A simple errand

‘Don’t forget the nappies’, Julian reminds me as I leave Carina to go shopping. Ah yes, the nappies. There was a time, a couple of years ago, after Katie had stopped wearing nappies, when we still had a supply on board. But we’re all out now and Julian needs some. Not for himself, you understand. For Carina. He’s been working on the engine and there’s oil in the bilge and nothing soaks up bilge oil quite like a few nappies. They are, after all, designed to soak up nasty stuff.

I set off up the hill, confident that I’ll pick up a pack of nappies from the shelf of one of the two little village shops. So confident, in fact, that I decide I’ll compare prices in the two shops before I make my purchase. Nappies aren’t something I’ve been in the habit of looking for in Sanlúcar, so I haven’t noticed that the shelves aren’t exactly heaving with them.

I go into the first shop to buy juice and check the price of nappies. There are none. Not to worry. Reme’s sure to have some. I carry on up over the hill and down to Sanlúcar’s other shop. There are no nappies on the shelves. But Reme often has things in stock which are not on display. Then it dawns on me that I’ve left home without checking the dictionary and with no idea how to say ‘nappy’ in Spanish.

Reme and her elderly mother are standing at the counter and when I put my other purchases on the counter I hesitantly attempt to ask for nappies. ‘Tienes…um…em…por bebé?’ I ask, simultaneously miming putting a nappy on myself. ‘Ah, pañales’, Reme and her mother say in unison. ‘Sí’, I say. But Reme’s not sure that’s what I want, because surely my girls, who she knows well, are too big for nappies. ‘Sí, sí, pañales’ I say. ‘No para las niñas. Para…um…em…el barco’. For the boat. How the hell do I say bilge? And is the word for edible oil ‘aceite’ the same as the word for motor oil? Or is it something else? I mime the bottom of the boat. ‘Ah sí, claro’, Reme says. ‘Por seco el fundo del barco’. Maybe that’s not exactly what she says, but those are the words I hear and understand. She tells me I’ll get them at the pharmacy.

I pay for my groceries and walk out the door, but have gone only a few steps when I realise I’ve forgotten the word for nappies. I go back in and mime putting a nappy on again and ask, in Spanish, ‘How do you say…?’ In unison, Reme and her mother say ‘pañales’.

I walk down the street saying the word over and over again, just in case there aren’t any nappies on display on the pharmacy shelf and I have to ask. I haven’t been in the pharmacy before and I’m unprepared for quite how small it is. There are three display shelves with only two products on display – sanitary towels and incontinence pads. Nothing else. None of the toiletries, over the counter medicines or baby products you expect to find on display on the shelves of a pharmacy.

I recognise the pharmacist as the dad of María and Cristobal, two kids in Lily’s class. While I stand there, waiting for him to finish scanning some items onto the cash register, I ponder the paucity of items on display. I wonder are the sanitary towels and incontinence pads on display merely to save him and his customers the embarrassment of having to ask for such intimate items. But if this is the reason, then why not also have condoms, haemorrhoid cream, thrush cream and other such nether-regions products on display too?

I try not to get too distracted by these thoughts and keep that word for nappies in my head. Finally, the pharmacist finishes what he’s doing and turns his attention to me. ‘Yes’ he says, in Spanish. ‘I want nappies’ I say, pleased that I’ve said it correctly. He says something, the gist of which I get to be that he doesn’t have any, but he can get me some and have them in this evening.

The door opens behind me and four people walk into the pharmacy. Four people! Where did they suddenly materialise from in this sleepy one-donkey village? Now I have an audience – the two guys who’ve been driving around the village all morning delivering bottled gas, the mother of another one of the kids in Lily’s class, and some old man I don’t recognise.
‘How old is the baby?’ the pharmacist asks.
‘No es para un bebé’ I stammer, acutely aware of the mass of people surrounding me in this little shop half the size of Carina’s saloon. Suddenly Reme’s words (or some version of them) come back to me. ‘Por seco el fundo del barco’.
‘Sí, claro’, the pharmacist says, seemingly understanding my pidgin Spanish. He writes ‘Weight: large’ on his piece of paper, and tells me he’ll have them in around six o’clock this evening.

I squeeze my way out the door past the other customers, apologising as my shopping bags bash everyone as I go past, wondering if any of them are purchasing intimate items not on the display shelves. Shortly after six, Julian walks to the pharmacy and picks up the nappies. Never before has the purchase of nappies been such an adventure.

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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.

Blackberry picking

Temporarily leaving Carina this summer to return to the UK was tinged with sadness for, among many reasons, lost foraging opportunities. At anchor on the Rio Guadiana, Julian often returned home with bags full of sweet oranges from an orange tree he’d found growing wild along the river bank. We ate them fresh, juice running down our chins, squeezed oranges to make juice for breakfast, and combined oranges with wild lemons and rosemary to flavour chicken for our dinner. We snacked on loquats plucked from a tree growing on the side of a street in Alcoutim, and made fresh mint tea from leaves growing in abundance on the sides of the roads in Sanlucar. As we prepared to fly back to the UK, I gazed with longing at plums only days away from ripeness, and hoped we would return to the river in time to forage the figs, almonds and grapes that grow in wild profusion on both sides of the river and would be reaching ripeness in summer.

Alas, the months have slipped by and autumn is almost here, and still we are in the UK. But even in the urban Midlands of England we are blessed with wild and cultivated food and the harvest spoils are upon us.

A few weeks ago, Jim and Jean, who live next door to Grandma, invited Lily and Katie around to pick raspberries. Grandma went with them, and they returned with bowls full of raspberries and extraordinarily sweet blackcurrants. We ate them as they were, straight from the bowl, our fingers and faces turning red with their juices. We had them with yogurt, added them to muesli and porridge for breakfast, turned them into crumble for dessert, and used them to make cupcakes. Grandma had plans to make jam, but she never got the chance – we devoured them all far too quickly.

The produce grown in the sensory garden at Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa is there for anyone who wants it. There are herbs and raspberries, courgettes and Swiss chard. I’ve left the courgettes for others, as we’re growing our own here at Grandma’s house, but the chard has become a regular feature of our meals. Each time I walk through Jephson Gardens I pick three or four giant leaves. We substitute them for baby spinach in salads, slightly cook them for dinner, chop them into stir fries and add them to vegetarian lasagne.

But what thrills me most is the wild food we have found growing in the city’s green spaces. It was Lily and Katie of course who first found the blackberries. They’re like trained sniffer dogs. Every summer and autumn of their lives has been spent blackberry picking. This time five years ago Lily and I were picking blackberries from the hedgerows of Boxworth until the day before Katie was born and we were back out there again the day after she was born, this time with Katie in her sling. They’re blackberry picking experts – and addicts.

A couple of years ago in Plymouth I discovered new and unexpected uses for a boat hook. Carina’s hook became an essential tool on our blackberry foraging expeditions along the Southwest Coast Path, allowing me to push aside thorny briars and nettles to reach the succulent out of the way blackberries inaccessible to the casual rambler. I did come a-cropper one evening, however, when a large nettle I had pushed aside sprang back and whacked me full-on in the face. But as I tell the girls, the nettle stings and thorns are the price we pay for such a splendid harvest. We can’t expect blackberry bushes to give their fruit away for free.

We’ve discovered a huge blackberry patch in Leamington and we share it with wasps, ladybirds, butterflies and many other small creatures. This morning, when we arrived with tubs and bags, we were thrilled to find a new resident in – or rather, under – the briars. In the few days since we were last here a badger has moved in. There is the tell-tale excavation of a sett, with the red earth fanned around in a wide semi-circle. We were very thankful to the badger, as it had also made forays into the briars, and the tramped down nettles and thorny branches allowed us to forage more deeply into the briars than before. There are moles here too and, given that our current bedtime reading is The Wind in the Willows, we are all very pleased that Mole and Mr Badger are hereabouts.

Seamus Heaney knew the temptations of picking too many blackberries, and each time I go blackberry picking I try to limit what I pick, but inevitably I can’t stop myself. This morning, with our tubs and bellies full of blackberries, we climbed to a hill-side meadow and the two plum trees we recently discovered. The grass grows taller than Katie here and we have to wade through it to get to the two trees, one bearing yellow plums and the other red. I warned the girls to be careful of wasps, who are also enjoying these ripe fruits at this time of year. People walked past on the path as we picked the plums. Two couples stopped, curious as to what we were doing. Some of the yellow plums are already overripe, so we left those to the wasps, but we filled a shopping bag with small sweet fruits from both trees, and brought our bounty home to Grandma, snacking from the bag as we walked along.

Back home, Grandma brought out Mrs Beeton and a couple of other cookbooks and we’ve been pouring over recipes for jams, jellies and chutneys. Grandma knows the whereabouts of a wild apple tree, heavy with fruit – we might have to check it out in a couple of weeks.

Julian’s itching to go mushroom picking, and behind the plum trees I found a big sloe bush and if we’re still here after the first frost, then we’ll be gathering sloes to make sloe gin and sloe jelly.

There’ll still be plenty of foraging to do when we return to Carina. But for now, I’m so happy to gather some of my old favourites, and looking forward to some busy days of baking and preserve-making ahead.

Blackberry picking
By Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Green living

by Julian

Modern consumerism and its effects on the world’s oceans has been mentioned in recent blog posts by Martina (Leviathan and Behemoth and Picking through the plastic). A lot of energy is required to power our convenience filled lifestyles – energy mostly supplied by the increasingly more complicated and risky extraction of fossil fuels. The ever growing quantity of carbon in our atmosphere has been demonstrated, by scientific methods which show a characteristic isotope fingerprint, to be partly a result of the burning of fossil fuels. The related warming of the planet produces even more atmospheric carbon. It looks like we have tipped the balance and are warming the planet at a faster rate over the last half century than at any time in the past few millennia (this is shown by methods such as Arctic and Antarctic ice core studies). As a former geophysicist and glaciologist, who has worked with climate and ice core scientists, and published academic papers on the topic, I have some insight into this and am not glibly stating stuff presented in the mass media.

I have always been conscious of the need to save energy and resources but I have rarely acted on this with any serious effort. However, I have started thinking about how our current lifestyle onboard Carina has caused us to adapt in ways that seriously curtail our use of non-renewable energy and resources. Being at anchor and living on a tight budget forces us to do this.

Here are some of the ways we have minimised our non-renewable resource use:

We have an 80W solar panel. Summer in southern Europe provides plenty of sunlight, but our panel is not sufficient to run our fridge, charge our computer and run the domestic and navigation lighting. We have to be selective about our electricity use. The fridge was the first thing to go. We don’t need it. Instead, we buy small quantities of fresh food every day and use the fridge as a storage space.

As our light bulbs and fittings failed I started to replace them with LEDs. Now all our main domestic lighting uses LEDs and this has cut electricity for lighting to less than 20% of previous use without cutting down on light. In fact, in some cabins we now have better light than before. The latest technology in LEDs has fast created a whole array of options from harsh white light to softer light and bulbs are produced for all sorts of DC light fittings.

Last year Martina and I decided to trade in our four-stroke Yamaha outboard motor for a small two-stroke Mariner, partly because the Yamaha was becoming unreliable and partly because Martina could barely lift it, so getting it from Carina into the dinghy was a nightmare. An advantage of the trade in that I hadn’t considered is how little fuel a 2-stroke engine uses. Motoring twice or even three times a day between Carina and the shore, often against a strong current, and with four people aboard the dinghy, a 5-litre can of petrol lasts two weeks.

Next comes water use. At anchor we have to conserve water and we switch from electric water pump to foot pump, which minimises our consumption. It’s amazing how little water you actually need to brush your teeth, cook food or wash the dishes. Another revelation this year has been digging out the old solar shower. We can enjoy a good hot shower in the cockpit using very little water, heated directly from the sun. Sometimes the water gets too hot so we have to be careful! We also handwash our laundry, which is not too onerous if doing a little every couple of days and the clothes dry well in the spring/summer heat.

I have started to forage again. Unfortunately, we arrived on the river too late for the spinach and asparagus seasons, but I just caught the wild fennel and there is a lot of mint and rosemary planted around the towns. The grass near the beach at Sanlucar is overrun by mint and Martina says it makes great tea. I have collected oranges and lemons from the odd stray tree, neglected and not on anybody’s land. (A lot of land around the river is fenced off – people seem to like their oranges to rot on the ground rather than people being able to collect them). I am looking forward to the profusion of figs and plums ripening, and I hope the olives, almonds and grapes will follow.

Needless to say this is a mere drop in the ocean of the sort of  reduction in consumption that we all need to do. Even environmentally conscious people such as ourselves have only taken these steps because of our circumstances rather than out of a conscious drive.

But I am pleased by our efforts that benefit both the planet and our bank balance. Sailing (rather than motoring) nearly all the way here from the Mediteranean, even passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, against the normally prevailing current, pleased me a lot. I certainly felt good about not having an expensive fill up with diesel when we got here.

The important thing is that we don’t miss the conveniences, really we don’t! Life is simple and enjoyable. Life can be pretty good without a fridge, even in the summer heat. There’s a great river to swim in, great walks along the river bank, food for free, and healthy fresh air to breathe. I’d give up my fridge for that any day.

River anchorage

I’ve written about life at anchor before but each time the experience is different because each anchorage is different. We’ve anchored in calm bays and behind islands, in deserted seas alongside empty golden beaches and amidst crowded moorings. This time we’re in the middle of a fast flowing river, with river banks on either side only 75 metres or less away. Even 22 miles from the sea, the Rio Guadiana is esturine and all day every day the river flows fast downstream on the ebb tide and fast upstream on the flood tide. Carina swings on her chain facing downriver or upriver, in line with the current.

Carina in the middle of the river

Carina in the middle of the river

Our days have some semblance of routine. I get up at 6.20 or 7.20 (I aim for the former, but often the reality is the latter) and write until the girls wake up. Or I leave at 8.30, take the dinghy to Alcoutim to spend a few hours writing and carrying out online research at the library. Some mornings Julian or I go ashore for an early morning walk, some mornings we all go ashore, for a picnic, to run errands or to play.

At some point most mornings either Julian or I do an hour of lessons with the girls – right now Lily’s working on addition with carrying, subtraction and multiplication and on report writing and Katie’s working on reading, recognising numbers in the teens and simple addition. Apart from that all other learning happens organically, in fits and starts, when inspiration knocks on the door. Many of our trips ashore focus on the world around us. Yesterday, for example, we talked about the life cycles of ants, bees and butterflies, we examined the capillary networks of a dead cactus, we examined the roots of a pine tree and talked about the differences between coniferous and deciduous trees.

Any laborious work needs to be accomplished before the day gets too hot. I do small amounts of laundry every three or four days – two small bucketsful of hand washing, and anything that doesn’t fit into those two buckets goes back into the laundry bag for the next laundry day. I use water from a large jerry can refilled whenever we go ashore. I wash and rinse, sitting on the foredeck, the buckets at my feet. In this hot weather, clothes dry on the guard rails in less than two hours and have to be brought in before they dry to boards or bleach in the sun.

This year, for the first time, we have started to use the solar shower that was on board when we bought Carina. This ingenious devise has transformed our lives at anchor. It is simple and highly effective. It is a rubber bag, black on one side, transparent on the other. It holds about 8 litres of water, and has a plastic tap and hose at one end, so when it is hung up on the boom, it works like a shower. We lay it on the foredeck, the black surface facing the sun, and after three hours we have piping hot water. We use this to wash dishes, to shower the girls in the cockpit twice a week (they LOVE their solar shower), and with all modesty and decorum long gone and not caring who might be strolling on deserted rural paths above the river banks, I too shower in the cockpit a couple of times a week. It’s bliss.

We spend most afternoons onboard, shaded from the scorching sun. We try to get the girls to relax, but it’s tough. We encourage them to play quietly with Lego or Play Mobile or jigsaws, or, at the moment, we’ve got a couple of sewing projects on the go – dresses for their dolls and a handbag. We all need to conserve our energy during the hottest part of the day. By 4.30 or 5 we are ready to go out again, and we board the dinghy for Alcoutim bound for the river beach. In mid-May Katie finally got the hang of swimming, and Lily has progressed in a few short weeks from the doggy paddling of last year to proper swimming, swimming on her back, underwater swimming, and diving down to touch the river bed. Julian and I are agog at how suddenly and quickly their swimming skills have developed with no input from us! (I noticed Lily’s improvements came from observing older boys in the water, and she copied them). After a couple of hours on the beach we might join other live aboards for a cold drink at the bar by the beach, returning home around 7.30 to make dinner.

At night, after we’ve eaten dinner in the cockpit, we watch the stars come out one by one, Lily and Katie each eager to spot the first star. By the time we are all ready for bed the sky is awash with stars, the sky clear and bright and unpolluted by artificial light. We’re all in bed by 11pm.

We live at anchor without a fridge, as we rely on one 80 watt solar panel for all our energy requirements. Life without a fridge is no burden. We simply shop for small amounts of fresh food more often at the small shops in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim (for Edenderry readers, think Tommy Lowry’s back in the 1970s!). We use UHT milk which, when once opened, even in the heat of summer, will last a day and a half. Butter melts quickly and we’ll probably soon give up on it and resort to olive oil to moisten our bread.

Each time we go ashore we top up our water supply – in small bottles, the large jerry can, and the solar shower. The longer we can eke out the water supply in our tank, the longer we can stay away from the pontoon. Inevitably, though, after about two weeks (we could probably last a bit longer) we spend two days and one night on the pontoon at Alcoutim, to refill our water tank. We have mains electricity when we are on the pontoon, so it’s an opportunity for the girls to watch some of their favourite DVDs and, if we’re on a stretch of the pontoon with good Wifi access, I might watch some TV shows late at night. And then we’re back on the hook, finding a different spot on the river each time.

It’s a slow and mellow way of life, lived to the rhythms of the river. We come on and off anchor and on and off the pontoon at slack water; we watch for the best times to set out on the river in the dinghy; and we keep an eye on what the wind and tide are doing to us – watching Carina’s distance to other anchored boats and to the river bank, and making sure our anchor chain doesn’t become entangled in the tree trunks and big branches that regularly float along on the current.

It’s not a bad way to experience the world.

My Fukushima – Our Fukushima

On the second weekend in May Alcoutim hosts a walking festival. I pick up a brochure and read the details of short and easy walks, long and difficult walks, night time walks, and a walk that has something to do with a pig farm and the sampling of pork products at the end of the walk – although my Portuguese is limited so I may have got this one all wrong. We walk lots anyway and the walks that I am most interested in are noted to be not suitable for children and they all start very early in the morning. The problem with early morning starts is that I either have to take the dinghy ashore alone, leaving Julian and the girls without shore access until I come home, or wake the girls at an absurdly early hour so I can be ferried ashore in the dinghy. I decide to forego the walks.

But there are other events taking place during the three-day festival that catch my eye. There’s a walking stick making workshop on the quay on Saturday afternoon and a concert by a classical guitar quartet on Saturday evening. On Friday night there’s an outdoor screening of Baraka, a movie that blew me away and cemented my environmental consciousness when I first saw it as an impressionable 20-year old back in 1993. I hope I’m still as impressionable to brilliant ideas today. So we make our plans to participate in some of these elements of the festival.

The first event I want to attend is something called My Fukushima. I’m not sure what it’s all about as I can’t understand the Portuguese description, but it’s taking place at 7pm on Friday on the quay. Shortly before 5pm we take the dinghy ashore and as we walk past the quay I see a woman painting ‘Mi/Minha Fukushima’ on the concrete, surrounded by painted hearts and flowers. I stop to talk to her and she tells me this is where the event will start. She invites Lily and Katie to add to her painting, with something appropriate to the story of Fukushima. I say maybe I should explain something of Fukushima to the girls first and they can paint when we come back.

So off we walk down to the beach and along the way I attempt to explain what happened at Fukushima and the effect it had and continues to have on the lives of people there. They know Japan, of course, because I’ve told them a lot about when I used to live there, and they vaguely remember my friends Takako and Mayu who visited us in Devon a few years ago. And they love the Japanese food parcels and origami paper that Takako sends us.

But, boy, this is hard to explain. Earthquakes and tsunamis are relatively easy to talk about, even if the girls (or, indeed, I) can’t imagine the size of the wave of the scale of the devastation. But I can talk about the dynamic Earth, tectonic plates, and the shock waves of the earthquake that caused the tsunami that caused the devastation.

Explaining what happened at the nuclear power plant is more difficult. Partly it comes from my own lack of understanding of nuclear processes, so I am unable to clearly explain how a nuclear power station works. And I realise I have to go back before that – I have to explain electricity, why we need it, why we want it, where and how it’s produced. I point to the huge wind turbines on a hill far away upriver on the Spanish side and I get the girls to think about our solar panel aboard Carina, and I try to explain how energy from the wind or sun are transformed into the electricity that powers our computers, house and street lights, and is needed to produce our clothes, toys, and pretty much everything we have. And then I talk about other ways of making electricity – at power stations that use coal or (in Ireland) peat or, in the case of Fukushima, nuclear energy.

It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand this stuff about electricity. I barely understand it myself. We need Julian to explain it simply and clearly. What I want them to try to get their heads around is that Fukushima is a human-made disaster. The earthquake and tsunami didn’t cause this abomination. Humans caused it, in their belief that nuclear energy can be clean and safe; in their short-sighted short cuts and budget-driven corner cutting; in their inability to see into the future by looking back into the past; and in their hubris that flimsy human-made technology can withstand the power of the Earth. Heady stuff for six and four year olds. But Richard Williams started Venus and Serena early in his quest to create tennis champions. Why shouldn’t we grow environmental warriors in the same way?

Katie painting

Katie painting

We return to the quay for the start of the My Fukushima event. The woman we have spoken to earlier has laid out tins of paint and paintbrushes and she invites everyone to add to her painting. Lily and Katie don’t need to be asked twice and soon they are covering the concrete with hearts, bunny rabbits and angels. Other children join in, adding more hearts, flowers, Portuguese flags and more besides. In a moment of inspiration I paint a Japanese flag on the ground, but replace the red sun with a red heart.

The mayors of Alcoutim (Portugal) and Sanlucar (Spain) make brief speeches and a Japanese woman who lives in Sanlucar translates the inscription on the book My Fukushima by Taro Aizu, which is the inspiration for this whole project. We are then all invited to cross the river from Portugal to Spain. The small ferry makes three crossings to bring us all to Spain. From the riverbank we slowly walk through Sanlucar. The village has been transformed into an art gallery (as has Alcoutim), displaying copies of paintings by artists from around the world, inspired by Aizu’s haiku and gogyoshi poetry. The poignancy of fields bearing crops of cesium 137, of a crawling baby in a nuclear fall-out mask, of an old man on his deathbed, is palpable.

IMG_20150508_211024We proceed to the cultural centre, next to the school, where original artworks form the same collection are on display, together with a display of artefacts recovered from the devastation of the tsunami – a child’s shoe, a suitcase, photographs.

The paintings are moving, but what moves me even more are Taro Aizu’s poems. Here’s a short selection:

To protect them
I’ll never let them eat
Local vegetables

I can’t believe
They are contaminated
By the cesium winds
These green, green
Rice fields

We’ll sing a song
And dance again
Around the blossoms
In our hometown
Fukushima, Fukushima

Humid night
‘No nuclear plants!’
I shout, I shout

May my prayer
To the universe
Give me not only consolation
But the power to abolish
All atomic power stations!

The genetic heritage
Not contaminated
By cesium
Is a precious gift
In my dark cell

We slowly make our way back to the river where the ferry awaits. We are transported across to Portugal once more where the other half of the exhibition is hung in the Alcoutim cultural centre.

IMG_20150508_211651Why do the people along this river (and elsewhere, where the exhibition has toured) care so much and are so moved by something that happened four years ago in a country on the other side of the world? I can see the similarities. Elderly and middle-aged farmers, self-sufficient on their small-holdings, in lands that are beautiful and precious. Loss as a result of the tsunami is devastating, but it’s happened before and amidst the loss and the sorrow, it can be understood. But the invisible and insidious devastation wrought by the breakdown of the nuclear power plant cannot be so easily made sense of. This is a human-made monster whose repercussions will reverberate through the generations.

This is a sorrow and a horror that could be visited on any of us at any time, whether we live in Japan or Spain or Portugal or Louisiana or Ukraine. The people who live close to the land – the farmers, the fishers, the hunters – have never forgotten the power of the Earth. Those who have the audacity to build nuclear power stations, or drill for oil under our oceans, or frack for gas under our homes – have forgotten the Earth’s power. And because of their forgetfulness any one of our communities could be the next Fukushima waiting to happen.

Lively river

The liveliness of the Rio Guadiana is astonishing after six months of living in Almería – Europe’s most arid region. We’ve come from a baked orange coastal zone to a riparian idyll teeming with life. The gentle hills that girdle the river are lush and verdant and the river itself is alive. Fish leap from this dynamic river whose current runs furiously, changing direction every six hours with the tides 22 miles downstream. On the flood tide the river runs back upon itself and on the ebb it races down to the sea at even greater speed, carrying tree trunks, branches and innumerable bamboo stalks.
DSCI0412 - CopyThe riverbank is cacophonous with birdsong. There are blackbirds, sparrows, finches, tits, and even more species whose names I don’t know, filling the air with their orchestra of song. The house martins that nest in astonishing number in the gables of buildings in the two villages joyously flit along the river, dipping low to the water, catching insects to bring home to their babies. Egrets and herons patrol the banks, the herons flying like prehistoric pterodactyls and landing silently on the river’s edge. A pair of geese lives on the small beach at Sanlucar and there, and in Alcoutim, three species of duck, including a dozen or so big black and white and red Muscovy ducks make their home.

One day, a baby bird lands on our deck, resting mid-way across the river. Its parents fretfully call to it. One flies away in the direction of the other bank, wheels and comes back, pleading with the youngster to carry on. The other parent perches on our pulpit, pleading, begging ‘Just a little more baby, just a little more’. The little one rises up and flies off, flanked by its devoted parents. We watch, hearts in our mouths, as the baby dips closer to the river surface the farther it flies from us. We will it to make it the last tens of metres to safety. It alights on the deck of a small yacht anchored close to shore. The parents alight on the guard rails and the coaxing begins again.

DSCI0417 - CopyAt dusk, as the songbirds return in vast numbers to roost and the egrets fly upriver, the insects come out. And with them come the bats. These are bigger bats than I’ve seen in the wild before. They fly along the centre of the river, avoiding the masts of the yachts at anchor, eating their fill of insects.

At Sanlucar and Alcoutim, the house martins are a joy to behold. The air is filled with the sight and sound of parents, racing to and from their nests. Every house, every eave is festooned with nests and the piercing songs of adults is accompanied by their swift swooping as they seem to know no fear, diving and banking and loop-the-looping like cocky fighter pilots.

The bleating of small herds of goats and sheep compete with birdsong, the sounds of the former accompanied by the ringing bell around the neck of the lead animal. These ovines, black, brown, tan and white, spend their days resting under olive trees, shaded from the hot sun.

IMG_20150511_094909There are other animals too, no less interesting for their lack of size or cuteness. One morning a huge green grasshopper sits like a bowsprit on the prow of the dinghy as I motor ashore. Another day, we come across a small snake and stand back while it crosses our path. And then there is a larger snake, about four feet long, on the side of the road, nothing left of it but its transparent patterned skin, its long long back bone, and hundreds of tiny delicate ribs not much bigger than nail clippings. There are little green lizards, half way up walls in the villages, scuttling among the undergrowth and across paths farther out.

And the ants. Big ants, little ants, always busy busy ants. Lily stops me every few minutes to watch a tiny ant carrying a giant leaf or petal. Once, when we have a picnic, someone drops a piece of cheese from a sandwich and a platoon of ants marches up and carries it away, manoeuvring around weeds and grasses, and dragging it up and under the boardwalk to their garrison below.

Food grows in rude abundance here. Not just in the cultivated fields of potatoes and cabbages and other vegetables, and in the groves of oranges, lemons, almonds and olives that grow along the riverbank and far up into the hills. There is wild food in abundance. Almond, olive and orange trees grow wild, or in old abandoned groves. There is a profusion of wild fig trees, as well as pomegranate and kumquat trees. The fig trees are heavy with not-yet ripe fruit and the kumquats are already juicy and delicious. I’ve been assured that wild vines spiral up the trunks of eucalyptus trees and great bunches of grapes can be plucked from the eucalypts later in the summer. Mint, fennel and rosemary grow wild and in abundance, as do spinach, alexanders and wild carrot. And in the river there are fresh water mussels and clams. This is a forager’s paradise.

DSCI0423 - CopyOn the trails that wind through the hills and along the riverbanks the profusion of wild flowers caresses the senses. The meadow-covered valleys between the gentle hillsides are riotous with colour. Pink, purple, blue, magenta, violet, yellow, orange, red and white wild flowers fill the air with their heady scent. The sight and scent of the flowers is accompanied by the steady buzz of bees feasting on the nectar. Beehives dot these hillsides, where beekeepers collaborate with bees to make honey from these flowers and to contribute to the pollination all that grows in this paradise.

DSCI0424 - CopyArriving in late April, we have missed some harvests and not yet arrived at others. But our stomachs are filled with delicious sweet oranges, we cook with oranges, lemons, rosemary and fennel, and I drink fresh mint tea every day. We pick kumquats as we walk along and we will the tens of thousands of figs and almonds to ripen soon.

Each day we discover some new wonder in this bounteous place, and I’m afraid my poor writing has barely captured the richness of life on the river.

La Frontera

You know the confusion that reigns twice a year when the clocks go forward or back? Have you remembered to change every time piece in your house, or is it 2pm in the kitchen and 1pm in the bedroom? Do you get up too early or too late that first Sunday morning? I remember one spring Sunday many years ago, when I was still a good church-going girl (and I mean MANY years ago). I got up, got dressed and arrived at the church just as the congregation came out the door at the end of Mass. This spring, Julian and I didn’t even remember the time had changed until Monday. Neither of us had jobs to go to, so it didn’t really matter to us. Twice every year, no matter what, there’s a discussion about whether this means an hour more or an hour less in bed. Now imagine living with that time change confusion EVERY SINGLE DAY!! Because that’s life on the Rio Guadiana, the border between Spain and Portugal. Spain runs an hour ahead of Portugal. We’ve set all our clocks to Portuguese time for no reason other than we have to live by some standardised time.

Sanlucar (in the distance) from Alcoutim

Sanlucar and Alcoutim with the river in between

But every day confusion reigns. Fruit and vegetables are better in the Portuguese shop, all the other stuff is better (and cheaper) in the Spanish shop. The bakery in Spain is superior; the library in Portugal is second to none. There’s a good playground in Spain and a good beach in Portugal. So every day we move from one side of the river to the other in our dinghy. Will the shop be open now (Spanish time)? Will the library be open (Portuguese time)? The post office (Portuguese)? The bakery (Spanish?). Our Spanish friends Rafa and Pilar lived on the river when we first got here. Their three young sons went to school in Spain, so they lived by Spanish time. Each afternoon we met up at the beach on the Portuguese side of the river, so Lily and Katie could play with their little friends Rafa Jr, Juan and Jorge. Rafa usually suggested 5.30ish. I almost never remembered that his 5.30 was our 4.30. So we would laze around in our afternoon siesta, thinking we had another hour until meeting our friends. Then someone aboard Carina would look towards our neighbour’s boat and see that their dinghy had already departed. Oh no, they’re on Spanish time, we’d remember too late, and a mad scramble to pack swimwear and don lifejackets would ensue.

Carina in the middle of the river

Carina at anchor on the international border

We had a rip in our genoa sail that needed to be repaired. Chris, living on his boat in the middle of the river, earns a living making leather goods – bags, purses, belts, that sort of thing, so he has a sewing machine on board. We arranged to come alongside and raft to Chris’s boat so he could repair our genoa. He said 10am. We arrived at 10am. He was expecting us an hour earlier. He lives by Spanish time! Time difference is not the only confusion when living on an international border. There are two different languages to negotiate. I speak a very minimal amount of Spanish and my Portuguese doesn’t extend beyond hello, please, thank you, excuse me, one, two, beer and wine. In Spanish I can ask basic questions (Where is the toilet? What time does the market open?), or make basic conversation (Your dog is cute. The melon is big. The sausage is hot…and other such useful stuff), and I can understand a reasonable amount of what’s spoken, if I already know the context in which it’s being said. But most days we flit between the two countries and that’s when the confusion sets in. I say ‘Bom dia’ when I mean ‘Buenos dias’; I say ‘Gracias’ when I mean ‘Obrigada’ and so on. I don’t want to offend anyone by using the language from the other country. I’m sure (I hope) they’re used to it.

Alcoutim

Alcoutim from Carina

Of course things are much easier these days with open borders and a single currency. Back before the euro, people living on the river had to have pesetas in one pocket and escudos in the other and there were regular border and customs checks. These days we’re all one big happy European family, albeit distant cousins who speak different languages and have quite different cultures. Despite their different languages and cultures, it would appear that the two communities – Alcoutim in Portugal and Sanlucar in Spain – come together to celebrate and remember. The May Day celebrations in Alcoutim featured a flamenco dancing troupe from Sanlucar, the My Fukushima event (a future blog post) took place simultaneously on both sides of the river, with both mayors (who looked uncannily alike) leading the events on both sides of the river. And in the midst of this cultural melange, in the river that separates these two villages in two countries, is a cosmopolitan community of live aboard sailors. There are Belgian, British, Dutch, French, German, Irish, South African, Swedish and Swiss people living here – some with their clocks set to Portuguese time, some set to Spanish. There’s the English man and South African woman whose son goes to school in Spain, and the British couple whose children go to school in Portugal. There’s the French woman and her British husband; the Swiss man and his Portuguese water dog; and of course the Irish woman and her British husband with their two British-Irish daughters. Life on the border is nothing if not interesting, and it certainly keeps us on our toes. There’s no resting on our laurels when it comes to time or language. But what fun we have. The live aboards form a community of helpful, generous, but fiercely independent people, and we’re now back in the territory of cheek-squeezing and head patting abuelas, and of helpful and (mostly) friendly shop staff. UKIP and the Conservatives should come chill out on the river for a while!

Moving upriver

Once we’ve settled onto our pontoon at Vila Real de Santo Antonio, tidied up and had breakfast, I pause for the first time. We are on the outside pontoon with nothing between us and the river. The river is still, but lively with terns, swooping and diving and shrilly chattering. Occasionally a fish leaps from the water, flying through the air for a split second, splashing back into the river, disturbing the peaceful surface with an expanding pattern of concentric ripples. Across the still river, only 500 metres away is Spain. A different country, a different culture, a different language, a different time zone. It’s surreal to be in one country and yet be so close to another. I’ve done it before, driving through Europe and on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. But the political lines that are not always so arbitrary never cease to amaze me.

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

We’ve had a tough night of sailing, so we don’t get up to much on our first day back in Portugal. Julian takes the girls out for a walk and a picnic while I catch up on some sleep and in the afternoon I return the favour, strolling with the girls through the pretty white-washed town of Vila Real, old men drinking coffee in the town square, groups of men and women, young and old, gathered in and outside bars watching a football match on TV.

The town square of Vila Real

The town square of Vila Real

We leave Vila Real at 8am the next morning to take advantage of the currents on the flood tide that will carry us up the river. Our destination is Alcoutim, a Portuguese village 22 miles up the river.

Beyond the small towns of Vila Real on the Portuguese side and Ayamonte on the Spanish side, we are quickly into countryside. The first thing I notice is the smell. A deep, fresh, rich, earthy smell of the river and its banks, that makes me want to inhale deeply, fill my lungs, get drunk on this heady air.

The banks on this stretch of the river are flat and muddy, with herons and egrets standing still on long legs or carefully high-stepping in the shallows, scanning the water for fish. The terns are ever present, reminding me, as they always do, of the Point out beyond Arviat.

Riverbank

Riverbank

Two miles upriver from Vila Real we pass under the suspension bridge. I’ve flown and driven across international borders before, but this the first time I’ve gone under one. Beyond the bridge the gently rolling farmland is dotted with the occasional olive, orange or almond grove, herds of sheep led by a clanging bellwether resting under the trees from the already hot sun.

Looking serious as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

Looking pensive as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

Abandoned dwellings are dotted on the slopes of the riverbank – tiny, white washed houses with windows and roofs missing or in various states of disrepair.

As we carry on up the river, rounding long curving bends, the landscape subtly changes. Gradually the muddy banks give way to lush green hills sloping down to the bamboos and tall reeds that flank the river. Even above the noise of our engine I can hear the birdsong and I look forward to reaching our destination so we can cut the motor and listen to this orchestra.

DSCI0372 - CopyIn places, where tributaries feed the river with silt, the Guadiana is no deeper than 3.5 metres, and we navigate carefully. We draw almost 1.9 metres, and we don’t want to touch the bottom. But for most of the trip up the river we have 9 metres or more and we comfortably chug along, slowly and with enough time to take it all in, take photos and spot birds on the river banks.

It takes us less than four hours to reach the twin villages of Alcoutim, on the Portuguese side of the river and Sanlucar on the Spanish side. Both are tiny and white washed, rising steeply from the banks of the river. There are plenty of boats at anchor here already, and we motor around, trying out a few different places until we find a place we like. We drop the anchor, turn off the engine, and sit in the cockpit taking in the sights and sounds of the place.

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

The air is electric with birdsong, accompanied by a goat’s bell in the field closest to us. On each hour four church bells ring – two on each side of the river. Occasionally an outboard motor hums as a dinghy crosses the river between the two countries. In a field nearby, on the Spanish side, a farmer tends his orange trees.

It’s time to inflate the dinghy and get ashore!