Early morning stroll

I set my alarm for 6.20am. At 5.30 I wake to the familiar sight of Katie, pillow tucked under one arm, Monster Rabbit tucked under the other. No point sending her back to her own bed now, so I move over and she climbs in between Julian and me. She’s cold, from having kicked her own covers off, so I wrap myself around her and snuggle her close. I can’t get back to sleep, so I lie there, listening to the riotous birdsong coming from the banks of the river. When 6.20 comes round I am ready to get up.

I climb over Katie, careful not to wake her, and quickly get dressed. Julian gets up too, pours me a bowl of cornflakes and makes me a cup of tea. I pack my backpack with water bottle, notebook and pencil. At 6.45 I am ready. I climb down into the dinghy and motor the 300 metres to Sanlucar, tie up on the pontoon and fill my water bottle from the public tap.

I have planned a three-hour walk on the Spanish side of the river – one and a half hours north, one and a half hours back south. I aim to be back in the village by 10am, before the energy-sapping heat of the middle of the day.

At first the path follows the river, flat and tree-lined, a steep fall away to the river a hundred metres below to my left, steep grey rock face rising up to my right. I stop at a break in the trees, from where I can see the six boats at anchor in a bend in the river. The river is moving fast with the ebb current, trailing around the boats, bamboo and tree branches and other debris entangled in anchor chains and surrounding the bows. It is my first time to stop and I am startled by the stillness. There is no sound of human life here – no car-filled road in the distance, no airplane flying overhead. My senses are consumed by birdsong, the light, bright early morning voices of a multitude of birds.

Soon I pass a house where a big lumbering dog lazily barks at me. Orange trees grow in the garden and vines form a shady pergola on two sides of the white washed house. The house has no road access, but a path leads down to a small pontoon, where a small white boat is docked.

The path in places is over the bedrock and I scramble along, energised and breathing deeply. I come to a second house, protected by a thick wall of orange-blossomed cactus, with a white washed well, orange and olive groves and a collection of fig trees. Beyond this house I cross a small stream and immediately the land changes.

The path has veered away from the river and I walk among olive groves set in meadows of bright wild flowers. The scent and colour of the flowers and the buzzing of the bees makes me stop in my tracks. I can’t walk through this too fast. I need to absorb it.

I come to an unmarked fork in the path and I choose the path that leads down towards a dry riverbed, rather than the one that leads upwards to the top of a hill. At first this path is wide and clear, passing through more of the same enchanting olive filled meadows, but when it leads down to and along the dried river bed I wonder if I have made the wrong choice. I follow the riverbed until the path rises out of it again. But now it is less clear. I follow what I think is the path, but I have to scrabble through undergrowth and my legs get scratched by thorns and branches. I soon realise that I am on one of the many abandoned terraced hillsides, this one growing almond trees. I wonder if the path I am following has been made by humans at all, or if it is the trail of a deer or some other animal that lives in these parts. I turn around and return to the fork and take the path that leads uphill.

At the top of the hill the terrain changes again, or rather I walk up and down on a wide trail over the hills rather that around and between them. Up and down the paths goes, rounding bends, always revealing more and more hills stretching away to the distance. The bend in the river where I stopped to listen to the birdsong is now far behind me, a small living ribbon in the distance. Here the walking is easy and I stretch out my legs, increasing my speed.

The hills are terraced here, but subtly so, like old tent rings on the tundra, and you have to know what you’re looking for before you can see them. But once you’ve seen one terraced hill, you start to see them everywhere. Lines of ancient terraces gently encircle the hills with overgrown olive groves and almond groves long forsaken for more accessible groves closer to the villages and the river.

From around a bend in the path I hear the deep bark of a big dog before I see the huge sandy-coloured beast coming towards me. His head is as high as my waist. Before he reaches me I see his two companions. They are almost as big as his is and they bark too, but I can tell by their body language they mean no harm. ‘Shh’, I tell them soothingly as they crowd around me. I offer them the back of my hand, so they can have a sniff. Their owner appears, a suntanned man in his 50s, bald on top but with long grey hair almost to his shoulders. ‘Buenos dias’, I say. ‘Or good morning’, I venture, because, despite his deep tan he doesn’t look Spanish. ‘Good morning’ he replies in a rich English accent. ‘They don’t often meet anyone out here’, he says, looking towards the dogs. He seems as surprised to meet someone as his dogs are. We chat for a few minutes. He tells me he lives on a small holding near the river. He is the only person I see all morning.

I stop every so often to enjoy the birdsong. Each time I hear different songs. Part of me wants to know more – which species of birds make these beautiful songs. But mostly I don’t want to know, content with closing my eyes and bathing in the orchestra of sound. Let them be who they are, as unknown to me as I am to them.

All too soon I find I have been walking for an hour and a half. Just to the next bend in the trail, I tell myself, and then, just to the next olive tree. But I know I have to go back. Soon the temperature will be hitting 30˚C and I don’t want to be out walking in that heat. As it is, my t-shirt is soaked underneath my backpack and the flies are starting to take pleasure in my sweat-streaked face. I turn around, retracing my steps, winding my way up and down the hills, across the wild flower and olive tree strewn meadows, past the houses, and along the river.

I reach the edge of Sanlucar just before 10am. At the bakery I buy a fresh loaf of bread still warm from the oven and at the tiny shop I buy cheese, cucumber, lettuce and fruit to bring home to Carina. I refill my water bottle at the pontoon, untie the dinghy, and head home.

My Fukushima – Our Fukushima

On the second weekend in May Alcoutim hosts a walking festival. I pick up a brochure and read the details of short and easy walks, long and difficult walks, night time walks, and a walk that has something to do with a pig farm and the sampling of pork products at the end of the walk – although my Portuguese is limited so I may have got this one all wrong. We walk lots anyway and the walks that I am most interested in are noted to be not suitable for children and they all start very early in the morning. The problem with early morning starts is that I either have to take the dinghy ashore alone, leaving Julian and the girls without shore access until I come home, or wake the girls at an absurdly early hour so I can be ferried ashore in the dinghy. I decide to forego the walks.

But there are other events taking place during the three-day festival that catch my eye. There’s a walking stick making workshop on the quay on Saturday afternoon and a concert by a classical guitar quartet on Saturday evening. On Friday night there’s an outdoor screening of Baraka, a movie that blew me away and cemented my environmental consciousness when I first saw it as an impressionable 20-year old back in 1993. I hope I’m still as impressionable to brilliant ideas today. So we make our plans to participate in some of these elements of the festival.

The first event I want to attend is something called My Fukushima. I’m not sure what it’s all about as I can’t understand the Portuguese description, but it’s taking place at 7pm on Friday on the quay. Shortly before 5pm we take the dinghy ashore and as we walk past the quay I see a woman painting ‘Mi/Minha Fukushima’ on the concrete, surrounded by painted hearts and flowers. I stop to talk to her and she tells me this is where the event will start. She invites Lily and Katie to add to her painting, with something appropriate to the story of Fukushima. I say maybe I should explain something of Fukushima to the girls first and they can paint when we come back.

So off we walk down to the beach and along the way I attempt to explain what happened at Fukushima and the effect it had and continues to have on the lives of people there. They know Japan, of course, because I’ve told them a lot about when I used to live there, and they vaguely remember my friends Takako and Mayu who visited us in Devon a few years ago. And they love the Japanese food parcels and origami paper that Takako sends us.

But, boy, this is hard to explain. Earthquakes and tsunamis are relatively easy to talk about, even if the girls (or, indeed, I) can’t imagine the size of the wave of the scale of the devastation. But I can talk about the dynamic Earth, tectonic plates, and the shock waves of the earthquake that caused the tsunami that caused the devastation.

Explaining what happened at the nuclear power plant is more difficult. Partly it comes from my own lack of understanding of nuclear processes, so I am unable to clearly explain how a nuclear power station works. And I realise I have to go back before that – I have to explain electricity, why we need it, why we want it, where and how it’s produced. I point to the huge wind turbines on a hill far away upriver on the Spanish side and I get the girls to think about our solar panel aboard Carina, and I try to explain how energy from the wind or sun are transformed into the electricity that powers our computers, house and street lights, and is needed to produce our clothes, toys, and pretty much everything we have. And then I talk about other ways of making electricity – at power stations that use coal or (in Ireland) peat or, in the case of Fukushima, nuclear energy.

It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand this stuff about electricity. I barely understand it myself. We need Julian to explain it simply and clearly. What I want them to try to get their heads around is that Fukushima is a human-made disaster. The earthquake and tsunami didn’t cause this abomination. Humans caused it, in their belief that nuclear energy can be clean and safe; in their short-sighted short cuts and budget-driven corner cutting; in their inability to see into the future by looking back into the past; and in their hubris that flimsy human-made technology can withstand the power of the Earth. Heady stuff for six and four year olds. But Richard Williams started Venus and Serena early in his quest to create tennis champions. Why shouldn’t we grow environmental warriors in the same way?

Katie painting

Katie painting

We return to the quay for the start of the My Fukushima event. The woman we have spoken to earlier has laid out tins of paint and paintbrushes and she invites everyone to add to her painting. Lily and Katie don’t need to be asked twice and soon they are covering the concrete with hearts, bunny rabbits and angels. Other children join in, adding more hearts, flowers, Portuguese flags and more besides. In a moment of inspiration I paint a Japanese flag on the ground, but replace the red sun with a red heart.

The mayors of Alcoutim (Portugal) and Sanlucar (Spain) make brief speeches and a Japanese woman who lives in Sanlucar translates the inscription on the book My Fukushima by Taro Aizu, which is the inspiration for this whole project. We are then all invited to cross the river from Portugal to Spain. The small ferry makes three crossings to bring us all to Spain. From the riverbank we slowly walk through Sanlucar. The village has been transformed into an art gallery (as has Alcoutim), displaying copies of paintings by artists from around the world, inspired by Aizu’s haiku and gogyoshi poetry. The poignancy of fields bearing crops of cesium 137, of a crawling baby in a nuclear fall-out mask, of an old man on his deathbed, is palpable.

IMG_20150508_211024We proceed to the cultural centre, next to the school, where original artworks form the same collection are on display, together with a display of artefacts recovered from the devastation of the tsunami – a child’s shoe, a suitcase, photographs.

The paintings are moving, but what moves me even more are Taro Aizu’s poems. Here’s a short selection:

To protect them
I’ll never let them eat
Local vegetables

I can’t believe
They are contaminated
By the cesium winds
These green, green
Rice fields

We’ll sing a song
And dance again
Around the blossoms
In our hometown
Fukushima, Fukushima

Humid night
‘No nuclear plants!’
I shout, I shout

May my prayer
To the universe
Give me not only consolation
But the power to abolish
All atomic power stations!

The genetic heritage
Not contaminated
By cesium
Is a precious gift
In my dark cell

We slowly make our way back to the river where the ferry awaits. We are transported across to Portugal once more where the other half of the exhibition is hung in the Alcoutim cultural centre.

IMG_20150508_211651Why do the people along this river (and elsewhere, where the exhibition has toured) care so much and are so moved by something that happened four years ago in a country on the other side of the world? I can see the similarities. Elderly and middle-aged farmers, self-sufficient on their small-holdings, in lands that are beautiful and precious. Loss as a result of the tsunami is devastating, but it’s happened before and amidst the loss and the sorrow, it can be understood. But the invisible and insidious devastation wrought by the breakdown of the nuclear power plant cannot be so easily made sense of. This is a human-made monster whose repercussions will reverberate through the generations.

This is a sorrow and a horror that could be visited on any of us at any time, whether we live in Japan or Spain or Portugal or Louisiana or Ukraine. The people who live close to the land – the farmers, the fishers, the hunters – have never forgotten the power of the Earth. Those who have the audacity to build nuclear power stations, or drill for oil under our oceans, or frack for gas under our homes – have forgotten the Earth’s power. And because of their forgetfulness any one of our communities could be the next Fukushima waiting to happen.

Lively river

The liveliness of the Rio Guadiana is astonishing after six months of living in Almería – Europe’s most arid region. We’ve come from a baked orange coastal zone to a riparian idyll teeming with life. The gentle hills that girdle the river are lush and verdant and the river itself is alive. Fish leap from this dynamic river whose current runs furiously, changing direction every six hours with the tides 22 miles downstream. On the flood tide the river runs back upon itself and on the ebb it races down to the sea at even greater speed, carrying tree trunks, branches and innumerable bamboo stalks.
DSCI0412 - CopyThe riverbank is cacophonous with birdsong. There are blackbirds, sparrows, finches, tits, and even more species whose names I don’t know, filling the air with their orchestra of song. The swallows that nest in astonishing number in the gables of buildings in the two villages joyously flit along the river, dipping low to the water, catching insects to bring home to their babies. Egrets and herons patrol the banks, the herons flying like prehistoric pterodactyls and landing silently on the river’s edge. A pair of geese lives on the small beach at Sanlucar and there, and in Alcoutim, three species of duck, including a dozen or so big black and white and red Muscovy ducks make their home.

One day, a baby bird lands on our deck, resting mid-way across the river. Its parents fretfully call to it. One flies away in the direction of the other bank, wheels and comes back, pleading with the youngster to carry on. The other parent perches on our pulpit, pleading, begging ‘Just a little more baby, just a little more’. The little one rises up and flies off, flanked by its devoted parents. We watch, hearts in our mouths, as the baby dips closer to the river surface the farther it flies from us. We will it to make it the last tens of metres to safety. It alights on the deck of a small yacht anchored close to shore. The parents alight on the guard rails and the coaxing begins again.

DSCI0417 - CopyAt dusk, as the songbirds return in vast numbers to roost and the egrets fly upriver, the insects come out. And with them come the bats. These are bigger bats than I’ve seen in the wild before. They fly along the centre of the river, avoiding the masts of the yachts at anchor, eating their fill of insects.

At Sanlucar and Alcoutim, the swallows are a joy to behold. The air is filled with the sight and sound of parents, racing to and from their nests. Every house, every eave is festooned with nests and the piercing songs of adults is accompanied by their swift swooping as they seem to know no fear, diving and banking and loop-the-looping like cocky fighter pilots.

The bleating of small herds of goats and sheep compete with birdsong, the sounds of the former accompanied by the ringing bell around the neck of the lead animal. These ovines, black, brown, tan and white, spend their days resting under olive trees, shaded from the hot sun.

IMG_20150511_094909There are other animals too, no less interesting for their lack of size or cuteness. One morning a huge green grasshopper sits like a bowsprit on the prow of the dinghy as I motor ashore. Another day, we come across a small snake and stand back while it crosses our path. And then there is a larger snake, about four feet long, on the side of the road, nothing left of it but its transparent patterned skin, its long long back bone, and hundreds of tiny delicate ribs not much bigger than nail clippings. There are little green lizards, half way up walls in the villages, scuttling among the undergrowth and across paths farther out.

And the ants. Big ants, little ants, always busy busy ants. Lily stops me every few minutes to watch a tiny ant carrying a giant leaf or petal. Once, when we have a picnic, someone drops a piece of cheese from a sandwich and a platoon of ants marches up and carries it away, manoeuvring around weeds and grasses, and dragging it up and under the boardwalk to their garrison below.

Food grows in rude abundance here. Not just in the cultivated fields of potatoes and cabbages and other vegetables, and in the groves of oranges, lemons, almonds and olives that grow along the riverbank and far up into the hills. There is wild food in abundance. Almond, olive and orange trees grow wild, or in old abandoned groves. There is a profusion of wild fig trees, as well as pomegranate and kumquat trees. The fig trees are heavy with not-yet ripe fruit and the kumquats are already juicy and delicious. I’ve been assured that wild vines spiral up the trunks of eucalyptus trees and great bunches of grapes can be plucked from the eucalypts later in the summer. Mint, fennel and rosemary grow wild and in abundance, as do spinach, alexanders and wild carrot. And in the river there are fresh water mussels and clams. This is a forager’s paradise.

DSCI0423 - CopyOn the trails that wind through the hills and along the riverbanks the profusion of wild flowers caresses the senses. The meadow-covered valleys between the gentle hillsides are riotous with colour. Pink, purple, blue, magenta, violet, yellow, orange, red and white wild flowers fill the air with their heady scent. The sight and scent of the flowers is accompanied by the steady buzz of bees feasting on the nectar. Beehives dot these hillsides, where beekeepers collaborate with bees to make honey from these flowers and to contribute to the pollination all that grows in this paradise.

DSCI0424 - CopyArriving in late April, we have missed some harvests and not yet arrived at others. But our stomachs are filled with delicious sweet oranges, we cook with oranges, lemons, rosemary and fennel, and I drink fresh mint tea every day. We pick kumquats as we walk along and we will the tens of thousands of figs and almonds to ripen soon.

Each day we discover some new wonder in this bounteous place, and I’m afraid my poor writing has barely captured the richness of life on the river.

La Frontera

You know the confusion that reigns twice a year when the clocks go forward or back? Have you remembered to change every time piece in your house, or is it 2pm in the kitchen and 1pm in the bedroom? Do you get up too early or too late that first Sunday morning? I remember one spring Sunday many years ago, when I was still a good church-going girl (and I mean MANY years ago). I got up, got dressed and arrived at the church just as the congregation came out the door at the end of Mass. This spring, Julian and I didn’t even remember the time had changed until Monday. Neither of us had jobs to go to, so it didn’t really matter to us. Twice every year, no matter what, there’s a discussion about whether this means an hour more or an hour less in bed. Now imagine living with that time change confusion EVERY SINGLE DAY!! Because that’s life on the Rio Guadiana, the border between Spain and Portugal. Spain runs an hour ahead of Portugal. We’ve set all our clocks to Portuguese time for no reason other than we have to live by some standardised time.

Sanlucar (in the distance) from Alcoutim

Sanlucar and Alcoutim with the river in between

But every day confusion reigns. Fruit and vegetables are better in the Portuguese shop, all the other stuff is better (and cheaper) in the Spanish shop. The bakery in Spain is superior; the library in Portugal is second to none. There’s a good playground in Spain and a good beach in Portugal. So every day we move from one side of the river to the other in our dinghy. Will the shop be open now (Spanish time)? Will the library be open (Portuguese time)? The post office (Portuguese)? The bakery (Spanish?). Our Spanish friends Rafa and Pilar lived on the river when we first got here. Their three young sons went to school in Spain, so they lived by Spanish time. Each afternoon we met up at the beach on the Portuguese side of the river, so Lily and Katie could play with their little friends Rafa Jr, Juan and Jorge. Rafa usually suggested 5.30ish. I almost never remembered that his 5.30 was our 4.30. So we would laze around in our afternoon siesta, thinking we had another hour until meeting our friends. Then someone aboard Carina would look towards our neighbour’s boat and see that their dinghy had already departed. Oh no, they’re on Spanish time, we’d remember too late, and a mad scramble to pack swimwear and don lifejackets would ensue.

Carina in the middle of the river

Carina at anchor on the international border

We had a rip in our genoa sail that needed to be repaired. Chris, living on his boat in the middle of the river, earns a living making leather goods – bags, purses, belts, that sort of thing, so he has a sewing machine on board. We arranged to come alongside and raft to Chris’s boat so he could repair our genoa. He said 10am. We arrived at 10am. He was expecting us an hour earlier. He lives by Spanish time! Time difference is not the only confusion when living on an international border. There are two different languages to negotiate. I speak a very minimal amount of Spanish and my Portuguese doesn’t extend beyond hello, please, thank you, excuse me, one, two, beer and wine. In Spanish I can ask basic questions (Where is the toilet? What time does the market open?), or make basic conversation (Your dog is cute. The melon is big. The sausage is hot…and other such useful stuff), and I can understand a reasonable amount of what’s spoken, if I already know the context in which it’s being said. But most days we flit between the two countries and that’s when the confusion sets in. I say ‘Bom dia’ when I mean ‘Buenos dias’; I say ‘Gracias’ when I mean ‘Obrigada’ and so on. I don’t want to offend anyone by using the language from the other country. I’m sure (I hope) they’re used to it.


Alcoutim from Carina

Of course things are much easier these days with open borders and a single currency. Back before the euro, people living on the river had to have pesetas in one pocket and escudos in the other and there were regular border and customs checks. These days we’re all one big happy European family, albeit distant cousins who speak different languages and have quite different cultures. Despite their different languages and cultures, it would appear that the two communities – Alcoutim in Portugal and Sanlucar in Spain – come together to celebrate and remember. The May Day celebrations in Alcoutim featured a flamenco dancing troupe from Sanlucar, the My Fukushima event (a future blog post) took place simultaneously on both sides of the river, with both mayors (who looked uncannily alike) leading the events on both sides of the river. And in the midst of this cultural melange, in the river that separates these two villages in two countries, is a cosmopolitan community of live aboard sailors. There are Belgian, British, Dutch, French, German, Irish, South African, Swedish and Swiss people living here – some with their clocks set to Portuguese time, some set to Spanish. There’s the English man and South African woman whose son goes to school in Spain, and the British couple whose children go to school in Portugal. There’s the French woman and her British husband; the Swiss man and his Portuguese water dog; and of course the Irish woman and her British husband with their two British-Irish daughters. Life on the border is nothing if not interesting, and it certainly keeps us on our toes. There’s no resting on our laurels when it comes to time or language. But what fun we have. The live aboards form a community of helpful, generous, but fiercely independent people, and we’re now back in the territory of cheek-squeezing and head patting abuelas, and of helpful and (mostly) friendly shop staff. UKIP and the Conservatives should come chill out on the river for a while!

Moving upriver

Once we’ve settled onto our pontoon at Vila Real de Santo Antonio, tidied up and had breakfast, I pause for the first time. We are on the outside pontoon with nothing between us and the river. The river is still, but lively with terns, swooping and diving and shrilly chattering. Occasionally a fish leaps from the water, flying through the air for a split second, splashing back into the river, disturbing the peaceful surface with an expanding pattern of concentric ripples. Across the still river, only 500 metres away is Spain. A different country, a different culture, a different language, a different time zone. It’s surreal to be in one country and yet be so close to another. I’ve done it before, driving through Europe and on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. But the political lines that are not always so arbitrary never cease to amaze me.

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

We’ve had a tough night of sailing, so we don’t get up to much on our first day back in Portugal. Julian takes the girls out for a walk and a picnic while I catch up on some sleep and in the afternoon I return the favour, strolling with the girls through the pretty white-washed town of Vila Real, old men drinking coffee in the town square, groups of men and women, young and old, gathered in and outside bars watching a football match on TV.

The town square of Vila Real

The town square of Vila Real

We leave Vila Real at 8am the next morning to take advantage of the currents on the flood tide that will carry us up the river. Our destination is Alcoutim, a Portuguese village 22 miles up the river.

Beyond the small towns of Vila Real on the Portuguese side and Ayamonte on the Spanish side, we are quickly into countryside. The first thing I notice is the smell. A deep, fresh, rich, earthy smell of the river and its banks, that makes me want to inhale deeply, fill my lungs, get drunk on this heady air.

The banks on this stretch of the river are flat and muddy, with herons and egrets standing still on long legs or carefully high-stepping in the shallows, scanning the water for fish. The terns are ever present, reminding me, as they always do, of the Point out beyond Arviat.



Two miles upriver from Vila Real we pass under the suspension bridge. I’ve flown and driven across international borders before, but this the first time I’ve gone under one. Beyond the bridge the gently rolling farmland is dotted with the occasional olive, orange or almond grove, herds of sheep led by a clanging bellwether resting under the trees from the already hot sun.

Looking serious as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

Looking pensive as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

Abandoned dwellings are dotted on the slopes of the riverbank – tiny, white washed houses with windows and roofs missing or in various states of disrepair.

As we carry on up the river, rounding long curving bends, the landscape subtly changes. Gradually the muddy banks give way to lush green hills sloping down to the bamboos and tall reeds that flank the river. Even above the noise of our engine I can hear the birdsong and I look forward to reaching our destination so we can cut the motor and listen to this orchestra.

DSCI0372 - CopyIn places, where tributaries feed the river with silt, the Guadiana is no deeper than 3.5 metres, and we navigate carefully. We draw almost 1.9 metres, and we don’t want to touch the bottom. But for most of the trip up the river we have 9 metres or more and we comfortably chug along, slowly and with enough time to take it all in, take photos and spot birds on the river banks.

It takes us less than four hours to reach the twin villages of Alcoutim, on the Portuguese side of the river and Sanlucar on the Spanish side. Both are tiny and white washed, rising steeply from the banks of the river. There are plenty of boats at anchor here already, and we motor around, trying out a few different places until we find a place we like. We drop the anchor, turn off the engine, and sit in the cockpit taking in the sights and sounds of the place.

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

The air is electric with birdsong, accompanied by a goat’s bell in the field closest to us. On each hour four church bells ring – two on each side of the river. Occasionally an outboard motor hums as a dinghy crosses the river between the two countries. In a field nearby, on the Spanish side, a farmer tends his orange trees.

It’s time to inflate the dinghy and get ashore!

Observing and learning

DSCI3940Katie says she doesn’t want to learn. What she means is she doesn’t want to be taught. She’s learning all the time. She’s four, she can’t stop herself. She refuses most formal attempts at education: sulking, clamming up, monkeying around or storming off whenever Julian or I offer an opportunity to read or write or learn some basic maths. She even resists games that might have an educational purpose, so we have to be very subtle. If she gets the slightest whiff of something being ‘taught’ she gets mad.

Yet the other day, when I asked Lily ‘What is 4 times 3?’, Katie whispered in my ear (while Lily was still thinking) ‘12’. And when left to herself, she writes letters and numbers, spells a few words aloud, and solves number problems.

While it’s generally not helpful to compare siblings, or any children – one was doing this by this age, so why isn’t the other one – I think observing differences in learning styles is instructional. And Lily’s and Katie’s learning styles are radically different. It’s difficult to put those differences into words. There are subtle and not so subtle differences, and methods used to facilitate Lily’s learning have not worked with Katie.

Lily seems to progress gradually, going from step A to step B to step C. She takes constructive criticism and wants to please us by doing good work. We can look back over a month or a year and (if we were so disposed, which we are not) plot the steps she has taken to get from where she was then to where she is now.

Katie, on the other hand, can give the impression that she is not learning anything, until one day she does or says something that stops us in our tracks and we scratch our heads and ask ‘When did she learn that?’

Her handwriting went from chicken scratches to legible seemingly without any intermediate steps. While Lily’s writing gradually improved over time, after Katie’s first attempts she sulked and refused to write for months. Then one day took up a pencil and her chicken scratches had become writing. I guess in the intervening time her manual dexterity had improved by doing other things like drawing, colouring, painting and using cutlery.

And then there was the day when Julian was showing her some animal words on flash cards, and asking her to spell the words aloud. At first she seemed not to know. Indeed, she kept saying ‘I don’t know’. But then a light went on in her head and she seemed to realise that if she told Daddy what he wanted to hear, then he would leave her alone to get back to the fun stuff. She rolled her eyes, put her hands on her hips, sighed and flawlessly spelled the words on all the cards Julian held up to her.

As parents who take sole responsibility for our children’s education, dealing with such different attitudes to learning can at times be challenging. While Lily generally enjoys written and mental maths and writing stories, lists and letters, we have had to learn to give Katie more space to learn on her own. Formal approaches to teaching don’t work (or at least they don’t work at present – they may work in the future). But more subtle forms of learning – playing, helping with number-based chores such as laying the table, sharing out food, following recipes, etc, all allow her to learn without realising she’s being taught.

The rest of the stuff that isn’t reading, writing and maths – the geography, history, science, art and languages – are all the stuff of our day-to-day lives that we all learn together, each one of us delving in at a level appropriate to our ages and life experiences. Katie is gradually making her way to independent reading, writing and maths, but she’s taking quite a different route to that taken by her sister. Julian and I are learning to step back, give her space and trust her to learn in a way that makes sense to her.

Plans, panic and Portugal

By Martina and Julian

For just a moment we thought about sailing to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. The Belgian sailors on neighbouring pontoons at Barbate were preparing for the five-day passage and it sparked the idea in us. They told us the marina in Las Palmas is cheap, and we thought there must surely be work to be had in the tourist and hospitality sectors over summer, and we could overwinter there with relative ease. The only problem with Las Palmas marina is that it is booked solid from October to December by the organised flotillas that depart for the Caribbean at that time of year. But surely we could find a way around that by moving to a different island for a couple of months. There was a weather window opening up in 36 hours and we’d need to be ready to go. The possibilities swirled around in our heads.

And then the possibilities were followed by questions. Do we have charts for the Canaries? No. Does our insurance cover sailing in the Canaries? No. And in the remote marina in Barbate we had no internet access and it was a long walk into town to find free Wifi to carry out some research. No point thinking ‘there must be jobs in Las Palmas’. We needed to know for sure. Five days of sailing southwest out into the Atlantic along the northwest coast of Africa is a long way to go with no idea if there really are jobs. Such a voyage requires more than 36 hours of planning and preparation.

Besides, we had spent all winter in a marina, in a sizable town and we longed for a quiet anchorage, rural living, away from it all. Las Palmas, the biggest city on the islands, would be going directly towards it all. So we stuck to our original plan to set out the next day for an overnight passage to the Rio Guadiana, the river border between Spain and Portugal.

The Guadiana has to be entered at half-flood in order to clear the bar at its mouth. Figuring we would make an average speed of 4.5 knots, we foresaw a 21-hour passage, departing Barbate at noon to reach the Guadiana at 9am the next morning. Martina took the girls shopping for supplies for the overnight passage while Julian did his boat preparations and then he took them for a walk through the coastal pine forests while Martina did her prep.

Shortly before noon we slipped our lines and gently motored out of Barbate. Heading west, the wind was in our faces as we rounded Cabo Trafalgar. We got a good look at the double tombolas, and were surprised not to see any kites, given the profusion of kites and kite surfers we’d seen on previous land and sea visits to the Cabo. Lily was in the cockpit with us and we told her about the Battle of Trafalgar and Admiral Nelson and Julian filled us in on the details and reasons for his death. Perhaps morbidly, we imagined him dying in the exact spot we now passed over.

Once abreast of the Cabo we cut the motor, threw out the sails and headed northwest for the remainder of the passage. Well, mostly northwest. The previous day, in Barbate, Martina had watched an animated explanation of the workings of the huge tuna nets used along this coast, and now we came upon one right in our path. Julian tacked away southwest for fifteen minutes or so to get around it, giving us a chance to see it at close quarters, the entrance net and the various dead ends and enclosures that corral the tuna into the final net where they are corralled by the fishermen’s boats in a style of fishing known as almadraba.

Half an hour later, back on our northwest heading, we saw the dorsal fin of a female orca, as she swam in the direction of the tuna net, following those same red tuna that make the region such rich fishing grounds.

It was a lively sail with the wind occasionally reaching a steady 18 knots. We sailed 60˚ off-wind, making the strength of the wind feel greater than it was. All our sails were out and we leaned hard. The leaning, coupled with the one-metre swell from the southwest, made for an uncomfortable sail, particularly for anyone below decks and especially for anyone attempting to sleep. Even Lily and Katie, who usually sleep well when we sail, were disturbed by these conditions and slept fitfully.

The wind refused to die down overnight as winds often do, and rather than making an average top speed of 4.5 or 5 knots we spanked (thank you Chris on Tallulah May for gifting us this word) along at over 6 knots for most of the journey. If this kept up, we would reach the Guadiana way too early.

In late afternoon, Julian went below to try to catch some sleep. Cadiz lay ahead, the giant suspension bridge towering above the city. Seven months ago, the last time we saw the bridge, it was two separate pieces, not yet meeting in the middle. But now it was complete and a colossus. It seemed to take forever to get past Cadiz. Martina had been looking at Cadiz slowly changing perspective against Carina for over two hours and was level with the city when Julian took the helm at 7pm. For four more hours we sailed northwest at over 6 knots, and as day turned to night the two red lights on top of the bridge lit the sky. When Martina took over again at 11pm those lights could still been seen faintly in the distance, over twenty miles away.

Once darkness fell, Julian sailed with the bright lights to the north of Cadiz on one side and the bright lights of a line of merchant ships at anchor on the other.

Martina’s attempts at sleep failed as she shared the aft berth with Lily and Katie who, despite not being tired, had decided to go to bed, and played in bed for three hours with Martina occasionally yelling at them and kicking them out because they were coming between her and sleep. So Martina was not in the best of moods when she took the helm from 11pm to 2am. And because of the uncomfortable swell and the leaning of the boat, Julian only managed about ten minutes sleep during his down time. At 2am we swapped places, and Martina slept soundly for two and a half hours. At 5am we swapped places again.

Because of the speed we had maintained all night, we were still set to reach the mouth of the Guadiana two hours earlier than we wanted. When Martina took the helm at 5am the lights of Spain and Portugal were close and she could already see the leading lights into harbour entrances along the coast.

Julian had just fallen into his first deep sleep of the journey when Martina shouted him awake. ‘Why’s there a cardinal mark right here’ and a few seconds later ‘Shit, I’ve just nudged a large buoy with no light’. Martina was in a panic. ‘There’s a whole line of buoys’ she yelled and Julian leapt into the cockpit. He ran to the bow to look ahead and urgently shouted back ‘Turn right, turn right’. Martina turned left. We ploughed straight into a fishing net, briefly dragging a line of buoys. Luckily, we quickly lost the net and were past the danger. Looking back, we saw an array of bright yellow flashing lights, lit up like a Christmas tree. Martina claimed ‘Honestly, I didn’t see the lights. Well I did, but I thought they were lights on shore’.

Before going back to bed, Julian brought in the genoa and mizzen sails and told Martina to carry on for another hour or two and then tack away from shore. But we continued to make too much way. Martina was spooked because of the incident with the fishing net, had momentarily lost her confidence and no longer trusted her judgement. What if all the lights that she thought were on shore are actually only 100 metres away? And the depth gauge showed that we were losing depth at a rapid rate. 18 metres, 17.5, 17. If it kept dropping at this rate we’d be on land in ten minutes. She called Julian up again. We decided to tack away from shore now, sailing an hour or two into the darkness. But Julian was too tired to sail and wanted to get his head down for a little longer. The sailing was difficult on this heading, with local fishing boats bobbing around in the darkness, lobster pots to be slalomed through, and other nets like the one we’d just passed over. So we decided to bring in the mainsail and motor. For the next two hours we pottered around, doing 2 knots, not going anywhere, while we waited to enter the river and while Julian attempted to get more sleep.

At 8am we decided to go for it, and gingerly made our way towards the 500 metre wide river mouth. We began our entry into the river at exactly half-flood, carefully picking out the buoys marking the channel, whose helpful lights went out fifteen minutes earlier. But in early morning the trials of the night were left far behind us. We had a choice of Vila Real de Santo Antonio marina on the Portuguese side of the river or Ayamonte marina on the Spanish side. Keeping a close eye on the depth gauge, there seemed to be plenty of water and we entered the Guadiana comfortably, the swell subsiding as we passed behind the long breakwater at the mouth of the river. All of a sudden we were accompanied by the shrill cacophony of multitudes of terns diving for fish. The peaceful sandy and muddy riverbanks felt very different to anywhere we have been for a long time.

As we came alongside Vila Real de Santo Antonio we saw a space on the outside pontoon. Within minutes we were tied up, Martina was making breakfast and we were back in Portugal again.

Tuna town

The last time we were in Barbate I was in a bad mood. We’d just spent four overpriced nights stuck in the Andalucia-government owned marina in Mazagon due to poor weather conditions, followed by two nights in a similar government owned marina in Cadiz. These soulless, overpriced concrete hells were run with typical government bureaucracy and inflexibility, still charging summer prices even though they had reverted to winter service. They had no Wifi, the showers and toilets in Mazagon had limited opening hours, and there was no consideration given to the odd hours that sailors arrive and depart, dictated to by tides and weather conditions.

So when we arrived in Barbate to yet another government-run marina, I was already predisposed to dislike the place. Its first impressions didn’t help. It had the same rough un-finished concrete box buildings, and was situated far outside town. The Guardia Civil boat had taken up the reception pontoon but when we took up a temporary berth in the marina, the gate leading up to the reception was locked and Julian had to climb over it. We moved twice more around the half-empty marina before we were settled on a rickety tiny pontoon that the marina staff were happy for us to be on. The next morning when we tried to refuel before our passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, the fuel station was closed and, despite it being within office opening hours, we waited almost half an hour for someone to answer our repeated phone and VHF radio calls, and send someone around to fill our tank.

Our one evening in Barbate involved walking through a desolate industrial wasteland to find the nearest supermarket. We couldn’t get out of the place fast enough.

But what a difference seven and a half months makes! Friends in Aguadulce told us they really liked Barbate and, for us, it proved a convenient stopping off point between Spanish-owned Ceuta on the northern tip of Morocco and the Rio Guadiana on the Spain-Portugal border.

DSCI0334This time we arrived from the south, sailing past long long sandy beaches, low-lying Barbate and the countryside beyond looking exceptionally beautiful, all lush green fields and extensive pine forests. We only planned to stay one night, but a broken toilet and marina fees exactly half the price of what we were expecting convinced us to stay for two nights before attempting an overnight passage to the Rio Guadiana.

After the cold showers of Marina Smir, the luxury of a huge shower room with endless hot water won me over. The all-female marina staff were exceptionally friendly when Lily, Katie and I went to sign in (via the reception pontoon this time). (In general, I find female marina staff give us better berths and better service when I bring the girls to the office. Small children seem to melt hearts). While the girls and I showered I also did a load of laundry at the very inexpensive marina launderette. Luxury unbound!

DSCI0322The next morning the girls and I vacated the boat, leaving Julian to fix the broken toilet. I decided to put our friend’s high praise of Barbate to the test. It was a Friday morning and the industrial wasteland of the Saturday evening of seven months ago was now the thriving heart of the town’s tuna fishery. Fishermen worked in groups to spread out and repair huge tuna nets; the ice-making complex was whirring away; and the processing factories were bustling. The whole area was busy with people walking, driving fork-lifts, vans and lorries, work-men repainting the walls and railings, the fisherman’s cafe lively and loud with fisherman having their morning coffee. The shop attached to one of the processing factories sold an unimaginable range of tuna products, all beyond our price range.

DSCI0324The last time we had been here we immediately turned left for the supermarket when we came out of the marina area, where a dodgy-looking shack sold cigarettes and magazines and a lone bar looked like something out of the wild west. What we hadn’t realised at the time was if we had turned right the biggest, sandiest beach imaginable is RIGHT THERE, hidden from view by the marina wall. Wow! I’ve been on some nice beaches in my time, and this one is right up there with the best. Fine-grained golden sand that is hard-packed close to the water’s edge making it perfect for long walks and sand art!

DSCI0327We had an inexpensive second breakfast of coffee, juice and tostada made from delicious bread at a seaside cafe, where we wrote postcards. The waiter gave us directions to the post office and we set off through town. And what a revelation: a thriving bustling town with people walking about, small locally-owned shops selling just about anything one could want. As well as butchers, bakers and clothes shops, there were haberdashers, dress-makers, hardware shops, sweet shops. Although the marina doesn’t offer Wifi, there is free Wifi all over town, provided by the town council! I sat in Plaza Ajuntamiento – a leafy square in front of the stately if somewhat run down town hall – while the girls played at a playground that featured a proper climbing wall!

DSCI0333Everyone was friendly, both to us and to each other. I lost count of the number of times I saw people slapping friends on the back, shaking hands, kissing cheeks. Lily and Katie got their fair share of head rubbing and cheek pinching and being called ‘Guapa’ by abuelas and abuelos we passed on the street. They haven’t had that since we were in Galicia last year. A real sense of camaraderie and community pervaded.

At a delightful sweet shop the girls each picked out their ten favourite sweets and when we went to pay, the very friendly shop keeper gave them each a freshly made bag of popcorn! We bought a picnic lunch and headed down to the beach for the rest of the afternoon. It was too cold to swim, but perfect for running about, making huge sand drawings on the hard-packed sand, and playing in the sand dunes that have been created by the presence of that big marina wall!

On the way home we dropped into the Parque Natural La Breña y Marismas del Barbate visitor centre. This small facility provided a wealth of information about the geology and natural history of the region from Cabo de Trafalgar to the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as a history and anthropology of tuna fishing in the region, which dates back at least to the Phoenicians 3000 years ago. The displays were all interactive, and Lily and Katie were able to watch videos of their choosing, read simple but informative text, and see and ‘feel’ the whole region in small scale. I particularly enjoyed watching a video of tuna fishing, showing the fishermen using a centuries-old technique of first corralling the tuna with very complex nets and then corralling them with multiple boats. When the tuna are surrounded, some fishermen actually get into the net with the wildly thrashing fish – some tuna 1.5 metres or more in length – and toss the live tuna up into the boats of their waiting colleagues.

The people of Barbate must be the healthiest in Spain. People of all ages are constantly walking around the marina, throughout the fishery complex, dressed in walking and gym gear. Men and women, from 17 to 87, all out walking. And the streets of the town were full of people walking, carrying their groceries, going about their business. It’s like the town’s been hit by a fitness epidemic. I wondered if this health-kick combined with the group organisation necessitated by the form of fishing practiced have led to such a friendly and happy community of people. Now there’s a research project!

Lily, Katie and I spent nine hours out and about in Barbate and every minute of it was a joy. It just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a place on our first, and limited, impressions!

The scientist and the housewife

When someone asks what you do, how do you reply? What is your occupation? Does your occupation define you? Do others define you by your occupation?

When we arrived at Marina Smir in Morocco, Julian took our documents to the border police, located in the same building as the marina office. He was asked his occupation. After a moment’s hesitation, he replied ‘scientist’. He was then asked my occupation. Again, he hesitated and in the moment’s hesitation the policeman suggested ‘housewife’. Julian said yes. So, on official documentation, Julian Scott, scientist, and Martina Tyrrell, housewife, arrived in Morocco on April 18th.

So here’s the thing. Julian hasn’t worked as a scientist for the past four years. But he’s no less a scientist now than he was when he made a living from science. He thinks like a scientist, he works through problems in a scientific methodical way. His engagement with the world around him is partly informed by his training and experience as a scientist.

But am I a housewife? Apart from the obvious fact that I don’t live in a house (!), how close does that description come to who I am? By training, I am an anthropologist and over the years I have variously described my professional self as anthropologist, human geographer, social scientist, lecturer, academic. In the past year I’ve earned a living as an English teacher and a writer.

Behind all of those paid jobs is a way of engaging with the world that is heavily influenced by my anthropological background. I can’t switch my social scientist self off any more than Julian can switch his scientist self off.

I am a ‘boat-wife’ as much as Julian is a ‘boat-husband’. We are both responsible for running our home and for raising and educating our children. We’ve both been occupational wanderers throughout our adult lives, moving from one profession to another, never seeming to settle on any one thing. But all those career moves have been linked, directly or indirectly, to the scientist and anthropologist that are central to how we define ourselves. But I guess in that moment of hesitation Julian didn’t quite know how to define me in a way that would fit neatly onto an immigration document. (I’ll generously give him the benefit of the doubt!)

I remember going to NCT antenatal classes when I was pregnant with Lily. At the first session the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves, but not to mention our professions. She didn’t want anyone forming preconceived impressions based on the occupations of our classmates. Of course we all soon became great friends and hung out together after our eight babies were born. (Hello Ladies!!) But it was interesting in those first few weeks of getting to know one another to have to define ourselves in ways other than what we did to earn money. It probably did remove a lot of preconceptions.

But how would I have answered the question if I had taken our documents to the Moroccan border police? I probably would have hesitated. And then I’d have answered in the way I have filled in official forms for the past four years: Martina Tyrrell, anthropologist; Julian Scott, house-husband!

Leviathan and the Behemoth

From Marina Smir we sailed north to Spanish-owned Ceuta on the northern tip of Morocco. We only had one evening but in between shopping and preparing for an early morning start, we had time to explore the immense fort built by the Spanish to keep the Moroccans out a couple of hundred years ago. With Lily and Katie still asleep, we got underway at 7am the next morning, slipping from the marina under cover of darkness, out through the outer harbour, to cross the Straits of Gibraltar, geographically, economically and ecologically one of the world’s most interesting stretches of water.

DSCI0279The Mediterranean is home to at least seven cetacean species. The greatest profusion of whales and dolphins is in the western Mediterranean, close to and in the Strait of Gibraltar. Bottlenose, common and striped dolphins and pilot, sperm, orca and fin whales all thrive here thanks to a unique set of oceanographic, geological and ecological circumstances. Here, the salty and diminishing Mediterranean Sea is replenished by the less salty Atlantic and this meeting of waters and the currents produced give rise to a rich ecosystem.

At least 30 known individual orcas live here year-round, feeding on the huge red tuna that also support the vibrant fishing economy on the Atlantic side of the Strait. There are also estimated to be 3000 fin whales here, the second largest of the whale species.

But the whales and dolphins are not alone. Here’s some data about what they share their home with:

– The Mediterranean is 0.8% of the global ocean surface, but it has 30% of the world’s shipping traffic.
– At any moment there are approximately 2000 merchant vessels greater than 100 tons in the Mediterranean.
– 200,000 of these behemoths cross the Mediterranean each year.

And in the western Mediterranean, the very conditions that make the region so attractive to whales and dolphins and the entire ecosystem that supports them, give rise to the greatest concentration of merchant vessels.

DSCI0311The Strait of Gibraltar is 14km (7.7 nautical miles) wide and in 2003 (the most recent data I could find), 61,000 merchant vessels of more than 100 tons transited the Strait. That’s 167 ships every day, or 7 ships every hour of every day. There are also regular ferries between Ceuta and Algeciras on the Mediterranean side and Tangier and Tarifa on the Atlantic side.

Crossing the Strait is like crossing a busy street. The Traffic Separation Scheme keeps east-bound vessels to a two-mile southern corridor and west-bound vessels to a two-mile northern corridor, with a half-mile separator zone in between.

The mind-boggling scale of the shipping through the Strait of Gibraltar is fuelled, in part, by our insatiable desire in Europe for outsourced consumables produced in China, India, Indonesia and elsewhere. The large box-like container vessels, carrying all that stuff we’re so addicted to buying, make their way through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean and out to the Strait, before turning north to the ports of northern Europe. Julian and I imagined the objects aboard these massive vessels – everything from clothes to computers, batteries to bicycles, Happy Meal toys to sex toys.

Who’d want to be a leviathan amidst these behemoths? 26% of dead whales found stranded on Mediterranean beaches show evidence of having been struck by vessels. And many dead whales never reach shore. The large and relatively slow-moving fin whales are particularly vulnerable as they are unable to turn quickly enough to avoid collision with fast-moving ships. A soft-fleshed living creature is always going to fare second best in a collision with a 100-ton hunk of metal.

Cetaceans, of course, communicate using highly sophisticated calls and songs, cheeps and squeaks. Their communication is drowned out by the immense water-amplified noise of all those ship engines. How do whales and dolphins continue to communicate in such conditions? There is scientific evidence that cetacean strandings sometimes result from confusion due to noise pollution, and there is other scientific evidence that some species have significantly altered the frequency of their vocalisations in order to be heard through the noise.

Spanish and Moroccan governments have taken steps to manage shipping through the Strait to minimise the impact on cetaceans. Starting in 2007, from April to August each year, when the whale population is at its greatest due to migrating species, there is a 13-knot speed limit in the Traffic Separation Scheme, in order to reduce the likelihood of fatal collisions.

Julian and I had forgotten about the seasonal speed limit (it doesn’t affect us, as Carina rarely makes more than 7.5 knots), and at first were confused by the slow progress of the vessels we encountered on the crossing. Were individual vessels going in front or behind us? Did we need to alter course? Once we remembered the speed limit, the crossing became easier and slightly less fraught with trepidation.

Despite the great populations of whales in the Strait, we sadly didn’t see even one. But two days later, as we sailed northwest from Barbate towards the Spanish-Portuguese border, I caught a glimpse of the unmistakable sleek black dorsal fin of a female orca. She was swimming towards the tuna nets, following a meal of red tuna. She appeared once again, a little farther astern and I was ecstatic to have my first ever, albeit brief, sighting of an orca. I hoped she would fare alright if her journey took her to the Strait of Gibraltar.

(Some of the information in this post comes from Vaes and Druon‘s 2013 report published by the European Commission)