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.

ᖃᔭᖅ (qajaq)

Glide, slice, glide, slice. The kayakers glide gracefully along the river, sun glinting on the water dripping from their paddles in mid-air. For a year I have watched them with longing, envying their seeming effortlessness, their freedom of movement, their closeness to the surface of the river. And there are lots of kayakers here. The racers who used Carina’s stern as the starting point of their timed practice back in the spring when we were on a mooring buoy. Portuguese teenagers taking over the river each evening after school, working hard, their coach shouting encouragement to them as he races alongside in a motorised dinghy. There’s one of my English students, who puts in hours of work on the river in his kayak, up and down the river, up and down, each evening after work until the sun goes down, pushing to be better, faster, stronger. There are our friends who paddle their kayaks between their house in town and their plot of land down river, more relaxed than the racers, in less of a hurry. And then there are the tourists who hire kayaks from the beach in Sanlúcar and paddle about in the water between the two villages. Some kayaks are long and sleek and enclosed, others are broad and open, far unlike the original Inuit qajaq.

Hard to believe that my professional career was devoted to learning about the role of the sea in Inuit life, and I have never been in a kayak. Except once on a lake in Roscarbery in west Cork. But that was a long time ago.

So I’ve gazed with longing at the kayakers, wanting to feel what it’s like to paddle through the water. I never told anyone I wanted to do this. Only the other day I thought to myself ‘maybe I’ll hire one of those kayaks from the beach someday’.

Two days ago I was rowing the dinghy upriver when I saw Diana. She was effortlessly paddling her broad, open kayak, with her little dog Daisy happily sitting behind her. ‘That looks so relaxing’, I called to Diana. Ten minutes later I was back aboard Carina and Diana called to me. She had a proposition. If I would look after her kayak on the pontoon, and keep the paddle and seat aboard Carina, I could use the kayak whenever I wanted. What could I say? After I’d gleefully thanked her for her generosity and after I’d spent some time imagining myself paddling up and down the river, it dawned on me that I had no idea how to get into or out of the thing.

I looked at the kayak yesterday, trying to figure out how best to approach it. This morning I found Diana having a coffee at the cafe. ‘Can you show me how to use it?’ I asked. Twenty minutes later I was in my swimsuit and Diana was on the pontoon instructing me how to launch it, and how to get into it without overbalancing. Five minutes later I was paddling away from her, upriver. Just me and the kayak.

I wasn’t graceful or effortless. I over-paddled to one side and had to correct my course. I splashed water all over myself. I’m sure I paddle a kayak the way I ride a horse – ungainly and ungraceful. I’m not a natural at this sort of stuff.

But goodness, it was everything I hoped it would be. I paddled upriver against the ebbing current, staying close to the riverbank where the current is weakest. For half an hour I paddled, the sun streaming down on me, the water from the paddles keeping me cool. Then I turned around, and drifted back downstream on the ebb, only dipping the paddle in occasionally to correct my course.

I can’t tell you how delighted I was. I had tried it, and I had discovered I liked it.

I plan to go again tomorrow, at sunrise.

I’ve been Liebstered!!

I’m thrilled that Mary Grace Stich on Let It Be has nominated me for a Liebster Award. For those of you unfamiliar with the Liebster, it’s an award given by bloggers to other bloggers. Each blogger answers ten questions posed by the blogger who has nominated their blog, and then pays the Liebster forward to another blogger with ten new questions. Over the past few months I’ve read the Liebster answers given by some of the sailing bloggers I follow and I hoped someone would one day nominate me, so I’d have an opportunity to think about and respond to some interesting questions. Thank you Mary Grace!! Here are my answers to your questions.

1. What first attracted you to a cruiser lifestyle?
I’ve always shied away from conventionality. I fancy myself a bit of an outsider and have enjoyed life most when I’ve lived in small-town Japan or in the Canadian Arctic where I’ve been noticeably the odd one out. I’ve always been attracted to stories of people who decide to walk the road less travelled. In 2011, when we made the decision to buy a boat and become live aboard cruisers, we owned a house and a car, we had careers, and I was doing the rounds of mother-and-baby groups in my local area. The conventionality of it all scared the hell out of me!

From my first seaside holiday as a four-year old, I’ve loved, and found inspiration in, the sea. My PhD in anthropology was all about embodied marine knowledge. And this was before I’d ever set foot on a sailboat. The first time I went sailing, in September 2005, I was hooked. The idea of living on a boat and sailing to wherever I wanted was hugely appealing. I was attracted to the self-reliance, the chance to see new places and experience new cultures, and the opportunity to take a step away from mass consumerism. Julian and I used to fantasise about buying a boat when the kids had grown up and flown the nest. But in 2011 we decided not to wait and to bring them along on the adventure.

2. What was your biggest concern before moving on board?
I was concerned about a lot of things. I worried about night sailing (but that has proven to be one of my greatest sailing pleasures). I worried about pirates – but so far we haven’t ventured into any pirate-infested waters. I worried about how we would make ends meet – and I still worry about that. But if I didn’t have financial worries to keep me on my toes, I’d probably be restless about something else.

3. Now that you live aboard, what is your biggest concern or adjustment?
Again, there are lots of these. The more sailing experience I gain, the more I realise what can go wrong. I try not to bury my head in the sand, but rather confront these worries and try to figure out what we would do if we found ourselves in certain situations. I worry about what I would do if Julian fell overboard. We have discussed how we would deal with this, but there are two simple facts: (a) my boat handling skills are poor and I’d likely run him over in my attempt to rescue him, and (b) he is 6’2”, weighs about 17 stone (that’s about 240lbs to you North Americans), and getting him back out of the water if he was unconscious and unable to help himself would be nigh on impossible.

I also hate fog. Fog makes me feel physically sick. We don’t have radar, and when we occasionally find ourselves in fog I imagine a huge container ship bearing down on us. The more times I experience fog, the more I hate it. We avoid going out in it, but sometimes find ourselves in the middle of a passage, shrouded in fog. Double watch, fog horn, and keeping our wits about us is about all we can do.

My biggest adjustment to the cruising life is my daily routine. Before moving onboard I worked full-time. Now that I no longer work full-time I’m trying to find time to write while at the same time home educating my daughters and, this winter, working part-time teaching English. My problem is that I like routine and I imagine that I can do more in the day than is realistic. I make to-do lists and I like to stick to them. I like getting up at the same time every day, going to work for a set period of time, ticking tasks off my to-do list. Living in the close confines of the boat with my husband and kids throws my routines out the window. I am no longer my own boss, but must work around the routines (or complete lack thereof) of the three other people I live with. I’m adjusting gradually, and Julian and the girls are meeting me somewhere in the middle.

4. What did you do for recreation/hobby before you became a cruiser and what do you do now?
I have young children, so I don’t understand these words ‘recreation’ and ‘hobby’!! In the years after meeting Julian and before the kids were born, he and I went SCUBA diving, hill walking, camping and on insane driving holidays at every opportunity. It was during that time too that I developed my love for sailing, and we chartered yachts, and did various RYA sailing courses. Then the kids came along and put an end to our exploits.

Cooking has been a competitive sport for Julian and I since the start of our relationship. Moving on board hasn’t changed that. We still try to out-do each other with our creations, and having to cook in a confined space with limited cooking facilities only enhances the challenge. I’m still sulking due to my Szechuan spare ribs getting the cold shoulder last weekend (they were too sweet, seemingly).

I’m a fanatical reader, and that hasn’t changed between land and sea. If I didn’t acquire any more books I reckon I currently have enough unread books on board to last me a year. But I’m always finding new reading material at marina book swaps, and family and friends share their books with me. I read on long passages, when I’m on buses and trains, before I go to bed, when I wake up – I’m almost never to be found without a book by my side. The wonderful thing is that Lily is now a fully fledged independent reader and, with any luck, Katie will soon follow suit, thus freeing up more time for me to read the books I like rather than the books they like!!

5. Has your initial estimate of how long you would cruise changed from your original plan?
When people ask how long we plan to do this, my glib answer is ‘Anywhere from six months to sixty years’. But, perhaps it’s not so glib. We don’t have any master plan. We have met other cruisers who plan to circumnavigate the globe in four years, or who are taking a year out to cross the Atlantic and back. But our plans are looser. One day we would like to cross the Atlantic, and one day we would like to circumnavigate the globe. But we may never do either. I guess the answer is that we will continue to sail for as long as we all enjoy it, and for as long as we can afford to do it. Right now, we’re looking forward to more cruising in the Mediterranean in spring 2015. But we’re not thinking much farther ahead than that. If a very different opportunity presented itself, then we might well turn our backs on sailing. I would love to live in Arviat again, in the Canadian Arctic, and one day I hope we can do that. Equally, if we sailed into someplace irresistible, we might well stay put and put down roots.

6. What is one unusual or surprising thing you have on board?
This is a really difficult question to answer. What seems normal to me might seem whacky to someone else. If someone else came on board and went through my stuff the thing that might most make them scratch their head is a big backpack, stored in the aft heads, full of newspaper clippings and academic papers about polar bears. It’s some of the material for a writing project I started about nine months ago, but which has been lying dormant for six months. The other surprising items are a little black dress and a pair of black stilettos. I’m just waiting for someone to invite me to a party – preferably NOT on a boat, so my stilettos won’t be frowned upon!

7. What is the most surprising/rude/absurd or annoying question you have been asked?
It’s not really a question, but what annoys me most is that other sailors often have opinions about how we should raise and educate our kids. Quite often those opinions are given by people who haven’t taken even a minute to say hello to the girls. They see two children and immediately assume that they know a better way (even though they haven’t bothered to ask about our way). The rude opinions usually come from people who haven’t cruised with their own children. Those who currently cruise with children, or who have done so in the past, are generally very supportive, I guess because they too have had to deal with the annoying opinions. Cruisers who raised their children onboard years ago usually have very insightful and helpful suggestions, and they’re usually very kind and accepting of young children at anchor or on a pontoon next to them.

8. Name something that is better about living aboard than living on land and does it surprise you?
Can I give an x-rated answer? Hahaha!

9. If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your boat right now?
I hate making the beds. Tucking in bottom sheets requires bodily contortions that in summer cause me to break out in a sweat and the rest of the time are just plain awkward and annoying. If I had a magic wand I would make the fore and aft cabins wider, so that they had proper beds that I could walk around, which would save me having to simultaneously kneel on top of mattresses while picking up the edges to tuck in the sheet.
Alternatively, I might close my eyes, wave the magic wand, and open my eyes to find Carina in Tuvalu in the South Pacific – somewhere I’ve dreamed of for years. (Hello, Alice Baker!)

10. Can you name one thing that is a favorite part of your “normal” day?
There comes a time – not every day – late in the evening, when the girls are asleep in the fore cabin, and the boat is closed up for the night. The light is quite poor in the saloon, which makes the boat feel so cosy and ‘homely’. I sit on the port side settee, a light overhead shining down on the book I’m reading, a cup of tea or glass of wine on the table beside me. The boat rocks almost imperceptibly, accompanied by the gentle creaking noises of ropes and rigging. I should try to make that moment in the day a more regular occurrence than it currently is.

Another favourite part of the day that seems to be sadly fading is when the kids climb into bed with us. I’m not too keen on getting woken up at 7am, but if one of them comes into our cabin earlier than that, they usually fall back asleep. You can’t beat an early morning snuggle – with Katie especially, who is far less wriggly than Lily. This morning we had both of them in and later, after Lily and Julian got up, Katie stayed with me for a sleepy cuddle.

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Well, that was fun! My Liebster Award nominees are Photo art by Anna and The Dancing Irishman, two very different blogs, and neither about anything even remotely related to the sea or sailing. They are written by two people I know personally, and who I admire because they have chosen the road less travelled in order to follow their passions. Photo art by Anna and The Dancing Irishman, here are your ten questions:

1. Did you have a ‘this is the life for me’ lightbulb moment?

2. What’s been the strangest reaction to your chosen lifestyle?

3. Why are you a blogger?

4. What is the most interesting or unexpected thing that has happened to you as a result of writing your blog?

5. What book would you recommend everyone read before they die?

6. When you eventually come sailing aboard Carina, where would you like to sail to?

7. Who is the one other person you would like to come along on that sailing trip? Why?

8. What are your other passions in life?

9. Who has most inspired you to do what you do?

10. Where do you see your passions taking you in the next ten years?

I hope you take up the challenge, answer the questions and pay the Liebster Award forward to bloggers you admire. xx Martina