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.
As a beginning to a canal cruise, it wasn’t very impressive.
We had one or two jobs to do on Sunday before we could leave. The first and most important, although Sally may disagree, was to finish off the newsletter. I made an early start to get it out of the way so that we could begin our holiday and had it finished by 9am.
Then we had to sort out my internet connectivity problem. As I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, my Three mobile broadband problem has been a bit hit and miss recently. After two years of very good service my dongle stopped working. The dongle was strapped to a four feet long wooden mast on the cabin roof. While static the hinged pole was vertical to give the dongle a fighting chance of receiving a signal at the marina where phone and mobile broadband signals are normally weak at best. The dongle was attached to my laptop via a five metre USB extension cable fed through a roof vent and up to the top of the mast.
A couple of months ago the dongle died so, after many long and interesting conversations to deepest, darkest India, I was sent another dongle free of charge. The dongle, I was reliably informed by the enthusiastic technical services guy, used the latest technology to achieve wider coverage and faster download speeds. Unfortunately, what he didn’t tell me, what he probably didn’t realise, was that the dongle wouldn’t work with my USB extension cable.
It worked very well indeed plugged into my laptop providing I sat on the front deck with my head bent at an unnatural angle to avoid the cratch cover. Obviously I couldn’t spend hours at a time working like this so I needed to find a solution.
I did some research on the interweb. The solution appeared to be an “active” USB connection. Many frustrated dongle users claimed that it cured the connectivity problem. I ordered one but, alas, it didn’t work for me.
I didn’t fancy calling Three’s technical support line. The thought of another couple of hours spent on the phone to well meaning but script driven operators five thousand miles way filled me with dread. I decided to visit a Three store instead to see if they could offer an effective solution.
My visit to the Leamington Spa shop was brief but very productive. The store manager was knowledgeable and very vocal about the inefficiency of my current setup.
“Why are you using a dongle which plugs into your laptop when you are living in a steel box? Why do you have an unsightly cable trailing out of the boat and up a pole on the roof? Why aren’t you using one of our latest quad speed, super connective mobile WiFi unit? What idiot recommended you use a dongle on your boat? All our canal boat customers use the MiFi unit. The guy who sold you the dongle wants sacking!”
I couldn’t interrupt his monologue for long enough to tell him that the MiFi unit wasn’t available when I took my mobile broadband contract out nearly two years ago or that it was his particular store I used.
I asked him how the MiFi could get a signal if it was inside the boat. He told me that the solution was simple. All I had to do was Velcro it to a window.
I was sceptical but desperate, so I bought one for £49.99.
The MiFi unit, smaller than a pack of cigarettes, is wonderful. It worked perfectly at the marina where many devices don’t work at all, so I had high hopes for it out on the cut.
We picked up some fresh food on the way back to the boat, realising that large supermarkets are few and far between between on the route to Market Harborough.
We eventually left the marina at 1pm, bathed in early summer sunshine and with high hopes for the fortnight ahead. We didn’t get very far.
Within an hour we were nearing the mid point between Calcutt and Braunston. There are some very tranquil spots to moor near Flecknoe. We couldn’t resist stopping for the day to enjoy the fine weather.
By 5pm Sally baked a spicy fish pie which we enjoyed sitting on the towpath in the early evening sun. It was a very relaxing start to a lazy two week cruise.
The following day wasn’t so relaxing. Neither of us like moorings close to roads or within hearing of too much traffic noise so the first reasonably quiet mooring opportunity was somewhere around Yelvertoft. Sally wanted to go to Midland Chandlers at Braunston on the way “just to look around” so we popped in to the chandlers while we were topping up our water.
“Just to look around” meant homing in on the fridges as soon as we walked through the door. Our fridge came with the boat when I moved on board and is now looking a little the worse for wear. The plastic hinges on the freezer compartment door have broken so the door won’t stay in place. Does that mean that the fridge is working harder than it should, and draining the batteries more than it should, to try and keep the freezer compartment frozen? I don’t know, but I do know that we can’t use it to freeze stuff. Anyway, it’s not 100% functional and it’s starting to look scruffy so it’s next home will be a skip. Twelve volt fridges don’t come cheap though. We won’t get much change out of £500.
We left without the fridge but with a couple of fenders, a spare mooring rope and a wire brush for removing the crud from the chimney collar. After a quick about face at the junction by reversing up one side of the triangle and moving forward along another, we were on our way again.
Sally has been looking forward to the cruise for months. She doesn’t get as much exercise as she feels she needs so she couldn’t wait to get to grips with the locks. She certainly had plenty of exercise at the bottom lock of the Braunston flight. She couldn’t raise the paddle an inch. The lock keeper came to help her and struggled himself. The elderly chap’s determination made up for his slight frame though and we were soon on our way.
In the third lock we stood chatting to a couple waiting to come down the lock as we waited for our lock to fill when we were joined by a red faced and stressed looking lycra clad lady peddling her folding bike furiously between the locks. She threw her bike on the ground and jogged over to where we stood.
Without introducing herself she began to offer advice we didn’t particularly want. “Did you know that if you open all the gate and the ground paddles you can fill up the lock twice as quickly? Did you know that if all of us push on this gate as hard as we can, we’ll be able to open it a few seconds early? Did you know that I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I don’t know how to relax, and I’m not enjoying my first narrowboat experience at all?” She may not have said the last bit entirely as I’ve written it, or even at all, but I think that’s the way she probably felt.
We let Mrs. Stressy Knickers pass us in the next pound. Sally and I weren’t in a rush so didn’t want to feel under pressure to pass through the flight at the speed of light. As her hire boat passed us I heard her imploring her husband to get through the tunnel as soon as possible while she hyperventilated and looked wildly around her. I didn’t feel that she was going to have a particularly relaxing trip.
We stopped briefly just before Braunston tunnel to let the dogs out for a wee and to make sure that we drew back the curtains and turned all the lights on in the boat, and made sure that we had a powerful torch handy on the back of the boat.
Changing James’ headlight is on my To Do list. I’m sure the one we have at the moment is an old bicycle lamp. It’s just about capable of illuminating the palm of my hand if I hold it about six inches away but fails miserably to show us the way through dark and dismal tunnels.
A sharp left hand turn at Norton junction and we were on the Grand Union Leicester line. Half an hour later we were squeezing through Watford gap alongside the a busy railway, the hectic A5 and the frantic M1.
We pulled up just before the bottom lock of the Watford flight and walked up to the lock mouth where a hire boat was waiting mid stream with an elderly and slightly confused looking gent at the helm. “My son went to find out the lock procedure for this flight. He’s been gone for quarter of an hour.”
I told him I would set the lock for him so that he could come in. I had him safely in the lock and almost ready to exit before the lock keeper caught me and gave me the best telling off I’ve had since I left school in 1976. I hadn’t seen the clearly written A board instructing all boats to see the lock keeper before entering a lock.
I apologised, he booked me in and strode off. Minutes later, he told the hire boat in front of me to go up the four staircase lock, but told me that I had to wait until the boat in front of me had reached the top, and two boats waiting at the top had come down. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have followed the boat in front of me. I assumed it was my punishment for not booking in when I arrived. The “punishment” cost us an hour sitting in the pound beneath the staircase listening to the roar of traffic on the motorway.
By the time we reached the top of the flight it was late afternoon. We dashed through Crick tunnel and where thankful that we keep waterproof jackets within easy reach. Crick tunnel is very wet, more streams than drips from the roof. Out of the tunnel, past Crick marina, thoughts of stopping for a quick walk up Crack’s hill to exercise the dogs immediately discounted because of the dozens of sheep dotting the hillside and onward towards Yelvertoft marina.
We reached Yelvertoft at 7pm. The intention had been to reach bridge 28 and the quiet and pretty moorings we had been told about. By that time of the day though my heart wasn’t in it. We stopped for the night a hundred metres south of the marina entrance. It wasn’t as pretty a view as I would have liked but it was a peaceful spot and a very welcome rest after a ten hour cruise.
The following morning we wandered into Yelvertoft to visit the butcher, the post office/village shop and the Knightly Arms. The pub visit was to use the toilet. Our cassette toilet is reserved almost exclusively for liquids. Wherever possible we use toilets attached to a mains water supply for solids. You get a much better flush where mains water pressure is available!
We always have a drink in exchange for using the facilities. We sat in the beautifully kept pub garden in the shade of a towering tree with peeling bark. I thought it was a eucalyptus. When we took our glasses back to the bar on the way out we asked the shaven-headed silk scarf wearing barmaid what it was.
“How would I know? I’ve never been as far as the garden!”, she exclaimed as she gave me the kind of look normally reserved for small children asking annoying questions.
Next we visited the village’s high end Italian delicatessen, Squisito. Exquisite by name maybe, but certainly not by nature.
We walked though the open front door into the brightly lit shop interior. After a couple of minutes one of the two men hunched over a slab of meat on a table behind the counter lifted his head to acknowledge our presence before telling us, rather surprisingly, that Tuesday is a training day and one which the shop is closed to the public.
We didn’t fare much better at the village general store. The shopkeeper seemed reluctant to stop working on his laptop long enough to charge us for the pack of bacon and two bottles of beer we wanted from him.
We began a very short day’s cruising mid afternoon. We pulled over at the water point at Yelvertoft Wharf to top up but weren’t quite quick enough to get there before a BW working boat. They didn’t delay us for longer than a minute though. The “water tank” which needed filling was a large kettle.
What we did and where we went after that is a complete mystery to both Sally and to me. I’m writing this on Saturday morning but neither of us can remember where we moored on Tuesday night or what we did when we got there. We’ve just spent half an hour studying our Pearson’s guide. We know where we were Monday night, Tuesday during the day and everything which has happened since then, but Tuesday night was a mystery.
All I can say is that we moored somewhere between Yelvertoft Wharf and Welford Junction and that we probably enjoyed the experience. Other than that, I’m at a loss. Sorry!
After our missing night on the cut we travelled what was probably quite a short distance to Welford Junction then along the Welford arm for half an hour before stopping on the tree shaded visitor moorings just before the marina. This leg of the journey was short but memorable.
Three times on the cruise up until then we saw a solitary grey heron standing motionless staring intently at the water. As the boat approached, the bird would spread its wings, lift effortlessly into the air and flap slowly along the waterway to another spot a few hundred metres ahead of us.
I took a few photo’s one handed as I steered but the bird was too far away. I was determined to get a decent photo so I asked Sally to take over at the helm while I lay on the roof at the front of the cabin. The combination of me looking through the camera’s viewfinder for the bird, Sally scanning either bank as we progressed, and neither of us watching where the boat was going didn’t work very well.
Sally spotted the bird first, took her hand off the tiller to point enthusiastically to where it was hiding behind a bush, and promptly buried the boat’s bow into the undergrowth as she veered off the main channel. Of course the sound of hawthorn scraping like nails across a blackboard along the cabin side caused the heron to fly off again.
After returning to the centre of the canal, we resumed our search. Eagle eyed Sally was the first to spot a blue/grey flash in the undergrowth. We weren’t going to miss it this time. Sally slowed the boat to just over tickover, I zoomed my telephoto lens in on the spot, and nearly fell off the boat laughing.
The hiding “heron” was a discarded twenty five litre plastic drum. Sadly I don’t have a photograph of it due to my convulsions at the time. The photo below is the best I could manage…
At Welford we had a quick walk around the village before returning to the Wharf Inn for lunch. The pub was empty at 2pm apart from one retired couple eating and a group of five well lubricated gents in their early seventies taking a slightly incoherent stroll down memory lane.
After a very acceptable beer battered cod and chips we turned the boat in the winding hole at the marina entrance and headed back towards the junction. I managed to pick up something on the propeller when I slowed to pick up Sally after the lock. The billowing smoke from the exhaust and reduction in power alerted me to the problem, but a quick and enthusiastic burst in reverse cleared the obstruction.
Half an hour later we were back at the junction. It was such a quiet spot far, far away from roads, houses or even walkers and cyclists that we couldn’t resist staying the night. I’m pleased we stopped when I did. Within minutes of securing the boat the heavens opened. The rain was heavy and continuous for the rest of the evening and the temperature dropped enough to warrant lighting the stove.
We’ve had our fair share of overcast skies and intermittent rain on this trip. The rain doesn’t really stop us from enjoying the cruising. We both have a decent set of waterproofs so even in heavy rain we carry on cruising regardless but dull days mean that we have to run the engine to top up the battery bank for much longer than we do on sunny days.
When we are away from the marina I realise how much effort is needed to keep the battery bank fully charged when the boat’s off grid. When we’re on our mooring we are plugged in to the shore supply so our batteries are always at 100% regardless of the appliances we have connected to the mains.
We should reduce our power use. We often have chargers plugged in to live sockets but not charging any devices. We regularly use and 1800w coffee machine, an equally power hungry vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer and straighteners (Sally sometimes uses these too) and an iron. The twin tub washing machine isn’t particularly high powered but it’s used a lot. It’s not unusual for Sally to spend most of the day using it. The wash tub is 120w. The spin tub is 180w.
I’ve only realised just how much our various devices drain the battery bank since I’ve had our Smartgauge battery monitor fitted. Sally’s had a couple of halfhearted sessions with the washing machine. I can keep the batteries at the same level providing I run the engine when she’s using it but I struggle to keep up with our most power hungry appliance, the fridge.
The fridge is a constant and significant drain on the battery bank. Over the last week we’ve had the inverter running all day. It’s a bad habit to get into and one which we need to break if we want to conserve power but at the moment it’s what we do. The battery bank is fully charged by the time we moor for the day either via the engine running or the solar panels. By the time we go to bed, usually at about 10pm, the battery bank capacity has dropped to about 90%. I turn the inverter off at night so only the 12v lights, water pump, shower pump and fridge have power. All lights are off and the pumps aren’t used overnight but the fridge is on constantly.
I get up at 6am at the latest. Overnight, with just the fridge running, the battery bank capacity has dropped to 75%. The missing freezer compartment door appears to be costing us a lot of money in engine running time to replenish the power it’s used. We will replace the fridge as soon as we get back. I’ll be very interested to see what difference a new fridge makes to your power consumption.
The following day, Thursday, we decided to stay at the junction. The torrential rain had stopped, the clouds had cleared and the forecast was for a warm and sunny day. We needed water though and we needed to empty the toilet cassette. We had also just about run out of food so we popped back into Welford to feed both the boat and ourselves.
Back in the pub, the same group of elderly revellers were propping up the bar. After an excellent Cajun chicken and chips we took the boat back to the junction and enjoyed an early afternoon and evening in the sun.
By midday on Friday we were at Foxton Top Lock. We tied the boat up on the visitor moorings then walked down the flight to find one of the three lock keepers on duty and find out what the procedure was. We were told to book in as soon as we were ready to descend. As the boat was devoid of any fresh food we decided to have lunch at the Foxton Locks Inn before tackling the flight.
The lock flight and the pub are very popular with tourists. By the time we ordered our food at 1pm most of the two dozen tables outside next to the junction were full. It was the perfect spot and the perfect day to enjoy an al fresco meal. We couldn’t hang about though, we had some showing off to do.
There were about fifty tourists standing next to the the locks photographing the boats passing through. I haven’t been able to persuade Sally to take the boat through a lock yet, so she was on paddle duty. The watchers didn’t realise, or didn’t care, that they were standing in the way much of the time so Sally had to ask them repeatedly to get out of the way of the paddles or off the gates when she was trying to open them.
Other than that, and the shock of paying £6 for two ice creams as we waited at the top of the flight for our turn, the passage was fairly quick and uneventful as was the immediate right turn onto the Market Harborough arm through the pedestrian swing bridge. The pedestrian swing bridge passage was uneventful. The road swing bridge ten minutes later was not.
Sally didn’t fancy manhandling a 20′ length of road out of the way of the boat so she reluctantly agreed to take the boat through while I opened the bridge. Sally steers the boat quite often but up to that point she hadn’t started it from rest or brought it to a halt. Consequently, and understandably, she made one or two mistakes, which caused one or two more and resulted in the bow being embedded in the undergrowth on the offside, much to her embarrassment and the amusement of the five pedestrians waiting to cross the bridge.
After a little careful coaching she had the boat past the bridge so I could close it and hop back onto the boat from the towpath. The cruise from the bottom of Foxton locks to Market Harborough takes about two hours. There are very few decent moorings along the way. Most of the towpath is obscured by long grass and reeds but we found a short stretch of deep water and Armco rail exposed to the early evening sun to stop for the night.
The canal bank was overgrown but five minutes work with the pair of garden shears we keep on board soon sorted the problem out. We settled down for a couple of hours reading in the sun interrupted only by the occasional cyclist and the distant roar of the A6.
We woke to rain again on Saturday morning but by midday the sun was out and we were on our way again. By 1pm we were in Market Harborough basin, moored next to the Elsan point for long enough to empty our cassette and have a chat with South African continuous cruiser and ex Calcutt resident Monique (Mons) McNaught on her boat Pern.
The subject of the swing road bridge near Foxton came up. I asked her how she managed it on her own. She has an interesting but very effective technique. If there are no other boaters about to help her out, and there’s nowhere for her to tie up to on the offside where the bridge controls are, she ties her boat across the canal so, once the bridge is open, she can hop back onto the boat, take it through the gap, tie it across the canal again, then close the bridge. Crude, but effective!
We walked half a mile from the basin into the town centre to stock up with essentials from the Tesco Metro, stopped at Subway for a steak sandwich, then trudged back to the boat with our shopping. I’ll be OK once I get the circulation back in my fingers.
We stopped for the evening close to our previous night’s mooring, enjoyed a very large bowl of fresh fruit salad, meringue and double and settled down to watch a DVD as we had no television signal.
And that’s where we are now. We’ll stay here until I send the newsletter out later today, then we’ll set off again. I don’t quite know where yet. I don’t think we’ll head back up the Foxton flight yet. We’ll probably explore the Leicester line towards Leicester for another day or two before a very leisurely return to Calcutt.
We left Manila after an exhausting, expensive and rather tedious three days. We were there as treat for Sally’s sister and her husband Corizon as a thank you for taking such good care of Sally’s house in her absence. At the end of the three days, I’m not entirely sure whether they viewed it as a treat or as a slow and increasingly painful torture.
They hadn’t been off the island before, hadn’t flown in a plane, hadn’t experienced the dubious pleasure of being waited upon in a hotel, hadn’t ridden in a lift, been to a cinema, shopped in a large department store for clothes or eaten out in a decent restaurant.
They’ve done all that now. I don’t think they’ll want to do it again.
They live on the lower slopes of a beautiful volcano close to an abundant supply of crystal clear mountain water, in a comfortable home surrounded by trees bowed under the weight of delicious fruit, surrounded by a dazzling display of flowers and surrounded by a network of supportive friends and family.
We “treated” them by removing them from all of this and subjecting them to seventy two hours of traffic noise and chaos, dirty, crowded streets populated by insistent street vendors, beggars with intrusive outstretched hands and the knowing and suggestive looks from the ladies and gentlemen of the night.
Instead of enjoying an evening enjoying a simple meal on a shaded terrace, they endured mediocre food in crowded restaurants at prices which left them speechless.
They were far too polite and appreciative to complain or to comment, but I know that one of the experiences they enjoyed the most was an evening spent in their room with Sally and I and their son, Paul, who travelled six hours by bus to spend the evening in Manila with us.
While we were waiting for him to arrive we had a meal of takeaway barbecued chicken and rice bought from a fast food outlet eaten in their room sans cutlery and washed down with cans of tepid Coke.
Our flight from Manila to the island of Boracay was uneventful. Our taxi ride to the airport was not.
We left the hotel with plenty of time to reach the airport. Plenty of time that is if the airport had been anywhere other than Manila in the rush hour and our taxi driver had been focussed on the people who were paying for his services.
I understand that the early morning city traffic is bad at the best of times but with the main road around the bay partially closed for resurfacing, our progress was reduced to an unsteady crawl.
To make matters worse, the taxi driver decided to stop en route to do his weekly shop, have a chat with his mates and I think, all though I may be wrong, to have his hair done.
He left us parked at the side of the road with the engine running, parked directly in front of three other taxis, two of them occupied, blocking them in completely.
Almost immediately, the driver of one of the blocked vehicles wanted to move his car. Seeing that there was no one in our taxi’s driving seat he climbed in himself and moved our taxi further up the road, without a word to us and without a glance in our direction.
Our taxi driver returned after an eternity, looked slightly puzzled when he couldn’t immediately find his vehicle, then smiled in relief as he spotted it before loading a week’s worth of groceries on top of our luggage.
Sally isn’t the most tolerant of people and poor customer service is one of her pet hates so I wasn’t surprised when she quite reasonably pointed out that we were feeling a little anxious about the delay as Gill and Corizon’s flight back to Negros was due to leave in an hour and a half.
The taxi driver was either having a particularly bad day, or he was particularly unstable and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I don’t know what he said as his monologue was in Tagalog. I do know that, to put it very mildly, he wasn’t happy.
He spent the rest of the journey gesticulating wildly, often with both hands removed from the steering wheel while he complained passionately about the treatment of taxi drivers in general and him in particular.
At one stage he actually climbed out of the taxi so that he could stand in front of the vehicle facing us as we cowered in the back seat, reinforcing many of his points by slapping the palms of his hand on the bonnet.
At one stage he burst into tears as he complained bitterly about his treatment then swerved from lane to lane as he bent down to look under the dashboard looking for something to dry his face.
When we thankfully arrived at the airport he refused to either speak to us to tell us how much we owed him or open the taxi boot for us so that we could remove our luggage. He just sat sulking pointing at the taxi’s meter with his head turned away from us.
We didn’t leave him a tip.
The journey’s stress wasn’t quite over. The terminal where Sally and I needed to catch the hour long flight to Cataclan airport was another twenty minute taxi ride away from the terminal where the taxi deposited us and where Gill and Corizon would catch their flight back to the island. The original plan had been to drop Gill and Corizon off, say a quick goodbye and then use the same taxi to take us to the new terminal. As the sulky ten year old wasn’t speaking to us we had to change our plans.
Fortunately there is no shortage of taxis at the airport so within half an hour and five hours before our own scheduled afternoon flight we arrived at the correct terminal.
I wasn’t looking forward to the five hour wait so we were both delighted when we were offered the next flight to leave which was four hours earlier than our scheduled flight.
Cataclan airport only has one short runway so can only accommodate small turboprop aircraft. Ours was a dainty little fifty seater with just two cabin crew and no in flight services apart from an old plastic crate lugged up and down the isle by the two cabin crew offering extortionately priced family sized bags of crisps.
After passing through Heathrow, Hong Kong and Manila airports, landing at Cataclan airport is like coming down on a driveway next to someone’s garden shed. The plane landed, applied the brakes rather harder than I’m used to, reached the end of the short runway, turned a hundred and eighty degrees then taxied slowly back to the small single storey airport building.
The single building held a solitary baggage carousel, a toilet, an enquiries desk , a couple of dozen seats, our flight’s fifty passengers and another fifty Chinese tourists from a plane which landed as soon as ours had cleared the runway.
The Chinese are to Filipinos what American tourists are to the English; they’re very loud. The one big difference is that the Chinese men like to spit, and they’re very good at it. It’s quite surreal to watch an expensively dressed man startle the birds out of the trees as he hawks as much phlegm from the back of his throat as possible before launching it from a great distance into the nearest receptacle, and then watch is equally expensively dressed wife wander over to the bin to admire his handiwork.
There was a mini bus waiting outside the terminal to take us to the ferry port where we needed to catch a boat to take us to the smaller island of Boracay. The mini bus took longer to load than it did to transport us the 400m to the ferry port entrance.
It was here that I fell foul of one of the many baggage boys who frequent the airports in many areas of the Philippines hoping to earn some easy money from tired and confused travellers.
Our baggage boy looked like a very stocky and not very well dressed Ronald McDonald. Before we could say a word, he had opened the back of the mini bus, picked up three of the sports holdalls we use as suitcases and disappeared through the gates towards the ferry.
By the time I caught up with him, he had carried the bags onto the boat and put them down, gently and very neatly, on the boats’s covered front deck. Then he turned towards me and waited for his tip.
I was tired and not really in the mood for an argument so, even though he had carried the bags without us asking him to do so, just to get rid of him I fished a 20 peso note (27p) from my pocket. This might not sound very much but on the island we had just spent three weeks an agricultural worker would have to endure two hours of hard physical labour in energy sapping heat to earn this amount. Mr. McDonald had spent just two or three minutes carrying our bags before demanding his fee.
He would accept the tip. He pointed out, with a very effective and, I suspect, often used mime that as he had carried three bags he expected twenty pesos for each of them. He now wanted six hours pay at agricultural rates for a couple of minutes work.
I refused. He became quite vocal. So did I. He tried to take our bags back off the boat. I shouted for the police. He disappeared instantly and without a word, and without even the twenty peso note I had initially offered him. I think that these guys are tolerated by the authorities but not given very much latitude.
We saw the same guy on the return trip trying the same scam on a Korean father holding a very unhappy screaming toddler. The father also reluctantly offered him a twenty peso note before being told that he “owed” sixty pesos. He didn’t have the energy to argue as the child was trying to throw itself out of his arms over the side of the boat into the sea. He handed over a 100 peso note to be told, of course, that Ronald didn’t have any change. With a shake of his head the frustrated father indicated that he could keep his ill gotten gains.
The scenery as we chugged through choppy water for ten minutes from the ferry port to the island was breathtaking. Boracay was voted as the Asia’s best island in their World’s Best Awards 2012 and Pukka (shell) beach to the north of the island is listed in CNN’s top 100 beaches in the world.
There was another mini bus waiting for us when we climbed off the boat. The island is shaped like an upright dog’s bone and is just six miles long and no more than a mile wide. The best beaches are on a three mile strip along the west coast with the livelier bars and restaurants at the north end. The southern section of the beach is for those who don’t think that a good night out involves diving open mouthed into a bath of local rum. Our accommodation was as far away from the noise as possible.
Because of the size of the island and the very narrow streets, the cars and trucks are pocket sized Suzuki and Isuzu. We crawled along the full length of the main street down the centre of the island and then turned off down an impossibly narrow side street choked with tourists.
There are no roads on to the beach or to the hundreds of low rise hotels and apartments which sit about fifty metres back from the water. To reach the accommodation you have to carry your luggage the final two or three hundred metres through powdery white sand.
We threw our bags into our ground floor room then made ourselves comfortable on the café terrace where we sat for much of the time over the following three days. The terrace was a wonderful place for me to sit, shaded from the constant thirty degree heat, catching up on my emails courtesy of the apartment’s free WiFi or just watching the world go by. Here’s the view from my seat on the terrace.
After an hour on the terrace drinking far too much coffee we walked the length of the beach. Every few steps we were accosted by the street vendors. They’re far more polite and far less intrusive than in many third world countries I’ve visited so it was fairly easy to just ignore them and enjoy the walk. I was fascinated by the variety of products and services on offer.
We were offered straw hats, sunglasses (even though both Sally and I had a pair on at the time), designer watches, genuine pearl necklaces, authentic Filipino sculptures, excursions displayed on tiny dog eared laminated cards, diving experiences, restaurant meals, pedicures, manicures and massages with and without a “happy ending” and a variety of snack foods.
My favourite was bags of sour mango slices with sugar dips. The mango was the consistency of sliced apple and very refreshing without the sugar. I also quite enjoyed regular cups of taho. Looks like mixture of curdled milk, flat coke and frog spawn, only not quite so appealing.
Sally talked about it enthusiastically and called one of the beach taho sellers over as soon as she spotted one. They carry what look like two small milk churns connected by a wooden pole which they balance on a shoulder as they plod along the beach.
One churn contains the tofu (curdled milk) and the sago pearls (frog spawn), the other holds the amibal sweetener and flavourer (flat coke). The sweet takes a bit of getting used to but is really tasty.
The Filipino snack food which I refused to try – I feel a little queasy just thinking about it – is balut.
Balut is a hard boiled duck egg… with a little extra flavouring and texture courtesy of the developing embryo inside. Balut is eaten much as you would eat a normal hard boiled egg straight from the shell.
Balut is currently quite popular is high end restaurants in the Philippines where the unsightly mess is served cooked but without the shell floating in a pool of hot sauce and vinegar.
On our second day I made the mistake of leaving Sally alone on the beach for half an hour. When I returned she was clutching a plastic bag containing two small and weighty spheres. She had bought two balut from a passing pedlar.
She had bought two so that I could try one. Given that I nearly threw up when she told me what they were, there was no chance of me actually eating one. I’m still not entirely convinced that Sally actually wanted to eat one herself. She viewed both of the eggs with suspicion when I asked her when she intended eating them.
She doesn’t like to look at the contents but said that they are both tasty and nutritious. She managed to eat the eggs without seeing them by shutting herself in our en suite bathroom with the lights off while she peeled them then quickly swallowed the contents.
I don’t like to think about balut even now when I’m safely back on the boat. I’ll stick to the much more normal food available in the UK such as grilled heart, liver and kidneys and fried pigs’ blood mixed with oatmeal.
Boracay is a small island surrounded by crystal clear water teeming with fish and crustaceans. Many of the restaurants display the day’s catches on beds of ice.
We eat at two different seafood restaurants during our three days on the island. On our first evening we visited one which offered an all you can eat buffet with unlimited iced tea for just 500 pesos (£6.75) each.
The choice included a variety of different rices and vegetables and some wonderful seafood. There were buckets full of boiled crabs, bowls of shrimp and mussel, two whole tuna and a mountain of oysters cooked to order and served with calamansi, small local limes.
Both Sally and I love oysters just warmed through so that the flesh is still soft and slippery. We had two dozen each, washed down with about a pint of iced tea. It was a wonderful meal.
On our last day on the island we decided to treat ourselves. As the sun set at 6pm, half of the beach was transformed. The sun loungers were taken away for the day and replaced with tables and chairs for restaurant diners.
We picked the restaurant with the largest, freshest looking shrimps on display. Calling them shrimps is doing them an injustice. These were Asian tiger shrimps which can grow over thirteen inches long. We picked one for me which must have been approaching a foot long and a slightly smaller one for Sally.
The restaurants sold their fish and crustaceans by weight. Ours, including a portion of rice each, cost £27. Boracay is not a cheap place to eat compared with most of the Philippines but a similar meal in the UK would cost much, much more.
Anyway, we weren’t paying just for the food, we were paying for the experience and for the idyllic setting. Our table was on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, surrounded by coconut trees, just feet away from gentle surf caressing powdery white sand.
The location was perfect. The meal was not.
The tiger prawns sally and I buy from the Thai shop in Banbury are much, much tastier than our slightly rubbery and largely flavourless monsters and the portion of rice they served with our costly crustaceans wouldn’t have satisfied a mouse. We had to order an additional portion each. At least I was able to keep myself busy while we waited fifteen minutes for the rice. My plastic chair had such thin legs that, even with my modest weight, the back legs were forced so deep into the sand I had to move it every two or three minutes to stop myself rolling backwards off the chair.
Overall the experience was good though. Once we’d accepted that we had just paid as much to feed the two of us as we had paid for a 50kg sack of rice on Negros three weeks earlier I just ordered another San Miguel for myself and another mango shake for Sally and settled down to wait for the next cute five year old beggar to stand by my chair asking for money.
Three days on the island was wonderful, but three days was enough. Neither of us like to sunbathe. For an Asian woman, white it good, brown is bad. And for me, direct sun means more lobster red than brown.
There were plenty of excursions which could have entertained us. I would really have enjoyed going on one of the island hopping trips but Sally isn’t comfortable on or in the water and I didn’t want to leave her on her own. The cost was also prohibitively expensive.
There were also plenty of businesses offering scuba diving trips. I took a scuba diving course in the Dominican Republic thirty years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the sensation of weightlessness suspended fifty feet beneath the surface surrounded by brightly coloured reef fish, the occasional predatory barracuda and a worryingly large lone shark.
Thirty years ago is a long time to forget everything I learned so I would have had to take an expensive refresher course and, once again, leave Sally behind. Again, I decided not to bother.
We left the island at midday on Thursday then spent five hours en route for our last night in a hotel in Manila again via mini bus, boat, mini bus, plane and taxi.
We spent much of our remaining free time in Manila with quite a surreal visit to Ronbinsons Place.
Robinsons Place is a high quality shopping mall in the centre of Manila. There are hundreds of designer shops, including many UK brands, over three spacious floors. The contrast between the surrounding area and the mall’s interior is staggering.
We spent some time in the afternoon wandering around the shops before returning there for something to eat in the evening. The evening is when the difference is most noticeable.
The surrounded streets and are crowded with tricycles, jeepneys, taxis and cars, all moving slowly, all honking horns and weaving from lane to lane trying to move forward in the congestion. The pavements and roadsides are packed with parked tricycles and their haggard drivers.
As the evening progresses, the less savory elements become more and more noticeable. Beggars, some with limbs missing, many with small children in tow, thrust outstretched grimy hands in the faces of every passing European. Sadly, many of the passing Europeans are overweight, middle aged, unattractive men looking for some affection from Filipinas a third or a quarter their age. And then there are the ladies, and the men, of the night, all wearing their skimpy best, all with direct, come to bed eyes.
You have to force your way through these crowds to get to the mall’s entrance, but then the crowds melt away.
The mall is for people with money. The authorities have very effective measures in place to ensure that undesirables stay outside. A soldier stands thirty feet from the entrance with an assault rifle in his hands. At the entrance mall visitors have to walk through a metal detector watched by armed security guards. More security guards complete with the default baton, pepper spray and pistol patrol each floor of the shopping centre.
No undesirables can stroll along the spotlessly clean walkways between the shops or eat at any of the dozens of restaurants dotted throughout the mall, which is a shame really because they could have gladly had the glutinous, tasteless pig swill we were served in a Japanese restaurant.
The flights home the following day were monotonous and tiring but uneventful. We left the hotel at 5am on Friday, spent twenty seven hours travelling but thanks to the time difference, when we reached the boat, it was still Friday.
We’ve been back for just over a week now. I’m back into the normal routine at work and enjoying most of it immensely. I love living on the boat at all times of the year but the time I like least is towards the end of the winter when we’ve endured weeks on end with overcast skies, slippery mud and bare trees.
Much as I love the boat, the marina and the lifestyle, I’m really looking forward to escaping the English winter again next year, this time for at least six weeks.
I consider myself pretty fit. I work a forty five hour week doing a physically demanding job without any problem at all. In fact, I enjoy the challenge and relish the exercise. I have more stamina than most people half my age and just about everyone the same age as me.
Secretly, I was looking to showing off a little. The day had come to lay some gravel. The Filippinos aren’t terribly impressed with their usual experience of the English work ethic. Nor am I to be honest.
We had a mob of relatives descending on us for a long weekend; two of Sally’s sisters, their husbands and their collective six boys, all in their late teens or early twenties. Nine males to move the best part of fifteen tonnes of gravel by hand.
We started late. Syrel, Gill’s eldest son, has a sugar cane truck of his own. It’s more robust than Gill’s but like all the trucks on the road here, it’s old and needs a considerable amount of TLC.
Syrel collected the gravel from the supplier then crawled back to Ara-al at walking pace, with stops every couple of miles to top up the water in the leaking radiator. They arrived with both load and truck intact at 10am.
Like most of the areas of housing around here, Ara-al has a main street running then a network of lanes running off it like veins in a leaf. The truck was too wide to negotiate the lane at the end of the fifty metre rough mud path leading down to the house, so Syrel had to park in the main street two hundred metres away.
The work crew were waiting when the truck arrived. They weren’t dressed quite as I expected a group preparing for a day’s hard physical labour to dress. They all looked as they were off for a day’s quiet relaxation on the beach. All wore thin tee shirts, lightweight shorts and flip flops.
The original plan had been to fill empty rice sacks with 25kg on the back of the truck and lower the sacks onto waiting shoulders for the long trek to the house.
Unfortunately Syrel had a full day’s sugar cane transporting ahead of him so we had to offload the gravel as soon as possible. Our only tools were two spades and a rake. An hour and a half later, the gravel was in an enormous pile in the road, Syrel had left to begin his working day, and the nine men were sprawled next to the gravel, dripping with sweat in the already sweltering heat, contemplating the mountain of stone to be moved.
The group had spent too long sitting down as far as I was concerned, so I hefted a sack onto my shoulder and strode briskly down the first alley towards the house.
By the time I had reached the house after stepping on, over and around tree roots and boulders, stepped down a series of high, muscle stretching concrete steps and thrown the neck chaffing sack thankfully to the ground, I was seeing stars and breathing like a steam train. The rest of the sweat free, totally relaxed looking group emptied their sacks, smiled knowingly at me and skipped back up the hill to Gravel Mountain.
By the time I had picked up my fifth load, my neck was red raw and my legs were shaking so much I thought they were going to give way. I staggered and slipped down the final steep stretch to the house with the sack cradled across my stomach to prevent any further damage to my sunburned and chaffed neck. I couldn’t carry on. I threw the sack down in disgust before walking dejectedly back to the house where a cool drink and shade were waiting.
Twenty eight year old Sannie picked up my discarded sack, in addition to his own and trotted the rest of the way to the house. He was wearing just one flip flop. The strap had broken on the other during the frantic gravel offloading. There weren’t any others available so he spent the rest of the day moving at least fifty loads wearing just one.
Just when I was feeling completely inadequate, Sally’s forty eight year old sister Cora, realising that the crew were now a man short, arrived to lend a hand. She looked as though she was ready for bed wearing a black tee shirt, pretty pink checked cotton bottoms and feet bare apart from gold nail polish.
One of her sons carefully lifted a 25kg gravel sack into the air and gently placed it on his mother’s head. Without any sign of either strain or discomfort she followed the rest of the men down the alley.
I didn’t expect to see her again but five minutes later she was back for more. After her 20th trip, having walked a total of 4,000 metres with 55lb balanced on her head, Cora still looked as cool and untroubled as ever. She stopped at about 4pm, not because she was unable to continue, but because she had food to cook.
I was reduced to keeping the guys, and Cora, supplied with full sacks. Sally held the bags open, I filled them with gravel until 6pm when we couldn’t see what we were doing.
We had put a couple of cases of beer on ice for the evening but everyone was too tired to drink it. By 8pm everyone was in “bed”. Bed for all of our guests was the bare tiled floor in the lounge. No one had a change of clothes or any nightwear, The only bedding was a rolled towel for a pillow.
I forced myself out of bed at 7am ready to help with the rest of the gravel moving. I was too late. The rest of the crew were waiting for dawn at 6am. Half of the remaining gravel had already been moved. All of it had been transferred in time for breakfast at 8am.
My ego has been severely bruised. Actually, not so much bruised as publicly beaten to within an inch of its life. Even though I didn’t do any of the heavy lifting, I was tired and aching. The rest of the guys, each having carried getting on for a hundred loads down a steep and uneven hill, looked fresh as daisies. I think I need to spend more time in the gym.
The Other Side Of The Coin
The people are as beautiful as the landscape, the temperature’s a very acceptable year round thirty degrees and the cost of living is very low. It’s no surprise that many foreigners choose to retire here, but there are some aspects of life, especially in this very rural community, which I don’t think I would ever get used to.
I don’t understand why so many people have dogs here. Most appear to be loosely attached to families but very few are cared for as pets or even acknowledged. They bark incessantly throughout the day and, even more annoyingly, at night too.
Because the dogs aren’t cared for by their owners, they mess wherever they please. Wherever they please tends to be exactly where I want to walk. The inconvenience of the mess the dogs make reminds me of the many miles of aimless street walking I did as a teenager in the mid seventies near my home on the outskirts of Birkenhead. I spent much of my time hopping on one foot as I tried to remove a sticky, smelly mess from the sole of a shoe.
Not only do they cause a mess, but they are also a menace to passing traffic. It’s not unusual to see them laying in the sun in the middle of a busy street, or walking suddenly into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Even during my limited time here I’ve been on a couple of tricycles which have had to swerve or brake suddenly to avoid hitting one.
I’ve seen many dogs in the village which have been hit, accidents which have resulted in broken limbs. The breaks aren’t treated. The dogs are left to fend for themselves. The breaks heal but often at odd angles.
People here aren’t cruel, they just don’t pamper the dogs they own like we do in the UK. They can’t afford to. When Sally and I visited Bacolod last week, we shopped in the enormous SM superstore. It’s at least as large as the largest English Tesco store in the UK. There were just a few square feet dedicated to pet supplies. We bought a bone shaped hide chew for Kim, the family’s mongrel. It cost 78 pesos, just over £1. Most people work in agriculture in Ara-al. The average daily agricultural daily wage is just 110 pesos.
Very few dogs are cared for here, but I like to think that we’ve made Kim’s life a little more pleasant. He used to sleep on the bare concrete outside the house at night. Now he has his own basket and blanket under the kitchen table. He’s responded very well to affection from Sally and I. The family have begun to acknowledge him too.
I was sitting inside typing on my laptop a few days ago. I glanced out of the window to rest my eyes. I noticed Gill sauntering around the garden, admiring the plants. Kim was laying on his back in the sunshine. Gill smiled, bent down towards the dog and with an outstretched hand gave Kim’s testicles a friendly tweak before continuing his leisurely garden patrol. I don’t think he’s quite got the hang of showing the dog affection yet.
I’ve not visited any other area of the Philippines but this part of the country, anywhere away from the larger centres of population, is staggeringly beautiful. When I wake in the morning I can see the frequently mist shrouded forested slopes of a now dormant volcano. Flowers of every shade and hue adorn the roadsides. Trees bowed under the weight of delicious fruit grow everywhere I look. It’s all very, very pretty… apart from the litter.
Most people here don’t pay tax. Because they don’t pay tax, the government doesn’t have much money to pay for essential public services. There is no refuse collection service out here in the country.
Household waste is either burned or discarded. A couple of times here I’ve noticed members of the family using plastic bags to help light the fires they cook with. The fire isn’t terribly well ventilated so whoever is in the kitchen has to breathe the toxic fumes. One of the boys, Hilson, has a permanent cough. He tends the fires used for both cooking and water heating for hours each day. I’m sure the poisonous fumes have either caused or contributed towards his cough.
The house and the garden here are kept spotlessly clean. Two of the boys and Sally’s sister spend hours each days sweeping and polishing but they have nowhere to put their plastic waste. It’s often thrown out of sight onto the mud bank which borders the stream at the bottom of the garden or on some waste ground just outside the garden’s front gate.
The earthen path which leads from the house to the nearest street is littered with plastic bags, crisp packets and discarded sweet wrappers. The paths and roadsides around the village are all similarly littered. Everyone discards litter. I have watched many shoppers in nearby La Carlota finish a drink or take the last cigarette out of a pack, then drop the container carelessly on the ground.
When I was returning from a morning in the sugar cane fields we ran out of petrol. Daryl purchased some from a roadside stall a couple of miles away. It was sold in 1.5l coke bottles (I had spent the previous two weeks thinking they were selling Cherry Coke). He emptied the bottle’s contents in the bike’s tank then casually tossed the empty plastic bottle in the ditch where it lay beside many other plastic bottles, bags and wrappers.
The litter is all the more noticeable because of the beautiful countryside it spoils but what can people do until the government provides somewhere to put it all?
The noise here drives me mad too. I don’t mind the cockerels so much. It’s a sound I don’t find too unpleasant. I would rather not listen to them competing with each other from most of the many gardens within earshot for much of the day, but it’s something I am used to now.
I don’t really enjoy the continual dog barking and wining, again from just about every garden within earshot, but I don’t find it as irritating as the music.
The music drives me mad. Everyone has a sound system of some description. The default listening volume is full blast, regardless of the time of day, the type of music they’re playing, their proximity to other properties, or whether those other property owners are playing music already.
Yesterday our next door neighbour treated us to a selection of Tom Jones’ greatest hits, played at full, ground shaking volume, from 6.15am. He has varied tastes though, so he never bores us with his annoying habit. This morning showing his appreciation for country and western music. At the same time, it’s 7am as I write this, Sally’s sister’s boys are playing a delightful selection of club classics, again at furniture shaking volume, while the neighbour on the other side is sticking with her favourite Japanese wailing.
Oh, how I long for the peace and quiet of the marina were the loudest sound in the honking of the occasional Canada goose.
Just one final moan; I get ever so slightly depressed by the monotony of meal times. I know it’s my fault. I come from the wealthy West where a huge variety of foods are available at every supermarket.
Our hosts can’t afford fancy food. They can’t actually afford much food at all. Of course, Sally and I are helping out with the cost of the food while we’re here, but they don’t take liberties. Quite the reverse. The main ingredient in any meal is rice. To this they’ll add a minuscule helping of whatever meat, chicken or fish is being served.
There’s no difference between a meal eaten in the morning, at mid day or in the evening. The leftovers from one meal are simply carried over to the next. Take last night for example: we had rice of course, served with cabbage mixed with minced pork and whole grilled fish which looked and tasted like large sardines. Not all of it was eaten last night so breakfast this morning was rice, and the rest of the cabbage and sardines. All of the sardines and cabbage was eaten for breakfast, but some of the rice was left. The remaining rice will be served for lunch with a chicken casserole. Not all of the chicken will be eaten mid day, so we’ll have that this evening.
I crave the variety we enjoy in England. I enjoy toast smeared with honey for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch time and a full cooked meal in the evening. I know my affluent English eating habits are unnecessary but they’re enjoyable and a part of me looks forward to the beginning of March when I can return to them.
A Riverside Picnic
Sally painted such a vivid picture of idyllic location and relaxation when she described family picnics to the river. She talked about how the family loaded a couple of cases of beer, a suckling pig and themselves onto the back of Gill’s sugar cane truck, set up camp on the bank of the gently flowing river and sipped ice cold beer as they relaxed with feet dipped in the cool crystal clear water.
The reality was every bit as wonderful as Sally’s description. The only ingredient missing was the lechon, the suckling pig. At over £50 for a small one we decided that it was an unnecessary extravagance.
After all day Friday and early Saturday morning spent gravel moving and then the rest of Saturday spent trying to use the ancient computers in the internet café, I was ready for Sunday’s picnic.
Sally hired a cook for the day. Sally and her sisters cook perfectly well but this lady regularly caters for parties and weddings. Her food was considered a cut above the rest, she came with a full set of industrial sized pots and pans and her fee was a very reasonable 200 pesos (£2.70). We provided the ingredients from a list she provided, she did the cooking.
Twenty of us, including the cook, loaded the picnic food and beer onto the back of the truck plus, mystifyingly, a pressure washer, two spades and twenty empty rice sacks.
We chugged downhill for five miles before turning off the main road onto a dirt track. The truck reversed half a mile down the narrow road squeezing past roadside houses and scraping under low hanging branches before parking close to the river bank.
The river swells to ten times its volume during the rainy season. In mid February there was just a gentle flow through the centre of the riverbed but enough to wade thigh deep in places. Much of the river flowed under the shade of fifty feet high bamboo stands, ferns and trees very similar to English willow.
The food was carried into the shade under some riverside palms and the cases of San Miguel dropped lowered on to the rive bed where the fast flowing water quickly cooled it. Within half an hour the beer was chilled and served with plates of lightly spiced chicken and fragrant rice.
After we finished our desert, halved sweet mangos eaten straight from the skin with a spoon, I settled down for an afternoon’s quiet relaxation. Relaxation isn’t something which the Filipinos generally, and this family in particular, do very well.
The pressure washer was fired up. Half of the men gave the truck a spring clean while the rest began loading brick sized water rounded stones collected from the river bed onto the back of the truck.
When they had finished collecting about half a tonne of rocks, they took the spades and empty rice sacks to the riverbed where they filled them with another half tonne of coarse sand.
The sand and rocks are for a new raised flower beds for the house. The same material has already been used to effectively terrace the rear of the property which used to slope steeply down to the stream at the bottom of the garden.
While the men were working, so were the women. Some used the washing up bowls we had brought with us to wash the dirty picnic cutlery and crockery in the river, some took dirty clothes they had brought with them down to the water to wash, most, at some stage in the afternoon, produced bottles of shampoo and bars of soap to thoroughly wash themselves and their children.
Just sitting watching and sipping cold beer from the shade of a riverside palm was enough to tire me out but, after showing my lack of stamina moving gravel, I didn’t want to fail again. I opened another beer and prepared to endure another couple hours of relentless relaxation.
I don’t like shopping at the best of times, so when the shopping trip involves four hours travelling on and in a selection of worn out buses, tricycles and taxis, I can honestly say that I’m not enjoying myself as much as I would like while I’m on holiday.
The nearest decent DIY store is in Bacolod, thirty miles to the north of La Carlota where we go for our food shopping. Bacolod is also where we would need to go for any reasonable medical attention. It’s a sobering thought given the lip service which is paid to personal and vehicle safety out here in the sticks.
The number of motorbikes and motorised tricycles in the rural districts outnumber cars and buses. Four wheeled vehicle drivers are usually, but not always, more responsible than those with two or three, especially after dark.
Driving or being driven at night is not for the faint hearted.
Vehicles travel at speed, often almost bumper to pumper, and often without some or all of their lights either working or turned on. We enjoyed a particularly interesting journey last night.
We went to Bacolod for the second consecutive day. The previous day we intended to find an effective solution to the internet connectivity problems at the house. Sally was determined to get her sister online so that she could keep in touch with her via email email and/or Skype. The modem we bought the previous week hadn’t worked at all. We then discovered that the local village school used a USB dongle which worked very well.
On Tuesday we made the four hour round trip to buy the dongle and to have lunch at one of the mall restaurants. A meal for four of us including a soft drink each, barbecued chicken served with a soy sauce, lime and chilli dip, unlimited rice and a peculiar desert which comprised of vividly coloured jelly beans, ice cream and tapioca served on a bed of crushed ice, which was much, much better than it sounds, cost us the princely sum of £10.73 in one of the better restaurants in the poshest shopping mall on the island.
On the subject of prices, four hour’s travel for four people didn’t cost us much either. The half hour tricycle ride from the village into La Carlota cost us 27p each, the hour and a half bus journey from La Carlota to Bacolod 43p each and a twenty minute taxi ride for four in a brand new air conditioned Honda Civic just 75p.
The interesting part of the journey was when we reached the bus terminus in La Carlota just after dark, about half past six. There are two types of tricycles plying their trade in the town; there are the smaller ones which just operate around the town and which can take five or six people at a push, and the larger ten to twelve people capacity vehicles which operate within a ten to fifteen mile radius of La Carlota. Regardless of capacity, they are powered by a an old and knackered bike of no more than 150cc.
The one which stopped for us already had eight people on board plus all of their shopping. We waved the driver away because we didn’t think he could take us and our shopping. I forgot to mention what else we bought in addition to the dongle.
The truck Gill uses to collect sugar cane isn’t entirely legal. It has neither driver nor passenger seats. There’s just a couple of planks supported by two old upturned boxes. The truck was also short of a horn. I’m lead to believe that the DIY seating is legal, but the missing horn is not.
Sally decided that the truck should have both. Gill new where to get them.
After enjoying the air conditioned walkways and fancy façades of the SM shopping mall, briefly immersed ourselves in the noise and fumes of the automotive district in overcrowded down town Bacolod.
Walking through the doorway to their trade counter was like stepping back fifty years in time. Wrinkled elderly clerks sat at island workstations like oversized school desks equipped with ancient typewriters and mountainous piles of yellowed receipts and folded invoices.
Gill asked about the seats he believed they stocked. An assistant showed us half a dozen they had stored behind the counter. None were in particularly good condition. He stopped us as we turned to leave and beckoned us to follow him through a doorway into the back of a shop.
He led us through an Aladin’s cave of automotive parts, along corridors and up steps to a higher floor and then another, and another until we reached a cavernous room high above the ant-like activity in the street below.
The space was completely filled with second hand car seats, literally hundreds and hundreds of them from every make of car imaginable. After a long and heated debate Sally and Gill decided not to buy one of the seats which they thought was 2,100 pesos, just over £28. The salesman told them they were mistaken. The price was for two seats, not one.
They carried both of the seats back through the warehouse and down to the trade counter on the ground floor where they paid for them in cash. I thought that the bulky seats would then be put to one side pending collection by Gill or one of the extended family when they were next in the area with a vehicle. Gill and Sally had other ideas.
We hailed a passing taxi to take the four of us plus our car seats to the bus station. The taxi driver didn’t look the least surprised when we produced the chairs. He found a couple of short lengths of frayed rope which he used to loosely secure his flapping boot before lurching into the chaotic traffic at the normal breakneck speed.
The bus driver didn’t blink an eye either but he did charge us £1 to take each of the chairs with us on our hour and a half journey.
I thought we would really be in trouble when we reached the bus station in La Carlota. The tricycle drivers stop operating at dusk. They stop then because the trade normally dries up rather than because of the danger of trying to negotiate uneven road surfaces without lights, so we were lucky to find one.
Unfortunately we weren’t luck enough to find an empty one. There were already seven people plus their shopping on board. Remember that this is a 150cc motor bike with a sidecar which has all kinds of seats, shelves and platforms welded to it.
The driver managed to find space for the four of us and then enlisted help from the other passengers to recline the seats as far as possible and then lift them upside down onto the roof where they were secured with bits of twine in a not entirely secure looking fashion.
I ride on an overloaded tricycle in the dark is an experience which will stay with me for a long, long time.
Turning lights on in the dark is either considered as something which only wimps do, or as a complete waste of time. Not only did our driver resist the temptation to light up his route, and alert other vehicles to his presence, he also felt the need to wear his sunglasses to protect his eyes from the flies which peppered our unprotected faces like hail.
Effective vision is always handy on roads frequented by other unlit vehicles and pedestrians and essential to spot the numerous bone jarring potholes in the poorly maintained roads. Our driver’s tactic was to keep to the wrong side of the road where he thought the road quality was better, swerving out of the way of oncoming equally hard to see tricycles and occasional monstrous sugar cane lorries at the very last moment.
We survived the journey. I don’t know how, but we reached the village after the usual hour, covered in dead flies and an icy sweat, but otherwise unharmed. Another day in paradise.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
We left for the airport with remarkably little luggage. I suppose one of the benefits of living on a narrowboat is that you get used to needing very little and have few aspirations to “live it large” if you ever go away. All we had with us was a sports bag sized holdall and a carry on bag each. Sally’s carry on bag had all of the usual things you need when you’re travelling from one climate to another; thick fleece and hat for the UK, sun tan lotion and shades for Manilla, and a book for Sally plus a Kindle for me (loaded with half a dozen recently acquired books and guides on the Philippines).
The journey was everything I expected it to be; tiring, uncomfortable, cramped and boring, but the planes were on time and the stopover at Hong Hong brief and without incident. We lost eight hours somewhere along the route so after a journey mostly spent trying to get some sleep, we arrived in Manilla just before bed time.
I don’t like Manila. It’s everything I love being away from on the boat.
Manila is incredibly crowded and it’s very, very noisy. Every car driver and every motor cycle and scooter owner know where their horn is and they know how to use it, The blare of horns would be annoying enough, but you can’t really hear them over the vehicle and people noise.
The streets swarm with public transport. Traditional taxis are everywhere but they compete with privately owned jeepneys and tricycles. The jeepneys are modelled on second world war long wheelbase jeeps. They’re often hand decorated, old and battered and have an open entrance at the rear and a bench seat either side backing on to glassless windows. The tricycles are bicycles or motorbikes with covered side cars displaying hand written decorations. All of the vehicles for hire weave erratically from lane to lane with little regard for each other or for pedestrians.
In addition to being noisy, Manila is also both scruffy and dirty. Toothless crones and stick thin men walk along lines of traffic-stopped cars offering wares which no one wants. I saw several invalid beggars lurch towards waiting cars at traffic lights extending twisted hands, hoping fruitlessly for a peso or two. No one paid them any attention.
At night homeless children sleep on dirty blankets spread on the filthy pavements beside dropped litter and discarded food. Tricycle owners sleep in their side cars. Bare, dirt encrusted feet poke out of the glassless windows of the owners’ tiny shelters.
Manila doesn’t give a very good first impression of the mostly beautiful Philippines.
Sally had booked the Rothman hotel for the night. She always stays a night in Manila when she returns home. It’s a chance to recover from the tiring flight from the UK. On this occasion she booked a hotel for two nights so she could show me the sights.
After a couple of post flight San Miguels in the hotel café and a catch up on my emails courtesy of the café’s free WiFi, we had an early night to compensate for two hour’s sleep during the overnight flight.
In the morning I enjoyed my first Filippino breakfast. The breakfast included two fried eggs. The eggs were the only link to any other breakfast I’ve ever had. The other components were garlic rice, sweet and lightly spiced sausages and thin strips of beef in a garlic, chilli and ginger marinade. It was delicious but normally something I would expect to eat at the end of the day.
After breakfast we spent the day at the Mall Of Asia. It’s the nineteenth largest shopping mall in the world and was just half an hour’s taxi ride from our hotel in central Manilla.
The highlight for me was the SM superstore. I don’t generally enjoy clothes shopping but the SM store was enormous and full of brightly coloured and very well made clothing. Everything was ridiculously cheap. I bought five very high quality shirts for just forty five pounds. They would have cost at least three times as much in the UK.
The following morning we flew forty five minutes from Manila’s domestic airport to Bacolod on the island of Negros
We traveled back from the airport with Sally’s sister Corizon and her husband Gill (pronounced “Hill” in the Spanish fashion) and Soy who drove the jeep which Corizon had hired for the day.
What a difference from Manilla. The airport is surrounded by sugar cane fields and very little else. In fact, much of the traffic we passed as we drove away from the terminal was trucks overloaded with freshly cut cane.
The same rules of the road apply on Negros as they do in Manila; you drive on the right… most of the time and use your horn to indicate to traffic around you what you are doing. A quick toot of the horn means that you’re about to overtake a slowly moving heavily laden truck in the face of oncoming traffic on a bend while going uphill. A long blast of the horn means that both you and the oncoming vehicle realise you aren’t going to make it and that you need to take immediate evasive action.
The system seems to work. At least it did for us on this particular journey but I understand that many, many Filippino drivers aren’t quite so lucky.
We passed mango orchids with trees bowed down under the weight of ripe yellow fruit, weathered and skeletal farm workers staggering under the weight of impossibly large loads of sugar cane, banana and coconut trees by the thousand, rambutan and papaya and a grove of trees with odd looking fruit like elongated pears which I couldn’t identify.
We had been traveling for about an hour when we were stopped by a policeman who, as usual, was equipped for war with both a pistol and a pump action shotgun.
He told us that the road ahead was closed and that we would need to follow a diversion. He pointed down an unmade track just large enough for our jeep and not quite large enough for the coach in front of us.
With some pretty nifty manoeuvring by the driver, and some equally nifty footwork by the street’s residents whose corrugated iron shacks were inches from the coach’s wheels, the coach inched along the lane until it came to the low hanging power lines crossing the road.
Naturally, I expected chaos as the bus driver realised the danger of trying to move any further forward. Normal rules don’t apply here though so the conductor simply climbed onto the roof, lifted the cables above the coach roof with a branch he’d found at the side of the road and stamped his foot to indicate that the way was clear!
Shortly afterwards we stopped for something to eat at a roadside café. Filippinos have rice with everything so we had chicken and pork kebabs with a dollop of boiled rice and a glass of iced tea.
I was just getting over the surprise of seeing most of our party eating dinner, including the rice, with their fingers, when I noticed one of the young café workers heading our way with a mop bucket cradled protectively under his arm. Nothing wrong with keeping the place clean I thought to myself… just before he reached into the mop bucket with his glove covered hand, had a quick fiddle, and plopped a nicely rounded ball of still steaming rice on my plate.
We continued to La Carlota through a beautiful landscape of low hills and fields full of rice and sugar, regularly passing corrugated roadside stalls offering fresh fruit for sale, stalls which doubled as homes for the vendors.
We stopped of at La Carlota to buy some food for the next few days, and to stock up on rice. Buying rice is a bit more of an ordeal in the Philippines than it is in the UK. Whenever I’ve bought rice in the past, it’s been a pack of Uncle Ben’s boil in the bag sachets and I can honestly say that getting it home hasn’t really taxed me physically.
I couldn’t understand what was being said in the jeep because everyone was speaking Tagalog but I knew something was afoot when Gill kept glancing in my direction and giggling. Sally translated for me. She said that Gill wanted to know if I could carry the rice to the jeep for him. Of course, I agreed. What I didn’t know was that their bags of rice are a little bigger than ours.
The bag of rice weighed 50kg, 110lbs or eight stone. No problem I thought, the rice sack was only a couple of feet from the jeep boot so lifting it wouldn’t be too painful. I bent down to pick it up but Gill stopped me. The man mountain shop owner picked it up instead and slung it in the back of the vehicle.
Gill was still winding me up on the rest of the journey to the house. He pointed out that lifting the rice was no problem for him because he spent all day, every day lifting huge and weighty bundles of sugar cane. My manly pride was taking a battering so I offered to carry the rice in to the house for him. He laughed even louder and agreed.
Now I have to admit at this stage I had probably made a schoolboy error. I hadn’t actually been to the house before. I assumed that we’d pull into a driveway which would be a couple of feet from wherever the jumbo sack of rice needed taking.
The car stopped next to an alley. Corazon pointed down the alley indicating that the house was there somewhere so, with all the occupants of the car and a handful of local residents watching, I hoisted the dead weight onto my shoulder and tried not to stagger as I negotiated the alley’s mud and rock floor.
I walked down the alley, round a corner and round another to where the alley opened up and became a steep, muddy and very slippery track.
The house was actually 300m away from the road. By the time I was within sight of the house, my face was bright red, I was panting like a steam train and my legs were shaking so badly I thought they were going to give way.
Gill’s son came to the rescue. He’s fourteen and built like a whippet. He casually took the sack from me with one arm and skipped the rest of the way to the house without raising a sweat. These little Filippino fellas are stronger than they look. It’ll be a while before I underestimate one again.
When the stars before my eyes finally receded I was able to see the place which will be home for the next two and a half weeks.
For a start the house is painted vivid orange but it really suits the semi tropical location. The main part of the house is just two bedrooms and a lounge area, beautifully tiled and spotlessly clean. Twenty feet from the house is the kitchen, the “dirty kitchen” as it’s known.
It’s timber and bamboo construction with a corrugated steel roof. There’s a large dining area with an adjoining kitchen. Cooking is done with traditional pots and pans but the heat is provided by a real wood fire. Fuel for the fire is collected from the forest which borders the property.
The property has a plentiful supply of crystal clear ice cold mountain water, but no hot water. Hot water for washing people and dishes is provided courtesy of a cauldron heated over the fire for at least half an hour.
Corazon, Gill and their three teenage sons don’t bother with hot water for washing. They aren’t as soft as European me and Europe softened Sally. They bathe in ice cold water all year round.
There isn’t actually a bathroom in the property. Behind and below the kitchen is a corrugated shed which is fed by the cold water supply which comes into the property in the kitchen. When the family want water in the kitchen, they pull the pipe apart which runs from the kitchen to the bathroom, which allows water to flow continuously into the kitchen sink. When they want water in the bathroom, they rejoin the pipe which allows water to flow into the bathroom but cuts off the kitchen.
The bathroom has a conventional toilet but the cistern needs to be filled with a jug from a plastic dustbin which is kept topped up by the cold water pipe running from the kitchen.
In order for Sally and I to have a hot “shower” the dustbin is half emptied then topped up with scalding water from the cauldron. The shower is achieved by using the same jug which is used to top up the toilet but rather than topping up the cistern with cold water, it’s dipped into the now nearly hot water in the bin and poured over your head.
Night time toilet visits are a bit of a challenge because they involve negotiating an unfamiliar house in total darkness (and I do mean total darkness) to find the front door, then negotiate an uneven and steeply sloping mud and stone pathway thirty feet to the bathroom.
I love it.
After an early evening meal of chicken and rice and a solitary bottle of San Miguel for me, no one else drinks so I couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to drink any more, we had another early night.
I lay in bed listening to the unfamiliar night time noises; the ever present barking of numerous semi domestic dogs nearby, cocks continuously crowing, rushing water through the stream at the bottom of the garden and the unusual sound of a Filippino frog.
Ever since I met Sally nearly three years ago she’s been telling me that frogs in the Philippines speak differently from those in the UK. Rather than Rib-Bip, Rib-Bip, they say Cock-Cuck, Cock-Cuck. I’m afraid to admit that I didn’t believe her… until last night.
She’s absolutely right and what a wonderful sound it is. If Gill and Corazon have their way though, they won’t be making that noise for much longer.
They want me to try the local frogs. They’re a delicacy. They regularly catch, kill and cook the local frogs which are about ten times the size of the UK variety. I’m going down to the stream this evening when no one’s looking to scare them all away.
On Wednesday morning we had breakfast, the leftovers from the night before plus another couple of mounds of fresh fluffy rice, before planning to go out for the day.
Sally and I planned to hire a tricycle to take us into La Carlota so I could use an internet cafe and Sally could do some shopping with her sister. Before we left though Sally and I needed to have our morning constitutional, which presented us with a bit of a problem.
The family are poor, so they don’t waste money on things they don’t really need. One of the things they don’t need is toilet paper. I haven’t yet got to the bottom of their solution (excuse the pun) to cleaning up afterwards, but I can’t imagine it’s something either Sally or I want to embrace while we’re here.
Sally sent a grinning teenager to go out in search of some toilet paper for us. He returned twenty minutes later with a single roll. He had been to three of the local shops. Two didn’t stock it at all. The single roll was the entire stock from the third shop.
All the family crowded round to examine the toilet paper and marvel at the westerners who were prepared to squander money so readily.
I needed to go into La Carlota to spend a couple of hours in an internet café. Sally wanted to come with me so she could enjoy some low cost pampering having her nails done. As her sister doesn’t have a car, we had to rely on public transport. The only public transportation available from the village are tricycles. They’re plentiful, reliable, extremely cheap and an unrivalled opportunity to get very close to a cross section of other villagers.
The tricycles are 100-150cc motor bikes with glorified side cars. When Sally initially suggested using one, knowing that Sally’s sister wanted to come with us, I asked her how we would be able to fit three of us in addition to the driver on a small motor bike. She just grinned and said that she thought we’d all fit in.
What an experience!
For a start, the driver can never be described as being in a hurry. Ten minutes after we had climbed on board he was still honking his horn looking for more customers. There was certainly no shortage of them and he didn’t turn any away. Before we left the village there were actually ten of us crammed on and around him. It’s an opportunity to get closer to strangers than you’ll ever get on the London tube, even at rush hour.
Petrol isn’t cheap so the drivers do what they can to save money. The most obvious saving for them when starting a journey from the top of a steep hill is to keep the engine turned off and let gravity do the hard work. Unfortunately that means that they then only have a couple of worn out brakes to help keep ten passengers and their bike on a winding and rutted road.
Fortunately we didn’t have to free wheel all the way down the hill. We broke down. A number of excited pedestrians pointed out to the driver with great enthusiasm that we had a flat tyre. The driver pulled over to the side of the road. He tried to rectify the problem with a couple of kicks but it didn’t work.
We flagged down an empty passing tricycle, paid the driver two pesos for the two or three miles he had carried us and climbed on to our new transport. The full fifteen mile journey cost twenty pesos each (about 25p).
It was a was a wonderful journey through a rural landscape of low hills, a volcano mostly obscured by mist, mango orchards and acres and acres of sugar cane,
The sugar cane harvest was in full flow. High sided trucks were parked next to fields full of mummy wrapped men hacking at cane with machetes and piling jagged bundles into open backed carts pulled by water bison ridden horse like by their drivers.
We had visitors on Wednesday evening. Sally’s sister Cora arrived with her husband Morito. They had come to see Sally for the first time in four years.
In the Filipinno tradition the ladies huddled in one corner after the evening meal and left the men to talk man stuff. The men on this particular occasion were fifty year old Morito and two of our host Corazon’s sons, twenty eight year old Syrel and nineteen year old Hilson.
Nearly all Filipinnos can speak some English. Most speak it very well. They tend to be quite shy though. These three were no exception. Even though I had been around Hilson for a couple of days he hadn’t spoken a word to me. I had been in the company of the other two for a couple of hours without a word spoken.
Before Sally left to join the other women she tried to encourage them to try out their English on me. The most confident of the three was Syrel. Sally harangued him in Tagalog and then after a long pause he launched into his opening attempt with a perfect “Do you smoke?”.
I didn’t help keep the conversation flowing with a conversation stopping “No!”
Sally gave us up as a lost cause and went to join the other ladies for more stimulating conversation. I tried a different approach and went with the universal aid to communication by pulling four bottles of ice cold San Miguel from the fridge.
The conversation improved in direct proportion to the number of bottle tops I removed. By the time round number six had been distributed we were getting along famously. Hilson brought a puzzle out for me to solve. It was a wooden knob on a flat base decorated with interlinked rope loops. The puzzle involved removing one of the loops whilst leaving the others in place.
After much hilarity over my futile attempts to remove it, Hilson showed me how to do it and then, pointing to the large wooden knob, confided that a friend of his had purchased something similar as a joke for his girlfriend. Hilson searched for the word in English. Syrel, sensing that he was struggling, helped him out. “It’s called A Penis,”. “Ah, that’s right,” said Hilson triumphantly, “Happiness!”.
I suppose there are many who would agree with him.
Thursday was picnic day. Sally told me that we were going to swim in a mountain pool a short walk away from the house. Ten of us set off in flip flops, swimming shorts, old T shirts and not much else.
The half hour walk turned out to be two hours, all of it uphill, initially on a rough potholed road and then on a mountain track. We passed a substantial banana plantation mainly devoid of bananas but there were enough about to warrant a couple of guys loading a shipment onto the back of a truck. Sally managed to persuade them to give us a couple of bunches. They were slightly smaller than the ones we usually see in the UK with a rich yellow and very sweet flesh. They were very welcome towards the end of a long walk uphill on a hot day.
We passed quite a few areas next to the road where hundreds of cockerels were tethered, each had their own territory and a shaded perch. They were all game farms breeding aggressive birds for cock fighting. Sally told me this just as we came to a section of the trail which passed perilously close to some of the tethered birds. We were treated to a chorus of cock-a-doodle-doos but otherwise they kept themselves to themselves.
The scenery was stunning; forested mountain sides, waterfalls tumbling hundreds of metres down glass smooth rocks, flowers of every shape, size and hue and a thousand shades of vivid, healthy green.
I’ve not done a huge amount of travelling in my life but I’ve always associated consistently hot countries with brown rather than green. I’ve been used to searing sun and parched dead looking grass, trees and shrubs. Everything on this island looks so very healthy.
In addition to the banana plantation, we passed mango, coconut, papaya, durian and jackfruit. Coffee beans fringed the road where they had been spread to dry in the sun.
When we arrived at the two pools of ice cold mountain water, there was no ceremony. All the party, men, women and children dived in fully clothed. Everyone apart from Sally and I was wearing normal day to day clothes rather than swimwear. We had picked up two more guests for the picnic as we walked to the pools, two elderly ladies sidetracked from a trip to the shops. They too waded neck deep in the cold water still wearing their long dresses.
We stayed at the pools for an hour, enjoyed a quick lunch of bottled coke and sweet bread rolls purchased from roadside stalls on the walk there, then headed further into the mountains to where we could view some spectacular falls.
The return 7km journey downhill was completed in about an hour and a half with just a brief stop to collect Kim. Kim is Gill’s one year old mongrel. There are a huge number of dogs here but they aren’t treated as loved pets as they are in the UK. I don’t really know why they keep dogs at all. They aren’t showed any affection, or even recognition, but they are everywhere, loosely attached to families and spending much of their time on or beside roads looking for food or laying in the sun.
When we first arrived at Gill’s house, Sally warned me to stay away from Kim. She said that it was wise to be wary of the Filippino dogs as they aren’t generally very friendly. I was cautious but I like dogs so I tried to get to know him.
Kim is just like most dogs I’ve encountered in the past. He responded nervously but enthusiastically to affection. Within a couple of days he was acting like any normal friendly pet dog in the UK. So much so that, instead of laying in the shade ignoring the people activity around him when we left the walk he, unknown to us, followed our group a mile up the hill before we spotted him.
Of course we didn’t have a dog lead with us. The family don’t even own one. Kim had never been for a walk before so he didn’t know how to conduct himself, didn’t know that he needed to stay away from the occasional vehicle roaring past and definitely didn’t know how to deal with the packs of stray dogs we came across. None of them paid any attention to people walking past, but as soon as they spotted a strange dog, there was a collective snarl as they closed in on terrified Kim.
We tried carrying him but the stray dogs still tried to get at him. As we were passing a relative’s house at the time, we decided to leave him there and collect him on the way back.
Kim was relaxed and happy to see us after his three hour rest in the shade of of a mango tree. The final leg of the journey was uneventful if a little surreal. The banana plantation on either side of the road was bordered by a high and neatly trimmed privet hedge.
Gill’s main source of income is from the care of a five acre plot of sugar cane. He supplements that income by driving a truck with collects sugar cane then takes it to the refinery. He usually has to wait for a day while the cane is cut by hand, then transported by water buffalo drawn cart to the road side where it is manually loaded. At the refinery the load is weighed and he is paid for the weight of the load transported. The truck owner receives 80% of the income. Gill gets the rest.
Tens of thousands of acres in the area are owned by a Chinese businessman. Because much of his land is sugar cane he can afford to use a harvester to cut the cane. The harvester can load a truck in minutes rather than the full day taken by manual workers. Naturally, transportation of this sugar cane is very popular with lorry drivers when they are paid by the load. Because transportation of harvester loaded sugar cane is so lucrative there’s fierce competition. Gill has to take every opportunity he can when the harvester is working.
For the last few days Gill has stayed with the truck night and day. Both Gill and his son eat, sleep and work from the small truck cab. They take a small sack of rice with them and cook it over a fire by the side of the field as they wait in line for the truck to be loaded. There are no facilities of any kind nearby so they have to take all the water they need with them for cooking, drinking and washing.
On a good day, they can transport three loads if they start at 6am and finish at midnight. Three loads over an eighteen hour day will earn Gill what a McDonald’s worker on minimum wage can earn in an hour in the UK for flipping burgers and looking gormless.
Three loads is a good day. The usual is one load and one load wouldn’t pay for the Starbuck’s coffee which many stressed UK workers buy on the way into the office because they don’t have the time, energy or inclination to make and consume one before they leave home in the morning.
Gill’s wife looks after the home. It’s a task which takes far more effort in the Philippines than it does in the UK when everything needs to be done by hand. She also helps manage five acres of sugar cane.
On Friday, Sally and I went with Corizon and her sister Cora to inspect the cane. If you find commuting to work in the UK a bit of a chore, please think about Corizon next time the journey gets you down.
The first step was a 20km trip on an overcrowded tricycle into La Carlota. The tricycle dropped us off at the town’s bus station where we waited half an hour for a bus.
The bus journey took us an hour. There are no passenger number restrictions on the buses in the Philippines. If you can force your way on to the vehicle, it will take you wherever it’s going. The seats and the isle are usually packed. The seats are much smaller than they are on UK buses. In the same space you would expect two seats in the UK, there are three on the buses here. The seat sizes suit the usually much smaller frames of the Filippino passengers. Usually, but not always.
Sod’s law dictated that I had the pleasure of getting very close to two of the very few fat Filippinos I’ve encountered. Both were women and both had body parts normally reserved for much more intimate activities thrust against me for most of the journey.
So many people in such a small space generate a great deal of heat. It’s no so much a problem with the normally wide open windows but during heavy showers, which aren’t uncommon, the windows are closed and the heat becomes unbearable.
The bus deposited us in central Magallon. The journey was far from over. We then climbed into another tricycle for the last leg of the journey to the field. Picking the right tricycle driver for the final part of the journey is a bit of a lottery. The last few miles are along increasingly rough tracks. At some stage the tricycle driver will refuse to go any further so the rest of the journey has to be on foot.
Our tricycle driver dropped us off when the side car wheel disappeared in a deep truck rut and nearly overturned the vehicle. We then walked for forty five minutes along deeply rutted tracks. The only traffic was an occasional water buffalo drawn cart.
We passed a calf drinking from a stream. I asked Sally if it was a water buffalo. She didn’t know so she asked Cora. Cora told us that it wasn’t. I asked if she knew what it was as I hadn’t seen any bovine other than water buffalo since I arrived. I loved the answer. “It’s not a water buffalo yet but it will be when it grows up!”
The only sounds were the ever present cockerels crowing, the swishing of the wind in the sugar cane and, at complete odds with the surroundings, blaring rap music from a half derelict hillside shack.
Just before we reached the field, we passed four immaculately dressed schoolgirls walking from their remote homes to the nearest school three miles away. No school bus for them but they seemed happy enough, walking in the sunshine, talking girl talk and giggling at the odd looking European as he passed.
We reached the field hot and tired after a two and a half hour journey. A journey which the family have to make before they can start a day’s work. Of course they can’t spend five hours travelling every day and hope to complete a full day’s brutal work in the field so they often don’t go home.
They stay in the field for days at a time. They have built a sturdy raised bamboo shelter at the edge of the field. It’s a simple ten feet square room with shelves around the edges which allow both seating and sleeping.
In this small space both Cora and Corazon will live and sleep alongside four other labourers for four days at a time. All of the water for cooking, drinking and washing has to carried in, first by tricycle and then by foot. They cook on an open fire outside the shelter using wood collected locally. The field is their toilet.
In the photograph below, Sally and her two sisters are looking out over the rice field owned by a neighbour to the sugar cane they tend.
It’s a hard life.
Yesteerday was a relaxing and extremely enjoyable day; a day at odds with the plans we’d made.
Our intention was to cruise from Hillmorton, up through the six locks of the Braunston flight, through the mile and a quarter long tunnel, cruise another hour and a half to Norton Junction, turn round and look for somewhere to moor for the night before a 6-7 hour cruise back to Clacutt today.
We just couldn’t be bothered.
After a very pleasant, rather blowy cruise from Hillmorton we stopped at Willoughby Wharf to let Charlie and Daisy out for a run before the planned lock flight and tunnel at Braunston. There’s no wharf at Willoughby Wharf now, just a very pleasant view of hilly meadows. We liked the location so much we decided to stay for the day, forget about the additional cruising and just cruise two and a half hours back to Calcutt today.
Weatherwise, yesterday was the best day of the week. Sun wasn’t forecast until the end of the day but we were blessed with clear skies for most of the day. We walked along the towpath two miles into Braunston, enjoyed a coffee overlooking the canal in the garden of the boathouse and ambled back to the boat to spend the rest of the day relaxing in the sun on the towpath, me reading and Sally chatting via her iPad with her cousin in Manilla.
I love the simple life on the boat, but I also appreciate the technology we have at our disposal. Our Three dongle hasn’t failed to provide us with an internet connection at any one of our mooring spots over the last two weeks. The Edimax WiFi router allows us access to web world throughout the boat. Yesterday I finished my current book. A quick search, a couple of clicks and there was another book waiting to be read on my Kindle. I love it!
After waxing lyrical yesterday about my wonderful Three dongle and how it always allows me to connect to the internet, yesterday it failed for the first time. I had just about finished writing the day’s post when I noticed that I had no connection. In poor reception areas the signal often cuts in and out which allows me to compose a post offline and then publish it quickly when I have a signal.
Yesterday I couldn’t manage a connection at all. I tried constantly over an hour before we set off for the day but then gave up. By the time we arrived back at Calcutt and I had finished one or two maintenance jobs, we were into the afternoon so I decided to wait until today to update you on the last two days of the cruise.
We were moored just a couple of hours from Calcutt. The route was familiar, the landscape stunning and navigation was a bit of a challenge. Gale force winds were forecast for later in the day but the wind was brisk enough to make steering in a straight line at normal cruising speed very difficult and cruising at tickover past moored boats virtually impossible.
I had one near miss with an out of control boat on a particularly windy corner. The boat’s bow appeared around the corner cutting across my bow and over to the towpath on my starboard side. I had to take evasive action and pass it on the port side to avoid hitting him square on on his starboard side. I managed to pass him without touching. I was very lucky there wasn’t anyone following him.
The (new) owner of the boat apologised. He said that the wind had caught him as he rounded the corner. He’d tried to correct the drift with his bow thruster but he had pressed the wrong button and had helped the boat further in the wrong direction rather than back onto the right hand side of the canal.
The rest of the journey was uneventful apart from a tricky turn into the marina. It’s always difficult getting into the marina when there’s a stiff breeze. The prevailing wind blows out of the marina entrance towards the towpath side of the canal which means that it’s very easy to get pinned against the towpath when you come out of Calcutt Bottom lock.
The choice is to either charge out of the lock and start to turn towards the marina before you reach the entrance or, if you can’t get the bow around, turn away from the marina and reverse through the entrance. I just about managed to get the bow in afer a bit of a bump.
So, we’re back on our mooring now. We’re back “home”. It’s great to be back (and slightly disappointing to find out that Calcutt Boats hasn’t fallen apart without me). The reeds next to the boat have grown about a foot in the two weeks we’ve been away and there’s a welcome splash of yellow from half a dozen iris which weren’t there last year.
Yesterday I collected a fender for the front of the boat, a button fender with wings, ordered at the Crick show and delivered to Calcutt reception while we were away. The old fender was, quite frankly, an embarrassment. You can see what I mean in the photo. The old fender was on the boat when I moved on board. I had so many other improvements to make that I didn’t notice just how tatty the front fender was until Sally pointed it out to me a few weeks before the show. The back fender wasn’t in much better condition. We managed to pick up a new rear fender at the show but the only trader selling fenders at the show ran out of them on the first day. We ordered one from them but knew that it wouldn’t be delivered to Calcutt until after we left on our cruise.
The new fender is a huge improvement both aesthetically and practically. The old fender didn’t offer any protection at all. We just need to take the boat out now for a cruise to test it out.
We’ll be planning our next cruise very shortly. Sally and I love living on James at the marina. We have a beautiful mooring on a stunning marina in a tranquil part of the country, but we’ve now been bitten by the continuous cruising bug. It’s always been our intention to uproot ourselves and travel extensively as soon as we are able but we now want to do so sooner rather than later.
I’m fifty three now. Sally’s probably a similar age but she’s not letting on. Neither of us are getting any younger. We’re both seeing an increasing number of friends, relatives and work colleagues suffering life changing illnesses. I watched an item on the news last week which claimed that 50% of the population can now expect to contract cancer at some stage of their lives. It’s a frightening statistic. One of the guys working at the marina had a very close call last year. Thankfully he’s on his way to making a full recovery but over a year later he’s still not fit enough to come back to work.
I see far too many moorers here at the marina, who spend a lifetime working very hard towards their goal of owning a dream narrowboat and the financial resources to enjoy it, only to find that health issues – sometimes terminal – prevent them from realising their dreams. It’s such a shame.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Sally and I can’t afford to retire yet, but neither can we wait until the time is “right” before setting off on our travels. We met a couple on our recent travels on NB Cream Cracker. They took the bull by the horns, gave up bother their jobs, sold their household possessions, rented their house out and set off to cruise the network in March this year. They’re loving every minute of it. Their plan for the end of this year is to find a winter mooring, work as hard as they can over the colder months to build up their financial reserves then set off on another six months’ cruise next spring.
There’s no reason why Sally and I shouldn’t do something similar so watch this space!
Yesterday was a late start. We slept surprisingly well considering we were moored closed to a busy railway line – a railway line which was our companion for much of the day.
The weather forecast warned of gale force winds and heavy rain. However, most of the cruise was in bright sunshine with little more than a strong breeze. The wind speed increased as the day progressed which meant passing moored boats slightly faster than normal to avoid being blown into them.
Sally has been spelling me at the tiller more and more frequently recently. She enjoys steering the boat but she’s frustrated because she can’t easily see where she’s going. She’s only five feet tall so she has a problem looking over the top of the boat and over the sides when we come to bridge holes or moored boats. We’re going to buy a removable step for her to stand on. She experimented very briefly with a paint tin. It worked perfectly for her until she fell off it.
We had a bit of an incident in the heavily wooded area just after Brinklow Arches. A large oak had fallen across the canal fairly recently and had ben cut to allow passage for single boats around it. The blocked section of the canal was on our port side. There was a boat coming towards us as we approached the blockage but as our side of the canal was clear, and as we were slightly closer to the narrow section than the other boat, I assumed that they would slow down and wait for us to pass. They didn’t. They headed for the middle of the gap which meant that they were coming towards us head on.
I slowed to tickover and moved to the right as much as possible – which meant that the front of James was aground. They hit the bow a glancing blow which, I was secretly pleased to note, redirected their boat straight at the fallen oak. I managed to back James off the silt then squeeze past them as they were busy untangling themselves from the tree.
Normally I would have stopped and offered to help. As the very angry looking couple were addressing me in terms that I haven’t heard since I was manager of a rough estate pub in south east London twenty years ago, we decided tha they were better off on their own. I don’t know why they were so angry but I didn’t want to hang about and get into a heated discussion.
A little later we caught up with a hire boat which was enjoying a very leisurely cruise at tickover. I know that different people like to travel at different speeds but in order to keep a reasonable distance behind them I had to go so slowly that I almost had no steering at all. Given that the wind was increasing all the time, passing moored boats was a very hit and miss affair.
The hire boat finally pulled over at the visitor moorings just afer Newbold tunnel (I remembered to take my sunglasses off in the tunnel this time. I could see so much better). As I passed the hire boat they were busy tying it to the railings.
We stopped by bridge 58 so we could stock up at Tesco and treat ourselves to some Danish pastries for a late lunch. Dark rain clouds had been building for the previous hour. We managed to get the shopping back to the boat before the heavens opened and the wind picked up to gale force.
After about an hour the rain stopped and the wind died down a little so I decided to carry on. I knew that if the rain continued I had my super waterproof Guy Cotten top to keep me dry.
Five minutes later and the heavens opened. Rain was bouncing six inches off the roof hatch. Although I could feel the impact of the rain on my shoulders, not a drop found its way under the waterproof.
Unfortunately I had forgotten to put my waterproof trousers on so the rain was cascading down my top and onto my shorts, down my legs and into my trainers. I cruised for the next hour in the rain squelching every time I moved my feet (Note to self: must put waterproof trousers and wellies on in heavy rain).
We topped up with water below Hillmorton Bottom lock, emptied the Porta Potti between the Bottom and Middle locks and moored up above the Top lock. That’s where we are now, with our dear friend the West Coast Main Line just a couple of hundred metres away. I’m getting quite used to the noise now. It certainly didn’t prevent us from enjoying a very sound sleep last night.
What a busy day we had yesterday. We cruised none stop from 8.00am until 5.00pm with just an hour’s break in the centre of Coventry.
Within fifteen minutes we were off the Ashby and back onto the Coventry canal. What a difference a little bit of water makes. I hadn’t realised quite how shallow the Ashby was or how much harder work cruising is when your boat’s constantly sliding across the bottom. As soon as we hit the Oxford James was far more responsive and far easier to steer.
The first point of interest was Charity Dock at Bedworth. I mentioned the Steptoe & Son style junkyard as we passed on the way out but I didn’t include any photo’s. Here they are. The dock may well be a well known landmark on the canal and worth a photo or two in passing, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere near it.
Is it just me, or does the cowgirl look really good in a pair of jeans?
We stopped for five minutes just before Hawkesbury junction to allow Charlie and Daisy to burn off some energy before we headed into the centre of Coventry.
We experienced our first propeller snagging at the first bridge on the Coventry, bridge 11. I don’t know what we hit but there was a loud clang and the tiller nearly jumped out of my hand. I slowed down to tickover until we were away from the bridge. The boat was handling OK so we carried on.
The Coventry canal is shallow. It was as difficult to navigate as the Ashby. At three other bridges on the way in I either hit metal under the water or churned up plastic bags. The engine started to overheat about half a mile before the canal’s end which indicated that there was something wrapped around the propeller. I wanted to moor in the basin before I checked it out so I reduced speed, the temperature dropped back to normal and we carried on.
I’m delighted that we decided to explore this stretch of canal. Once I had accepted the fact that the canal was very shallow and that the less intelligent inhabitants of the city had a fondness for dropping things off bridges, I really enjoyed the cruise.
I know Coventry very well. I used to employ quite a few ladies from the poorer north of the city to work for clients in the wealthier south. I regularly interviewed them in their own homes so I knew that the canal passed through some quite rough areas. Along much of the canal you can’t see the housing at all and in one small section the canal was a riot of colour with stands of rhododendron and laurel and banks lined with yellow iris.
I loved the contrast between the flowers and the fools, beauty and the beast.
We saw regularly saw bags of rubbish hanging near pedestrian access to and from the canal. They’re put there by young offenders doing community service. We saw a group of three youths, dressed in bright orange bibs, supervised by an older official. All I can say is that, if the offenders put as much effort into litter picking as they did into walking along the canal with attitude, the waterway would be a much cleaner place.
Maybe if the litter pickers but more effort into their work I wouldn’t have had to remove the half dozen plastic bags from the propeller when we stopped.
During the two hour cruise to the basin, we didn’t pass any other moving boats. We had the waterway to ourselves so it was a real shock to see thirty children in canoes blocking the canal as I turned a corner close to the basin. After a few screams and a “Nice boat mister!” they paddled furiously out of harm’s way.
The basin itself was, to me, a real let down. I expected more. The basin itself is just two short catapult shaped arms with enough room to turn where the arms and the canal meet. There were just three boats there when we arrived, two Black Price hire boat and one other private boat. When we returned from our walk around the city centre, those boats had left and had been replaced by a Napton Narrowboats hirer and a fellow moorer from Calcutt Boats. As we cruised back to Hawkesbury Junction we passed just one boat coming in so the total traffic on the canal for the day, including James, was eight boats.
The canal basin is very quiet indeed. We were there in the middle of June. The weather was acceptable. But there was no one about. I don’t know how the businesses there survive. What an odd collection of businesses they were too; a Russian/Latvian food store, a tattoo parlour, Astral Gypsy Ltd (whatever that is) and a cafe with no one in it at all.
The basin is no more than half a mile to the north of the city centre just outside the ring road. The footbridge over the ring road is very odd. It appears to be made of concrete but sways as you walk over it. I thought I was having a dizzy spell.
We had lunch at one of the city centre Subway stores, did a little shopping at a Tesco Express and headed back out of Coventry.
On the return journey I tried a different approach to negotiating the piles of rubbish under the bridges. I guessed that, if the rubbish had been thrown off the bridge, most of it would be under bridges’ outside edges. I made sure that I was lined up for the bridge and that I had enough impetus to carry the back of the boat over the debris to the centre of the bridge and cut the propeller revolutions completely. Once under the centre of the bridge I gave the throttle a quick burst to correct the steering and to push me over the debris under the water on the far side of the bridge and stopped the propeller again. Once clear of the bridge I returned to normal cruising speed.
The tactics worked. On the way out we didn’t hit anything under the water and didn’t foul the propeller.
We wanted to find a quiet mooring for the night away from busy roads and railways. The first stretch of the Oxford canal after Hawkesbury junction runs alongside the M6 and then under the M69. We cruised past the motorways and through Ansty to where we hoped to stop overlooking Ansty golf course somewhere between bridges 17 & 19.
The overcast day had become a wet one towards the end of the day. The bank was inaccessible anywhere near the golf course and we edged, in increasingly heavy rain, past bridge 19 and closer to the West Coast Main line. By now it was 5.00pm, the rain was relentless and we both wanted to stop for the night, have a shower to warm up and get something to eat.
Consequently, we’ve stopped for the night at just the kind of place I hoped to avoid. We couldn’t get particularly close to the bank, have to use a plank to get on and off (and have to carry Daisy on and off because she’s frightened of planks) and from the window we can watch trains thundering past every ten minutes.
Even with the noise we both slept like logs. We’re not used to a full day’s cruising. Yesterday we managed 18 miles and one lock. It was a full and very enjoyable day. Although I don’t particularly like Coventry and didn’t get round to visiting any of the attractions while we were there, I’m very pleased we’ve paid the city a visit.
The weather has turned. Rain is running down my office window as I write this post. The sky is a uniform dirty grey, I can hear trains thundering past on the West Coast Mainline less than half a mile away and there’s a row of electricity pylons marching across the landscape. Our mooring is the best we could find in the last hour of our journey yesterday.
I don’t know where the time goes when we’re cruising. We left Sutton Cheyney Wharf at 10.00am, covered just eleven miles but didn’t moor until 6.00pm. We were delayed in Hinckley for a while though, and had to stop for over half an hour to clear our first propeller debris of the trip.
We had just passed through a bridge hole when I heard a bit of a clunk. I felt some additional vibration through the tiller and after about five minutes noticed that the engine temperature had crept up to ninety degrees. I stopped as soon as I could, which of course, wasn’t as soon as I would have liked to because of the extremely shallow water next to the bank, and dived into the weed hatch.
I removed about six feet of tightly wound nylon rope with the aid of a sharp knife and some mole grips (both attached to my wrist with a length of parachute cord to stop me losing them when they slipped out of my hands. I’ve learned from previous mistakes). Just to make sure that I had all bases covered I checked the oil and water, then set off again after a quick cup of coffee. The engine temperature stayed at its normal seventy degrees so the rope appeared to be the problem.
We reached the Brewers Fayre in Hinckley just before 2.00pm so stopped for a sandwich. I don’t know why we bothered. We stopped there on the way up the Ashby and didn’t particularly enjoy the mixed grill we had. I don’t know why we expected the steak sandwiches to be any better a week later. They weren’t.
We had to stop anyway. Nottinghamshire Police divers were in the canal under bridge seventeen so all boats had been stopped until they were out of the water. The search was part of a murder investigation. I don’t know what they were looking for but if the murderer escaped by bike, they were in luck. They pulled seven bikes out of the canal in the thirty feet stretch they were searching.
Over lunch Sally and I discussed the police divers.
“How do they do it? Sally asked. “Their job must be very difficult. I don’t know how they find them.”
“Find what?” I asked.
“Small body parts.”
I was puzzled. “They weren’t looking for body parts.”
“Yes they were.” she replied, “The policeman we spoke to said the diver was doing a fingertip search!”
She was having me on of course.
After lunch we walked back to the boat, saw that the police divers had completed their search under the bridge, untied the boat and set off again. We didn’t get very far. The divers had stopped long enough to allow the waiting boats to pass before moving their search 200m further up the canal. We had to wait for half an hour for them to finish.
While we were waiting I chatted to the couple on NB Cream Cracker in front of me. They were enjoying their first season as both narrowboat owners and continuous cruisers. In March this year they both left their jobs, sold the contents of their house, moved tenants in, bought their boat and set off for a full summer’s cruise before looking for a winter mooring and jobs at the end of this year.
They’ve both thoroughly enjoyed the experience but they weren’t that keen on the Ashby canal. They only ventured as far as Sutton Cheyney Wharf before turning back. With a draft of 2’3″ they had been ploughing through the silt for most of the journey. I agree that the canal is very shallow in parts. It’s often difficult to pass another travelling boat without running aground but, with care, there aren’t any real problems.
The section which caused me the most anxiety was between mile post 2 and bridge 5. The canal has been cut through rock. Both banks and the exposed rock seemed perilously close as we edged our way through it. We didn’t pass another boat on this section. I would have slowed to tickover and kept as much as possible to the centre channel if we did.
We moored at Burton Hastings on our way up the canal, but yesterday those moorings were full. We tried to get close to the bank at several likely looking spots after that but the best mooring we could find last night was between bridges two and three. We’re a little to close to the busy railway line for my liking but I didn’t want to risk going any further, joining the Coventry canal, and having to find somewhere to moor close to Bedworth.
We’re off to Coventry city centre today. I want to cruise the route just to see what it’s like. I’ve had a look at the comments made about Coventry Basin on Trip Adviser so I’m not expecting a beautiful landscape or a clean canal. I’ll try to keep an open mind though.
Do you know how many moving boats we passed yesterday? Go on, take a guess. No, you’re way out. In four hours cruising we saw just one other boat on the move. In four hours cruising along half the length of the Ashby canal in the middle of June there wasn’t another boat cruising apart from us and the one we passed. Of course, we met it on a bend just after a bridge and with boats moored either side.
We made an early start. Early for us on this trip anyway. We set off at 8.30. The day was overcast and rather cool. We lit the stove before breakfast and kept it going for most of the day. I wore a fleece hat and two fleece tops while I was steering. Maybe I would have only needed one top if I had been sensible enough to wear long trousers but my shorts come out of the cupboard in April and stay on until October. I can’t guarantee on the weather letting me know it’s summer so I have to rely on my shorts.
The first village after Gopsall woods is Shackerstone with its idyllic private moorings. I mentioned them in a previous post. I’ve taken a photo or two now though. I’ve added one below. What do you think?
We stopped again at Bosworth Wharf so that we could walk into the town centre for provisions. Sally is lactose intolerant so we only use Arla Lactofree semi skimmed milk. I’m used to the flavour now and it has the advantage of lasting far longer than normal milk. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to buy any since we left Rugby. Yesterday I thought I would try soya milk. I don’t know why. Early signs of senility or a tendency towards masochism maybe. I tried it in coffee when we returned to the boat. Never again. I’m going to feed the rest of the carton to the ducks and take my coffee black until I can buy some decent milk.
From Bosworth Wharf we travelled another hour to Sutton Cheyney wharf and our home for the night. The final leg of the journey had me dribbling all down my fleece top. We bought a chicken in Market Bosworth. Sally cooked as we travelled. The smell of chicken, rice and spices wafted over me as I stood on the back of the boat.
By the time I had tied the boat up for the evening, a steaming plate of spicy food was waiting for me on the table. I had topped up my supply of Theakston’s Old Peculiar in Market Bosworth’s Co-op so I was a very happy bunny.
We took the dogs for a long walk in Ambion woods after dinner. I wonder if they realise what lucky dogs they are. They usually do very well for walks but over the last week they’ve been able to run alongside the boat with Sally as I’ve cruised towards our new home for the night. I think the smiles on their faces and the sparkle in their eyes says it all.
We woke this morning to light rain. I suppose we shouldn’t complain. It’s the first we’ve seen for nine days. We plan to set off in about an hour for about four hour’s cruising. I’ll have an opportunity to try out my bomb proof Guy Cotten waterproof jacket and trousers.
If you’re reading this post in the blog section of the forum, you may not be able to see some of the pictures or may only see them as thumbnails. Click on the link below to see the photo’s on the original blog post.