One day in the life of …

by Julian

Wednesday 23rd May 2018. Sanlúcar de Guadiana, Spain

This was not a special day on the Rio Guadiana. Normal weather, no fiestas. But I had agreed to work for Manuel, an old gentleman who wants to run boat trips in a large motor boat that has seen better days. He is short and perfectly spherical. Manuel cannot see very well and needs someone to drive and do other tasks that he no longer has the dexterity or fitness to do. I have been working for him on and off for the past few weeks. Martina had decided to go shopping in Villa Real and had left just before the girls got up and I had to get them ready for school.

Normally, getting Lily and Katie ready for school is a gargantuan task, which inevitably involves repeated commands and some screaming. However, when on my own, I think the girls realise my general lack of competence and get ready without expecting an adult to assist them. So it was that the girls were ready a full 20 minutes before we had to leave the boat. This was good because I had to take them to Reme’s shop before school to buy an exercise book which Lily needed.

Less than a minute after dropping the girls to school I am standing outside Manuel’s house. He tosses me the keys to his aging Mercedes. “Donde vamos?” I ask.
“Isla Cristina.” I wrestle the heavy, four geared vehicle, along the steep spaghetti roads leading out of town. Isla Cristina is 44 km away and Manuel and I have been there several times. I take Manuel to the usual spot, near the chandleries and fishing boats. But instead of going into a shop, Manuel whips out a business card and starts asking people for directions. We drive on, periodically stopping along all manner of strange, one-way, semi-pedestrian streets, to the sound of the honking horns of frustrated drivers and the fist waving curses of Manuel as he asks anyone and everyone where the heck this place is. After driving around the whole of the town we end up back where we started. We take a turn down a side road, barely wide enough for the Mercedes. It does not look promising and ends in a dead end. It turns out to be the street mentioned on the business card but there is no sign of any business, or really anything. I leave Manuel talking to some people in a carpenter’s workshop on the next street. I return to find they have been joined by one of the most eye-catching men I have ever seen. He is nearly my height, with a tight black top which displays his enormous muscles to good effect, skin tight ripped jeans, dark skin and a well-groomed beard. I start to mentally refer to him as “The Rock.”

We walk back to the car. The Rock follows us. “Venga!” states Manuel and we get into the car. Disturbingly, The Rock climbs into the back seat. “Sanlúcar” orders Manuel. What! For what purpose are we bringing this mass of human perfection back home to our tiny village.

I drive the 44km back to Sanlúcar. We take The Rock down to the pontoon and he inspects the wooden bench we have constructed over the previous few days along the back of Manuel’s boat. The men who work at the zip wire office, with their gym crafted bodies, stare down at him, with obvious muscle envy. After 20 minutes, the three of us climb back into the Mercedes and I drive the 44km back to Isla Cristina and back to the anonymous side road, where The Rock produces a key and opens a large grey metal door. We all walk inside. My jaw drops as I stare around the workshop. Broken chairs and settees surround us. The Rock is an upholsterer! Manuel leafs through a samples book and selects an outdoor seat cover in pink. The Rock explains that this is one of the more expensive materials, but they both seem to agree that it is worth the money. Then the haggling starts. Not about the cost. Manuel wants the job done tomorrow. Not possible! The foam and the cover would have to be ordered. Friday? No there is other work to do, it would have to be the end of next week. Manuel counts the days on his fingers. No good, too long. The Rock is getting exasperated, but Manuel will simply not back down. “Where do we get the materials from?” he asks.
“Seville.” Comes the reply, with a shrug emphasising the impossibility.
“Only Seville!” Manuel is beaming “Now if you’d said Barcelona that would be different, but Seville, easy!” They both turn and look at me expectantly.
“But I can’t … I have to be in Sanlúcar at two o’clock … pick my daughters up from school … make lunch … Martina is in Portugal … I have a Skype interview for a teaching job in England at three o’clock … I can’t do anything until at least four.” The pair of them discuss this. I don’t understand a word they are saying. Manuel and I climb back into the car and drive back to Sanlúcar once again. It is a quarter to two. “I’ll meet you here at the bar at four” says Manuel “The earlier you can make it the better.” Damn! The pressure is on big time.

I phone Martina. “Hi darling, have you had a good time?”
“Yes, I’m sitting in a lovely Italian restaurant with pizza and a glass of wine. I’ve finished all the shopping.”
“So, you’ll be back on the early bus then?”
“Yes.”
“Great, that means the kids will only be on their own for half an hour. I have to go to Seville.”
“!!!”
“I’ll put them watching a movie. They’ll be fine.”

A pile of salami and salad rolls are hastily shoved in front of the children. “Daddy’s very busy … You can eat the strawberries … Any rolls you don’t want put in this bag and have them later … There’s the computer … The hard drive with the movies … Yes, you can watch anything you like … Here’s a jug of water … If you need me I’ll be in the beach bar until four … Mummy’s back at four thirty … be good … don’t hit each other.”

This might be classed as irresponsible parenting but this is a very small village. Lily and Katie know everyone and everyone knows them. Within certain boundaries they have freedom to run around the place with their friends. I will be able to see them from the bar where I will be taking my Skype call. Rosa is always available as an adult point of contact for the short period when we aren’t in the village. But really, the village is full of responsible adults, many of whom have had our children round for lunch, or even a sleep-over, and vice versa their children with us.

I quickly pull on a shirt. Skype won’t show up my paint covered work shorts and sandals. I go up to the shower block. Great, my beard isn’t too bad, no need to trim. Clean my teeth, splash some water in my face, comb my hair. I’m in the bar with ten minutes to spare. Five minutes later I still cannot get the internet connection. Shit, I’ve got no time. I run to Jeanne and David’s house and ask if I can use their internet. They have changed their internet provider, I need the new password. Jeanne warns me the internet is very slow. Just in time, three o’clock, the Skype call comes through. I answer. I am extremely anxious because this is an important interview. If I get the job it will be my first real professional level employment in years. I need to show I can be bright, enthusiastic, intelligent, can be trusted to teach adults and children. I cannot see or hear the interviewer. A text message comes through ‘Can you hear me?’
“No.” I reply.
‘I’ll try and call back then.’ The call comes through, I answer again. I can see her, but fuzzy and moving jerkily. “Hello.” She says. “Nice to meet you.”
“Hello, pleased to meet you.” I reply. We begin the interview, then it breaks up again. I cannot see her. I hold up my phone and then type ‘If you like we can do this by phone, my number is ……’ After a couple more attempts at Skype she finally calls me. It is nearly 3:30 pm. I am extremely anxious because I know Manuel will be fretting around somewhere. However, I am pleased to be able to leave the house and go somewhere private to talk. I have to tell her I am sorry, I only have half an hour. I did have an hour but because of the Skype thing I am pushed for time. Thankfully she is very sympathetic and tells me we will just have to talk quickly. The interview goes very well but the clock ticks round to four o’clock. I can see Manuel shuffling down the street to find me. I tell her this. I think she finds it amusing and tells me she will email me a job offer. Phew! Manuel tosses me the keys, we climb into the car. “Isla Cristina.” He says.

I am a little puzzled. I thought we were going to Seville. It all becomes clear when we arrive at the upholsterer’s workshop and The Rock climbs into the car. The Rock is coming with us to get the stuff! “Vamos!” I am instructed. I catch snippets of the conversation as I drive as fast as I feel safe to do. Manuel is now in full Spanish mode, talking rapidly in some ancient Andalucian dialect and I struggle to follow him. It seems we are going to some place called Pilas first to pick up the foam, then on to Tomares to get the covering. The Rock’s phone speaks in a clear female voice “Tome la calle a la derecha” (Take the street on the right).
The Rock then tells me “Tome la calle a la derecha”.
Manuel then says loudly and slowly, “la derecha.” As we near the turn he repeats this anxiously. I keep quiet and turn to the right. A little way down the street the phone speaks again in Spanish “Take the third exit at the roundabout.” The Rock says this, followed by Manuel. This is going to be a very long couple of hours.

Getting through Pilas is a piece of cake, and with the foam stuffed into the boot of the car, we head onwards toward Seville along more minor roads. I am reasonably confident we will get this done and back home before the shops close at nine. Then, all of a sudden, a policeman steps out and stops the traffic, two cars in front of us. From a side road, a tractor pulling a decorated wagon pulls out ahead of us, then another and another. “Rocio” Manuel says singing a bit of some Spanish flamenco. Of course, these are returning from the famous Romeria of Rocio, near Seville. A sort of gypsy fiesta where people dance, sing, ride horses and generally do risky, wild things somewhere in the countryside. Some of the carts are full of people. Men in tight grey boleros with wide brimmed hats, women in flamenco dresses with flowers in their hair, singing and clapping in time. After about one hundred tractors have pulled onto the road in front of us the policeman waves us through. We continue in first gear, pain just beginning to shoot up the back of my right leg from the awkward angle of my foot on the throttle. After thirty to forty minutes of crawling along and regularly stopping we manage to lose the tractors and speed down the road. The magnificent city of Seville can be seen sprawling beneath us, in a light haze of smog. How I would love to see Seville one day, but once again I find myself here for some purpose other than tourism.

Arriving in Tomares we find ourselves in an industrial estate of sorts. Every type of furniture store and workshop can be found lining the many roads. The Rock leaves us and, pointing to a couple of shops, says we can go and have a little coffee whilst we wait. Manuel and I cannot find the café. There is a large shop called Muebles Mexicanos, it looks like a taco restaurant. Manuel starts asking people where the café is. A woman points to the taco store and says “No, look it says ‘Muebles’ it sells furniture.” Eventually I look down the next street and see the café. I signal to Manuel to join me. Coming from the other direction is The Rock with a roll of pink material under his arm. We wait for Manuel to arrive and the three of us enter the building.

Now, it is difficult to describe the appearance of the three of us entering the café. Manuel is short and built like a snowman, with a round head atop a round body, he cannot see very well and has failed to shave properly. I am a tall unkempt Englishman wearing sandals and blue swimming shorts. We are accompanied by The Rock, who really would not look out of place in an American WWF wrestling match. Yes, people are staring and staring hard. It is a fine wooden lined room, built by someone who really knew about interior furnishing, with jamons hanging all around. An espresso for me, a beer for The Rock and hot milk with decaffeinated instant coffee powder for Manuel (descafeinado de sobre). As my Portuguese boss used to say “The Spanish really don’t know how to drink coffee.”

The day is nearly over. Just a two-hour drive back to Sanlúcar via Isla Cristina. We fill the tank with diesel and I say goodbye to Manuel at around 9:30 pm. “Las ocho por la mañana.” What! I have to meet Manuel again at eight o’clock in the morning to go and fetch The Rock again, so he can upholster the seat on the back of the boat. That night I recount the events to Martina and she seems very keen to get a look at The Rock tomorrow.

Wednesday 23rd May 2018. Coventry University Hospital, England

While I am driving in Spain, my mother is under general anaesthetic in an English hospital. The surgery team bustle around her, removing one of her kidneys and the ureter connecting it to her bladder. This contains a tumour. The surgeon also removes two enlarged lymph nodes. She now has a three week wait to find out if the enlarged lymph nodes are linked to the tumour.

Wednesday 23rd May 2018. A courtroom somewhere in England

Meanwhile, in an English courtroom, a man is sentenced for murdering his wife. He gets life with a minimum of seventeen years in prison. The murdered woman’s son reads a victim statement to the court. I haven’t seen the son since he was around eleven years old. The woman was my dad’s ex-girlfriend. Only thirteen years older than me. They lived with dad for a while. Although, circumstances have meant that I haven’t seen her for eighteen years, I regarded her as a friend. She was a very loving person.

A final thought

The world is a crazy place. Anyway, I now have some work for a few weeks in England and it is near the homes of my parents. I will see them in two weeks time. I will be keen to learn if Manuel does manage to run some boat trips, but that is not going to be part of my story this summer.

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Nothing too serious

I’ve always been a small-town girl. A country girl. I love rural life. I love that everyone knows everyone, people stop to say hello, people remember things about you and ask after you and your family. Of course, that can make life a bit claustrophobic at times, a bit like living in a fish bowl. But I’ve never had a craving to live anywhere other than in small close-knit communities.

A minor accident recently tickled me about just how small and close-knit we are on the Rio Guadiana.

Mammy came for a five-day visit on New Year’s Day. Late in the afternoon on the 2nd of January, a misstep in the cockpit of a friend’s boat (carrying my laptop and not looking where I was going) led to a twisted ankle, the pain of which caused me to faint (I’m such a wuss). The next morning my ankle was purple, painful and had swollen up like a balloon.

As I hobbled up to the shower block to take a shower, old Manuel was sitting on his usual bench, contemplating the river. ‘What happened?’ he asked and told me to go to the doctor immediately. He said the health centre would be open for the remainder of the morning and sang the praises of our lovely GP, Umberto.

Taking Manuel’s sage advice, I hobbled, post-shower, the 200 or so metres from the shower block to the health centre (Sanlúcar really is tiny). Along the way I met, if memory serves, five people. And, because Sanlúcar is so tiny, I knew them all. Each one gave me a concerned look and asked what happened. I gave each a brief account as I hobbled on my way.

At the health centre I was first in line and had only sat down when the door to the consultation room opened, the previous patient departed and I went in. Umberto confirmed a sprain and ligament damage, but was confident my ankle wasn’t broken. He recommended not walking for up to five days and keeping my foot raised. ‘Sit back and watch lots of TV’, he advised.

Walking down the corridor to check if the nurse was free to strap up my ankle, he left me sitting in the consulting room with the door open. The health centre had suddenly grown busy. An old man, to whom I’ve spoken once or twice, poked his head round the door. ‘Happy New Year’, he said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’, and I described my injury, grateful that I wasn’t in for treatment for an embarrassing rash, or the morning after pill or to be tested for an STD!

Moments later a friend’s mother-in-law saw me sitting there. ‘We’ve all been ill over Christmas’, she said. Only her 90-something year old mother had not succumbed to the flu that had laid low every other generation of the family. ‘And what about you?’ she asked. And for, could it be the eighth time in ten minutes, I recounted the fall, the sprained ankle, my mother’s few days of relaxation now jeopardised by having to wait on me hand and foot as I rested my swollen ankle.

When called, I hobbled down to the nurse, who bandaged my ankle from toe to knee. The size of the bandage seemed excessive, but would certainly look the part as I lay around for the next few days watching movies while I was served cups of tea and slices of Christmas pudding!

Before I left the health centre I met one more woman, who I knew from a Spanish conversation class I used to attend last year. Once again I recounted the episode and could now add the GP’s diagnosis, the size of the bandage and the recommended recovery method.

Stepping onto the street, I heard Julian’s unmistakable voice in the shop next door, so I popped in to tell him the GP’s diagnosis, and in so doing had to once again recount the whole tale, this time to Irene, the ever cheerful and lovely octogenarian shopkeeper.

Hard as it is to believe, I met no-one on the short walk back to the boat and, indeed, saw no-one other than my immediate family for the remainder of the day.

Late the next morning there was a knock on the boat and four friends boarded with bottles of wine as they planned to help me drink my ankle back to health. We drank, ate cakes, and Roy (my sailing partner from last summer) confiscated Katie’s guitar and he and Mammy sang together.

I had planned to take Mammy out for lunch that day, but given my incapacitation, she decided to take Lily and Katie out for pizza to the beach bar on the other side of the river. The three of them took the ferry across the river, from Spain to Portugal, walked to the beach and into the bar. And what was the first thing Rogerio, the proprietor, asked when they walked in the door? ‘How’s Martina’s leg?’.

You just have to love small town life!

(P.S. My ankle remains stiff and sore. Walking makes it feel better. Not moving for extended periods makes it feel worse. Inclines and steps hurt, sitting seiza or crosslegged is painful. I’m still wearing an ankle support 24 hours a day. Lesson learned: watch where you step!!)

Siesta

In the blazing, blue sky, brutal heat of the early afternoon, silence reigns. There is no bird song, no quacking ducks, no bleating sheep, no barking dogs. There are no cars on the streets, no children at play, no pedestrians chatting. To walk through the streets of Sanlúcar, if one was foolish enough to do so, is akin to walking through a ghost town. Shutters down on every house and no sounds emanating from within. The river is silent too. One ferryman dozes under the ferry bimini, with no passengers at this time of day. Only the occasional recently arrived yachtie is naïve enough to motor ashore from his anchorage, hoping to find a shop or bar open, or insanely deciding to go for a walk.

It took us a while to get into the swing of siesta. Back in 2014, when we first cruised in Spain, we exhausted ourselves in the heat of the day, the sun sapping our energy as we attempted to keep our lives running to a northern European schedule. We didn’t know any better. It’s what we were accustomed to. It took some time for us to become aware of the silence, the empty streets, the shuttered windows, as Spain came to a standstill for a few hours every afternoon.

We were stupidly slow to figure out just why it was that Spanish people of all ages could manage to stay out so damned late into the night – restaurants only starting to serve dinner at 9pm, children happily eating meals with their families at one in the morning. It’s because everyone sleeps in the hottest part of the day, and the country comes to life again when the day starts to cool down.

With our own children in school this past year it’s become easier to develop a siesta habit aboard Carina. The school day ends at 2pm, the girls come home for lunch, and by 3pm we’re all in siesta mode.

Not that the girls sleep. But I don’t feel so bad about that because the parents of their Spanish classmates tell me their children don’t sleep much either. The important thing is to ensure everyone has some quiet time in a shady and, preferably, cool place, so the heat isn’t unnecessarily sapping energy.

I doze, or read, or write. Julian does the same. Katie sleeps sometimes, Lily almost never. But Lily lies quietly on her bed for a couple of hours, reading usually. Or both girls play quietly together. Or, if they are being particularly anti-siesta, I stick on a DVD to keep them quietly amused.

It’s only very recently that I’ve truly come to appreciate siesta time. Not just for the obvious reasons. Not simply because it conserves our energy and it provides a time to relax in the middle of the day. Not just because we wake up revived and not too tired to participate in the evening and night-time life of Spain.

What I like above all about siesta is the silence. There are no human or animal sounds. All is still. All is quiet. The oppressive heat weighs down, silencing all. For a few hours each afternoon the only sounds are the wind blowing and the river lapping against its banks.

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.

Rain

On Monday morning I did an overdue load of laundry at the launderette in Alcoutim. But with one thing and another I didn’t get home until 6pm. I hung it out on the guard rails and rigging anyway.

On Tuesday it rained. Heavily. All day. The laundry hung sodden around the rails and rigging. We came home from Sanlúcar with four sets of wet foul weather gear, four sets of wet rubber boots, four sets of wet clothes. We hung them where we could.

On Wednesday it rained. Lily had no dry socks or shoes. She wore a pair of Katie’s socks to school and a pair of shoes that are still a size too big. We donned half-dry foul weather gear and half-dry rubber boots to get ashore. When the sun came out in the evening the girls splashed in muddy puddles.

On Thursday the sun came out. I threw open the hatches over our beds. Julian and I went to Alcoutim. As we sat drinking coffee on a terrace overlooking the river we felt drops of rain. Julian downed his coffee and raced back home in the dinghy. Alas, too late. By the time he got to Carina our beds were soaked and the almost dry laundry was wet once again.

By Thursday evening all of Monday’s laundry was finally dry and our beds were mostly dry. We had clean clothes at last and our spirits were lifting.

Today the sun feels good.

One year on the Río Guadiana

Next week marks a year since we sailed Carina into the Río Guadiana. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we turned north from the Atlantic coast of southern Spain and into the river, but it wasn’t this. Live aboards we met on Ilha da Culatra in the autumn of 2014 sang the praises of the river and told us we had to check it out. We sailed past on our way into the Mediterranean, but sailing west back out of the Med seven months later, we thought we’d better go see what all the fuss was about.

I had heard of the strong floods that visit the river from time to time, and I knew there were two marinas not far from the river mouth – Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. And I knew the river was navigable some way up. Beyond that I knew nothing. I had seen no photographs or charts, read no pilot books or websites, and had only vague recollections of conversations in the bar in Ilha da Culatra months before.

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Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

In my imagination I saw a smaller river, darkened by overhanging trees. I suppose because the flooding was upmost in my mind, I saw pewter skies overhead, pregnant with rain. I imagined a river running through a rainforest, not a river in drought-prone southern Iberia.

So much for my imagination. I remember the most surprising thing upon first entering the river was its width and the flatness of the surrounding land. We spent our first night in the marina in Vila Real de Santa Antonio, on the outside pontoon, with a clear view across almost a kilometre of river to Ayamonte in Spain. We arrived just after dawn on a cloudless day. Vila Real, with its predominantly white architecture and paving, was bright and fresh. I looked across the fast flowing river to the vast expanses of sand dunes and beaches south of Ayamonte and laughed at how wildly off target my imagination had been.

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Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Our plan was to motor twenty-two miles upriver to some place that had pontoons and good anchoring. Beyond that, I knew nothing. Once again I had no idea what to expect. We departed Vila Real on the flood tide and motored for four hours through a riparian landscape that grew narrower and more hilly the farther north we went. I was agog at each new splendid and surprising sight – herds of sheep and goats on the hillsides, white washed cottages and large haciendas, orange and lemon groves, herons and egrets, cormorants and swallows, fish throwing themselves bodily out of the water.

We passed a couple of small settlements and clusters of yachts on moorings, and then twenty-two miles up we rounded a bend in the river and ahead were the splendid whitewashed villages of Alcoutim and Sanlúcar, facing each other across 200 metres of river, the latter overlooked by a massive white fortification on a nearby hill. As we slowed, a man (who we later discovered to be Ted) came up in his dinghy and advised us on a good place to anchor. We anchored south of the villages, turned off the motor and I was thrilled by the sounds I heard – sheep bleating and the heavy bells around their necks ringing, a donkey braying, and woven through it all, birdsong. Could we have found ourselves in a more delightful place?

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Sanlucar (foreground) and Alcoutim (background)

We didn’t intend to stay very long. As I recall, we had a vague plan to make our way back to Galicia. Yet the Guadiana sucked us in. After a couple of weeks we decided to register the girls in school for the start of the next school year, thus committing ourselves to the river for the medium term at least. The unexpected five months back in the UK did nothing to dim our enthusiasm for the river and we returned in November keen to fully immerse ourselves in river life again.

And here we are. Carina has not left the river in a year, the girls are in school, and we find ourselves part of three communities. We are inevitably part of the ex-pat community of yachties and small-holders, people from diverse backgrounds who have been here for days or months or decades. One of the unexpected side effects of the girls going to school is that we have become part of the community in Sanlúcar, as outsiders of course, but nonetheless welcomed and accepted by the other families in the village, as we take the girls to birthday parties, and participate in school and community activities. And in Alcoutim we have come to know a small number of local people.

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That first nerve-racking morning of school now seems so long ago!

We continue to delight in walking the many paths up and down the river or east and west away from the river. We enjoy the changes that come with each season. All four of us continue to improve our Spanish language abilities, to learn more about local history, culture and politics, and to find ways to contribute to community life.

And now it is coming close to decision time. Do we stay or do we go? Our conversations on this topic are long and frequent. We have reasons to stay and reasons to go. I guess you’ll have to watch this space and see what conclusion we reach in the next month or so!

Easter visitors

A couple of mornings ago Lily called to me from the cockpit. ‘Come up quick’, she yelled. I was in the middle of making breakfast, but the urgency of her call made me stop was I was doing. Excitedly, she pointed to the water, where a mother duck was busy shepherding her seven ducklings on their very first paddle in the river. What a moment. Seven tiny balls of fuzzy perfection, their little legs and feet paddling for all they were worth. When they put on a burst of speed they were so light they actually walked on the water momentarily. We have been besotted ever since.

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Carina has been alongside the Sanlúcar pontoon for over a week now and we are regularly visited by the many mallards that live nearby. They are a constant feature of village life. Groups of ducks waddle through the streets, knowing which houses to stop outside where they are sure of a snack from the Spanish grandmother living inside. A couple of weeks ago I went to the bakery and asked the baker for the loaf of bread sitting on the counter. He wouldn’t sell it to me. It was yesterday’s bread, he said, and he was saving it for the ducks!

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The arrival of these seven ducklings is a delight. But they are also causing me maternal worry. I counted them the first morning – seven. And every time I see them I count them again, to make sure all seven are still there. A big seagull appeared on the river a few days ago and I’m worried about the duckies.

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The ducklings aren’t the only avian visitors we’ve had recently. I was in the forward cabin a week ago. The hatch was open and I could hear the most delightful trilling birdsong coming from the fore deck. Quietly I peeked out the hatch and saw a swallow sitting on our guard rail. It was joined by its mate, and for a couple of days, while we moored in the middle of the river, the two were regular visitors to Carina’s fore deck.

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There have been attempts at nest building aboard Carina too. One day, while the girls were at school, I was sitting quietly working on my laptop in the saloon. I guess our visitors thought no-one was home. I stopped what I was doing and watched as a pair of what I think were house sparrows began investigating the inside of the sail cover on the main mast boom. I had no choice but to shoo them away. I couldn’t have them build a nest and lay eggs, only to be made homeless with any disturbance of the sail cover. It doesn’t stop sparrows coming to visit, however, and every day they alight on our guard rails, cockpit and rigging, chirp-chirruping for all they’re worth.

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What a delightful and joyful sign that spring is here.

Carnival

C—-‘s mother looks at me in horror. ‘You can’t have a blue nose’ she croaks, her heavily accented Andalucian Spanish all the more cackily for her 40-fags a day habit. ‘Clowns have red noses’, she cackles indignantly. We stand, clown-face to clown-face, both of us dressed in orange bin bags decorated with cardboard bowties, buttons and pockets, our faces covered in sticky face paint, yellow hats on our heads. ‘M—-‘, I say to her in rapid English, knowing she won’t understand a word. ‘Free yourself from convention. A clown nose can be any colour you want it to be. Live free M—. Live free’.
‘Qué?’ she croaks at me, before turning her attention to her children to make sure they will be the most spectacular clowns in the parade. I skip off to adorn my shoes with large yellow paper bows.

It’s Carnival. Two weeks late. But it’s Carnival. Around here, Carnival is staggered so that residents from different villages can participate in each other’s festivities. Kinda defeats the purpose of Lent, if you’re spending the six weeks before Easter dressing up and eating copious amounts of sweets. But hey, who am I to judge? To complicate matters further, the Sanlúcar village and school Carnivals are held on different days – the school Carnival taking place on a school day to accommodate teachers who don’t live in the village. Today, for the school Carnival, I am ridiculously dressed as a clown following weeks of intense preparation.

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It all started about a week into the new term. A sign went up on the wall outside Katie’s class informing parents we had to provide our children with black boots, red leggings and red long-sleeved t-shirts. And we had to give the teacher €5 per child so she could buy the rest of the items necessary to complete the costumes. We had none of the above (apart from the €5) at home, so I borrowed and improvised. I covered Katie’s pink rubber boots in a cut up pair of old black tights and borrowed leggings from Ana and a top from Hannah. It was all relatively easy.

The preparations for Lily’s class were somewhat more involved. Her teacher arranged a meeting with the parents to decide what the class would dress as. Various ideas were thrown around – clowns, rainbows, Peppa Pig. This last would involve the parents laboriously making papier maché Peppa Pig heads. We quickly ruled out that option. In the end we decided on making clown outfits, at which point the teacher washed her hands of the whole affair and left us parents to get on with it.

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A week later the parents met in the classroom. There were six mothers and two fathers present There are only nine children in the class, and only one mother was absent – the aforementioned M—. There was a clear cultural divide. The two English, one Dutch and one Irish mum just wanted to get on with it as quickly and painlessly as possible, make the costumes and go home again. The Spanish dads agreed with us, but the Spanish mums were aiming for perfection.

Heated discussions ensued concerning hats, the positioning of buttons, whether to use glue or staples to assemble the costumes once we had made all the constituent parts. After an hour, when we already have a production line of paper, scissors, glue and stickers going on, M— arrived in, talking loudly on her mobile phone and proceeded to loudly (while simultaneously talking on her phone and drinking a can of Coke) inform us that she was not happy with what we had achieved in her absence and she would have done things differently. The other Spanish parents have no patience for her and told her loudly, without any ado, to shut up, sit down and help out.

After an hour and a half we had achieved a little, but there was still much to do. We agreed to meet at the same time next week, to finish the costumes. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, getting to know the Spanish parents who I had only ever said hello to before, practicing my Spanish and listening hard to the rapid Spanish conversation going on around me. (One of the English mums and the Dutch mum are Spanish speakers).

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We met the next week and completed the costumes, but there was still debate about the necessity of hats on top of the clown wigs the children would wear and if we were to make hats, should they be top hats or cone shaped. The English/Dutch/Irish contingent argued that if there must be hats, they should be of the easier-to-make cone-shaped variety, but the Spanish mums thought difficult-to-make top hats would be better. No conclusion was reached and we agreed to meet again the next week.

In the meantime, I received a note from Katie’s teacher asking for parents to come to school to help sew costumes for that class. I arrived at the school on the day and, with five other mums and one dad (all Spanish), all speaking rapid and mostly incomprehensible Spanish, sat around a table sewing the costumes the way the teacher instructed. I discovered Katie was the only child whose red top was not a polo neck. How did everyone else know this and I didn’t? It was too late to do anything about it now. By the end of two hours I was exhausted, not from the sewing, but from trying to keep up with and participate a little in the conversation.

I went home for lunch and returned two hours later for my by now weekly meeting with the parents of Lily’s classmates. It was decided to not make hats for the children, but instead to make matching clown costumes for the mothers. The English/Dutch/Irish mums were none too keen – dreading the extra work involved as much as dressing up like bloody eejits – but the Spanish mums were rarin’ to go. So we set about making seven more clown outfits.

We didn’t have enough orange bin bags, so one of the English mums said she would buy some more a couple of days later when she drove down to Ayamonte. We arranged to meet yet again, on the day before the Carnival, to assemble the costumes.

The day before Carnival arrived, but the mum who had bought the bin bags couldn’t make it to the school, so she gave the bags to me and asked me to pass her apologies on to the other parents. The first person I met when I got to the school was M—. She looked suspiciously at the roll of orange bin bags I was holding in my hand and angrily asked me why I had so many. ‘We only need four’, she croaked, pulling on her fag in the school playground. ‘But they only come in packs of ten’, I replied, simultaneously showing her the number 10 on the side of the bag. She looked at me like I’d spoken to her in Klingon.

Another mum arrived with the key and we let ourselves into the school and set to work in Lily’s classroom. But horror of horrors – the new plastic bags were a slightly different shade of orange and slightly bigger than the other ones. The English/Dutch/Irish mums didn’t think this was a problem, but the Spanish mums seemed to think Carnival was now ruined. We assembled the costumes and, without anyone saying anything, the three sturdy shiny plastic bags ended up in the hands of the Spanish mums while the English/Dutch/Irish mums were left with the flimsy, less shiny other four.

I was ready to go home when one of the Spanish mums thought it would be a good idea if we all – children and mothers – had yellow paper bows for their shoes. We spent the next half an hour on a yellow paper bow production line. Finally, all was ready and I was not the only non-Spanish mum who made a beeline for the Chiringuito bar and a glass of chilled white wine.

The afternoon of Carnival finally arrived. The nine girls in Katie’s class were dressed as majorettes and Diego, the lone boy, as a ring master with a cat-o-nine-tails. The teacher and mums were also majorettes. Lily’s class and mums were clowns, the class above and teacher were Smurfs and the oldest class and mums were a Mexican mariachi band. Whistles and bags of confetti were distributed and we set off through the streets of Sanlúcar, led by Pepe the principal, amid great excitement and fanfare.

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For weeks Lily and Katie had been learning songs, and when we reached the village plaza each class sang its song. We then carried on back to the school where they all sang their songs once again. The smaller children were wonderful. But the older boys (aged 9 to 13) looked thoroughly embarrassed and ill-at-ease and only the enthusiastic and full-voiced girls in those classes saved the day.

When the parade was over we were treated to Coke, Fanta, crisps and chorizo sandwiches. For once, the kids didn’t run around. They were exhausted and just wanted to sit with their food and drinks. The festivities came to a sudden end when the heavens opened and a heavy shower of rain caused us all to run for the cover of our homes.

In two days time the village Carnival will take place. I’m looking forward to being an uninvolved bystander!

Cold

Spring, the fiend, lulled us into the mistaken belief that the coldest days were behind us. After a week of the girls throwing their hot water bottles out of bed in the middle of the night followed by a few nights of not wanting them at all, I put them into storage, thinking I wouldn’t see them again for ten months. I kept mine out just in case, although I hadn’t used it in the last few weeks. I did, however, remove the wool blanket from my side of the bed and for a couple of weeks we woke most mornings to a dry boat, with no condensation dripping from the hatches and walls. It became easier to get out of bed, despite the dark. The mornings were warmer and I wasn’t huddling close to the kettle while it boiled the water for the day’s first cup of tea. Some days, by mid morning I was in sandals and short sleeves, gradually layering up again as the sun moved across the sky and the heat went out of the day. (When Carina’s on the east – Spanish – side of the river, as we are now, our mornings are colder, but our evenings warmer, as we get the benefit of the westward passage sun for longer).

Lambs and kid goats in the fields, blossoms on the almond trees, flowers in bloom, house martins returned from Africa busily feeding their chicks, bees a-buzzing. Ah spring, you tease. Suddenly, the north-westerly wind funnelled its way down the river valley, with blasts of cold air and gusts of 37 knots or more. Boats creaked and jolted and bounced on anchor chains and mooring lines. Hailstones fell and the girls ran into the cockpit to pick them up before they melted.

I got the hot water bottles and the blanket out again, the girls were back in fleecy pyjamas for bedtime, and we dressed in hats, scarves and gloves for the short dinghy trip to school. And then came the coldest morning of all, when we awoke and struggled to get out of bed, only to find Carina covered in a layer of frost, her spray hood and bimini hard and crisp, Julian’s trousers, left out overnight, frosted white and brittle to the touch. I dug out my merino wool thermal vest and longjohns, the girls went off to school dressed for an ascent of Everest. The north wind whipped down the river, laughing at how it fooled us.

In the afternoon a bee landed on my arm. It too had been fooled by the early spring. It was weak and tipsy and even the sugar solution I prepared failed to revive it. It staggered around and a gust of icy wind blew it away. It struggled and died and later I found one of its comrades on the foredeck, a victim of spring’s treachery.

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.

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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?