Saturday, April 12, 2014

Boats, water restrictions and feminine (non) vanity

The other day, I was musing on aspects of life on a barge that are different from living on land or in a house or flat. The obvious difference is that a barge is constantly submerged in water and keeps moving. A house doesn't, or it shouldn't at any rate. You might arguably be a trifle worried if your house was swaying to and fro in the breeze.

Typical liveaboard scene: the washing on the line

That aside, living on a boat has often been compared to life in a floating caravan, and there are indeed comparisons to be made. Even so, most permanently berthed caravans generally have mains water and electricity, so it is, in principle, possible to live a pretty normal life in a mobile home. On a boat, however, these things still tend to be different.

Take water, for example. On my barge, the Vereeniging, I have two five-hundred litre water tanks. Now in most homes, people use water fairly indiscriminately. A thousand litres? It's probably not difficult to go through that amount of water in a couple of days, is it?  On the Vereeniging, I make this quantity last around ten days. Yes, I do.

On the Hoop, the barge I lived on first, I had no running water at all for several months, and I had to fetch it in jerry cans - ten litres at a time. I have to say that such water restrictions concentrate the mind no end. Need becomes a relative concept. How much water do I truly need, and so on. When I eventually got my waterworks installed on the Vereeniging, a thousand litres felt positively decadent and luxurious, but even then, it had its limitations.

One of the two five-hundred litre tanks on the Vereeniging

I have to say I'd had some practice at this before even arriving in the Netherlands. My former home in South Africa was prone to drought and we'd always paid for our water usage. We were used to being careful; you know, turning off taps as soon as we'd filled anything, using tooth mugs instead of letting the tap run, putting bricks in the cistern of the loo to save water. All that sort of thing was quite normal to me. But living on a boat took water restrictions to new levels.

Just imagine this, for instance: filling the tanks means unravelling metres and metres of hosepipe, dragging it all up the loopplank and walking to the water point to attach it (the distance can vary depending on how far along the row of barges you are). Then once you have fixed both ends, you have to sit and wait for the tanks to fill, about half an hour in my case. You also have to be very, very careful not to over fill the tanks. The resulting overflow is not funny, and needs another post all of its own to explain why.

But for the moment, let's assume everything goes according to plan. The tanks are filled, so then you have to reverse the process: switch off the water, undo the hosepipe from both ends and wind it back up again. In general, the whole process from start to finish takes something in the region of an hour, and a bit more. Not a 'just job'. Nor is it something I've ever relished doing when it's snowing, raining, sleeting, or blowing a gale - all activities the weather likes to be involved in at various times of the year. Result: use as little water as it's possible to safely and hygienically get away with.

It was winter and freezing

So let's think of the next scenario. I am a woman of a certain age. Even before I started living on a boat, I was close to it, but I am one of those individuals who has gone grey very early. In fact I was completely grey by the time I was thirty five. I used to dye my hair in some attempt to deny this reality. For years, I succeeded in disguising my real hair colour with a variety of hues ranging from black to blonde and back again. But the crunch came when I moved on board the Hoop.

Now anyone who knows about messing around with hair colour also knows you need a lot of water to do the job properly. A lot. I didn't have even anything approaching to a lot on the Hoop, and by the time I moved onto the Vereeniging, I was jealously guarding every drop.

I remember it all so clearly. The thing is my hair tends to grow rather fast, so to keep up the pretence of having some kind of pigment in my mop, I had to 'do the roots' every two weeks. At least that's what I used to do in South Africa. On the boat, this became a huge challenge. I'd stock up on water for the event. Jerry cans would collect on the foredeck in readiness, and I swear people started making the connection between the unusual amount of water I was accumulating and my consequently brighter hair. Eventually, it all got too much to do every fortnight, so I started sporting scarves to cover up the badger stripe I would develop after about ten days. The scarves became a permanent fixture the longer I delayed re-painting my hair (as the Dutch call it), and then the inevitable day came.

It was winter and freezing. The water points on the quay were frozen. My tanks were empty. I had no water: nix, nada, nothing. If I wanted to 'do' my hair, let alone make a cup of coffee or have a wash, I would have to trek round the harbour to the little building where the communal washing machines were housed, fill up the jerry cans and walk all the way back again over frozen, icy ground with twenty litres of water. For what? For vanity? Even I admitted that coffee and cleanliness were somewhat higher on the priority scale, although I wouldn't like to say which of these two actually came first.

It took time to phase the colour out 

In any event, this was the defining moment for me. I decided to reveal the truth, unmask myself and just give in to nature. I would stop dying my hair and go grey. Other reasons rushed in to support my decision. My hair would undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief - years of artificial colour not being particularly nourishing; the environment would send up three cheers as I would no longer be flushing chemicals into the river; and I would save a whole tank full of water, not to mention a multitude of fish.

So that's what happened. It didn't happen over night if I'm honest. I sort of phased out the colour in progressively lighter shades until the difference was barely noticeable, but during this period, the spells between the dying got longer and longer, and I saved myself and the Rotterdam water authorities vast quantities of clean water.

The long and the short of it is that when you live on a boat, you might be surrounded with water, but that's where the luxury ends.

The reality is that being submerged in the stuff is about as luxurious as living in a desert!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

A visit back home

On March 25th, I flew out of Amsterdam on my first visit back home to South Africa for nearly six years. According to my passport, the last time I was there was in June 2008. I remember it because it was in winter, but the sunshine is even more enduring at that time of year there and I was staying in Postmasburg, a small town in the southern Kalahari. You can read my blog about it here.

Moi looking at things at a country market
This time, I knew I would only be staying in Johannesburg, the city that was my home for more than ten years of my life in South Africa. My purpose in going was not for a holiday as such, but to visit my dearest friend ever, Moira. You can read a bit more about our long-standing friendship on a blog post I wrote about her fiftieth birthday in 2007 (yes, I have been blogging that long!). Without going into details, life's been uphill for my friend in the last two years, so I really wanted to spend some time with her.

It was a wonderful reunion. Moi and I will always just pick up where we have left off, and we spent our time talking, drinking wine, sitting in the sunshine, walking, drinking more wine and catching up as only friends who've been through the mill together can do. It was just wonderful.

Sitting in the sunshine at an outdoor cafe - there is no
indoor part

Moira's lovely garden - just four months growth from new

Saffron, her lovely and very old Siamese cat 

That said, the visit also gave me a chance to observe some of the changes that have taken place in the country since I was last there. Things have changed, and changed big time. Johannesburg has mushroomed beyond belief. There are suburbs with large housing estates in places where I used to drive on dirt roads through open scrubland. My old landmarks have disappeared and it is easy to get lost in this huge sprawling city. Sadly, most of these housing developments are more like compounds. They all sit behind high walls topped with electric fencing. As my friend says, people who have nothing will steal because they have nothing, but you still have to try and prevent crime.

On that note, there are still huge numbers of people living in abject poverty in South Africa.  However, things are better for many of them. There are large estates of what are in effect council houses - small low cost homes built from brick, and all with their own piece of ground. Most of these come fitted with solar water heaters too - an amazing sight as they are erected on the rooves of of these houses.

Solar water heaters - image taken from the net

The problem in South Africa is that it has had a tremendous economic boom in recent years, in some part due to the World Cup. I know, it sounds strange to think that such a boom would be a problem, but the improvements for the many and the increasing integration of society have attracted vast numbers of immigrants from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This has meant that although the suburbs and homes for South Africans themselves have been substantially upgraded, the dreadful squatter camps that marked the years of apartheid have not gone. If anything, they have grown, but now they are populated largely with immigrant families. This situation created severe tensions a few years ago with riots and xenophobic conflict. It is still an issue today and the immigrants live and work in awful conditions as well as fear of reprisals for taking locals' jobs.

Despite this persisting gap between affluent and poor, it was good to see the increased level of integration throughout the city and to know that there is at least a minimum wage for those in proper employment. Conversely, I was shocked by the spiralling prices. Seven years ago, I sold my last little corner of Africa for a hundred and forty thousand Rand (in those days, this was about fourteen thousand euros). These days, that same house would cost around eight hundred thousand Rands, or fifty four thousand euros. That's one heck of a leap up in prices. I only hope there are enough people now earning this kind of money to be able to afford a mortgage of that amount. At 10% interest, it must stretch them to the limit.

My last corner of Africa

My observations about my old home land are, however, just that, and I haven't had a chance to study how things are in supported facts. Johannesburg is the economic heartbeat of the country, so things might be different out of the Witwatersrand area, but even so, the changes since I was last there have been huge. I just hope that the forthcoming elections will see a consolidation of peace and prosperity and not a new wave of disruption and violence, which is what many South Africans fear. It is such a beautiful land and the people are so welcoming and friendly, it would be tragic to see it slipping back into armed conflict and chaos.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Exhibit A

Have you ever been a museum exhibit? No? I guessed not. Well, I have. In fact I am much of the time, the reason being that I have for some years lived in a place that is part of a very large outdoor museum.

Perhaps I should also mention that the Oude Haven where I have my barge is the centre of social life in Rotterdam as well as a museum harbour, so it has a couple of tourist hotels very close by. What happens as a result is that coaches head straight for the harbour to offload their human and other baggage before parking up in the street along the quayside for the night.

This means that right in front of the boats, we often have the pleasure of putting on a performance for very large groups of visitors, many of whom are fascinated by these old vessels and even more intrigued by the motley collection of humanity (their idea, not ours) that seems to congregate on board.

Doing what we normally do: deck washing

These performances are not official - or even arranged. They just happen as we go about our normal business of deck washing, painting and regular maintenance. Okay, sometimes Koos has put on a show of being 'the man at work'. He has been known to trek to and from the yard with miscellaneous planks of wood, some of which have needed attention, but more often because he likes the attention himself.  For the most part, though, we just do what we normally do, which seems to generate intense interest from those above us (or below, depending on the tide).

Well, to get back to the story, I was sort of aware of all this when I moved to the Oude Haven in 2001, but I didn't realise the real implications at the time. The problem only became one when I bought my barge, the Vereeniging, and moved on board. Actually, it wasn't even then. It was when after moving on to the barge, there were a few changes to the boats' arrangements, and I ended up at the end of the row of 'museum exhibits' that lined the quay.

This was when I suddenly became Exhibit A, not only for reasons of historic charm (the barge's, not mine), but because I was also in an ideal spot from which to take photos of another of Rotterdam's most famous art exhibits - the Cubist Houses.

The Cubist Houses in the background

So this is how it came to happen that one morning I opened my trap - sorry hatch - to find a whole group of Japanese photographers making their way down my gangplank and taking up photography poses on my foredeck with their latest and greatest Canons and Nikons.

Granted, I have a very large foredeck. It can hold at least twenty tightly squeezed photographers of small stature including their tripods and photographic gear. But what I wasn't prepared for was their complete lack of awareness that there was anyone living on board, or indeed, anyone inside the boat at all.

The gangplank: Maximum three persons!
And my capacious foredeck

Now as you probably all know, our friends from the east are extremely courteous and become easily embarrassed by any suggestion that they have inconvenienced you. So the image of twenty of these lovely people with both shutters and mouths open in suspended animation as I emerged from my depths with Sindy in tow was a sight I wish I'd been able to capture myself.

Sindy of course barked, and the moment was broken; the shutters and mouths clacked closed and my twenty visitors, not knowing whether to bow in apology or collect up their gear and scram, scurried back up the gangplank with much vocal, if incomprehensible, dismay. Given that said gangplank is only supposed to carry a maximum of three people at a time, the consequent bending and straining of the steel as at least ten of them crowded onto it had me in suspended animation, or rather inhalation, instead.

Luckily nothing gave way and they all made it safely to shore, but I realised then I would have to make some kind of 'keep out' system.

In fairness to the tourists, our barges are supposed to maintain the exterior image and profile of working cargo boats, so I cannot really blame them for thinking there is no one home, but it is a trifle disconcerting to be the object of such interest, and even more to be regarded as a handy platform for other pursuits. We've had them all: drunken students, courting couples and avid historians are the most frequent. But since old boats are supposed to represent good luck, we often have bridal parties taking up poses along the gangplank for the regulation wedding photos. This can be somewhat tricky if you are on your way to work and can't get off the boat because the bride in all her finery is draped across your exit.

So there it is: another aspect of harbour life that hasn't made it into my books. Still, having now published both Watery Ways and Harbour Ways about the Oude Haven, maybe I should save these blog posts for a collection of Watery Blogways!