Volunteering on Lesvos: Week 2

In January 2016, Jane traveled to the Greek island of Lesvos to help in with the refugees arriving by boat from Turkey. She worked with the organization Lighthouse Refugee Relief — visit their website to find out how you can help with the refugee crisis. Below are Jane’s thoughts from her second week on Lesvos. Click here to read about week 1.

Day 8  |  Wednesday, January 20


Lifejackets headed for the lifejacket graveyard. Those lifejackets were from our camp alone.

Chaos today, though some like to call it organized chaos. 8-9 boats within a very short period of time this morning (I lost count). 39 degrees. Rain started just as the last boat arrived. Tragedy struck: A baby died of hypothermia. A near-tragedy also struck: A four-year-old boy was trampled by others trying to get off a boat. He stopped breathing, but was resuscitated. I sat with him, and his very upset mother, until an ambulance could come to take him to the hospital. He will be fine, I think.

We ran out of men’s shoes, jackets, hats, and gloves. Couldn’t keep up with the demand. Blankets disappeared left and right as people tried to stay warm awaiting the vans to take them to the next camp. Everything was sopping wet.

On a brighter note, the sister of the trampled boy left wearing a hat I had made, and this sweet little boy (in photo above) had on the blue mittens I just finished yesterday, I can’t knit fast enough!

Now I’m ready for dinner and a rest! Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Day 9  |  Thursday, January 21


A boat arriving.


The camp mascot, an orphan lamb named Carolina. She stands around and observes, and eats what drops on the ground.

What a difference a day makes! Beautiful sunny day, no wind, temps in the high 40s (F) and low 50s. Just as many boats as yesterday, and just as much chaos . . but everyone was fine, everyone was joyful. Many tears, lots of hugs, no hypothermia. I learned of another death (of a woman) yesterday afternoon, so I am so grateful for the beautiful weather, and that everyone landed safe and sound. Only some colds and some minor injuries at the clinic.

Worked with a delightful doctor, Shima, from Malaysia. She and I had many interesting conversations over the day — about religion (she is Muslim), about raising children, and about age and adventure (she asked my age and was astounded that I was doing such a thing “at my age” — ha!).

Among the joy was a sweet little boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, who kept running up and hugging me. I have no idea why — I had not done anything for him — but with a twinkle in his eye, he would charge me over and over again. Sorry I don’t have a photo. I will just have to remember him in my heart.

Given the deaths yesterday, I asked what was done with the bodies. A group of Muslims (from somewhere) pooled their money to buy a piece of land and establish a graveyard. An imam has come to the island recently to provide graveyard services for those who die in the crossing. I was relieved to hear this.

I also learned that the Romani people on the island come to scavenge the boats. They are completely on it and organized. They have a boat taken apart, deflated and packed up sooner than we can get the refugees into dry clothes. They take the motors, too. Then . . . they sell them back to the smugglers? Or?

Day 10  |  Friday, January 22

12473652_1017493904975983_636155626587865896_o1397186_1017493781642662_2760463679230830423_oBad weather returned, cloudy skies, heavy seas. Many very cold people, so the heating tent was busy. A few women had to be carried in on stretchers, but they revived with soothing words (that they could not understand), a hand on their brow, a smile, and some dry clothes and tea.

So many children and babies. Many did not have life jackets, but were in the center of the boat with life-jacketed people on the outside. Boats heavily loaded. Passed out a whole lot of lollipops and made many children smile! So heartening. They don’t need medical care, just some love and some fun.

Both yesterday and today there was a woman with her seven children and no other relative with her. (Seven children! I sound like The Sound of Music.) I cannot imagine what that must be like, to travel so far and so dangerously with that brood of kids.

New doctors today — Stephan and Mustafa — from Sweden. They got thrown into the deep end of the pool, so to speak, but they did great. Looking forward to working with them for the next week.

But tragedy struck elsewhere: An overloaded boat capsized not long after it left Turkey, only 12 rescued, and another boat broke up as it neared the coast of a nearby island, very few rescued, and none of the children. May they rest in peace, and their parents (if they survived) have the strength to go on. And guess what, NPR just reported this.

This cannot go on. I wrote the White House last night (not that that will do any good. . .) and maybe you can, too. So many people get out of a boat and bow down and kiss the ground. I would, too. So I sit in my cold hotel room every evening, and post to Facebook, and try and recover knowing I will just do the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next day. Luckily, Greece makes excellent red wine. Cheers!

Day 12  |  Sunday, January 24

It is with a heavy heart that I am headed home early. A couple of days ago, I fell and either cracked or bruised ribs. The pain is getting worse and I’ve been unable to sleep much. The doctor said it would take at least two weeks before I started to feel better, and since I was leaving in 10 days anyway, it just makes sense to go now. (And, at least, be able to try and sleep in a warm bed!)

I am so grateful for the opportunity to come here, see this crisis firsthand, and to tell all of you about it. In both the pain and the joy, it’s been amazing, and an experience I will never forget.

Thank you for sharing the journey with me.

Volunteering on Lesvos: Week 1

In January 2016, Jane traveled to the Greek island of Lesvos to help in with the refugees arriving by boat from Turkey. She worked with the organization Lighthouse Refugee Relief — visit their website to find out how you can help with the refugee crisis. Below are Jane’s thoughts from her first week on Lesvos.

Day 2  |  Thursday, January 14, 2016


Refugees arriving on the rocky beach.


Children’s “lifejackets.”

Six boats arrived this morning between 9:30 and 11 a.m. (more came earlier, in the wee hours). It’s a beautiful day today, the last one for at least 10 days. Rain, wind and cold temps to come. The whole thing is hard to describe — sopping wet people of all ages, packed into flimsy boats, and with flimsier lifejackets. (Would you head across a three-mile span of open ocean with your child in water wings or a Disney princess swim jacket?) Grateful, thankful people, touching their hearts and smiling at us, speaking thanks in their language, hugging and shaking hands. I said “welcome” more times this morning than I have in my whole life.

Day 3  |  Friday, January 15, 2016

12525125_1013929535332420_8698494866699290104_o 12484683_1013929451999095_1654531800080193963_oOnly two boats today at our camp. Busy at the medical clinic with all kinds of issues — many aches and pains, colds, stomach upset, unstable blood sugar, dizziness, and hypothermia. Working with a doctors from Egypt and Italy, and nurses from Denmark and the U.S. I wondered what happens to all the wet clothes. . . well, the “Dirty Girls” make the rounds of the island picking up the blue trash bags, and then hit a really big commercial laundromat. They spend 1,000 euros a day doing laundry. What a job, but oh so vital. Other photo is of the beach with deflated boat and lifejackets looking toward Turkey.

Day 7  |  Tuesday, January 19, 2016


The snow-covered Turkish coast.


The inside of the “life jackets.” They would not float at all, I am sure. . .

After three days of heavy rain, high winds, and eventually snow! (several inches in the higher elevations, and in Turkey), boats began arriving again. The sun is out, but it’s cold — 30s (F) to low 40s. The first boat to arrive was all young men from Pakistan, freezing cold. We have a “heating tent” with a woodstove and propane stove pumping out the heat. The men all needed to get out of their wet clothes, and into dry clothes. As a woman, I was not welcome, but spent my time fetching the dry clothes, and cups and cups of tea (discreetly handed through the door to the male medical workers). One the men were dressed, I took over my nurse role, holding hands, smiling, and assuring them they were OK. The second boat had families again with many women and small children. Rinse, repeat. They just need dry clothes, and some reassurance that all is well. Weather is supposed to be calm and sunny, but still cold for the rest of the week.

On another note, now that I’ve been here for a week, and most of the medical team has left, I am the experienced one! New doctors arrive on Thursday. Everything keeps on evolving.

NPR did a story yesterday about the arrests of several lifeguards who were rescuing people in Turkish waters. Because they brought the drowning people to Lesvos, they are accused of smuggling. Currently, they are out on bond. There are rumors of a government crackdown.

Our 648-square-foot tall tiny house

Post-Katrina, my partner, Sky, and I headed to New Orleans to offer our carpentry skills to help rebuilding in the area. After spending a couple of months doing all kinds of things, meeting great people, and loving the city and her culture, we decided to buy property and move here.

Getting Our Land and Designing Our House

We purchased a 30′ x 100′ city lot where a building destroyed during the flood had been torn down, and set about designing our house. We wanted to raise as much food as possible in such a small space, so we knew our house had to be unique so as to not take up too much of the footprint. We also wanted to design something that would be energy-efficient in the hot and humid climate.

Thus, the cupola house was born!

Because of regulations imposed after Katrina, we were required to build the house at least four feet off the ground, have an engineer design hurricane-specific hardware, and install either hurricane-proof windows or shutters (we don’t like shutters, so we have Marvin Integrity windows designed to withstand 140 MPH winds — also deters criminals). We chose to build the house nine feet off the ground so we could park our car under the house, and have a small shed to hold our tools and bicycles.

Preparing for Construction

After the pile drivers came and drove the 20 pilings 40 feet deep into the New Orleans swamp, Sky and I began building. We built the cupola on the ground, and once the house was framed up, a crane came and lifted the cupola into place! (Given that both of us hate heights, building this house was quite the challenge.) The purpose of the cupola is to allow the air to circulate — hot up and out. With ceiling fans and this great air circulation, we rarely have to use the AC.

Our Tiny House Design Concept

The house is 18′ x 18′ ( 648 sq. ft.) with two decks and one screened porch. Having these three outside spaces allows us to spend a lot of time outdoors, rotating the spaces through the seasons. The two decks face south; the screened porch, north. The three-season screened porch, in particular, is a favorite spot for morning coffee, afternoon reading, and evening dinners. It’s also the location of the clothesline, protected from sudden rain storms. The upper deck is the home of my solar oven.

Our 648 Sq. Ft. Tall Tiny House

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Images © Jane Dwinell

Taking the Tour of Our Tall Tiny House

Downstairs is one open room sharing living and kitchen space. Kitchen has a small electric stove, small energy-efficient refrigerator (Summit), and soapstone counters. The below-counter cabinets are made from reclaimed wood. We originally installed a cork floor, but it did not like the heat and humidity, so we pulled it up and installed ceramic tile. Storage and pantry is under the stairs. Hot water comes from the solar panel on the roof, with an electric Seisco instantaneous hot water heater as (rarely-used) backup.

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Upstairs is a small bathroom (with walk-in shower, toilet, sink, and washer) and bedroom. The bedroom opens up into the cupola which, besides air circulation, allows for wonderful light to flow in. The flooring is reclaimed wood. A library ladder gives access to the ceiling of the bathroom which allows one to sit and enjoy the view (and open and close the windows). The beams holding up the cupola are a favorite playground for one of our cats (unfortunately) — though he had yet to fall, being a cat and all.

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The rest of the lot is garden — eight raised beds where we grow our vegetables and herbs, grapefruit, lemon, banana and fig trees, along with grapes and blackberries. A thousand-gallon tank sits under the deck filled via gutters, and the water is used on the plants as needed.

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How We Built It

Sky and I did all the carpentry and finish work, and hired out the rest — plumbing, electric, insulation, roofing, and sheetrock installation. Given the termite situation in the south, all exposed wood is pressure-treated, the siding is HardiBoard, and the decking is made of recycled plastic. The insulation is cellulose — 12″ in the bottom, 6″ in the roof, and 4″ in the walls along with 2″ of rigid foam board. The house stays cool when it’s supposed to, and warm in cold weather. Perfect. I would build this house in the north as well — but would put it on an insulated slab foundation for extra warmth. The cupola house cost about four times as much as our 160 sq. ft. tiny house on a trailer, and would come in about $10,000 less without the special hurricane hardware and windows.

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We love our cozy, colorful, cupola house!

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Originally published at TinyHouseTalk.com: you can view that post here.

Upsizing From Tiny House to Little House

After living and traveling in our Tiny House for a year, we decided it was time to settle down. We missed gardening, and wanted the community you can build by staying in one place. We looked for property and found what we wanted in Vermont on the shores of Lake Champlain.

Unfortunately, the Tiny House was not built to withstand a Vermont winter. And, to be honest, we wanted more space: not much more, but more. If we had known we were going to stay put in a Tiny House, we would have designed and built it differently. We would have gone to the tallest height we could have legally (instead of two feet lower for ease of going down the road), and had a sleeping loft. That would have given us more floor space in the living area, and greater storage options. We would have added more insulation, and been less concerned about weight.

   Couple Upsizes from Tiny House to Little House

But, we had built the Tiny House we built, and we loved our mobile home and the time we spent living in it. Once we closed on our new property, we moved the Tiny House there, and had an automatic place to live while we built our new house! It was great to be comfortable, and have everything we needed right on the job site.

We designed our Little House while we waited for the excavator to come to make us a slab foundation with a 4-foot frost wall. The Little House is almost exactly four times the size of the Tiny House — 668 square feet of living space, and 100 square feet of storage — a 32′x24′ one-story house with an open living-kitchen-dining area, a bedroom, bathroom, plus storage room/pantry. We employed double wall construction — two 2×4 walls next to each other (exterior wall on 24″ centers, interior wall on 16″ centers) so that neither wall touches the other and we could have a full 7″ of cellulose insulation packed in (and 24″ in the ceiling). Nice and toasty — made for the Vermont climate.

   Couple Upsizes from Tiny House to Little House

The Little House is solely heated with a wood stove, has Marvin Integrity windows, and a tile floor. The kitchen has a small, energy-efficient refrigerator (Summit), a small electric stove, double sink, open shelves, and slate counters. The bathroom has a walk-in, tiled shower, toilet, sink, and energy-efficient washer (Staber). The bedroom has french doors (Marvin Integrity) looking out over the lake, and one wall is a built-in closet and shelves. The storage room holds a small chest freezer, tools, food storage shelves, an instantaneous, propane hot water heater (Rinnai) plus the storage tank and controls for the solar hot water system. We also have a PV array of eight panels (for net metering) supplying more electricity than we use. A small shed (10×10) holds our gardening tools, bikes, and skis.  The Tiny House is now the guest house! (And is available if we want to go on a trip.)   Couple Upsizes from Tiny House to Little House

Once the foundation was poured, we started building. Five weeks later the house was enclosed, and ten weeks after that it was done and we moved in. My husband and I did all the carpentry, painting, and tile work, but hired out the roof, insulation, sheetrock, solar, plumbing, electric, and stone work (kitchen counters and windowsills of slate). Interestingly, the Little House also cost four times the price of the Tiny House!

   Couple Upsizes from Tiny House to Little House

Now it’s gardening and boating season. It’s great to be on the lake, to watch the varied moods of the water and the mountains, to learn more about our micro-climate, and to begin to build a community of friends and neighbors.  We even adopted two shelter cats who seem quite content in their new home.  We are grateful for our Tiny House, and love living a little bit bigger in our (still small) Little House!

This post was originally published at Tiny House Talk.

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Six Months in the Tiny House: What’s Good, What’s Not-So-Good

We’ve travelled 2,500 miles in our Tiny House in the last six months, staying put anywhere from one day to three months. It’s been a great adventure, and we’re getting ready to head north again as the weather changes. It’s hard to think that we’ve got to learn how to pack up for travel again, and slog slowly along the highway. Good thing gas prices are lower than they were last winter.

While it’s been mostly wonderful living in the Tiny House, there certainly have been challenges. Here are a few:

The floor.  We chose to paint the plywood that would, in an ordinary house, be the subfloor. We made this decision to save on weight since we knew we would be traveling a lot. Initially, I primed the plywood and applied two coats of paint. That lasted about a month as we were building on the surface and banging around with tools, lumber, etc. When we were done with construction, I applied another coat of paint.

Now I’ve applied two more coats of paint (and changed the color — the beauty of a painted floor), and just a few days after the latest coat of paint, it is chipping away. I think it’s because plywood is rough and just the act of walking on it, dropping things, etc. makes the paint come off. It’s particularly bad in the places where we stand a lot: in front of the sink and the food prep area. We’re considering a floor covering now, but aren’t sure what. Continue reading

Rooftop Tiny House Living in the City

We’ve settled down for several months — on a rooftop in the middle of big city. It’s a great place, and an unusual “tiny house” community. There are 15 homes up here ranging from our tiny house to RVs of all kinds to a fitted-out bus and van. There are water, sewer and electrical hookups — and a gorgeous panorama of the downtown skyline.

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We’re in a southern city, warm and sunny, full of vibrant life and culture. Yet it’s quiet up here on the rooftop with twinkling city lights and stars at night, and a view of the tops of shotgun houses and graceful live oaks by day. The neighbors are a quiet group, most off to work or school each day. There are a few dogs and cats that patrol the rooftop, and there are several gardens-in-pots alongside some of the RVs. We also share the space with several small boats and some catering vans for the business downstairs.

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How to Get Along As a Couple in a Tiny House

A friend recently said, upon seeing the tiny house for the first time, “That’s a closet! You’ll kill each other!”  Well, after 4 months living in the tiny house, and 3 months before that living in an even smaller boat, I can tell you that we’re both quite alive.

But so many people wonder how we manage to get along in such a small space that I thought I’d share what works for us.

Be polite. It is a tiny space, and two people will often be passing one another in snug areas. “Excuse me, I need to get by,” works well, as does waiting until the other person is done what they’re doing before you ask to get by. Even if you know each other well, please, thank you, and all those other social words are still important to use. Continue reading

Life on the Road

Well, our first week of travels is over, and it’s been quite an adventure. We are learning a lot, making mistakes, fixing mistakes, and trying to look on the bright side. The sun is finally out after a week of rain, clouds and cold.

Buttoning up the tiny house every morning before we move on involves several steps:

Inside, everything on the counters goes in the sink tucked in nicely with a towel. The water filter goes on the shower floor (and anything else too big for the sink). The dish drainer is emptied. The shelf-guards go across the shelves to hold in the dishes and food. The water pail (that catches sink water) is emptied, along with the pee jar. The drawers are latched shut. The mirror and the artwork, along with the thermometers and the crystal, are taken down. The water pump is turned off. The windows are latched (we discovered that they will work themselves open as we travel…. double hungs and gliders).
Stuff in the sink.

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