Wishing I was in Cuzco . . .

The 10th World Potato Congress takes place in the southern Peruvian city of Cuzco at the end of May this year. I wish I was going.

It would be a great opportunity to renew my links with potato research, and revisiting one of Peru’s most iconic cities would be a joy.

I like this quotation from the Congress website: Potatoes are the foundation of Andean society. It shaped cultures and gave birth to empires. As the world population explodes and climate change places increased demands on the world’s farmers, this diverse and hearty tuber will play an instrumental role in feeding a hungry planet.

Cuzco lies at the heart of the Andean potato culture. The region around Cuzco, south to Lake Titicaca and into northern Bolivia is where most diversity in potatoes and their wild species relatives has been documented. When I worked for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru during the early 1970s I had several opportunities of looking for potatoes on the Peruvian side of the border, and made three (possibly four) visits to Cuzco. I see from a quick scrutiny of the street map of Cuzco on Google maps that the city has changed a great deal during the intervening years. That’s hardly surprising, including many fast food outlets dotted around the city. The golden M get everywhere! Also there are many more hotels (some of the highest luxury) in the central part of the city than I encountered 45 years ago.

At Machu Picchu in January 1973

I visited Cuzco for the first time within two weeks of arriving in Peru in January 1973. The participants of a potato germplasm workshop (that I described just a few days ago) spent a few days in Cuzco, and I had the opportunity of taking in some of the incredible sights that the area has to offer, such as Machu Picchu and the fortress of Sacsayhuamán on the hillside outside the city.

Steph and I were married in Lima in October 1973, but we delayed our honeymoon until December. And where could there be a more romantic destination than Cuzco, taking in a trip to Machu Picchu (where we stayed overnight at the turista hotel right beside the ruins), Sacsayhuamán, the Sacred Valley, and the Sunday market at Pisac.

In the early 70s, the Peruvian airline Faucett flew Boeing 727s into Cuzco. In January 1973 I’d only ever flown three times: in 1966 to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland on a BEA Viscount turboprop; from London to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines to attend a scientific meeting in Izmir; and the intercontinental flight from London to Lima with BOAC.

Flying into Cuzco was (is) quite an experience. There’s only one way in, and out! It is quite awesome (if not a little unnerving) dropping through the cloud cover, knowing that some of the highest mountains in the world are just below, then seeing the landscape open as you emerge from the clouds, banking hard to the left and follow the valley, landing at Cuzco from the east.

The city has now expanded eastwards beyond the airport, but in 1973 it was more or less at the city limits. The main part of the city lies at the western end of the runway, and hills rise quite steeply just beyond, thus the single direction for landing and the reverse for take-off. Maybe with new, and more highly powered aircraft, it’s now possible to take off to the west. Those attending the World Potato Congress should have a delightful trip from the coast. By the end of May the dry season should be well-established, and the skies clear.

So, what is so special about Cuzco? It’s a city steeped in history, with Spanish colonial buildings blending into, and even constructed on top of the Inca architecture. That architecture leaves one full of wonder, trying to imagine how the stones were brought to the various sites, and sculpted to fit so snugly. Perhaps the best example is the twelve-sided (or angled) stone in the street named Hatun Rumiyoc (a couple of blocks east of the Plaza de Armas). This is taken to an even greater level at Sacsayhuamán, with an enormous eleven-sided stone.

My first impressions of Cuzco were the orange-tiled roofs of most buildings in the city.

All streets eventually lead to the main square, the Plaza de Armas in the city center, dominated on its eastern side by the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, and on its southern side by the late 16th century Templo de la Compañía de Jesús (a Jesuit church).

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One of the finest examples of the Inca-Colonial mixed architecture is the Coricancha temple upon which was constructed the Convent of Santo Domingo. The Incan stonework is exquisite (although showing some earthquake damage), and inside 16th/17 century paintings have survived for centuries.

Another aspect of Cuzco’s architectural heritage that caught our attention were the balconies adorning many (if not most) buildings on every street, at least towards the city center.

In the early 1970s steam locomotives were still in operation around Cuzco and, being somewhat of a steam buff, I had to take the opportunity of wandering around the locomotive shed. During our trip to Machu Picchu, our tourist diesel-powered train actually crossed with another pulled by a steam locomotive.

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Outside the city, to the north lies the Inca fortress citadel of Sacsayhuamán, the park covering an area of more than 3000 hectares. Steph and I spent a morning exploring the fortress, viewing it from many different angles, and pondering just how a workforce (probably slave labour) came to construct this impressive site, with its huge stones so closely sculpted against each other that it’s impossible to insert the blade of a knife.

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Among the most commonly visited locations by many tourists is the small town of Pisac, some 35 km from northeast of Cuzco at the head of the Sacred Valley, where a vibrant market is held each Sunday. We took a taxi there, and joined quite a small group of other tourists to wander around, bargain for various items (including an alpaca skin rug that we still had until just a couple of years ago). This is not a tourist market, however—or at least it wasn’t in December 1973 when we visited. As you can see in the slideshow below, it was very much a place and occasion frequented by people coming from the surrounding communities to sell their produce, and meet up with family and friends. Whenever I look at these photographs I always feel quite sad, as it’s likely that many who appear have since passed away.

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It’s no wonder that Cuzco and surrounding areas have been afforded UNESCO World Heritage status (as so many other treasures in this wonderful country). So, as I think about the opportunities that potato scientists from all around the world will enjoy when they visit Cuzco at the end of May, I can’t help but feel a tinge of envy. However, they’d better take advantage of the odd cup of coca tea, or maté de coca, if offered. An infusion of coca leaves (yes, that coca!), it really does help mitigate the effects of high altitude and the onset of so-called ‘altitude sickness’.

 

And pigs might fly . . .

Steph and I made two road trips together to the small town of San Ramón (see map), that lies at just over 800 m on the eastern slopes of the Andes in the Department of Junín.

Nothing particularly special or interesting in that, you might ask, especially if you know the region. The International Potato Center (CIP) opened an experiment station there in the 1970s, as somewhere it could evaluate potato breeding lines against several pests and diseases that appeared more regularly at this site than at higher elevations. But also for testing potatoes in their ability to grow under higher temperatures than usual for potatoes, a temperate crop that evolved in the Tropics. This emphasis on adaptation to high temperatures, with the aim of potentially expanding potato production worldwide into less favorable environments, was work I would continue once I moved to Costa Rica in 1976.

San Ramón today has a population of 30,000 inhabitants but was very much smaller when we first visited. It was not normally on our itinerary, since Steph’s and my work only took us to Huancayo high up in the central Andes, at over 3000 m.

Our first trip, in August 1973 (with CIP plant pathologist John Vessey and physiologist Ray Meyer) was just a few weeks after Steph joined me in Peru. This was our first experience of the hot and humid lowland tropics. Little did we imagine that just a few years later (from 1976) we would spend almost five years in Costa Rica living under those conditions in Turrialba, nor that almost two decades later we would move to the Philippines for 19 years.

Our second and short vacation trip was in September 1974.

I’ve been back only a couple of times, once in early 1976 before we headed off to Costa Rica, and another¹ in the mid-1980s when, working at The University of Birmingham, I had a research project with CIP, and took the opportunity of a visit to Lima to travel from Huancayo to San Ramón.

Dropping down to San Ramón the only road passes through the town of Tarma, famous for its flower production. What a delight. Higher up, the road sweeps round broad valleys with it patchwork of fields, one of the most attractive views I think I’ve seen in all my travels across the Andes.

Below Tarma, the valley narrows, and winds its way beside a fast flowing river (that becomes the Chanchamayo River beyond San Ramón), with numerous tunnels carved through the rock, and barely wide enough in places for two vehicles to pass. There are steep precipices into the river below at numerous locations.

And given that the San Ramón region and beyond is (was) a particularly important fruit-growing one (especially for papayas), there was always a constant stream of lorries loaded with fruit grinding their way out of the valley to climb over Ticlio (at almost 5000 m) before dropping rapidly to Lima on the coasts.

Steph’s first trip to Huancayo (and San Ramon) in August 1973.

On the second morning of our September 1974 trip, we set off after breakfast along the Chanchamayo River towards La Merced, stopping frequently to look at the vegetation, explore the river bank, and take photos. It’s hard to imagine that La Merced now has a population approaching 170,000. Beyond La Merced we had thoughts of eventually reaching Oxapampa, but as the road deteriorated so did our expectations of being able to travel there and back in a single day. With some regret we turned around. Oxapampa was (is) an interesting community, founded in the 19th century by German immigrants, and retaining much of that influence today.

Our trip on the third day was much more eventful. Following a suggestion by John Vessey, we decided to take advantage of the local light aircraft flights from San Ramón servicing communities further out in the lowland areas (the ‘jungle’) and visit one such beside the Pichis River, Puerto Bermúdez (some 550 m lower in altitude than San Ramón). Today, Puerto Bermúdez is connected by road to La Merced and San Ramón, a drive of some 176 km, and about four hours. There was no road in 1974, and flights were the only option. From satellite images, the town does not appear to have an airstrip anymore. What looks like a former airstrip is flanked by buildings and criss-crossed by streets. Maybe with the road now reaching the town, an air bridge to San Ramón or other towns is no longer economically viable.

Having purchased our tickets, we arrived at the airfield early the next morning, and found ourselves squeezed into the rear seats of a single engine plane (probably a Cessna) for the 45 minute flight to Puerto Bermúdez. We were scheduled to return mid-afternoon, and had decided that we’d try and rent a boat for a trip along the river.

In 1974, Puerto Bermúdez was a very small settlement, and the area is home to one of Peru’s largest indigenous communities in its Amazon region, the Asháninka².

We soon found somewhere to buy a quick cup of coffee, and someone who would rent his boat to us for several hours for a trip along the Pichis, a river that flows north to join the even bigger Ucayali River south of Pucallpa, being some of the headwaters of the River Amazon.

In this gallery of photos, you can see the type of dugout canoes that are common along the river, with their long shaft outboard motors. In the distance along the river you can also see the Andes rising in the west. And also some of the communities we observed along the riverbanks, and the rafts carrying fruits. This was our first experience of an environment like this, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Everyone was most friendly.

After a quick bite to eat for lunch, we headed back to the airstrip for our mid-afternoon flight back to San Ramón.

And that’s when we had our next surprise. There was an aircraft waiting for the return flight. We were the only passengers. But the aircraft had no seats for us. There was some ‘freight’ to take: several dead pigs that were loaded along with empty beer crates that we were to use as seats. No seat belts!

Communicating with base back in San Ramón, the pilot told us that the weather had ‘closed in’ and that our departure would be delayed. And there we sat, looking westwards towards the Andes and wondering when we would be able to take off. After about an hour, the pilot told us that there was still ‘weather’ along the proposed return route, but ‘bugger it’ or words to that effect in Spanish, he said we should leave, and we’d better climb aboard if we wanted to return to San Ramón that same day.

With some trepidation—that I can still feel after all these years (I’ve never been the world’s best flier)—Steph and I climbed aboard, settled ourselves on our respective beer crates (or maybe they were cases of beer), and held on for dear life to anything we could as the plane hurtled down the runway and took to the air.

All was well for the first half of the flight. We gained height easily (after all the plane was carrying quite a light load  and I was very much lighter than I am, unfortunately, today). We could see the foothills of the Andes approaching, with rain squalls across our path. Needless to say things became rather more uncomfortable as we crossed that weather system, and bounced our way into San Ramón. But we lived to tell the tale.

Given the chance to make a journey like that again, I’d probably decline. The enthusiasm of youth, the risk taking. In any case one might hope that today, safety regulations are much more assiduously applied. The only time I’ve ever shared a flight with three dead pigs.

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¹ The 1980s were the Michael Jackson years. The singer, not me. Arriving at our hotel in San Ramón, it didn’t take long before a very large crowd of children had assembled outside the hotel and chanting ‘We want Michael Jackson‘. Some mix-up!

² Puerto Bermúdez’s Asháninka suffered during the years of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla insurrection of the 1990s, and many inhabitants of the town were massacred.

Photographing the Summit-Selby neighbourhood of St Paul

20160916-003-minnesotaOver the years we have got to know our way around St Paul, Minnesota, quite well. Minneapolis (the other half of the Twin Cities) less so. The grid system of tree-lined avenues and streets makes it quite easy to navigate around the city, with a significant number of avenues running west to east from the banks of the Mississippi River to the Cathedral Hill district.

Two avenues, Summit and Shelby, actually converge at Cathedral Hill (map), and from the steps of the magnificent Catholic Cathedral of St Paul, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the downtown area of St Paul, from the Minnesota Capitol (currently being renovated) to the northeast and the Mississippi to the southeast.

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Looking east on Selby Ave towards the Cathedral of St Paul.

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The downtown St Paul skyline, with the state capitol to the left, and the business district to the right. The Mississippi lies just beyond the business district.

So, a couple of weeks ago, Steph and I decided to drive over there, to take a walk round, and for me to do some photography. It has been six years since we last wandered round there. Our eldest grandchild, Callum, had been born just a month earlier in mid-August 2010, and while Hannah (our elder daughter, his mother) had a hair appointment, we pushed Callum around in his pram. Respite for the new mum, first grand-parenting responsibilities for Steph and me.

16 September past was a bright but overcast day, perfect for photography because there were no harsh shadows to complicate matters.

For the past seven years I have been using a Nikon D5000 DSLR. I bought it in the Philippines a few months before I retired, and I’ve been very happy with it. It had an 18-55 mm lens fitted when I bought the camera, and around 2012 I acquired a 200 mm lens. Now, while I liked that telephoto, it wasn’t very convenient having to constantly change lenses for just ‘that’ shot. Often, I just didn’t bother.

However, a few days before we flew to Minnesota for our latest visit at the beginning of September, I treated myself to an all-in-one lens, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200 mm 1:3.5-5.6 GII ED lens – an early combined birthday and Christmas present. So our Summit-Selby wander was a good opportunity to test some of its capabilities.

I decided that some shots of the cathedral, both wide angle and telephoto from the same location would be quite interesting, and here are some of the results.

The Summit-Shelby neighbourhood is rather lovely, but expensive. Along Summit are some of the grandest houses that I have ever seen; and some more modest ones too. It’s also a neighbourhood famous for the great and good of St Paul who settled there over the past century or more. Authors F Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Garrison Keillor (A Prairie Home Companion) both lived in the neighbourhood at one time or another.

In fact Keillor once owned a bookshop underneath Nina’s Coffee Cafe on the corner of Selby and Western Ave N, a well-known and popular meeting place in that neighbourhood (he has now moved to another venue on Snelling Ave near Macalester College).

These are just a few of the properties that caught my attention as we walked around.

And on the corner of Summit Ave and Western Ave N, there is a delightful small park, Cochran Park, with an elegant fountain with abronze statue of a running Native American with his dog at his feet.

All-in-all, an excellent morning’s exercise, coffee break, and photography. I look forward to many more opportunities.

 

Can’t see the wood for the trees . . .

During our visit to Minnesota in September 2015, we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (owned by the University of Minnesota) with Hannah and Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë. Being a year younger than today, we had to get back home so they could have a post-lunch nap. So we really only had time to see the various gardens closest to the Oswald Visitor Center (click here for condensed visitor guide and map)

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Steph and I returned to the Arboretum almost a month ago, and this year we took the Three Mile Drive around the site. There is so much to see, and the various plantings are laid out splendidly. The crab apple collection particularly caught my attention.

So rather than try to wax lyrical about the Arboretum, I’ll let you follow the links I’ve made here to the various websites, and let my photos speak for themselves.

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It’s amazing what a difference an extra four inches can make . . .

Size does make a difference after all. Well, at least when it comes to airline seats. Not that the actual dimensions of Delta Comfort+ and regular Economy seats are different. It’s just that there are an extra four inches or so between the rows in Delta Comfort+ section of the cabin.

And what a difference those four inches actually make, as I commented last year. So, even though the cost of the Comfort+ upgrade had increased by £100, we felt that the added space and comfort (really the ability to move around in one’s seat, and not have the seat in front in your face) was worth the extra expense.

And that’s how we travelled to Minnesota just a couple of days ago, for our annual visit to St Paul to stay with Hannah and Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë.

We arrived to Birmingham airport (BHX) around 09:10 for our 11:25 flight (operated by KLM Cityhopper) to Amsterdam Schipol (AMS, that takes around 55 minutes), only to discover that the check-in desks did not open until 09:25. Not the best situation for me these days, standing around on my weakened right leg. Anyway, once we had checked in our bags, we went through security quite quickly, although Steph was given a random check for explosives, and the hand gel that I was carrying was given special scrutiny.

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Sitting in the departure lounge at BHX waiting for our flight DL9415 (operated by KLM Cityhopper) to Amsterdam Schipol (AMS).

Our flight (an Embraer 190 aircraft) was boarded quickly, and the captain advised us that, at 11:10, we were ready to depart early. Only to come back on the blower just a couple of minutes or so later to tell us that two passengers had decided not to fly after all, and their bags would have to be found and removed from the aircraft. After all this we actually departed about 10 minutes late!

Being a Cityhopper flight, we arrived to a ‘bus gate’ at Schipol. This was actually rather convenient, since the entrance into the D pier was close to Gate D1 that Delta uses exclusively to process all its passengers but does not actually board any flight from there. And even better, our Minneapolis-St Paul flight DL165 was scheduled to depart at 15:35 from Gate D3. No long walks for me in Schipol last Tuesday, which was quite a relief.

I asked for priority boarding, and Steph and I were the first passengers on board the Delta A330-300, and quickly settled into our seats.

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Around 15:30 (after we’d been on board for about 40 minutes) the captain said we were ready to depart, but then advised us that engineers were working on a fault with the water and vacuum system for the toilets (now that was an issue I’d experienced recently on my flight from Lima to Cali, Colombia), and there would be a slight delay. Ultimately we departed about 25 minutes late (and arrived into MSP delayed by about the same time).

Once we were on the move, we had a very smooth takeoff from runway 24, and climb out of the gloom over Amsterdam.

Initially, our flight headed towards London, and didn’t turn northwest until we had passed Bristol. That’s quite unusual based on previous flights, when we headed out from AMS towards Scotland. Anyway, we crossed Ireland, passed south of Iceland and Greenland, and heading in over North America on the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, over Hudson Bay and Ontario in Canada, before the long descent into MSP once we had crossed the US-Canada border north of Duluth.

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There wasn’t a great deal to see until we crossed the coast of Newfoundland, and then there was a spectacular view of the rugged coastline, with inlets bordered by precipitous cliffs.

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The spectacular coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mostly it was cloudy, with odd view of an island or two as we crossed the southern part of Hudson Bay.

But for once, it was an incredibly smooth flight almost the whole way. In fact I can say that we experienced no turbulence at all, apart from the occasional little bump. And even though stormy weather had been predicted for our arrival around 18:00 in MSP, and the captain advised us during the descent that the approach could be rather bumpy, we had no bumps at all.

Nevertheless, a nine hour flight is a long time. Having made the same flight before in a regular Economy seat, and knowing how uncomfortable I was, the upgrades to Comfort+ have been worth every penny.

Also, the odd Bombay Sapphire or three during the flight certainly helps. I read something today that drinking gin is good for you. I don’t need any excuse. I enjoy it for itself, and also for the fact that it relaxes me during flights such as Tuesday’s.

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Delta serves a limited menu in Economy Class: chicken and . . . Having previously opted for the hot dish (and invariably regretted having done so), I decided to try the cold chicken salad, and surprisingly quite satisfied with my choice. About four hours afterwards the cabin crew came around with a snack – quit bizarre, but nice nevertheless. It comprised crackers and a red bell pepper spread, and a sachet of about a dozen green pitted olives. Never had anything like that on any flight before. Then just 90 minutes out from MSP we were served a hot cheese and chicken sandwich, and some ice cream.

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On arrival at MSP we were off the plane quickly and among the first passengers through Immigration. Our bags arrived quickly and before we knew it we were out and meeting Michael and the grandchildren.

Yesterday was still quite stormy and wet in St Paul, and we didn’t manage a short walk until quite late in the afternoon. Hannah and Michael moved house a few months back, just a few blocks from where they had been living. But it’s a larger house, and along the Mississippi River Gorge. These next photos were taken just a couple of minutes away from their house.

We are here in St Paul for the next three weeks. Although we don’t yet have any firm plans to travel, we are contemplating a short break in the north of the state, at the headwaters of the Mississippi and Itasca State Park. Some of the trees here in St Paul are already beginning to show the first signs of autumn colour. Perhaps we will see a more spectacular display in northern Minnesota.

Watch this space!

 

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Colombia . . .

Not quite the ‘Road to Rio . . .’
I have just returned from one of the most hectic work trips I have taken in a very long time. I had meetings in three countries: Peru, Colombia, and Mexico in just over 6½ days.

And then, of course, there were four days of travel, from Birmingham to Lima (via Amsterdam), Lima to Cali (Colombia), then on to Mexico City, and back home (again via Amsterdam). That’s some going. Fortunately the two long-haul flights (BHX-AMS-LIM and MEX-AMS-BHX) were in business class on KLM. Even so the journeys from Lima to Cali (direct, on Avianca) and Cali to Mexico (via Panama City, on COPA) were 12 hours and 11 hours door-to-door, respectively, the former taking so long because we were delayed by more than 5 hours.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am leading the evaluation of the program to oversee the genebank collections in eleven of the CGIAR centers (known as the Genebanks CRP). Together with my team colleague, Marisé Borja, we met with the genebank managers at the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, in Cali), and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, in Texcoco near Mexico City).

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A drop of cognac.

It all started on Sunday 24 July, when I headed off to Birmingham Airport at 04:30 for a 6 o’clock flight to Amsterdam. Not really having slept well the night before, I can’t say I was in the best shape for flying half way round the world. I had a four hour stopover in Amsterdam, and managed to make myself more or less comfortable in the KLM lounge before boarding my Boeing 777-300 Lima flight sometime after noon. There’s not a lot to do on a long flight across the Atlantic except eat, drink and (try to) sleep. I mainly did the first two.

It never ceases to impress me just how vast South America is. Once we crossed the coast of Venezuela and headed south over the east of Colombia and northern Peru we must have flown for about three hours over rain forest as far as you could see. I wish I’d taken a few pictures of the interesting topography of abandoned river beds and oxbow lakes showing through all that dense vegetation. At one point we flew over a huge river, and there, on its banks, was a city, with an airport to the west. I checked later on Google Maps, and I reckon it must have been Iquitos in northern Peru on the banks of the Amazon. Over 2000 miles from the Atlantic, ocean going ships can sail all the way to Iquitos. I once visited Iquitos in about 1988 in search of cocoa trees, and we crossed the Amazon (about two miles wide at this point) in a small motorboat.

Then the majestic Andes came into view, and after crossing these we began our long descent into Lima, with impressive views of the mountains all the way and, nearer Lima, the coastal fogs that creep in off the Pacific Ocean and cling to the foothills of the Andes.

We landed on schedule at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima around 18:00 (midnight UK time) so I had been travelling almost 20 hours since leaving home. I was quickly through Immigration and Customs, using the Preferencial (Priority) line reserved for folks needing special assistance. My walking stick certainly gives me the edge these days on airlines these days.

Unfortunately, the taxi that had been arranged to take me to my hotel, El Condado, in the Lima district of Miraflores (where Steph and I lived in the 1970s) was a no-show. But I quickly hired another through one of the official taxi agencies inside the airport (necessary because of the various scams perpetrated by the cowboy taxi drivers outside the terminal) at half the price of the pre-arranged taxi.

After a quick shower, I met up with old friends and former colleagues at CIP, Dr Roger Rowe and his wife Norma. I first joined CIP in January 1973, and Roger joined in July that same year as CIP’s first head of Breeding & Genetics. He was my first boss!

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They were in the bar, and we enjoyed several hours of reminiscences, and a couple of pisco sours (my first in almost two decades), and a ‘lite bite’ in the restaurant. It must have been almost 11 pm before I settled into bed. That was Sunday done and dusted. The work began the following morning.

All things potatoes . . . and more
I haven’t been to CIP since the 1990s. Given the tight schedule of meetings arranged for us, I didn’t get to see much more than the genebank and dining room.

CIP has a genebank collection of wild and cultivated potatoes (>4700 samples or accessions, most from the Andes of Peru), wild and cultivated sweet potatoes (>6400, Ipomoea spp.), and Andean roots and tubers (>1450) such as ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus), mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

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Native potato varieties.

Although potatoes are grown annually at the CIP experiment station at Huancayo, some six or more hours by road east of Lima, at over 10,000 feet in the Mantaro Valley, and sweet potatoes multiplied in greenhouses at CIP’s coastal headquarters at La Molina, the collections are maintained as in vitro cultures and, for potatoes at least, in cryopreservation at the temperature of liquid nitrogen. The in vitro collections are safety duplicated at other sites in Peru, with Embrapa in Brazil, and botanical seeds are safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

With a disease pressure from the many diseases that affect potato in its center of origin—fungal, bacterial, and particularly viruses—germplasm may only be sent out of the country if it has been declared free of these diseases. That requires growth in aseptic culture and treatments to eradicate viruses. It’s quite an operation. And the distribution does not even take into account all the hoops that everyone has to jump through to comply with local and international regulations for the exchange of germplasm.

The in vitro culture facilities at CIP are rather impressive. When I worked at CIP more than 40 years ago, in vitro culture was really in its infancy. Today, its application is almost industrial in scale.

Our host at CIP was Dr David Ellis, genebank manager, but we also met with several of the collection curators and managers.

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L to R: Ivan Manrique (Andean roots and tubers), Alberto Salas (consultant, wild potatoes), Marisé Borja (evaluation team), me, René Gómez (Senior Curator), David Ellis.

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Alberto Salas, now in his 70s, worked as assistant to Peruvian potato expert Prof. Carlos Ochoa. Alberto’s wealth of knowledge about wild potatoes is enormous. I’ve known Alberto since 1973, and he is one of the most humble and kind persons I have ever met.

Prior to our tour of the genebank, René Gómez and Fanny Vargas of the herbarium had found some specimens that I had made during my studies in Lima during 1973 and 1974. I was also able to confirm how the six digit germplasm numbering system with the prefix ’70’ had been introduced and related to earlier designations.

It was great to see how the support from the Genebanks CRP has brought about so many changes at CIP.

Lima has changed so much over the past couple of decades. It has spread horizontally and upwards. So many cars! In the district of Miraflores where we used to live, the whole area has been refurbished and become even smarter. So many boutiques and boutique restaurants. My only culinary regret is that the famous restaurant La Rosa Nautica, on a pier over the Pacific Ocean closed down about two months ago. It served great seafood and the most amazing pisco sours.

All too soon our two days in Lima were over. Next stop: Cali, Colombia.

Heading to the Cauca Valley . . . 
Our Avianca flight to Cali (an Embraer 190, operated by TACA Peru) left on time at 10:25. Once we’d reached our cruising altitude, the captain turned off the seat belt sign, and I headed to the toilet at the front of the aircraft, having been turned away from the one at the rear. Strange, I thought. I wasn’t allowed to use the one at the front either. It seems that both refused to flush. The captain decided to return to Lima, but as we still almost a full load of fuel, he had to burn of the excess so we could land safely. So, at cruising altitude and as we descended, he lowered the undercarriage and flaps to create drag which meant he had to apply more power to the engines to keep us flying, thereby burning more fuel. Down and down we went, circling all the time, for over an hour! We could have made it to Cali in the time it took us to return to Lima. We could have all sat there with legs crossed, I guess.

Once back on the ground, engineers assessed the situation and determined they could fix the sensor fault in about a couple of hours. We were taken back to the terminal for lunch, and around 15:30 we took off again, without further incident.

But as we waited at the departure gate for a bus to the aircraft, there was some impromptu entertainment by a group of musicians.

Unfortunately because of our late arrival in Cali, we missed an important meeting with the CIAT DG, who was not available the following days we were there.

CIAT was established in 1967, and is preparing for its 5oth anniversary next year.

Daniel Debouck, from Belgium, is CIAT’s genebank manager, and he has been there for more than 20 years. He steps down from this position at the end of the year, and will be replaced by Peter Wenzl who was at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Bonn until the end of April this year. Daniel is an internationally-recognised expert on Phaseolus beans.

The CIAT genebank has three significant collections: wild and cultivated Phaseolus beans (almost 38,000 accessions), wild and cultivated cassava (Manihot spp., >6600 accessions in vitro or as ‘bonsai’ plants), and more than 23,000 accessions of tropical forages. Here’s an interesting fact: one line of the forage grass Brachiaria is grown on more than 100 million hectares in Brazil alone!

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Me and Daniel Debouck.

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Bean varieties.

The bean collections are easily maintained as seeds in cold storage, as can most of the forages. But, like potato, the cassava accessions present many of the same quarantine issues, have to be cleaned of diseases, particularly viruses, and maintained in tissue culture. Cryopreservation is not yet an option for cassava, and even in vitro storage needs more research to optimise it for many clones.

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QMS manuals in the germplasm health laboratory.

Like many of the genebanks, CIAT has been upgrading its conservation processes and procedures through the application of a Quality Management System (QMS). A couple of genebanks (including CIP) have opted for ISO certification, but I am of the opinion that this is not really suitable for most genebanks. Everything is documented, however,  including detailed risk assessments, and we saw that the staff at CIAT were highly motivated to perform to the highest standards. In all the work areas, laboratory manuals are always to hand for easy reference.

An exciting development at CIAT is the planned USD18-20 million biodiversity center, with state of the art conservation and germplasm health facilities, construction of which is expected to begin next year. It is so designed to permit the expected thousands of visitors to have good views of what goes on in a genebank without actually having to enter any of the work areas.

On our first night in Cali, our hosts graciously wined and dined us at Platillos Voladores, regarded as one of Cali’s finest restaurants.

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We had the private room for six persons with all the wine bottles on the wall, which can be seen in this photo above.

Arriba, arriba! Andale!
On Saturday afternoon around 15:30, we headed to Mexico City via Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. Cali’s international airport is being expanded significantly and there are now international flights to Europe as well as the USA. This must be great for CIAT staff, as the airport is only 15 minutes or so from the research center.

After takeoff, we climbed out of the Cauca Valley and had great views of productive agriculture, lots of sugar cane.

  

Tocumen is lot busier than when I was travelling through therein the late 1970s. With several wide-bodied jets getting set to depart to Europe, the terminal was heaving with passengers and there was hardly anywhere to sit down. On our COPA 737-800 flight to Mexico I had chosen aisle seat 5D immediately behind the business class section, so had plenty of room to stretch my legs. Much more comfortable than had I stayed with the seat I was originally assigned. I eventually arrived to CIMMYT a little after midnight.

CIMMYT is the second oldest of the international agricultural centers of the CGIAR, founded in 1966. And it is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary in about 1 month from now. IRRI, where I worked for 19 years, was the first center.

Unlike many of the CGIAR centers that have multi-crop collections in their genebanks (ICARDA, ICRISAT, and IITA for example), CIMMYT has two independent genebank collections for maize and wheat in a single facility, inaugurated in 1996, and dedicated to two renowned maize and wheat scientists, Edwin Wellhausen and Glenn Anderson. But CIMMYT’s most famous staff member is Nobel Peace prize Laureate, Norman Borlaug, ‘Father of the Green Revolution’.

Tom Payne and Denise Costich are the wheat and maize genebank managers. CIMMYT’s genebank has ISO 9001:2008 accreditation.

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Ayla Sençer

Tom has been at CIMMYT in various wheat breeding capacities for more than 25 years. In addition to managing the wheat genebank, Tom manages the wheat international nurseries. One of the first curators of the wheat collection was Ayla Sençer from Turkey, and a classmate of mine when we studied at Birmingham in 1970 for the MSc in Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources. The CIMMYT wheat collection is unlike many other germplasm collections in that most of the 152,800 samples are actually breeding lines (in addition to landrace varieties and wild species).

Denise joined CIMMYT just a year or so ago, from the USDA. She has some very interesting work on in situ conservation and management of traditional maize varieties in Mexico and Guatemala. A particular conservation challenge for the maize genebank is the regeneration of highland maizes from South America that are not well-adapted to growing conditions in Mexico. The maize collection comprises over 28,000 accessions including a field collection of Tripsacum (a wild relative of maize).

In recent years has received major infrastructure investments from both the Carlos Slim Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. New laboratories, greenhouses and the like ensure that CIMMYT is well-placed to deliver on its mission. And the support received through the Genebanks CRP has certainly raised the morale of genebank staff.

On our last day at CIMMYT (Wednesday), we met with Janny van Beem from the Crop Trust. Janny is a QMS expert, based in Houston, Texas, and she flew over to Mexico especially to meet with Marisé and me. When we visiited Bonn in April we only had opportunity to speak by Skype with Janny for jsut 30 minutes. Since the implementation of QMS in the genebanks seems to be one of the main challenges—and success stories—of the Genebanks CRP, we thought it useful to have an in-depth discussion with Janny about this. And very useful it was, indeed!

On the previous evening (Tuesday) Tom, Denise, Marisé, Janny and I went out for dinner in Texcoco, to a well-known tacqueria, then into the coffee shop next door afterwards. No margaritas that night – we’d sampled those on Monday.

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L to R: Janny, me, Tom, Marisé, and Denise.

But on this trip we did have one free day, Sunday. And I met up with members of CIMMYT’s Filipino community, many of them ex-IRRI employees, some of who worked in units for which I had management responsibility. They organised a ‘boodle fight‘ lunch, and great fun was had by one and all.

Hasta la vista . . .
At 6 pm on Wednesday I headed into Mexico City to take the KLM flight to Amsterdam. It was a 747-400 Combi (half passengers, half cargo). I haven’t flown a 747 for many years, and I’d forgotten what a pleasant experience it can be. It’s remarkable that the 747 is being phased out by most airlines; they are just not as economical as the new generation twin engine 777s, 787s, and A350s.

With the new seating configuration, I had a single seat, 4E, in the center of the main deck forward cabin. Very convenient. I was glad to have the opportunity of putting my leg up for a few hours. Over the previous 10 days my leg had swelled up quite badly by the end of each day, and it was quite painful. The purser asked if I had arranged any ground transport at Schipol to take me from the arrival to departure gates. I hadn’t, so she arranged that for me before we landed. The distances at Schipol between gates can be quite challenging, so I was grateful for a ride on one of the electric carts.

 

But after we went through security, my ‘assistant’ pushed me to my gate in a wheelchair. I must admit I felt a bit of a fraud. An electric cart is one thing, and most welcome. But a wheelchair? Another was waiting for me on arrival at Birmingham. Go with the flow!

  

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I was all alone in Business Class from Schipol to Birmingham. We were back at BHX on time, and I was out in the car park looking for my taxi home within about 20 minutes, and home at 6 pm.

Now the hard work really begins—synthesising all the discussions we had with so many staff at CIP, CIAT, and CIMMYT. For obvious reasons I can’t comment about those discussions, but visiting these important genebanks in such a short period was both a challenging but scientifically enriching experience.

 

 

 

 

Industrial heritage is all around . . .

The legacy of the Industrial Revolution is all around here in north Worcestershire, and I am reminded of it almost every day.

Bromsgrove lies on the Birmingham-Bristol (and all stations to the southwest) main railway line, at the bottom of the Lickey Incline (the longest and steepest sustained gradient of 2.65% for two miles on the rail network). It’s just under a mile east of where I live.

Because of the steepness of the gradient it’s not uncommon today to see two diesel engines pulling and pushing a long freight train. In the days of steam, a specially-designed locomotive (the Fowler 0-10-0 Big Bertha) was stationed at Bromsgrove to help through trains up the Incline.

As I write, 175 years after a station was opened, Bromsgrove is having a new station. In fact, construction has been ongoing for almost two years now. After failing to meet a November 2015 schedule to open, the new station is expected to open by May this year. Maybe.

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When I took the train occasionally into the University of Birmingham in the 1980s, there was only one platform, on the up line. The current station is just round the bend on the photo above. Trains arriving from Birmingham had to cross from the down line on to the up line, drop off or pick up passengers, then re-cross to the down line south of the station. Not really advisable. You can see the switch just behind this train heading south yesterday. Then a new platform was added on the down line. The main problem is that the platforms are short, and can only accept three-coach London Midland trains that stop at Bromsgrove., So with the growing commuter traffic into Birmingham, something needed to be done.

And that’s how the new station came about. It will have four island platforms, and trains stopping at Bromsgrove can be diverted off the main lines. Doing so will allow more trains to run per hour. Also, the line will be electrified as far as Bromsgrove, connecting the town into the wider West Midlands electrified commuter routes as far north as Lichfield. Freight trains heading up the Lickey Incline can wait in the branch on the left of the photo until they can have a clear—and slow—run at it. Sometimes in the summer, when we have the bedroom window open, and the wind is in the right direction, it sounds as though some of these freighters are headed right towards us. The rails on the extreme right have yet to be laid, and that can’t happen until the new station is open and the existing platforms decommissioned because the switch of the main line has to begin about where the current down line platform ends. That’s scheduled for October 2016, and the lines will be closed for 10 days while some major track engineering takes place, signalling is installed, and presumably the electrification completed.

The bridge where I took this photo is on one of my regular walks, so I have been watching progress over the past 21 months. I wish I’d taken photos more often. But what has been interesting to observe is the impressive kit that the engineers used to lift old track, lay new ones (that branch on the left replaced several different sidings), excavate culverts that had collapsed, and the like. Part of the delay in completing the project in 2015 was the need to decontaminate the site that had been an oil terminal for a major engineering works formerly alongside the railway, and reroute signalling and an underground stream that did not figure on any of the plans available to the engineers. There was a further delay, and a need to apply again for planning permission when it was discovered that the bridge connecting platforms would have to be raised just 14 inches to conform to EU regulations concerning the distance between a bridge and overhead electrification wires.

The Ribblehead Viaduct

Access to sophisticated equipment today really puts in context how the railways were first constructed, almost 200 years ago. And although much of the work would have been carried out by gangs of navvies, I guess by mid-Victorian times engineers would have had steam-powered machines available. Nevertheless, the construction of embankments, tunnels, and viaducts is surely an impressive feat of human enterprise. It was hard, dirty, and dangerous work in isolated locations where temporary communities sprang up—and men, women, and children died and were buried. This account of the Settle-Carlisle line and the construction of the Ribblehead Viaduct gives a sense of the isolation and hardship of building this railway.

These communities are being celebrated, if that’s the right word, in a new drama that started to air on the commercial ITV channel from 7 January.

Before the trains . . .
The rail network in the UK today is a shadow of its former glory, having been deliberately dismantled, maybe I should say restructured, in the 1960s by Dr Beeching.

But, to my mind, there’s an even more impressive example of civil engineering that began half a century before the railways were built.

I’m referring, of course, to the canals, and their construction began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. And what’s particularly impressive, is that they were dug mostly by hand, by gangs of navvies.

Just a little over a mile to the east of the Lickey Incline is the Worcester and Birmingham, that has just celebrated its 200th birthday. Begun in 1791, it was finally completed in December 1815. I find it fascinating that construction of this canal wonder took place while Europe was in turmoil through the Napoleonic Wars and the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

At 29 miles long, the canal connects Worcester with Birmingham, climbing 130m (428 feet) over the same topographical feature that would tackled on the Lickey Inlcine half a century later. There are 58 locks; the Tardebigge Flight of 30 locks is the longest in the UK, raising the canal some 200 feet in just five miles between Stoke Bottom Lock to Tardebigge Top Lock. You can explore a detailed map on the website of the Canal & River Trust.

This is a time-lapse video of that journey up the Tardebigge Flight.

In addition to all the locks there are five tunnels, with a combined length of 2.4 miles.

The channels were dug by hand, and then lined with mud to make them ‘waterproof’ so the water did not leak away. A series of three reservoirs provide a constant supply of water, and at Tardebigge there is a disused pump house, once powered by steam to raise water to different levels in the Tardebigge Flight.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, sections of the towpath along the canal from south of Stoke Prior and Tardebigge are some of my favorite walks in all seasons. Here is a selection of photographs that I have taken over the years. In some of them you can see the details of canal and lock construction because on a number of occasions sections of the canal had to be drained for maintenance. I always feel inspired and full of admiration for those hard-working labourers who set their backs to dig the Worcester and Birmingham Canal over 200 years ago.