It’s more than food for free

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

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

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Lily with the first few shoots

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

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Taking a break by the well and orange grove

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

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Julian ahead on the trail

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

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A glimpse of the river

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

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

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Up the hillside he goes

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

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First dip of the year

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

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

A simple matter of choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wildlife haven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Turned off, tuned out

Living on the river one can quickly become disconnected from the outside world. Especially if one has only limited Internet time, and lives without a radio or television. Life on the Rio Guadiana is idyllic – for us estranjeros at least. The days are sunny and warm more often than not, the land is rich and fertile, the villages are quiet and serene. Life moves at a slow pace and everyone – local or blow-in – has time for a chat. With the ringing of sheep bells and twittering of a hundred thousand birds in the bushes along the riverbank, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world is out there. We live a privileged life here, far from the worries and cares of the world.

I’m even more estranged from the world than most due to my limited time on the Internet. I go online every day or every other day, picking up Wifi at the library or at a cafe. I’m rarely online for more than an hour and a half. That time is spent posting blogs, studying Spanish with Duolingo, checking and answering emails. Occasionally I will download a few podcasts to listen to back on the boat – invariably Woman’s Hour and Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review. If my computer battery hasn’t completely run down by then I might spend a few minutes on the BBC website, catching up on current affairs.

Twitter can be a great source of news for me. I mainly follow environmental, Arctic and Inuit-related stuff, and political individuals and organisations (that’s the only reason I follow Mark Ruffalo, honestly!), getting the news that interests me that way. But Twitter’s not much good if you only access it now and again. When I upload new tweets these days, I read them at home, but then don’t have the Internet access to follow the links to the stories.

My limited Internet time also means that I haven’t been keeping up with the blogs I follow, some of which I enjoy because of the political, ethical and moral questions they raise. I have a backlog of blogs in my hotmail inbox and I don’t know when I will ever have the time to read them.

And, of course, not having a radio or television at home means I am not exposed to current affairs and to the world outside my little stretch of the Rio Guadiana on an ongoing basis.

Now, all of this can be a good thing. Often, I think we have too much exposure to the world beyond our own home or community. We concern ourselves with things that don’t matter so much; or that shouldn’t affect our lives but do. And I’m not just talking about which celebrity wore what dress to an awards ceremony; or which pop star is dating which footballer. None of us needs that stuff cluttering our lives, no matter how much fun it is. Moved though I was by David Bowie’s death, it didn’t matter to my life that the news didn’t reach me for three days.

There are other news stories that, while interesting and thought provoking, only impact the lives of those immediately involved. Murders, mass shootings, transport accidents. Many people, including me, are often deeply moved, disturbed or worried by these stories, but they don’t alter our day to day lives. In a week we’ve forgotten about them.

But there are other things going on in the world that can and do affect our lives, or that we are responsible for or are part of the solution to. Here on the idyllic river, without daily access to news and current affairs, it’s easy to forget that there are refugees across the continent and the world, suffering, and that there are communities and nations (including the ones we’re living in) trying to find ways to cope with the influx of these refugees. It’s easy to forget that there are people losing their homes, livelihoods and lives across the world because of climate-change related droughts, fires, floods, pests and diseases. It’s easy to forget there are children in the world mining minerals for our mobile phones or working in sweat shops to produce the clothes and toys we so carelessly use and throw away. It’s easy to forget that fish, sea birds and other marine life are in immediate peril from the plastic pollution overwhelming our oceans. And so much more besides – food waste, toxic pollution, mass death of bees, the environmental and social implications of TTIP.

And I believe it’s important to be exposed to these stories, to know what’s happening, to be confronted with the reality of climate change; the relationship between consumerism, social injustice and environmental degradation; the boomerang of arms trade to war to refugee children. Because we – me and my husband, all of us – as consumers, voters, citizens, human beings, all contribute to these problems and we can also, crucially, contribute to their solutions. But if we do not know these things are happening, if we are not exposed to the individual personal stories that form the jigsaw that makes up the whole, then we can be lulled into a false stupor that the whole world is as idyllic this little stretch of river.

So I’m making a renewed effort to reconnect on a daily basis with the world beyond the river and to bring what I learn from the world into my way of living here. To renew the impact that environmental degradation, child labour, social injustice have on my consumer choices; to think about what I can do in my little life in this little corner of the world that will contribute to solving injustice and healing degradation. And for all it’s time sucking ability, the Internet is the best way I have right now to reconnect with the world beyond the river.

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?

Homemade Christmas

The Christmas season is well and truly upon us. A couple of weeks ago the streets of Sanlúcar were decorated with three strings of lights (!) and last week a light-tree was placed in the village square at Alcoutim, and local businesses decorated with lights. The lights of Alcoutim haven’t been lit yet, but as we took the dinghy upriver back to Carina last night (after a wonderful evening aboard the boat of newfound friends) we saw the lights of Sanlúcar for the first time, and very pretty they looked too.

The girls have been doing Christmas activities at school, learning about the Three Kings (who, in Spain, are far more important than Santa Claus. It is they who come on the night of January 5th with presents for children, which is great for Santa, because it means a little less work for him). Lily and Katie have been colouring in Nativity scenes and pictures of the Three Kings and I hope they’ll learn some Spanish Christmas songs soon.

There is an ex-pat choir in Sanlúcar which is preparing for carol singing events on both sides of the river in the coming weeks. And the local shops are now selling small selections of Christmas foods.

The girls and I made Advent calendars last weekend and are planning on making decorations for the boat this weekend, to add to those we made last year. My mother and sister are joining us in Alcoutim for Christmas, so there is great excitement as we anticipate their arrival.

On Wednesday I took the early morning bus down to Vila Real de Santo Antonio for a day of Christmas shopping. In this larger town down by the coast the shops were decorated for the season and well stocked with Christmassy things. I bought the presents I wanted to get for Lily and Katie and I stocked up on baking ingredients. I love baking for Christmas!

What I am enjoying about this Christmas season already is that it feels more understated than usual. Here on this remote river there are few opportunities for frenzied Christmas shopping. No Black Fridays here, no 8th of December shopping madness, that’s for sure.

I’ve written before here and here about my unease with the material excesses of Christmas. This year, given the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed and desperate people who have come to our shores seeking refuge, families who have lost all their worldly possessions, children without even one comforting toy or memento of home, the material excesses of Christmas sit even more uneasily with me.

Santa Claus will come to my girls on Christmas Eve. He is part of the magic of Christmas. But the magic of Christmas also lies in making decorations and home-baked gifts to give to our neighbours and friends, carol singing and community events, special foods and time spent with family. I don’t want the loot under the tree on Christmas morning to be the focus of Christmas for my children.

Who needs the material excess of Christmas with its stresses of running around in overcrowded overpriced overheated stores, running down your bank account and running up debts, worrying how people will react to the presents you’ve given them? Other than the shop owners and the banks, no-one needs that sort of Christmas.

Instead Christmas can be a time for family and for reaching out beyond family. For spending time not money; for giving of yourself, not your bank account; for enjoying, not stressing; and for being grateful and thankful for the many riches in your life, rather than feeling disappointed by the unwanted presents under the tree.

My Christmas shopping, what little it was, is done now, and I’m looking forward to a weekend of making felt stars and snowmen and Santa Clauses, writing cards to far-distant friends, making the first batch of tiffin, and drinking lots of hot chocolate with my girls.

I wish you all a gentle and relaxed Christmas.

House or boat?

What do you miss about living in a house?
What’s it like living on a boat?
What’s the most surprising thing about living on a boat?
In the past couple of months I’ve been asked these and similar questions by newfound friends, by acquaintances, by people who’ve contacted me via this blog, and even by someone who interviewed me for a magazine article.

To my ears, these questions are all of a similar theme, and there are two distinct lines I follow when attempting to answer them. The easier approach is to think about the material realities of living on a boat; the more difficult is to think about the affect our lifestyle has on emotional and relational aspects of life. The two, of course, are bound together, but it’s easier to tease them apart and explore them separately. Today I want to write about the material realities of living on a boat and save the more difficult question of the emotional side of things for another day.

Although it’s only a little over three years since we first moved aboard Carina, and despite currently working on a memoir about our life aboard, I genuinely find it difficult to remember what I imagined life aboard would be like as we prepared for the transition. I remember thinking a lot about sailing – inclement weather, running repairs, capsizing, pirates; and I thought a lot about idyllic anchorages, warm turquoise seas, spectacular sunsets. I thought far less about mundane day-to-day life on a 36 foot boat with three other people. The reality is, however, that we sail very little relative to the amount of time we spend in situ, engaged in mundane day-to-day life. The few times I had sailed prior to buying Carina I had enjoyed the caravan-type living arrangements but I hadn’t given much consideration to living like that for months and years on end.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

But reflecting on our life aboard now and having been living in a very comfortable house for the past five months I can honestly say there are very few things I miss about living in a house. The one thing I really do miss is a bath! I like nothing more than a long hot soak in a bath on a cold winter’s night, a strong cup of tea resting on the edge of the bath and a good novel in my hand (careful not to let it fall in!). So I’m enjoying the occasional soak now that I’m back in a house, knowing that once we’re back aboard Carina next week it could well be a long time before I have a bath again!

So here’s perhaps the most surprising thing about life on a boat. I don’t miss any of the things I might be expected to miss – all those mod cons that are supposed to make life easier. I don’t miss a fridge or a washing machine or a shower. I don’t miss unlimited water and energy at the touch of a button or turn of a switch. I certainly don’t miss owning a car or a television, a vacuum cleaner or an iron. And there are things I have never owned, so can’t possibly miss – microwave, dishwasher, freezer.

Julian in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

Julian washing dishes in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

We have a fridge aboard which we use when we are on a pontoon, plugged into mains electricity. The rest of the time, when we’re at anchor or mooring, we live fridge free, because it requires more power to run than our 80 watt solar panel can provide. When we had a car and a continuously working fridge, we would shop for fresh food once a week, stocking our fridge to bursting with a week’s worth of dairy and vegetables. I’ve recently realised how much not having a fridge has become normal for Julian and me by the way we both react to the similarly packed-to-bursting fridges and freezers of my parents-in-law. ‘Surely you didn’t need that much stuff’, we gasp in disbelief, used as we are now to buying fresh food little and often and forgetting that, until recently, we used to shop in the same way.

Life without a washing machine or tumble drier is no big deal. When we have access to a launderette we do one bag of laundry a week. When there is no launderette nearby, I hand-wash small amounts of washing two or three times a week. Aboard the boat we take a different approach to our clothing. We have a lot less of it for starters. We own fewer items of clothing and we don’t own anything that’s delicate or requires special treatment. And every item of clothing is put through a sight and smell test before it goes in the laundry bag. Just because a shirt or pair of trousers has been worn doesn’t mean it’s dirty. If it’s not stained or doesn’t smell then it gets worn again the next day. Just like we used to do years ago, prior to the advent of ultra-convenient washing machines and tumble driers.

We adjusted quickly to our limited supplies of water, energy and cooking fuel aboard. We have adapted everything from the way we wash our bodies and brush our teeth, to the way we cook pasta and rice, in order to maximise our water supply. Over the past couple of years energy has become less of an issue as Julian has replaced all the old bulbs with low-energy LED bulbs, our anchor light is now powered by its own mini-solar panel, and our laptop recharger is now far more energy efficient than the one we had before. Still, energy isn’t on tap and we have grown accustomed to acting in ways that are energy efficient – making the most of daylight hours to achieve tasks that require strong light, religiously switching off cabin lights, and making decisions about whether certain uses of energy are necessary.

We’ve gotten used to this way of life relatively easily, in part because when we decided to buy a boat one of our main motivations was to live a simpler, less consumption-led life. We were both driven by a certain environmental and social consciousness and so it feels good to live that simple frugal life that we wanted.

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

With mod-cons out of the way, the other glaringly obvious aspect of living on a boat is size. Let’s face it, Carina is not big. She’s 36 foot from bow to stern and 11 foot wide at her broadest. Headroom is slightly less than Julian’s six feet two inches. The girls are growing with alarming speed and before long I’m going to be the shortest person aboard. And, with the exception of those few boxes of stuff stored with Julian’s parents, everything we own is aboard the boat.

Sometimes the lack of space isn’t a problem; other times it drives me mad. When the boat is tidy, when the sun is shining, when everyone’s in a good mood, space is no issue. When the boat is messy, when all four of us are trying to do things in the saloon at the same time – one of us cooking, one repairing, kids dressing up and playing noisily (or worse – fighting) – it can get a bit wild and uncomfortable. But, for the past five months we’ve been living in a house that would engulf Carina’s living spaces ten times over and it’s just as annoying when the place is messy, the kids are running wild, two or three of us are trying to do things at the same time. So I think space is as much in the mind as in the physical space around us.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill, mobile phone, play mobile people and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

On a practical note, the lack of space aboard is most obvious when we sit down to family meals, which we do three times a day. The table takes up the entire saloon when fully extended; and the four of us can barely fit around the wobbly unstable table in the cockpit. To get around these tables requires advanced contortionist skills and if the make-shift worktop in the saloon is in place (which it usually is) then you can expect to be stabbed in the back by its sharp outer corner as you try to squeeze between it and the edge of the saloon table. Thankfully both saloon and cockpit tables are collapsible so they’re not a burden most of the time.

Because of the lack of space, stored items aren’t always easy or convenient to reach. Over the years we’ve learned by trial and error and have moved food and other items around, depending on how regularly things are used. But if I run out of peppercorns half way through making dinner, gaining access to the spare tub is rarely easy, or if the weather suddenly changes and I need to get my cold weather gear, I have to strip my bed in the aft cabin, remove the mattress and burrow like a badger to reach those rarely worn clothes.

The longer we live aboard Carina the more used we grow to her idiosyncratic living space and the more tricks we develop to make life easier. But living aboard has never been a trial. I have never once regretted the decision to move from a substantial house with a huge garden in the countryside to a tiny self-contained boat. What our lives lack in mod-cons and living space is more than made up for in an abundance of time together as a family, opportunities to travel where and when we want, and opportunities to learn and grow each and every day.