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!


An attachment to stuff – part II

I cried when I opened the box and saw the damage inside. There lay the remains of a dearly loved possession, chewed to pieces by a squirrel and transformed into a nest. My father-in-law had to console me.

I recently posted a blog about our growing detachment from our material stuff and how Julian and I continue to rid ourselves of things that we once thought we couldn’t live without. However, there are a few precious possessions that we treasure – things that are meaningful because of the people who gave them to us or the situations in which we acquired them, or objects that are simply beautiful. In fact, most of the non-utility items we keep in storage with my parents-in-law fulfil both these criteria – they are beautiful and we are sentimentally attached to them. There’s a cake plate, a red sandstone dancing polar bear, a heavy woollen blanket, Bob the bear. None of these are of any monetary value, but to me they are priceless.


And one of those priceless things was a pair of seal skin kamiks (boots) with duffel kamikpaks (liners) made for me in 2000 by the great Inuit seamstress Elisapee Muckpah. How I treasured those kamiks. I loved how they looked on me, I loved the feel of them, I loved the way I glided across the snow and ice when I wore them. They were instantly recognisable to those in the know as Elisapee’s with their signature pattern around the leg, made by cutting and sewing together contrasting triangular sections and parallel strips of seal fur. They were silver, metallic, pewter, shimmering and beautiful. And oh so soft to the touch. The feet were ingeniously made, following a tradition of generations of Inuit women – black seal skin soles and white caribou skin uppers, hand stitched with precision and delicacy, impossibly tiny and uniform stitches. The kamiks came to precisely beneath my knee and the white kamikpaks ended a few inches above my knee, the part above the knee hand decorated with colourful woollen roses. How I loved slipping into those kamikpaks, pulling the kamiks on over and then tying the kamiks securely at the knee with a black woollen tie.

I remember going to Elisapee’s house in early winter. She measured my feet and the length of my lower legs. A couple of weeks later they were ready. I wore them for the first time that night, walking across town to my friend Brenda’s house. Brenda’s mom had sent her a care package from down south and we got silly together, drinking illicit red wine in a community where alcohol was banned. I spilled some wine on the kamik on my left foot and from that day on the caribou skin upper bore a tiny red wine stain.

I wore them throughout the winter and spring of 2000 and 2001 and again through the winter and spring of 2002 and 2003. I wore them during my fieldwork in Quaqtaq over in Nunavik in northern Quebec and I wore them in the winter of 2007, the last time I went to Arviat. And when we moved aboard Carina I put them in storage in my father-in-law’s loft.

I thought they were secure from damage, but I was wrong. I had reason to go into the loft a few weeks ago and out of the corner of my eye I saw something strange on top of one of the plastic storage boxes. On closer inspection, I discovered it was excrement. It wasn’t a mouse, but I wasn’t sure if it was a squirrel or a rat. I discovered a hole in the lid of the storage box. What had once been a very thin crack in the sturdy plastic, sealed with heavy duty tape, had been chewed by a determined rodent into a sizable hole.

Armed with a dustpan and brush, a piece of cardboard and masking tape, and wearing rubber gloves, I determined to cover the offending hole, clean the box and then bring it down to the garden to empty it. The poo smelled fragrant, so I ruled out the rat and decided it must be a squirrel. But I chickened out when it came to covering the box, scared some sharp-toothed rodent would leap from the box and run up my arm! So my father-in-law climbed the rickety ladder into the loft to secure the box before I took it downstairs!

In the open air and space of the garden I was much braver. I opened the box to find out what harm was done. Inside I found the Julian’s little thirty-five year old badge-covered Cub Scout jumper – untouched; my arctic hare mitts and polar bear mitts – untouched; and in the middle of it all a nest of seal skin and duffel. The rodent had made mince meat of my beautiful kamiks and kamikpaks. I was heartbroken.

Those boots reminded me of a wonderful and transformative time in my life; they reminded me of the friendships I forged during that time; and I imagined my daughters inheriting them one day, a tangible accompaniment to the stories of my youth.

But then I became philosophical. Elisapee’s art lives on in the clothing owned and worn by her children, grandchildren and many people like me, who admired her work. And her art lives on in the skills she passed on to her children and grandchildren. The loss of the kamiks doesn’t diminish my memories of that time or my connections to those people. Memories and connections are not material. Rather they live on in ongoing relationships with people and place. And those relationships are as strong as ever.

And so it goes for all our material possessions. While they are beautiful and tangible reminders of times past, of people and places, they are no substitute for the living relationships that are forged and maintained through communication, giving and receiving. My kamiks are gone. But the people and places they remind me of are still there, and the relationships that matter remain strong.

Get a job!

Recently, someone with our best interests at heart suggested that our lives would be easier if Julian and I had permanent jobs. These would provide us with financial security, give us something on which to focus our attention, and provide structure to our lives. We could still have a boat, save up our holidays and go sailing in the summer. This put me in a reflective mood and I asked this person for permission to use our conversation as a jumping off point for this blog post.

It’s true that in our current situation we lack financial security. But are we so different to many two-income families? My parents both worked, they were careful with money, and yet money was always a worry. Before we had children, Julian and I had a joint income of £64,000. But it never seemed to be enough. Back then, of course, we knew exactly how much money would appear in our bank account on a certain day each month. We knew the bills would get paid and we didn’t give much thought to how much money we spent on food and going out. These days we don’t know how much money (if any) we will earn in a given month. But I don’t think it has made our financial worries any greater. Rather, our financial worries are different. We no longer have the expense of running a car, paying rent or a mortgage, and paying electricity, telephone and water bills. We have other expenses, but they don’t even compare to our expenses when we lived on land.

These days we have to work hard to make our meagre financial resources stretch far. Some might think it burdensome to spend so much time comparing the prices on tins of tomatoes or weighing up the cost of a night spent at a marina versus the cost of motoring to an anchorage when there’s no wind by which to sail. But this is our work. These minute considerations allow us to live this incredible sailing life. If I wasn’t pondering tins of tomatoes I’d be giving essay-writing advice to a 19-year old undergrad. It’s just a different form of work.

Our way of life requires careful thought, planning and frugality and the replacement of time-saving devices and methods with manual and time-consuming labour. But without permanent full-time jobs, time is on our side and currently we undertake these boat maintenance and household chores in the warm January sun of the Costa del Sol, the beach a two-minute walk from Carina, a hulking orange mountain dominating the skyline behind us. We can leave when we wish and sail to wherever we choose, making anywhere our home. It feels like a pretty good life to me.

But having had this conversation about the benefits of permanent employment, I pondered the alternative to the life we currently live. Of course Julian and I could be in full-time permanent employment. There’s nothing to stop us. Academia is what I know and love and Julian has the research skills and experience to work in academia or in the private or public sectors. I certainly wouldn’t want a permanent job doing anything other than academic Human Geography/Anthropology. Why should I? It’s what I’m trained for. The academic life is a wonderful one, and I have to admit I miss all those intellectual conversations and debates that serve to fertilise the seeds of imagination. I miss my super-smart friends and colleagues, the opportunities for travel, the visits to the pub. I even miss my students some days!

But let’s imagine a scenario – based on my own experiences and on those of friends in academia. There is a side to academic life that makes the family life I desire almost impossible to achieve. Academic couples are frequently forced to live far from each other – in different cities, countries and even continents – as finding two jobs in the same university or city is often an unattainable dream. Julian and I lived apart when I lectured at Reading. In fact, all throughout my pregnancy with Lily, Julian lived in our home in Cambridge (where he worked) and I spent four nights a week in a flat in Reading (where I worked). My friends Tina and Ben have spent the past three years living apart in a foreign country and have only recently found university jobs in the same city in Tina’s native Canada. I have known couples who work in opposite ends of the UK, in different European countries and, in the most extreme example, a friend who worked in Fairbanks, Alaska, and lived there with her baby son, while her husband worked and lived in Vienna, Austria. Eventually, one of them had to give in and put their career on hold. In every university I have been associated with I have known couples who have been forced to live apart in order for both people to pursue their academic careers.

One of the reasons I quit my job at University of Reading after Lily was born was that we simply couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It’s a three and a half hour motorway journey between Cambridge and Reading. If we chose to live somewhere in between, Julian and I would both face up to four hours of commuting by car each day. House prices that close to London were way out of our reach and, if we factored in the cost of 12 hours of child care every day, one of our salaries would completely disappear in commuting and child care costs. Never mind how little time we would spend with each other or with our baby daughter. If you have ever been to Cambridge and Reading, you’ll understand why we chose Cambridge.

But let’s imagine that we were lucky enough to both find work in the same city. The academic workload is mindboggling. There are lectures to write and present, academic and pastoral tutorials, essays to grade, exams to mark, post-graduate students to supervise; departmental administrative duties; research grants to write and, if successful, to manage; journal articles, book chapters and books to write; editorial boards to sit on; external and internal examiner duties to fulfil; conferences to attend; research to plan and carry out; public or private sector consultation or collaboration; and much more besides. (I know as soon as I post this blog, I’ll think of ten more common tasks that I’ve forgotten to mention). I’ve rarely met an academic who doesn’t take their work on vacation. And, despite the misconceptions of non-academics, academics (in the UK) have only 30 days of paid leave a year, not the four months of freedom enjoyed by their students. Many academics don’t even take their 30 days. The long summer is a time to prepare for the next academic year, carry out research and write write write, because that old academic adage ‘publish or perish’ really holds true.

It is a privileged life, spending your days in a safe and comfortable environment, devoting your time to the research questions about which you are wildly passionate. And if I was single or had no children, I think I would throw myself heart and soul into it.

So, let’s take this scenario a little further. Julian and I have found incredible academic jobs in the same city and we are fully engrossed in what we do. In order to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and to progress up the promotional ladder, we would need to work long long hours, and so would need help with raising the kids. Pre-school, a large portion of our salaries would go on child care, and once the girls were in school (as early as possible, to reduce child care costs) they would still need after school care. We would see them briefly, morning and evening, all of us tired and frazzled.

Having the left-over financial resources to own a boat, keep it in good condition, and pay marina fees would be beyond us. Our dreams of a month or two at sea would remain just that and if we were lucky we might manage a week here or there.

But Julian and I chose other priorities. Home educating our children and exploring the world with them quickly became a priority for us. So for the past four years we have chosen a middle path. For three years I took temporary academic contracts that had set working hours. I worked professionally for those 35 hours every week, but I didn’t kill myself working every night and weekend as I used to do before. And this winter I’ve found a job teaching English 18 hours each week. It lacks the intellectual stimulation of university life, but it challenges me in other ways.

Despite not having full-time jobs, our lives have purpose and focus. Short, medium and long-term planning focus our thoughts, as we find innovative ways to make our finances stretch far, plan where we want to sail in a given week or month, and think about where we want to be in five or ten years time. We are focused on raising and educating the children – something that requires a lot of energy and innovation. And both Julian and I passionately pursue our own interests. While I have immediate and decade-long plans for my writing. Julian’s approach to planning is different, but this winter his obsession has been studying Spanish.

What we lack in financial security we more than make up for with the time and space to be innovative in our approach to living. And we have time to play, learn and grow together. No-one’s path through life runs smooth all the time, and each choice made means that other choices have to be cast aside. But at 40 and 41 years old, Julian and I have made our choices based on our past experiences, and based on what we know works for us as individuals and as a family.

Live an enthusiastic life, whatever path you choose.

The Bullfight

by Julian

I like eating meat. I tried to follow a semi-vegetarian diet for a month once. I ate some eggs and fish, but no meat. By the end of the month I felt tired and drained. A day after eating a good steak I felt better again. I know this is very unscientific but suffice it to say, I eat meat for both my pleasure and my wellbeing. However, I was always dissatisfied with the fact that the meat often arrived in a packaged form. I felt that if I ate meat I should be comfortable with the raising, killing and butchering of an animal. No! More than that, as a fit, healthy man I should be able to do it all myself. Martina gave me the opportunity to test this when we went hunting caribou with her Inuit friend in Arctic Canada. The first day out I saw a caribou shot three times and still not die until the hunter stabbed it in the back of the head. As the first time I had witnessed the killing of a mammal I stood there stunned and unable to move to help as Martina assisted in moving the carcass to dry ground and butchering it. Not a good start. The next time we were out we spotted a mother caribou and its calf. I was offered the rifle; I thought ‘It’s now or never. If I can’t do this I should be a vegetarian for the rest of my life’. I had considered the situation; I could shoot well enough; I knew where to aim for; the caribou had lived a free life unlike most of the animals I had eaten, some of which had no doubt been kept in miserable conditions. I shot, the caribou jumped up twice and dropped dead. I felt comfortable not only to help Martina butcher it but to cut out its kidneys and along with some back meat from the calf I made a delicious steak and kidney pie. Some of this pie we brought round to Martina’s hunter friend who ate it all on the spot, out of courtesy I think.

Now here comes the big-big-big BUT! I am completely unsure, even hostile to the idea that an animal should be killed for entertainment, proof of bravery, or the pleasure of killing. Lines are blurred because in a world, or at least a part of a world, where we don’t need to eat animals to survive or prosper are we killing to satisfy our taste alone? Is there really a difference between the entertainment of our taste buds and our general amusement?

I have always been uneasy about bullfights; I watched one on television at my Uncle Ken’s once. Ken lives in Estepona and told me he had been uncertain to begin with but had become fascinated by the art of the bullfight. I didn’t respect Ken’s views, but I had a general respect for him. Fourteen years later I turn up in Andalucía on a boat with Martina, Lily and Katie. It is my job to take the girls out for a day of learning, entertainment and culture whilst Martina cleans the boat and works on her writing. So we take the bus to Roquetas de Mar. The señora at the tourist office in Aguadulce has highlighted two free museums, one at the bullring and another at the Castillo. We turn up at the bullring first, partly because this is the first stop on the bus and partly because there appears to be an international beer festival next door which may have various entertainments and soothing elixirs available. We walk into the information office where the señora speaks good English to find the “Museum is open ten o’clock until one in the afternoon on a Saturday but is closed today because of a bullfight.”

“Oh!” I say “Is the museum at the castle open?” This is on the other side of town and my heart has sunk at the thought of nothing to do for two hours until the beer festival starts.
“Yes” she replies.
“How much is the bullfight?” I ask out of genuine curiosity but absolutely no intention of paying to support something I have serious moral dilemmas about. “Oh nothing right now” she says “There are not enough people at this time so we have just opened the gates.”
“When is it?” I say, with a slight lump in my throat.
“Eleven-thirty.” This is fifteen minutes away. My feet are suddenly glued to the floor. My mouth goes dry. Here I am standing next to the open gates of a bullring, a fight begins in a few minutes and I don’t have to fund it. Martina is not here so I can’t say “Take the kids off, I am going to see what’s going on and come away the moment I feel ill at the spectacle.” What do I do? After a walk and a bus journey, Lily and Katie are expectant, so I say to them “Right, we are just going in to have a look at the bullring. The museum is closed.” Good start. “We may get a quick look at the bull and the matador.” Just out of curiosity and the sake of education.

We go in and get excellent seats in a little box. The girls are excited and interested in the theatre: the band, the crowd; the horsemen. I turn to them and, feeling about as uncomfortable as I have ever done, I say “We will just watch the bull come out. Now you know Daddy is not comfortable with this and would never pay money to support it. Please don’t look, close your eyes if you want to. We will leave as soon as you want to go.” I am on the edge of my seat. I consider my options for getting them out of here quickly if I need to. “You know they kill the bull.”, I say to them.
“Yes we know daddy.”
“The matador has a sword; he kills it with a sword.”
“You do know we don’t have to stay and see that, and we wouldn’t be here if we were paying for it.”
“Yes of course.” The girls are confident, they sit there transfixed, they really want to see this and I can’t think of a good reason to pull them away.

The arena is perfectly round. We sit half way up in a boxed off area with three short benches. Below us are several rings of plastic seats where we would be closer to the action but not have as good an overview. The theatre is more than half empty but most people are in a group to our right so there is a crowd-like atmosphere. The crowd ranges from old ladies to young men and schoolgirls. I even see a mother feeding her baby. Gee whiz, I imagine these same women knitting happily at the guillotine during the French revolution.

The ring is covered in neatly raked orange-reddish sand. Around this is a well-kept wooden wall with several gaps, each covered by a short barrier behind which the men can jump to get out of reach of the bull. Behind this wooden wall is a ring with a higher wooden wall between it and the crowd.

After some important looking men shake hands with some very young men and everyone takes their places we hear the band strike up outside the arena, at first distant, becoming louder and louder. As they pass into the tunnel the sound of the brass, drums and cymbals rises to a stirring crescendo. They emerge into the arena to applause and circle once, exiting the way they have entered. Later they take up position high in the stands with a few trumpeters over the bull’s gate to herald any significant event.

Two horsemen ride in side by side with extreme coordination and purpose. The girls find this exciting. Handsomely dressed in black with capes and hats with feathers, they are like two Zorros riding out for adventure. The horses are beautiful. They dance their horses sideways around the arena, facing the crowd and doffing their hats to more applause. After this the matador and all the performers walk into the ring, equally spaced out in formation. Most are dressed in reds, greens and gold with small black hats. The matador, a distinguished looking man, is resplendent in light grey with a wide brimmed hat, waistcoat and jacket. The golden men take their places around the edge of the arena and the bull’s gate is opened. Nothing happens. The man by the gate taps several times until eventually the bull emerges into the daylight of the ring. It is not the biggest bull I have ever seen but not one I would like to be near. He is brown with curly hair between a magnificent pair of horns. The men jump out one-by-one waving large pink capes to entice the bull to charge them. The bull eventually does with some astonishing acceleration so that the men have to hurriedly jump back behind their barriers. After a few passes some of them emerge into the middle of the ring, standing to the side as the bull passes beneath their capes. The bull is quite energetic at times, and able to turn back on these men quickly enough that it seems quite dangerous. As this occurs other men spread their capes and shout to entice the bull away, so that no individual gets in too much of a knot. The crowd cheers acts of bravery or foolishness. I assume that most of this action is to tire the bull so the matador can perform without having to jump behind the barriers, or be rescued. After a while a novice matador comes out with two brightly coloured barbed sticks. Without a cape he seems vulnerable and the men with the pink capes have to work to get the bull near to the man without it attacking him. Finally he throws the sticks into the bull, just piecing its skin so that they rest on its back. The bull is agitated by this.

Finally, the matador comes out. On his own with a sword and a small red cape he cuts a very striking figure. He entices the bull to run at him letting it under his cape to one side and then the other in what appears to be a well choreographed dance. He turns his back on the bull and strikes the most elegant pose with his back arched and his arms down. He toys with the bull waving his cape from side to side; the bull seemingly hypnotised, he places his hand on the bull’s head to great clapping from the crowd. Accompanied by atmospheric music he swaps swords and we all know the bull’s time will soon be up. The bull charges and the matador strikes it deep in the back with the sword. The bull slows, blood comes out of its mouth and its legs gave way. Another man bearing a dagger stabs the bull in the back of the head and it dies quickly, much as I have seen done with caribou in the Arctic. Horses come on to drag the bull away (Lily and Katie liked those horses), and the bull’s ear is cut by one of the horsemen from earlier and ceremoniously given to the matador. The fight is over, the crowd cheers, waving white handkerchiefs at the demise of the bull.

The nervous tension of watching a bullfight for the first time, added to the fact that my two tiny daughters are with me is very tiring. I cannot and will not even try to describe the draining emotions. However, the girls seem happy with everything, asking questions, pointing things out, and so we stay for another one. In the second fight the matador is younger. He seems less sure. He loses a shoe and ends up under the bull. Others jump in with their pink capes to quickly lure the bull away. Later the young matador’s cape is ripped away making him more vulnerable. Again others quickly ran to distract the bull. Early on he tries to turn his back on the bull, probably misjudging the energy the bull still has. The crowd scream to him and he reacts just in time. From the overall performance I assume he showed some great skills but at the end of the fight he puts his back to the side of the ring and breathes heavily for a while. I can only begin to imagine the effects adrenaline is having on him; it is certainly having a big effect on us as a crowd. I think this is all too much for Lily, who is easily frightened. She has moved closer to me, as has Katie. “I’m scared”, Lily says, “I want to go”.
“Okay.” I reply. I have had more than enough, and feel mentally exhausted by what we have witnessed. However, Katie, is upset. “I don’t want to go. I want to see the next one. I love bullfights.”
“Let’s just see the bull come out”, I say. “Then we have to go.” Katie is distraught. Previously Martina and I had been convinced that the midwife should have held Katie up at birth and said “Congratulations, it’s a vegetarian!” Whereas Lily happily munches on baby squid and has even eaten raw shrimp from our engine intake filter, Katie tends to say things like “Yuck! I don’t like meat” and “I only like the yellow fish!” (Meaning in batter)! Now all she wants is to tell Mummy how much she likes bullfights and can she go again.

So what about the morality of the whole thing, the cruelty to the animal? Well, when they got into the killing and the physical hurt to the bull I can only say they did it very quickly. I have seen animals hunted for food that have, to my eye, suffered far more than the quickly dispatched bull. To be honest we can get a bit too hung up on suffering and death and seem to prefer years of suffering and a painless last minute over a last minute of suffering and a great life. This is probably due to our often being disconnected from the realities of nature. So is it wrong that the bull was killed for the chance for some men to show off their art, their skill, their bravado, their tradition, to entertain the crowd? Is it right to kill because, frankly, I really like the taste of caribou? Try it, it’s delicious. I still don’t feel right about bullfights.

Yes I could kill the bull. I would stay as far away from it as possible and shoot it with the best weapon I had to hand. I would hang it to get the best flavour, butcher it and roast or barbeque it rare. Then devour it with some fine English mustard (The one with the drawing of a bull’s head on the jar) or some strong horseradish sauce. What I would not do is stand around waving a red cloth at the animal until it charged at me. But maybe that is just the way I get my satisfaction and actually nothing to do with imagined moral superiority. I hope the girls grow up to respect animals, and people, and that neither of them ever considers becoming a bullfighter. Although my biggest concern in that regard is their safety.

Arviat on the Algarve

DSCI4595This is more like it. This is my kind of place. We left Albufeira early in the morning to enter the channel that leads to Faro and Olhão at high water. Our plan was to anchor behind the barrier islands in the Rio Formosa. We had no idea what the place would be like, but the pilot book said that Olhão itself was far less tourist-orientated than other places along the Algarve. We anchored behind Ilha da Culatra, hoping to stay for a couple of days. We’ve been here for over a week and are loathe to leave!

The red Algarve cliffs end a few miles before Faro, replaced by an incredibly flat low-lying sandy coastline. Ilha da Culatra is one of a few barrier islands sheltering the sandbank littered waters on its northern shore from the breaking waves of the Atlantic. As soon as we entered the channel leading to the lee side of the islands, I exclaimed ‘It’s Arviat on the Algarve’, while Julian simultaneously said, ‘It’s the Mississippi’.

Even Arviat isn't this flat!

Even Arviat isn’t this flat!

The small village of Culatra lies only a couple of miles from two other villages, accessible across the sand at low water, but considered to be on separate islands. Ilha da Culatra is flat and mostly treeless, and from the sea it is a tiny thread of land separating the blue sea from the huge blue sky. It is the vastness of the sky, the flatness of the land, the lack of trees, and the profusion of small boats resting on the shore in front of the cluster of low houses that first reminded me so much of Arviat, my beloved ‘other home’ in the Canadian Arctic.

We anchored a short distance from the tiny village, and I couldn’t wait to get ashore.

Culatra's 'lively' town centre!

Culatra’s ‘lively’ town centre!

There are no cars; just a few small tractors to transport goods and people. The village is built on soft sand, with paved footpaths (with street names recalling local history and celebrated local fishermen) leading between houses, to the harbour, the shops, post office, library, the little school and the community hall. Very little grows here, but outside many of the small white-washed houses, in plots protected by fishing nets from the multitude of large and free-roaming island dogs, the villagers grow vegetables and fruits in the unforgiving sand. Brassicas are ubiquitous, and there’s the occasional sad-looking tomato plant. Lime trees are scattered around the village and we found a pomegranate tree growing outside one house (it’s safe from me…pomegranate is the one fruit I dislike). None of the plants or trees looked particularly fertile – indeed they looked like a lot of effort for very little return.

A typical vegetable patch

A typical vegetable patch

The island relies on fishing and tourism. Indeed, it was fishermen from the mainland who first settled the island in the 19th Century, attracted by its rich marine life, and eventually building homes and founding a community. These days the island men fish for sea bass and sea bream and cultivate mussels, and if the activity around the harbour is anything to go by, fishing is thriving. The island’s women gather clams from the beaches at low water, and we met clam-pickers carrying buckets and baskets and nets heavy with clams at each low tide. I was thrilled to see two octopuses hanging out to dry on the clothes line of one home!


You thought I was joking, didn't you!

You thought I was joking, didn’t you!

The island also takes advantage of the many day-tripping tourists who arrive by ferry. There are a surprising number of cafes and bars, some of which appear to be people’s homes, converted for the long summer into hostelries. Service is simple and informal – uncapping a bottle of cold beer pulled from the fridge is the extent of it!

On 19th July 1987, the village en masse refused to participate in the national elections. They were protesting against the lack of assistance they received from the Portuguese government, feeling they were being forgotten and left behind. Their protest caught the government’s attention and since then the islanders have seen many improvements to their lives – the island got electricity in 1993, a health centre in 2006, water supply and sanitation in 2009, and a scheduled ferry service to Faro in 2010.

A typical 'street' in the village

A typical ‘street’ in the village

The island is a nature reserve, so no further development is allowed to take place. As a result, the newest houses look at least 30 or 40 years old, with only a few community buildings, such as the school, dating from more recently.

We arrived onshore late in the afternoon of our first day here. We quickly surveyed the village and then walked across the island to the expansive beach on the south side, where the Atlantic rolls in and crashes on the shore in waves just the perfect size for the children to play in. Since then, we have visited the beach every day, where the swimming is excellent!

Fun on the beach

Fun on the beach

In an effort to protect the delicate sand dunes and salt marshes from the constant train of visitors each day, a raised walk-way runs from the village to the beach.

Back in the village, Lily and Katie played with some local children at the playground, while Julian and I sat and drank a beer at a nearby bar. Large dogs roamed freely, in and out of the playground, ignoring the children, minding their own business.

I long to see the island in winter, when the tourists have departed. I suggested to Lily that she and Katie go to school here, and we could live in one of these tiny houses, pick clams and send Julian out bass fishing! My little fantasy!

And the patches make the goodbye harder still

Back in the spring of 1996 I bought a pair of khaki green shorts from Gap in Fukuoka, Japan. With the exception of 2010, when I was heavily pregnant, I’ve worn them every summer since. They’ve even seen a few days wear during brief Arctic summers in Arviat, Nunavut.


They were dark green eighteen years ago. Now they’re faded to grey, threadbare and falling to pieces. But I can’t bear to let them go. Other items of clothing have come and gone in those eighteen years, but none have been as comfortable or carry so many memories as those faded old shorts.

They remind me of so many good times, and I know every day I put them on is going to be a good day. They remind me of hiking Mt. Aso and other volcanoes in Kyushu, southern Japan, with Linda, Fiona, Sarah, Sara, Brian, Stefan, Patricia and others; of climbing 3,333 steps to a temple in Fukuoka-ken with Lisa; of summer holidays with my great friend Takako and her wonderful family; and of summer Japanese barbecues.

These shorts remind me of a holiday in Hawai’i with Liliane, and of returning to Maui a few years later to volunteer on a humpback whale research project, with long days spent in the open ocean in a small boat, surrounded by giant humpback whales.

They remind me of arctic char fishing in Arviat with Crystal and of Honda/ATV rides out to Nuvuk to chat to other fishermen and women and see if there were any polar bears about.

They remind me of summer Sunday trips to Croke Park with Daddy and my uncle Tom for the Gaelic football, and of long summer days at home in Ballygibbon, keeping Daddy company as he went about his gardening chores.

They remind me of camping trips with Julian – in Ireland, Scotland, England, Spain, Italy, Germany and Austria; of long hikes and pub lunches; and of exploring the countryside of Cambridgeshire and Devon with Lily and Katie.

I’m wearing them as I write this.

I don’t think they’ll see another summer. They are threadbare and beyond repair. But I cherish them for their memories and I will be sad to say goodbye to them when the time comes. As Cat Stevens sang ‘And the patches make the goodbyes harder still’.

Lovely La Coruña

We slipped out of Ria de Viveiro early on Thursday morning, while the girls still slept. The dolphin accompanied us for a few hundred metres until it abandoned us for a fishing vessel returning from a night at sea. Fickle dolphin!

We sailed west, feasting our eyes on the Spanish coastline for the first time, as our arrival in Spain had been before dawn and in light fog. The coast is lush and verdant, with small towns dotted along, and wind farms peeking out between the hills in the distance. We passed clusters of small boats, each with one or two fishermen, and I was reminded of summertime in Arviat, hanging around, waiting for beluga whales to arrive.

We rounded Cabo Ortegal and were back on our summer southerly course again. After twelve hours of sailing we arrived in La Coruña, the largest city in Galicia, with a population of 250,000. We have been here for the past two nights, and are having a wonderful time.

La Coruña is home to Torre de Hercules, the oldest still-functioning lighthouse in the world. Built by the Romans in the first century AD, it still lights up the night sky to warn sailors of the dangerous rocky shore. Myths about the lighthouse link it to both Hercules and to the Irish Tuatha de Danann.

Torre de Hercules

Torre de Hercules

Torre de Hercules is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the paths leading to it are lined with modern artworks. Underneath the lighthouse, we walked through the archaeological works that reveal layers of history from the Romans onwards, and then we climbed the lighthouse to the top (Of course we did! Did any of you imagine that we wouldn’t!). Wow, what views from the top, of the city, across the bays that surround the city, and far out into the Atlantic. From below we could see and hear a lone piper on the Galician pipes (yet another Celtic link), and looked down on a huge tiled compass rose on the ground, bearing the names and symbols of the seven Celtic nations.

DSCI3858Yesterday evening we walked through the old town, savouring the Friday evening atmosphere. Lily and Katie had never been out in a city after dark before, and they were agog at the twinkling lights. We were surprised to see so many children out with their parents and extended families, walking the streets or sitting in restaurants, at midnight. So different to a Friday night town or city centre in Ireland or the UK.

We strolled through the huge and beautiful Plaza de Maria Pita, and learned about the city’s heroine for whom the plaza is named. She defended the city walls from Sir Francis Drake’s men, when the English attempted to sack the city in 1589. Evidence abounds of a prominence of heroines in the city – statues of women are ubiquitous and one of the legends surrounding the city is that is was named by Hercules for the woman he loved, La Cruna.

Plaza de Maria Pita

Plaza de Maria Pita

Off the Plaza, we feasted our eyes on restaurants and cafes offering incredible arrays of food. I was particularly taken by El Rey de Jamon – the King of Ham! The ceiling of his restaurant was obscured by hundreds of hams hanging down. But by far the most common food comes from the sea – octopus, squid, lobsters, crabs, razor clams, mussels, and myriad other creatures whose names I don’t know. Shop and restaurant windows are filled with them, and inside and outside, diners fill themselves on a mind-boggling selection. The girls enjoyed watching the live lobsters and crabs in the window of the little restaurant where we stopped for some squid and tortilla and a bottle of the house red.

Local fare

Local fare

La Coruña is a beautiful city. There is so much to see and do, and we haven’t even ventured outside of our little corner of it yet. We have found the people so friendly and helpful…and kindly helping correct our woeful attempts at Spanish! Time to go explore some more now!

Irish Abroad

Early on Monday morning, with the girls still sleeping, we motored down the river to La Palue to take on fuel and water, and to prepare for a longer passage, although we as yet hadn’t decided where. There was laundry to be done and showers to be had so, as soon as breakfast was over, I stepped onto the pontoon to go make use of the marina facilities. I immediately saw a boat arriving, flying an Irish flag.
‘Do ye want a hand with the ropes?’ I shouted, as I dropped the laundry and washing bags. It was then I realised I was being filmed by a cameraman standing in the bow, slightly in front of the man holding the bow line. I tied them on to a shout of ‘Good girl’, and off I went to have my shower.

IMG_20140617_144306Twenty minutes later as I returned to the boat, I looked out over the sea and, to my surprise, saw four men rowing a curragh into port, it too bearing an Irish flag. A curragh is a traditional Irish four-man row boat, made of wood covered in tarred canvas, and rowed using flat blade oars. The men from the Irish yacht were all standing on the pontoon, shouting directions to the rowers as to where best to land the curragh along the pontoon, while the cameraman and sound man recorded proceedings for RTE, the national Irish broadcaster.

For the next two days we got to know these men a little bit, and they got to know us. They had departed St. James Gate in Dublin in May, and were following the Camino de Santiago by curragh! Dublin, Ireland to Santiago de Compostella, Spain in the Naomh Gobnait. The voyage may take up to three summers to complete, but already this summer they have advanced farther than expected. An Seachrán is their support vessel, and everywhere they go the crew of both vessels bring traditional Irish music with them, and the hostelries of La Palue were treated to music and song as the crew waited for some fair weather and light winds to complete the next leg of their journey.

It was a real treat for us to meet them, and it reminded me of some other crazy places where I’ve met fellow Irish people. I’ve met the niece of my Nana’s parish priest in Japan, bumped into an old university friend in a pub on the Isle of Skye, hung out with an interesting Cork woman in Bangkok. The oddest such meeting was in 2003 in Arviat in the Canadian Arctic. One day someone told me that a couple of Irish men were staying at the B&B. So I wandered over to The Bayside and discovered that not only were they Irish, but they were from the same county as me – Kildare – and one of them was a postman who delivered the post to Mammy at her place of work. The two were brothers, and had travelled to Arviat to see the northern lights.

I knew at least one person in common with the crew of An Seachrán. I hail from a small island with a relatively small population, some of whom are crazy dreamers who do things like rowing to Spain, just because they can. It’s always fun to meet people from home. Who knows where we’ll next meet the Irish abroad!


Arviat shoreline, October 2007

Arviat shoreline, October 2007

I remember an afternoon in Arviat, over a decade ago, talking with Joe Karetak about the sea. Joe has lived his life on the west coast of Hudson Bay, travelling across the open sea by boat in summer, and on the sea ice by snowmobile in winter and spring, hunting seals, beluga whales and polar bears, and fishing for arctic char. He knows a thing or two about the sea. Like all Inuit hunters, a great deal of Joe’s time at sea is spent watching and waiting – waiting for the tide to turn, waiting for migratory animals to arrive, waiting for a seal to surface – and weighing up alternatives. So many hours, days, years, lifetimes of waiting, quietly being attentive and watchful, preparing for sudden bursts of activity and action. The anthropologists Nuccio Mazzullo and Tim Ingold refer to this as ‘alert idleness’. As a result of all this watching and waiting, Inuit hunters possess a deep knowledge of the marine environment and its animals.

And something Joe said to me that day has stayed with me ever since. Being at sea is a ‘humbling experience’ he said. ‘The environment leads and you follow. The sea controls you’. Wise words. We need to accept our own humility in our engagements and interactions with the marine environment. The sea is awesome and powerful. We, by comparison, are puny, and no technology we have invented can match that power.

Arviaraarjuq at sunset, autumn 2006

Arviaraarjuq at sunset, autumn 2006

Life lived on the sea moves at a different pace. It can take a while to accept that. Each time we’ve move aboard Carina we’ve had to readjust to a slower pace, to moving with the rhythms of the sea, to staying put when necessary, to moving on when the time is right. It can be difficult at times to explain that we don’t know when we’ll reach our destination, and we don’t know how long we’ll stay there once we arrive. Wind direction and strength, tides, currents, swells, waves, storms, fog, hours of daylight – these are what guide us.

Sure, we can tweak our sails to gain an extra knot of speed, but a distance that took two hours to cover yesterday might take seven hours to cover today; and the calm seas of today might be whipped into a frenzy tomorrow. Who knows.

The trick is to let go, to accept that the sea is more powerful than we are, and to go with the flow. To wait it out when that’s what’s required, and to be ready to move on when the sea permits. And, like hunters in Arviat, to wait and watch, and in that waiting time to grow into ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the sea and of ourselves.

Paul Pemik's boat, near Tikiraarjuq, August 2006

Paul Pemik’s boat, near Tikiraarjuq, August 2006