Up the creek

We walked along the cracked pavement towards the beach, Lily and I whispering conspiratorially about Katie’s upcoming birthday and the dinner I planned to surprise Julian with when we got home. Katie and Julian were a few paces ahead, Katie turning around every so often to inform me of the dinner plans of her imaginary friends – apparently, they were flying in from Invisible Land to join us for dinner. As we got closer to the beach, Lily asked if we could stay and play for a while. But I said no. The beach was dirty, covered in bits of plastic and broken glass and the scrubland we were walking through was heavily littered. I didn’t like the feel of the place. ‘Sometime tomorrow we’ll go back to that little beach where we swam yesterday’, I promised. The previous day we’d taken the dinghy ashore and spent a few hours on a beach closer to the mouth of the Rio Guadiana. The beach we were now walking towards was close to the marina and industrial part of Ayamonte.

When we reached the beach, Julian and I dropped our backpacks and bag of groceries and told the girls to play (‘watch out for broken glass’) while we put the dinghy in the water. Three hours earlier we had motored the dinghy ashore onto this seemingly deserted grubby beach. Julian had taken the outboard motor off and carried it up to some scrubby bushes 25 metres away. We then carried the dinghy up and placed it on top of the outboard. The marina in Ayamonte doesn’t welcome dinghies, so if you want to go ashore from an anchorage, the only option from south of town is to pull up onto a beach.

The girls ran down the beach and we walked to the dinghy. Julian was the first to notice something was wrong. The dinghy was there alright, but the girls’ lifejackets were gone, as were the dinghy’s oars, row-locks, air pump, water pump and the big black rubber tub that we store things in to keep dry in our perpetually leaking dinghy. ‘And the outboard?’ I asked, dreading to see what might no longer be under the dinghy. Relief! The outboard at least was where we had left it. The thief probably hadn’t realised it was there.

We were crestfallen, our buoyant mood as we walked back from a couple of hours in Ayamonte completely gone. We told the girls and they couldn’t understand why someone would steal our stuff. Quite honestly, neither could we. Faded frayed children’s lifejackets, and foot pump on its last legs, a leaky water pump with the handle missing, and a rubber tub that cost €3 in the Chinese shop (but which I had retrieved from a skip earlier in the year). Only the old Zodiac oars and relatively new row-locks might be worth something. All together, the thief probably got away with second hand stuff with a value of about €20.

But for us, that old, worn stuff had far more than monetary value. Two life jackets that give us peace of mind when travelling by dinghy with Lily and Katie; an air pump that is used every single day to inflate the dinghy’s leaky chambers; a water pump to keep ahead of the constant leaks of water onto the dinghy floor; oars and row-locks for safety and peace of mind in the event that our outboard fails; and an old rubber tub to keep laptops, backpacks, shoes, food and everything else dry as we move between Carina and land. All that old stuff was priceless to us. For the sake of €20 worth of stuff we were now left with a big headache and the prospect of a big hole in our never-very-healthy bank account.

We returned to Carina despondent, all hunger vanished, and the desire to make a special meal now the last thing I wanted to do. Julian and I started to evaluate what had been stolen and to weigh up options for the days and weeks ahead. We had a spare water pump aboard Carina (a brand new one we had found once in a public shower block, in a bag marked ‘Free – take what you want’), so that wasn’t a problem. But without oars or the means to inflate the dinghy, we could not go ashore. There would be no trip to the beach for the girls the next day, and the rest of our week downriver at anchor now took on an entirely new complexion. The girls’ lifejackets would cost €40 to replace at the chandler in Vila Real. Our foot pump had been on its last legs and it would probably only been a matter of weeks before we needed to invest in a new one anyway.

We have been in need of a new dinghy for some time now, and our latest attempts at repairs a few weeks ago ended in failure. Perhaps the thief, marching away with our oars over his shoulder, had forced our hand. Maybe this was the push we needed to invest in that new dinghy.

We considered what to do over the next 24 to 48 hours. Out came the almanac and the pilot book. Should we head east out of the river to the marina at Isla Cristina, reported to have a good and relatively inexpensive chandlery, where were could potentially purchase a new dinghy (where the money would come from for the new dinghy was anyone’s guess). Or should we head back upriver and get on the pontoon in Sanlúcar from where we could investigate, plan and choose the most cost-effective and worthwhile course of action – a new dinghy, a second-hand one, or some other option.

After talking late into the night (over that dinner that eventually got made) and sleeping on the problem, the next morning we chose a different course of action. We weren’t going to let this ruin our little downriver holiday – the first time we’ve all been together for any period of time in over a year. So we motored a little upriver to a pontoon north of the bridge. The pontoon is free of charge, but has no facilities. Still, it would allow us to enjoy a few more days away without having to worry about how we would get ashore and would give us time to consider how best to reorganise our finances to cope with this sudden and unexpected expense.

Though I’m still feeling despondent and am concerned about money, by the time we went to bed that night we could chuckle at our dilemma, and over the last few days a clearer path to resolving this problem has become clear. While we’re now up shit creek without a paddle, some guy’s wandering the scrub out there with everything he needs to go boating …except a boat!

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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!

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.

 

April blues, May joys

April blues, May joys

April was an emotionally difficult month for me and Julian, as we tried to figure out what we wanted to do and what we could afford to do. The girls have been getting on so well at school and their Spanish has been improving in leaps and bounds, we were loathe to pull them out of school after only seven or eight months. Another year of Spanish immersion would do wonders for their (and our) language skills.

While Julian at times finds life on the river a little too quiet, I love it. I’m suffering from the Guadiana Gloop – that strange condition that afflicts visitors to the river who intend to leave after a couple of days or weeks, but twenty years later find themselves still here!

Our big problem, of course, is money. Julian hasn’t worked since the end of October and, despite my best efforts, the last time I earned any money from writing was in mid-October. (A few articles have been accepted for publication, but I won’t get paid until they’re actually published). Since then we’ve been eating into our dwindling savings and, although life on the river is incredibly inexpensive, we certainly can’t live on air.

So we faced an uncertain future. It looked increasingly like we couldn’t afford to stay another year and we were strongly considering taking the girls out of school at the start of May, and sailing back to the UK where we were confident at least one of us could get a job that would allow us to accumulate enough savings to finance sailing farther afield in a few years time. We even discussed the possibility of selling Carina.

And while neither of us is against setting that particular plan in motion, we both had misgivings about doing it right now. I’m not ready to leave the Guadiana just yet, and Julian’s not ready to take the girls out of school and their Spanish immersion.

Throughout April we both felt the stress of the decision we would soon have to make. I decided to look for work teaching English, and if I hadn’t found a job by the end of April, we would set sail for the UK in mid-May.

There aren’t many jobs in these tiny villages, so I started researching and contacting language schools in towns and cities up to an hour away. I also made posters in Spanish and Portuguese, advertising my services as an English teacher, and posted them in public places in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim. And I applied for an online academic editing job.

For a couple of weeks nothing much happened. On a rainy Tuesday morning I had a job interview at an English academy in a town 30 minutes away. I won’t know the outcome of that interview until July.

Then the enquiries about English classes started trickling in. I had nowhere to hold my classes, so I went to see the mayor and he generously gave me use of a small room in one of Sanlúcar’s public buildings. Right now I have six classes a week, teaching both adults and children. While the majority of my students pay me the old-fashioned way, in money, one student pays me in vegetables and fruit grown on her land, and fresh eggs from her hens!

Then I landed the online editing job and got my first assignment. Time will tell how regular this job is, but I’m hopeful and I enjoy doing work that puts my academic skills to use.

For three days Julian worked on another yacht, repairing the electrics and installing a fridge. He was paid handsomely for his work and that made us both feel very positive.

A few days later he arrived home to announce he’d been offered a job at a bar/restaurant in Alcoutim. He hadn’t even been looking for a job, but on a whim casually asked the bar owner if he was looking for staff. Two days after asking that question he started his first shift and he’s now working full-time from now until October!

What a relief. I feel 20kg lighter! From the blues of indecision and uncertainty in April, we have started May feeling the joy of knowing we are now earning enough money to stay here on the river for another school year.

I was never worried about earning money. I knew that if we had to we could return to the UK and find jobs. It was that period of not knowing whether we would stay on the Guadiana that got me down. I was sad at the prospect of going before I felt ready to leave.

And all of a sudden things have fallen into place. Julian has a temporary full-time job and I have two part-time jobs that I can fit around the children; I have my writing – some of which I know will earn me money in the coming months; and I am awaiting the outcome of that job interview.

We can now make plans for more than a week or two in advance; we can plan our summer and autumn. The girls can look forward to another year in school in Sanlúcar and we can all return to enjoying life without the stress and worries of how our short-term future will pan out.

Orange grove

On the spur of the moment we walk north on the Spanish side of the river, along the old goat track now marked for walkers. It is a walk we have both done before, alone, together, with the children, walking just for walking’s sake or walking to visit friends who live upriver.

The path is uneven, at times laid down with rough stones, meandering up and down the hills that line the river, steep rock walls on one side, the land falling sharply away to the river on the other. It is a warm morning and soon I stop to remove my fleece top and tie it around my waist. We walk fast, stretching out our legs, our heart rates quickening, uphill climbs rendering us breathless, sweat on our brows and trickling down our backs. By the time we cross the dry creek we are thirsty from our exertions.

Up the other side of the creek we climb over the sheep fence to get back on the trail. The old whitewashed well stands in front of a grove of orange trees. The trees are heavy with fruit and the ground is littered with fallen oranges. The air is heady with the rich fragrance of the white orange blossoms.

I reach for the metal bucket sitting on top of the well and lower it by its thick rope into the water, watching it fall into the dark pool below. I pull the bucket up, half full of water. We cup our hands and slake our thirst on the delicious cool clear water. Water runs down our chins, wetting our t-shirts and wrists. We laugh at the satisfaction and joy we feel from this simple and timeless act.

Julian plucks an orange from the tree, rips it open and gives me half. Despite its small size and the number of pips inside, it is unbelievably sweet and juicy. We each pluck one more, two, three, gorging on the juicy flesh of these spectacular fruits. My chin is sticky, and my hands and wrists. I eat six oranges, one straight after the other, feeling wild and alive.

We wash our hands and faces in the water from the bucket, take another draught, and carry on walking, our connection to the land somehow stronger for its having fed us and quenched our thirst.

Fun foraging

We love foraging! It’s fun, it’s energetic and when we get home we have some good food to eat (well, usually!). I know Julian, who has written before about his foraging exploits, would agree with me when I say there is a great sense of pride and achievement when we prepare and eat food we’ve gathered ourselves. We both grew up far removed from hunting, fishing, gathering and foraging our food, so for us it’s still quite novel.

In late November, Julian tried his hand at preserving olives, with great success. The innumerable wild olive trees that grow hereabouts were heavy with olives – large green ones on some trees, small black ones on others. Seeking advice from fellow foraging live aboards, and observing the locals harvesting tons of them from their cultivated trees, Julian opted for the green ones. Some suggested it would take eleven months for the hard, bitter-tasting fruit to be transformed in brine into soft tasty edible olives. Others said the process could be sped up by regularly changing the brine and slitting the side of each olive with a sharp knife. Lacking the patience to wait eleven months, Julian opted for the latter process.

He gathered olives of different sizes and from different trees, experimenting to find those that would magically transform into succulent nibbles. The process is simple. Add salt to fresh water. The water is salty enough only when you can float an egg on top. Clean the olives and add them to the brine. Seal the jar. And that’s it. Easy peasy. Rows of jars – old jam jars, coffee jars, kilner jars, were lined up in our aft storage space (the unused aft heads!) and every couple of days it was Lily’s and Katie’s job to give the jars a shake and a turn over. Every couple of weeks Julian changed the brine, adding a couple of cloves of peeled garlic, a few peppercorns and a bay leaf along the way.

By Christmas the first batch was ready. It took some experimentation to get them to a nice level of saltiness. Now that they were soft, Julian put them in fresh water for a day or two, to draw out the excess salt.

The result? Truly delicious, garlic-flavoured juicy green olives. We devoured them, gave some away to friends, brought them as gifts when people invited us to their boats for dinner. All too soon those multiple jars of olives had dwindled to the last one and it was with some regret that I popped the last one in my mouth a couple of days ago. If we are in a position to pickle our own olives again, I am determined that Julian redouble his efforts so we have more than a mere six week supply.

At around the same time as Julian was gathering olives, someone told me about prickly pears. Those big cactus plants grow all over the place here. Land owners plant them on their borders, where they create a barrier to human and animal intruders. And they grow wild all over the countryside. On top of the cactus grow the pinky-purply fruit that I was told is prickly pear. I’d heard of this before, from reading American literature, but I’d never seen it, nor did I know it was edible.

My informant told me it’s very tasty, but very difficult to collect, given the long spiky thorns with which it protects itself. I gave it a try one day, gingerly plucking a pear from the top of a cactus, and managing to get at least ten thin thorns stuck in my fingers and thumb despite my care. The peeled-back skin revealed a pink pulp filled with seeds. It was quite delicious and I thought about picking more (on another day when I am protected by gloves and long sleeves) and pulping it into juice. I am told it is packed full of healthy vitamins. I haven’t done it yet, but every day I see more and more large pears and know I must go foraging soon.

Our latest foraging exploits have taken place over the past three weekends, when we have been a-hunting wild asparagus. Wild asparagus is identical to its cultivated counterpart, but I was surprised that such an innocuous and delicate food could be the offspring of a very nasty thorny tangled mess of an adult plant. To reach those new young green shoots of asparagus one has to thrust ones hand deep into the thorns. The adult plant doesn’t give up its babies easily.

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The fearsome wild asparagus. Don’t believe the other pictures on the internet. The best bits are often at the centre of this woody thorn bush, half way up a dangerous rocky slope!

Two weekends ago the girls and I were out walking and we met a couple gathering asparagus. They were covered almost head to toe and wearing heavy gardening gloves. The woman showed me where she was gathering the asparagus and later on our walk I saw some other people up the side of a hill doing likewise. The girls and I scrambled up the dry stony hill and with my trusty Swiss army knife I gathered a handful. It took some searching and I came away with long scratches to my arms and legs.

The next weekend Julian came with us, and while the girls played down on the edges of a dried river bed, Julian and I scrambled up hills, slithering and sliding, searching for the elusive asparagus shoots growing under the shade of olive, almond and cork oak trees. It was a fun workout, apart from anything else and I was torn between giggling and cursing as I inevitably and repeatedly lost my footing and slid down the dry, loosely packed hillside, a bunch of asparagus in one hand, my knife in the other, and nothing to break my fall except for the next thorny asparagus bush down the slope. We returned home dirty and dusty, scratched and scraped, with enough asparagus for two day’s worth of dinners. Although the season is almost at an end, Julian’s solo foraging yesterday resulted in enough asparagus for another dinner.

Asparagus

Wild Asparagus (Asparagus Officinalis Prostratus). Gathered and ready for the poached eggs!

Besides the seasonal olives, prickly pear and asparagus, there seems to be a seemingly endless supply of lemons around here (oranges too, although wild orange trees are as rare as hen’s teeth). We haven’t foraged for lemons in the longest time, as people keep giving them to us, wild or cultivated, all delicious.

With spring just around the corner, I wonder what will be next on the menu?

What a waste

Now, I know that by half way through this blog post my mother, mother-in-law and others besides will be horrified and mortified and will believe that I have sunk to new lows of depravity. But bear with me. There’s a serious point to what I’m about to tell you.

You see, I’ve been skip diving! Here’s how it happened. We came ashore to Alcoutim in the dinghy on Friday evening. I had a mostly empty backpack on my back and I was carrying a cloth bag of items to take to the recycling bins. The girls came with me and helped me sort the glass, paper, tin and plastic into their respective bins.

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The scene of the action

A large black bin bag next to the paper and cardboard bin caught my eye. On closer inspection I saw it was three-quarters full of the cardboard and plastic that wholesale products are packed in when delivered to shops. Obviously, one of Alcoutim’s shops or bars had recently had a delivery and this was the waste from unloading the new stock. But it was what lay on top of this cardboard and plastic that really grabbed my attention.

Bags and bags and bags of crisps. I picked one out and looked at it. The packaging was perfect – no rips or holes. It looked like I had lifted it straight from the shelf. The sell-by date was 15/11/15. Two months ago. I picked out another, different brand of crisp. Sell-by date 15/11/15. Each bag had the same sell-by date. Under the crisps were packages of long-life croissants, sell-by date 15/11/15.

Having sorted my recycling I now had an empty cloth bag and an empty backpack and after five seconds of hoping no-one was watching and then deciding I didn’t care if anyone was, I filled both bags with the crisps and pastries, until we had them all and the landfill was getting none.

As we walked up the hill I opened a bag of crisps – Ruffles Original – to see what they tasted like. Perfect. Crisp as crisps should be and not a trace of them being past their ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates. But in this crazy world of food waste and consumer capitalism, for some unfathomable reason they were beyond their ‘sell by’ date.

We’re not massive crisp eaters aboard Carina, but we like to indulge now and again. They’re handy to take on a picnic or a walk, and they are always a favourite on long sailing passages. We’ve eaten some already and I’ve stowed the rest and they’ll last us for months to come. I’ve enjoyed a custard-filled croissant with my mid-morning coffee and more croissants have gone into the girls’ lunchboxes on Thursday, the day the school requests they bring a pastry snack.

So, it’s official. I’m a skip diver. But before you wash your hands of me altogether, here are some things you should know:

A restaurant in Bristol, Skipchen, only uses ingredients thrown out by supermarket and restaurant chains. A team of volunteers go out each night and trawl the bins of Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Waitrose, M&S and retrieve perfectly good food that has been dumped simply because it is past its ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ date. Skipchen is part of The Real Junk Food Project, a network of pay-as-you-feel cafes around the world, which make use of unused discarded foodstuffs. The aim of the project is to raise awareness of the problem of food waste.

And there is a problem. Here are two statistics:
1. One third of the food produced globally for human consumption each year is lost or wasted. That’s 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year.
2. 795 million people in the world do not have enough to eat.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out from those two statistics that hunger less a problem of production and more one of distribution. But hey, we’ve known this since the famines in Ireland in the 1840s, in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and everywhere else where people have gone hungry between and since.

In the autumn, cook and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, started his War on Waste, highlighting how much each of us, through our shopping and eating habits contributes to food waste each year. He also brought the public’s attention to the massive amounts of food that supermarkets and fast food chains simply throw away every day. The BBC documentaries were somewhat flawed, but they certainly got me thinking more about food waste.

Ok, so I grabbed a few bags of crisps and pastries from a recycle point in Alcoutim. I’m no Skipchen and no Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. But that’s not the point. The point is, waste is abhorrent. It’s environmentally damaging and it’s morally outrageous that we waste so much food when so many people go hungry. And there are people out – although not enough of them – putting to great use the food no longer wanted by retailers.

Anyone fancy a skip dive?

Cooler

Winter, after a fashion, has arrived in this southwest corner of Iberia. Each day the girls wear a little more for their morning dinghy ride to school. One day it was cardigans, the next jackets, the next scarves and finally hats and gloves. The dinghy’s outboard motor doesn’t like the cold, and takes its time sputtering into life, needing the choke for longer than usual.

The heater goes on these mornings, to take the chill from the boat and dry out the condensation glistening on every hatch and port hole. We’re up at seven, in the dark. My father’s old woolly jumper and thick socks on before I boil the kettle for the first cup of tea. The cold seeping through the floor makes my feet ache and I slip into my old blue Crocs, now wearing thin at the soles, but still going strong after nine years of year-round wear.

I look forward to washing the dishes once the kids have left for school as an excuse to plunge my hands into the warm water. On laundry days I postpone the dishes. I’m out on deck as soon as Julian and the girls leave, filling buckets with cold water, dropping clothes in to soak, stirring with a wooden spoon so I don’t get my hands wet. The days are short, so the washing has to be out on the line early if it’s to dry before the heat goes out of the day. That warming cup of tea after I’ve put the laundry in to soak is like balm to my chilled bones.

By 10am the sun is doing its job, warming the land, banishing the chill that has descended overnight. The girls arrive home at 2pm with scarves, hats, coats, cardigans shoved into their schoolbags. We eat lunch in the cockpit, luxuriating in the warm sun on our bare arms and upturned faces. Warm summer days in Ireland are often cooler than this.

We make the most of those hours after lunch to visit the beach or to walk along the hiking trails. The girls still don their swimsuits for a paddle in the Praia Fluvial. But even they balk at immersing themselves fully these days. I leave them to it. I prefer to sit on the beach in the warm sun.

By 5pm the sun is well on its way to its evening descent. What little warmth remains is quickly displaced by cold. It’s time to cook dinner, close up the boat, and warm up our beds with hot water bottles before snuggling down for the night. These evenings we read and, after the girls have gone to bed, Julian and I play the occasional game of Scrabble or Chess (I’m a beginner at the latter). Tea made with mint plucked from along the hiking trails or roadside verges warms me through the evening.

Tiredness and cold come together. It’s time for bed.

Calling all hoarders

All going well, at this time a couple of days from now we will be back aboard Carina. The past five or six days have been a marathon of sorting and packing in preparation for our Tuesday morning flight. Five days ago, the bedroom we sleep in at my father-in-law’s house looked like a cyclone had blown through, with all our belongings strewn everywhere as I began the task of choosing what to pack.

One day last week Julian and I took four bags of unwanted clothing, books and miscellaneous other stuff to a charity shop, and I have now filled two more bags to donate to charity shops tomorrow. Our two pieces of hold luggage have been packed, unpacked, repacked, at least five times each, as I assess how much they weigh and what’s left over and what still needs to be packed. With each unpacking and repacking, stuff gets jettisoned in favour of other stuff. Clothing, books and toiletries that I thought would definitely be coming with us have been discarded in favour of other things. I have decisions to make about what I want aboard and what we need aboard.

When we flew to the UK in May the girls and I had two pieces of carry-on luggage. When Julian joined us three weeks later he had one piece of hold luggage and one carry-on. We’re going back with two hold (packed right up to the 20kg weight limit) and four carry-ons. Why are we going back with so much more stuff than we brought over?

All of this has got me thinking more generally about our accumulation of stuff; about how, once we have something, we find it hard to let it go; about our commodity addiction. We find we suddenly don’t want to live without stuff we never even knew we wanted before it was given to us. We burden ourselves with material possessions, physically and emotionally weighing ourselves down. As I jettison unnecessary stuff this week I’ve been thinking about what we really do need.

Why was I even considering a dolphin-shaped eraser that Lily got free with a magazine and that she’s never even taken out of its plastic wrapper? Why was I feeling guilty about leaving behind a book Katie was given over the summer in which she is not even remotely interested? The girls and I came over with four pairs of knickers each; four pairs of socks each; four changes of clothes each. Why am I now stressing about the excess clothing we’ve all acquired over the summer? Do I really need ten pairs of knickers and eleven pairs of socks (in addition to the five or more pairs already aboard Carina)? Does anyone need that much?

The answer, of course, is that I shouldn’t be getting my knickers in a twist about any of these things. As we get closer to our return date more and more stuff is jettisoned, mostly out of necessity, to get our luggage below the airline weight allowance, but also out of my growing realisation that we don’t need all this stuff.

Why are so many of us hoarders? Even as I embrace a lifestyle of uncluttered simplicity I find it difficult to get rid of stuff once I have it. Once something is in my possession I have this gnawing angst over getting rid of it, even if it is of completely no use or value and takes up valuable space. I can understand when it’s something I’ve paid money for, but why am I so indecisive when it comes to things given to me either by someone else or acquired free with some other purchase – things I never asked for or wanted in the first place? I’m more ruthless than a lot of people, but I still find discarding unwanted stuff tough. What is it about our material possessions that makes us want to hoard them to us, keep things that have no value, that are neither utilitarian nor bring us joy? Why do we stuff our stuff into cupboards, store it on shelves, bury it under more and more stuff?

I’m not talking here about the things we have in our homes that are without utility or monetary value but that give us joy and pleasure simply to have around. We all have things that are precious to us, that give us joy to look at or touch, that remind us of who we were or are or who we want to be. I’m talking instead about all that stuff that is hidden away, that takes up space, that is worthless to us in every sense.

I have tried very hard not to accumulate anything over the past five months. Yet accumulate stuff I have. The past week has been a tiring and often emotional de-cluttering of unwanted and unnecessary excess. I still think we’re bringing too much back to the boat. Admittedly, we’ve stocked up on teabags and factor 50 sun screen (which is more expensive in southern Europe), the rapidly-growing Lily and Katie have new clothing and foul-weather gear to replace the now too small ones aboard Carina, we’ve got some Spanish-language resources to help us with our studies, and books to keep us all going for another few months.

But here’s the thing. I bet I could halve the amount of stuff we’re bringing back to Carina and we wouldn’t miss what I’d left behind. Maybe I’ll have to jettison more in the next twenty-four hours. Maybe I’ll do it because I want to. In the past week I’ve filled six grocery-bags worth of stuff we no longer need (or never needed in the first place) to take to the charity shop, and I have recycled at least three other bags worth.

So, here’s a challenge to you. Can you find one thing in your home that you no longer want or need? Can you find ten things? Twenty? More? What can you do with that unwanted stuff? It might go straight in the bin (landfill or recycling?). But I bet the chances are you can give it away (to a friend, a charity shop, Freecycle), or you can sell it and make yourself some money (eBay, Gumtree). One person’s unwanted junk can be someone else’s treasure. Does it make you feel good to make a little space, empty a shelf, clear a little clutter? Let me know how you get on!