Learn about life afloat the easy way

Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.

Find out more

A Month In Paradise Part Two

Continued from Part One

Suckling Pig

Sally works at a care home just outside Daventry in Northamptonshire. It’s hard and very demanding work. She works twelve hour shifts on an understaffed floor, providing personal care to both men and women too infirm to look after themselves, often enduring kicks, punches, scratches, slaps, spitting and biting.

She does the work because she cares about the people she’d paid to look after. She doesn’t do it for the money. The pay and the working conditions are poor. Poor, that is, if you are used to the luxurious lifestyle we take for granted in the wealthy west.

Most of Sally’s fellow workers are from Eastern Europe or Asia. Many are from the Philippines. If they can find a job in their home country, they’re lucky to earn one hundred pesos a day or roughly £1.30. Even as a low paid care worker they can expect to earn at least £50 a day in the UK.

Many Filippinos, qualified as nurses and midwives in their home country, come to the UK, often leaving their children with friends or relatives, so they can earn a decent wage and save as much as they can to send back to their family.

The foreign employees at the care homes tend to be far harder working than the majority of couldn’t-care-less English staff. Sally has many firm friends among them, including Filippina Sheila.

Sheila lives in Bago City an hour and a half’s bus ride from here in Ara-al. She’s a fully qualified midwife but she can earn twenty five times as much in the UK as a carer.

Sheila left for her month’s break back home three weeks before Sally and I so when we visited her she was having a party to say goodbye to everyone before she left for floods, icy winds and leaden skies.

Week 2.0
Before we arrived Sally promised that she was going to treat me, and about thirty of her favourite relatives to a Filippino treat, suckling pig, or lechon as it’s known here. That was before she found out that the going price for a decent size pig was 4,000 pesos (£54).

Fortunately Sheila’s family had lechon as the centrepiece for a magnificent feast including half a dozen species of fresh caught vividly coloured local fish and a platter overflowing with soft shell crabs.

Sheila’s home adjoins her parents house on a hundred acre plot of rice, sugar cane and banana they farm between then. Only family members are allowed to live on their land and most of them joined us for lunch. A very quick lunch as it turned out because they were having a quick break before returning to the nearby rice fields.

Week 2.1
Our lunch was quite quick too. We didn’t want to get caught in the rush hour and have to endure and hour and a half journey stuck on an overcrowded bus in stifling heat.

Sally and her sisters had just enough time to admire the flowers growing in Sheila’s mother’s garden. Every time they told the old lady how pretty the flowers were, she either uprooted a plant for them to take away or dug deep into a pocket of her voluminous skirt searching for a pair of enormous kitchen scissors she used to take cuttings.

We left with enough plants to start our own florist. Fortunately the bus which took us back was mostly empty, which was a shame because we are able to see and hear the rather pale young man who was bent double for the entire journey being copiously sick into a bulging plastic bag.

The journey ended before the bag either overflowed or exploded. He staggered off down the street aided by his girlfriend and casually tossed his plastic encased half gallon of vomit into the bus station’s only dustbin as he passed.

What a tidy young man!

Trying And Failing To Explore

I’m not happy this morning. It’s nothing to do with the drunken neighbour who sat in his garden last night, just feet away from where Sally and I were trying to sleep. He spent an hour from 9pm, which is way passed bed time here, slurring at tremendous volume, berating the Gods, his wife, his children, the weather, and his ever diminishing bottle of medicinal alcohol, or whatever it was he was drinking, before finally passing out face down in the mud.

It’s nothing to do with the cockerels either. I think every family within earshot, of which there are many, must keep at least one cockerel. At any one time, night and day, they’re crowing and, boy, do they make a racket.

It’s nothing to do with the incessant dog barking. Although dogs have no value here, every family keeps one or two, sometimes three or more, and they all enjoy a good bark at an unusual sound, often all at the same time. Last night they focussed on the drunk. The more he shouted, the more they barked, and the more the cocks crowed.

It’s nothing to do with the music which is blaring from a dozen different sources at the moment. The house we’re in sits on quite a large plot, as far as local plot sizes are concerned anyway, but there are houses on all sides of the property.

Every house appears to have a music system out of all proportion to their meagre income, and every home owner likes to play their favourite tunes at rock concert volume, sometimes all at the same time. At the moment there’s a particularly unpleasant and strident album of an elderly Japanese lady being stabbed to death with blunt knives playing at full blast  It’s not nice at all.

The reason for my unhappiness is Sally’s reluctance to come with me on a long walk, or to allow me, with good grace, to go on the long walk on my own.

The walk in question is a bit of a hike actually. Last week we walked from the house to the edge of the huge Guintubdan nature park. I loved the tiny part of the park we visited.

One of the few snippets of information I can find about the park or about the volcano which sits at its centre indicates that there are reasonable and publicly accessible trails to the mountain’s summit. I want to walk here. Sally and everyone else she can find to side with her, and there are many, say that it is too dangerous.

I told her that I’m quite used to walking in wild places. She sneered when I told her that those “wild” places are in the Scottish Highlands. She talked about poisonous and constricting snakes, poisonous spiders, innocent looking areas of quicksand, unpredictable thermal pools, occasional lava flows, areas of impenetrable and uncharted jungle and rivers and raging falls liable to flood at a moment’s notice. She asked me how many of these things are there in Scotland.

I had to admit that the Scottish Highlands isn’t renowned for anything like that. I suggested that I could hire a guide. She was adamant that any guide I hired was likely to lead me deep into the jungle and leave me there. I can’t argue with her on that point because I don’t know the country and I don’t know the quality of the guides, but I’m not entirely sure that I believe her.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. I haven’t given up yet but I need to do a great deal more research before I can convince both Sally and myself that a walk through thick rain forest up a still active 4,500 metre high volcano is a sensible thing to do.

Internet Problems

Sally wants to get a working internet connection at the property. She wants/needs to communicate with her sister when she’s back in the UK. At the moment it’s difficult.

We have a Skype to mobile subscription to the Philippines which allows Sally to speak to her sister for 120 minutes each month for just under £8. Unfortunately the mobile phone signal is so poor at the property, her sister has to climb down a series of terraces and hang out over the stream at the bottom of the garden before she has any chance of speaking to Sally.

Corazon told us that an infant school teacher who lives in the village has a working internet connection. We visited her this evening to find out what equipment and service she uses. We sat with her at dusk on her balcony overlooking the village’s main street while she explained what we needed to do.

We have to get hold of a modem to connect to the Globe network, one of the two mobile and broadband service providers in the area. In order to obtain the modem we need to register at the local Globe office at La Carlota. Sadly, because the village, Ara-al, where we want the internet connection is in what they have listed as a “dead” zone, they won’t give us a modem.

We can work around that though. The school teacher has a friend, Ann-Marie, in the hamlet of San Miguel 5km from Ara-al who is registered with Globe. She gave us Ann-Marie’s phone number. She told us to call her and ask her for the name of a friend or relative in the same village who would be prepared to register with Globe on our behalf.

The theory is that Globe will install the modem at their property (we will pay the £100 connection fee). We will then visit their property, unplug the modem and bring it back to the house in Ara-al where, with a bit of luck, we’ll be able to position it high enough to get a signal and connect to the internet.

We visited Ann-Marie the following day on our way into Carlota City. Addresses are very difficult to find around here. People, on the other hand, are very easy to locate. All we needed to do was shout at passers by as we trundled through the village on our overloaded tricycle in order to receive a dozen enthusiastically pointed directions.

Ann-Marie was as welcoming as everyone else around here. Unfortunately she wasn’t entirely successful in removing the caked chicken shit from the the old white plastic patio chairs she insisted we sat on before discussing the details.

There are times when I find not knowing the language very frustrating indeed. This was one of them. Ann-Marie agreed that she would order the modem in her name and ask it to be installed at her house. I didn’t understand how she was going to achieve this given that she was already registered with Globe at her home address and already clearly displaying a Globe modem on top of a thirty foot high pole fixed to the size of her house.

Ann-Marie also confidently informed us that the modem would be installed the following day, without any communication with the company or any knowledge of their installation schedule. I kept quiet and waited to see what would happen.

That was two days ago. Ann-Marie waited in all day for the installer yesterday and has waited in all day today. The only person who can give us a clear indication of the fitting time and date isn’t answering the phone at Globe. We’ve been told that she’s very good at her job, but we’ve also been told that the reason she’s not answering the phone is that she sits in the office all day listening to music on a pair of personal headphones, so she can’t actually hear the phone ringing.

Not only does Ann-Marie have to stay in and wait for the installer, I do too. After we finalised the arrangements with her, and after she had placed the order with Globe, she pointed out she doesn’t have a computer of any kind at her house, which confuses me no end. If she doesn’t have a computer, why does she have a modem and why is she paying a monthly subscription for an internet service?

Anyway, she told us that she doesn’t have a computer and that there will need to be a computer at the property when the installer arrives so that he can test that the service is actually working once he has everything set up.

Sally’s sister has just had a text from Ann-Marie. Apparently she’s been in touch with Globe and they’re definitely going to install the modem. Unfortunately they won’t say when. It could be this afternoon, tomorrow, the next day or next week. They won’t say when but they’ve told her that if she’s out when the installer arrives, she will go to the end of the queue again. How’s that for customer service?

The new plan is for everyone to go about their daily business and just hope that Ann-Marie’s in when the installer calls and that she can keep him talking long enough for us to respond to her SOS call and dash back from wherever we are, collect my laptop and take it to her house hoping that the installer hasn’t reached the stage where he needs to test the connection before we get there.

A Little Gentle Landscaping

The house is set on a reasonable sized plot. There’s a flat earthen area in front and to the right hand side of the property and another earthen terrace just behind and below it.

The fact that these areas are earthen and that the coconut and palm trees surrounding it provide permanent shade is something of a problem. The house is on the lower slopes of a 2,500m mountain which attracts a fair amount of cloud and an equal amount of rain.

The earth is always damp and frequently very wet. Sally has decided to cover the particularly damp areas, all one hundred and thirty two square metres with a couple of inches of ¾” gravel.

We’ve worked out that we need about eight square metres of gravel and found a supplier about thirty miles away from the house. Sally doesn’t trust him though. She says that it would be quite usual for us to order and pay for eight square metres and for the supplier to turn up with just six square metres.

The original suggested solution was for me to be ferried to the supplier by motor bike, pay for the gravel, hope that they could deliver it on the day, measure the gravel as it was loaded to make sure we received the right amount, and argue with them if I felt that they weren’t giving us – hoping that they could understand English – then race back to the house to wait for the delivery.

The logistics were further complicated by the fact that there isn’t really anywhere to tip close to ten tonnes of gravel where it’s not going to cause a major traffic jam.

The closest delivery point is eight hundred metres along a very narrow but very busy access road barely wide enough to accept the truck. There’s a stream at the bottom of a four feet deep ditch either side of the road so unless we could persuade the truck driver to very slowly tip the load while he was moving forward, we would lost half the load down the ditches either side.

The current solution, and one which is far more likely to work, involved asking a family relative with a sugar cane carrying truck robust enough to stand ten tonnes of gravel dropped into it to collect the gravel from the supplier and bring it here along with some willing workers to move it from the truck to the house.

The only access to the house is along a 100m steeply downhill sloping mud path peppered with uneven rocks and protruding roots and then, once through the gate, down steep steps. They’ve tried using a wheelbarrow before. It didn’t last long.

All ten tonnes of gravel needs to shovelled into empty 25kg rice sacks, lifted down from the high truck bed, and carried down the path and steps to where it’s needed, all before the other street’s residents get to upset that the only access to their houses is being blocked by a sugar cane truck.

Fortunately the extended family is large and there are plenty of poorly paid or unemployed strapping males who can be called upon at short notice. Sally’s busy organising the post gravel carrying and laying party. There’s going to be plenty of food and a few cases of San Miguel.

I think we’re all going to need it.

Sugar Cane Harvesting The Easy Way

Sally wanted me to experience a day’s work with Gill. We haven’t seen much of him recently. While the sugar cane is being harvested he has to take every opportunity he can to earn some money.

He generally works very long days but he excelled himself last night. He came back to the house at 3am then left again at 5am to return to the fields. He didn’t sleep. He’ll do that when he gets back to the queue of trucks waiting to be loaded with sugar cane. He just had time to have a quick shower, his first for two days as he didn’t return home at all the day before, he ate some rice cooked by his wife – remember they cook using wood so Corizon had to get a fire going before she could do any cooking – he packed a couple of couple of plastic containers with more fresh cooked rice, then he was off again.

No one knows when he’ll be back again.

The problem is that transporting sugar cane for the big land owners is far more lucrative for the truck drivers than transporting it for the smaller growers. The wealthy landowners have vast swathes of land so it’s economically viable to invest in the best equipment to get the job done quickly.

The harvesting machines, and the tractors which service them, can fill a truck in less than half an hour compared with taking all day to fill a truck if it’s done by hand.

Earlier in the week I went to see how it was done. Gill’s second eldest son, Daryl, escorted me to where the truck was waiting to be loaded. The journey involved the usual tricycle ride into La Carlota, then a jeepney ride 10km out of La Carlota in the opposite direction. I’m sure that the jeepney transported us faster than I could walk, but it was a close thing.

Gill’s truck was fourth in a line of ten. There was a problem with the truck being loaded. The tipping sugar cane trailer had caught on the edge of the

Week 2.2
truck it was filling. Freeing it took an hour. I stayed another hour to watch two more trucks being loaded. The forward thinking truck drivers, and the ones

who could afford to have the work done, had added a vertical steel extension to the sides of their trucks to allow them to carry more sugar cane per load. The extensions allowed them to carry, and earn, an extra 20% per load.

Sally wanted me to spend some time with Gill so I could see just how brutal a day’s work is for the truck drivers. After Sally’s compelling if somewhat vague account of their day’s work I was expecting to see them engaged in continuous, exhausting hard labour. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The life of a sugar cane truck driver is actually quite boring. They spend most of their time waiting. They either wait their turn in a line of up to ten trucks for the tractor pulled tipper trailer to load them with chopped cane or wait most of the day while manual workers laboriously force as much cane as possible into the truck.

While I was there, the truck drivers spent most of the time sitting together in the shade of one of the trucks chatting to pass the time. A motorcycle riding security guard, pump action shotgun slung casually across his chest, stopped by the group to help break the monotony and to cadge a cigarette.

Week 2.3
Waiting in line is a tedious but tranquil way to spend the working day. The land we were on was away from roads, major or minor, so all I could hear was the muted road of the harvester half a mile away, the soothing rustle of the gentle breeze moving the ripe sugar cane and quiet light hearted conversation.

The hard part isn’t the physical aspect of the work itself but the need to spend so much time doing it. If the truck drivers move out of line, they miss their turn so as soon as they receive their load they race off to the processing plant thirty miles away, wait to be unloaded, then race back to the fields to join the line again.

Week 2.4

While the weather is good the harvesting continues night and day. The work only stops if the harvester breaks down or if there’s enough rain to prevent the trucks from driving on to the fields.

Gill has to make the most of the opportunity to earn while the sugar cane is being harvested and while the weather and equipment allow the work to continue.

He doesn’t want to miss his turn in the queue so he stays there rather than returning to the house to eat, sleep or bathe. He has to take water with him for cooking and drinking. Fuel for the fire to cook his food, just plain rice, is wood found wherever he’s working.

He snatches sleep whenever he can between moving his truck slowly towards the head of the waiting line. Tiredness is his constant companion. The temptation is to stay in the waiting, loading, driving, unloading cycle twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

Exhausted truck drivers often have accidents. Tired drivers also don’t check as thoroughly to ensure that the load of cane is secure. The hand cut cane is placed in open backed trucks to maximise the load. If the cane isn’t loaded correctly though, there’s a chance of some of the cane falling from the truck as it travels.

Gill lost some of his load last week. Unfortunately the loss was spotted by a nearby policeman. Gill’s license was confiscated on the spot. He needed to pay a 1,000 peso fine to get it back. If Sally and I hadn’t been here he wouldn’t have been able to pay the fine, so wouldn’t have been able to continue working.

Gill’s work isn’t physically demanding, but it’s exhausting while the season lasts.

After spending half a day with him, I had seen all there was to see and taken all the photo’s I needed. For the first week here I had been used to sitting in the shade. Just a few hours out in the open under a cloudless sky had turned my face, neck and arms an unhealthy pink. I needed to return to the shade.

Daryl gave me a lift back on the back of the family’s ten year old Kymco motorbike. I’m not entirely sure he has a license to drive it. The route back was via farm roads and back streets, taking diversions whenever we saw a blue uniform, and generally keeping a low profile.

We had just completed a particularly interesting section of the journey, over a deeply rutted farm track frequently blocked by trucks being loaded with cane, before pulling on to the main road out of La Carlota where we could ride without fear of being stopped by the police.

The bike spluttered once, then cut out. We had run out of petrol. Daryl heaved the bike onto its stand, pointed to a roadside tree for me to sit under and indicated that he would go back into town to get some fuel.

Nearly every other vehicle on the road here is a tricycle and they will always stop to pick you up if you flag them down, regardless of their ability to seat you in comfort or at all.

Within minutes Daryl was gone leaving me to guard the bike and fend off the locals. Within minutes I was approached by two wiry teenage farm workers wielding razor sharp machetes.

If I had been anywhere in the UK, anywhere at all, I would have been instantly nervous. Actually I would have been instantly terrified. Not here though. As expected, they flashed me smiles every bit as bright as the blades they were carrying, nodded, and carried on their journey.

Daryl was gone for about half an hour. While he was away, at least twenty trucks, cars, tricycles or motorbikes tooted their horns as they passed me to ask if I was OK. Can you imagine that happening in the UK? I can’t.

I love this country.

Useful Information
Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.