Poas.


Closer to Turrialba is the archaeological site of Guayabo, just 20 km north of CATIE but, in the 1970s, the road was completely unpaved, deep mud in places. I have written about our visit to that national monument here.

Exploring Guayabo.


Perhaps the most spectacular (if that’s the right word)—and saddest—trip was the one we made to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in the northwest of Costa Rica, in April 1980. Spectacular, because of the location and wildlife. Saddest, because we heard from home that my father had passed away from a heart attack the very day (29 April) we went into the Reserve. Hannah had just celebrated her second birthday five days earlier.

We hired horses to take us from our guesthouse into the reserve; it was several kilometers, and too far a two-year old to walk.

Although Hannah did decide, once we were in the forest, to explore on foot or ride on Dad’s back as well.

Why is Monteverde so special?

  • Monteverde houses 2.5% of worldwide biodiversity;
  • 10% of its flora is endemic; and
  • 50% of flora and fauna of Costa Rica is in this paradise.

Monteverde is home to some large mammals like jaguar and tapir. We didn’t see them.

We actually went in search of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). It’s the national bird of Guatemala and also the name of its currency.

But there’s a larger population of quetzals apparently in Costa Rica. And Monteverde is a quetzal hotspot. And did we find it? You bet we did!

If you are lucky to come across a quetzal, as we did, it’s not hard to identify with its brilliant emerald green plumage, bright red breast, and tail streamers (on the males) as long as 26 in (65 cm). This is the best image I could take. But at least we saw this magnificent bird.

Another bird that is heard more than it’s seen in the dense forest is the three-wattled bellbird. Its call is unmistakable. We did however see it flying among the trees. Its plumage is quite distinctive.

Because of my father’s death, we had to cut short our visit to Monteverde and head back to Turrialba the next day, a journey of more than 200 km, and over six hours in those days.


Among its neighbors Costa Rica was a peaceful haven. While these countries had insurgencies (Guatemala) or civil war (Nicaragua), Costa Rica was not affected until the end of the 1970s, when refugees from the Nicaraguan civil war started to spill south over the border. This put pressure on the civil and social authorities, especially in San José, and there were reports that crime was increasing there. We saw, for the first time, armed police on the streets. Costa Rica suffered a civil war in 1948 that lasted just 44 days. In the aftermath, its armed forces were abolished. Investment in social welfare programs and education became the norm in the country, making Costa Rica an enlightened outlier among its neighbors. When we first arrived in Costa Rica traffic police were ‘armed’ with screwdrivers, to remove the licence plates from any vehicle infringing traffic regulations.

Clinica Santa Rita

Being a small town, Turrialba did not have access to many of the extended commercial and health facilities available in San José. I guess we took time off every fortnight or so to do a big shop there, and fit in any other appointments as necessary. Hannah was born in the Hospital Clínica Santa Rita in San José.

While I had a badly sprained ankle attended to and put in a cast at the hospital in Turrialba, I checked myself into a clinic in San José when I had a tonsillectomy (just a few weeks before Hannah was born).

So, on reflection, these were five good years, in a beautiful country. After all, there can’t be much wrong with a country that dedicates 25% of its land area to 29 national parks. Although, back in the day, it was definitely a slower pace of life. In 1976, the population of San José was around 456,000. Today, it’s closer to 1.4 million. One sign of that slower pace were the typical ox-carts used on farms all over the country. I wonder how many are used today on a regular basis?

I’ve been back to Costa Rica just once since we left, in 1997, when I joined a group of scientists from the University of Costa Rica and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to collect wild rices in the Palo Verde National Park in Guanacaste.

Collecting seeds of Oryza latifolia with Alejandro Zamora.

Will I go back to Costa Rica? Perhaps. It would be great to see my old CIP team with whom I’m still in contact. But since there are so many other places I would like explore (Covid-19 permitting), it may be just a pipe dream. So many good memories.


[1] This YouTube video was actually filmed in Guatemala. However, it’s the same species as in Costa Rica, and I chose this particular video because it shows to perfection the display and call of Montezuma’s oropendola.

[2] Just one species of wild potatoes is found in Costa Rica: Solanum oxycarpum Schiede. We came across this species on the Cerro de la Muerte.

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!


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


 

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. These two airports are shown with purple symbols on the map below. 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 also identified using its three letter IATA code. Just click on any symbol to see the full name, a photograph, 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. But pink symbols are a subset of those airports I have used at least 20 times or more. The airports (actually quite a small number) where there was an intermediate stop, where I changed flights to the same airline or another one, but did not leave the airport itself, are coded blue.

Several  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. 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.

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.

Another, 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, several airstrips are shown in green. These were airfields or landing strips not served by commercial flights where I traveled by light aircraft.