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.

Reliving some of our best USA visits

2020 was meant to be a positive year of change. In early January we placed our house in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire on the market, with the hope (expectation?) of a quick sale. Instead, it’s a year on hold.

By the end of 2019 we had already decided (after pondering this decision for a couple of years or more) to leave the Midlands and move north to the Newcastle upon Tyne area, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family: husband Andi, and sons Elvis (8) and Felix (6).

Steph and I are not getting any younger (70 and 71, respectively) and we decided that if we were going to make a move, we’d better get on with it while we had the enthusiasm, and continuing good health. Newcastle is almost 250 miles from where we currently live.

Back in January we thought we might be in Newcastle by mid-year, early autumn at the latest. That was before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. We are now in lockdown, and will be for the foreseeable future. Heaven knows when we might eventually push through with a sale.

So, with the expectation of this house move, we had already decided not to make our ‘annual’ visit to the USA (and road trip as in past years) to stay with our elder daughter Hannah and her family in Minnesota: husband Michael, Callum (9) and Zoë (7). Instead, they had decided to join us all in the Newcastle area for a two week vacation from early August. That’s also on hold until conditions improve and is unlikely now until 2021.

Since retirement in 2010, Steph and I have been making these US visits, and taking another holiday here in the UK, such as to Scotland in 2015, Northern Ireland in 2017, Cornwall in 2018, and East Sussex and Kent last year. As followers of this blog will know, Steph and I are avid members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. Alas, those day trips are also on hold.

Anyway, to cheer myself in the absence of any holiday breaks this year, I decided to look through the various blog posts I have published about many of the places we have visited in the USA—shown on the map below—and then give you my top five choices. As you can see from the map, there are several regions of the USA that we’ve not yet explored: Colorado, Utah and Idaho, southern Midwest, and southern states.

The dark red symbols indicate various national parks or other landscapes we have visited. Each has a link to the relevant blog post. The green symbols show cities where I have spent some days over the years.

It’s very hard to make a choice of my top five. But here they are, in no particular order (the links below open photo albums):

Having said that, Canyon de Chelly really is my No. 1, and I would return there tomorrow given half a chance. So why not include the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone in my top five? They would certainly be in the top 10.

We have been so fortunate to have had such great opportunities to travel around the USA. And we look forward to many more, filling in some of the gaps as we go.

I hope you enjoy looking at these road trip sites as much as we did visiting them over the past decade.


 

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!