Cancel school?

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

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

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

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

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

A cold and frosty morning

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

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

 

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

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And he’s away!

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

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

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

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

The cold never bothered me anyway

The other side of the river wasn’t there this morning. We wondered, as we walked up to school just before 9am, if Portugal had drifted away in the night, and if so, was it by accident or design. I opted for design and guessed it was merrily floating across the Atlantic, making its way to Brazil for the winter.

Turned out it was there all along. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It was just shrouded in cold dense fog. Man alive, it’s cold here right now. Not Arctic cold or even Ireland cold, but cold nonetheless. This time last year we were still swimming in the river at the Praia Fluvial in Alcoutim. We weren’t long back from our sojourn in the UK, and we basked in balmy November sunshine.

We’re getting the sunshine alright, but I defy anyone to strip down to their swimwear and plunge into the river (my mad husband accepted…but that’s a blog post for another day). It started gradually a couple of weeks ago. The nights grew colder and we all needed an extra blanket on our beds. Then the coats came out for the walk to school in the morning. By the end of the school day, at 2pm, it was t-shirt weather, so the girls frequently forgot to bring their coats home. For the past few days they’ve been wearing their coats to and from school.

The day came when I took the electric heater out of storage, at first to warm the boat up for twenty minutes when we got up in the morning. Now it’s running in the evenings too, both to warm up the boat and in a bid to stave off the dreaded condensation that comes from four people breathing inside a closed up boat.

Two nights ago the hot water bottles came out, the blankets were no longer enough to keep us cosy in bed. And this morning I swapped our bag of summer hats for our winter bag of gloves, woolly hats, neck warmers and scarves.

I met someone earlier who commented, ‘You must be cold’. Not a chance. In my woolly hat, and three warm layers underneath my jacket, I was snug as a bug walking through town. Maybe my nose was cold, but not much else.

There’s something nice about snuggling in for winter. Cold nights under blankets, brisk crisp days, hot tea and butter melting on toast, hearty soups made from winter vegetables, roasted chestnuts straight from the oven, hot brandy with cloves. I’ve known colder winters, that’s for sure, and I know this one will be brief. I can either fight it or embrace it. I say embrace it.

Forty two

I get up early, do what few chores I can get away with, open the hatches wide and make sure all the boat curtains are closed. I pull the bimini up over the cockpit, providing some shade and funnelling what little wind there is down into the saloon. I set up the wind scoop on the foredeck, over the fore hatch, hoping to funnel a little more wind in. But with no breeze the wind scoop hangs limp. Finally, I place one of our big plastic laundry tubs on the cockpit floor, drag the hose from the pontoon tap, and fill the tub. I am now prepared. Prepared for what this day is promising to throw at us. Bring it on!

For days the temperatures have been rising. ‘It’s supposed to be 42 degrees tomorrow’ is the sentence on everyone’s lips. ‘Hotter still on Monday and Tuesday’, says Paul. Joe says, ‘I’ve known it to hit 55 here’. Fifty-five degrees centigrade? You could fry an egg on the bonnet of a car in that. You could fry a human pretty quickly too.

The last few days have been hellishly hot, but on the day when 42 is forecast I’m ready. The bimini and wind scoop manage to pull what little air there is into the boat, and remarkably, the boat feels cool…ish. Every time the girls or I start to feel overheated we immerse our feet or faces or arms in the tub of water in the cockpit and we keep permanently wet muslin squares tied around our necks. The girls lie down with slices of cucumber over their eyes. We keep ourselves psychologically cool too, with the polar episodes of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth. Watching emperor penguins shuffle to keep warm in an Antarctic blizzard cools us down.

The trick, I tell the girls, is to be as inactive as possible and keep hydrated. We work our way through three litres of water from the fridge, eat fruit and yogurt for lunch, read and watch DVDs. When four o’clock rolls round we perspire madly for twenty minutes as we prepare for the beach. We don swimsuits and sunscreen and slowly walk through the treacle-like heat to the beach. It’s the weekend, so the beach is crammed with visitors from Spain and Portugal all, like us, attempting to escape the heat. I dump the bag as close to the water as I can get it, because the sand is scorching underfoot.

And then….ahhhhhhhh….the very best part of the day. Immersing ourselves in the river. Instant relief from the heat, instant comfort. We stay on the beach until dark, always the last to leave. When that unimaginable 42 degrees or more comes again tomorrow, we’ll be ready for it once again.

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.

Breathing treacle

I haven’t been blogging much lately. Not for lack of material, but for lack of time and energy. With Julian working eight to ten hours a day six days a week at a bar in Alcoutim and my English teaching and online editing jobs taking up fifteen to twenty hours a week, time has become a precious commodity. But I think I would still have time to blog after taking care of the children, doing the housework and shopping, if I wasn’t feeling so lethargic all the time. The reason for my sudden and uncharacteristic lethargy? It’s summer here in southern Iberia and the air is thick as treacle.

After a prolonged spring, summer has come with a bang. Temperatures are 35 to 40˚C every day, and I’m assured it can hit 45˚C in the village in July. All four of us sleep well apart these nights in an effort to keep cool, with all the hatches thrown wide open in an effort to cool Carina. Julian sleeps in the aft cabin, Katie in the fore cabin, and Lily and I sleep in the berths one either side of the saloon. The air cools slowly at night, making for a pleasant first couple of hours every morning. But after the less-than five minute walk to school with the girls just before 9am, I’m sporting an attractive sweaty upper lip and damp patches at my arm pits. Not to worry – all the other mums look the same!

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Not a cloud in the deep blue sky this morning

Each day I have only a few brief hours to get everything done. If I don’t do laundry, boat cleaning and tidying, shopping and any other chores before 11am, then it’s just too hot to do them. On mornings when I have a 9am English class those chores don’t get done at all.

A friend recently gave Katie a hand-me-down bicycle. She was so excited, but there was a problem. The rear tire had a puncture. For days she begged me to repair the puncture, and for days I couldn’t do it, simply because it was too hot a task to undertake in the hot sun. Finally, on Sunday morning, I got out of bed at 8.30 and, before the day grew too hot, I made the repairs. Helping her to learn to ride the bike in the heat is now my challenge!

By the time I collect the girls from school at 2pm, we are all red faced and exhausted, dragging our feet along the street, seeking what tiny patches of shade we can find between school and boat. Once we are back onboard, it’s a quick lunch and then siesta time.

Until recently, I had to enforce siesta, begging and cajoling the girls to lie down and relax for another few minutes, just a few more minutes. These days, they barely touch their lunch, as they are so overheated, and ask to be excused so they can start siesta. While I usually sleep for half an hour to an hour, and then spend an hour reading, the girls rarely sleep. Instead, they read or listen to a story CD or, occasionally, watch a movie. I lie in bed, the air around me thick as tar. Turning on the fan has little effect. It merely turns my conventional oven bedroom into a fan oven.

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This year’s birthday present – a wind scoop

For my birthday, Mammy bought me a wind scoop*; a nifty piece of simple engineering. It’s a shaped piece of sail cloth placed over a hatch on deck to scoop air into and through the boat. Low tech air conditioning. Unfortunately, due to the layout of our deck, our scoop isn’t quite working to its full effect. A stay forward of the fore cabin hatch and the mizzen mast forward of the aft cabin hatch get in the way of setting the scoop in the most optimum position. Still, we’re getting some draft through the boat at some point most days.

At around 5pm every evening we start to get moving again. It’s still unpleasantly hot, so on evenings when I’m not teaching English, or helping to build the set for this Saturday’s medieval play (Lily is knight number five!), the girls and I don our swim suits and head to the Praia Fluvial (river beach) in Alcoutim. I drop my bag under the nearest available sunshade and wade into the water, wallowing like a hippopotamus for the next three hours! Even at 8.30 or 9pm, as we make our way back home, the air is hot.

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The gap-toothed girls have found a novel way to cool down before going to bed every night!

Some evenings, when teaching or set building prevents us going across the river, the girls play on the smaller beach on the Sanlúcar side of the river. Aram, the dad and uncle of three of Lily’s classmates, owns a water adventure business located on the beach, so the three boys are to be found most evenings playing on the beach and my girls join them. If I don’t feel like going to the beach, I can keep an eye on Lily and Katie from Carina’s cockpit.

I have a love-hate relationship with the extreme heat. I love hours of swimming in the river three or four evenings a week. I love that I can indulge in my current endless craving for crisps, as I need to replenish salts. I love the fun the girls have playing with water on the pontoon. I love sitting out on deck late at night and finally feeling cooler air around me. I love a couple of cold glasses of fizzy vino verde at the end of the day. And I love that I can hang sopping wet laundry out to dry, not even bothering to squeeze any excess water out of it, and in an hour it will all be bone dry.

I dislike that I have to stop jobs half way through because I am too hot to carry on. I dislike feeling so tired every afternoon. I dislike the heat-induced grouchiness that descends on all of us. And I dislike having to constantly think about our skin getting burned in these extreme temperatures.

While many of our fellow Rio Guadiana yachties have already sailed down to Ilha da Culatra for the summer, we remain because of school and work. The girls finish school next week, and on July 4th, the three of us are flying north, for six weeks visiting family and friends in England and Ireland and one week by the seaside in Wales. We’re leaving Julian on the river to suffer the worst of the summer heat while he carries on working in the bar. While others might complain if the UK or Irish summer turns out to be rainy and windy, I don’t think the girls and I will mind. We know that in late August we’ll be returning to the hot hot hot Rio Guadiana.

*When I say ‘Mammy bought me a wind scoop’ what I really mean is that, like most birthdays and Christmases, she gave me the money to buy some (to her) bizarre sailing related item!

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.

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.

Windy March

The wind has finally died down. Its arrival coincided with Julian’s departure on the 26th of February. Before that, we’d had the occasional windy day, but on Friday the 26th it blew up a hooley and carried on blowing until last night. Two full weeks of a cold north wind. There have been mild half days, still calm mornings that lulled me into the false idea that the wind had finally abated. But by the afternoon on those days, it was blowing a Force 6, gusting to Force 7. Last Monday was the worst, and I had to get across the choppy river from Portugal to Spain in my little rubber dinghy. Someone invited me to join them for coffee, but I took one look at the river and thought to myself ‘I just want to get across now’. I didn’t want to have time to think about it. There were high Force 7 gusts that day, and by the time I made it across the river, I was soaked through and shaky. I picked the girls up from school and we returned to Carina, and stayed home for the rest of the day.

I was worried about Carina in that wind. Everyone assures me the fore and aft mooring we’re on is not going anywhere, but I’m paranoid about chafe on the mooring lines, and when the high winds coincided with a spring tide I was out of bed two or three times a night, checking the lines, making sure they looked healthy and secure. And I also worried about the yacht that’s recently been anchored close by and has no-one aboard. Were her anchor and chain strong enough to hold her in this wind, or would she come drifting our way.

Much to my relief, the forecast from today onwards is for light winds, no more than Force 3, and dropping down to Force 1 in the coming days.

Despite being temporary skipper while Julian’s away, I haven’t felt alone in these conditions. We have good friends on the river who have been looking out for me. When the outboard refused to start one day and I couldn’t row against the wind, Amy towed me home. When the wind was doing its worst, Paul helped me push the dinghy off the pontoon and kept an eye on the girls and me until we were safely back onboard Carina. Paul’s also kept his phone handy, in case I’ve needed him and I know he, and about five skippers are just a call away if I need help. The ferrymen who transport tourists across the river from Spain to Portugal have been looking out for me too, and they’re within shouting distance if I need assistance.

Now I will go home and hang out the washing, for the first time in two weeks without the fear that half of it will blow away into the river!

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.