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.

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Singing my fears

For as long as I can remember I have been a confident public speaker. Put me in front of a crowd to speak on a topic about which I am familiar, and I am in my element. I have been reading in church since I was seven years old. As a university lecturer I have always enjoyed the performance of standing in front of a lecture theatre of 200 or 300 students and sharing my enthusiasm for my subject. I have never been unnerved by radio or television interviews. Speaking in public has never fazed me.

But the thought of standing up alone and singing in front of a crowd turns my legs to jelly. I’ve been in choirs and in musicals, but always with my voice hidden in the crowd, indistinguishable from everyone else. I come from a family of singers. My mother and her brothers and singers all sing and have the same confidence with singing in public as I have with speaking in public. But, for some reason, their confidence in singing hasn’t been passed on to me.

However, I love to sing. I sing all the time – while sailing Carina, driving a car, while doing household chores. From the moment I knew I was pregnant I sang to my babies and carried on singing to them for years, singing them to sleep every night and soothing them by singing to them when they were upset. These days we sing together.

I’ve always harboured a dream of getting up on a stage some day and singing in front of an audience, but never thought I would ever have the confidence to do it. Tuesday nights at the Riverside Tavern in Alcoutim is open mike night. Many of the ex-pats who live on and along the river, and visiting yachties, bring along their guitars, banjos, fiddles, flutes and harmonicas, and a session gets going. At Christmas, when Tom asked me if I could sing ‘The field of Athenry’ I bit the bullet and sang it with him. My legs were shaking but I tried to forget that I was standing at the front of the pub being stared at by lots of my fellow live-aboards on the river.

It was a few months before I sang again. Because the girls have to be up early for school, we don’t often go to Tuesday music nights, but in the past few months I have twice taken to the mike to sing. Both times I sang songs I know well and that I know I can sing well – Christy Moore’s ‘The voyage’ and ‘Missing you’ and Eric Bogle’s ‘Green fields of France’. And I sang ‘The fields of Athenry’ with Tom again. I gained in confidence each time.

So, when I was asked if I would sing a few songs at the Guadiana International Music Festival a few weeks ago, I said yes before my nerves could kick in and make me say no. My friend Jak wanted me to sing a few songs with her. We rehearsed for a week or so, and in the end we sang two Fascinating Aida songs – ‘Cheap flights’ which we sang together, and ‘The Brexit song’ sung by me with Jak doing back vocals. I finished the set by fronting a wild group consisting of Jak and a bunch of cross-dressers (all wearing my dresses) and sang The Ronette’s ‘Be my baby’.

 

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Me and my ‘beaufiful’ band!!

Was I any good? I honestly don’t know. I was nervous, but I contained it and got on with the job. I sang my heart out and was so pleased that I had overcome my fears of singing in public to get up on a stage at an, albeit small, music festival, and perform! When I came off the stage, Lily and Katie ran up to me and Lily said, ‘Mummy, you were BRILL-I-ANT’. Whatever anyone else thought, the people who mattered most thought I was great!

I may never get up on a stage and sing again. I overcame a fear and I did something I have always wanted to do. I now know what it feels like to stand on a stage, in the floodlights, singing to a crowd, performing. I left my comfort zone and made myself do something that was nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I experienced it. That’s good enough for me!

Forty two

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

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

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

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

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

Breathing treacle

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

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

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Not a cloud in the deep blue sky this morning

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

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

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

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

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This year’s birthday present – a wind scoop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rain

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

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

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

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

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

Today the sun feels good.

One year on the Río Guadiana

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

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

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Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

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

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

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Looking across to Spain from Portugal

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

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

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Sanlucar (foreground) and Alcoutim (background)

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

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

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

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

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

Downriver

On the morning of New Year’s Day, while the rest of the river slept off the festivities of the night before, we lifted the anchor and motored downriver on the ebb tide. For twenty-two miles we chugged along, the farthest Carina had gone since we came upriver in mid-April 2015. We past Laranjeiras where Carina was moored for five months while we were back in the UK, past Guerreros de Rio and Foz de Odeleite, all small hamlets on the Portuguese side of the river. On the Spanish side, there are no settlements of any size between Sanlúcar and Ayamonte, save for the occasional remote farmhouse and a huge ugly golf resort a couple of miles north of Ayamonte.

For some unfathomable reason I’d decided to do some laundry before we departed, so we motored down the river like a tribe of laundry pirates – a large white bed sheet, the girls’ Christmas jumpers, and Lily’s party dress hanging from the clothes lines strung from the rigging. But who was about to see us?

We were expecting unsettled weather and we got it. The sun that had burned away the early morning mist warmed us as we set out, but a few miles downriver I had to hastily bring in the laundry as a dark cloud rushing up the river to meet us dropped its load of rain upon us. That put an end to drying the laundry.

The farther downriver we went the stronger the wind grew. By the time we had left the hills behind and reached the broader stretches of river than run between mud flats and flood plains, Carina was bouncing over choppy short waves as the south westerly wind battled against the south flowing ebb tide.

It was close to low water when we passed under the suspension bridge linking Spain and Portugal and we began to look for a place to anchor. The wind was strong now and the west bank of the river offered the best shelter from the prevailing conditions. To give our anchoring skills a good workout, Mother Nature threw a nasty squall at us just as we decided on an anchorage. Tempers were frayed as lashing rain and howling wind prevented effective communication between Julian on the foredeck with the anchor chain and me in the cockpit on the helm. But as the storm passed overhead, so too did the little storm that had erupted in the boat. A nice cup of tea and we were back on speaking terms again!

High winds didn’t make for the most pleasant anchorage. We were anchored in mud, well out of the ferry and fishing boat channels, so Carina was unlikely to come to much harm if the anchor dragged. But noisy wind, uncomfortable rocking and rain that fell in sheets for hours on end wasn’t how any of us planned to spend our first night of 2016.

Somewhere in the early morning the wind died, the rain stopped and when we awoke the next morning all was calm and peaceful at the mouth of the Guadiana. At 9am we lifted the anchor and motored into the marina in Ayamonte. In the large, half empty Junta de Andalucia marina we found ourselves beside our friends Joss and Pascale aboard Snark and two pontoons away from Pete and Pia aboard Hannah Brown – Alcoutim/Sanlúcar live-aboards on tour!

How strange to be in a marina again, in a Spanish town. It reminded Lily of somewhere else she had been, but she couldn’t remember quite where. This was the first time we had been in a marina since April and it was like many of those we had been to before. It could have been Muros or Mazagon, Torremolinos or Vila Garcia de Arousa. Long walks along pontoons inhabited by seagulls; palm trees planted around the margins; electric gates; bureaucratic staff. My first job was to pay for a night’s berth and have a shower! Bliss!

Soon we were off the boat exploring. Next time I’m there I’ll be giving the little free zoo a miss, with its sad tiger, grizzly bears, lions and baboons. Only the ostriches seem relatively content with their lot in life. Ayamonte town centre was a busy little place, still in the throes of Christmas, preparing for Twelfth Night and the arrival of Los Tres Reyes with their gifts for all the children. An incongruous ice skating rink in the square left much to be desired, but the Christmas trees made by local school children and on display on the steps of the church were wonderful (I took note of some craft ideas for next year!).

That first evening, January 2nd, there was a procession through town of the Compañeras de los Tres Reyes – a brass band playing lively Christmas music followed by three women dressed in ‘Oriental’ clothing, riding three of the most magnificent and well-kept mules I have ever seen. The girls and I ran through the pouring rain to catch up with the procession and later on, when it grew dark all four of us returned to the town centre again where a lively flamenco choir sang carols and we soaked up the atmosphere.

We intended to spend only one night in the marina, and a couple more on anchor. And we intended to divide our time between Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. But the wind and rain put paid to those plans and we spent three nights in Ayamonte marina. The marina proved a boon. The heavy rain had penetrated some of Carina’s leakier parts and the bedding on both fore and aft cabins got quite wet. So, while I ran loads of sheets, duvet covers and pillow cases through the marina’s inexpensive washing machine and tumble drier, we kept the electric fan heater running almost non-stop, drying out the cabins and making the boat comfortable again.

We also took advantage of our proximity to a supermarket to stock up on some food, but I have to say, having got used to shopping in Alcoutim’s and Sanlúcar’s tiny shops, I found the choice in a medium-sized supermarket rather daunting! Nice though to have soy sauce, noodles and a selection of crackers on board again.

On January 4th a text message from the parents of one of Lily’s friends asked if we would make it to their daughter’s birthday party the next day. We hoped the wind would die down enough for us to get back upriver on time for the party and for the Tres Reyes procession in Sanlúcar that night.

Low water the next morning was at 5.13am and we planned to leave at 8am to get upriver on the flood tide. There was little wind, but by 8am it was still pitch dark, so we waited twenty more minutes for some light to fill the sky, before we made our way out of the marina. Carina raced up the Guadiana, carried along on the tide. Somewhat annoyingly, the wind was now coming from the north, making for a cold few hours, despite the sun that gradually rose from behind the hills to warm our backs. By the time we reached Alcoutim I looked like a pirate of a different kind – woolly hat, neck warmer pulled up over my nose and only my eyes exposed as I stood at the helm. We made it to the party, and to the Twelfth Night festivities that night.

Border crossing

‘So, let me get this straight’, says Julian. ‘My mission for this morning is to go to Portugal and find Joe?’
We laugh at how absurd my request sounds. We are walking down the steep hill from the huge fortification of Castillo de Santo Antonio. We are in Spain, and I want us to go to Portugal to find a man called Joe before we return to Spain to pick the kids up from school. Real Mr and Mrs Smith stuff.
‘Where would I even begin?’ Julian asks in jest.

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Sanlucar, Spain (foreground) and Alcoutim, Portugal (background)

A little over 200 metres across the river lies Portugal. I’ve written before about the joys and tribulations of living on an international boundary, living with two time zones, two languages, two cultures. I still get confused when I cross the border (which I do almost daily), mixing up my ‘Bom dia’s and my ‘Buenos dias’s. Life on the border keeps you on your toes.

On Friday morning, after Julian drops the girls off at school, we walk up the steep hill to Castillo de Santo Antonio, one of the most impressive of the fortifications that dot the river on both sides. For the Romans and the Moors the river was not a boundary but a lively flowing highway of trade and conquest. Since the 13th Century onwards, Castilla (Spain) and Portugal have been staring warily across the river at each other, each building more immense and impenetrable fortifications to keep the other out. In these less militaristic times in Europe, when both countries share an almost Europe-wide currency, when open European borders and the Schengen Agreement have all but negated national boundaries, the national ideal of Spain and Portugal as separate entities persists. For their governments at least.

But what does the boundary mean to the people who live along it? Despite different languages the people here share an agrarian history and culture based on olives, vines and sheep. Today the border villages face similar uncertain futures due to population decline and the pull of bigger cities. Love has flourished across the river for centuries and there are mixed families on both sides, melding and blending Spanishness and Portugueseness. Movement across the river is constant, not only for the many visitors who come here (including those thrill-seekers who zip-wire from Spain to Portugal!), but for the local people too. The river is no boundary, but a highway of communication and trade, linking people with cultures and beliefs more similar than different.

As I write this, in a Spanish bar, the very Joe I was looking for, a Portuguese man, has just walked in. Julian and I went looking for him this morning. When we came down from the mountain we motored across in our dinghy to Portugal. We didn’t find Joe but found someone who could give us his phone number. I called him, had a chat with him. He asked me where I would be in the afternoon.
‘I’ll be over in Spain’, I told him.
‘Ok’, he said. ‘I’ll pop over later. See you then’.
Just like that. I’ll pop over later. Across the ancient international boundary.

Early morning

Carina is in remarkably good condition following her five months moored on the river. She has a closed up smell and needs a good airing out. The cockpit and surrounding deck are covered in bird poo and there’s a little midden of fish bones on the aft deck where gulls have feasted. But the bilges are bone dry, the cabins are dry and inside she is clean and tidy, just as Julian left her five months ago.

We’re all in bed by 8.30 on our first night back, tired after our day of travelling. It feels good to climb into my own bed again. Although it’s been a hot afternoon, I anticipate a cold night and dress in pyjamas before going to bed. By midnight I’m sweltering in the heat and have to shed them again. Carina sways almost imperceptibly and, apart from a lone dog barking somewhere in the distance, all is utterly still.

I hear whimpering at 3am and go to the fore cabin to find Katie awake, unused to the complete darkness that surrounds her. I comfort her and she goes back to sleep, but two hours later I hear her again. Come into our bed, I tell her, and she snuggles against me for what remains of the night. At six Lily comes in and we are four in the bed (five, if you count Katie’s teddy). This is bliss.

DSCI0045Early morning, the river is shrouded in mist. I stand on the foredeck, mug of tea in my hand, revelling in the sensations of the river. There is a riot of sound, none of it human. Through the mist comes the morning chatter of ten thousand birds in the reeds and trees lining the riverbanks; goats and sheep bleat loudly, their bells clanging as they move across the hillside fields; dogs bark; ducks quack. Islands of reeds drift downriver on the current. An egret stands forlornly on one of these floating islands, like a world weary ferryman, until it suddenly straightens up and flies away, landing on another reed island farther upriver and floats past again like déjà vu. A little grey bird potters about on another island, pecking at its moving feast. I hear quacking in the moments before four ducks appear out of the mist, flying towards me, upright, their wings outstretched as they brake, skidding in to land in the water next to Carina, quacking incessantly, two duck couples.

After breakfast we slip our mooring line and slowly motor five miles upriver to where the river runs between Alcoutim in Portugal and Sanlúcar in Spain. The five miles of river is as rural, remote and bucolic as I remember it from April. Rain in recent weeks has turned the countryside green again after an arid summer. There is one noticeable change since we were last here. In recent weeks the authorities have placed port and starboard channel markers along the river all the way from the river mouth to Alcoutim. The red and green poles sticking out of the water every few hundred yards sadly make the river a little less wild. We’re told it’s been done to attract more cruise ships and boaters up the river.

We settle on the pontoon at Alcoutim for a few days, to refill our water tank, shop for groceries, give Carina and our dinghy a proper check over, and prepare to move out to anchor in the river. We’re planning to remain on the river for a while.

Preparing to go home

We waited and waited and when the date was confirmed we knew we couldn’t wait any longer. My surgery was scheduled for the 1st of October, Julian’s contract at Warwick Castle was scheduled to end on the 1st of November. What was the earliest date we could realistically return to Carina? We looked at flights and read the NHS guidelines about abdominal hysterectomy recovery times. And we decided to fly to Portugal on the 10th of November. Forty days after my operation. Twenty-one days from today. A little optimistic perhaps? Not quite six weeks from the date of my surgery.

I’ve been taking good care of myself. Not pushing my body too hard, following all the guidelines and advice I’ve been given by healthy professionals, resting when I need to, not lifting heavy objects, not tiring myself out. I’ve been doing the exercises advised by the physiotherapist who came to see me the day after my operation and I’ve been going for walks – a little farther and a little faster every day. I’m in less pain every day, feeling stronger and less tired every day, and generally feeling good. In the first few days after my surgery, returning to Carina on the 10th of November seemed foolhardy. Three weeks after my surgery, it feels about right.

On the 10th of November we will have been in the UK for five and a half months. We arrived at the start of summer and we are departing at the start of winter. And the slow and methodical process of planning what to bring back to Carina, what to leave behind, what to dump and what to give to charity, begins.

The girls and I flew from Faro to Luton on the 21st of May with two pieces of hand luggage. Four changes of clothes each, including what we wore on the flight, seemed enough. I had carefully chosen clothes that could be layered – a sleeveless summer dress that could be transformed with the addition of leggings and a shirt into a cold weather dress; long and short-sleeved t-shirts that could be layered. The girls and I have expanded our wardrobes over the summer – me with clothes bought from charity shops and the girls with gifts of clothing from their doting grandmothers. The girls have outgrown or worn through many of the clothes that came with us from Carina and so their new clothes are a natural replacement. Some of the clothes I brought from Carina are now threadbare and the only dignified place for them is the bin.

Those throw-outs aside, we still have more clothing now than when we first arrived. So I’m trying to get myself back into a live aboard mentality and look at these clothes with an eye to their practicality on the boat. It’s hard to do – I know from past experience. The clothes I wear every day when living on the boat are not the same as what I wear when living in a house. Those clothing decisions have a lot less to do with comfort and warmth than with the presence or absence of a washing machine and the amount of storage space we have. So I have to think of my hand-washing, launderette-using self and Carina’s already packed storage spaces when I make decisions about what to bring back to the boat.

We have also accumulated quite a number of new books over the past few months and it pains me to part with any of them, but especially with the children’s books. But I must make some tough choices and also remind myself that books aboard Carina, having not been opened in five and a half months, will contain all the thrills and excitement as if they were new. And I have to remember the stacks of unread books that await me when I return to Carina.

Returning to the UK has given us the opportunity to restock Carina with some much desired food stuffs, but most importanly, tea. Our ongoing search for teabags caused us no end of consternation last year. Tea in Spain and Portugal is, to our tastes, insipid, over-packaged and expensive. But how many packets of 240 Tetley teabags can we pack and what else do we sacrifice in order to maximise our supply of tea? Though our tastes have adapted to virtually all southern European cuisine, large quantities of strong tea is something we can’t bear to be without!

Knowing how much preparation I want to do for our return to Carina, and knowing how quickly I tire these days, I started the job last week. A little bit every day and gradually I’m getting there. So far, summer clothes that won’t fit the girls next summer have gone into a bag for the charity shop, along with clothes I bought from charity shops at the start of summer, but now no longer need. Books have been divided into piles – boat, storage, charity.

Little by little it’s all taking shape. And little by little I’m getting in shape too, excited by the prospect of returning home soon, intrigued to see what the Rio Guadiana is like at this time of year, and wondering where the next few months will take us.