Bountiful summer

It’s been a bountiful summer. Vines sagged under their bunches of grapes, fig trees were rich with their purple and green fruits, and sweet almond trees were bedecked with clusters of the furry green-brown outer shells of nuts.

For the first time I spent the summer in southern Iberia (with the exception of two weeks in Ireland in early July). In previous years I rued all the fresh summer foods I would miss, as I packed my bags for long summers away in northern Europe – the figs still hard and small on the copious fig trees, the grapes mere buds on the vines. We’d enjoyed an abundance of ripe plums before we’d flown north and the pomegranates were ripe on our return (alas, my least favourite fruit).

But this year I indulged (indeed, overindulged) in what the Rio Guadiana had to offer. Despite the parched earth, the unforgiving sun, and the river gradually growing saltier on each flood tide, there was an explosion of wild and cultivated foods to feast on.

At first, I gathered figs from wild trees, or from cultivated trees overhanging lanes and hiking trails, stretching up on my tip-toes to reach what hadn’t already been harvested by others. Purple figs or ripe green figs burst open to reveal their rich red pulpy interiors, the green ones all the more spectacular for the contrast between their outsides and insides. In two mouthfuls, three at most, I’d ingest each fig, savouring the deep sweetness, like sweet jam eaten straight from the pot. When I moved downriver to house-sit for some friends, their smallholding was enjoying an unusual abundance of figs, which I plucked and ate as I wandered the property, or plucked before breakfast to add to my muesli, or spread out to dry, so I will have a supply of dried figs for a few months to come. I even, as instructed by my friends, lopped off the lowest lying branches of the fig trees and fed them to the sheep. Those old ladies nearly galloped towards the prize, delighting in the figs as much as I did.

My friends also had sweet almond trees (not to be confused with bitter almonds – essential in making marzipan, but poisonous and disgusting if eaten raw and unprocessed). As with the figs, I plucked almonds from the trees for morning muesli and kept the nutcracker close by so I could indulge as the mood took me. A large bowl of almonds now sits in Carina’s cockpit which, apart from their delicious flavour, keeps us all busy with the nutcracker.

If you stand still for long enough around here, a vine will grow around you. They have crept up through and around fig trees, orange trees and eucalyptus trees. Reaching the large sweet green bunches often requires feats of gymnastic dexterity, and even now I look with longing and temptation at a certain glut of grapes that remain elusively out of reach, a sharp 50metre drop and certain injury separating me from them.

Vines, as well as producing one of Earth’s most delicious fruits, are an excellent source of shade, and many people along the river encourage vines across the pergolas that cover the outdoor balconies and patios where so much of life is lived here. A friend required assistance one Saturday. She manages a holiday let property and had only a short window between the departure of one group of holiday makers and the arrival of another. She asked if I would help change the bedding, clean the bathrooms and vacuum the floors. What she didn’t tell me was that the balcony pergola was sagging under the weight of a hundred bunches of grapes. As I worked, I plucked, my mouth almost continuously full of the sweetest of Mother Nature’s grapes. When my work was done, my friend insisted I take some home. I took six massive bunches, which weren’t even missed from the bonanza overhead. I refused to take more, as those I had were being crushed under their own weight. There were far too many for me, so I shared them with friends I met on boats on my way home. Julian and I still had more than knew what to do with. There have been other occasions this summer of sitting late at night on balconies or patios, decadently plucking grapes from overhead as I wind down with friends after a night out.

I have, for some time, been tempted to experiment with carobs. These long, vanilla-like pods also grow in abundance here, and have long been used as an alternative to chocolate. Carob is sweet and healthy, the Portuguese use the powder to make crepes and pastries, and bags of powder can be found in fresh food markets across southern Portugal. For the past two years we’ve been regularly feeding carob pods to Salsa, our horse friend. He devours them, and raises his left front hoof to let us know he wants more. He whinnies now when he sees any of the four of us come walking along the lane, knowing his carob fix is coming (Salsa is also partial to vine leaves and whole oranges, turns up his nose at fig leaves, but carob is clearly his favourite).

But when I went online to learn what I could do with carobs, I discovered the process of getting from pod to powder is all rather time consuming. So, we will continue to snack on them when we go walking, and continue to keep Salsa supplied.

Autumn is in the air, the nights are getting cooler (Katie’s back under a duvet at night, and Lily has an extra blanket) and the abundance of food continues. The pomegranates are ripe now (pleasing all aboard Carina apart from me), as are the quinces. In a few months time we will be once again preserving olives and enjoying fresh oranges and lemons, as this incredibly fertile part of the world keeps our taste buds happy with what it has to offer up.

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Carina upriver

Carina’s been moored upriver of Sanlúcar and Alcoutím since late June. Close to two and a half months now. She spent a few days back on the Alcoutím pontoon in mid-July but, for the most part, she’s been peacefully resting upriver, facing up or downriver as the tide dictates, hills and goats, quince and pomegranate trees for neighbours. She’s not alone. There are other boats moored here too – most unoccupied, but we have a few friends who come and go to their moorings anchorages close by.

I’ve spent more time aboard Carina than anyone else this summer. Lily and Katie were in the UK and Ireland for seven weeks and Julian, because of his job, spent more time in Alcoutím than aboard Carina. I went to Ireland for a couple of weeks, I house-sat for a week, and I sailed to Culatra aboard Sea Warrior. But between all those trips, I returned home to Carina. I’ve spent many days and nights aboard alone. Despite the summer heat – mid-40˚Cs some days – I got to grips with some much needed work. I repaired the floor in the forward heads, thoroughly cleaned Carina’s every nook and cranny, attempted (and mostly failed) to repair the dinghy, and attended to multiple little tasks – sewing, whipping sheets and lines, getting on top of an ant infestation!

Due to the heat, most of my work was carried out early in the morning or late at night. The middle of the day was reserved for sleeping, reading and curing my perspiration by swimming in the river. The joys of being away from the villages are multiple. The silence. The green-brown hills against the sharp blue sky. Birdsong. The night sky awash with stars. The freedom of nakedness!

Last week, with house-sitting done and the girls home from their travels abroad, we settled back into family life aboard Carina. At each low water we row the short distance to the nearest riverbank, to swim and skim stones off a rocky spit. The pleasure of immersing our overheated bodies in the warm river water is beyond words.

There’s entertainment to be had in watching fish leaping high out of the water (one day last week one narrowly avoided landing in the dinghy as we motored downriver), herons on the riverbank, egrets flying overhead at dusk.

I’m hoping to get my hands on another dinghy soon, so that once the girls are back at school Julian and I will have two tenders, allowing us to stay off the pontoon more often, so we can find solace and peace just around the bend in the river.

Sailing with Roy

‘Do you have any sailing plans for this summer?’ I asked my friend Roy in early June.

‘I don’t think so’, he replied. ‘I enjoy sailing more when I’ve got someone onboard to share the experience with’.

We’ve known Roy for a couple of years now, another Rio Guadiana live aboard, on Sea Warrior, his Great Barrier 48.

I walked away from Roy that day and a couple of hours later a thought struck me. Would Roy go sailing if I went along? With Julian working five days a week, Carina hasn’t been out of the river in over two years, and I’ve been itching to go sailing for ages. The next time I met Roy, I put it to him. He thought it was a great idea. In mid-July the girls would be in Ireland with their Granny and if I could rearrange some commitments I had in Alcoutím, I would be free to go sailing for a week or so. A few days later everything was sorted out, and Roy and I agreed to set sail a couple of days after I returned from Ireland on July 18th. Roy agreed to provision Sea Warrior, and I would pay for my share of the food and drink once I got aboard.

On Thursday afternoon, July 20th, I climbed aboard Sea Warrior at her anchorage upriver of Alcoutím. After a cup of tea and a walk through the boat, we were ready to set sail.

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Rio The bridge linking Spain and Portugal across the Rio Guadiana

And sail we did. Before we had even reached Sanlúcar (which lies slightly upriver from its Portuguese neighbour Alcoutím) the mizzen was raised, the headsail unfurled, the engine cut and we enjoyed a delightful four-hour, 20-mile sail almost all the way to the mouth of the Guadiana. We were forced to motor only once, for the few minutes it took to round the S-bend upriver of Laranjeiras, when the wind came from the wrong direction and Sea Warrior was stopped in her tracks. Roy was keen to get sailing again before we passed Laranjeiras and Sea Warrior’s former owner, Scot. We achieved it, our shouts rousing Scot from his mid-afternoon siesta, as we sailed past and he none the wiser!

How different the river feels when sailed. With the engine running, the passage downriver is drowned in noise and one passes along rather than through the landscape. Without the engine roar we were immersed in a soundscape of birdsong, sheep bells, the wind in the sails and the sounds of the river itself. At times our attention was drawn to a fish leaping from the water; the first leap a mere flash of silver in the corner of the eye; the second a foot-long fish, moving at speed through the air, droplets of river water glistening in the sun. If we were lucky, we were treated to a third leap, but never a fourth, and had to wait patiently until another glint of silver caught the eye.

We pointed out egrets to each other, white cotton bolls on spindly legs patrolling the exposed muddy edge of the river.

For the first few miles we passed the boats, homesteads and fincas of friends and acquaintances and the farther we came downriver, the lower and sparser the hills until almost at the bridge that connects Spain and Portugal, where the riverbank gives way to a wide floodplain.

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We anchored upriver of the bridge, near a small tributary on the Portuguese side, where a herd of brown and cream coloured cows (presumably, one type for producing milk chocolate and the other for white chocolate!) grazed at the river’s edge.

The next day, with a strong wind in the wrong direction, we motored under the bridge, filled up with diesel and petrol at the fuel pontoon at Vila Real de Santo Antonio and crossed the river to anchor south of Ayamonte. It was a lazy day. I did a couple of hours work (one of the joys of my editing job is that I can do it wherever and whenever so long as I bring my computer and my brain with me), and spent the rest of the day reading and chatting with Roy.

We set our alarm clocks for 5am the next morning, with a 5.30 start in mind. But by the time we’d had a cup of tea, stowed everything out of harm’s way and battened down the hatches, it was 6am when Roy weighed anchor. What luck! Within minutes we had once again thrown the sails out, turned off the engine, and were making our way out of the Rio Guadiana and sailing west towards Ilha da Culatra with a Force 7 abaft the beam. For three hours we made good ground, with wind and tide in our favour. It was exhilarating to be sailing on the ocean again, although Roy’s idea of sailing – to set the autohelm and go to sleep – is somewhat different to sailing Carina, where we don’t even have a properly functioning autohelm! I teased Roy about his ‘Ghost helmsman’ for the rest of the trip.

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(I jest about Roy, of course! He’s very careful and I was on watch when I took this photo).

After three hours the wind died to nothing and there was nothing for it but to motor the rest of the way. Even so, we had a tremendously pleasant time. Not a cloud in the bright blue sky, the seawater almost peacock blue, and the white sandy Algarve beaches almost too bright to look at.

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The sea really was this blue!

We rounded the mole at Culatra at 1pm and were anchored amongst the boats of friends in time for lunch. Since September 2014, when we spent nine days at Culatra aboard Carina, I have longed to come back. My only regret this time was that Lily and Katie weren’t with me. When I phoned to tell them all about what I was getting up to in Culatra neither of them could remember it, so I emailed them photos of themselves there three years ago, to try to jog their memories.

Culatra is a remarkable sand barrier island. The small village is built on the sand, with concrete and wooden walkways as streets. There are no cars, and only a few tractors and golf buggies. Much of the Rio Guadiana live aboard community decamps to Culatra in the summer, where the temperatures are cooler than upriver. Roy and I got to catch up with many of our friends  – meeting them in the local bars, or visiting them on their boats.

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Culatra fishermen waiting for their skipper and a night at sea

Sea Warrior sat at anchor off Culatra for five nights, and we went ashore each day for walks along the long sandy beach, to swim in the Atlantic and to drink beer with friends. We visited Ray and Pat one day aboard Tinto, walking across the sand to the catamaran, but having to be chauffeured back ashore when the tide came in and the beach was now 100 metres away!

Back on Sea Warrior I got away with doing only two hours computer work each day, the rest of my time was devoted to reading and gazing at the beautiful seascape. I distinctly remember the last time I did so little – the spring of 2005 when I went on a week-long holiday to Lanzarote with my mother and sister. Those five days in Culatra recharged my batteries, leaving me keen and eager to throw myself headlong into some summer projects.

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…and, in a desperate bid to escape my incessant talking…..

At 8am Thursday morning we weighed anchored and motored away from our mill-pond still anchorage. Given the weather forecast, we fully expected to motor all the way back to the Guadiana, but about an hour in we decided to give sailing a go. After some adventure involving a stubborn halyard and a daredevil ascent of the main mast, Roy raised the mainsail and the mizzen and unfurled the headsail and upside down sail. Although there was no hope of us ever winning a race, we pleasantly made our way east at between 3.5 and 5 knots. The sea was flat with a surface like cellulite rather than glass! What bliss. Sea Warrior smoothly made her way through the water and about ten hours after leaving Culatra we were once again at the mouth of the Guadiana. How far would Sea Warrior’s sails take us, we wondered? Past Vila Real? Past Ayamonte? Under the bridge? In fact, she took us all the way to our anchorage, once again back by the tributary and the chocolate-flavoured cows.

We didn’t have the tide in our favour until the middle of the next afternoon, so after a lazy morning and leisurely lunch, we started out up the river. For three hours we pootled along under motor, the head sail giving us an extra half knot of speed. Before long, we were passing familiar stretches of riverbank, once again pointing out the boats and plots of land belonging to our friends. As we passed Casa Amarilla, Claire waved down to us from her balcony and, as we slowly motored past Sanlúcar seeking a space on the pontoon, I heard someone shouting ‘Hola Martina’. Though I couldn’t at first see where it was coming from, I recognised the unmistakable voice of Steve. By the time I spotted him on his balcony Lynne was out too, shouting her hellos at me. Though I was sorry to be at the end of our trip, I was happy to be coming home.

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One of the many delicious vegetarian meals Roy cooked for me.

Despite the Ghost helmsman, Roy proved an excellent skipper and an even better friend. I learned some new recipes from him, he restored my confidence in my own sailing abilities, and he inspired me to attempt some boat maintenance tasks aboard Carina. Alas, he broke my heart. We weren’t an hour back in Sanlúcar, enjoying a cold beer with friends, as I awaited the arrival of my hardworking husband, when Roy started hatching a plan to sail to Culatra again next week with another woman!! These fickle sailors!

Roots or routes?

In early May, Sanlúcar de Guadiana and its neighbour El Granado held their annual Romería. It was our third Romería, and a few days after the fiesta, as I uploaded my photographs onto the laptop, I decided to take a look back at our two previous Romerías, in 2015 and 2016. Each year we have known more about the festival and have, thus, been able to participate in it more deeply.

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Spectators in 2015

In May 2015, we had been up the Rio Guadiana for less than two weeks when we came ashore one Saturday at lunchtime to watch this colourful local spectacle. We weren’t sure what it was all about or where everyone was going in tractor and mule-drawn trailers. We were hot and thirsty and, after taking a few photos and watching the procession set off, we returned home to Carina.

In May 2016, we knew more about this two-day event during which the people of Sanlúcar and the people of El Granado come together in a field mid-way between the two villages to eat, drink and party into the night. Lily and Katie dressed in their cheap tourist-shop flamenco dresses and we walked the road to the festival. But we went too early, overtaking the procession which went by a different route, and had eaten all our food and drunk all our water by the time the procession arrived. We stayed a little while, visiting the caseta of one family we knew a little bit.

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In the thick of it, 2017

In May 2017, Lily and Katie wore proper flamenco dresses, we rode in one of the trailers for the four hours it took to cover the three or so kilometres from Sanlúcar to the site of the Romería, singing and dancing, drinking and eating along the way. In advance of the festival, friends from both Sanlúcar and El Granado had invited us to eat and drink in their casettas. The girls and I set up camp with some English friends, where we had our own picnic, and then, as Saturday evening progressed, we did the rounds of the casettas to which we had been invited.

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Four hours of singing in the tractor-drawn trailer

Looking back over those three sets of photographs I realised that what had once been, for us, a colourful local festival in a quirky village filled with strangers had become a part of our annual calendar in our adopted village filled with friends and neighbours. Zooming in on those photos from 2015, it dawned on me that those strangers were now Lily and Katie’s schoolmates and their parents, the friends I chat to in my favourite bar, my English language students. These strangers are now people to whose houses I have visited, who have invited us to birthday parties, First Communion celebrations and Christmas dinners. They are strangers no more.

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Dance break by the side of the road!

Yachties frequently ask each other about their sailing plans. It’s the nature of living on a boat. There are times when I am envious when I see our sailing friends set off down the river. I want to set off for destinations unknown too. Our good friends aboard Pelagic are now sailing in the Pacific, having left the Rio Guadiana in spring of 2016. I read their blog and tell Lily and Katie about the wonderful adventures of their friends Ana and Porter  in places I’ve never heard of with names I can’t pronounce and part of me wishes we were out there too aboard Carina. Maybe someday we will.

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But there is also something wonderful about staying put, about getting to know a place and its people, about getting below the surface of those colourful and strange traditions  and about strangers becoming friends.

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Maybe we will still be here for next year’s Romería. Maybe not. Getting to know a place takes time. Understanding a community and its people takes patience. If we are here next year I am sure I will look back on May 2017 and marvel at my naiveté and lack understanding and my presumption at what I thought I knew!

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Protect your eyes!

In May, Lily’s left eye and then her right eye appeared bloodshot. At first I put it down to the use of sunscreen. The strong summer sun means the girls and I were slapping on sun protection every time we go out walking, swimming or are doing outdoor chores. But when I thought about it, I realised that the redness in Lily’s eyes was not the same as that caused by sunscreen. For one, the sunscreen causes a general redness, like you get after swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool. Lily’s eyes had triangular redness starting at a point at her tear duct near her nose and fanning out to her iris. Lily, being at an age when she is conscious of her appearance, asked me frequently about this redness and when it would go away.

Her left eye gradually cleared of any redness, but then she developed it in her right eye. Then one day, seeing her in a different light, I noticed bumps on the edge of her iris, where the redness ended. There were two of these little bumps, and they looked liked blisters. She didn’t complain of any pain, but said her eyes often felt dry. I took her to the doctor the next day.

The doctor immediately diagnosed pterygium, also known as ‘surfer’s eye’.  The redness was the immediately recognisable first symptom of tissue growth on the surface of the eyeball. The bumps on the edge of the iris are lesions and the growth and lesions may continue to grow until they eventually cover the pupil, leading to blurred vision, astigmatism and corneal scarring. It can affect one or both eyes. Laser surgery and replacement of eye tissue with amniotic membrane are two treatments, although these treatments are only necessary if vision becomes affected.

The cause is simple – excessive exposure to sun, wind and sand. Well, living the lifestyle we do, on a boat, in countries at lower latitudes, spending lots of time on beaches, my children are prime candidates for such eye damage. The problem is most common among people who live closer to the equator and among men aged 20 to 40 (because they are the ones who spend more time out of doors).

Our mission now is to prevent Lily’s pterygium from getting worse. The doctor prescribed the use of artificial tears (eye drops) and the wearing of sunglasses and a sunhat when outside. After using the eye drops for a couple of days the redness had disappeared and the doctor advised using the eye drops whenever the redness recurs. Julian, down in Vila Real a couple of days later, bought both girls good quality polarising sunglasses that provide both UVA and UVB protection. Now we insist they both wear sunglasses and sunhats when out during the day. Although Lily was quite upset by it all at first, she has grown used to wearing her sunglasses now, especially because Dad bought her such cool ones!

I wanted to share this as a word of warning. No matter where you live, but particularly if you live in a part of the world that gets prolonged and strong sunlight, protect your eyes and the eyes of your loved ones. Lily’s eye damage is the latest in a line of northern Europeans living here on the river dealing with the consequences of sun damage. Pre-cancerous moles and melanomas seem to be on the rise these days amongst our friends.

Also, a word of warning about the type of sunglasses you buy. Dark lenses don’t necessarily mean sun protection. Make sure your glasses and your kids’ glasses provide UVA and UVB protection. Dark lenses dilate the pupil and allow more light in, and without ultraviolet protection this leads to even greater sun damage. And, if like me, you wear glasses for short sightedness, pay that extra £10 on your new prescription for the ultraviolet filter.

We will continue to enjoy living in such a sun-kissed part of the world, but from now on we will do so with greater care, not just for our skin, but for our eyes too.

 

Bed hopping

The plan, when we first moved aboard Carina in May 2012, was for Julian and me to sleep in the aft cabin and Lily’s and Katie’s ‘bedroom’ would be the smaller fore cabin. That first summer Carina sagged under the weight of the unnecessary stuff I had brought aboard. There wasn’t room to stow it all, and much of it remained piled high in the fore cabin, where I had dumped it on the wet and windy night in early May when I moved our stuff from our flat in Dawlish to the marina in Torquay.

For the six months we lived aboard that year, the girls slept with me in the aft cabin and Julian slept on the port berth in the saloon. That arrangement had both advantages and disadvantages. Lily, at three years of age, still woke up multiple times each night. Now, for the first time, she slept soundly curled up beside me, giving me, for the first time in three years, nights of unbroken sleep. Julian slept well in the saloon, but we had to make up his bed every night and tidy it away every morning, which was cumbersome and time consuming. And, let’s face it, while it was nice to snuggle up at night between my two little girls, my man was a far too distant five metres away from me.

We spent the winter on land, in a house in Exeter, and moved aboard once again in May 2013. I had learned lessons from the first year, and moved far less stuff aboard. In advance of moving aboard I prepared the fore cabin for the girls, with pretty duvet covers, fun storage boxes for their books and toys, and they had decided which cuddly toys they wanted to have around. From our first night aboard Carina in 2013, the girls slept in the fore cabin. And that is how it was been ever since. Like all bedrooms of young children, theirs is frequently a mess and I do my share of nagging and cajoling and shouting at them to ‘Tidy your room’.

Their cabin is a small space and I have thought occasionally about different sleeping arrangements that would give them both more space. But I have not been in any hurry to separate them either. Each ‘You’re on my side of the bed’ and ‘She kicked me’ is balanced by sounds wafting through to the aft cabin of their quiet morning conversations, singing songs and playing together with their toys.

Such a small space, however, is no fun in the extreme heat of the southern Iberian summer. Last year, from mid-May onwards, I made up the starboard berth in the saloon each night and they took turns sleeping there – Lily in the fore cabin and Katie in the saloon one night, and the other way around the next night. But each hot night the bed had to be prepared and each hot morning it had to be tidied away, which was even less fun than when we had to do the same with Julian’s bed in 2012.

There was another option, and one Monday morning in mid-May this year, on a whim, I decided to go for it. It wasn’t going to be easy and in the end it took almost three days before everything was organised. But it has been worth it.

The quarter berth, a wide and spacious single berth along the passageway connecting the aft cabin with the saloon, has always been used as a storage space. It’s where I keep all the boxes of food, the laundry bag, fishing rods, computer bag and various bags of work tools. Everything else gets thrown there when I can’t be bothered to put it away properly. The passageway has less than 5’ of headroom, so Julian and I have to bend down to get to our cabin, and to get to any of the items stored along the quarter berth. What if I turned this into Lily’s room and reorganised the fore cabin so that part of it was for storage and the rest Katie’s room? It was worth a try.

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Quarterberth from this……

Removing everything from the quarter berth meant finding new stowage spaces elsewhere, so virtually the entire boat had to be reorganised. Moving all the food out into the galley and saloon challenged my organisational skills, but I figured it out. I now no longer have to bend down at back-ache inducing angles multiple times a day to get the ingredients I need for all our meals. Everything is now at arm’s reach, and I have made life so much easier for myself! (Imagine, it only took me five years to figure this out!!)

I found things in the quarter berth that hadn’t been used in years (and would never be used). I found new homes for all that stuff or put it in the recycling bins. I reorganised the stowage spaces underneath the quarter berth and the saloon port berth, creating more space to stow sailing equipment that we don’t need while our lives revolve around two villages far up a river! By lunchtime that day I had cleared and cleaned the quarter berth, and transformed it into a cute bedroom for Lily, with all her books, toys and piggy bank on the shelf, a space to stow her clothes at the end of the bed, and her fairy lights strung from the ceiling.

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…..to this!

Her little face lit up when she arrived home from school and she hugged me almost to death with gratitude! She spent the afternoon rearranging her shelves and toys and making the space even more her own.

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Foreward cabin from this…..

Alas, the fore cabin was still a mess and it took some persuading to convince a disappointed Katie that, by bedtime, she too would have a ‘room’ of her own. All afternoon I worked on the fore cabin, rearranging tools, toys, books and even the bed itself. Katie now sleeps across the boat, with her head to starboard and feet to port, boxes of books forming one side of her bed. She too has her toys, clothes and books in easy reach. And she loves her new ‘room’. For me, the great advantage of Katie’s new set-up is that I can lie down beside her at night so we can read together.

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…..to this!

Still the saloon was a mess, with all the left over stuff that needed to be stowed. That took two more days. And then it struck me. The girls could have their own ‘desk’. The navigation table is at the end of Lily’s berth. It’s the perfect place to do homework, art, projects and watch movies. So I rearranged the navigation table and have transformed it into a desk which, despite being at the bottom of Lily’s bed, she must share with her sister.

A change is as good as a holiday, they say. And this change seems to suit us all. The girls are cool during these hot nights, and each has her own space for afternoon siesta. After two weeks, they continue to be ‘house proud’ of their own rooms, keeping them neat and tidy. Lily can read her novels without being disturbed by Katie, who is still at the reading aloud stage. They curl up together to watch movies or to work at the chart table, leaving the saloon table free more often. My galley is organised more efficiently and everything is close to hand. The boat seems, overall, neater and better organised.

I still occasionally go to the quarter berth to grab a box of flour or bottle of cooking oil and it takes a second for me to figure out why they’re not longer there! I’m sure it won’t be long before we all forget that the quarter berth was ever anything other than Lily’s bedroom.

A catch-up blog

My friend Martha emailed me last week. ‘Is everything alright?’ she asked. My blog posts had dried up and Martha was concerned about our welfare. I sent her a quick and all too short response, assuring her that everything is fine with us, but I have been so busy, I simply haven’t had time to write any new blogs. This is unbelievably frustrating for me. Events have come and gone, time has passed and I’ve lost the moment and the momentum to write.

We have had some wonderful times – the school carnaval and the village carnaval; the Contraband Festival that linked the two villages with a temporary footbridge across the river; Lily’s birthday, and the birthday parties of classmates; a friend’s party downriver.

We’ve also had more trying times – a night in accident and emergency in Huelva when Lily had concussion; Carina dragging her anchor in high winds (twice) when we weren’t aboard and quick evasive action was required; Julian suddenly finding himself out of work, leaving us wondering about our short and medium future plans. Thankfully, all those problems have resolved themselves and I’m sleeping more easily again!

Looking after our friend’s house, dog and land continues to be a mostly enjoyable, if time-consuming, endeavour. Our multiple daily journeys to and from the village, on foot or by dinghy, take time and, as the days grow longer, sunnier and hotter, land maintenance increases, with fruit trees and vegetable patch needing irrigation and fast-growing canes and brambles needing to be cut back.

And on top of it all, my editing work is flooding in. It’s a great job, that I thoroughly enjoy, but at the end of a day sitting in front of the laptop editing other people’s work, the last thing I want to do is any writing of my own!

However, despite not having time to write about all we’ve been getting up to, I have kept a photo record of it all. So, here, by way of my camera and smart phone, is our last month…

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My two little owls at school Carnaval. Thank you to Rika aboard yacht Brillig for sewing the masks. Without Rika I would have had to pull an all-nighter to have the costumes ready in time!

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Lily and Katie Owl, with their Owl classmates Luisa and Miguel and Luisa’s baby Owl sister, Carla. Cuties xxxxxx

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A few days later it was the always colourful Sanlucar village Carnaval.

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This time we were pirates, princesses and…erm…a bumble bee.

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The best fancy dress was surely the family that collectively dressed as a roller coaster!

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After our night in Accident and Emergency in a Huelva hospital, Lily and I were tired, relieved and ready for breakfast, as we waited for Julian to come pick us up. Thank you to Martin for driving us to Huelva, to Sue and Robin for loaning us their car to get home again, to Emma and Paul for having Katie for the night, for packing a bag of food to keep me going, and for loaning us warm clothes for the night!

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Name that yachtie!! A much needed relaxing lunch and bottle of wine with our good friends Rosa and Phil, after rescuing Carina when she drifted downriver.

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To commemorate the smuggling culture between Spain and Portugal, the two villages held a fantastic joint festival, and were joined together by a footbridge. The construction of the bridge was a fascination for many of us!

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The official opening of the bridge, with mayors and officials from both sides meeting in the middle of the river.

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Natually, we took every opportunity to enjoy the novelty of walking across the river!

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And, after walking the river, it was supper time.

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For Lily’s 8th birthday, we hired the village hall and showed the movie ‘Big Hero 6’

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Followed, of course, by party food and cake (beetroot-chocolate cake topped with fresh strawberries). Thank you to Sawa and Rose-marie for all their help at the party! You both rock!!

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The day after Lily’s party we were downriver for a party hosted by our lovely friends Claire and Ed. It seemed like every foreigner on the river was there. Thanks for a lovely time, and apologies for the mayhem we caused!!

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And where there are extranjeros, there’s good music!

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Lily, Katie, Lola and Isla (and mum Emma) looking beautiful in the spring sunshine.

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Meanwhile, life goes on on the land…the girls walking home from school.

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Hanging out with their new friends Lupin and Buster.

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Engaging in a touch of spring cleaning.

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Making strange drink concoctions with their friend Gwendolyn.

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Dressing up Chester.

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And now and again….just now and again….I sit on the dock and soak up this wonderful place.

Silver linings

It’s been a great week, a glorious week, down here at the cabin in the woods. After a few days of slate grey skies, the sun made a reappearance and suddenly it felt like spring. The children had a four day weekend, I had no weekend English classes, and we relaxed like it was going out of fashion. We sat on the dock in the sunshine, gathered vegetables from our neighbours vegetable patch (they invited us to), and had some visitors over. I wrote a blog post, ready to publish today, all about the sensory beauty of the place – sun on the river, bees in the almond blossoms, the heady aroma of orange blossom. And then this morning happened, and I realised there’s far greater comedy value in mishap and disaster than in everything running smoothly.

It’s Saturday morning so, although the girls and I get a lie-in, I still get up at 8.30 so I have a reasonably leisurely two hours before I teach English in the village. It rained steadily yesterday and through the night and when I get up I realise I need to give myself extra time because we will all have to dress in our wet weather gear for the thirty-minute walk into town. Julian has work as usual, which starts half an hour before my English lesson, so we’re both getting ready at the same time.

We’ve been living on borrowed time for the past week as far as our gas bottles are concerned. The cabin uses butane for two purposes – to heat the shower water and for the two-ring counter-top cooking hob. The two 26.5 litres aluminium bottles have been getting lighter and lighter with each passing day, and it’s been taking longer to boil the kettle – a sure sign we’re low on gas.

Aboard Carina we use gas (from smaller bottles) for our hob, grill and oven. We have three bottles, each of which gives us about a month’s worth of gas for cooking. When two bottles are empty we take them to the hardware store and replace them, so we always have spares and never run out of gas. Our Bohemian friend doesn’t have spares.

I thought the bottle servicing the shower seemed the lighter of the two and I planned that when it ran out I would replace it with the bottle from the kitchen and get a new one for the kitchen (cooking being more of a necessity than showering!). It was unlikely that both would run out of gas at the same time. And yet, this morning, as Julian and I start getting ready for our respective jobs – showers for us, the morning cups of tea we can’t live without, breakfast for everyone – this is exactly what happens.

‘I’ll take the first shower’, I say to Julian, who is on the phone to one of his parents. I strip off, turn on the shower and wait for the water to take its usual 30 or 40 seconds to heat up. The time goes by, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, a minute, and the water remains freezing cold. ‘Julian’, I call. ‘We’re out of gas.’ He immediately jumps into action, temporarily (as he thinks) bringing the kitchen bottle outside so we can both have hot showers before then bringing it back inside so I can make breakfast. (I have to say, it is one of those mornings when I need to shop, so the breakfast choices are limited – eggy bread, porridge or pancakes – all requiring cooking).

With the kitchen bottle now attached to the shower I try the water again. Still it won’t warm up. ‘Julian’, I cry again, and again he jumps to action. ‘You need to light the pilot light’. He calls for me to bring him a box of matches, so with a towel wrapped around me I go outside into the mud-covered garden (it’s been raining all night, remember, and is still raining). We both peer at the pilot light and cannot figure out how it works or where to light it. I traipse back into the bedroom, muddy-footed, giving up on a shower, while Julian returns the gas bottle to the kitchen. I haven’t had a shower in two days, and I’m teaching English. I can’t stand having a cold shower when I’m already feeling pretty chilly. I still have the key to the shower block by the Sanlúcar pontoon, so I’ll pack my towel and shower gel and shower there. Julian can do the same at the public showers in Alcoutím.

I quickly get dressed and tell the girls to get dressed, then set about making breakfast. Nothing happens when I try to light the ring under the kettle. ‘Julian’, I call, and he comes running, getting increasingly exasperated with me (and who can blame him). ‘You haven’t connected the bottle properly’. He removes it and reattaches it, correctly this time. He lights the ring, it fizzles sadly for a second or two and dies. It turns out this bottle is empty too.

So here are my problems. I need a shower. I need breakfast. I need to get the empty gas bottles upriver to Sanlúcar so I can replace them for new ones. It is 9.30 and the river is currently on flood – flowing upriver – but in less than half an hour the tide will turn and I will have the current against me. I haven’t yet figured out how to use the outboard on our friend’s dinghy, so I only use his boat to get to or from town when I have the current with me and can row.

‘Girls, we’re going now, NOW’, I yell, as Julian disconnects the gas bottle in the kitchen, carries the two bottles down to the dock and loads them onto the dinghy. It’s drizzling now and we all dress in full wet weather gear. While we set off up towards Sanlúcar in our friend’s dinghy, Julian sets off for Alcoutím in our much smaller rubber dinghy (too small to haul those gas bottles). When he sees my pathetic rowing in the, by now, almost slack water, he turns around and takes the painter (the rope) and tows us upriver, our tiny rubber tender towing the much bigger and heavily laden wooden dinghy we’re in.

Well, that’s the worst part over, I tell myself, as I tie up on the pontoon and head off to take a shower. Clean and more calm, I walk with the girls to the Chiringuito for coffee, hot chocolate and toast with jam. The Chiringuito is also where I have my lesson (I teach one of the bar staff) and where I can replace the gas bottles. I tell Fran, the head barman, that I want to replace two gas bottles and he informs me that the Chiringuito doesn’t stock that brand. Cepsa, the brand of bottle I have, is delivered to the village once a week – on Wednesdays – and I won’t be able to replace my bottles until then.

Aaaaahhhhhhhhh. What am I to do? Well, right now I cannot do anything, because I have a lesson to teach. While I’m encouraging my wonderful student to tell me all about her recent trip to London, my mind is wandering, wondering how I’ll get around this problem of not being able to get gas until Wednesday. Surely someone in the village will have a spare bottle they can loan me until then. But how do I find out who uses that brand of gas?

By the time my class ends, Steve and Lynne, a lovely English couple who frequent the Chiringuito, have arrived in. I decide to start with them, and ask if they use or know of anyone who uses that gas. ‘Don’t worry luv’, Steve tells me, ‘Lynnie and I will drive to Villablanca and get your bottles replaced’. My saviours! They finish their drinks, and while they walk home to get their car, I bring the empty bottles up from the boat. While Steve and Lynne are in Villablanca I have time to shop for food and bring the girls to their friend’s house, where they are having a pizza and board games party. I arrive back down to the pontoon just as Steve and Lynne’s car pulls up.

I am so thankful to them. ‘Don’t worry. Settle up later luv’, Lynne tells me, as Steve loads the two new bottles into the dinghy. I have the tide with me, so decide to bring them back to the cabin now. With all the rain overnight, the dinghy is already lying low in the water, at least two inches of water in her. Now Steve adds the heavy gas bottles and I add my shopping, and I precariously set off downriver, the boat creaking like it’s never done before, and constantly veering towards the Spanish bank of the river, so that I have to work extra hard to keep her in a straight line.

Once I get back to the dock, I have to haul the bottles out and up to the house. I take one up onto land, go back for the other. Take the first up the steps that lead to the first cabin, go back for the other. Take the first one half way up the garden to a bend in the path, go back for the other. Take the first one to the bathroom, go back for the other and take it to the kitchen. Sweat rolls down my face as I try to attach them. I try the kitchen one first, and realise why Julian had trouble with it this morning. Connecting our gas bottles aboard Carina is so easy (or perhaps we are just used to is) and I curse and struggle and strain to connect this one. I give up and go to the bathroom. This gas bottle is easier to attach and I now understand what I need to do to attach the one in the kitchen. There is also no need to light the pilot light. I test the shower and have hot water in seconds. I return to the kitchen and after a few more attempts manage to connect the nozzle and soon the kettle is boiling and I am making a delicious cup of strong tea.

Then it’s time to walk back into town to collect the girls from their friend’s house. All of this walking and rowing and lugging gas bottles in and out of boats and up steep slopes and gathering and carrying and chopping firewood is like some fitness boot camp. And it has the same results. Since moving in here three weeks ago I’ve dropped a dress size. Clothes that were tight a month ago now fit me, and clothes that fit me a month ago are now loose. And that is certainly a silver lining to this cabin in the woods lifestyle!

Delightful finds

I’m a snooper by nature. Not of peoples’ drawers or cupboards, letters or bills or diaries. I’m a snooper of bookshelves and of film and music collections. You can tell a lot about what you might have in common with someone by browsing along their bookcases or through their DVDs and CDs.

Our Bohemian friend doesn’t have a bookcase here in his cabins in the woods or a neatly alphabetically-ordered collection of films and music. Instead, his entertainments are scattered here and there – in the studio, under and between a stack of glossy bullfighting magazines (the latter related to a recent art project it would seem); in the kitchen, under an egg box containing a single egg of unknown age or behind a bottle of olive oil; in the bedroom, under the bed. The CDs are woefully mixed up, some cases empty, others containing five CDs, none of which belong in that particular case, and free-roaming CDs apparently independent of any case.

So rather than that browsing I usually like to do in a friend’s house (while the friend has gone off to make a pot of tea, change a baby’s nappy, or for some other reason has left me alone in the company of their books, films or music), here in the cabins in the woods, these things reveal themselves at unexpected moments and are all the more pleasurable for it.

When I finally find a saw to cut firewood I discover Brave New World and a collection of selected poems by Pablo Neruda, delightfully presented in their original Spanish on one page with an English translation on the opposing page. I forget sawing wood for half an hour as I dip into Neruda, a pleasure for which, ironically, words fail me. I have long wanted to read Brave New World, so as soon as I come to the end of the novel I’ve brought with me to the house, I embark on reading Huxley for the first time.

I find Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, one of my all-time favourite albums, my own copy sadly lost long ago. A live Mamas and the Papas CD has Julian and me grinning like idiots one night after the kids have gone to bed as we turn the volume up to eleventy-stupid and swoon at Mama Cass singing Wild women.

Amongst the DVD collection I find the complete set of Fawlty Towers. I haven’t watched any episodes yet, but on this upcoming long weekend, I think it might be time to educate the children!! I find both 2001: A Space Odyssy and Moon, neither of which I have seen before, both of which I have wanted to see for a long time and, together with Brave New World, I am in sci-fi heaven. Michael Clayton is here too and Run Lola Run, neither of which I have seen, together with Pedro Almodovar’s (Todo Sobre mi Madre) All About My Mother (without English subtitles, which will be a challenge!).

As I sit on the bed writing this, I notice, for the first time, a stack of CDs and DVDs in amongst our friend’s shoes. A new find. I wonder what delights await me there!

And so, while living in the house of someone as apparently disorganised as our Bohemian friend can be a challenge at times, the disorganisation brings joy and rewards too. I sit by the river in the warm afternoon sunshine, reading Neruda aloud in Spanish, and I lie in bed at night reading Huxley. I decide that Keep the customers satisfied, a song I have overlooked for years, is my new favourite Simon and Garfunkel song (the horns!!) and I look forward to finally, finally, far too many years too late, watching 2001.

Not quite Thoreau

Some weeks ago, a rather Bohemian acquaintance of ours asked if we’d house- and dog-sit for him. Our friend had to go to the UK for medical treatment and anticipated being away for up to a month. ‘Sure’, I nonchalantly agreed, without giving too much (indeed any) thought to the logistics of the thing. I wrote the start date in my diary and thought only of what fun it would be to live for a while in such an idyllic location.

Our friend lives downriver from Sanlúcar on a picturesque piece of land, with the river in front of the property and the Guadiana Way, an old goat track turned hiking trail, behind. There is no road access to the property, so getting to and from town is either a 25-minute walk along the beautiful hiking trail or a 5 to 15 minute dinghy ride (depending on the tide) up the river.

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The old shepherd’s hut transformed into kitchen, bedroom and bathroom

Being an artist, a musician and somewhat of a free spirit, our friend’s plans for departure were loose and ever-changing. I walked down the goat track on Monday, the day before we were due to move in, so he could show me what I needed to know to take care of and live in the place – where, when and how to feed the dog, how to check and replace the battery acid in the batteries connected to the solar panels, how to use the water pump and washing machine. It was a bright sunny morning and the place was filled with possibility – the orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit, the almond tress just coming into blossom, the opportunities for the girls to have a new place for adventures, and the inspiration I would soak up for the new magazine article I was about to start writing.

The dog, Chester the Chicken Molester, a little Jack Russelly type thing, wasn’t there when I visited. He’d gone to town in search of Claudia, the 19-year old bitch with whom he is in love and who falls over every time Chester, or any other dog, mounts her (she’s such a stalwart). His owner didn’t seem too concerned at Chester’s absence, and said it was a regular occurrence.

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Chester enduring the shower cap Katie dressed him up in.

By the time I was ready to leave, our friend had decided he wouldn’t now depart until Wednesday. That was fine by me, as we planned on moving Carina off her berth on the pontoon and onto anchor in the river in front of the house on Wednesday, Julian’s day off. On Tuesday night our friend postponed his departure yet again, this time until Friday. Whenever I mentioned our plans to friends, they rolled their eyes and told me how sorry they felt for me, given our friend’s free-spirited approach to life, the dog’s fondness for Claudia and the fact that heavy rain was forecast for the next four days.

On Wednesday we moved Carina downriver, and on Thursday night, as the girls and I crossed the Guadiana from Sanlúcar to Alcoutim in the dinghy after dark, to collect Julian from work, who should we meet crossing in the other direction but our friend and his dog. ‘I have to go right now’, he told me, and explained the unforeseen circumstances that meant he had to leave right this minute, in the pitch dark. I took it all in my stride, and after some convoluted manoeuvres, our friend was on the Sanlúcar side of the river, and the four of us, with Chester the Chicken Molester, our dinghy and our friend’s boat, on the Alcoutim side of the river.

By now it was 8pm and we faced the prospect of our first night in a house we had never stayed in before. Now, bear in mind, our friend is a Bohemian, an artist, a musician, so the things many of the rest of us take for granted just don’t enter our friend’s (often up in the clouds) head. He and I have, ahem, somewhat different standards of hygiene, and I am somewhat more partial to artificial lighting than he is.

We rowed downriver on the ebb, me, the girls and Chester in our friend’s boat, and Julian in our dinghy. Before going ashore we stopped off at Carina so I could quickly pick up some food for dinner and breakfast, our toothbrushes and a few other bits and pieces to see us through the night and next morning. Once ashore, we stumbled up the rickety landing stage and up the dirt path, to the part of the house where we intended to spend the night. The wood burning stove was alight in the bedroom, so at least we had a warm place to sleep.

‘What an adventure’ I tried to tell myself, as I set about making supper in a poorly provisioned and decidedly messy kitchen, my heart sinking when I realised I had forgotten to bring teabags from the boat. There was nowhere for Julian to sleep, so once he had seen us settled in, he returned to Carina for the night.

Our friend had told me of the snake that lives in the rafters in the kitchen and I imagined all the creepies and crawlies and rodents that might be lurking in this indoors/outdoors house, and was thankful to have the girls with me so I could put on fake bravery. I was also glad of Chester. Chester slept on the end of the bed for the night and when he woke me up at 7.20 next morning whining to be let out, I knew it was time to get up, despite the impenetrable darkness that made it feel as though it was still the middle of the night.

I quickly got dressed and went outside to go to the kitchen, which is situated in a different building to the bedroom. Chester was gone! I walked the girls to school along the trail and found Chester sitting outside the house of his lady love. I brought him home and spent the morning cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom and rowing over to Carina to pick up more provisions (TEA!). At some point mid-morning Chester was sitting in the sun, dozing. Five minute later, he was gone. Grrrr. Back in along the trail I walked to collect the girls from school and to once again retrieve Chester from outside the house of his girlfriend.

Just as school ended, the rain started. For the rest of the weekend it rained and rained and rained, torrentially and Biblically at times, with thunder rumbling and lightning lighting up the sky. The joys of living in the wilds were suddenly not so obvious. All weekend I struggled to keep my cool, at times losing my temper with the kids, when really I was losing my temper with this house, its owner and its love-struck dog.

On Friday afternoon I set about cleaning the bedroom and bathroom and getting the fire in the stove going again. Now, I grew up in a house with three turf fires, so lighting fires is no problem to me…usually. It’s only a problem when there are no implements, instruments or tools for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. On top of everything else, it was raining and what wood there was, was lying down on the landing stage, soaking wet. ‘I hate this. I want to go home to Carina’, I grumbled, as I fumbled around in the dark bedroom (in the middle of the day with the light on) trying to find my head torch which I had mislaid the night before. (Oh the irony of losing my head torch in the dark).

But necessity, of course, is the mother of all invention, and by Saturday evening I had improvised methods for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, and (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. I sent the girls off in their raincoats and rubber boots to find firewood and they came back with bundles of damp branches and twigs, which we dried out in front of the now-lit fires.

Julian remained on the boat on Friday night, as I still hadn’t sorted out sleeping accommodation for him. While the girls and I slept a bit squished in the bedroom, I planned to put Julian in the artist’s studio, 50 yards away on the other side of the plot of land. The studio was filthy and dusty, so Saturday was spent changing bedding on the rather comfy bed in there, sweeping and tidying, and transforming the place into a comfy living room come bedroom, where we could all relax and play and eat in front of the wood burning stove.

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The studio – Wendy house by day, Julian’s private domain by night!

On Saturday morning Chester disappeared again as soon as he was let out in the morning (despite, this time, wearing his electric dog collar – it turns out the electric fence doesn’t run all the way around the property and Chester had sniffed out the gaps). Once the studio was ship shape, and during a brief gap in the rain, the girls and I wandered up the trail and into town to once again find Chester sitting outside the house of his love, this time soaked to the skin and looking rather sorry for himself.

That’s it, I said to myself. The electric collar clearly didn’t work, so the next step was to keep Chester on a long lead all the time, unless he was inside one of the buildings on the property. His owner had told me to do so, and has a long rope for the purpose. All was going well on Sunday morning. We even had some brief moments of sunshine in between the downpours. Lily and Katie played down in the studio – which has its own outside roofed bar and barbecue area – enjoying have their own giant Wendy house to play in. At some point in late morning, Katie felt sorry for poor old Chester on his long lead, and decided to free him so he could come play in the Wendy house (Chester is not a playing sort of dog!). Five minutes later he was gone again, and five minutes after that the heavens opened and it rained torrentially until the early hours of Monday morning. I knew where Chester had gone, and I wasn’t too worried about him, so decided not to go pick him up until Monday morning when I walked the girls to school.

For the rest of Sunday we kept warm in the studio, the girls doing art while I read and wrote, and then carried a big pot of stew down from the kitchen which stayed warm on the stove. Chester didn’t know what he was missing, and all for what? A girlfriend who puts out for any and every dog who comes her way! Silly Chester!

On Monday morning Chester was, of course, where I expected he would be, feeling sorry for himself, cold and hungry. I brought him home, and he hasn’t been back into town unaccompanied since. The rain eased on Monday and the sun has been out each day since.

It’s been an interesting introduction to life on the land. In our cabin(s) in the woods I have been torn between the romance of Henry Thoreau’s Walden and being really bloody annoyed with the realities of moving into someone else’s home in the rain and cold. I loved the place and five minutes later I hated the place. I was warm and cosy by the fire, or I was wet and dirty trying to light the fire. I had all that I needed and I had nothing that I needed!

That was a week ago, and we’ve nicely settled in now and are enjoying life in our little Walden de Guadiana. We’ve had guests around for supper, we’ve picked oranges, we’ve enjoyed breath-taking star-filled night skies, and Chester and I have developed a grudging fondness for each other! Expect more positive blog posts to follow!