Camping comfort food: dhal or lentil curry

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Dhal simmering in the pan

While the weather is below freezing I want to eat warming comfort food that is quick to make and delicious to eat.  My go-to recipe in these circumstances is lentil curry.  The recipe is below but it is a versatile dish that you can make your own and add to as suits you.  This is made from ingredients we always have in the store cupboard either at home or in the campervan and for me lentil curry is the ultimate comfort food, you can eat it from a bowl with just a fork [or even a spoon], it is warming and spicy and tasty and memories of all those other lentil curries from the past linger around it.

Dhal / lentil curry for two

Boil a pan of water with a pinch of salt and add two good handfuls (maybe 200 grams) of dried red lentils and a couple of bay leaves.  Boil and skim off any white scum as they boil and top up the water if necessary until the lentils are soft [about 20 minutes].  For this recipe you don’t have to boil the lentils dry.

Remove the bay leaves and put the lentils to one side [I put them in a bowl in the campervan and reuse the same pan for the next stage].

Fry a finely chopped onion in vegetable oil until it starts to catch and brown slightly and then add spices to suit you.  At home I use a teaspoon each of ground tumeric, ground cumin and ground coriander, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, a pinch of chili flakes or a fresh chili chopped and maybe a little fresh ginger if I have some in.  In the campervan I usually only have a garam masala mix and fresh garlic to hand.  Fry these for a minute or two and then add the lentils to the pan.  You are now more or less finished but you can garnish the curry with fresh coriander if you have this available.

For variety I sometimes add a couple of chopped tomatoes to the onion or a chopped courgette.  Sometimes I add some finely chopped spinach at the end and this adds some colour.

I serve this wonderful simple food with either plain boiled rice or naan bread or home-made chapattis, the choice is yours.  Not only is this quick to make it is also a cheap eat.  In the campervan naan bread keeps the washing up to just one pan which is a win-win.  Enjoy!


How can you afford holidays when you live on a low budget

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Verona in 1991

We all prioritise what we spend our money on to have the life we want.  You won’t be surprised to read that I have always prioritised holidays over pretty much all discretionary spending.  Despite living on an average or low income for 40-years we have always travelled.  Firstly, some background … when I first started work and living alone I had little money to spare so marriage to Mr BOTRA was a big plus financially [and in many other ways].  Even with below average salaries we were much better off living as a couple.  We had our son in the Thatcher years and so received only a few weeks maternity pay, had to fight for one week of paternity leave, received no Family Tax Credits and the only state help we received was Family Allowance that was frozen in the late 1980s.  And yet we managed to afford holidays, how did we do this?

Through all those years we prioritised holidays over living in expensive houses, buying new furniture and cars and posh frocks.  This was our choice and whereas we would probably be better off now if we had made different decisions no one can ever take all those holiday memories away from us.  We had a ‘big’ holiday every year and these were often adventurous holidays abroad.  After paying the mortgage and the utilities, holidays were our next priority and we saved a set amount every month that was earmarked specifically for holidays.  This amount was put in to a dedicated savings account and such was our determination to explore foreign places that we never dipped in to this money for other financial emergencies.

Our holidays were never expensive and luxurious trips, it was always the travelling that we were interested in.  We enjoyed camping and before our baby was born we bought a high quality tent and acclimatised him to camping from being a toddler.  We chose wisely, buying a Saunders Spacepacker lightweight back-packing tent, widely recognised as the best available in the 1980s and beyond.  We could carry this and our ‘gear’ for our trip in two big rucksacks.  When our son outgrew our shared Spacepacker we bought him his own.

Travelling and seeing new places was what mattered to us, taking walks costs nothing and our holidays were about hiking in the mountains and enjoying fresh air and new experiences.  The budget rarely ran to eating out; the exception was our trip to what was then Czechoslovakia and is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.  Back then eating out was so cheap in those countries we could indulge.  We slipped up when we visited the Black Forest in Germany the following year, assuming the same budget as we had spent in Czechoslovakia and finding out that Germany was much more expensive than eastern Europe!  With no credit card to prop us up we had to stay within budget and it was a tight fortnight.  We discovered Germany’s budget supermarkets, spent the days walking, playing in the parks and visiting free museums and pitched up on a scruffy, anarchic and most importantly cheap campsite; it was an interesting trip.

It was 1991 when we first went abroad to Italy [see the photograph above] and this trip set the pattern.  We took the train to Verona, which had been on my list for many years and I thought I had arrived in heaven.  Camping Castel San Pietro above the town turned out to be the perfect place for two young parents and their five-year old child.  Set inside ancient walls this was a relaxed, welcoming and slightly quirky campsite.  From here we made our way on public transport to the Dolomites and spent our days walking in the dramatic and unbeatable mountain scenery.

As well as these train and backpacking holidays we would visit Scotland every Easter, sharing the cost of a large self-catering house with friends made it affordable and we would have numerous weekends away with the tent in the UK.  These were the days before Facebook but if we had been able to post about our holiday activity you would have thought we had loads of money!

These adventures and trips to all corners of Europe would not have been possible without that discipline of regular saving over twelve months.  We didn’t consider ourselves natural savers and we certainly didn’t save for anything else at this time, there was very little spare.  Our desire to travel gave us the motivation and we continued this monthly saving plan even as we became more financially comfortable.

Think Save Retire recently blogged about earmarking your money a well-timed post as I was drafting this.  Completing Steve’s statement clarified for me that holidays have always been our priority and made me realise how we continue to make sure that our money supports that priority.





Three more small steps to giving up plastic: Update #4

A basket of cloths

1. Toilet rolls

We welcomed in 2018 by receiving a box of 48 toilet rolls from Who Gives A Crap.  This company are trying to make the world a better place one toilet roll at a time.  Their toilet paper comes wrapped in paper, not plastic and most importantly it does the job [we bought the premium 100% bamboo rolls].  Who Gives A Crap started four-years ago thanks to a crowd funding campaign and I heard about them thanks to blogs written by people who are way ahead of me in their pursuit of giving up plastic.  Who Gives A Crap’s toilet rolls are from recycled paper or from sustainable bamboo and they donate 50% of their profits to organisations such as WaterAid to help build toilets and improve sanitation in countries that don’t have access to a toilet.

2. Re-usable bags for fruit and vegetables

Apart from toilet rolls [and I just can’t go there] my current interest is in finding items we can re-use rather than use and bin, as much as it in finding items that are plastic-free.  We have invested in six  re-usable mesh bags for tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, small oranges and other fruit and vegetables we buy loose.  I keep three at home in the bike pannier that is used for shopping trips and three in the campervan.  I have come to the conclusion that re-using our own bags is preferable to even using paper bags and so bought these bags and keep them handy so there is no excuse to use anything else.  I found the mesh draw-string bags on Ebay [I think they are also sold for separating laundry items].  The staff in our local supermarket were happy to peer in them before weighing and they are light and easy to wash if you need to, so these are a big win.

3. Re-usable alternatives to kitchen roll

We are not big kitchen roll users, we always have a damp cloths [torn up clothes or towels] hanging around the kitchen for small spills.  But we always have a roll in the kitchen for things like mopping up bigger spills and drying aubergine that has been salted and rinsed.  To prevent even this small usage we now have a basket of dry cloths in the kitchen window [see top photo].  These are a combination of torn up old towels, old face cloths and some miscellaneous new reusable cloths we had in the cupboard.  This makes it really easy to grab a dry and clean cloth when ever it is needed and then throw them in the washing machine to be used again.

The toilet rolls arrived wrapped in paper and in a cardboard box






My first year of retirement in numbers

Above Castleton in the Peak District

Twelve months retired – so how has that gone?  We’ve certainly packed a lot in to the last year and at home we have settled in to a pattern for a shared retirement that is comfortable and relaxed.  At home we both have our own projects and interests and often beaver quietly away at these before taking an afternoon walk around the neighbourhood or cycle to the supermarket.  But we were only home for eight months of the year and those holiday days have a different pattern of walking and cycling and discovering new places.  In some ways this year has been unusual as after the incident in Greece we were without a campervan for two months while it was off the road.

I have managed to keep my resolution to not say ‘I don’t know how I ever had time to go to work’ which I guess must annoy all those people who are squeezing work and life into their seven days.  We have also made a conscious effort to do just / at least one thing each day.

Holidays and trips – 16 different holidays from one-night to two months.  We had planned two longish trips to mainland Europe in the spring and the autumn and we had a wonderful trip to Spain and Portugal in September and October but our trip to Greece in the spring didn’t go quite according to plan.  Now this is all over we can look back on the whole Greek tragedy as a learning experience [although one we would have preferred to do without] and we haven’t let the trip knock our confidence; we might even head off to Greece again in the future.  In the UK we spent a few weeks in Scotland, went to the wonderful Upton Blues Festival and various other short breaks.  We have been away in the campervan for about 120 nights during the year.  This is less than we would have expected as the ‘van was off the road for a couple of months.  We tried other types of holidays and these just confirmed that the campervan life is the one for us.

Number of accidents in the campervan  – 1 (see above)

Number of times we have set the alarm clock – NONE!

Writing travel articles – 8- this is a similar number of travel articles for MMM as last year.  This doesn’t sound many and it truly isn’t and is in no way a full-time job.  But I work slowly and each 2,000 words represents about a months work – research, travelling, taking photographs, further research, editing photographs, writing and editing.  In addition I write some campsite reviews and short articles.  This makes my retirement a working one, although if it felt like work I would stop tomorrow.

Number of matinees we have been to – Three – hurrah!

Number of times I have wanted to go back to nine-to-five work – NONE!

Foreign languages learnt – 3 [although I am not fluent in any] – before our spring trip we both worked hard at learning some Greek with flash cards and 1970s TV programmes and our efforts were generally appreciated.  I also used Duolingo to brush up my Italian.  In the summer I learnt Spanish on Duolingo and TV learning and Mr BOTRA picked up some Portuguese.  This learning meant that we could confidently book in to campsites and order in cafes.  Mr BOTRA also keeps his German up to scratch.  Next year we will want to learn some Croatian and Slovenian phrases as well as brushing up other European languages.

Good deeds done – Never enough!  I wanted to do some good in retirement and continue to do the things I listed in this previous post.  My elderly neighbours situation has recently worsened and I feel guilty for not helping her more.

Tai chi – Between once a week and daily!  While we were away in September and October we practiced tai chi every day, a combination of fine weather and peaceful campsites made this easy and fun to do.  At home we just about have enough space for tai chi without bumping in to each other and so manage to do occasional practice, as well as get to our weekly class.

Number of books read  – 64 – this year I have made a conscious effort to read more travel books and fiction as well as novels.

Number of blog posts in 2017 – 101 – I managed 78 posts on Back On The Road Again and just 23 posts on my Memorial Bench Stories blog [I must try harder].

Number of days we haven’t been outdoors for at least half-an-hour – 4 [this is a guess] – mostly we like to get out and enjoy some fresh air even if it is raining and we get out for just half-an-hour.

It has mostly added up to a good year and bring on year two of retirement, I’m loving it.








£24,000/year budget for two people who are on holiday for 1/3rd of the year: 2017 finances reviewed

Another thrifty year

This is our first year of retirement so we are interested to see how the spending has panned out for us with no income compared to our budget when we were both working.  I did consider not sharing our review of our 2017 finances as I am not sure how interesting or useful this information is to others.  Everyone’s situation is so different, people have different priorities, hobbies and needs.  So is it really helpful to know that two people with a campervan-habit living in a small flat in Salford need around £24,000 a year to have a good quality of life?

We are really head-over-heels to have come well within our budget of £27,000 a year.  We always knew this was a generous amount but it is good to have it confirmed in hard figures.  I don’t think we will slack off the budgeting in 2018 as we like the idea of having a good financial cushion for any future problems.

All that said, here are the numbers:

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £5,285 – for this we have been away for over a third of the year [118 nights in the campervan, plus a couple of other holidays in self-catering cottages] [this amount includes £1,000 for two 2018 holidays] – a bargain!

Food – £3,612 

Restaurants & cafes – £2,864 – [this spending increased in 2017 in part due to better tracking of where the money has gone]

Running the campervan [servicing & insurance etc] – £1,636

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,641

Gifts & donations – £1,173

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £633

Other household spending [including parts for the bikes] public transport & miscellaneous – £2,271

Our health [including tai chi classes] – £376

Clothes & accessories – £525

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 58 sq mtrs [624 sq feet] flat – £4,166

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2017 – £24,196 – comfortably within our £27,000 budget.





Fed up with your December birthday? Then change it

My birthday cards don’t have to compete with Christmas cards anymore

For years my Christmas-time birthday was a huge disappointment.  As a child it was over-shadowed by the seasonal festivities and couldn’t help but be just another strain on the family finances at the most expensive time of the year.  Aunts and uncles would buy me ‘joint’ gifts for birthday and Christmas, assuring me they had spent extra.  As every December-birthday person knows, even if they had spent more, nothing beats having two specific gifts for birthday and Christmas and that this isn’t something that June-birthday children have to contend with.  As a child I never had a party on my actual birthday, it was too near the festivities, no one had time and who wants to eat birthday cake at Christmas.  As an adult the lovely Mr BOTRA and my son and daughter-in-law have made a fuss of me and ensured the day was special and spending time with these three people is wonderful and should be enough … but I always wanted what everyone else had, a celebration with my friends.  On my birthday these friends were either with their family, busy at some other Christmas event or away for the festive period.  The only way to get everyone together was to celebrate outside the Christmas period, so when I was 40 I arranged the party for January.  It still took me a few years after that birthday to realise that this was the way to go and it was 2011 when I decided I wasn’t putting up with this unsatisfactory situation any longer and I moved my birthday to November.

There were friends who protested that it couldn’t be done, a few who still forget the new date, but honestly, I haven’t regretted moving my birthday to the preceding month for one minute.  Now, my birthday isn’t shoe-horned in to the Christmas festivities, my birthday cards don’t have to compete for space with the Christmas cards and my friends are available for a celebration.  It is this latter result that is the most important to me, I get to bring everyone I care about together for one celebration and that makes me happy.  It isn’t about presents and cards, for me it has always been about wanting to be with the people I love.

Over the past few years I have celebrated my birthday with friends in various ways.  We have played crazy golf, been for walks, had ‘posh’ afternoon tea, visited an art gallery and been out for meals.  At last I get to experience what other people with birthdays in any other month except December take for granted, a birthday spent with my family and friends.

And what of my birth-date?  This day still exists, of course I have to use it for paperwork and forms but really it is now just any other day.  The recollection that it is the anniversary of my birth might pass through my mind at some point during the day but it is no longer my birthday, that is the November date that I chose.  Moving my birthday was one of the best things I ever did and I am not moving it back.

Data roaming on ferries – don’t get caught out

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The Portuguese coast near Porto Covo

I thought using my phone for data and calls in Europe was a simple transaction nowadays.  I have a contract with a fair amount of data, calls and texts and I can use this just as I would at home in the UK.  This makes so many things easier as we travel around Europe, we can google for local veggie restaurants, check the opening times of attractions and the weather and call home and we thank the EU for this convenience on a daily basis.  But, on our recent trip to Spain and Portugal I found that on a ferry using your mobile phone gets more complicated and expensive mistakes can easily be made.

I was surprised to find I had a data signal on my mobile phone as we sailed out of Bilbao but naively assumed that connections had improved so much they could now reach out to the Bay of Biscay.  I had switched my phone on to pick up the ship’s wi-fi but as I had a data signal I decided I didn’t need to go through the rigmarole of signing in to that.  Then a text message pinged up telling me I had spent £4+ on data outside my allowance, then another text with a higher amount, then another and so on.  There was no explanation as to how I had gone over my data allowance and I spent a few frantic minutes checking my phone account to see if I could clarify what I had done but as the text messages mounted up I [sensibly] switched the phone off for the rest of the ferry journey.

I switched my phone on again as we docked in to Portsmouth.  The last text message I had received informed me I had spent £34+ on data outside my allowance.  I checked my data usage again and couldn’t see how I had spent that, my data usage was well within the gigabytes I pay for on my contract.

I rang Three, my phone operator, as Mr BOTRA drove us away from the south coast to see what this £34 additional charge was about.  The operator very efficiently informed me that with data roaming switched on [as it is quite safely all over Europe] when on a ferry or cruise ship my phone will automatically seek any connections.  When the phone can’t find a two, three or four G network it will seek out a satellite marine mobile provider via the ship; this was the first I had heard about marine mobile.  It seems these marine mobile providers are outside a normal data allowance contract and so are charged separately and those on Britanny Ferries that we were travelling on are very expensive charges [although they do warn you about these charges on their website].

It is some consolation that these data roaming charges, as this article suggests, have caught other people out as well as me, with some ending up with bills much more than the £34 I now had to pay.

Fortunately my story of ignorance has a happy ending for a frugal traveller as Three, noting that I have been a loyal customer for many years, refunded the £34 I owed for the few minutes my telephone was connected to the marine mobile satellite.  They did this without me having to ask [I was still in shock] and quickly, so Three deserve a big thank you.

Next time I will just keep my phone switched off on a ferry and relax and enjoy the view.