Sip, don’t gulp.

I recently read Matt Haig’s Reasons to stay alive. It was amongst a pile of books a friend was giving away, so I took it, intrigued and curious. I am grateful that I have never experienced either depression or anxiety, but I hoped reading the book might provide some insight into the experiences of family members and friends who suffer or have suffered from one or both.

The book – part memoir, part reflection, part self-help – was a revelation, allowing me some small understanding, through Haig’s very personal experience, of the psychological, emotional and physical pain caused by depression and anxiety. I recognised some of what Haig went through in the behaviours and debilitation of people I know and love. However, much of what he wrote about was entirely novel to me and helped me to understand, to come degree, the hidden anguish of others.

Whether or not you have directly or indirectly experienced depression or anxiety, the book provides some wonderful advice that we all should take to heart. The enduring quote for me is ‘sip, don’t gulp’. By this he means take life more slowly, savour every experience. The implied metaphor of drinking or eating slowly and with care can be applied to many areas of our lives. Rather than rushing headlong (and often mindlessly) through our days, we should strive to slow down, to take our time, to savour the people in our lives, the places where we find ourselves, the spaces where we live, work and play.

But I don’t have time to slow down, I hear you say. I bet you do! I bet, like me, you waste precious time. On Twitter, on Facebook, doing things that don’t need to be done. I’ve noticed recently that I get annoyed with my children if they try talking to me while I’m gazing mindlessly at my smartphone, following my social media feeds. But, which is more important: social media, or this precious and very short time (in the great scheme of my long life) that I have with my girls? How much more patience I have when I give them my full attention. How much more I enjoy them. Similarly, I work better when I devote my full attention to the task at hand. When I am not distracted by other things. Social media is great, but give it its own space and time too.

Haig writes, ‘Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind’. I would add to that. Being outside, in fresh air, going for a walk (or cycle or row or run or swim, etc) also clears the mind. Haig, like many people I know who have discovered a way to live better with their depression, has taken up running.

He writes that we live in a world that is increasingly designed to depress us. ‘Happiness is not good for the economy’. If we are content with what we have and who we are, we will not desire to spend our money on things we don’t need. So consumer capitalism-driven marketing attempts (and all too often succeeds) to make us feel that our happiness is dependent on the stuff we buy  (whether that’s a new item of clothing, a hair cut or a holiday in the sun). I recently read an article by Ann Patchett in the New York Times, who decided to not buy anything other than food and necessary toiletries for a year. As someone who probably spends no more than €30 on clothes for myself every year, I found it difficult to empathise with Patchett’s resolution. But then I thought of my own addictions (chocolate and cake, mainly) and could understand her state of mind when trying to not buy something she briefly believed she wanted! But what Patchett discovered from her year of no shopping drew me back to thinking about Matt Haig and his reasons to stay alive. Choosing not to shop freed up time, freed up money, made Patchett less anxious and helped her realise how much material stuff she had in her life that she didn’t actually need.

From reading Haig and, more recently, Patchett, I was reminded of how our emotional, mental and physical well-being is affected by the world around us. But we have it in ourselves to improve our well-being, by slowing down, mindfully focusing on one thing (or person, or task) at a time, not filling our lives with unnecessary material stuff, going outside, and finding beauty in the world around us.

Remember: sip, don’t gulp!

Advertisements

A reason for writing

I had an email recently from Stephen (Hi Stephen!). I don’t know Stephen, but he knows me. He started his email by telling me that he enjoys reading my blog and wondering if I would be writing any more. These few simple words from someone I’ve never met where the kick in the bum I needed to get me writing again.

I’ve been thinking about my lack of writing for some time. 2017 has been a bad year for me, with regard to writing. My blog has suffered from neglect and all those half-finished (half-started) short and long form pieces I’ve written with a view to old-style publishing, have failed to see the light of day.

It’s not as if I’ve had nothing to write about. Family life aboard Carina on the Rio Guadiana is no less interesting (for me at least!) than it was when we first arrived. My understanding of and passion for the place grows deeper, as my roots weave deeper into the soil. I continue to make observations about life here, about the lives of my children, and about the multiple cultures that clash or blend or mash or crash here. I find great amusement in my ongoing cultural and linguistic faux pas and continue to make promises that tomorrow will be the day when I start the business of becoming a fluent Spanish speaker. I continue to be in awe of the environment – the river itself, the seemingly endless hills like a great ocean rolling away in all directions from the brown ribbon of river. I rejoice at the passing of the seasons, ponder global impacts on local ecosystems and reflect on my own choices.

Despite all of this rich potential writing material, I have generally failed over the course of the past year to put pen to paper. I could claim it’s due to lack of time. Julian was working full time, six days a week for the first eight months of the year, while I worked part time and had almost full responsibility for the children and the boat. Since September, we have swapped roles once again, with Julian at home while I work close to full-time – teaching English five days a week, working two editing jobs, and occasionally taking care of a friend’s Air B&B property. It’s not only that I am busy with all that work, it’s that the jobs themselves are so varied and diverse, I require a lot of headspace to coordinate everything I do.

I’m certainly not complaining. I enjoy the work, the money is decent, and I get to spend quite a bit of time at home. I can walk the children to school every day, go for a coffee with a friend, have lunch with the children and help with their homework, and fit my work in around it all. I could find time to write too. But the first three months of this schedule robbed me of any desire to write. I thought about all the things I wanted to write about, but the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard eluded me. I finally feel ready to write again. The chaos of the first few months has started to shape itself into routine and I can find space in my days again for walking and reading – two activities without which I cannot write.

But a busy schedule has not been the only thing that’s kept me from writing. I’m not the only person feeling the way I’ve felt this past year. I follow a few writers’ blogs and in the past year I’ve been reading blogs by women writers who feel at a loss. The observations of a mother on a boat, or the verse of a poet, or the ponderings of a literary chicken farmer can seem futile in the face of American politics, the rise of the extreme right, Brexit, our oceans choked in plastic, extreme weather events, children dying of war and starvation in Syria and elsewhere, and a thousand other injustices happening on the global stage. I am not alone in feeling that my writing is pointless and futile.

But then I receive an email from someone like Stephen which reminds me that my silly musings often put a smile on peoples’ faces. And in these sometimes dark days, putting a smile on a stranger’s face is reward enough for me.

The interest people take in my writing boomerangs back to me in positive ways. Emails like Stephen’s put a smile on my face. Neeraj Bhushan’s interest in my blog lead to us recently featuring on the cover of Buland Prajatantra, a fortnightly Hindi magazine. Neeraj, a journalist, made contact with me a few months ago to ask if he could write about us for his magazine. Getting to know Neeraj by email and WhatsApp has been delightful and the ensuing magazine article (I’m assured) captured the essence of why we set sail and why we continue to live on a boat.

Martina Tyrrell

A star turn on the cover of the early December edition of Buland Prajatantra

Because of my blog I have been consulted by documentary researchers, writers, conference organisers, and my family and Carina even feature in a Hungarian secondary school English textbook!

My blog has also brought me into contact with home educators, wannabe sailors, salty old sea dog sailors, foodies, environmentalists, parents, and many more. People have contacted me with questions about buying boats, sailing boats, living aboard with children, and much more. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these things, but the blog has sparked an interest in people, and made them want to get in touch with me. I even met a man the other day who said ‘I sailed to the Rio Guadiana because of your blog’. Wow.

I have a small blog following and, although it once seemed important to make the numbers grow, I no longer care how big or small my following is. What I am concerned about is continuing to write meaningfully for the people who take the time to read my blog. I want to write for family and friends, and for strangers. I want to continue to make people laugh, or think, or wonder, or question. Hopefully my writing can light a small candle in a sometimes dark world.

So, I am drawing a line under 2017, and looking ahead to 2018 where I return to doing the type of writing I enjoy most.

Christmas at anchor

It was a bit of a risk. Would Santa find us at anchor on a lonely stretch of river, a couple of miles north of Sanlúcar? The girls had had three days off school during the first week of December, giving us a rare and decadent five-day weekend. I had wanted to get away from the villages for some quiet time at home aboard Carina. We found this spot upriver and, although we only stayed for two nights, it was enough to convince me I wanted to come back again for Christmas.

During those couple of days we’d met no-one, had no Internet access and not enough battery power on my old laptop to even watch a movie. We went ashore and walked the riverside trails, or stayed home and read, did jigsaw puzzles, drew pictures and coloured in. The girls had school tests the following week – Lily in Maths and French, Katie in English – so Julian spent much of his time devising ingenious and fun revision exercises. I cooked all the foods I haven’t cooked in the months since Julian’s become full-time boat husband.

The peace and silence on that stretch of river was balm to my body and soul, as I sat on deck leisurely reading a book by day or engrossed in the star-filled December sky by night. As we set off down river and back to the routine of school and work, I said to Julian, ‘I want to do this again for Christmas’.

I live an excessively sociable life. It’s the way I like it. These days I teach English five days a week, mostly to loud raucous fun-loving primary school children. I am involved in a lot of school and parent association activities, and I have many lovely friends in both villages with whom I love spending time. My online life is busy too. I have two academic editing jobs, and when I’m not working, I like keeping in touch with far-flung family and friends, observing and participating in the political world I follow through Twitter and, with increasing guilt, pondering how little time I devote to my blog. I live an intensely sociable life, because that’s what I like and that’s who I am.

But now and again a holiday from all that sociability is required to remember who I am and to recharge my batteries. The lead-up to Christmas was action packed. There were parties and carol services, school events, and gatherings throughout December with friends who celebrate different Christmas and winter traditions. And I can rarely say no to an invitation to join a friend in a bar for a coffee or a drink. So, there were impromptu glasses of wine and port, cups of hot chocolate spiked with brandy, plates of grilled chorizo, oysters and prawns. A few days before Christmas, with all my teaching and editing done, I cleaned Carina to within an inch of her life, so we could invite passing friends aboard for wine and beer, tea and hot chocolate, and Julian’s home-made tiffin.

Three different people invited us to spend Christmas Eve with them, and we considered a tour of Sanlúcar, going from house to house to sample the traditional prawns and chorizo, while we shared my Christmas pudding and Julian’s tiffin. The plan, therefore, was to leave the pontoon early on Christmas morning and return to that quiet spot upriver. After a heady build-up to Christmas, Christmas Day onwards would be quiet family time.

But the bug that’s been doing the rounds of the school finally caught up with Lily and Katie. They both woke up on Christmas Eve with headaches, stomach aches and high temperatures. It didn’t stop Julian or me from socialising a bit (separately) throughout the day, but we knew that, given the girls’ illnesses, we wouldn’t be sharing prawns and Christmas pudding with anyone that night.

So we decided to head upriver early. With only an hour of sunlight left in the sky, we slipped the pontoon on Christmas Eve, Lily and Katie feeling sorry for themselves in their respective beds. We motored upriver, Julian and I singing Fairytale of New York at the top of our lungs and calling out to friends on boats and landing stages as we went past.

Before long, we were back on that lovely lonely stretch of river, the place all to ourselves except for a heron on one riverbank and a herd of sheep on the other. We were expecting rain, so we prepared Carina for a wet night ahead and snuggled down inside, Christmas candles scenting the air. Before leaving Sanlúcar, Julian had downloaded Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and, as I made dinner, and then did a jigsaw with the girls and prepared a plate of food for Santa and his reindeer, Julian read to us.

The girls were still unwell at bedtime, so I administered paracetemol, and took over the reading from Julian as lightning lit up the sky and thunder rumbled. Rain fell long and hard into the night and I hoped Santa and his reindeer wouldn’t give up the search for us up the river.

The girls didn’t sleep particularly well and I was out of bed a few times ministering to their needs. But, somehow, in the middle of it all, Santa came and, when we awoke on Christmas morning, the plate was empty and the table and Christmas stockings laden with presents. The girls were both still unwell and, although they mustered the energy to open their presents, they soon returned to bed, and spent Christmas Day between their beds and wrapped up in blankets in the saloon. I read the concluding two chapters of A Christmas Carol while Julian prepared dinner. It was an overcast but mild day, and sitting in the cockpit on that peaceful stretch of river was perhaps the best Christmas present (but please don’t tell the girls. They think the three Planet of the Apes movies and box of Milk Tray they asked Santa to bring me were the best presents. They come pretty close!).

With the girls unwell, there was no chance of us going ashore for a walk, so we focused our attention on enjoying good food, good wine and each other’s company, and trying to make the girls feel comfortable and cozy. After a delicious dinner and while the Christmas pudding was boiling in the pot, I took to the dinghy and rowed downriver for half an hour, the Rio Guadiana equivalent of my post-Christmas dinner walk from Ballygibbon to Carrick graveyard when I’m back home.

For the next few days we did much the same. The girls remained under the weather, sleeping lots and eating little. They found it difficult to even muster up interest in their presents or in the mountain of chocolate we had onboard. Rather than the walking and picnics I had imagined, we indulged in quieter pastimes – reading, drawing, writing. Julian and I even became engrossed in studying Spanish. With a new battery in my laptop we could watch some movies. Outside, the wind howled for much of the time, tossing Carina about on the stormy river. When the girls and weather conditions allowed, Julian and I took turns to go out alone – walking along the smugglers path on the Portuguese side of the river or rowing up or down river.

It wasn’t quite the Christmas I had imagined. But then Christmas rarely is. It did, however, have all the elements that make for the best Christmases – being with the people you love most in the world, enjoying good food, relaxing. It was traditional in its own way, and maybe we have created some new traditions this year. And, although the girls weren’t in top form, they certainly made the most of having lots of time to snuggle with Mummy and Daddy.

Belatedly, Happy Christmas everyone xxxxx

 

In the olive grove

Around a bend on the narrow track of the old smugglers route I came face-to-face with him. Huge and jet black, he was square-backed and sturdy. In amongst a grove of olive trees, he was at home and I was the interloper. My mind played tricks for a second that felt like eternity. His blackness was so complete I couldn’t make out what he was. A black bull? A cart horse? A burro? He stood stock still, regarding me, not giving an inch of his ground, or a clue to what he might do. The second passed and the landscape around him fell into its correct proportions, allowing me to see his height, his breadth, beneath the squat olive trees and to recognise him for what he unmistakably was: a wild boar.

I had seen evidence of boar throughout the morning: recently planted trees, in a garden where I joined the trail, dug around and uprooted; hoof prints on the muddy path following the previous day’s rain; a wide expansive field of mushrooms snuffled and dug, deep pits in the dark wet soil amidst half-eaten fungus.

We were twenty, thirty metres apart, no more. ‘Hello’ I said, as is my fashion when meeting a wild animal, whether bee or hedgehog, polar bear or duck. ‘How are you?’ He stared at me steadily. He was easily the same weight as me and likely at least twice as strong. I took a tentative step forward. He did the same. I took a second step. He did likewise. Unlike other parts of the trail where hillside rises sharply on one side and falls precipitously on the other, this was a more levelled out place, with the olive grove ahead and a less used path leading up and around the rocky hillside. ‘I’m going to go this way’, I told him. ‘I won’t bother you’. I took a step onto the path to my right, watching him out of the corner of my eye. I saw that he watched me too.

He came on, claiming the path as rightfully his own. I carefully made my way along the other path, sleeves and trousers snagged on thorny undergrowth, the path quickly losing definition. I turned around and watched him continue on his way, his back to me now, huge grey testicles the only part of him not jet black. I started to take my bag off my back, to take a photograph of him, but thought better of it. Enjoy this moment, I told myself. Enjoy the privilege of the encounter, enjoy the knowledge that this place belongs to him, enjoy the great wild stark beauty of him.

A second more, maybe two, and he was gone. I don’t know where. Maybe he watched me as I clumsily made my way back onto the main path, and carried on, now more aware, more alert, more watchful. Maybe he didn’t give me a second thought. Maybe how little I affected him was the inverse of how much he affected me.

Hallowe’en – It’s my holiday!!

It’s that time of year again, when I get annoyed and frustrated on behalf of my culture, my traditions and my childhood memories. ‘I can’t stand Hallowe’en’, I hear all too often from people who aren’t Irish, followed by a damning reference to it being an American invention, exported around the world like Coca-Cola and Santa in a red suit. (And, by the way, what’s so terrible about American inventions?). The irony, of course, is that, while people are perfectly content to sip Coke and sit on Santa’s fat red knee, Hallowe’en is actually a European festival, specifically a west coast, Celtic European festival, exported to America.

Hallowe’en is ours, and it has always been one of my favourite festivals (although, I have to admit, I’m pretty much equal opportunities when it comes to festivals, feasts, holy days, and all those other times when we get to behave in weird and wonderful out-of-the-ordinary ways).

Hallowe’en was a big deal when I was a child growing up in 1970s and 1980s rural Ireland. The first hint of Hallowe’en each year came in late September or early October with the first barm brack brought home from O’Brien’s supermarket in Edenderry. We’d eat the fruit brack slathered in butter, with a cup of tea and, being the only child in the family until I was five years old, I always got the cheap metal wedding ring wrapped in grease proof paper that lay hidden in the middle of the brack. By the time Hallowe’en came around I usually had four or five rings, as my family ate our way through quite a few bracks in those few short weeks.

As Hallowe’en grew ever closer the hazelnuts on the hedges down the road near Rabbitfield were ready to eat. I went alone, or with Daddy, or with my cousin Martin who lived down the road, fraught with anxiety as we gathered hazelnuts on that haunted stretch of road. It was widely known around Ballygibbon that Rabbitfield House was haunted. Indeed, Daddy and my black Labrador, Lassie, had had a frightening supernatural encounter as they walked in the field in front of the derelict house one day – Lassie’s hair standing on the back of her neck and Daddy swearing he would never go there again. (Even today, as a sensible worldly-wise 44 year old, when I drive past Rabbitfield at night, I put my foot on the accelerator and drive those lonely 200 metres at high speed, never looking in the rear view mirror for fear of what might be looking back at me!).

I digress. There was the barm brack and the hazelnuts, essential Hallowe’en food. There were monkey nuts (peanuts), almonds and brazil nuts in the shops – highly exotic and highly seasonal foods in rural Ireland back in those days. At school we made ghoulish masks and witches hats out of cornflakes boxes and toilet roll inserts and lots of glue and paint. The shops sold Hallowe’en masks – tight pinching plastic affairs that scratched your face and caused profuse facial sweating, attached to your head by elastic bands that broke your hair and hurt your ears.

I was never particularly crafty, and my attempts at witches and ghouls inspired by Mary’s Make-and-Do on Saturday morning television generally failed and, anyway, I always looked forward to the new mask I would get each year at O’Brien’s or when we went shopping in Mullingar.

By October 31st each year I was almost sick with excitement. I dressed as a púca – a witch or a ghost or a ghoul or a banshee and – together with my cousins Catherine and Sheila, and the occasional cross-dressing adult who decided to join in the fun – walked the dark road of Ballygibbon (usually in the rain), stopping at each house (most of our neighbours were cousins on Daddy’s side of the family) where, as tradition dictated, we sang, or told a joke, or played a musical instrument, or did a dance, in return for sweets, fruit, nuts or, sometimes, money. With Ballygibbon under our belts, I was driven the two miles into Edenderry (some years with my cousins in tow, some years just me and my sister), where we did the rounds of Gilroy Avenue, where my Nana Kitty lived (still lives) and Castleview Park where my aunt Lillie lived. More embarrassed singing, telling jokes, dancing (‘You start’, ‘No, you start’, ‘I won’t sing unless you sing’) in exchange for more sweets, fruit, nuts and money.

And then it was into my Nana’s house or back home to Ballygibbon, for games. We bobbed for apples, putting our faces in basins of water, hands behind our backs, trying to get an apple using only our mouths. We bobbed for nuts as well, which was a mad endeavour, especially as many sank to the bottom. But we were always willing to risk drowning for a sunken almond. Apples were tied from string from the ceiling and, again with hands behind backs, we had to try to take a bite of the swinging apple using only our mouths. For months afterwards, thumbtacks remained on my Nana’s living room ceiling, testament to our Hallowe’en madness. And my favourite and, at the same time, least favourite game was the one where we placed a grape on top of a mound of flour. The goal was to use a knife to remove the flour without the grape falling from the top of the mound. If your knife swipe caused the grape to fall, you had to stick your head into the plate of flour (yuck) and retrieve the grape with your mouth.

Over the years I have brought my Hallowe’en traditions with me and shared them with my students in Japan, and last year here in our little village in Spain. I’ve learned a lot about Hallowe’en traditions over the years and how they vary from region to region in Ireland, and in Wales, Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany. We share many similarities too. Apples are at the centre of many Hallowe’en traditions, as is dressing up and performing. We never had Jack-o-lanterns where I come from, so I assumed it was a new American tradition. But then I found out that the tradition arose in Ireland, with carved turnips (what my husband calls ‘swede’ (a point of contention in our marriage) and what Americans call ‘rutabega’) and was transposed to an equally, or perhaps more appropriate American vegetable, the pumpkin.

Hallowe’en has been around for a long time. It was the Celtic festival Oiche Samhain, the night when fairies and púcas from the other world crossed over into the human world. Like many pre-Christian festivals, it was syncretised by Christianity, and became the eve of the double holy days of November 1st, the Feast of All Saints and November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. And growing up in Ireland when I did, we celebrated all of those things – the fairies, the púcas, the saints and the souls.

So this year, if someone bemoans that ‘American holiday’, please remind them that it is, in fact, a holiday that has roots deep in the pre-Christian Celtic cultures of the west coast of Europe. Indeed, it would appear the earliest reference to the holiday in the US only dates back to 1911. Like St. Patrick’s Day, it has been transformed by our good neighbours on the other side of the Atlantic. But one thing culture and traditions are incapable of doing is remaining unchanged. Just as Christians of 1600 years ago changed the meaning of Hallowe’en in Ireland, so Americans have changed the practice and re-exported it. But at heart it remains a playful, liminal holiday, when norms and rules are transgressed, when the doors between worlds open up, and when, with just a little persuasion, I might risk drowning in a basin of cold water for a mouldy old monkey nut.

 

Seasonophilia? Can I call it that?

Some people have a favourite season. Not me. I love them all. Long hot summer days and cold dark winter nights. I could never understand some friends in Nunavut who put black-out blinds on their windows to shut out the almost endless summer sun. At Arviat’s latitude, the sun dips below the horizon for a little over four hours at the height of summer, casting the land into twilight, but never darkness. I loved the almost 24 hour daylight, because I knew it was short-lived and in a few months we would experience the opposite – short short bitterly cold days when leaving the house could take half an hour because of all the layers of clothes required and the possible shovelling of snow to get out the door.

In summer I closed my flimsy curtains before I went to bed, although they were useless against the sun that would soon appear above the horizon again. Children played on the swing outside my house at midnight. If I happened to be in bed at that time, it was only to catch a few hours sleep before a 3 or 4am start to catch low tide and check my fishing nets with my friend Crystal, or a 5am start to go early morning beluga whale hunting with my friend Frank.

Winter, on the other hand, was a time for wrapping up, drinking hot chocolate or tea after brisk walks in -20˚C temperatures, reading and long hot baths. It was a time for visiting, talking and playing board games.

In Ireland, the seasons are less extreme, but no less wonderful. Each season comes with its own unique smells, colours, bodily sensations; each with its own festivals and feasts. Each season requires a different set of clothing and footwear, and different ways of being, doing and living. Some seasons are easier than others – less hassle, less bad weather, less rain.

It’s the start of each season that I love best. You wake one morning to a subtle change in the air – a smell, a rise or fall in temperature, an almost imperceptible change in texture – and you know that the transition from winter to spring or summer to autumn is finally taking place.

It’s been a long hot summer here on the Rio Guadiana. The land is parched, the air is dusty, and it has been reported that October has been 5˚C warmer than average. I’ve been anticipating the arrival of autumn for some time. I’ve been longing to wear jeans and long-sleeved tops, tired at last of shorts, t-shirts and flimsy summer clothes. I’ve been looking forward to early evenings in, hot chocolate and buttery toast, soups and stews, a hot water bottle in the bed.

Autumn, at last, appears to be getting the upper hand. A little rain fell last week (although not anywhere near enough), there’s a chill in the air each morning and evening, and yesterday morning, as I rowed the girls over the river to school, the first wisps of inversion mist hung over the river. This morning the mist was stronger,  moisture in the air finding my face when I removed Carina’s weather boards and greeted the morning at 8am.

As autumn wears on I will expectantly anticipate the transition to winter and from there to spring. And on it goes. Each season with its own sensations, its own wonders, its own reminders of how lucky we are to be alive on this oddly tilted planet!

Up the creek

We walked along the cracked pavement towards the beach, Lily and I whispering conspiratorially about Katie’s upcoming birthday and the dinner I planned to surprise Julian with when we got home. Katie and Julian were a few paces ahead, Katie turning around every so often to inform me of the dinner plans of her imaginary friends – apparently, they were flying in from Invisible Land to join us for dinner. As we got closer to the beach, Lily asked if we could stay and play for a while. But I said no. The beach was dirty, covered in bits of plastic and broken glass and the scrubland we were walking through was heavily littered. I didn’t like the feel of the place. ‘Sometime tomorrow we’ll go back to that little beach where we swam yesterday’, I promised. The previous day we’d taken the dinghy ashore and spent a few hours on a beach closer to the mouth of the Rio Guadiana. The beach we were now walking towards was close to the marina and industrial part of Ayamonte.

When we reached the beach, Julian and I dropped our backpacks and bag of groceries and told the girls to play (‘watch out for broken glass’) while we put the dinghy in the water. Three hours earlier we had motored the dinghy ashore onto this seemingly deserted grubby beach. Julian had taken the outboard motor off and carried it up to some scrubby bushes 25 metres away. We then carried the dinghy up and placed it on top of the outboard. The marina in Ayamonte doesn’t welcome dinghies, so if you want to go ashore from an anchorage, the only option from south of town is to pull up onto a beach.

The girls ran down the beach and we walked to the dinghy. Julian was the first to notice something was wrong. The dinghy was there alright, but the girls’ lifejackets were gone, as were the dinghy’s oars, row-locks, air pump, water pump and the big black rubber tub that we store things in to keep dry in our perpetually leaking dinghy. ‘And the outboard?’ I asked, dreading to see what might no longer be under the dinghy. Relief! The outboard at least was where we had left it. The thief probably hadn’t realised it was there.

We were crestfallen, our buoyant mood as we walked back from a couple of hours in Ayamonte completely gone. We told the girls and they couldn’t understand why someone would steal our stuff. Quite honestly, neither could we. Faded frayed children’s lifejackets, and foot pump on its last legs, a leaky water pump with the handle missing, and a rubber tub that cost €3 in the Chinese shop (but which I had retrieved from a skip earlier in the year). Only the old Zodiac oars and relatively new row-locks might be worth something. All together, the thief probably got away with second hand stuff with a value of about €20.

But for us, that old, worn stuff had far more than monetary value. Two life jackets that give us peace of mind when travelling by dinghy with Lily and Katie; an air pump that is used every single day to inflate the dinghy’s leaky chambers; a water pump to keep ahead of the constant leaks of water onto the dinghy floor; oars and row-locks for safety and peace of mind in the event that our outboard fails; and an old rubber tub to keep laptops, backpacks, shoes, food and everything else dry as we move between Carina and land. All that old stuff was priceless to us. For the sake of €20 worth of stuff we were now left with a big headache and the prospect of a big hole in our never-very-healthy bank account.

We returned to Carina despondent, all hunger vanished, and the desire to make a special meal now the last thing I wanted to do. Julian and I started to evaluate what had been stolen and to weigh up options for the days and weeks ahead. We had a spare water pump aboard Carina (a brand new one we had found once in a public shower block, in a bag marked ‘Free – take what you want’), so that wasn’t a problem. But without oars or the means to inflate the dinghy, we could not go ashore. There would be no trip to the beach for the girls the next day, and the rest of our week downriver at anchor now took on an entirely new complexion. The girls’ lifejackets would cost €40 to replace at the chandler in Vila Real. Our foot pump had been on its last legs and it would probably only been a matter of weeks before we needed to invest in a new one anyway.

We have been in need of a new dinghy for some time now, and our latest attempts at repairs a few weeks ago ended in failure. Perhaps the thief, marching away with our oars over his shoulder, had forced our hand. Maybe this was the push we needed to invest in that new dinghy.

We considered what to do over the next 24 to 48 hours. Out came the almanac and the pilot book. Should we head east out of the river to the marina at Isla Cristina, reported to have a good and relatively inexpensive chandlery, where were could potentially purchase a new dinghy (where the money would come from for the new dinghy was anyone’s guess). Or should we head back upriver and get on the pontoon in Sanlúcar from where we could investigate, plan and choose the most cost-effective and worthwhile course of action – a new dinghy, a second-hand one, or some other option.

After talking late into the night (over that dinner that eventually got made) and sleeping on the problem, the next morning we chose a different course of action. We weren’t going to let this ruin our little downriver holiday – the first time we’ve all been together for any period of time in over a year. So we motored a little upriver to a pontoon north of the bridge. The pontoon is free of charge, but has no facilities. Still, it would allow us to enjoy a few more days away without having to worry about how we would get ashore and would give us time to consider how best to reorganise our finances to cope with this sudden and unexpected expense.

Though I’m still feeling despondent and am concerned about money, by the time we went to bed that night we could chuckle at our dilemma, and over the last few days a clearer path to resolving this problem has become clear. While we’re now up shit creek without a paddle, some guy’s wandering the scrub out there with everything he needs to go boating …except a boat!

Who needs autohelm?

I knew the day would come when sailing with children finally paid off. All those years of lifting kids onto and off pontoons, into and out of the dinghy, onto and off their too-high bed. All that neediness when Carina leaned hard or when we sailed in rough weather. All the near solo sailing when one or other of us (usually me) was engaged in full-time child-minding. Finally, payday has arrived.

Carina has temporarily escaped the clutches of the Guadiana Gloop, that elemental force of the Rio Guadiana that sucks sailors upriver and refuses to let go. With only one week of school holidays remaining, we decided to make our way down river. Our reasons were four-fold. 1. Katie is forever begging us to go sailing; 2. A change is as good as a holiday; 3. We wanted to avoid the noisy weekend music festival in Alcoutím; and 4. Carina is in need of repairs, and one way to find out what’s working and what’s not is to take her out for a run to test her under engine and under sail.

The girls were excited at the prospect of sailing and were both up and eager shortly after our 7.30am departure from the Alcoutím pontoon, where we briefly stopped to fill up the water tank.

DSCI0377

Katie has it all under control

We motored down to Ayamonte, retracing the journey I had so recently made with Roy aboard Sea Warrior. Julian and I helmed for about twenty minutes of the more than three hour passage. The rest of the time, Lily and Katie helmed, taking turns at the wheel. Julian and I had a relaxing passage, keeping an eye that the helmsgirls were not driving us towards a rocky shore, into shallows, or directly into oncoming vessels.

DSCI0416

Lily on the helm

I smiled to see them so relaxed and so keen, and laughed out loud when Katie, so cocksure at the helm, asked, ‘Mum, how come if kids are allowed to drive boats, they’re not allowed to drive cars?’ All I could say in reply was, ‘Keep your eyes on the river, Katie, you’re veering towards the riverbank’.

Between Lily’s expert cups of tea and pancake-making skills, and now two human autohelms, this parenting business is starting to pay off. If only I could get them to tidy up the incessant mess, my work here would be done.

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.

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.