Last year we spent nearly three months in Morocco, on a road trip in our Mercedes 609 camper. My partner and I, and our two year old son, traveled to some of the most remote towns and villages (see our travel map for where we’ve been), met some of the warmest, most welcoming people and saw some of the most stunning scenery we have seen in our life. I began to feel quite settled and accustomed to the way of life in this ‘developing world,’ North African, Muslim country.
Of course, there were some things we missed from the UK (high quality plumbing and drainage being one key thing). And of course, this is another one of those glib checklists which doesn’t do justice to the complexity of Moroccan life. A main proviso is: I recognise Morocco is a huge and diverse country and we didn’t visit many ‘modern’ cities, so really I am writing about rural Morocco. Nevertheless here are ten things, in no particular order, I celebrate from our time there.
1. Supermarkets are rare.
I do not just mean huge hypermarkets, I mean small supermarkets as well. Outside of the modern cities there were neither. We became accustomed to seeking out ‘market day’ where we would buy all our fresh fruit and vegetables and eggs for the week, occasionally fish at the fish market if we were near the coast, or meat at the butchers. Other goods we needed we bought at local grocery stores, hardware stores and so on, as and when we needed them. This way of shopping is not as convenient as the big-once-a-week-supermarket-shop we have been used to. Indeed when we saw a supermarket it would ignite a kind of ‘guilty pleasures’ excitement in us. However, we reflected on how supermarkets really distance you from the produce you are buying and the processes that got it there. We came to value shopping locally, and this had other environmental benefits which I go on to detail.
2. Packaging was minimal and hence packaging waste was minimal.
As supermarkets were few and far between, packing waste was much less ubiquitous. Having banned plastic bags way back in 2016, if you asked for a bag in Morocco it was paper, or made of recycled fibres. Fruit and veg bought in the market were never wrapped in plastic but bought loose, put in brown paper bags or you are expected to bring your own bag. Even eggs were sold with no packaging: you had to bring your own egg box. Often if you bought rice, pasta or pulses from local stores they were stored in large containers and decanted. Even the supermarkets, when you found one, sold dry goods like this. As a consequence of being ‘poor’, in rural Morocco, ‘consumption’ was minimal, but therefore waste was minimal. ‘Poor’ rural Moroccans lived a life that did not involve buying ‘stuff’ every day. To generate waste you have to consume and discard. Moroccans we met did not consume pre-packaged fruit juices or fizzy drinks but drank tea, water or homemade fruit water. Food waste was minimal and would compost down to nothing. There was also more re-use. Any glass bottles sold were collected and returned for refilling. When things broke in the home/ on the campsite they were fixed, not replaced with a new bit of plastic and the old lump of plastic discarded. Indeed, at the local market, stalls could be found selling secondhand necessities: tools, haberdashery, hardware, bricolage, clothes, toys and parts of toys that the West discards. Even toilet behaviour is more ecological, washing with water, minimising toilet tissue waste. As a tourist in this landscape I was painfully aware of my levels of consumption and the waste I generated. The packaging generated from a city supermarket shop; a new item of clothing or plastic toy; a cup of take-out coffee; a thousand wet wipes used for all sins (at that time we realised we had a ‘packet a day habit,’ that we have now gladly beaten); all added up to make a shameful pile in the bin. A bin that otherwise contained tea leaves and an old knob of bread, which, actually, a dog would eat anyway. For locals, municipal garbage collection appeared to be sparse anyway, so it was imperative to generate as a little waste as possible. Tourists were the point at which waste became unmanageable. As we spent our time travelling and wild camping, we realised that campsites were essentially places we paid to take our waste.
3. Everyone is a parent: ‘the village raises the child’.
This African proverb was very much in force in Morocco. It took me a long time to relax and trust in the notion, but everywhere we went in Morocco my toddler was safe and looked after. Children were of central importance and this was obvious. As soon as he stepped in public, a young child would be the centre of everyone’s attention. Men, women and other children were hard-wired to notice a young child in public, consider his welfare, and collectively take responsibility for his safety. If our son was in danger of running into the traffic others would save him; if we were hiking and our energies were waning, someone would carry him; if he was misbehaved in someone’s shop or restaurant they would reprimand him; when he was climbing in the park the older children helped him; when he smiled everyone would praise him. I realised how much weight is taken off your shoulders if a community around you is parenting your child, rather than feeling like their daily upbringing is solely your responsibility.
4. Every other vehicle is a Mercedes Vario.
I’ve thrown this in because our campervan is a Mercedes Vario (an old 609d), and we are fans of these trusty German-built machines. The Vario is the work-horse of Morocco. It is used to transport goods for market day; it is everyone’s work van; it is used on farms; it is the public bus. In fact, it took us weeks to understand: why did everyone keep waving at us on the roadside? They thought we were a bus and were hailing us down.
5. Spring water is free, provided by pump at the roadside, in the town or village.
In the UK you find the occasional public water tap, but in rural Morocco fresh spring water was available free everywhere (as we have found in Greece and Turkey also). This is most likely because many people would not have piped water to their homes (and the piped water wouldn’t be drinking water anyway). Living in a van and needing access to water to fill our water tank, and to drink, made us hyper-aware of public access to water wherever we went. In some countries we found the only way to access water was to pay to stay on a campsite, or to ask at a petrol station. In some places in Europe the petrol stations removed their tap connections so people couldn’t access the water without permission. This made me think about how we arrived at this state of affairs where water is a private commodity and access to it is restricted? And how we just let this happen. Access to drinking water is a basic human right. We look at the woman fetching water from the pump in the village and label this ‘backward’ or underdeveloped. And of course, if you have to walk miles to the pump that is a real problem, and of course, if the water is contaminated, that is a problem, but there is nothing backward about a system where you collect water at the source. There is something quite backward about collecting water; storing it (where consequently it gets dirty); spending money and energy resources cleaning it in huge treatment works (to make it drinkable but basically stripping it of any health benefits); then piping it to every home, so that people can then defacate in it and then go to the supermarket and buy mineral water from a corporation that has essentially stolen the access to natural spring in the mountain nearby. We should have free access to local spring water at the source, and we should harvest rain water locally for washing and sanitation.
6. Epic scenery.
The landscape of Morocco was absolutely, mind-blowingly stunning. As we traveled the country we saw every kind of landscape imaginable from the waterfalls of the Rif mountains in the north; to the snowy central Atlas mountains;Dades and Todgha gorges; the cliff formations and beaches of the west coast; the Sahara dessert of the south and east. Some landscapes were truly otherworldly too (or only the stuff of movies) such as the Mars-like landscapes of Tissint and Tata; the dry desert ocean beds of Es Sfalat; the Precambian granite rocks of Tafraoute; the blue city Chefchaouen and the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. In fact, Ouarzazate is home to several film studios and many science fiction, fantasy, historical films and series are filmed here, including Star Wars, Gladiator and Game of Thrones.
7. Alcohol was available but not culturally ubiquitous.
In my circles, everyone I know wishes they drank less alcohol. But living in the UK, this is easier said than done, as alcohol is a part of the culture of socialising. When I lived and worked in London, ‘going for a drink’ peppered the working week, and dominated the weekend, as every other shop-front was a bar or pub in my gentrified London neighbourhood. Even with kids, ‘going for a drink’ was a likely occurrence, made possible by pubs with ‘beer gardens’, and even indoor playrooms. This didn’t feel particularly healthy, nor sustainable, physically or financially. In my circles there were strategies to reduce the amount of alcohol you consume, either drinking a soft drink in the pub while everyone else is ‘getting pissed’; or alternatively, not leaving the house. “I’m trying not to drink” was a common reason given for reclusivity. How weird is that? That you have to lock yourself away and avoid the company of friends in order to avoid the temptation of drinking too much alcohol or getting in debt? Another strategy involves moving to a Muslim country where socialising does not revolve around alcohol. In rural Morocco there were no pubs or bars just cafes and restaurants. You could buy alcohol in the big supermarkets in the big cities, and somewhere in rural areas if you asked around. Some campsites we stayed on served alcohol in the restaurant but it wasn’t offered to you, you had to ask for it. But “what do they do for a night out?” I hear you ask? People eat together, and just sit around for hours, just being in each other’s company. Cafes were a hub for communal meetings, and occupying elderly people who sat together watching the world go by. Cafes did not seem concerned with making a profit out of each sale. In Morocco there were no advertisements for this alco-pop or that cold beer; no irresistible ‘3 for 2’ special offers in the supermarket; no wine on the menu (“oh go on then, just the one”); no pub on every corner, the familiar smell of beer, the sound of chinking glasses and drunken laughter beckoning you in, stumbling out at closing time (“not again, 2am!?”). In Morocco I had the odd drink (like, I mean, maybe twice in three months). It was a genuine treat, and the rest of the time alcohol was just not there, and not a part of our day. At first I felt like something was missing (because it is so culturally ingrained), but I did not miss how alcohol is pushed on you in the UK.
8. Rules are made to be broken.
There is something quite freeing about Morocco in the sense that the enforcement of rules is fairly lax. Our particular experience of this- being on a road trip- related to traffic and the rules of the road. Yeah yeah, the UK has rules to keep us safe. But it is tedious isn’t it? In Morocco you can drive about without your seat belt on, you can hang off the bus; sit on the roof or sit on the back of a truck; you can park wherever; you can drive the wrong way up the motorway slip road; you can squeeze your whole family on a motorcycle; you can climb the ruins that say ‘closed’. You can make your own decision as to the danger. Ah, freedom. Yes, perhaps the roads are less safe, but there is something stifling and oppressive about the iron fist that governs UK traffic laws, and increasingly governs public space in general.
9. Collective worship.
Morocco is a Muslim country and you are gently reminded of this five times a day when hearing the call to prayer from the mosque. Friday prayer- around lunchtime on Friday- is the weekly occasion to attend mosque and pray collectively. Lots of businesses and shops close on Friday lunchtime for this purpose. However, when we stayed on a campsite on the edge of a small town, Ounagha, just outside Essaouira, we had the most moving experience. Ounagha was a non-descript town that had grown up around a crossroads. The Mosque was placed at the cross roads and the market took place outside the mosque. Other than this was a small parade of shops, a garage, a school, and a campsite. We happened to be in the market in the town at the time of Friday prayer, and when the call sounded, everyone (ok, mostly men) slowly packed up what they were doing and started to walk towards the mosque. Shops shut their doors, market traders covered their wares with a cloth, cars stopped and people got out. The mosque was so full that around thirty people prayed on the floor outside. I am not a religious person but there was something powerful, wholesome and connected about this collective worship and the way in which this collective-coming-together presided over everything else, not least commerce.
10. Inviting motorway services.
Roadside rest stops were often grand, involving far more than a fuel station, toilet and shop selling junk food, as we are used to in Europe. Perhaps harking back to the days of the caravan routes, Moroccan motorway services often included an extravagant (but usually empty) hotel with swimming pool; almost always a butcher; a restaurant with outdoor seating area and children’s park and invariably a palatial but empty ballroom with a few old men sitting in it drinking tea. Motorway services were not just places where you stopped on a journey, but a destination, especially at the weekend where every man and his family seemed to go to eat in the restaurant, play in the park or even dance in the ball room perhaps?
Finding value in Morocco.
Morocco is classed as a ‘developing’ country, but many of the things I write about on this list- many of the things we valued about Morocco- exist precisely because it was not ‘developed’ in the way that western-advanced-capitalist countries have developed. That is not to romanticise poverty. Many people in rural Morocco are poor and desperate. Everywhere we went, Moroccans we met admired Turkey and looked to Tayip Erdogan as a their role model. Turkey perhaps represents a dream, a hope, an idea of a modern, functioning, progressive Muslim way of life. Whether Turkey really represents that is another blog post (or thesis), but one rhetorical question we can ask here is, do Moroccans need a version of western capitalist democracy? Do they need reality television; media jobs; supermarkets; divorce; secularism; malls; bottled water; shrink wrapped vegetables; fizzy drinks; pubs; drug problems; CCTV; outsourced childcare; old people’s homes; motorways; 5G; manicured lawns? No. They want their children to be safe, healthy, cared for by those around them, and have enough to eat. Let us try to imagine, what this could look like. Is there is a chance for Morocco, a hope: that there is potential to ‘develop’ in a more environmentally sustainable way, but also a way that is more sustainable in terms of community and sociality?
This summer we travelled the Mediterranean coast in our campervan, from Italy through to Turkey. We spent three weeks driving through the pristine resorts of the Croatian coast, island-hopping some of the many beautiful, ‘unspoilt’ islands (as much as you can ‘hop’ in a 6 tonne beast of a vehicle). We spent a long weekend camping on the stunning, 45km-long remote island of Dugi Otok, which took two hours to reach by ferry. First, we visited a campsite situated in the pine forest at one tip of the island, where our son played in the calm shallow waters and rock pools and daytrippers crowded the beach until 3pm before it became ‘ours’ again.
We then explored the island to find some remote spots to camp. The island had one main road that stretched the whole length of the island like a spine, where you could see down to the coast to the east and to the west. Smaller roads led off to a handful of fishing (yachting/holidaying) villages dotted along the coast, and some tracks went to private dwellings or secret beaches. Google Earth helped us find the latter, where a dirt road ran down a steep hill to a clearing in the trees which led to a stretch of pebble beach overlooking a small uninhabited island. Apart from sharing with a few ‘regulars’ who frequented the beach, we had the place to ourselves: we felt like Robinson Crusoe. We relaxed in the makeshift driftwood structures left by prior holiday-makers and swam in the warm crystal clear waters, slightly disappointed that we never saw any sea life: no fish, no crustaceans, no jelly fish, no seaweed, even.
On the last day we were driving the main road to the opposite end of the island, when to the east we spotted what looked like a series of circular pens lined with floats, being pulled slowly by small boats. My partner excitedly and optimistically said ‘I think I know what that is:I read about this guy who has designed a machine that scours the surface of the ocean cleaning up the plastic waste. I think it’s that’. Indeed oceancleanup.com tells you all about this excellent project funded by crowd-sourcing. But I read it only starts trials in the Pacific in 2018, not in the Mediterranean. I continued to research what these ocean structures might be and then I found it: it was most likely a tuna ‘ranch.’ According to Greenpeace, in such outfits, young wild tuna are caught and put into cages, which are moved around the Med, while the tuna are fattened-up, fed on other wild-caught fish. Not only is this quite depressing on an animal-rights basis, it’s also unsustainable as apparently it takes up to 20 kilograms of bait to produce just one kilogram of tuna. The bait is made from other fish species, predominantly caught elsewhere. Moreover, the bait brought from elsewhere can introduce disease; and fish farming often uses large amounts of chemicals, damaging the ecosystem.
While some ‘aquaculture’ farms claim to be responsible and sustainable, the tuna ranched here off Croatia is said to be Blue Fin, hailed by Greenpeace as endangered. Such ranches are thought to be responsible for the depleted stocks of Blue Fin, caught where it is spawned, off the coast of Lybia. First started in Croatia in 1997 there are now said to be 69 tuna ranching operations in the Med with over 1700 flotillas, with Malta now growing a substantial industry.
Now we are in Istanbul in Turkey my son and I walk along the Bosphorus, enjoying spotting the shoals of fish in the shallow waters. Fishing season has begun and everyday, since the first of September, I have watched the barrage of purse-seine vessels with huge circular nets sitting in the Bosphorus channel, day and night, radar technology hunting down Palamut (Skipjack tuna). My father-in-law used to fish here with his small fishing boat and sell his catch in the market. There used to be a huge variety of fish here, big and small, but since the 1970s he said the larger purse-seine vessels have increased in number and now there are only really Palamut left, even those, it is suspected, are being caught too young [i]. Currently no purse-seine fishing operation is rated as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Last week the WWF launched its bi-annual report Living Planet, its most heartbreaking claim being that in the last 50 years we have seen an overall decline of 60% in global population sizes of vertebrate species. The level and speed of this holocaust is truly shameful. Moreover, I am gravely reminded of the scientific prediction of the collapse of every species of wild-caught seafood by 2050, if current trends continue, and serious intervention is not taken into the clean up and protection of our oceans. At first watching the fishing on the Bosphorous Straight felt quaint, but now I am kept awake at night by the constant drone of the ship’s motors, and this unfolding horror story.
It is blinkered, foolish even to travel this beautiful planet and not to be cognizant of the abuse we have inflicted, and continue to inflict. We don’t need sci-fi and zombie horror to dream up an imaginary dystopia, we are already there. We are already dead.
But what can I do?
Industry is way out of control, but the very least we can do is:
Don’t buy fish.
Don’t eat it. Unless you caught it yourself with a fishing rod.
[i] Apparently the European tuna farming industry buys more than 200,000 tons of mostly frozen and untreated fish annually from the North Atlantic, West Africa and South America. From http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat53/sub340/item2188.html accessed 5th Nov 2018, written in 2008 (updated 2012) by Jeffrey Hays, derived from newspaper sources.
[ii] I found a Turkish project to monitor Palamut fishing in the Bosphorus 2012-15: Palamutlar Nerede? But the website palamutlarnerede.org is no longer. The only reference to it I can find now is on their sponsor’s page, only written in Turkish: https://www.metro-tr.com/deger-yaratan-projeler/palamutlar-nerede. Maybe you can help me with more information about the outcome of this project, or similar endeavours?
I’m unsatisfied with the information in blog posts and articles about the dangers and damage of too much ‘screen use’ by young kids. Having bought my toddler his own tablet (a decision that was made because he nearly broke my rather more expensive Notebook), I have first hand experience of managing a toddler’s (personal) screen use. While this turned out to be a traumatic experience which resulted in us ditching the tablet entirely*, I still wasn’t satisfied with the articles that seem to circulate which hail the irreversible damage of screens to children, and call for an outright ban in the early years. As a sociologist, to me this screams ‘moral panic’: when television first took off there were similar panics about the damage it caused. These scares are almost always over-sensationalised. But at the same time we do need to be aware of how these technologies are slowly but surely changing the way we relate to one another. Recent confessions from producers of social media that they deliberately design usage to manipulate dopamine levels are worrying**, as are reports that young people spend more time interacting on their smart phones than face to face. There are definitely things to fear from increased use of technologically mediated interaction. But technology is here to stay. So let’s talk about how we use it for good, and not what it does to us. Here’s six points I want to share which hopefully move us forward from the screen-good-or-bad debates:
1. Of course kids are gonna get fat and ill if they play on screens all day and don’t exercise or interact with anyone. The need for balance is obvious, let’s move beyond that
2. It’s the message that’s important not the medium, right? Are they using the screen to play ‘educational’ games, or watch endless ‘trashy’ cartoons? Or perhaps worse: YouTube videos of someone with painted nails endlessly opening kinder eggs (why!?). My son went through a stage where he was only interested in watching YouTube videos of someone pushing toy tractors through sand. This freaked us out. But as soon as he showed interest in following a narrative we steered him away from this and towards short films and series suitable for his age. For a while he kept asking for ‘tractors’ and we just changed the subject and he got over it (and moved on).
3. Children are dynamic and constantly changing. So are our family circumstances. If your toddler is spending a lot of time on their screen, this doesn’t mean it will continue in that vein forever. Our son was particularly difficult to handle around 22 months before he could really talk. Plus at that point we were trying to pack to go travelling (in a bus that wasn’t finished) and things were extremely stressful for us. We found the screen really useful at this point in our lives – a lifesaver in fact- because it would occupy him completely for at least an hour sometimes. Now he’s a bit older, and is beginning to occupy himself with imaginary play, and we are a bit less stressed as a family, we don’t need to use it so much as a babysitter.***
4. There is a fundamental difference between a personal screen and a shared TV in a shared space. This didn’t occur to me until it was too late, because we didn’t have a TV. For those who don’t have a TV (which is increasingly common) a personal screen seems an obvious choice for the kids but I found this a mistake that was then hard to go back on. The TV convenes the members in the room, while the personal screen isolate them. I try to watch programmes and play games with my toddler on his screen, but, mimicking me perhaps, he pulls it away, preferably watching alone. The TV just does not behave in this way. It’s something you gather round to watch and interact with together, for better or worse. From my experience I would say try and avoid giving toddlers a personal screen if you can. Or if you do get them a personal screen don’t tell them it’s theirs so they don’t get too attached to it, or have that sense of ownership. This keeps you more in control, to change the dynamic when you need to.
5. Screen-use is part of a social environment that you create for your family, and one in which you set the example. We thought a lot about what we fed our son at dinner time, but seemed more lax when it came to the diet of the mind, which seems ridiculous for a sociologist but what you don’t realise is how much you have to change your habits and ‘diet’ to help them. Put restrictions on use, or make a routine, that fits with when you need the screen most: ‘you can only go on the screen when mum’s making dinner’, or ‘no screens after dinner in the evening’. For example. Basically try to lay down rules or conventions that you want to form into healthy screen use that they take with them into later life. (And lets practice what we preach, innit. Obviously if you sit on your screen all evening, they will want to mimic.)
6.’Open ended browsing’ (such as surfing YouTube) seems to me to be the most problematic screen behaviour for my son as a toddler. He learnt how to surf YouTube within a few days of being introduced to it. We know ourselves how addictive surfing the net is, with the infinite information, pages to view, posts to scroll, pictures to swipe. I had a friend who went on Facebook every evening and he was unable to sign off until he had scrolled through every new post until he reached the posts from the day before. Crazy right, but we all can recognise our own similar negative screen behaviour like this. With my son, open ended browsing seemed to re-enforce his already short attention span: he would never watch something until the end, tending to jump from one YouTube video to another in the space of a few minutes. This was something we wanted to discourage from becoming habitual. Also open-ended browsing meant he could technically be watching something totally unsuitable. Although the feed generally filled with videos aimed at toddlers, this didn’t mean I approved of them. pseudo-advertising (aswell as actual blatant advertising) was rife, be it for branded toys or branded candy. But there is also something quite dark about some of the content, much of it being set to the same happy hardcore mix of ‘Old MacDonald’ and ‘Mommy Finger’ tunes (which makes you feel completely manic after a while); features disembodied adult hands playing with toys or unwrapping candy; in hyper-synthetic landscapes. Plus the feed is often hijacked by a channel called ‘bad baby’ which features older kids miming babies doing mischievous things involving gaffa tape. That’s not to mention that the content completely reinforces western capitalist norms, unchallenged. I guess it’s possible to restrict the YouTube feed to only videos that you have vetted and selected, but if you haven’t then I would avoid it entirely in the early years.
To conclude, I think to answer my title question, is the tablet computer a tool of the devil, with regards to young children, the answer is yes, it has the real potential to be, but you can circumvent the devils tactics with some attention to the details. With close supervision and restrictions you can hopefully use it to your ends, and not fall into the manipulation.
In post script, I think it’s important to ask why we are blaming screens when we should be blaming the conditions that we have to live in that mean that we need to use them as a babysitter (because that is basically what they are): long hours of paid work, plus housework that all takes place in isolated or nuclear or single parent families with no, or little, daily support networks. What we can try to do is to organise more co-parenting where groups of parents or family members get together and parent several children together, sharing the labour of parenting, housework and even the takings from paid work. But that’s another blog post.
Post post script, I’ve since had further dealings with kids-oriented YouTube videos and I have more to say about their sinister nature. Another blog post to follow.
*Oh no, we thought it was gone for good, how we were mistaken…
**I’m not going to hyperlink it, look it up yourself if you care (dare?) enough to go down this road
***Oh ho. The dynamic has shifted again and it creeps back in. You have to click ‘follow’ to hear what happened next.
I didn’t start out as an advocate of ‘van-life’. I thought it was going to be a sacrifice: a means to an end; something to endure to be able to travel. I was dreading the confinement of three of us in a small space and the lack of a decent shower or bath. But the longer we spend on the road, and the more we switch from van to house and back to van, the more I appreciate van-life rather than house-dwelling.
Since we have been on the road we tend to travel for a month or so, then stay put for a few weeks. We often stay on campsite but sometimes we rent a holiday-let if we can find one for a good price. We have rented a studio in the Basque Country, a little one-bed holiday flat in Armacao de Pera in the Algarve and a two-bed flat with garden in Los Caños de Meca in Andalucia. We rent a house or flat for a number of reasons: so we can settle and get to know a local area and community there a bit more intimately, to stretch out a bit and sleep in a longer bed (our camper bed is only 5ft 8 inches long), so our toddler can run around in a contained area (our camper is ten square metres in TOTAL) and so we can download films and books on the internet.
And for these things, living in a house is great. But we have found house-dwelling makes us lazy.
We find we very quickly switch between the different ways of living. In a house we fall into:
– constantly doing laundry, even if it’s not really dirty we just wash it anyway
– Leaving the washing up to pile up
– Not tidying up: there’s plenty of space not to
– Staying inside even if it’s quite nice out
– Watching TV and surfing the net excessively, including our toddler
– Going to bed too late
Whereas with van-life we tend to:
-do laundry once a fortnight when we find a campsite with a machine
-Wash up everything after each meal and put it all away- there is nowhere to put dirty dishes down and not enough space to carry spares
– put everything away after its use. Everything -toys, books, clothes, food -has its place. The space becomes claustrophobic if it’s untidy
– Go outside to stretch out to explore at least twice a day if not more
– Never watch TV: we don’t have one
– Surf the net only when we can access WiFi and go to bed much earlier
– Our son goes on his screen much less: maybe less than an hour a day
There is something that feels more wholesome and satisfying about this way of life, on a basic level.
Van-life amplifies our experience of the weather, which we feel connects us with the natural environment more. We are much more aware of the weather and move with it rather than stay indoors and ignore it. Of course a lot of rain is challenging with a toddler who wants to go outside but generally the weather even within one day is more of a mixed bag. Because the van is a small space we go out much more regularly to stretch out. Even if it’s cold we just wrap up. We watch the clouds and the forecast and plan our day around it. And while it can get difficult and claustrophobic if our son is cooped up in the van too long, he’s much happier and therefore more manageable inside when he is going outside most of the day. We find we are much more in-tune with the dawn and dusk also. While we do have electric lights we feel the sunrise and sunset more acutely. We get up with the sunrise in the morning and currently the sun sets at 7, and our son goes to bed in his bunk not long after. We watch one of our downloaded films, read or do some research on the net for a bit, but soon follow, as the temperature drops and the bed at the other end of the bus looks more and more inviting. We find there is no space or inclination for slobbing around half-watching-TV-whilst-inanely-scrolling-Facebook, as we tend to in a house.
The van also amplifies our experience of daily survival tasks such as parenting, cooking and cleaning. While we feel like we are constantly cleaning and tidying when we are on the road, there is a sense of achievement as it feels like the tasks are productive: a focus rather than a distraction from something else that’s got to be done (see my blog post about ‘work’).
Perhaps there is also something about travelling, rather than being stationary where there is always something new- people, scenery, customs- that keeps us active, and makes it impossible to laze about.
I just re-read this post and I can see people reading it thinking, ‘get a job, then house-dwelling does not make you lazy.’ I guess what I am saying is house-dwelling makes us comfortable. But there is a danger in this comfort, in that you can become lazy and passive. Whether doing paid work or not. What I appreciate about van-life is being out of that comfort zone which feels more connected and more free.
As I was growing up, I never had to do any chores or anything to help in the home. No washing up, no laundry, no cleaning, no cooking. The most I did was take my plate to the kitchen when I’d finished my dinner. At my dad’s house he expected us to offer to wash up (that’s polite) but we rarely actually did it. My mum’s reasoning was that she wanted us to focus on our school homework, so she didn’t want us to be distracted with chores. My mum’s goal was for us to have a good education and for that to give us the best opportunities in life. Her approach certainly worked for these purposes: my sister and I both worked and studied hard and got excellent academic results. I guess what my mum’s approach enabled us to do was to specialise – it has enabled us both to access good careers but neither of us can cook and we are embarrassingly undomesticated. Furthermore, my partner says if I was left to fend for myself in the wild I wouldn’t last two minutes. He’s right.
In the context of 1980s feminism and rising possibilities for social mobility, my mum’s focus on her daughter’s education was an understandable goal. But what are our goals now, today, in 2018? Do we want our son to specialise on his one career? My partner certainly doesn’t want that. He wants our son to be self-sufficient; an ‘all-rounder’; multi-skilled; survivalist.
Is not the era of specialisation dead anyway? There are no more ‘jobs for life’. Most people, we are told, will have three or four different careers in their lifetime. We are told we need to be ‘Entrepreneurial’ – adaptable, flexible. As a parent, what’s the best way to achieve that for a child? Should we be raising our children to be flexible to the needs of capitalism; to be able to adapt and survive in an ever-changing technologically advancing job market? Or do we want to bring up our children to be able to survive, to know themselves, to feed their basic needs, when all this melts away?
In my research on the London middle classes, we found parents who talked about ‘global travel’ as a kind of ‘cultural capital’ for their kids, an experience that they can ‘cash in’ for a university place or a job. In my experience, the middle classes always talk in this way: searching for ways to capitalise on something. (This is not their fault but the system). I hate to think of our travels with our son in this instrumental way. And I know my partner doesn’t. But I am burdened with a sociological knowledge and understanding, which is just that: a burden, that prevents you from just being. How can you know ‘game theory’ and not apply it, right?
So I guess it’s what you do with that knowledge. We want to think beyond the instrumental. To provide our children with the (multi) skills to be of value in the community, rather than be of value to an employer; to share skills rather than compete for them. When we are deciding what to teach the next generation, what to guide them to study, we want to always hold in mind ‘what is of value to the community?’ (I.e. all of us) rather than ‘what gets them ahead in the rat race?’.