Silver linings

It’s been a great week, a glorious week, down here at the cabin in the woods. After a few days of slate grey skies, the sun made a reappearance and suddenly it felt like spring. The children had a four day weekend, I had no weekend English classes, and we relaxed like it was going out of fashion. We sat on the dock in the sunshine, gathered vegetables from our neighbours vegetable patch (they invited us to), and had some visitors over. I wrote a blog post, ready to publish today, all about the sensory beauty of the place – sun on the river, bees in the almond blossoms, the heady aroma of orange blossom. And then this morning happened, and I realised there’s far greater comedy value in mishap and disaster than in everything running smoothly.

It’s Saturday morning so, although the girls and I get a lie-in, I still get up at 8.30 so I have a reasonably leisurely two hours before I teach English in the village. It rained steadily yesterday and through the night and when I get up I realise I need to give myself extra time because we will all have to dress in our wet weather gear for the thirty-minute walk into town. Julian has work as usual, which starts half an hour before my English lesson, so we’re both getting ready at the same time.

We’ve been living on borrowed time for the past week as far as our gas bottles are concerned. The cabin uses butane for two purposes – to heat the shower water and for the two-ring counter-top cooking hob. The two 26.5 litres aluminium bottles have been getting lighter and lighter with each passing day, and it’s been taking longer to boil the kettle – a sure sign we’re low on gas.

Aboard Carina we use gas (from smaller bottles) for our hob, grill and oven. We have three bottles, each of which gives us about a month’s worth of gas for cooking. When two bottles are empty we take them to the hardware store and replace them, so we always have spares and never run out of gas. Our Bohemian friend doesn’t have spares.

I thought the bottle servicing the shower seemed the lighter of the two and I planned that when it ran out I would replace it with the bottle from the kitchen and get a new one for the kitchen (cooking being more of a necessity than showering!). It was unlikely that both would run out of gas at the same time. And yet, this morning, as Julian and I start getting ready for our respective jobs – showers for us, the morning cups of tea we can’t live without, breakfast for everyone – this is exactly what happens.

‘I’ll take the first shower’, I say to Julian, who is on the phone to one of his parents. I strip off, turn on the shower and wait for the water to take its usual 30 or 40 seconds to heat up. The time goes by, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, a minute, and the water remains freezing cold. ‘Julian’, I call. ‘We’re out of gas.’ He immediately jumps into action, temporarily (as he thinks) bringing the kitchen bottle outside so we can both have hot showers before then bringing it back inside so I can make breakfast. (I have to say, it is one of those mornings when I need to shop, so the breakfast choices are limited – eggy bread, porridge or pancakes – all requiring cooking).

With the kitchen bottle now attached to the shower I try the water again. Still it won’t warm up. ‘Julian’, I cry again, and again he jumps to action. ‘You need to light the pilot light’. He calls for me to bring him a box of matches, so with a towel wrapped around me I go outside into the mud-covered garden (it’s been raining all night, remember, and is still raining). We both peer at the pilot light and cannot figure out how it works or where to light it. I traipse back into the bedroom, muddy-footed, giving up on a shower, while Julian returns the gas bottle to the kitchen. I haven’t had a shower in two days, and I’m teaching English. I can’t stand having a cold shower when I’m already feeling pretty chilly. I still have the key to the shower block by the Sanlúcar pontoon, so I’ll pack my towel and shower gel and shower there. Julian can do the same at the public showers in Alcoutím.

I quickly get dressed and tell the girls to get dressed, then set about making breakfast. Nothing happens when I try to light the ring under the kettle. ‘Julian’, I call, and he comes running, getting increasingly exasperated with me (and who can blame him). ‘You haven’t connected the bottle properly’. He removes it and reattaches it, correctly this time. He lights the ring, it fizzles sadly for a second or two and dies. It turns out this bottle is empty too.

So here are my problems. I need a shower. I need breakfast. I need to get the empty gas bottles upriver to Sanlúcar so I can replace them for new ones. It is 9.30 and the river is currently on flood – flowing upriver – but in less than half an hour the tide will turn and I will have the current against me. I haven’t yet figured out how to use the outboard on our friend’s dinghy, so I only use his boat to get to or from town when I have the current with me and can row.

‘Girls, we’re going now, NOW’, I yell, as Julian disconnects the gas bottle in the kitchen, carries the two bottles down to the dock and loads them onto the dinghy. It’s drizzling now and we all dress in full wet weather gear. While we set off up towards Sanlúcar in our friend’s dinghy, Julian sets off for Alcoutím in our much smaller rubber dinghy (too small to haul those gas bottles). When he sees my pathetic rowing in the, by now, almost slack water, he turns around and takes the painter (the rope) and tows us upriver, our tiny rubber tender towing the much bigger and heavily laden wooden dinghy we’re in.

Well, that’s the worst part over, I tell myself, as I tie up on the pontoon and head off to take a shower. Clean and more calm, I walk with the girls to the Chiringuito for coffee, hot chocolate and toast with jam. The Chiringuito is also where I have my lesson (I teach one of the bar staff) and where I can replace the gas bottles. I tell Fran, the head barman, that I want to replace two gas bottles and he informs me that the Chiringuito doesn’t stock that brand. Cepsa, the brand of bottle I have, is delivered to the village once a week – on Wednesdays – and I won’t be able to replace my bottles until then.

Aaaaahhhhhhhhh. What am I to do? Well, right now I cannot do anything, because I have a lesson to teach. While I’m encouraging my wonderful student to tell me all about her recent trip to London, my mind is wandering, wondering how I’ll get around this problem of not being able to get gas until Wednesday. Surely someone in the village will have a spare bottle they can loan me until then. But how do I find out who uses that brand of gas?

By the time my class ends, Steve and Lynne, a lovely English couple who frequent the Chiringuito, have arrived in. I decide to start with them, and ask if they use or know of anyone who uses that gas. ‘Don’t worry luv’, Steve tells me, ‘Lynnie and I will drive to Villablanca and get your bottles replaced’. My saviours! They finish their drinks, and while they walk home to get their car, I bring the empty bottles up from the boat. While Steve and Lynne are in Villablanca I have time to shop for food and bring the girls to their friend’s house, where they are having a pizza and board games party. I arrive back down to the pontoon just as Steve and Lynne’s car pulls up.

I am so thankful to them. ‘Don’t worry. Settle up later luv’, Lynne tells me, as Steve loads the two new bottles into the dinghy. I have the tide with me, so decide to bring them back to the cabin now. With all the rain overnight, the dinghy is already lying low in the water, at least two inches of water in her. Now Steve adds the heavy gas bottles and I add my shopping, and I precariously set off downriver, the boat creaking like it’s never done before, and constantly veering towards the Spanish bank of the river, so that I have to work extra hard to keep her in a straight line.

Once I get back to the dock, I have to haul the bottles out and up to the house. I take one up onto land, go back for the other. Take the first up the steps that lead to the first cabin, go back for the other. Take the first one half way up the garden to a bend in the path, go back for the other. Take the first one to the bathroom, go back for the other and take it to the kitchen. Sweat rolls down my face as I try to attach them. I try the kitchen one first, and realise why Julian had trouble with it this morning. Connecting our gas bottles aboard Carina is so easy (or perhaps we are just used to is) and I curse and struggle and strain to connect this one. I give up and go to the bathroom. This gas bottle is easier to attach and I now understand what I need to do to attach the one in the kitchen. There is also no need to light the pilot light. I test the shower and have hot water in seconds. I return to the kitchen and after a few more attempts manage to connect the nozzle and soon the kettle is boiling and I am making a delicious cup of strong tea.

Then it’s time to walk back into town to collect the girls from their friend’s house. All of this walking and rowing and lugging gas bottles in and out of boats and up steep slopes and gathering and carrying and chopping firewood is like some fitness boot camp. And it has the same results. Since moving in here three weeks ago I’ve dropped a dress size. Clothes that were tight a month ago now fit me, and clothes that fit me a month ago are now loose. And that is certainly a silver lining to this cabin in the woods lifestyle!

Not quite Thoreau

Some weeks ago, a rather Bohemian acquaintance of ours asked if we’d house- and dog-sit for him. Our friend had to go to the UK for medical treatment and anticipated being away for up to a month. ‘Sure’, I nonchalantly agreed, without giving too much (indeed any) thought to the logistics of the thing. I wrote the start date in my diary and thought only of what fun it would be to live for a while in such an idyllic location.

Our friend lives downriver from Sanlúcar on a picturesque piece of land, with the river in front of the property and the Guadiana Way, an old goat track turned hiking trail, behind. There is no road access to the property, so getting to and from town is either a 25-minute walk along the beautiful hiking trail or a 5 to 15 minute dinghy ride (depending on the tide) up the river.

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The old shepherd’s hut transformed into kitchen, bedroom and bathroom

Being an artist, a musician and somewhat of a free spirit, our friend’s plans for departure were loose and ever-changing. I walked down the goat track on Monday, the day before we were due to move in, so he could show me what I needed to know to take care of and live in the place – where, when and how to feed the dog, how to check and replace the battery acid in the batteries connected to the solar panels, how to use the water pump and washing machine. It was a bright sunny morning and the place was filled with possibility – the orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit, the almond tress just coming into blossom, the opportunities for the girls to have a new place for adventures, and the inspiration I would soak up for the new magazine article I was about to start writing.

The dog, Chester the Chicken Molester, a little Jack Russelly type thing, wasn’t there when I visited. He’d gone to town in search of Claudia, the 19-year old bitch with whom he is in love and who falls over every time Chester, or any other dog, mounts her (she’s such a stalwart). His owner didn’t seem too concerned at Chester’s absence, and said it was a regular occurrence.

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Chester enduring the shower cap Katie dressed him up in.

By the time I was ready to leave, our friend had decided he wouldn’t now depart until Wednesday. That was fine by me, as we planned on moving Carina off her berth on the pontoon and onto anchor in the river in front of the house on Wednesday, Julian’s day off. On Tuesday night our friend postponed his departure yet again, this time until Friday. Whenever I mentioned our plans to friends, they rolled their eyes and told me how sorry they felt for me, given our friend’s free-spirited approach to life, the dog’s fondness for Claudia and the fact that heavy rain was forecast for the next four days.

On Wednesday we moved Carina downriver, and on Thursday night, as the girls and I crossed the Guadiana from Sanlúcar to Alcoutim in the dinghy after dark, to collect Julian from work, who should we meet crossing in the other direction but our friend and his dog. ‘I have to go right now’, he told me, and explained the unforeseen circumstances that meant he had to leave right this minute, in the pitch dark. I took it all in my stride, and after some convoluted manoeuvres, our friend was on the Sanlúcar side of the river, and the four of us, with Chester the Chicken Molester, our dinghy and our friend’s boat, on the Alcoutim side of the river.

By now it was 8pm and we faced the prospect of our first night in a house we had never stayed in before. Now, bear in mind, our friend is a Bohemian, an artist, a musician, so the things many of the rest of us take for granted just don’t enter our friend’s (often up in the clouds) head. He and I have, ahem, somewhat different standards of hygiene, and I am somewhat more partial to artificial lighting than he is.

We rowed downriver on the ebb, me, the girls and Chester in our friend’s boat, and Julian in our dinghy. Before going ashore we stopped off at Carina so I could quickly pick up some food for dinner and breakfast, our toothbrushes and a few other bits and pieces to see us through the night and next morning. Once ashore, we stumbled up the rickety landing stage and up the dirt path, to the part of the house where we intended to spend the night. The wood burning stove was alight in the bedroom, so at least we had a warm place to sleep.

‘What an adventure’ I tried to tell myself, as I set about making supper in a poorly provisioned and decidedly messy kitchen, my heart sinking when I realised I had forgotten to bring teabags from the boat. There was nowhere for Julian to sleep, so once he had seen us settled in, he returned to Carina for the night.

Our friend had told me of the snake that lives in the rafters in the kitchen and I imagined all the creepies and crawlies and rodents that might be lurking in this indoors/outdoors house, and was thankful to have the girls with me so I could put on fake bravery. I was also glad of Chester. Chester slept on the end of the bed for the night and when he woke me up at 7.20 next morning whining to be let out, I knew it was time to get up, despite the impenetrable darkness that made it feel as though it was still the middle of the night.

I quickly got dressed and went outside to go to the kitchen, which is situated in a different building to the bedroom. Chester was gone! I walked the girls to school along the trail and found Chester sitting outside the house of his lady love. I brought him home and spent the morning cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom and rowing over to Carina to pick up more provisions (TEA!). At some point mid-morning Chester was sitting in the sun, dozing. Five minute later, he was gone. Grrrr. Back in along the trail I walked to collect the girls from school and to once again retrieve Chester from outside the house of his girlfriend.

Just as school ended, the rain started. For the rest of the weekend it rained and rained and rained, torrentially and Biblically at times, with thunder rumbling and lightning lighting up the sky. The joys of living in the wilds were suddenly not so obvious. All weekend I struggled to keep my cool, at times losing my temper with the kids, when really I was losing my temper with this house, its owner and its love-struck dog.

On Friday afternoon I set about cleaning the bedroom and bathroom and getting the fire in the stove going again. Now, I grew up in a house with three turf fires, so lighting fires is no problem to me…usually. It’s only a problem when there are no implements, instruments or tools for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. On top of everything else, it was raining and what wood there was, was lying down on the landing stage, soaking wet. ‘I hate this. I want to go home to Carina’, I grumbled, as I fumbled around in the dark bedroom (in the middle of the day with the light on) trying to find my head torch which I had mislaid the night before. (Oh the irony of losing my head torch in the dark).

But necessity, of course, is the mother of all invention, and by Saturday evening I had improvised methods for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, and (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. I sent the girls off in their raincoats and rubber boots to find firewood and they came back with bundles of damp branches and twigs, which we dried out in front of the now-lit fires.

Julian remained on the boat on Friday night, as I still hadn’t sorted out sleeping accommodation for him. While the girls and I slept a bit squished in the bedroom, I planned to put Julian in the artist’s studio, 50 yards away on the other side of the plot of land. The studio was filthy and dusty, so Saturday was spent changing bedding on the rather comfy bed in there, sweeping and tidying, and transforming the place into a comfy living room come bedroom, where we could all relax and play and eat in front of the wood burning stove.

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The studio – Wendy house by day, Julian’s private domain by night!

On Saturday morning Chester disappeared again as soon as he was let out in the morning (despite, this time, wearing his electric dog collar – it turns out the electric fence doesn’t run all the way around the property and Chester had sniffed out the gaps). Once the studio was ship shape, and during a brief gap in the rain, the girls and I wandered up the trail and into town to once again find Chester sitting outside the house of his love, this time soaked to the skin and looking rather sorry for himself.

That’s it, I said to myself. The electric collar clearly didn’t work, so the next step was to keep Chester on a long lead all the time, unless he was inside one of the buildings on the property. His owner had told me to do so, and has a long rope for the purpose. All was going well on Sunday morning. We even had some brief moments of sunshine in between the downpours. Lily and Katie played down in the studio – which has its own outside roofed bar and barbecue area – enjoying have their own giant Wendy house to play in. At some point in late morning, Katie felt sorry for poor old Chester on his long lead, and decided to free him so he could come play in the Wendy house (Chester is not a playing sort of dog!). Five minutes later he was gone again, and five minutes after that the heavens opened and it rained torrentially until the early hours of Monday morning. I knew where Chester had gone, and I wasn’t too worried about him, so decided not to go pick him up until Monday morning when I walked the girls to school.

For the rest of Sunday we kept warm in the studio, the girls doing art while I read and wrote, and then carried a big pot of stew down from the kitchen which stayed warm on the stove. Chester didn’t know what he was missing, and all for what? A girlfriend who puts out for any and every dog who comes her way! Silly Chester!

On Monday morning Chester was, of course, where I expected he would be, feeling sorry for himself, cold and hungry. I brought him home, and he hasn’t been back into town unaccompanied since. The rain eased on Monday and the sun has been out each day since.

It’s been an interesting introduction to life on the land. In our cabin(s) in the woods I have been torn between the romance of Henry Thoreau’s Walden and being really bloody annoyed with the realities of moving into someone else’s home in the rain and cold. I loved the place and five minutes later I hated the place. I was warm and cosy by the fire, or I was wet and dirty trying to light the fire. I had all that I needed and I had nothing that I needed!

That was a week ago, and we’ve nicely settled in now and are enjoying life in our little Walden de Guadiana. We’ve had guests around for supper, we’ve picked oranges, we’ve enjoyed breath-taking star-filled night skies, and Chester and I have developed a grudging fondness for each other! Expect more positive blog posts to follow!

Cancel school?

When I stepped off Carina at five to nine on Thursday morning to walk the girls to school, I thought to myself, ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d think there’s snow in that sky’. The clear sky of the coldest night so far had given way to a warmer morning with flat featureless grey cloud cover.

We were almost at the school gate when it started to snow. I was walking from the direction of the river with my girls, Charo was slightly in front of me with her daughters, her sister Macu was coming from another direction with her son, and Charo’s brother-in-law, Reuben, was getting out of his car with his son and daughter. The realisation that it was snowing hit all four of us simultaneously and we all looked at each other, at the snow and then at our children. ‘¿Está nevando realmente?’ ‘It is really snowing?’ Macu asked. She and her sister, both women in their thirties, hugged each other and laughed like children, and I had a huge and almost painful grin on my face, as we and our children all starting talking at once, exuberant in the presence of such a rare meteorological event.

In the school playground, ten-year old Alejandro ran around, calling out ‘It’s snowing. Cancel school, cancel school’. Parents, teachers and children were all in the playground. Even the 13-year olds, who start school half an hour earlier than everyone else, had abandoned lessons and were outside, the boys self-conscious with their hands dug deep into their trouser pockets, the girls twirling in the snow, laughing and chattering.

Adults and children were enraptured, the children with hands and tongues outstretched to catch snowflakes, gazing at snow on each others’ hair or jackets, laughing as it landed on the bald head of Fran, the music teacher. Parents took photos of their children and themselves, and everyone laughed and talked at once in a frenzy of excitement. Even the self-conscious teenage boys grinned.

The snow lasted all of three minutes. But those were three minutes of sheer abandoned joy in the presence of such an unexpected and rare treat.

A cold and frosty morning

I awoke at around 5am on Sunday morning and couldn’t get back to sleep for the cold. It wasn’t until Lily and Katie climbed into our bed shortly after 8am and I tightly packed them one either side of me, that I warmed up again. When Julian peered outside half an hour later he announced there was frost on the deck. The girls were wildly excited, thinking there was snow, and were mad to get out and play in it. Julian tried to break the news that it wasn’t snow, but Lily said, ‘Ice, frost, sleet – it’s all snow to me’, as she pulled on warm clothes to go play on the pontoon. Good Lord, it was bitter out there. 0˚C in the night and the sun rising behind Sanlúcar’s hills hadn’t yet hit our end of the pontoon.

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A frosty morning for the start of Tom’s big adventure

 

Our Scottish friend Tom came gingerly down the slippery pontoon in his rubber boots. After six years living on his boat here on the river, this morning he was ready to depart on the first leg of a voyage he hopes will ultimately take him to Brazil. ‘Give him some energy balls’, Julian said, as we pulled on sensible shoes to go help him cast off his lines. I passed him a bag of delicious date, oat and coconut balls to see him on his way. By the time he’d slipped the pontoon, his cup of tea was stone cold and he grumblingly threw it overboard. We waved him off, wondering if we’ll ever see him again.

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And he’s away!

The girls stomped through the frost on the pontoon, trying to mark it with their footprints. They dragged their fingers along the deck and scraped up tiny amounts of it. This is as close as they’re likely to get to snow this year.

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As close as they’re likely to get to snow and ice this year!

At 10.30, as I went to teach an English class at the bar by the beach, I suggested they go play on the beach, and see if they could find any traces of frost there. Despite the cold, the frost was rapidly melting now and the beach had nothing to show for it, so they joined me in the bar and ordered two hot chocolates.

The rest of this week is forecast to be just as cold at night and there are rumours uttered in hushed tones that ‘Thursday will be the worst’. Blankets, hot water bottles, hot chocolate and more energy balls at the ready then!

It’s more than food for free

Sturdy walking shoes? Check. Long-sleeved shirt and heavy trousers? Check. Work gloves? Check. Sharp knife? Check. It’s time to go asparagus hunting!

It’s that time of year again, when tender young asparagus shoots are to be found on steep overgrown slopes up and down the river. Julian had a rare Saturday off work yesterday and once the sun had burned through the mist along the river, the four of us set off.

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Lily with the first few shoots

If you think foraging is all about putting free food on your plate, you’re sorely mistaken. Just as Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark and hunting isn’t all about the kill, foraging isn’t all about the end product – food for free. Sure, the wild spinach, alexanders, asparagus, oranges and lemons that have been gracing our table recently have been marvellous to eat. They’re delicious, free of nasty chemicals or additives (or as much as anything in the wild can be), and they cost nothing. But foraging for food is about a whole lot more than the end product.

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Taking a break by the well and orange grove

We set out early yesterday afternoon, walking north along the old goat track on the Spanish side of the river. Our senses were caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape we walked through. We stopped to bathe in the sound of bees buzzing loudly as they gathered nectar from flowering rosemary bushes (one of the few plants flowering at this time of year). Birdsong filled the air. Winter flowers dotted the sides of the trail and the occasional open glade was peppered with the white and yellow chamomile that filled my nose with sweet aroma when I bent down to identify them by scent. Poisonous but colourful mushrooms lined the path, which we stopped often to admire. We picked oranges and drank from a well, and the sun shone from a clear blue January sky and by late afternoon a gibbous moon was already high in the sky to the east.

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Julian ahead on the trail

We walked up hills and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, hearts and breaths racing at the exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks, striding out across hilltops. From the tops of hills we caught occasional glimpses of the river winding its way through the valley below, a brown ribbon through a landscape turned green and lush from December rains.

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A glimpse of the river

Some foraging is easy. Alexanders, spinach and fennel grow along the sides of the path. Gathering them is like picking flowers. Oranges, figs and plums require height and/or ingenuity (memories of gathering apples from the vantage point of Julian’s shoulders in autumn come to mind), and oranges have occasional but nasty thorns to avoid.

Asparagus don’t give themselves up so easily. Around here, the larger and more productive plants are to be found up steep rocky slopes, strewn with thorny bushes. The asparagus plant itself is thorny as hell, and it’s hard to believe that such a delicate shoot (the part we eat), if left to grow, develops into a thorny mass that could well surround Sleeping Beauty’s palace. Hence the need for long sleeves, heavy duty trousers and gloves. To get to the succulent shoots necessitates climbing the slopes, searching through masses of thorns then plunging hands into the middle to cut a single, or at most two, shoots from each plant. It’s hard work, all that scrambling and searching, with a knife in one hand and a few delicate and precious shoots in the other. But it’s fun too, not to mention good exercise. We certainly exert more energy from gathering the asparagus than we gain from eating them.

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Up the hillside he goes

We stopped and searched and gathered along slopes for an hour, gradually making our way to a patch where Julian had been successful last year, where a stream ran through the bottom of the valley. The girls removed their shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs and dipped their tired feet in the chilly water. When I tired of foraging, I sat on the bank of the stream, while Julian carried on foraging and the children ran around, feet and bottoms wet, hands covered in soil, picking chamomile flowers.

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First dip of the year

By the time we got home, three hours after setting out, we were tired and dirty, but with our spirits soaring from all we had seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape.

And then? Steamed asparagus shoots to accompany our roast chicken for supper and and then for breakfast with poached eggs on toast this morning. Food for free? That’s merely the end product.

A simple matter of choice

These days I often find myself giving new arrivals on the river directions to the local shops. Berthed along the pontoon as we are most of the time now, I’m often the first person people meet when they come ashore from their anchorages up and down the river. Many people ask about the shops, and I provide details of opening hours, of which shop is best (in my opinion) for fresh food and which is cheaper for non-perishables. I tell them the whereabouts of the bakery, which is well-disguised as a regular house, and I inform them of other shopping options – Manoli sells produce at her house that she and her husband grow on their land a little down river, Karin does likewise from the back of her van on Friday mornings. I tell them about the Saturday market in Alcoutim, of the fresh eggs from one of the Sanlúcar pubs, the honey man and the cheese man, and the various vans that come through each week, selling bread, fish, meat and vegetables. And I advise them that if what they want isn’t out on display, they should ask for it anyway, and they’ll likely be surprised by what is stored ‘out back’.

Often, I’m the last person people see as they untie their dinghies and return to their yachts. More often than not I find people are disappointed by the lack of choice. ‘They didn’t have mushrooms’, someone will say. ‘I couldn’t buy a whole chicken anywhere’, someone else will moan. ‘Did you ask?’, I ask, knowing the answer will probably be no. Which is understandable, given the language barriers, and that this is unlike the type of shopping we have grown accustomed to, where everything is under the roof of one massive multi-national supermarket.

And I remember my own thoughts about shopping options when I first came here, before I knew about Manoli and the honey man and the cheese man, and the hidden treasures in Reme’s storeroom. I wondered how and when I would manage to get to a ‘proper’ supermarket to buy the things I thought I needed and couldn’t live without.

However, the months went by and when I finally got to one of those supermarkets of my dreams, I was overwhelmed by choice – too much choice – and over time I have come to realise that with the exception of only a few foodstuffs (soy sauce, noodles, peanut butter and hot chillies), the tiny shops and other shopping options in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim provide everything my family needs to enjoy a healthy, varied and interesting diet. And everything is extremely inexpensive to boot.

We have become so used to large supermarkets with their thirty varieties of toothpaste and twenty different brands of natural yogurt, that when we are faced with only three varieties of toothpaste and two of natural yogurt (with or without sugar), we panic. ‘There’s no choice here’, we tell ourselves. ‘How can I possibly be expected to eat and live well if this is all there is on offer’. We believe that two-metre high shelves stretching to infinity offer us a much needed variety. But how much variety is there really? And how much variety do we need? How much time do we spend seeking out the same brand we buy week after week amidst multiple almost identical brands of the same product? And in all the different supermarket chains, the same products are repeated over and over again.

There’s a great freedom in not having to make those choices. I want salted butter? There’s only one brand and size available. I want orange juice? Ditto. I’ve had to make slight adaptations to my cooking and baking to accommodate a lack of certain ingredients, but that’s hardly a challenge.

And what we lack in choice is more than made up for in two ways. First, the vegetables, eggs, honey and often cheese that I buy are locally produced and often produced by the people I know – the very people who are selling them to me. 100% organic, zero food miles, zero packaging. It’s an environmentalist’s dream come true. Second, when an unexpected ingredient suddenly appears, I make hay while the sun shines and we enjoy a treat. Last Friday, for example, Helen had fresh lemon grass, bright green limes and red shallots in the back of her van. I can’t remember the last time I saw lemon grass, and I have never seen or smelled it as fresh as this. And the limes and shallots were heavenly. Yippee, I thought to myself, Thai green chicken curry tonight, and we enjoyed a meal that, back in the UK we had taken to eating so regularly it had started to become humdrum. On Friday evening it was a wonderful and unexpected delight.

Julian and I have written and published before about simple living, about striving to simplify our lives by removing unnecessary clutter and opting for a lifestyle that treads lightly on the Earth. In being supermarket free, the little villages on the Rio Guadiana have given us the gift of simplifying our shopping choices. We no longer spend time driving or taking public transport to out-of-town supermarkets, of comparing and contrasting, checking minute differences between products, standing in check-out queues with trolleys full of groceries. These days we shop little and often, and if there are no mushrooms or broccoli or minced beef to be had, then we compromise and improvise and look forward to getting them on another day.

 

New autumn beginnings

With little warning, autumn arrives. Not like the other seasons, winter gradually giving way to spring, spring to summer. Autumn arrives unannounced. I wake up one morning and my feet are cold on the wooden floor, my bare arms goose-bumpy, and I need to increase the water temperature of the shower.

I take out the weather boards at 7.30am. It’s still dark and stars glitter in the sky. Carina’s cockpit and deck are moist with fat droplets of condensation and the dinghy is flaccid from the overnight drop in temperature. There’s a chill in the air, and a distinct smell of the changing seasons. I make a school snack for the girls and drink a cup of strong hot tea. At 8am I call the girls, woolly jumpers ready to slip on over their heads as soon as they sit up in bed, so they can eat their breakfast in the dark. For the first time in six months I dress them in leggings and long-sleeved tops, socks and trainers.

We have to cross the river to get to school this week. While the girls brush their teeth and get into their life jackets I put air in the dinghy and wipe away the condensation to keep our bums dry for the journey.

It’s light now, but the sun is hidden behind the hills on the far side of Sanlúcar. I row across the river, pockets of mist clinging to the river’s surface, the river looking deceptively calm, despite the speed of the flood current. All is utterly calm and still, only the bleating of a herd of sheep punctures the silence.

Autumn has arrived, there’s no doubt about it. It is a season for new beginnings and new projects. A season for putting into action all the dreams that were dreamed during the long lazy days of summer. Maybe going back to school is engraved on my subconscious, with its memories of covering new school books in wallpaper and the possibilities and promise of pristine copybooks.

The new season, having arrived so unexpectedly, carries me along on a wave of optimism. Gone are the energy-sapping days of summer. Now is the season for action, for projects, for list-making and busyness. Welcome Autumn, it’s good to have you back!

Wildlife haven

At dusk on Saturday evening the first badger arrived. Confident, showing little caution, it trotted up the garden to the double patio doors. Steve had thrown a mix of apples, dry dog food and bread on the patio, and the badger started to eat. Exhibiting far more caution than the badger, the girls and I moved from the sofa where we’d been sitting, inching our way closer to the patio doors, hoping we wouldn’t scare the badger away. We were halfway across the living room when another badger arrived. The two seemed oblivious to us and we sat on the floor, our faces pressed against the glass doors, the badgers less than metre away.

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They were smaller than I thought they would be. But then, I had only ever seen one live badger before – a brief glimpse late one night about seven years ago, when I caught a foraging badger in the headlights of my car as I turned into our driveway in Cambridgeshire. Apart from that one brief encounter, I had only ever seen live badgers on television and dead ones on the side of the road or stuffed and mounted.

Lily’s and Katie’s granddad and I tried to impress on the girls what a rare and special experience this was. While I had seen one live badger in 43 years, Barry had never seen one in 68 years. ‘Remember this moment’, we told the girls. ‘You might never have this privilege again’.

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By the end of that first evening we counted four individuals, identifiable by their differences in size and markings. One, a rather scruffy looking soul, was missing both ears and had a scratch on this nose; another was bigger than all the others.

Up close the black stripes from their eyes back over the tops of their heads are in sharp contrast to their otherwise grey and white bodies. They have terrible eyesight and even when looking straight at us humans on the other side of the glass, I could tell by their eyes that they couldn’t really see us. They were quick to respond to sound though, their long heads rising frequently from the food to look around at the slightest sound. They had very long nails on their feet, which they use to dig their setts. We sat there, listening to them munching on the food, and I felt awed and privileged to be there.

This was the first night of our week long holiday in rural Pembrokeshire, in south Wales. I had booked this particular house because there was so little else available and because it boasted badgers at dusk in the garden. Little did we realise what a wildlife haven it would be.

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The next morning, as I made my first cup of tea, my father-in-law came in from the garden and urged me to come outside. He wanted to show me something. He had taken his cup of tea and his pipe to a secluded area of the garden with wooden garden furniture. Walking through the gap he’d come upon a huge pheasant standing on the table. The pheasant was unmoved by Barry’s presence, and continued standing on the table even when the two of us came close.

That evening, after Barry and Katie had gone to bed, Lily and I sat watching television. There were two badgers on the patio and I caught a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. A fox. Over the next four nights I watched, transfixed, as the fox and badgers vied for the food on the patio. There were five badgers in all, and some evenings all five were together on the patio. The fox, far more skittish, and with better eyesight than the badgers, was more wary of movement inside the house. Sitting quietly close to the patio doors, I waited each evening for the fox to come trotting up the garden. Although the badgers came at dusk, the fox waited until darkness had fallen. If there were no badgers around, the fox came directly to the food. Sure enough, a badger or two would arrive and chase the fox away, and over the next hour or more the fox would come, the badgers would chase it away, the fox would come again. I thoroughly enjoyed this soap opera in the back garden.

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All day we enjoyed rabbits on the lawns, and each day followed the progress of a family of sparrows nesting in the eaves of the house, the parents bringing food to their noisy and large chicks. We hoped they would fledge while we were there, but they probably preferred the cosiness of their nest to the drizzly conditions of south Wales.

Steve and Serena, the owners of Swallows Rest Cottage, where we stayed for the week, have made their property a haven for wildlife. An acre and a half of their garden is a wildflower meadow, alive with butterflies and bees, crisscrossed with the tracks of the many animals that move through it each day and night. No plastic eaves for them – their wooden eaves are friendly to nesting birds, and the hedgerows all around their property are home to all sorts of wildlife. Each evening they put out a little food, thus attracting two badger setts and some young foxes. They take a neighbourly attitude towards the wildlife in their garden – welcoming it, making it feel at home, helping it out and not infringing on the way it lives its life.

My surreal cosmopolitan life!

Last week I received an email from the press office at Exeter University. I’m still an honorary research fellow at the Geography Department there, and the press office had received a request from The Conversation asking for someone to comment on a recent controversy about polar bear trophy hunting. I have written numerous academic and popular articles* about polar bear hunting over the years, as this is the focus of much of my anthropological research in the Canadian Arctic, so the press office asked if I could write a 600-800 word response to this particular polar bear news story.

I duly wrote the article, working directly with the environmental editor of The Conversation and the article was published on Wednesday morning. It got a good reaction, was widely read and shared on social media and I got mostly positive comments for the approach I had taken.

So, if an Irish woman living on the Spanish-Portuguese border writing about polar bear hunting in the Canadian Arctic isn’t weird enough, the surreal nature of my cosmopolitan life really hit home on Friday afternoon.

There I was, sitting in a bar in Sanlúcar, having a drink with British, Northern Irish and Brazilian friends, while my husband was at work in Portugal and my daughters were off watching a movie with their Spanish friends.

I resisted having a third glass of wine and I’m glad I did. When my friends left, I stayed on at the bar, ordered a Coke and turned on my laptop to check my emails. I had a Facebook message from my friend and Inuk sister, who is a journalist working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) North in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She had read my polar bear article and asked if she could interview me for the evening news. I said I’d have to see, and I’d get back to her in half an hour.

You see, my thirteen year old Nokia mobile phone is not up to receiving phone calls from Canada or anywhere else outside of Europe and the Skype connection at CBC in Iqaluit isn’t reliable. How could we do this? And then inspiration struck. I would go in search of my Dutch friends, who live in a house with a land line.

I paid for my Coke and set off up through Sanlúcar, serendipitously bumping into one of my Dutch friends on the way. He walked me back to his house and set me up with his phone and Wifi; I turned on my laptop, sent a message containing the phone number and awaited a phone call from Iqaluit.

Five minutes later I find myself, an Irish woman in a Dutch house in a Spanish village, on the phone to my Inuk sister in Nunavut, who is interviewing me about my thoughts on polar bear hunting for a television and radio station which focuses on Inuit and other indigenous Arctic Canada news  !

I may own a thirteen year old phone, but I think I’ve become hyper-globalised!!

*My academic articles are available on request via the blog’s Contact page, and my popular articles can be found in the Publications page of this blog.

Rain revisited

In my last blog post I detailed my rainy day woes. It was written slightly tongue in cheek it must be said. My gripes about a few days of wet weather hide a deeper concern for the inhabitants of this part of Spain and Portugal. It’s not raining enough.

Everyone I met during that week of rain, while at first bemoaning the immediate and short-term inconvenience and discomfort brought about by these few days of heavy rain, was quick to point out how badly rain was needed. As live aboards, we have enjoyed a relatively rain free winter here on the Rio Guadiana. It rained for a couple of weeks in late October, but was dry again by the time we returned in early November. And there hasn’t been much rain since – the odd shower here and there; a few bad days after Christmas; the occasional drizzly day since.

The rain that fell last week was the first prolonged and consistent rain in a very long time. And even then it only barely penetrated the hard packed dried out soil. Unusually, the dam seven miles upstream from here has not had to release any water from the reservoir behind it this spring, and to look at the reservoir downstream that serves Vila Real, it’s easy to see why. A line runs all around the massive reservoir, the contrasting colours above and below marking the land above the water line and land that’s usually submerged below the water line. Each time I take the bus over the reservoir on my way to Vila Real, there is strikingly less water in the reservoir and more land is exposed. While this could be expected in late summer, it’s worth remembering that it’s only April.

Here in the hot sunny southwest of Europe, culture and economy rely on rain. Like everywhere in the world, we humans and our neighbour animals and plants need water. Without it, things quickly start to go wrong.

Here on the banks of the river farmers who make their livelihoods from olive, almond, orange and lemon trees, from vines and cork, and from rearing sheep and goats, are feeling the pinch of the lack of rain. Even those lucky enough to own land that runs right down to the riverbank suffer the cost of irrigating their land with river water and the added worry that the drier this estuarine river gets, the saltier it grows with each inundation of seawater on the flood tide (in wet years the volume of fresh water more effectively flushes out the seawater). For those with land away from the river, irrigation becomes a burden often too expensive to carry.

And in a region that relies so heavily on water intensive tourism (all those golf courses and hotels with swimming pools on the Algarve and Andalucian coasts) the financial cost of a drought is sorely felt, and everyone suffers from the need to keep those enterprises up and running.

I’m writing this on Earth Day (April 22nd) and I’m acutely aware of the geographical injustices of climate change. The small land owners here in southern Iberia are not responsible for the drought. They are not responsible for climate change. The long term land owners whose families have been on the land for generations and the newcomers seeking a simpler, back-to-basics way of life farm the land lightly, relying on manual labour rather than fossil-fuel intensive machinery, extensive cultivation rather than fossil-fuel reliant intensive farming, and a local chain of supply and demand rather than the larger carbon footprint of long distance markets. Yet, as with indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic and of low-lying Pacific islands, small scale local farmers all over the world bear the brunt of a changing climate of which they have had little or no part in making.

The short term effect of a week’s deluge has been an explosion of colour on the hillsides as wildflowers bloom; grass that a couple of weeks ago was at knee height now towers above my head; and vegetable patches are thriving. But now that the rain has gone again and hot dry weather has resumed I think of the families who have lived on the Guadiana for hundreds of years, people whose ancestors were Romans and Moors, families who have been on the land for so long it feels like forever. I think of the aquifers depleted of water, the land drying out year upon year and, like many millions of others around the world, people unjustly paying the price for a changing climate.