An attachment to stuff – part I

It’s amazing how quickly we can devalue our material possessions, so that they become virtually meaningless to us, devoid of the emotional connection we once felt for them. Four years ago, when Julian and I were in the process of ridding ourselves of so many of our material possessions, we often faced tough choices about what to keep and what to get rid of. I like to say we rid ourselves of 90% of our belongings, but the truth is I don’t actually know.

We lived in a sizable house with a big garden shed and an outhouse. We owned a car. Julian had an office at work and, later, when we swapped roles, I had an office at work. Our possessions were spread amongst all those places. By the end of summer 2011 we had downsized from a three-bedroom house to a two-bedroom flat and by June 2012 we had moved aboard Carina and sold the car. With each move we downsized, ridding ourselves of more and more stuff – at car boot sales, on eBay and Freecycle and to charity shops. The first summer we lived aboard Carina we had far too much stuff and when we moved aboard for the second time in early summer 2013, we brought far less on board. We culled even more for the final and permanent move aboard in spring 2014. These days the sum of our worldly possessions fit aboard Carina, with an overflow of about twenty boxes in my father-in-law’s loft and a few items stored in cupboards at my mother-in-law’s house. It’s not a lot.

Yet in the past couple of weeks Julian and I have been de-cluttering even more. We’ve been sorting through the boxes in my father-in-law’s loft and have amassed another pile of items that we no longer desire to keep. Some things, such as a potty, children’s clothes, blinds for a car window, are no longer necessary. But other items are things we had previously put into storage because we had some emotional connection to them, but now we can’t remember what that emotional connection was. So we’ve sifted and culled and made a pile in one corner of the loft to take to a car boot sale in the next few weeks. Anything we don’t manage to sell we’ll take to a charity shop.

There are still many things that we love – gifts and books and photos to which we have a deep emotional connection – for now. That connection might fade over time.

This culling makes me realise how little we need in order to be happy and to find contentment, and how transient are our attachments to things, compared to our deep connections to the people who gave us those things. Our happiness does not reside in this material stuff and our lives are not diminished by not having that stuff in our lives. On the contrary, our lives are free of material clutter. I have moved nineteen times in the past twenty-five years. When I think back on all the packing and unpacking that accompanied many of those moves and all the stuff that only ever saw the light of day when it was moving from one house to another, I realise how much time, effort and money I squandered.

Our lives are not diminished by owning one corkscrew instead of four, one set of cutlery instead of three, one rolling pin instead of two. Our deep affection for family and friends is not diminished by not having in our possession the photo frames, candle holders and wind chimes they have given us over the years. We don’t need that stuff and in ridding ourselves of it we have lightened our load and can walk our path through life more freely and less encumbered.

These days we take greater care of the few possessions we do have and we treasure the few precious objects from loved ones that we have chosen to keep or the few objects that remind us of particular times or places in our lives. We have kept those because they are beautiful or quirky or unique objects, and we have kept a small selection of household items in case we one day want to move back into a house. But the less we have the less we need. And the less we need the less we want. And that feels good.

So, how would you de-clutter your life for the better? And what would you do with your unwanted stuff?

The wild city

More than a year of living aboard our boat and we’re predisposed to seek out the wild side of the city. I’m not talking about clubs and bars, but caterpillars and blackbirds. Julian’s and my curiosity about the world around us has rubbed off on Lily and Katie, and we all get very excited about the wildlife we encounter – everything from megafauna in the shape of orcas and dolphins to tiny ants marching away with our dropped crumbs. We’re just as excited about finding animal signs – the muddy footprints of an otter on the riverbank, the discarded shell of a growing crab, an abandoned bird’s nest.

Back in England for the summer, we find ourselves in Midlands suburbia where, despite the tarmac-ing and bricking over some gardens to create extra car parking space and to brighten up gardens with plants that are hostile or unwelcoming to British wildlife, there are signs aplenty of nature in the city.

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People looking through their front windows must wonder at the sight of a woman and two little girls, pointing excitedly at a plant or a brick wall, or staring intently at a tree trunk. You see, we’re finding exciting, amazing wild life everywhere we go in the city and the little creatures we find are no less exciting than the dolphins and loggerhead turtles we’ve encountered farther afield.

Grandma’s small back garden is home to frogs, newts and ants. The ants, in turn, attract a vivid green woodpecker. A squirrel also visits the garden, scuttling along the wooden fence and jumping into the tree branches at the end of the garden. One day Lily spotted an unusual bird in Grandma’s garden and when she described it to Granddad he immediately identified it as an ouzel (and confirmed his guess by checking his bird book). From Grandma’s window we regularly see wood pigeons, magpies and blackbirds and Lily’s been using the binoculars to take a closer look.

Grand-dad’s garden hosts wood pigeons, collared doves and sparrows. A few days ago Lily and Katie excitedly called me out to see what they thought was a butterfly. It was a species none of us had ever seen before, vivid red with black edging. I suspected it was a moth rather than a butterfly and, later that day, while visiting Ryton Country Park, I spoke to a lepidopterist who confirmed it was a cinabar moth. This species is on the decline as people eradicate from their gardens the ragwort upon which the caterpillars feed. Grand-dad has plenty of ragwort in his garden!

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Alone, with the girls or with my mother-in-law, I take long walks around suburban and urban Leamington Spa. If you pay attention, you see that life abounds. On three separate occasions we have found the egg shells of hatched wood pigeons. The girls are delighted with their finds, and treasure them like priceless diamonds (until they inevitably get smashed by being treasured a little too much!). There are robins and thrushes, bluebells and foxgloves, bumblebees and spiders carving out their own niches in this suburban landscape.

One day, as Lily and I walked into town, we began to notice a pattern to the activities of bumblebees. Certain gardens and patches of grass were abuzz with lively bees, while others were empty. The bees were attracted to clover covered lawns and to the flowers of certain plants. We don’t know much about the likes and loves of bumblebees, so it’s time to carry out some research and try to learn more.

We’ve been watching the behaviour of a pair of blackbirds on a piece of scrubland near a busy road in Coventry. We suspect they have a nest and each day we walk past we look around for fledglings. So far, we’ve only seen the busy parents.

We’ve been spending a lot of time in parks and gardens managed by local authorities, and these are wonderful places to get up close to ducks, geese, water hens and squirrels. But there is something even more special about encountering animals in gardens, hedgerows and on the sides of suburban streets. Even in places seemingly devoid of nature, life finds a way and carries on.

Reunited

After three weeks alone aboard Carina, Julian motored a few miles downriver. Other live aboards in Alcoutim and Sanlucar suggested leaving Carina on a mooring buoy near a small hamlet of . So down the river Julian and Carina went, hoping to find the man who owns the mooring buoys and hoping to that he would be open to Carina remaining on a mooring buoy for an indefinite period of time.

Not only did the owner of the moorings agree to take Carina for as long as is necessary, he also helped Julian with the lines and made sure everything was ship shape before Julian’s departure. Julian’s journey back to the UK began with rowing the dinghy ashore for a very early morning bus journey to Vila Real. The owner of the moorings kindly offered to return the dinghy to Carina, bring it on board, deflate it, and stow it safely until our return.

The amount he’s charging us for all of this wonderful service is laughably low – and has taken a huge financial weight off our shoulders. We had worried about the possibility of finding ourselves out of pocket having to pay summer marina fees, but the price of mooring on the river for an entire month is the equivalent to about five nights in a marina!!

And we are all (apart from Carina sweltering in the southern European sun) reunited in the English Midlands. It looks like we’ll be here until some time around mid-August. While I await a referral to a specialist, my GP thinks I might need an operation – but it’s nothing life threatening, so chances are I will be on a six month waiting list. So, at the end of summer we plan to return to the Ria Guadiana and home to Carina.

My blogs might be a little less regular over the next couple of months as I focus on completing some writing projects, and as I look forward to returning home to the river in time for autumn.

Out and about education

One of the myths about home education is that it happens at home. People sometimes think it’s just like school but, instead of a classroom, kids sit at the kitchen table all day doing school work. One concern people often have about home education (and people seem to have lots of concerns!) is that home schooled children lack opportunities for socialisation. Of course the parents of home educated children (at least those I’ve encountered) spend a good deal of time planning and organising opportunities for their children to socialise with a great variety of people of all ages and backgrounds.

Home education is a misnomer. Home is just one of the places where children learn, and home educated kids spend a great deal of time away from home. Maybe some kids sit at the table all day sticking to a strict curriculum, but for the most part, home educators follow a very different educational model. Like many of the home educators we have met or have read about, our pedagogy is one of learning by doing. So, in any given week, Lily and Katie probably spend no more than three hours sitting down at a table engaged in ‘formal’ learning. Three hours per week! It might not seem like a lot (it’s not!) but the only things I want them to do in that time is learn some basic maths, reading and writing. Lily’s mastered reading and she enjoys writing independently, so we really only do maths with her now; and we’re still working on the basics of all three skills with Katie. And we’ve all been studying a little Spanish recently.

The rest of their time at home is spent playing and doing whatever they want. What they want to do might be reading, writing, drawing, building, creating, researching (online or from books), imagining, inventing, etc. We might all be involved in a project – sewing, baking, making, etc. Or they might be helping with chores – dishwashing, laundry, cleaning the boat, tidying, etc.

But a lot of our time is spent away from home. The girls help with everyday activities such as shopping and banking and they participate in decisions about what to buy, and so on. Our walks in the countryside are opportunities to learn about plants and animals, and in towns we seek out museums, art galleries, and (free or inexpensive) activities of all sorts.

Now that we’re back in the UK for a (hopefully short) while, I’ve been finding interesting and educational activities for all three of us to get involved in. (Blowing another home education myth – that the parent is the teacher – out of the water. In our pedagogic model, we all learn together, irrespective of age). Right now we’re dividing our time between my father-in-law in Coventry and my mother-in-law in Leamington Spa. Before coming here a few weeks ago I didn’t know either city very well, because I’ve always blindly followed Julian around when we’ve come on short visits and I’ve never had any reason to check out the education potentials. So, from the first day I got back I’ve been discovering a bounty of resources to keep us busy and engaged with the community around us.

On our second day in Coventry, we joined the local library in Stoke. We’re each allowed to borrow 20 books at a time (although I limit it to 5, because I’m certainly not going to carry 60 books up and down the street every couple of weeks!!). But book-borrowing is only one resource the library offers. There are days when we go to simply sit and read quietly in the large children’s section, which also has some art resources. Twice a week Katie and I go to Rhyme Time, for under 5s. Following half an hour of singing nursery rhymes the big play boxes come out and Katie and the other children play together while I sit with the other mums chatting and drinking the complementary coffee! On Saturdays, Lily joins us for an hour of Story Time followed by a craft activity, aimed at 4-11 year olds.

We walked from my father-in-law’s house into Coventry city centre on our first weekend and discovered a resource that we can’t get enough of. The Herbert Museum is one of the most child friendly museums I’ve been to, putting even the RAMM in Exeter in the shade! Right now it is hosting a fantastically joyful exhibition on the history of children’s television, with lots of interactive displays – the girls have dressed up as Scooby Doo, Daleks, Princess Sofia and Robin Hood; they’ve played with famous TV hand puppets and they’ve watched the TV shows Granddad and Dad watched as lads! (UK children’s TV is alien to me. I grew up with Wanderly Wagon, Anything Goes and Bosco!)

But this exhibition is merely the icing on the cake of an otherwise excellent museum. Each gallery has activities that include children and help to bring the exhibits alive. The Old Masters room has a dress-up box for dressing up like the people depicted in the paintings. Last week Lily dressed up as and posed beside King George III. The Lady Godiva exhibit has a story-room attached, where myths and legends from around the world are presented in books and on an interactive screen. There are costumes for dressing up and Lady Godiva-inspired art to do. In the sculpture gallery the children can make their own sculptures using large foam blocks and there are large coffee table books about art and sculpture that children are welcome to sit and browse through. In the Elements gallery we’ve done brass rubbings, touched narwhal tusks, crystals and a variety of exotic seashells, and listened to birdsong. Each gallery is similarly welcoming to children and it will be a long time yet before we exhaust the possibilities of the Herbert Museum.

I was keen to meet other home educating families in the area and get involved in activities, so I joined a couple of home education Facebook groups. They’ve provided a wealth of ideas for activities in the area. The one we have immediately become involved in is a weekly informal gathering of home educating families in FarGo on Far Gosford Street in Coventry. The gathering is hosted at Allsorts, a magical place, run by a wonderful woman called Margaret, where children (and adults) can indulge in all sorts of arts and crafts, or simply play. The first week the girls made and played with play dough, made block prints, and got to hang out and play with other home educated children ranging in age from 11 months to 12 years old! And I got to hang out with other mums and shoot the breeze for a few hours.

Going to Allsorts for the first time, I discovered my new favourite place in Coventry – FarGo. This old industrial estate has been converted into a site of pop-up shops, second hand shops, shops selling up-cycled, recycled, new, old, organic, and sustainable products. There’s coffee a-plenty, and space for meeting with friends, relaxing and reading, in a very child-friendly space. It’s Shoreditch in the Midlands. My favourite place, apart from Allsorts that is, is The Big Comfy Bookshop – a second hand community bookshop that serves refreshments and some devilishly delicious-looking cakes. Once a month it runs Sheroes, which celebrates female heroes from history; it has poetry readings and music sessions; and I think I need a grandparent to look after the kids so I can take Julian there one night!

Granddad has taken us twice to Ryton Pools and Wood midway between Coventry and Leamington. It’s on the site of an old quarry that has been landscaped and turned into a country park. There’s a huge and exciting adventure playground, a sensory garden, a small but very informative information centre and walks around pools filled with ducks, geese and moor hens. The first day we went, Granddad took us off the beaten track into the woods, to show us where his dad used to hunt pheasants. The woods were carpeted with bluebells and we found badger setts and evidence of muntjac. Our only regret was that we hadn’t come earlier in the day, because we could have happily spent hours playing in the woods.

In Leamington Spa, we’ve discovered the rather formally landscaped Jephson Gardens
which Lily in particular loves because of its profusion of squirrels, bumblebees, pigeons, ducks and Canada geese. She insisted on bringing a notebook the second time we went and decided to survey the wildlife. She made a list of all the animals she had seen in the Gardens previously and then each time she encountered one she put a tick beside it! Watching Springwatch before going to bed every night seems to have made an impression on her. Jephson Gardens also has a sensory garden and The Glasshouse, a hothouse featuring exotic plant species from around the world. Lily was particularly intrigued by the method of pest control used on The Glasshouse – using tiny trichogramma wasps to keep the population of pantry moth caterpillars down. I tell you, the kid’s a naturalist in the making. No, strike that. The kid is a naturalist.

Across the road from Jephson Gardens are the Royal Pumprooms which house a museum and art gallery and an excellent library where we have whiled away the hours reading and doing research.

Besides all of these we have uncovered an endless round of free music concerts in the parks of Leamington, Warwick and Coventry; we’ve been to one parish fête so far, where the girls played games and won prizes, and we’re on the lookout for more fêtes, agricultural shows, open gardens, summer festivals and anything else that takes our fancy over the next few weeks.

We have our quiet, stay-at-home days too. We pitched the tent and camped in Granddad’s garden for two nights, and the girls have been learning to ride bikes, play basketball and badminton at Grandma’s house. They’ve sown cress with Granddad and chard, courgettes and lettuce with Grandma, and they’ve been caring for their plants. It was with great excitement that they added their own home-grown cress to the sandwiches last week!

Given the to-ing and fro-ing at the moment, it’s difficult to develop a routine. But what I have is a diary full of alternative activities, with dates for one-off events and on-going activities, and no matter where we find ourselves, we can always pop along to something or other to meet interesting people, discover something new, a learn a little more about life in the Midlands.

The half full glass

Once the decision to return to the UK was made and the flights booked, things started to take on a more positive hue. I guess it’s part of who we are and the life we lead. Julian and I usually (though not always) see the positive side of the choices we make. Almost immediately we began to see the possibilities inherent in spending some time back in the UK.

For Lily and Katie it’s an opportunity to spend time with their grandparents and other family members; for me an opportunity to more easily deal not only with my health concerns but with sorting out taxes and getting a new passport for Katie. Without us on board Julian can plan some more extensive maintenance jobs, enjoy long hikes through the Spanish and Portuguese countryside, and devote more time to Spanish study.

I could choose to see my lack of a computer or regular internet access as (a) barriers to my work, or (b) opportunities to develop new writing projects. Without internet access I won’t be distracted by emails, Facebook, Twitter and the blogs I love to read. And while having a computer is vital to the editing and redrafting of ongoing writing projects, all I need to start something new are old fashioned low-tech pencil and paper. I can plan and sketch and write first drafts to my heart’s content and when computer and internet access come my way I can transcribe and undertake the necessary background research, post blogs and pitch ideas to newspaper and magazine editors.

We have decided to commit to the Rio Guadiana for at least the next six months and I decided a trip back to the UK, which may last weeks or months, can also be an opportunity to work on our Spanish language, to acquire resources – a better dictionary, language resources for the children, etc – so we can study and improve, even while we are in the very heart of England.

The truth is, I want to be on the Guadiana. I want to see Lily and Katie playing with their quickly made friends from Spain, Portugal, Poland and elsewhere – both live aboard and local kids; I want to see them swimming in the river every day, foraging for wild food, helping to tie up the dinghy on the pontoon, and developing their independence as they run small errands in the safety of the tiny villages. I want to be on the Guadiana for myself too. Julian’s there, for a start, and life without Julian isn’t half as much fun. Carina is my home and I’ll miss being at home, in my own place, surrounded by my own stuff. And I’m a country girl, not a city girl. I’ll miss the birdsong, the blissful silence, the fresh air, the lack of urban noise and busyness.

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to feel sorry about going back to the UK for a short while. It will be a productive time, filled with opportunities for reconnecting with family, for creativity and for learning. And a time to banish those health worries that have been causing me too many sleepless nights of late.

Kick! Kick! Keep going!

A year ago, in the crystal clear waters of Enseada de San Francisco in Ria de Muros, Galicia, Lily swam for the first time. She lifted her legs from the sandy sea bed and splashed and kicked and stayed afloat for two seconds. ‘Just one more time’, she said, and tried again, all afternoon trying and trying again ‘Just one more time’, so that by the end of the afternoon she was swimming for four or five seconds at a time and covering five metres.

But, like everything children learn, her swimming didn’t progress in a smooth linear fashion. There were days when she didn’t want to swim. There were days when she grew frustrated by her attempts and simply couldn’t swim. There were days when she preferred to paddle around with the support of a rubber ring or foam noodle. And there were days when she swam beautifully, making clear progress, wanting to succeed, working hard to push herself to do better. She’s done it all herself. I never intervene or push her. I offer advice and (physical) support when it’s requested. When it comes to swimming, I’m more interested in instilling a love of swimming and playing in water. I hope they learn from the example I set. I sometimes exaggerate my own swimming movements, so they can see the mechanics. But when we are in the water it’s play time. And through play comes learning.

Since Lily’s first tentative but determined strokes in July last year, she can now swim a width of a pool. I don’t know when she figured that out. After watching dolphins one day last year in Ria de Arousa, both girls decided they wanted to swim like dolphins. Katie put her head underwater for the first time (something she now rejoices in) and Lily attempted to emulate the movement of a dolphin – arms by her sides, legs together, face down, moving her whole body through the water. Though she lacks the grace of a dolphin, she now has the confidence to put her head under and swim a short distance. Few things make my heart swell more than the sight of the two of them resurfacing, glistening in the sunshine, water cascading off their little golden bodies, and big grins on their faces.

So Lily’s swimming improved, in an unsystematic and semi-linear sort of way. In early May the girls and I were in the outdoor pool at the youth hostel in Alcoutim (where you can use the pool for free while your laundry is in the washing machine!). Katie had the foam noodle and insisted I provide no help as she slipped in from the side, swam a noodle-assisted width, climbed out and repeated. Lily gingerly climbed in, swimming the occasional width and playing while holding on to the side of the pool. I was on high alert as, at most shallow part of the pool, both girls were still well out of their depth.

After a while, a little boy came along. He was about Lily’s age, but a much stronger swimmer and he could dive properly. I watched Lily watch him. He dove, he leaped and splashed, throwing himself far out into the middle of the pool, disappearing below the surface, resurfacing and swimming to the side.

Lily’s tentative climbing in vanished almost immediately as she tried to copy the boy or outdo him – I’m not sure which. She leaped in, disappeared below the surface, reappeared, swam to the side, climbed out and repeated. Over and over she did this, clearly exulting in this new form of water play. And then she did something else she had never done before. She figured out how to swim on her back. Two new swimming skills in one morning. I was amazed and Lily was delighted.

Later that day and the next we went to the river beach at Alcoutim. With no poolside from which to jump in, Lily used me as a platform, standing on my thighs and leaping in as I crouched in the water. On the second day a boy of about twelve came along. Again, I watched Lily watch him. He dove down, head first, into the water, doing handstands on the sandy river bed. Lily tried and tried but lacked the forward thrust to propel herself downwards. She asked for my help and I assisted by positioning her legs upwards as she went down. It only took a few assisted dives for her to get the hang of it and to touch the river bed.

And what of Katie? Well, here’s the thing. With her usual aversion to any instruction from Julian or me, Katie’s been unwilling to take any friendly advice when it’s offered. She’ll kick her legs but refuses to move her arms. Julian brought the noodle to the beach one day and she discovered the movement potentials of simultaneously moving her arms and legs.

Then it happened. A day after Lily made those dramatic advances in her swimming skills, she decided she was going to teach Katie how to swim. She actually said it: ‘Kate, I’m going to teach you how to swim’. I wasn’t swimming on this particular day, but sitting under an umbrella on the beach, reading and writing. Katie readily agreed to the swimming lesson.

Lily began by holding Katie’s hands, instructing Katie to lift her legs and kick, while Lily walked backwards. ‘Kick, kick’, Lily instructed. ‘Don’t stop’. Both were taking their roles very seriously and there was none of the usual boisterous playfulness. When she thought Katie was ready to use her arms (a couple of minutes later), Lily showed her the proper way to hold her hands, fingers together, hands slightly scooped (Lily herself usually swims fingers splayed and hands flat!). She showed Katie the required arm movements and told Katie to try. ‘Keep going, good girl’, sounded familiar to my ears! The instruction carried on far longer than if Julian or I had attempted it. In a very short space of time Katie was swimming. I couldn’t believe it.

They both called for me to watch (of course I’d been watching over the top of my book all along) and when Katie swam five metres, she stood and gave me two thumbs up. Later, when they came out of the water to dry off, Lily said, ‘Kate, tomorrow I’ll teach you to swim on your back’, a skill Lily herself had discovered 24 hours earlier.

Julian missed out on these days of swimming, so I enjoyed watching his surprise when he next came swimming and discovered that both girls could now swim and Lily had mastered diving and swimming on her back.

Like virtually every aspect of their home educated lives, the girls learn far more through play than through formal instruction. They learn at their own pace and when they are ready. At 4 and 6 years old, I care far more about cultivating their enthusiasm and passion, whether that’s for swimming or the natural world or reading or maths. Learning from and with each other and from and with other children and adults through play and encounter is our path to lifelong passion and desire for learning.

‘Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood’ – Fred Rogers.

‘For a small child there is no division between playing and learning; between the things he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational’. The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play’ – Penelope Leach.

Green living

by Julian

Modern consumerism and its effects on the world’s oceans has been mentioned in recent blog posts by Martina (Leviathan and Behemoth and Picking through the plastic). A lot of energy is required to power our convenience filled lifestyles – energy mostly supplied by the increasingly more complicated and risky extraction of fossil fuels. The ever growing quantity of carbon in our atmosphere has been demonstrated, by scientific methods which show a characteristic isotope fingerprint, to be partly a result of the burning of fossil fuels. The related warming of the planet produces even more atmospheric carbon. It looks like we have tipped the balance and are warming the planet at a faster rate over the last half century than at any time in the past few millennia (this is shown by methods such as Arctic and Antarctic ice core studies). As a former geophysicist and glaciologist, who has worked with climate and ice core scientists, and published academic papers on the topic, I have some insight into this and am not glibly stating stuff presented in the mass media.

I have always been conscious of the need to save energy and resources but I have rarely acted on this with any serious effort. However, I have started thinking about how our current lifestyle onboard Carina has caused us to adapt in ways that seriously curtail our use of non-renewable energy and resources. Being at anchor and living on a tight budget forces us to do this.

Here are some of the ways we have minimised our non-renewable resource use:

We have an 80W solar panel. Summer in southern Europe provides plenty of sunlight, but our panel is not sufficient to run our fridge, charge our computer and run the domestic and navigation lighting. We have to be selective about our electricity use. The fridge was the first thing to go. We don’t need it. Instead, we buy small quantities of fresh food every day and use the fridge as a storage space.

As our light bulbs and fittings failed I started to replace them with LEDs. Now all our main domestic lighting uses LEDs and this has cut electricity for lighting to less than 20% of previous use without cutting down on light. In fact, in some cabins we now have better light than before. The latest technology in LEDs has fast created a whole array of options from harsh white light to softer light and bulbs are produced for all sorts of DC light fittings.

Last year Martina and I decided to trade in our four-stroke Yamaha outboard motor for a small two-stroke Mariner, partly because the Yamaha was becoming unreliable and partly because Martina could barely lift it, so getting it from Carina into the dinghy was a nightmare. An advantage of the trade in that I hadn’t considered is how little fuel a 2-stroke engine uses. Motoring twice or even three times a day between Carina and the shore, often against a strong current, and with four people aboard the dinghy, a 5-litre can of petrol lasts two weeks.

Next comes water use. At anchor we have to conserve water and we switch from electric water pump to foot pump, which minimises our consumption. It’s amazing how little water you actually need to brush your teeth, cook food or wash the dishes. Another revelation this year has been digging out the old solar shower. We can enjoy a good hot shower in the cockpit using very little water, heated directly from the sun. Sometimes the water gets too hot so we have to be careful! We also handwash our laundry, which is not too onerous if doing a little every couple of days and the clothes dry well in the spring/summer heat.

I have started to forage again. Unfortunately, we arrived on the river too late for the spinach and asparagus seasons, but I just caught the wild fennel and there is a lot of mint and rosemary planted around the towns. The grass near the beach at Sanlucar is overrun by mint and Martina says it makes great tea. I have collected oranges and lemons from the odd stray tree, neglected and not on anybody’s land. (A lot of land around the river is fenced off – people seem to like their oranges to rot on the ground rather than people being able to collect them). I am looking forward to the profusion of figs and plums ripening, and I hope the olives, almonds and grapes will follow.

Needless to say this is a mere drop in the ocean of the sort of  reduction in consumption that we all need to do. Even environmentally conscious people such as ourselves have only taken these steps because of our circumstances rather than out of a conscious drive.

But I am pleased by our efforts that benefit both the planet and our bank balance. Sailing (rather than motoring) nearly all the way here from the Mediteranean, even passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, against the normally prevailing current, pleased me a lot. I certainly felt good about not having an expensive fill up with diesel when we got here.

The important thing is that we don’t miss the conveniences, really we don’t! Life is simple and enjoyable. Life can be pretty good without a fridge, even in the summer heat. There’s a great river to swim in, great walks along the river bank, food for free, and healthy fresh air to breathe. I’d give up my fridge for that any day.

Back to Blighty

My dreams of river paradise have ended – for now. The health issues I only half dealt with and then tried to ignore at the end of last year have returned, or, given that they never went away, have intensified, causing me sleepless worry-filled nights. After a couple of tear-filled days of indecision, I have decided to leave Julian and the boat on the river while the girls and I fly back to the UK. We are all hoping it will be only for a few weeks, but depending on what’s actually wrong with me, it may take longer.

The flight is booked – one way, because I don’t know when we will come back. Once I have a clearer idea of how long I need to be away, Julian will either come join us or await our imminent return.

We weighed up the alternatives. Should I try the Spanish or Portuguese health service? Should Julian come with us immediately? Should we sail Carina back to the UK? None of the options, including the one we’ve settled on, is ideal. But I had to come to some decision.

My experiences of Spanish health care last year were pretty awful. I blogged about the episodes I could laugh at afterwards, but I had another experience that I won’t blog about, because I’m still too angry and shaken. Maybe all those experiences were sheer bad luck on my part, or maybe Almería has particularly poor patient care, but I don’t want to go down that road again. The fact remains that I don’t speak Spanish and the thought of dealing not only with doctors, but with receptionists, nurses, radiologists and all the other health professionals I might encounter fills me with stress. I was greatly distressed the last time because I didn’t understand what tests I was being sent for, why those tests were taking place, or what the actual procedures would be when I showed up.

I’m the kind of patient who likes talking to the people who take care of me. I like to talk about why and how they are doing whatever it is they are doing to me, I like talking about the weather, I like sharing a joke. Stressing about what might be wrong with me is bad enough, so I’ve decided I don’t want to have the added stress of health care in a language I don’t understand.

I am very lucky and privileged to be able to return to the UK, where I can have free and top class health care, at the hands of health care workers who speak my language, and in a health care system whose workings I am familiar with.

We considered the possibility of all four of us flying back immediately, but the stress of thinking about flights and finding a secure place to keep Carina was all too much. So Julian is staying put, carrying on with his onboard maintenance work, hopefully having more time to devote to his Spanish study, and more time to go for long walks along the river and in the hills. There’s a good community of sailors here, so I’m not worried about him lacking companionship. Staying put also gives him the time to investigate the best and cheapest options for Carina, if she needs to stay here without us longer term. Julian’s staying is also psychological, reminding all of us that we won’t be away for long.

The truth is, though, that I probably will be away for some time. I will register with a GP the first morning I get back, but by the time I arrange a first GP’s appointment, get sent for tests, await the results, I am unlikely to be in the UK for less than a month.

We considered sailing Carina back to Plymouth, but that would take time and we would then be committing to spending the winter in the UK or environs and we would have to start out on our voyage all over again. We may return in a year or two to the UK to work and refill our bank account, but if we do that it will be planned well in advance, and not something done quickly so that I can see a doctor.

So as I pack our bags and prepare to spend a few weeks or longer with Julian’s parents in the UK Midlands, I am a bundle of mixed emotions. I am happy for Lily and Katie and for their grandparents that they will get to spend time together, but I am sad that the girls’ summer of swimming every day in the river, travelling everywhere by dinghy, and foraging for wild food is potentially over. I am relieved to be finally seeking an answer to the strange goings on in my abdomen, but sad to be leaving a place that I find so life-affirming and inspirational. And it goes without saying that I am sad at the thought of leaving Julian behind for an indeterminate period of time, but at least I can smile at photos of his seven-year old self on display at his mum’s house!

So goodbye Rio Guadiana. Let’s hope it won’t be too long until we are reunited.

River anchorage

I’ve written about life at anchor before but each time the experience is different because each anchorage is different. We’ve anchored in calm bays and behind islands, in deserted seas alongside empty golden beaches and amidst crowded moorings. This time we’re in the middle of a fast flowing river, with river banks on either side only 75 metres or less away. Even 22 miles from the sea, the Rio Guadiana is esturine and all day every day the river flows fast downstream on the ebb tide and fast upstream on the flood tide. Carina swings on her chain facing downriver or upriver, in line with the current.

Carina in the middle of the river

Carina in the middle of the river

Our days have some semblance of routine. I get up at 6.20 or 7.20 (I aim for the former, but often the reality is the latter) and write until the girls wake up. Or I leave at 8.30, take the dinghy to Alcoutim to spend a few hours writing and carrying out online research at the library. Some mornings Julian or I go ashore for an early morning walk, some mornings we all go ashore, for a picnic, to run errands or to play.

At some point most mornings either Julian or I do an hour of lessons with the girls – right now Lily’s working on addition with carrying, subtraction and multiplication and on report writing and Katie’s working on reading, recognising numbers in the teens and simple addition. Apart from that all other learning happens organically, in fits and starts, when inspiration knocks on the door. Many of our trips ashore focus on the world around us. Yesterday, for example, we talked about the life cycles of ants, bees and butterflies, we examined the capillary networks of a dead cactus, we examined the roots of a pine tree and talked about the differences between coniferous and deciduous trees.

Any laborious work needs to be accomplished before the day gets too hot. I do small amounts of laundry every three or four days – two small bucketsful of hand washing, and anything that doesn’t fit into those two buckets goes back into the laundry bag for the next laundry day. I use water from a large jerry can refilled whenever we go ashore. I wash and rinse, sitting on the foredeck, the buckets at my feet. In this hot weather, clothes dry on the guard rails in less than two hours and have to be brought in before they dry to boards or bleach in the sun.

This year, for the first time, we have started to use the solar shower that was on board when we bought Carina. This ingenious devise has transformed our lives at anchor. It is simple and highly effective. It is a rubber bag, black on one side, transparent on the other. It holds about 8 litres of water, and has a plastic tap and hose at one end, so when it is hung up on the boom, it works like a shower. We lay it on the foredeck, the black surface facing the sun, and after three hours we have piping hot water. We use this to wash dishes, to shower the girls in the cockpit twice a week (they LOVE their solar shower), and with all modesty and decorum long gone and not caring who might be strolling on deserted rural paths above the river banks, I too shower in the cockpit a couple of times a week. It’s bliss.

We spend most afternoons onboard, shaded from the scorching sun. We try to get the girls to relax, but it’s tough. We encourage them to play quietly with Lego or Play Mobile or jigsaws, or, at the moment, we’ve got a couple of sewing projects on the go – dresses for their dolls and a handbag. We all need to conserve our energy during the hottest part of the day. By 4.30 or 5 we are ready to go out again, and we board the dinghy for Alcoutim bound for the river beach. In mid-May Katie finally got the hang of swimming, and Lily has progressed in a few short weeks from the doggy paddling of last year to proper swimming, swimming on her back, underwater swimming, and diving down to touch the river bed. Julian and I are agog at how suddenly and quickly their swimming skills have developed with no input from us! (I noticed Lily’s improvements came from observing older boys in the water, and she copied them). After a couple of hours on the beach we might join other live aboards for a cold drink at the bar by the beach, returning home around 7.30 to make dinner.

At night, after we’ve eaten dinner in the cockpit, we watch the stars come out one by one, Lily and Katie each eager to spot the first star. By the time we are all ready for bed the sky is awash with stars, the sky clear and bright and unpolluted by artificial light. We’re all in bed by 11pm.

We live at anchor without a fridge, as we rely on one 80 watt solar panel for all our energy requirements. Life without a fridge is no burden. We simply shop for small amounts of fresh food more often at the small shops in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim (for Edenderry readers, think Tommy Lowry’s back in the 1970s!). We use UHT milk which, when once opened, even in the heat of summer, will last a day and a half. Butter melts quickly and we’ll probably soon give up on it and resort to olive oil to moisten our bread.

Each time we go ashore we top up our water supply – in small bottles, the large jerry can, and the solar shower. The longer we can eke out the water supply in our tank, the longer we can stay away from the pontoon. Inevitably, though, after about two weeks (we could probably last a bit longer) we spend two days and one night on the pontoon at Alcoutim, to refill our water tank. We have mains electricity when we are on the pontoon, so it’s an opportunity for the girls to watch some of their favourite DVDs and, if we’re on a stretch of the pontoon with good Wifi access, I might watch some TV shows late at night. And then we’re back on the hook, finding a different spot on the river each time.

It’s a slow and mellow way of life, lived to the rhythms of the river. We come on and off anchor and on and off the pontoon at slack water; we watch for the best times to set out on the river in the dinghy; and we keep an eye on what the wind and tide are doing to us – watching Carina’s distance to other anchored boats and to the river bank, and making sure our anchor chain doesn’t become entangled in the tree trunks and big branches that regularly float along on the current.

It’s not a bad way to experience the world.

Breakfast picnic

I get up at 7am, make tea and start to pack. Four bowls, four spoons, four cups, cornflakes, fruit juice, milk, bananas, oranges. Lily wakes and asks if I’ve remembered our plans for this morning. I tell her I’m packed and ready to go. Julian and I are waiting for her and Katie to wake up and get dressed. Lily chooses her clothes and dresses and I gently wake Katie. ‘Breakfast picnic’ I whisper in her ear. She opens her eyes and slowly sits up. I dress her, knowing that if I leave her to do it herself we will still be on the boat half an hour from now.

Ten minutes later we are all in the dinghy, motoring through the still early morning river to the pontoon at Alcoutim. We walk back along the river until we are level with Carina, and climb the steep hill up to the old ruined castle built on a promontory overlooking Spain. Lily, Katie and I have been to the castle before and since that first exploration the girls have longed to show it to Dad.

IMG_20150514_112208The ruins are divided into forty or more tiny separate rooms, only low walls remaining. It’s the perfect place for playing any game involving knights and princesses and soldiers. The ground is flat and covered in tough grasses at the highest point with a view south over the river that is worth its weight in gold. A huge white washed Spanish fortress sits on a terraced hill across the river, with the village of Sanlucar at the foot of the hill and its old sail-driven windmills on a small hill beyond. The river disappears around a bend and gentle hills stretch to the horizon.

I pour juice into four cups and cornflakes into four bowls and even we world-weary adults are delighted by the novelty of a breakfast picnic. After breakfast, while Julian and I remain at the highest point of the ruin, relaxing, soaking up the view, enjoying the cooling breeze, the girls go exploring. Eventually the girls lure Julian away from the laptop, where he is writing a blog post, and into their game of hide and seek, and I am left alone at the top. Occasionally I hear a shout of ‘Found you’ or ‘Where are you?’ or someone calls me and waves up from their hiding place.

What a nice location for an office!

What a nice location for an office!

Despite the breeze on the hilltop we know that all too soon it will be too hot for the walk back to the village and to our dinghy, so we pack up, make our way down the hill, and find a sheltered spot to relax before an evening swim in the river.