Chilling in Los Baños . . .

For the past week I have been at the headquarters of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños in the Philippines, where I worked for almost 19 years until my retirement in April 2010. I had to attend two meetings in preparation for the 4th International Rice Congress (IRC2014) that will be held at the end of October in Bangkok, Thailand. The first meeting, from Monday to Wednesday, was the SciCom Exec to finalize the content and structure of the scientific conference. The IRC2014 Organizing Committee met on Thursday and Friday. We were kept busy from morning to night, although there were opportunities for some social gatherings, and I also took full advantage of staying in IRRI’s Guesthouse to enjoy the nearby swimming pool every morning at 6 am.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My journey began on Friday 8 August, traveling on Emirates Airlines from Birmingham to Manila via Dubai (BHX-DXB-MNL). There were minimal delays at BHX, and we landed more or less on time in DXB around midnight local time.

The stopover was about three hours, and by the time I’d cleared security, checked out Duty Free, and made my way to the EK lounge in Terminal 3, there wasn’t too long to wait before we were boarding the next flight to Manila. That wasn’t a good flight. It was comfortable enough, but there was turbulence the whole flight – not severe by any stretch of the imagination, except for the occasional sharp bump – and just persistent enough to prevent me from settling. Added to that, a large gentleman across the aisle from me settled to sleep immediately after take-off from DXB, and snored the whole way to Manila! After landing in Manila NAIA Terminal 1, I had passed through immigration and customs in less than 20 minutes, but traffic congestion around the airport (it was around 5:15 pm on Saturday), and during the 65 km drive to Los Baños, delayed our arrival at the Guesthouse until almost 8 pm.

Meeting old friends
Despite the busy schedule of meetings, I was able to catch up with the many old friends at IRRI. I was given an office in my former DPPC unit, now called DRPC.

On Tuesday night I was treated to dinner at Sulyap Gallery Café and Restaurant in San Pablo, about 10 km south of Los Baños. And we had a lovely evening: great company, great food. What more can you ask for?

L to R: Eric, Zeny, me, Vel, Corints and Yeyet

L to R: Eric, Zeny, me, Vel, Corints and Yeyet

On Wednesday, Yeyet and her husband Christian took me out to dinner in Los Baños. They were married in March, and had invited me to be one of their sponsors or ninong. Of course I wasn’t able to travel then, but I did send a short video message that was played during the wedding reception. It was a complete surprise to everyone (except Vel with whom I’d made the arrangements to receive and show the video).

On Thursday and Friday nights the IRC2014 committees got together to relax.

Checking out the genebank
Our meetings finished by Friday lunchtime, so I took advantage of some ‘free’ time in the afternoon to visit the International Rice Genebank in the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center, and meet my former staff and colleagues.

Now the genebank is really the only place in Los Baños where you can chill out. The Active Collection is kept around 2-3C, but the Base Collection is maintained at a decidedly frosty -18C. Since I left IRRI in 2010, a new and much larger cold room to house the Base Collection was added to the genebank infrastructure, with funding from the World Bank. Seeds are still stored in vacuum-sealed aluminium cans, but nowadays, everything is neatly bar-coded. (I was even shown a new tablet-based scoring system, complete with photos and descriptions, for germplasm characterization).

Despite the fact that I had responsibility for the genebank for a decade from 1991, and obviously it’s my ‘baby’, I’m immensely proud of the staff and their conscientious attitude in conserving this extremely important germplasm collection.

Out and about on the farm – Typhoon Glenda
This morning (Sunday) I decided to take a tour of the IRRI Experiment Station, not only to see all the various rice breeding plots and experiments, but to visit the wild species screenhouses on the Upland Farm, and see what damage the recent Typhoon Glenda had caused.

‘You can take the man out of IRRI, but you can’t take IRRI out of the man’. Wandering around the farm, looking at all the fields and labs where I worked for almost 19 years it was hard not to feel really nostalgic. But when I visited IRRI last November, it was almost 4 years then since I had retired and I had been away long enough to have made ‘the separation’. Nevertheless, IRRI and its work has become part of my DNA, and I really do get a thrill wandering through the fields. Rice breeding and science is a numbers game, and IRRI plays that game to the highest proficiency. The field plots are immaculate, and surprisingly so considering the severity of Typhoon Glenda which apparently hung around the Los Baños area for more than 6 hours. There must have been some extremely turbulent vortices to have caused the damage that it did, although this time, there was little if no rain damage. Typhoon Glenda was a ‘dry’ typhoon compared to many.

An Iranian feast
On Sunday evening, I met up with an old friend and former staff member, Bita, who now works for Accenture in Manila. Bita is originally from Iran, but moved to the Philippines when she was eleven. Both her parents are rice scientists. So Bita grew up in Los Baños, went to UPLB, married and had four lovely children, and has now opened an authentic Iranian restaurant in Los Baños called Everyday Kabab.

I had a lovely meal of dips and naan bread (check out Bita’s garlic and yoghurt dip) followed by chicken and beef kababs, prepared using Bita’s secret recipe. She also serves a traditional cherry drink from Iran; it’s neither sweet nor sour, but very refreshing. And Everyday Kabab is growing in popularity among the LB community – it certainly began to fill up while I was there.

And finally, another surprise . . . 
Once we’d finished early on Friday afternoon and I left GRC, I returned to the Guesthouse for some rest, and to work in a more comfortable location. At least I could wear shorts and a T-shirt. But I hadn’t been in my room much more than 30 minutes when the phone rang, and to my surprise, it was Lilia Tolibas, our helper who worked for us for 18 years. Although working mostly in Manila these days, Lilia still has family ties in Los Baños, and had heard I was in town. And she came specially to see me.

We had a good chat for almost an hour, and it was then I heard about her misfortune during last November’s Typhoon Yolanda that hit her home town of Tacloban so badly. After we had left, she built a small house in Tacloban and moved many of her belongings there. But the tidal wave that hit the town destroyed her house, and sadly one of her sisters drowned. She works for the American Chamber of Commerce in Manila and they were quickly offering humanitarian relief. They found her family, and quickly also found her sister’s body who was given a decent burial, a dignity not afforded to so many victims. Lilia is still waiting for her compensation from the government from the humanitarian relief that so many countries donated. It’s a scandal that this is not being released to the victims and families.

Flying home . . .
Tomorrow night, Monday, my EK flight to DXB departs at 23:55 from the ‘new’ Terminal 3 at NAIA. I say ‘new’ advisedly since it was constructed almost a decade ago but, until now, had not be used by the major airlines. Emirates transferred to Terminal 3 last Friday. Let’s hope that this NAIA experience is far superior to many I’ve had out of the decrepit Terminal 1. I should be home in the UK by early afternoon on Tuesday.

A busy week, yes. Fruitful? Yes. Many things accomplished? Yes. Now it’s time to complete the final tasks and before we know it we’ll all be heading off to the congress in Bangkok at the end of October.

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