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XIIth International Congress on Molecular Plant Microbe Interactions Cancun, Mexico 17-21 July
Life’s a beach
This biennial, usually dynamic meeting was to be held in a vast beach-based hotel in the unashamedly Americanised Mexican resort of Cancun. Thirteen of us all from different groups or institutes were partly sponsored by BSPP to attend. Unfortunately, those that arrived early enough to recover from travelling before the meeting began, missed the late decision (Friday afternoon/evening July 15 BST) by IS-MPMI to cancel the meeting. This unusual turn of events resulted from the imminent arrival of hurricane Emily category 4 approaching 5 (the maximum1 that was achieved by the infamous hurricanes Katrina and Rita).
At the time it was hard to accept the cancellation after so much time, work and expense; but at the meeting held that Saturday evening at the conference hotel (I would estimate ca. 150 confused conferees attended) the reasons were made chillingly clear. The live satellite image of the enormous weather system shown at the front left us in little doubt. The previous experience of Cancun with hurricane Gilbert in 1988 meant they were taking no chances. The sea and lagoon became one then, immersing the narrow beach strip with the inevitable, all too familiar destruction. The options offered were either to take a bus from the hotel to Mexico City, or stay and be part of the enforced evacuation. Many took the buses even though it was a 24 hour journey. There were a few BSPP faces in the forlorn bus queue. I left them to it as I could not face yet more travelling and naively thought that being part of a hurricane might be interesting.
The following morning with most windows in town taped over or covered with plywood, we were instructed to take a pillow, a sheet, a day pack and herded onto buses for the nearest town of Ciudad Cancun. It was stiflingly hot and humid and the packed refuge hotels were of a charming block house architecture with tiny windows. A tropical Wormwood Scrubs came to mind. Imagine also that when hurricanes arrive power is turned off, for obvious reasons, so forget fans let alone air-con. I was in luck because two colleagues Rob Jackson (Bath) and Dawn Arnold (UWE) were ending a vacation with a hire car and ‘phoned to rescue me; this was in spite of a trip of several hundred miles across the tediously flat Yucatan peninsula. After a weak fight I gladly accepted their generosity and we ended up in the colonial western town of Merida out of Emily’s main path. I’m very grateful to them and there was the bonus of seeing some remarkable Mayan cities in that area. Also I must complement the organisers and hoteliers for the controlled evacuation. We have now seen from New Orleans what happens when things are not tightly managed. Some experiences of some other BSPP fundees are now given.
George Salmond (Cambridge) and Rebecca Allen (HRI Warwick) heard after 10 pm the night before projected morning flights and just managed to cancel. Chris Ridout (John Innes Centre) had set off from Downham Market train station, and heard the message ‘Chris Ridout phone home’ over the tannoy when he arrived at Kings Cross to change for Gatwick. Then followed some frantic ringing around to check the conference was cancelled before going straight back to Downham market in time for breakfast! Hang Cui (and I) never received a cancellation message from the conference. Pietro Spanu (Imperial London) heard only once he had reached Cancun airport. He stayed one night and was back to work by Monday 9 am; as he put it ” it just shows what you can do in one weekend, but who would want to?” Risha Patel (Bristol) tried to leave Cancun but flights were grounded on Sunday so she stayed in a shelter then the hotel grand ballroom! At 1 a. m. some glass doors imploded into the lobby, but it had been cleared of people.
In fact Emily hit further south and Cancun escaped lightly, but we saw a vast swathe of damage, perhaps over 100 kms wide, to the forest as we returned east. Andrew Howden, Susie Lee (Oxford) and others were south of Cancun and had to go further south to escape (more from these later).
Having returned to the coast I heard that my mother in law had suffered a heart attack, so I had to be repatriated instead of taking a vacation with my family in that part of the world. It seemed par for the course for this bizarre week.
Two questions that have been asked frequently are, why hold the meeting there in July and did it need to be cancelled? It seems that July should not be hurricane season and the organiser stated that this had been the case for over 100 years. However, it happens that the area has succumbed to a series of early hurricanes and storms this year perhaps because sea temperatures are elevated (hurricane formation is dependent on high sea temperatures as major depressions cross). Current damage to the Gulf States after hurricane Katrina answers the second question. As I’m writing this, imminent Hurricane Rita is the 17th named storm in the region this season.
About half of those sponsored by BSPP will be attending the postponed meeting to be held 14 to 18 December. Hopefully after that, there will be scientific, rather than anecdotal reports. I’m not sure if I can face it all again!
Some of us offer a few images to prove that we have not made all this up.
Here’s Susie Lee’s (Oxford) version of events
We’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not!
Saturday 16th July, and a beautiful day dawned in Tulum, a small town in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Eight of us, post grad students and post docs from the Oxford University Plant Science Department, were happily floating down a mangrove river in the remote Si’an Khan National Park, relaxing before our planned journey back to Cancun for the XIIth International Congress on Molecular Plant Microbe Interactions. We drifted lazily along on lifejackets, listening to the sounds of birds, the water flowing, and occasional anxieties about water-borne parasites. This was the life to which we would like to become accustomed.
As all good things must, the river trip came to an end. We had planned to stay another night in our beach huts at the reserve, but the news coming in made us change our mind – Hurricane Emily, a force 5 gale, was heading straight for the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and due to hit Sunday night. Cancun was being evacuated and the conference was cancelled. The relaxed mood of the morning began to ebb away as we packed up and headed into Tulum, advised by the locals to find transport away from the east coast as soon as possible – easier said than done, as all the bus seats for the next 24 hours were fully booked. A strange mood pervaded the town; many people were frantic to get out at once, others seemed to wonder what all the fuss was about. A three hour tour of every car rental place in Tulum managed to secure us the very last two cars in town – those brave or foolhardy souls who planned to stay or with no way to leave prepared to sit tight in concrete houses until it was all over. We gathered food and water supplies and thankfully piled into the cars to drive in convoy down south to Chetumal, capital of the state, and our refuge from the tempest.
The drive to Chetumal was a tense one. The four hour drive was mostly through jungle – not a good time to run low on petrol. Fortunately a town equipped with petrol station appeared in the nick of time, and we managed to make it to Chetumal by 11pm, minutes before the only hotel we’d found with rooms available closed. We piled in, 4 to a room, and slept soundly for the night. The next day was spent waiting in some trepidation for the hurricane to hit, gathering supplies, and taping up the windows. Sunday evening, and the hurricane at last arrived and not even a breeze stirred the streets of Chetumal whilst we slept. The storm had moved north and been downgraded at the last minute, robbing us of the dramatic Aeolian fury we had envisaged.
Tulum, it turned out, had not got off so lightly. Driving the hire cars back on Tuesday we saw the storm evidence for ourselves. Trees and power lines were down, the straw huts of the locals were no more, and Tulum when we got there was still without water and electricity. Cancun fared better – water and power had been restored more quickly, as befitted such a large tourist resort.
We spent the remainder of our time in Cancun, a much needed respite after the emotional trauma wrought by Emily. All in all, whilst a world away from the trip we had planned and many times more stressful, the whole adventure provided much entertainment and allowed us to see the beautiful and diverse Yucatan Peninsula. All of us are agreed that the trying circumstances have created a bond amongst us that even the return to the mundane reality of pipettes and greenhouses has yet to completely erode.
Jacqueline Heilbronn (SCRI Dundee) escaped by other means:
Refusing refuge, boarding buses
Having arrived with colleagues from SCRI in Cancun at midnight local time, exhausted from 24 hours of travelling, we were told that the meeting had been postponed until December due to the incoming Hurricane Emily, which was expected to land near Cancun. We could hardly believe our ears, and we thought at first that we were being teased, but sadly it was all too true. After a few hours sleep and a few hours relaxation by the hotel pool, we went along to a meeting at the Hotel Fiesta Americana, where the Conference had been due to be held, to be given our options: staying in Cancun with 30,000 others in refuge centres, or joining an exodus of 70 – 80,000 people heading inland.
Some refuges were situated within the well protected hotels, whilst others were situated in downtown Cancun, in the Government schools and gymnasium halls. As an alternative, the IMPMI committee had organised an evacuation for 130 Delegates to Mexico City, a 24 hour journey by bus, 1812 Km/1132 miles, or the equivalent of travelling from John O’Groats to Lands End and half way back again in one go! I, along with the rest of my colleagues from SCRI, opted for the bus journey, as having lived in Hong Kong for a few years as a child I did not fancy living through another hurricane or a tropical storm of any description. Meanwhile, Richard Cooper, who felt he had done far too much travelling already, opted to stay. We agreed to compare notes in due course as to who had made the best decision!
It was a long, exhausting journey through the Yucatan Peninsula to Merida, then along the Gulf of Mexico coastline to Veracruz and up the winding mountain road to Mexico City, the third largest city in the World, situated 2,255m/ 7,400 ft above sea level at the southern edge of the central plateau, with a population of 22 million in 5000 sq km. The Service Stations and facilities en route left a lot to be desired, and I shall never ever again complain about any British Motorway equivalents!
It was fascinating to discover that the Yucatan peninsula was only linked to the rest of Mexico by rail and road comparatively recently, during the 1950’s and 60’s, and this is why its culture and food are quite different from the rest of Mexico. The views of hundreds of pelicans sitting aloft the break water logs and diving for fish along the Gulf of Mexico coastline was tremendous, and also being able to see a small part of the real Mexico, rather than just a tourist resort full of hotels such as Cancun, was very special.
Finally, I would like to thank Federico Sanchez and the volunteer committee for all their hard work, initially by sending out an e-mail notice of the postponement of the conference, which unfortunately many of us Europeans did not receive before travelling due to the time difference and also for organising a very efficient evacuation of us would-be attendees from Cancun at such short notice.
Collated and partly written by Richard Cooper Bath