A Brit, a dutch woman, a motorhome and five Spanish dogs. To most, this would sound like the start of a crude joke. But for 38-year-old Dan and 37-year-old Esther these three things became the ingredients for an unpredictable life on the road.
As is so often with remarkable tales, their story began with a challenge. “Dan has a birth defect and in our mid-20s he had six operations,” remembers Esther, who met Dan while studying in Durham. “After the last operation he got a post-surgical infection in his abdomen. Doctors prepared me that I should say goodbye,” she says. “All of this happened two weeks before our wedding.”
But miraculously, a fortnight later, Dan was back home with Esther and the pair have been happily together for 19 years. Nevertheless, the near death experience had made the pair determined to get the most out of life: “We wanted to backpack for six months as an extended honeymoon but obviously Dan couldn’t carry a pack,” says Esther. “Then someone suggested a motorhome.”
Through Holland, Switzerland, Italy and France, the pair explored all nature had to offer, hiking trails and biking routes as Dan became stronger. Eventually, they wound up in Spain for the same reason many expats do: “We were enamoured by Andalucia and it got cold everywhere else,” says Esther.
There, in a quiet corner of San Jose village, nestled near Cabo de Gata Natural Park, Esther and Dan made an unexpected new friend. “We always say it’s my Dad’s fault because he couldn’t finish his cheese toasty,” remembers Esther fondly. “My parents were visiting and we’d met them for a coffee when a dog started begging at the table.”
This abandoned pup was Leela. “She was really skinny, so we fed her the toastie and she got attached to us,” says Esther. Unable to ignore the tug on their heartstrings, two weeks later the couple had adopted the ginger pooch.
Little did they know, Leela was concealing a surprise. “I kept saying to Dan, are dogs’ nipples always this big?” says Esther with a laugh. “We took her to the vet for a check up and found out she was 10 days away from giving birth.”
“Everyone in San Jose gave us blankets, newspapers and donations for the vet. It was a real community affair, they even organised a tombola,” says Esther. “After we’d given two puppies, Jess and Teddy, to other families, we still had five dogs in a camper van and we just made it work. With Bella, George, Patti and Rose we were suddenly this big furry family who lived in a seven by two meter plastic box.”
A mobile spectacle, the clan were far from inconspicuous. “We became an attraction wherever we went,” says Esther. “We had a puppy training rota, obedience exercises, cycling and exploring fields or beaches four times a day. The puppies even went up cable cars in Switzerland— so I think it’s fair to say their socialisation was extensive.”
With a firm place in the couple’s heart, Esther and Dan have since returned to San Jose every winter on their travels to visit their pup’s sister Jessie. Sometimes, they’re even joined by the final member of the family, Teddy, who now lives with a family in France.
While Esther and Dan were selfless in adopting Leela, they feel they’ve reaped the rewards from the act of charity. “My late grandma used to hold my whole family together,” says Esther. “But it feels like Leela and her puppies do that now.”
“I convinced my mum that Patti and George would inject some energy into my parent’s house after multiple deaths in our family, so they live there now.”
As with many in the coronavirus era, Esther has been separated from her parents by COVID-19 restrictions: “It’s nice to know that even though I can’t get to them they have the puppies for cuddles,” she says.
After six years of life on the road, with enough material to fill a memoir What Adventures Shall We Have Today, a collection of poems Love, Fluff and Chasing Butterflies, and a series of childrens’ books including Lovely Leela Finds a Family, all available on Amazon, Esther says she and Dan will never regret their decision to leave their normal life behind.
“When I got told to say goodbye to Dan, I knew the person I had all these dreams with could suddenly be gone. At that moment, I realised that nothing was certain and people are experiencing that now in the pandemic.”
“Before, we were always chasing the next work contract and paying off bills. The slowness of Spain is a much more relaxed approach to life. You live in the moment, you absorb nature, you get outside and we fell in love with that.”
“We saw we could do with so much less and now we have a simple life and it makes us happy. You have to follow your dreams. You can’t just sit and wait for your future to start.”