unschooling and the pandemic

Written 9 June 2020.

When my friend told me she was worried that her daughter would “get behind if she did not go back to school soon”, this got me thinking. While these are very real concerns for parents, who know how fiercely competitive the job market is getting, I started to think what does ‘behind’ mean? Perhaps now, in the midst of the Pandemic, is the time to reassess what education is actually for, and doing. Education should not be about content, that if we miss it, we will get ‘behind’, but should be about exploration, development and growth. These are very personal things, that should not solely be tied to a national curriculum and a keeping up with the peer group, and are not solely experienced within the four walls of the school building. 

learning to tie knots with dad

Since the beginning of Lockdown, when kindergarten closed, now reaching 9 weeks for us, I have witnessed my nearly five year old son grow exponentially, and we have not even opened a text book. We have been juggling full-time home working, temper tantrums, no outdoor space, the draw of screens, parental arguments, Ramadan fasting, elderly parents’ struck down with the virus, and all this involves learning and growth. My son has learned, and is still, learning so much.

 

balcony water play marble run

He has grown taller, he is has cycled through, and emerged from, various stages of early years development, including the stealing ‘treasures’ from the kitchen stage; playing with knives stage; experiments with blackmail and manipulation stage. Left completely to his own devices, we have discovered he loves: taking apart electronics; music, dance and percussion.  He – as I am sure heightened for many of us in the Pandemic Lockdowns  – has been struggling with addictions: ‘just one more biscuit’; ‘I’ve got to watch the next programme then I’ll do my chores’; ‘I’ve just got to scroll ten more, then I’ll go to sleep’*. 

pandemic telly addict

In todays age, GCSEs should be measuring how clearly you can see beauty even when it is not pretty every day; if you can be faithful and trustworthy; if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can live with failure; how well you can sit with pain in the empty moments when all else falls away.**

The best thing you can do is nurture children’s spirit and desire to learn, to want to explore, to find out. The rest will follow. Many more parents are ‘unschooling’ now, which is a deliberately provocative term, but nevertheless useful one. At the centre of this, is allowing children to learn in a self-directed manner. That is giving them freedom to explore, and to support what they want to learn about. 

pandemic NHS appreciation rainbow drawn by 4 year old

For more inspiration on critical and alternative approaches to education visit these two projects.

One of which is very resonant with me:

Disco Learning by Lucy Aitken Read is an unschooling course giving parents the courage to unschool.

The other of which I am a founder and governor:

Arbol Madre Holistic School is a Waldorf-inspired school aiming to educate mind, body and soul.

———-

*Thats me, not my 5 year old. My 5 year old is not scrolling before bed. It’s not that bad. Yet.

**Credits to The Invitation, a poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer.

I fasted for the month of Ramadan. Here is what it was like.

NB. I wrote this post in 2019, which was my first time fasting Ramadan, and updated it in 2020, after my second time fasting Ramadan. I am now a seasoned pro. (Not.) I still have so much to learn. We all do. Ask me on April 11th how its going now.

Clock. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.
My partner is Muslim heritage and since we had a child, has focused more and more on his faith and the practice of Islam. Fasting for Ramadan is an important part of this. For a few years now I had seen him struggle to fast alone, and I knew how important it was to him, so I decided to do it with him. For the past two years we have been staying in Istanbul for Ramadan and we have fasted together. I was curious; I wanted to offer moral support; but also I became aware that you need to change your daily rhythms to succeed, and this is best done as a family.
The rules of Ramadan are that you fast during the day between sunrise and sunset for thirty days. Fasting means nothing shall pass your lips, be it food, drink, cigarettes, gum, toothpaste, during daylight hours. You are also supposed to abstain from sexual relations and try to be as pure as possible in your thoughts and actions. Ultimately, by stripping you, Ramadan is a time for reflection and connection: spiritually, but also tuning in to your relationships with others.
The tradition is to eat a large breakfast (‘Suhour’) before sunrise (at this time in Istanbul this meant before 4am) and then ‘Iftar’ supper came at around 8.30pm, after sunset. We stocked the fridge and freezer with food and prepared some meals the week before, anticipating that it would be hard to shop and cook when you are hungry and feeling weak. We expected to be desperately hungry and tired all the time, and we planned to nap a lot and put off as many commitments as we could. We carried out research and consulted my father-in-law for recommendations on what to eat and when, in order to gain slow release energy during the day, and so you don’t get indigestion when sleeping. Last year we were fortunate, as we were not working at the time. The following year we faced Ramadan in partial lockdown, with remote working to do online, and no childcare. At least we had had a previous practice run…

Here is what it was like:

Physically, tiredness was the hardest thing. When going to bed late; getting up in the night to cook and eat; and then getting up early in the morning with a young child, the tiredness feels a bit like the relentlessly broken-sleep in the early days of having a newborn baby. Without being able to lean on coffee. The following year, under lockdown, I found ways to doze in the morning while my son watched children’s TV and to nap in the afternoon while he played in his room. Last year I took him to nursery and went back to sleep. I am not sure how I would fare if I had to go to work all day and napping was not an option. My hat goes off to those who do.

I woke every morning with a dry mouth. Initially it was unbearable, mainly because I thought it would last all day, but I soon realised it does not last, and everyday, within about half an hour, my mouth felt quite normal. And as long as I didn’t exert too much energy, thirst was kept at bay. I was surprised at how mild thirst goes away if you ignore it. We were fortunate that the weather was not so hot  and I did not have a physical job to do.
Interestingly, hunger was the least of my worries. I was surprised how (ensuring I ate lots of protein at suhour) I did not suffer too much from hunger. I was surprised, again, that if I ignored hunger (or did not feed it) it kind of went away. Well it didn’t so much go away, but it didn’t get worse. It was a kind of nagging feeling (the ‘I really should eat something’ feeling), but if you got on with something else, it faded or took a back seat. As days passed, however, hunger seemed to be cumulative and I started to feel empty. More empty. Until it was really quite hard to ignore by sunset.
My partner and I were both quite irritable and short tempered during the day, especially by 8pm in the evening, where an argument would often blow up, and so we tended to stay out of each other’s way. While reflection was definitely on the cards, connection was much harder, and this tended to happen when we came together in the evening after we had broken our fast and could relax a bit more.

Here is what I learnt:

Fasting for Ramadan made me so grateful for simple pleasures. What I craved the most, all day, was a glass of water and some fresh fruit. And then when I ate and drank those things, I was satiated. I became tuned in to the simple pleasures.

I became aware of every morsel of my son’s food that he rejected and I threw away during the day. I looked at it longingly. This made me more grateful for the food we have, and more aware of the waste we create, and it made me aware that I give too much choice and leniency to my son’s eating habits. Basically I became acutely aware of our abundance and excesses, and the ways in which he was subconsciously learning this way of being.
I found I was starkly aware of my addictions. I did not really drink alcohol much any more, and I’d given up smoking, so these obvious addictions were not a problem, but what I refer to are other, more banal, addictions: mine are caffeine, in the form of coffee and Coca Cola; and sugar in the form of sweets and chocolate. During Ramadan, coffee just disappeared out my life because it had no function (I didn’t want one by 9pm at night and I certainly didn’t want one at 4am). Snacks took a back seat as I was so overjoyed by fruit salad. Ramadan helped me to recognise these dependencies: stare them in the face and make choices to change these behaviours.
I was acutely aware of how eating and meals structure your day. When they are missing you feel real loss, regardless of whether you are hungry or thirsty. Mornings are incredibly strange with no coffee, no breakfast and not even a glass of water. In the beginning, as I sat on the bus on the way home from taking my son to nursery school, I felt the emptiness enter as I realised I didn’t have anything particular planned that day.  Not only did I have nothing planned, but I was not going to get in and have a cup of tea; I was not going to make myself and my partner breakfast; I was not going to pop out for lunch; I was not going to have my mid-afternoon coffee. It was very strange. It made me panic a little, deep down: ‘I am just going to have nothing all day.’ I thought. ‘That’s it. A long nothing. Just nothing’. I was beginning to wish I had to go to work. At least then, there would be some structure to the day. This then made me aware of the arbitrariness of the routine of work. In the beginning I slept a lot to deal with the emptyness, I think. But perpetually sleeping didn’t really help my mood, because it felt like Groundhog Day: every time I woke it was the same: dry mouth and hunger.
Gradually, the absence of these taken-for-granted routines, of eating and meals, felt quite meditative. I observed the emptiness. I felt safe in the knowledge that thousands of other people out there were doing the same and feeling the same. And that it would be ok.
I was conscious of how my down-mood might be felt by my son who didn’t really understand or notice that mummy and daddy weren’t eating, so I did my best to be brave and in lifted-spirits with him. I felt hyper-aware in this state. Not in a way that felt like I was faking my good spirits, but, strangely, just being aware of my mood, and how it might affect others, improved my mood. I was aware of my mood and producing my mood, rather than it being just something that happens to me. I guess this gave me a glimpse of what it means to be in the moment. Something that I am usually not at all good at.
When we went out and interacted with others on the bus, on the street, in the shops, my partner and I talked about how it felt like you could tell who else was fasting as well (and who was not): there was a slowness; a consideredness; a meditativeness about those fasting. I can imagine that if you are embedded in an extended family or community, who are all fasting, it can feel quite meditative, communally, and create a real togetherness. We didn’t really have this opportunity last year, as, although we enjoyed visiting my partner’s father regularly, we tended to keep to ourselves. The following year, Ramadan has taken place in lockdown due to the pandemic, so the communal aspects of Ramadan have been woefully absent this year, for everyone in Turkiye. I decided my way through this was to keep busy. Not hectic, but productive. That first day of emptiness, I made lists, planned out meals and hoovered the whole flat, having a nap in the afternoon. This time round, with my son at home all day, I clung to a strict routine for my son’s day so I could hang my routine off that. On reflection, however, I think keeping busy is a distraction tactic. And the aim of Ramadan is to use the time to be more introspective, reflective and, well, spiritual. It must be amazing for those who are able to achieve this.

Here is where I am going with all this:

You’ll notice I have not centred the article on the (now-trendy) health benefits of ‘intermittent fasting,’ because I think that is a bit of a distraction too. I am not trying to sell it to you, this isn’t a marketing exercise. There is no doubt that some kind of fasting routine is good for us physically,  particularly in relation to improving our immune system.  My partner describes it as an annual ‘reset’ for the body, which, through fasting during the day, is turned upside down, and then righted again, like an hour glass. You can read lots about the health benefits elsewhere.

But the experience taught me is that Ramadan is an annual reset, mentally, too. And, it is this on a societal level. The problems of abundance, excess and addiction, which are all interrelated, and are all abhorrent features of contemporary capitalism, are kept in check by Ramadan. This came across as the most important function, to me. Through the stripping away of daily routines of consumption, you are forced to observe the ways in which you might have more than you need. You are forced to be aware of ways you might have been behaving excessively; the things you absentmindedly possess in abundance; hoarding habits; addictive patterns of behaviour; everyday dependencies; what you are failing to share; whether it is about food, financially, or simply about accumulated ‘stuff’. It is no accident that Ramadan is also the time that you give to charity, and focus your efforts on helping others. The exercise of extreme discipline and self -control that fasting during Ramadan requires, is increasingly lacking in contemporary western society, where immediate gratification reigns supreme. Relationship to food are characterised by constant grazing on snacks; relationships to knowledge characterised by instant access to information; and relationships to entertainment characterised by every programme or series ever made, more or less, at our fingertips. It is a wonder we have any patience or self-control left. In western capitalist societies, the middle-classes at least, have too much in abundance and this largely remains unchecked year on year, as traditional Christian, pagan or historical festivals -Christmas, Easter, Thanks Giving for example – have simply been hi-jacked for commercial gain, and centre around buying, eating, drinking, and consuming yet more. Indeed, Ramadan is not immune to these forces either, as supermarkets and other retail outfits seize the opportunity to market goods to the Muslim consumer and make more money during this time. During Ramadan, those who have, can simply feast and gorge during the evening, after sunset. However it’s much harder to ignore/bury/misinterpret the message of Ramadan, if you truly adhere to its requirements, which, let’s face it, are pretty hardcore. This is definitely a festival that demands a great deal from you. And it is this experience  – of sacrifice – that encourages the reflection, change and growth that is so beneficial, on so many levels.

This blog post is dedicated to the people of Gaza who are imprisoned there, and are being starved to death this Ramadan. Free Palestine.

Traveling in a van with young kids: my essentials

 

Our temporary home, Albanian Riviera.

Having spent nearly two years in and out of living in a van, with a hyperactive child, aged two to four years old, I learnt the hard way what was needed on the trip; what was missing; what was superfluous; what worked and what didn’t work in terms of organising the space and so on. If you are planning to live in a van; build a campervan; or go on an extended trip WITH YOUNG KIDS, I have some tips that will hopefully make your life easier, or help with building or packing. These recommendations are for summer living, but I can make recommendations for winter too if you are interested, just let me know. And this list mainly revolves around making life easier with the kids, rather than being a list of mechanical and caravanning essentials. That is another list for someone else. That I ignore.

So, 30 essentials I would recommend:

1.Easy-to-erect awning for essential shade.
Shading in Zagora, Morocco.

When it gets really hot, van dwellers search for shade like a drug. If you can carry some with you, it definitely makes summers more pleasant, and keeps the kids out of the sun.

2.One of those plastic weave rugs you can throw out the door and the kids can play on.
Play Doh. Halkidiki, Greece.

Most people take a fold-up table and chairs when they go camping, but young kids want to play on the floor. Having a carpet means you can keep them cleaner, at least some of the time. Our rule was that ‘indoor toys’ were allowed to go outdoors if played with on the carpet. It seemed essential to have a separation of indoor and outdoor toys because access to water to clean the toys is not always easy, and dirty or sandy toys hanging around in a small space is horrid. Outdoor toys belonged in the car ‘boot’ and indoor toys stayed clean on the carpet and were packed away under the sofa after. Yes, that was the idea anyway.

3.Floor space inside.
Trying to play in a campervan with no floor space.

If you are building your own campervan or adapting one you have, and you have young kids, I can definitely recommend trying to plan some empty floor space (or a platform of sorts) where they can play inside also. We used to have a seated table area and a sofa area, and almost zero floor space, but we took out the seating area and made about 1.5m square empty area which could be multifunctional. My son could play on the floor, especially useful if its raining outside (or you want to contain the kids inside because they are causing trouble outside- a frequent occurrence for us). We could also erect a fold-up table there and sit at the sofa and eat, or one of us could lay on a mat and nap there in the breeze.

4.Duplo.
Duplo dreams.

Our son is four and getting into Lego now but Duplo is a much better bet in a van, despite being larger pieces to store. Lego is much too small and bitty for van life. And heaven-forbid it finds its way outside. Duplo is easy to find, easy to pack away and easy to clean.

5.Toy Cars.
Building empires, Çanakkale, Turkey.

Our son’s favourite most-used toys at the moment are his toy cars and transporter for which we often construct makeshift ramps around the camp.

6.Bucket, spade and dump truck.
Digging. Cappadocia.

We have spent a good few months where, as soon as we parked the van our son would be out of his seat and out of the van, digging in the sand/ dirt/ gravel/ mud with his beach toys, happy as Larry.  Apart from some sticker books, most of the other toys I brought with us were superfluous. Jigsaws, puzzles, activity books, board games, colouring books, have all failed to interest. (I thought magnetic alphabet was a great idea because we could stick them on the van, but then my son scratched the paint-work with them and they were banned). In the house we do puzzles and board games all the time, but when the outdoors is available, more active-outdoorsy-play seems to capture.

7.Kids books and audio books.
Reading.

I’ve brought about ten books (story books and learn to read books) and we regularly ditch books and grandmas send more, because we cannot find English language books on route. About ten is more than enough to cycle. Audiobooks are obviously an amazing idea: we are only just discovering them and my son is not taking to them yet.

8.Octopus clothes dryer
Daily clothes drying. Datça peninsula, Turkey.

This is really useful to hang the swimming clothes on daily, or to hang the kids clothes on that you are hand-washing daily, when access to a washing machine is scarce. We carry line and pegs too but this little contraption has been so handy because we can hang it on the wing mirror of the van as soon as we are parked, or the hook in the bathroom when we are driving, and the clothes dry in no time.

9.Garden trug.
I wish campsite showers were this nıce.

The trug has multiple functions as kids bath, paddling pool, washing up and laundry bowl. It can also act as ‘random stuff storage tidy’ when you’re traveling.

10.Large, high-sided bowls for feeding the kids.

There isn’t a lot of space in a camper van to make a mess. And spilled food can get forever stuck in crevices. Meal times are actually quite stressful. High-sided but sturdy-bottomed dishes (like a dog bowl) meant less spilled on the seat, or floor, or the furnishings. It also means you can do soupy dinner or dry dinner using the same item. Less stuff to carry.

11.Organic sugar-free peanut butter and vegan chocolate spread.

These two foodstuffs ended up as a staple on our trip, and when we found it, we stocked up. Even if the fridge was broken, or empty, or switched off, when our son cried out ‘I’m hungry now!’ I could climb into the back of the van and make a sandwich and stretch the journey time out some more, without it involving a sugar-high of sweets and biscuits from a petrol station.

12.Swimming/ beach shoes.
Much needed beach shoes. Saklikent Gorge, Turkey.

We spend a lot of time on rocky beaches or hiking through canyons, so water shoes are essential.

13.Swimming T shirts.
Not getting burnt. Akchour Falls, Morocco.

I do not really like suncream and nor does my son. A much better alternative is to cover up. My son has spent every summer in the water wearing a lycra swimming top and consequently has no sunburn at all.

14.Cigarette lighter extension cable.

Despite building our camper van ourselves and choosing where the plug sockets are placed, we still find occasion where we need a socket in a different place or an appliance in a different place (e.g. the navigator or the fan). Our 2m one has been really useful and its not something you can find on route.

15.English plug adapter.

Our campervan has several UK 240v sockets which we use almost exclusively to change our laptops, which are UK lap tops, with UK plugs. But when your laptop charging cable breaks in Spain and you have to buy a replacement that has a Spanish plug, do you think you can find a EU to UK adapter in Spain? No.

16.Velcro.

This is useful to fix things or attach things to other things. For example we have used it to attach the curtains to the wall, so they don’t flap around when driving, to fix up mosquito net semi-successfully. (Gaffa or Gorilla tape is also essential).

17.Rubber at various thickness.

We spent a year carrying boxes of tools and spares that we never used, and the most useful thing in it, by far, was this. Basically you can use it as a packer. And it’s flexible and waterproof. We found our toilet was fitted too low and kept pinging off the wall-mounting. We fixed it on route by using 5mm rubber sheet cut into strips as a packer to raise it off the ground. And we put locks on the cupboard doors, using 2mm rubber as a discreet packer. Very useful.

18.Fuses.

I’m now verging into mechanical and caravanning territory but I do know we have blown and changed various fuses on route, and the type of fuses for our solar system baffle any electrician we have come across outside of Europe. You cannot get them.

19.Mosquito net.
Don’t eat me.

Our camper van has no mosquito screens so we bought a hanging net which we get out at night and hook over the bed in the worst of the mosquito season. How many beds do we have? Two. Why did we buy one net? Because it was quite expensive. Bloody wish we had forked out on the second net. By the way, mosquitos are worse in areas with stagnant water like lagoons and creeks, and they usually only bother you for about an hour at dusk.

20.Hair bands.

It is often surprisingly difficult to find these on route, yet with long hair, in the heat, I find they are essential. They can also double up as curtain ties; for sorting games or toy; or securing open food packets.

21.Coconut oil.

There really isn’t room to bring lots of toiletries and beauty products. Nor is it de rigeur. We carry one shampoo, one conditioner, an olive oil soap, one shaving foam, one toothpaste, one bicarb, one hairbrush, Calpol for emergencies, disposable razors, nail clippers, tweezers, one sunscreen, one coconut oil. Coconut oil doubles as food stuff and moisturiser, and you can make your own sunscreen with this and zinc oxide. Have I done it? No? I just carry the ingredients around with me, wishfully. I have minimal makeup with me, for which I am far too sweaty, and too much in-and-out-of-the-shower, sea, or pool to bother with.

22.Muslin squares.
Breakfast on a muslin square. The ancient city of Lybre, Turkey.

Self explanatory. Useful as kids’ bibs; dad’s sweat rag; seat covers at meal times; kids’ picnic mat; kids’ bandana; sunshade in the buggy.
(Oh and yeah, I brought the buggy. But mainly because my child is hyperactive and extremely difficult to go in any shop with, unless restrained. Ordinarily I would only bother bringing the buggy for babies. Most places we go the terrain is not suitable. A sling is better).

23.First Aid Kit.

Obviously there is going to be a minor accident at some point. It’s useful. We’ve got some basic medicine in their as well. Antibiotics, anti-histamine, indigestion remedies have been great in emergencies. Generally though, we have found you can access what basic medical aid you need wherever you are. Even in a remote town in Morocco, where my son had a terrible cough that wouldn’t shift, we walked into the medical centre and they saw him straight away and gave me some children’s antibiotics for free.

24.The doomsday book of medicine.

A great directory for dealing with health ailments on the journey.  The author, a qualified medical doctor and prepper, advises a list of essentials to carry and how to treat a list of common ailments yourself, from snake bites to wound care; diarrhea to head trauma; UTIs to anxiety.

25.A 12v fan.

After having to abort one summer in the van and move into a house because it was just too hot to sleep at night, for the next summer we bought a 12v fan (well actually we bought two, but one died-a-death as soon as we used it for 8 hours straight. The one that fared well was the Fan-tastic Endless Breeze 12v fan). It saved us in the height of summer.

26.Lots of cloth shopping bags.

Useful for shopping, but also great to hang fruit and vegetables in the kitchen (a fruit bowl is a pain in a moving vehicle); great to store toys in: choke-hazard-free; also really useful to sort clothes into different categories in the cupboard for easy access.

27.A reusable water bottle each.

Initially, we were getting through so much single-use-plastic it was disgusting. It also means you can all take a drink to bed with you that doesn’t spill. Trust me, there are a lot of spillages. In a small space. Over multiple items. In crevices. Enough to bring you to tears.

28.Sheets and a blanket instead of a duvet and duvet cover.

It is more versatile. You can wash the (very sweaty) sheets quickly and easily, and you can pack the blanket away when its too hot and just use the sheet.

29.A cagoule in a bag each.

For rainy showers, stored by the van door.

30. ‘Piddle pads’
Sleeping in the car seat with ink on leg. Sahara, Morocco.

Piddle Pads are waterproof, washable, cloth inserts that fit in the child car seat to catch any wee-wee accidents. And drink spills. You need two on rotation. I only had one, which was not that useful once it had been wee-weed on. If you are potty training you also need two waterproof mattress protectors. Or you can buy disposable incontinence sheets. Very useful to slip under a child who falls asleep on the campervan sofa with no nappy on. On the subject of wee wee, obviously you need the potty. That goes without saying.

 

I hope that helps somewhat on your trip-planning. Any questions or suggestions please comment below. I’d be interested to hear tips from others traveling or living in a van with young kids.

Oh, and  I forgot to mention, you need a six tonne van to carry all this. 😉

Ten things to value about Morocco

View across the river, Ait Benhaddou

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.

A convenience store in Merzouga, Sahara

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.

Dry goods sold self service in a supermarket

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.

Hiking with a guide in Dades gorge

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.

Mercedes Varios on market day in Moulay Idriss, Morocco

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.
Fetching water from the spring

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.
The view from our camper in the Rif mountains (no that’s not a painting)

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.
Pates de Singes, Dades valley

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.
Truck with hayload, Ait Benhaddou

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.
Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech

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.
Snowy roadside rest stop, High Atlas Mountains

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?

Fossil hunting in Es Sfalat

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?
Looking for refuge in Amtdi

Interested to know more about Morocco now? 

You can do your own research but here is a start. Morocco is a North African Muslim majority country. Islam came to the region following the Arab ‘conquests’ around 670 AD. The Ottoman Empire governed parts of Morocco for several centuries, after which it was colonised by France (and Spain). The ‘country’ gained independence in 1956, and it is now a (dynastic) monarchy ruled by King Mohamed VI. Islam is the official religion of the state, with apparently 99% of the population adhering to the faith. The main languages are Arabic, French and Berber (who were more recently recognised as having indigenous cultural rights). Characterised by extensive rural ‘poverty’ (by objective and subjective standards), Morocco is now classified as a ‘lower middle income’ country by the World Bank (alongside countries like Tunisia, Pakistan, Vietnam), brought about by strong economic growth. However, such countries are embedded in global value chains, featuring  cheap labour, precarious work and polarising inequality. One of Morocco’s biggest industries is agriculture and it is a major exporter to the European Union (citrus fruits, vegetables and fish), but the sustainability of this industry is under threat by climate change. A lesser known contender in the Arab Spring, the Moroccan government ‘successfully’ quashed ‘pro-democracy’ protests in 2011 with police violence, media black outs and empty promises of reform. With youth voter turn out at 10% in the 2016 elections, Moroccan youth appear to remain dissatisfied, disillusioned, searching.

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All photographs are our own. And while I wrote this article, I am always in debt to the wonderful insights of my partner, Kagan.

What is Work?

‘You are not working at the moment then?’ I was recently asked. This is probably something that makes most stay-at-home-mums wince, as you are working so hard on a daily basis you literally fall asleep in your dinner. As a couple who are ‘not currently working’ but raising a toddler ‘on the road’, this question prompted a wider discussion between my partner and I about what is work and, perhaps more explicitly, what is work that is valued?

I’ve written a blog post about how it’s almost impossible to be lazy travelling with a toddler in a campervan, as alongside the work that’s involved in travelling (route planning, driving, packing and unpacking), parenting and daily survival tasks take up the entirety of two adults’ time, and we are still knackered at the end of every day.

However, while we feel like we are constantly cleaning and tidying up in the van, we find we interact with the task more, and appreciate the work done because it becomes our daily focus. When you have children it feels like all you are doing most of the time is cleaning and tidying anyway. However, having to fit paid work in around childrearing and these daily survival tasks makes these tasks feel like ‘extra’ chores rather than what we should focus on. When daily survival tasks feel like extra chores we rush them, we cut corners, we eat badly, the environment suffers (‘I haven’t got time to think about it!’) and we feel unsatisfied, harassed, overburdened.

Alternatively we don’t do these daily survival tasks at all: we outsource them. As I did when I worked a fifty hour week. We work so long we have such little time for child-rearing or cooking and cleaning that we subcontract all or some of these tasks to childminders, cleaners and restaurants. We are then unavoidably alienated from these basic survival activities.

189FACA8-3E27-488D-AA71-406C905CC06FWith life on the road we have found those daily chores become our life: preparing food, cooking, washing up, sweeping, making beds, airing furnishings, washing the vehicle and vehicle maintenance, washing the baby, hanging out laundry, washing and grooming ourselves when we find campsites with showers. In London I outsourced every single one of these tasks, I even tended to outsource grooming: with routine visits to beauticians for hair cuts, waxing, pedicure, massage.

When daily survival chores are done by us for us, we focus on them, we appreciate them, we take pride in experiencing them and perfecting the skills involved.

This takes me to a wider connected point about parenting. These daily survival activities are not only appreciated more but they are also the daily activities that our son sees us doing, emulates and takes part in. img_3856Without even knowing it, he is learning to cook, how to clean, how to clean and dry clothes. Not only is he learning how to do these tasks in a very real way, moreover he is learning that these tasks exist rather than them being hidden, as they are when they are outsourced. Nor is he learning them in a synthesised way that he might do at nursery (using a pretend washing machine or cutting pretend plastic vegetables).

That’s not to mention he is learning the other tasks that are routinely necessary for surviving Van Life such as filling up the water tank, charging the batteries, emptying the grey waste and the toilet. All these tasks connect us to, and remind us of, our water use, energy consumption and our waste in a way that house dwelling, again, alienates. (More on this in another blog piece).

Of course not everyone has the ability to focus on these tasks because not everyone is able to get away from doing paid work. This is not an attempt to say that we are doing a better job of parenting than anyone else. I think what I want to do is draw attention to the way that capitalism devalues these tasks (which are of course of great value and necessity to us) while valorising paid work, which is in the interests of capital.

Feminist writers have drawn widespread attention to the devaluation of domestic work in the home, referred to as the ‘second shift’ (clearly highlighting its secondary place). However feminist ‘answers’ have usually focused on:
a) giving women equal access to the ‘first shift’ of paid work, and
b) attempting to raise the status of domestic work as akin to the importance of paid work
Rather, perhaps, what we should all be doing is challenging the very notion that paid work is a necessary, useful or desirable pursuit for any of us.

Survival or specialisation?

what do we want for the next generation?

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?img_3694

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?’.