Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 25: Walking the Great Wall of China

During the nineteen years I spent in the Far East, I visited China just twice. The first time was in March 1995, and this post is all about that visit. It must have been in 2009 that I was in China again, for the annual meeting of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) held in Beijing, just across the street from the famous Beijing National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest) built for the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, back to 1995.

Dr Bao-Rong Lu

A year earlier I had recruited Dr Bao-Rong Lu (a Chinese national from the southwest Sichuan Province) to work in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) on the diversity of wild rice species. Bao-Rong had just completed his PhD in Sweden at the Swedish University of Agriculture under the supervision Professor Roland von Bothmer, studying the cytogenetics of wheat species, if memory serves me correctly. He had also spent some months working at the Institute of Botany, The Chinese Academy of Sciences (IB-CAS), in Beijing prior to joining IRRI.

With a major rice biodiversity project getting underway at IRRI in 1995, I decided that a visit to China with Bao-Rong was the appropriate moment to initiate some further contacts and possible collaboration. Our visit took in three cities: Beijing, Hangzhou (in Zhejiang Province west of Shanghai), and Guangzhou (Canton) in the south.

First stop was the IB-CAS where I met with the Director (whose name I cannot recall, unfortunately) and many of the staff.

With the Director of the Institute of Botany and staff. Bao-Rong is standing on my left, and the Director on my right.

I was invited to present a seminar about the International Rice Genebank at IRRI and its role in the global conservation of rice genetic resources.

There was also some time for sightseeing around Beijing, and this was my opportunity to tick off another item on my bucket list: walking on the Great Wall of China (at Mutianyu, about 45 miles north of Beijing).

As you can see from these photos, there were few visitors, unlike scenes I have seen in the media in recent years.

We also took a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and a walk around Tiananmen Square. Again not crowded! In one of the photos you can see the Great Hall of the People behind Bao-Rong. During the CGIAR meeting in Beijing that I mentioned earlier, the official dinner (and entertainment) was hosted by the Chinese in the Great Hall. It’s massive!

The photos appear hazy, because it was. It was quite cold in Beijing in March, with a stiff northwesterly breeze blowing over the city, laden with dust from the far west of China. It felt like being sand-blasted.

We also visited some Ming era tombs near Beijing, but I’m unable to find any photos of that particular visit.

On one night the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences hosted a small dinner in my honor. On another, Bao-Rong introduced me to the delights of spicy Sichuan cuisine. There was a Sichuan restaurant in our hotel where all the staff were from the province.

Trevor Williams

Later that same evening, as Bao-Rong and I were enjoying a beer in the bar overlooking the hotel reception, I saw someone who I recognised enter the dining room. I had to investigate. And, lo and behold, it was Trevor Williams who had supervised my MSc dissertation at the University of Birmingham in 1971. Around 1977, Trevor left Birmingham to become the first Director of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR – now Bioversity International) in Rome. In 1995 I hadn’t seen Trevor for about six years, and so we spent the rest of the evening catching up over rather too many beers. Having left IBPGR by then, he was in Beijing setting up an organization that would become INBAR, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan with its headquarters in Beijing.

After a few days in Beijing, we headed south to the city of Hangzhou (inland from Shanghai on the Qiantang River) in Zhejiang province. We were there to visit the China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI) and meet with its director Professor Ying Cunshan. Professor Ying participated in the rice biodiversity project as a member of the project Steering Committee. CNRRI is the home of China’s largest rice genebank, which was modelled (inadvisedly in my opinion) on the genebank at IRRI.

With Bao-Rong and Professor Ying outside the entrance to CNRRI.

Inside the genebank with Professor Ying.

After a couple of days in Hangzhou, we headed southwest to the city of Guangzhou (Canton) and I experienced one of the most nerve-wracking flights ever.

Much as I am fascinated by aviation in general, I’m somewhat of a nervous flyer. And in the mid-1990s Chinese airlines were only just beginning to modernise their fleets with Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Many were still flying Soviet-era Russian aircraft, like the Tupolev (probably a ‘154’) that was assigned to our flight. On that morning, flights out of Hangzhou were delayed due to fog, and at the same time Guangzhou was also fogged in. Over a period of a couple hours, other flights (of mainly new aircraft) did depart, leaving just the Tupolev on the apron for our flight. Eventually the flight was called and we made our way out to the aircraft. Looking around the cabin as I made my way to my seat, it crossed my mind that this aircraft had seen better days.

Anyway, we took off and headed for Guangzhou. Approaching that city after a flight of about 90 minutes, the captain informed us that fog was still hanging over the airport but he would continue the landing. Only to abort that just before touching down, and returning to Hangzhou! My nerves were on edge. After refuelling, and a further delay, we departed again. This time we did find a gap in the fog and landed. As we were on our final approach and seconds from touch-down, a female passenger immediately in front of me decided to get out of her seat to retrieve her hand luggage from the overhead bin. That was the final straw for me, and I shouted at her, in no uncertain terms, to sit the f*** down. Not my best moment, I admit.

In Guangzhou, our destination was the Guangzhou wild rice nursery and meet with the staff (again I don’t remember who precisely). I believe the nursery was managed through the Guangzhou Academy of Agricultural Sciences. As in Beijing, I gave another seminar here.

In a 2005 paper, Bao-Rong and others has written about wild rice conservation in China.


Completing our visit to Guangzhou, I took a flight into Hong Kong (maybe under 40 minutes) to connect with another back to Manila.

Although China did not participate directly in the rice biodiversity project since the country had already invested heavily in rice collection and conservation, Professor Ying Cunshan served on the Steering Committee for the 5-year life of the project. We felt that his experience, and recognition among other rice scientists, would be an invaluable addition to the team.

I have two particular reflections on this first trip to China. First, in crowded areas the Chinese had little ‘respect’ for personal space, and I often found myself checking my pace of walking as others crossed in front of me, seemingly oblivious of the fact that I was there. And it wasn’t just me, being a foreigner. It just seemed the normal thing to do.

Secondly, I realised that I am not a very adventurous eater. Some of the dishes I was presented with did not encourage my appetite. There was certainly a lack of synchronization between my stomach, eyes and brain. I did find Sichuanese cooking delicious, however. In Guangzhou, where many ‘exotic’ dishes were prepared, I got round any difficulties by explaining to my hosts, through Bao-Rong, that I was vegetarian. And those dishes were equally delicious.

Bao-Rong remained at IRRI for two contracts, a total of six years. After he left IRRI in 2000, he returned to China and it wasn’t long before he joined Fudan University in Shanghai. He is now Professor and Chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Biodiversity Science. He currently serves as a Member of the Chinese National Biosafety Committee.


 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

That’s Thailand on the far bank.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But redemption was on the horizon.

Prof. Jack Hawkes

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

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

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

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

Prof. Trevor Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Klaus Lampe

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

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

Dr. Ron Cantrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tracks over the mountains

The building of railways around the world in the 19th century inspired some impressive feats of engineering.

Among them must surely be included Horseshoe Curve, just west of Altoona in central Pennsylvania, that was completed in 1854 by the Pennsylvania Railroad as a way to lessen the grade over the Allegheny Mountains. Today, its three tracks are operated by the Norfolk Southern Railway, carrying mainly freight, but with Amtrak passenger trains passing through each day.

It is indeed a main artery connecting Pennsylvania’s coalfields with the east coast. During World War II it was considered a strategic target by Nazi Germany because of the armaments and other materiel being transported to the east coast for shipment to Europe.

In the past year I had come across several videos of trains passing Horseshoe Curve, and determined that if I ever had the chance, I would visit.

And that’s precisely what Steph and I did during our recent trip around northeast and Atlantic states. The trains, often pulled and pushed (or braked going downhill) by as many as five or six locomotives, are just mind-blowing in their length. Just see on the video below, of a coal train negotiating the curve, that the leading locomotives are already out of sight before the last cars have appeared around the upper bend (on the right).

Here are some Horseshoe Curve statistics.

During the 45 minutes we sat by the trackside, three freight trains lumbered through. One of them was actually halted on the Curve to check the brakes of the lead locomotive 4115. An audio link between the railroad controllers and engineers was relayed at the track side viewing point so we could understand what was going on.

USA 2019: nine days, ten Northeast and Atlantic states

Steph and I are now relaxing with family in Minnesota.

We have just completed our 2019 road trip: almost 2050 miles across ten states (in yellow), and crossing state lines thirteen times (MA-RI-CT-NY-PA-NJ-DE-PA-MD-WV-VA-MD-DE-MD).

Our visit to the USA started at 03:00 on Tuesday 3 September, when we dragged ourselves out of bed to head to Birmingham Airport (BHX) to catch the 06:00 KLM flight to Amsterdam(AMS). We were surprised to find the airport heaving even at that early hour. While this flight departed on time, on arrival in Amsterdam we discovered, to our (slight) dismay that the onward Delta flight to Boston (BOS) was delayed at least two hours because of the late arrival of the incoming aircraft (from JFK, where severe weather has disrupted many flights the previous day).

But, to give Delta Airlines due credit, they turned the aircraft around quickly and we departed only slightly over two hours delayed. However, as you can imagine that had a knock-on for our arrival in BOS.

Immigration there was a bit of a nightmare. I had hoped to be on the road before 15:00 for the 93 mile drive south for our first night at Orleans on Cape Cod. Because of the various delays, it was closer to 18:00 before we headed out of the car rental center, immediately hitting Boston rush-hour traffic, and then crawling slowly south for at least 35 miles.

Budget car rental assigned us a Jeep Wrangler, perhaps a little bigger than I had contemplated, but it was comfortable and solid on the road.

I had planned to be at Orleans well before nightfall. It wasn’t to be, and I had to drive the last hour in the dark, not something I relish at the best of times. For the final 15-20 miles of the trip, US-6 narrowed to two-way (known locally as ‘Suicide Alley’). Nonetheless, we made it in one piece and enjoyed a good night’s rest.

We spent the first morning on Cape Cod, checking out various beaches, before traveling into Provincetown to view (from a distance) the Pilgrim Monument, erected between 1907 and 1910 to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. We also visited the site where Marconi built a transatlantic wireless communication station just after the turn of the 20th century.

Then we headed west to Newport, Rhode Island and the Beavertail Lighthouse at the southern tip of Conanicut Island at the entrance to Narragansett Bay, crossing the impressive Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge in the process.

Beavertail Lighthouse.

Then it was on to Plainfield, CT for our second night.

The next day we headed down to the Connecticut coast at Old Saybrook at the mouth of the Connecticut River, before turning west to have a picnic lunch and a walk on the beach at Silver Sands State Park in Milford, some 15 miles west of New Haven (home to Yale University).

Crossing the causeway at Old Saybrook on CT-154

The ‘dangerous’ sand bar out to Charles Island where is access is not permitted during the breeding season of various sea birds.

In the northwest of the state we visited Kent Falls State Park, before heading to Poughkeepsie (pronounced Puckipsee, home to Vassar College) on the banks of the Hudson River (and close to Hyde Park, the home of President Franklin D Roosevelt that we didn’t have time to visit).

Kent Falls State Park

In Poughkeepsie we found an excellent restaurant, The Tomato Cafe on Collegeview Ave just outside Vassar, and enjoyed probably the best meal of the trip.

From Poughkeepsie we had a long drive west into Pennsylvania before heading south and east to end up near Atlantic City on New Jersey’s coast. From the coast we headed west into Pennsylvania at Gettysburg.

Our day started early, crossing the Hudson River on US-44 at Poughkeepsie despite my satnav refusing to calculate a crossing there.

Crossing the Mid-Hudson Bridge at Poughkeepsie

Our first destination was the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania, and Dingmans Falls, just a mile west of US209, in particular. On the way there we came across the remains of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, whose construction started in 1823 to carry coal from the Pennsylvania coal fields.

The Visitor Center at Dingmans Falls was closed during our visit, but the boardwalk trail to the Falls themselves was an easy walk of just under a mile. However, the climb up to the top of the Falls was a little more challenging.

About 20 miles south of Dingmans Falls, the Delaware River cuts through the mountains and heads east. It forms the stateline between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We stopped for a bite to eat at the Kittatinny Point rest area on the New Jersey side.

Looking west (from central northern New Jersey) towards the Delaware Gap.

By this time we were becoming a little concerned about reports of exactly where, on the Atlantic Coast, Hurricane Dorian would make landfall. High winds had been predicted for Atlantic City, and some rain, but as the storm was moving quite slowly, we had no idea if it would affect us or not.

We had already seen forecasts of severe weather in northern New Jersey (just south of New York) and we weren’t disappointed! I misread my satnav and exited from the highway one exit too soon, and found myself heading over the Raritan River at Perth Amboy on the wrong bridge. Fortunately my satnav quickly sorted me out, sending me back north over another bridge on Convery Boulevard, and entering the Garden State Parkway where I had originally intended. We only lost about 10 minutes, but driving among six or more lanes of fast-moving traffic in a downpour and with all the road spray was not an experience I would wish to repeat.

When we arrived at our hotel in Absecon (a few miles outside Atlantic City) it was certainly windy, the clouds were lowering, but there was no immediate threat of the hurricane hitting or any flooding, although our hotel (a rather inferior Travelodge) faced the marshes fronting the ocean.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny however, and hardly a breath of wind. Dorian had passed us by and headed out east into the Atlantic. What a difference a day makes!

The Atlantic City skyline from the northwest, sans hurricane.

So we drove into the center of the city, and walked up and down Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk for a couple of hours.

Longwood Gardens near Kennett Square in Pennsylvania (west of Philadelphia and northwest from Wilmington, DE) was not on our original itinerary. However, through a Facebook chat with a former colleague, accountant Lisa Panes, from IRRI in the Philippines, she mentioned that a visit to Longwood would be worthwhile. I’d never heard of the gardens before, but then discovered they are considered among the best in the USA. And not only that, just a few miles east of the original route I’d planned.

We spent four glorious hours wandering around the gardens. I’ll be writing about the gardens (and other locations we visited) in a separate blog post.

Tired and rather hot, we set off on the last leg to Gettysburg, passing through the heart of Amish country, at Intercourse, PA.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. After breakfast we set off to the Gettysburg battlefield visitor center, received battlefield guide maps, and decided which routes to take. Over the whole site, seemingly every few yards, there are monuments to different regiments, both Federal and Confederate, and the many skirmishes that took place there over a period of three days in July 1863. Very poignant.

We also went into town to view Gettysburg station where President Lincoln arrived on 18 November 1863, just over four months after the battle.

At the end of the visit we strolled around the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and saw the spot where, on 19 November 1863, Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. Have 272 words ever been more powerful?

After lunch we headed northwest from Gettysburg to Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, PA, a feat of railway engineering that was completed in 1854, would you believe.

From there, it was an 80 mile drive south to Frostburg in the mountains of northwest Maryland, a most beautiful landscape that I hadn’t expected. Our hotel there, a Quality Inn, was the best of the trip, about 1½ miles south of the town center, where we also had a lovely meal in an Italian restaurant, Giuseppe’s.

The next two days took us from Frostburg south through the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia, before turning east into Virginia to spend nights in Appomattox (where General Robert E Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865), and Colonial Williamsburg.

Seneca Rocks, in Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Monongahela National Forest, almost 74 miles south of Frostburg.

A typical West Virginia landscape in the Monongahela National Forest.

The McLean home at Appomattox Court House where General Lee surrendered to General Grant.

Colonial Williamsburg was not quite what I expected. It’s like a living museum, with quite a number of original buildings but many that have been reconstructed.

Our last day, Wednesday, was spent traveling north up the Delmarva Peninsula, stopping off for an hour at Lewes beach, before the last (and heavy traffic) push into Baltimore, for our final night close to Baltimore International Airport (BWI) from where we flew next day to Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP). This last day also included crossing the impressive Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnels, almost 18 miles in length.

On the east Virginia shore, there’s an observation rest area where some of the bridges and causeway can be seen in the distance.

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It was over 90F on the beach at Lewes.

So, for another year, our USA road trip is over. We averaged just over 240 miles per day (discounting the first day trip south to Orleans), and only on two days did we travel more than 300 miles (unlike in 2018, for instance, when most days were over 300 miles, and often closer to or more than 400 miles). So, in that sense, this year’s trip was easier, even though I felt the trip took more out of me than I had expected. Must be an age thing.

Overall, I was pleased with the Jeep. We spent only $203 on gasoline and achieved an impressive (considering the size of the vehicle) 26 mpg; $804 on hotels (or about £645 at current—and disappointing, Brexit -induced—exchange rates), and maybe $350 or so on meals.

Where to in 2020? Maybe the Rocky Mountain states, or do we bite the bullet and tour the southern states from Georgia through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas? Decisions, decisions!

‘Ménage à trois’ . . . ?

During our recent trip to East Sussex and Kent, we visited three National Trust properties that are linked by family and membership of or association with the Bloomsbury Group (or Set) – check the map:

  • Knole, on the outskirts of Sevenoaks in Kent, family home, since the 16th century of the Sackville and Sackville-West families;
  • Sissinghurst Castle and Garden (24 miles southeast of Knole), home of poet, novelist and garden designer Vita Sackville-West and husband Harold Nicholson; and
  • Monk’s House  at Rodmell on the south coast near the Seven Sisters at Birling Gap (see map), the home of writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, prominent members of the Bloomsbury Group.

Top: Knole; bottom left: Sissinghurst; bottom right: Monk’s House

The Bloomsbury Group was a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century.

What was their ethos? Their works and outlook deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality.

So what is the particular connection, the ‘ménage’ as I’ve called it, between Knole, Sissinghurst, and Monk’s House?

Left: Vita Sackville-West (and husband Harold Nicholson); middle: Eddy Sackville-West, 5th Baron Sackville; right: Virginia Woolf.

Vita Sackville-West was the daughter of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville. She was born at Knole in 1892. As a woman, Vita could not inherit Knole on her father’s death. Instead, Knole and the Sackville title passed to Lionel’s younger brother Charles. His son Edward (‘Eddy’), Vita’s cousin, became the 5th Baron. Although he was not a core member of the Bloomsbury Group, many of its members and ‘hangers-on’ were frequent visitors to Knole as shown in the guest book on display in the rooms that Eddy occupied in the Gatehouse Tower there.

Vita and her husband purchased derelict Sissinghurst Castle in 1930 and set about creating a garden that has received acclaim worldwide. Sissinghurst had been the home of one of Vita’s ancestors, Cicely Baker, who married Thomas, Ist Earl of Dorset in 1555.

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf were lovers.

It’s not my intention here to discuss nor describe further the ancestral, social, or sexual links between all involved. I cannot comment either on the literary output of Vita and Virginia as I have not read any of their works, although I know what they wrote and the genre.

Instead, let me just describe some of my impressions of Knole, Sissinghurst, and Monk’s House.


It took less than an hour to drive north on the A21 to Sevenoaks from our holiday cottage near Robertsbridge. Driving along the High Street (A225) at Sevenoaks, it’s hard to believe that just behind the houses lies a 1000 acre parkland, with Knole and its gardens at the center. The park has herds of fallow and Japanese Sika deer, descendants of the deer introduced centuries ago.

Knole is a large house, but the public has access to just a few rooms. But what a feast for the eyes therein. Treasures aplenty! The items on display inside the house: oil paintings by the dozen, rare furniture and many others remain the property of the Sackville-West family that continues to live at Knole, under a 200-year lease from the National Trust. Robert Sackville-West is the 7th Baron.

No photography is permitted inside the main house; but no such restrictions hold in the Stone [4] and Green Courts [2], or from the roof of the Gatehouse [8]. Likewise photography is permitted in the Orangery [3].


Sissinghurst Castle Garden is a delight. But hard to appreciate fully when there are so many visitors. And on the day we visited, it wasn’t as busy as it must surely get!

Designed by Vita and Harold, Sissinghurst must be on every gardener’s bucket list. Like the garden we saw at Greys Court two years ago, Sissinghurst is also a series of rooms open to the sky, and best seen in their entirety perhaps from the top of the double turret tower, Vita’s Tower.

The White Garden from Vita’s Tower.

The South Cottage from Vita’s Tower.

Vita loved her tower, and had a writing room there. There’s no access to the room, but I visitors can look through a grille to see its layout.

The Library is open however. Over the fireplace there is a grand oil painting of Vita. It’s a comfortable room where no doubt she and Harold entertained their Bloomsbury friends.

Vita and Harold had a turbulent marriage, and both had same-sex affairs. Vita’s affair with Virginia Woolf was perhaps the most notorious. But their marriage survived, and together they worked on creating their garden at Sissinghurst.


Visitors to Monk’s House in the small village of Rodmell new Newhaven make a beeline to Virginia Woolf’s writing room in the garden.

Virginia and husband Leonard shared a 16th century cottage. On the walls are paintings by Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell (VB) and the person (TR) who became Leonard’s companion after Virginia’s suicide by drowning in 1941 (aged 59) until his death in 1969, Trekkie Parsons.

The ashes of both Virginia and Leonard were laid at the base of a wall in their small but attractive garden, with its views over the South Downs.

Before our visit to Monk’s House, the name of Virginia Woolf was familiar to me, but I knew very little of her life and associates. It was fascinating, however, to see the environment and work room that gave one of the great writers of the 20th century inspiration to continue, even though she suffered mental health problems all her life. For some of visitors I had the sense that their visit to Monk’s House was almost a pilgrimage.


Leaving Monk’s House to drive back to Robertsbridge, we chose a route that would take us down to the coast at Birling Gap where we hoped to have a good view of the chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, where the South Downs meet the sea. It was a sparklingly bright afternoon, and we were not disappointed.

From the National Trust car park there was easy access down to the beach, where we could sit and take in the magnificence of that landscape.

Continuing our journey on from Birling Gap, we passed Beachy Head, although we didn’t stop. The short video below shows our departure from the car park at Birling Gap, and the climb on to the cliffs, passing the Belle Tout Lighthouse (now restored as a bed & breakfast establishment), and finally dropping down into Eastbourne, with Pevensey Bay in the distance, where the Normans landed in 1066. From that drop into Eastbourne you can appreciate just how high the chalk cliffs are at Beachy Head, at more than 530 feet (162 m).


Check out these photo albums:


 

Around the world through 191 airports . . . and counting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Aviateca DC-3 at Tikal in 1971.

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The whole trip covered more than 17,000 nm.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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