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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

Like a duck to water . . . scuba diving in the Philippines

Late afternoon in front of Arthur’s Place, Anilao
(with Maricaban Island in the distance)

I’ve never been one for competitive sport, or strenuous outdoors exercise. No fell or hill walking for me, nor rock climbing, potholing, or other like pursuits.

So it was rather out of character that I took to scuba diving in the Philippines with such enthusiasm. Although I’d lived in the Tropics before moving to the Philippines in 1991, in Peru, I only went occasionally to the beach south of Lima during the summer months from January to March; and when we lived in Costa Rica, the best beaches were hours away by road.

In the Philippines, on the other hand, quite a number of IRRI staff had learned to scuba dive, and spent weekends away, either in Anilao (about 90 km or so south of Los Baños) or at Puerto Galera on Mindoro, the next island south of Luzon.

In fact, when we did go to the beach in Puerto Galera for the first time, in February 1992 (just a few weeks after Steph, Hannah and Philippa had joined me from the UK), I’d never even snorkeled before! So the last thing on my mind was the idea of taking a scuba diving course. Snorkeling was fine – once I’d got the hang of it, and learned to relax and actually breathe with my face in the water. So we invested in masks, boots and fins, and started visiting Anilao about once a month. Our first resort was Arthur’s Place, established by local dive master and entrepreneur Arturo Abrigonda and his wife Lita. Arthur’s Place was quite modest in 1992, just a few rooms available. And since there was no telephone at that time, making a reservation was rather hit-and-miss. In fact, it was only possible to reach the resort from Anilao village by outrigger canoe or banca, which took about 30 minutes or so. Eventually, the road was opened up, the mobile phone network spread to include the Mabini peninsula, and Arthur’s Place even had email and a web presence. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My elder daughter Hannah took a NAUI dive course in 1992, not long after we first went to Puerto Galera (my one and only visit there). She’d have been about 14 or 15 at the time. There was a group of IRRI staff and children taking a course, and the dive instructors came down to the staff housing where we had a 20 m pool to conduct the theory classes and confined water exercises. The open water exercises and final certification were carried out at Anilao. Well, for a year I watched Hannah getting ready for one of her dives each time we went down to Anilao, and began to wonder what it would be like.

Mario Elumba - a recent pic

Mario Elumba – a recent pic

And my opportunity came in March 1993 when a group of us got together to arrange dive classes with two PADI instructors – Boy Siojo and Mario Elumba. I took to scuba diving like a duck to water, and I have to say it has been one of the best things I have ever done. Including my four open water exercises dives (just prior to receiving my Open Water Diver certification) I completed 356 dives, making my first on 13 March 1993, and my last (just before I retired from IRRI and returned to the UK) on 14 March 2010. I only dived in the Anilao area – there’s just so much to see, and in any case, as Steph did not dive but loved just to snorkel, there was no reason to go elsewhere. The reefs just in front of Arthur’s Place were ideal for this, and for about 18 years she kept quite detailed records of what she observed, some 100-150 m either side of Arthur’s Place.

Steph checking her records after another successful snorkel

Steph checking her records after another successful snorkel

I also kept a detailed log of all my dives, who I dived with, where we dived, the conditions, and how long each dive lasted. For the first few years, my main dive buddy was Arthur. Most weekends I would complete three dives (very occasionally four, and exceptionally five). But three dives was a comfortable number: a morning and afternoon dive on the Saturday, and an early morning dive (usually to Kirby’s Rock) on the Sunday morning (that was always followed by a great plate of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee).

Sunday morning - post Kirby's. Bacon and eggs on the table.

Sunday morning – post Kirby’s. Bacon and eggs on the table.

We stayed at Arthur’s Place as often as we could  but when full, we had to stay at other resorts along the coast. However, I guess we stayed at Arthur’s more than 95% of the time, and by the time we left the Philippines, we had become the longest term clients at the resort. So much so, that Lita’s younger daughter Joanne invited me to be one of the ‘godfathers’ or ninong at her wedding in January 2010. Steph and I were the only non-Filipinos at the wedding – a great honour.

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There are many great dive sites around Anilao, but my two favorites have to be Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks. I think Arthur was one of the pioneers of the conservation strategy along the coast, and the development of many dive resorts led, quite quickly, to an overall increase in health of the many reefs, because the presence of divers (a considerable economic benefit to the local communities  reduced the incidence of dynamite and cyanide fishing.

One or two sites were famous for their fierce currents, especially Beatrix and Bahura. Both Kirby’s Rock and Seepok Wall had impressive walls to explore. At Kirby’s it is possible to descend about 140 feet to the bottom of one of the walls – which I did many times. The feeling of the water pressure, the (general) clarity of the water (many times over 100 feet of visibility), and the wealth of marine life make this a special dive site for me.

Nudibranchs at Mainit Point,
27 March 2004

There’s so much I could write about. We often saw white-tipped reef sharks, and my particular bugaboo was the giant triggerfish, a particular aggressive beastie that has chased us around the reef from time to time. The myriad of brightly coloured shoals of small fish, especially the butterfly fish in all their diversity, the jacks, and tuna, the occasional turtle, the soft corals and nudibranchs – what sights on a bright morning to make one’s heart sing. And the big advantage as far as I was concerned – no-one could phone me or send me an email, or bother me about work whatsoever, when I was diving.

L to r: me, Clare, Lito, and Judy, in front of Arthur’s Place, 4 May 2003, just after diving at Kirby’s Rock

Sadly Arthur died of cancer in 2002, but in any case once I had gained some diving experience I did not really need him to be my dive buddy. I used to take Hannah and Philippa diving (Philippa learned to dive in January 1995 when she was 12), and for many years I used to buddy with one of the International School Manila teachers, Judy Baker, or Clare O’Nolan, the wife of IRRI’s IT Services manager Paul. Lito Bonquin became the resident dive master at Arthur’s Place in the late 1990s, and he was the person I dived with most over my almost 18 years of diving. He was very experienced and a safe buddy to dive with – and we had great fun exploring familiar sites.

Lito and me after my last dive (at Kirby’s Rock) on 14 March 2010

Do I miss scuba diving? From time-to-time, especially on a grey winter morning, or after someone at Arthur’s Place has posted a particularly nice photo on the Facebook page. I’m pleased I had the opportunity of taking up this great sport. I enjoyed diving with most folks I came into contact with, but there were one or two (including some of my IRRI colleagues – no name, no pack-drill  who I was less than enthusiastic to dive with, because I just didn’t feel safe buddying with them  And I was quite an experienced diver.

I remained an Open Water Diver – I had no interest in gaining further certification as an Advanced Diver, or rescue, wreck or whatever diver. I still have my mask (with its prescription lenses), my boots and fins, and my wet suit. Maybe I’ll get the chance to dive again some day, and if I do get back to the Philippines before I’m too old to enjoy diving again, I reckon there’ll be a welcome for me at Arthur’s Place, and marine friends at Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks might ‘realize’ their old ‘buddy’ is back in town.