A nomad mother in Singapore

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The hens that came along

When I wrote about our latest house move, I did not fill you in yet on our feathered ladies, obviously, they came with us, and also obviously, that did not go without hiccups. 

Firstly, a general update on the ladies is in order. Yes, ladies, as we have no more gentlemen left in our run. At some point we had three. From our first batch of three chicks, I guess we saw it coming with Ronaldo, but we did not realise that Daisy's courageous, cheeky streak was also caused by testosteron. She became a pretty white rooster. An then Lily, one of our rescue chicks, suddenly got a suspiciously large comb, and when she crowed, we knew she too was, well, a he. I managed to exchange Ronaldo and Daisy for two pullets; our chicken uncle was starting to notice how lucrative the business of selling laying hens to crazy expats was, and he could use two solid guys for breeding. 

Our gorgeous Messi

Poor Lily, who we renamed Messi, with his cripple feet, was a different story. Messi and his sister had been hatched at a local primary, as part of a science program. I am not sure what the teaching objective was, but the kids must have learned that chicks are disposable things, that don't need proper care. They came to us malnourished, and in Messi's case, with several broken toes. We healed them with vitamins, worms, and a lot of TLC. Messi kept falling over initially, but eventually became a healthy big guy, albeit with a permanent limp.  The video shows baby Roos and Messi after they'd been with us a week. 


Initially, we decided he could stay. Yes, his early morning wake-ups were annoying, but he was pretty and we were fond of him. Then, Messi got bossy. He seemed to accept my seniority, but attacked Indah on several occasions, and since the chicken run is a favourite hangout for visiting kids, we could take no risks. Unfortunately there are not many options for a cripple rooster. I will spare you the details, but Roel manned up to do the difficult part, Indah did the plucking, and I cooked the coq au vin. I know many chicken holders might cringe, but as a partial vegetarian I rarely eat chicken, and if I do, I like to know where it came from, and how it was treated. I’m no hypocrite, and I would much rather eat my own rooster, lovingly reared, than one maltreated on an industrial farm. 

In front Fien, Lucy, Sushi and in the back Cherry and Roos
So who moved with us? Veteran Lucy, our now big baby Fien, Messi’s sister Roos, and the two new pullets, Cherry and Sushi. Five in total. 

The old run was broken down, and rebuilt in the new garden. It was not until the gardener pointed at the tree above, a large rain tree, that we saw the dead branch exactly above the run. Within the year, it will likely drop, and squash the run. When the gardener tried to cut it, it turned out there was a massive bees nest right beside. The branch – and the bees – are still there, waiting for our landlord to find a pest control company that is capable of climbing up that high.

The egg stealer
Our troubles were not yet over. The rebuild of the run had been sloppy, as the friendly neighbourhood monitor lizards were quick to notice. One squeezed his three feet long but skinny body through the wire. He did not hurt the hens, but stole all the eggs. After several failed attempts to lizard-proof the run, I thought I finally cracked it. To my surprise, we still found broken, eaten, eggs. It seemed our lizard friend had thought the hens a dirty trick! Some plastic, hard eggs, have helped to overcome this nasty habit, most of the time.

Our ladies seem happy enough, and are laying well, apart from youngsters Cherry and Sushi, who will hopefully start soon. With three eggs a day we indulge again in egg-eating feasts, and hope that for now, our hens lives will be less eventful. If only that dead branch cooperates….

Sunday, 28 August 2016

On the move again

After our last move, we vowed we would never move again, at least, as long as we lived in Singapore. But we would not be real bedouin, nomads, if we had not yet again developed that itch. We lasted three years. Then, the grass turned out greener on the other side of the PIE motorway. Our new house is lovely, but the move wasn’t, still isn’t, an easy one. With these Black & White, government owned, colonial bungalows, you can’t plan. When one came up that we liked, we put in a cheeky bid, got lucky, signed the lease. The house was over a hundred years old, had been empty for 3 years, and needed some work. Well, actually, a lot.

The landlord promised to do the work, and we went on holiday in happy anticipation.

When we returned from our holiday the grass was an inch higher, but nothing else had chanced. Many angry phone calls later, they started the work, six days before the movers would come. We have been living there two weeks now, and still have contractors over almost daily.

The amount of workers involved in the renovation is amazing. We have plumbers, electricians, gardeners, builders, painters, aircon installers. Not always at the same time, but Asian contractors never travel alone – at least four men are needed to fix a faulty light. They are an international bunch, coming from all over Asia; the majority from Bangladesh, but also India, Malaysia, Myanmar, China, and occasionally, Singapore. On Sunday, most of them work on. When I told them the house would still be there on Monday, and that a few more days’ delay did not matter, they looked at me, that white, privileged, naive Ang Moh expat wife, and said that even if they did not work here, their boss had many urgent projects to finish.

When the initial clouds of rushed moving stress lifted slightly in my head, I started thinking more about the workers. I did not know where these men stayed, how much they got paid, and whether they were treated fairly. I chatted to them, trying to get to know them, but most gave polite answers, the ones they think you like to hear. Recently, I gave a lecture to students about corporate human rights, where I stated that as a company, you need to make sure your contractors and sub-contractors stick to the same moral values as you do.

I did not practice what I preached. I needed to try at least. So I started with one, which we hired ourselves, unlike most of the other contractors that were the landlord’s. He was a nice guy, and when asked he said it was fine for them not to come on Sunday. When I asked if he would give him the day off, he laughed, and said that they were free to do the overtime, or not. He was a good employer. Most chose the money, he said. It was not exactly what his men had told me, but lecturing a local, as a foreigner, is a tricky business, and he still had to finish the work, so I continued about how days off are good for moral, for mental well-being, and so on. He wholeheartedly agreed. But I don’t know where his workers were that Sunday.

Challenging a system, if you want to stay polite, and get things done at the same time, is, well, a challenge. I am full of words on paper, but in real life, I am not that brave. I left it after that. Well, we did buy them all pizza.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Hash

From my childhood in Borneo, I have fond memories of dashing through jungle vegetation, in a horde of other kids, and being baptised with Seven-up in a silver cup after having completed ten of such runs. I am talking about: the Hash. 

More specifically; the children’s hash. The adult hash, who’s full name is ‘Hash House Harriers’ was invented in Malaysia by the Brits, and involves running through the jungle to cure hangovers and, not unsurprisingly, a lot of beer.

When we moved to Singapore, my father, fan of hashes of all kind, immediately said I ought to take the kids on a hash. Now the adult me, as many of you know, likes a spot of jungle more than the next girl, but I do think it is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Linde and Tijm take after their very sporty dad, yet Jasmijn, at only five, is rather young, and like me, not known for endurance in physical endeavours. So after more than three years, I still had not done more than join the Facebook group of Singapore’s children hash group ‘Hash House Horrors’, and get jealous watching other people’s photos. 

But when a friend of mine told me that there were plenty of my kind, and even little ones so young that that they had to be carried in arms, there were no more excuses: We were going to hash! And it took all of five minutes for the whole family to get hooked. 

Roel darts off with Tijm and Linde, top of the pack, breaking circles and finding the way. Jasmijn and I hike behind, in the back, where we enjoy our surroundings, pick flowers, and no, we are not even close to finishing last. 

Hashes take you through every kind of scenery. Dense vegetation, drains, roads, open grassy bits, jungle, woodland, forbidden area’s, water ways, steep slopes, where you grasp branches to clamber up, declines that you can slip on, or slide down on your bum. The more mud and tree roots that need to be navigated the better, and last week, when Jasmijn got home and found her shoes were still clean, her dismay was profound. 

The run is set by the hares, that mark the way to go with flour, chalk and white loo paper. The pack, or hounds, need to follow, and to make it harder, particularly for the front runners, false leads are included. There is the ‘circle,’ that is drawn on the floor with flour, from which the route will continue in any direction, and the ones arriving there first need to spread out and find new marks in a 50 metre radius. When they have done so, they ‘break the circle,’ that means mark which way the people following must go, by erasing flour from the circle in that direction. If an adult breaks the circle, and execution will follow. Executions don’t include shotguns, but sticky orange juice that is much more annoying. 

Needless to say Jasmijn, unlike Tijm and Linde, has never had the pleasure to break a circle first, but we have gotten lost, made detours, or puzzled over a murkily broken circle to decide which way to go next. Luckily there is usually a colourful shirt to be spotted in the distance, and when we see a new scrap of loo paper, Jasmijn will call out ‘on-on’ to let everyone know we are back on track. 

Me, in yellow in the middle, at my 10th hash in 1982
With the Hash House Horrors the seven-up from my youth has been replaced with orange juice, but other traditions still stand strong. New people, or ones celebration 10th, 50th or more runs, are called in the circle to drink, and whether you drink or throw your drink at friend or foe, the cup has to end upside down on your head. You can imagine how much gets drunk… 

Here’s to Tijm, Linde and Jasmijn, they’re true blue,
They are Horrors true and true,
They are Horrors so they say,
They tried to go to heaven but they went the other way...
Drinking down down down down.....

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Hot eggs

What do we eat for Easter? Eggs! But since we are in Singapore, why not try a local classic? These spicy eggs are great for a vegetarian dinner or lunch, served with rice and some vegetables. Or, if you are more adventurous, perhaps for Easter Brunch? Believe it or not, they are the favourite food of 6-year-old Linde. The sambal is sweet, sour and spicy at the same time, just a perfect balance. For more fussy children, you can vary the amount of chili you use. 

Sambal eggs

6 eggs 

2 large tomatoes
2 onions
4 shallots
7 large chili’s
2-3 chili padi (small, string chili) to taste
4 cloves of garlic
½ tablespoon tamarind paste (seeds removed)
2 tablespoons gula malaka (palm sugar)
2 salam leaves (Asian bay leave)
2 jeruk perut leaves (kaffir lime)
cooking oil

Boil the eggs hard, and set aside to cool. Take one large onion, and cut in in thin strips. These will add texture to your sambal. Chop the rest of the onion, shallot, garlic, tomato, and chili roughly. You can use more or less chili depending on your taste. 
The large chili’s are usually not that spicy, the chili padi are, so use less, or none, of those if you prefer a lighter version. Blend all of these ingredients together in a blender or food processor. Or, if you want to go old school, grind them in a pestle and mortar.

Peel the eggs and dry them. Heat about a cm of oil in a wok, and fry the boiled eggs on all sides until they are golden, which should take just a few minutes. You can omit this step if you prefer, but the sambal will not stick to the eggs very well. 

Set the eggs aside on some tissue. Now take the blended sambal mixture, and add the tamarind and palm sugar. Fry the sambal in the hot wok for a few minutes, until fragrant, and until some of the moisture has evaporated. We don’t want to sambal to be too wet. Then add the sliced onion and salam and jeruk perut leaves, and a pinch of salt. Fry until the onion is soft.
Finally, add the eggs, and heat everything through.

You can eat them straight away, or let them cool down first.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Mama’s got a gun

I am sitting behind my computer, typing away quietly, and he sneaks up on me. Sensing a dark shadow behind me, I turn around and gasp. He looks at me, his eyes piecing, a slight grin playing around his fierce pointy canines. I scream. I wave my arms. He shrugs, and retreats, casually. 

A few days later I walk into the living room from the bedroom hallway. He is sauntering halfway the living room, same spot, and looks annoyed that I interrupted his stroll to the kitchen. Caught in the act, he feels cornered, and looks around him. Which way to go, into the kitchen? Back the way he came, the patio doors? I’m blocking the back window as well as the hall to the bedrooms. He starts towards the kitchen, his favourite destination, where he knows we keep the food.

I shout, wave my hands, try to block him without aggravating. He would have no way out, all doors and windows in the kitchen are closed, because of him. All food is locked away. But worse, Indah might be in the kitchen, and when he feels the back-exit is blocked by me, he might get aggressive. I flap and sway my arms, shout, still trying to avoid looking into his eyes. Don’t go there! He gets the message and picks a quick exit via the patio instead. I breathe out again.


We have lived with macaques peacefully for years. We have enjoyed sitting on the patio, sipping or tea and Ribena, watching them weaving through the trees, some with babies clutching to their bellies. We watched them file by in a row, jumping a large palm leaf one at the time, waiting for it to slowly sway over, jumping off to the next tree, and the leaf swaying back to it’s original position, ready to pick up the next one in the monkey family train. 

We have learned to hide all food, even the toothpaste, and to lock the medicine cabinet securely. We chose to live in the jungle and we knew they lived there too. 

But this guy is different. I don’t trust him. And he, obviously, does not trust me. 

He is starting to treat not only the garden, but also the house as his home. And that is where I draw my line. 

Possibly this male, a large Alfa, I competing with us for space. Our house is comfortable and safe, and, as he knows well, full of nice food to steal and toothpaste to suck. We need to teach him who’s the boss. Another possible scenario is that, since this group contains two large males, our guy is in fact not Alfa, but Beta male, and he is being pushed out of the group. The recent monkey wars, where they fight high up in the trees, loud screeches resonating through the street, support this theory. Beta male will be aggressive, frustrated by being pushed out of his family group, and insecure as he will need to go out to start his own, in a world where territory is scarce. 

All perfectly natural behaviour for a monkey, but not a war I want battled out in my living room. 

Advice from a macaque specialist at Acres advices: macaque activated sprinklers (which I am sure the kids will love, just a bit too much), spraying chili or other foul substances on window sills (which, since they quite happily rip chili’s of our plants, I doubt the effectiveness of) or spraying/ splashing them with water. Show him who’s boss.

So. I went out and bought me the biggest super soaker I could find. And a small handgun for by my desk. Beware, you motherfucking monkeys. Mama’s got a gun. The battle is on!

Thursday, 18 February 2016

The hassle with the hens

I figured you must be surely all wanting a chicken update, right? Because you are all freaks like me, that are obsessed by feathery chooks and eggs? 

After my husband told me I am not allowed to talk about chicken anymore (at least, he said, perhaps not all the time) I realised that the rest of the world is as concerned for, and interested in my hens as I am. And if I am not allowed to talk chicken, I can always write chicken, not?

The thing is, why I have been so consumed by chickens lately, that we have had some very nasty events. First, we had another visit of a not-so-friendly python. It turned out the new handyman had not done a very good job of fixing the hen house, and there was a hole, conveniently out of sight behind the nest boxes. The image of what I saw that morning when I approached the run is etched on my retina forever, I’ll spare you gory details, but our faithful top layer and top hen Tilly was dead, as well as a young pullet that we had not even had long enough to name it. 

After Acres collected the snake, and my heartbeat had slowly gotten back to close to normal, I consoled myself that in fact eight hens would have, in fact, been a bit too much of a good thing. In the run we now still had our ‘new’ old hens Messy and Lizzie, that popped out eggs daily like clockwork, as well as another unnamed pullet that would become Lucy. And, of course, we had the three chicks. Six hens was plenty. 

Lucy when she first arrived

Little did I know, our troubles had only just begun. A few days later, Messy got yellow diarrhoea, curled up in a corner and died. When Lizzie started to dawdle too, I quickly administered antibiotics (in over a year of keeping hens in a jungle I have drastically changed my views on organic farming practices and anti-biotic free), but she still died in less than a day. 

Now, poor, shy Lucy was all alone. Well, apart from the chicks, Daisy, Fientje and Ronaldo, who had spend their time wisely eating, poo-ing, cheeping, and above all growing, in a cage inside. They were more than ready to go in the run. But mother hen me was afraid. What mysterious bacteria killed Messy and Lizzie? Did the python bring it? Or did the stress of it's visit merely smash their already weak battery farm immune systems and they succumbed to standard jungle bacteria? Did the monkeys that like to lounge on the run drop nasties? Why did the anti-biotic not work? Was it a virus? Coccidiosis? And what about Lucy, who seemed fine, apart from a low appetite and the presence of ‘motile bacteria’ in her poo. 

Monkeying about on the roof
I spent (a lot of) time on online forums, chicken websites, and emailing with random vets. The results remain inconclusive. 

So now what? I scrubbed out the henhouse with bleach, twice. I spread pine oil solution in the rest of the run. I have let the chicks in the run for short periods of time. I have decided it is out of my hands. 

This weekend the chicks will go the run permanently, where they can chase and harass poor Lucy, who is much bigger, but too sweet and shy to fight off three little rascals, and prefers to escape on top of the chick’s cage.

I worry. I despair. And I keep my fingers crossed.

Lucy playing tough

What's this?

I'm bigger than you!

Lucy escaping the chicks

Update: the chicks have been in the run for five days now, and love it. They don't bully Lucy as much as at first, and have learned to sleep on the perch. Fingers are still crossed, but so far so good. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Meet Mr Foo

In front of the beach resort is a wooden shelter. Plastic sheets shield the sides from wind, sun, rain and peeping Toms. I’m lying on my back, and bent over my feet is Mr Foo. When he greeted me this morning, I knew straight away: this would not be an ordinary massage.

Mr Foo shushes me when I want to talk, and starts on my feet. He rubs every toe separately and tells me what ails me. Tiredness, sure. Back pain, shoulders, neck, off course. And headaches, who doesn’t have them? He tells me that he used to treat everything in his village, down in rural Penang, from cancer to diabetes, and that bone setting was his specialty. I can guess why he moved on to massaging tourists; he never charged the villagers.

I nod, and refrain from comments about Mr Foo’s cancer curing abilities, but ask about his village instead. The reflexology is relaxing, and soon Mr Foo moves upwards, rubbing my legs with fragrant clove oil. Normally, my massages are facedown, and silent. Masseurs in Singapore barely speak English. Between rubbing and commenting on the state of my body, Mr Foo shares his live story. 

His father took a boat from China to Singapore in the middle of last century. The boat trip was free, but to pay back the cost he had to work on the Singapore docks for three years, as a coolie. The docks were a dangerous place, coolies were accident prone, and soon Mr Foo senior started to develop his talents as a traditional healer. That suited him more than lugging merchandise, and when his three years were up he moved to Penang, which, like Singapore, has a large community of Straits Chinese. He met a girl in a village, started a fruit plantation, setting bones and curing the villagers on the side. 

Mr Foo has now started on my arms, prodding sore muscles and explaining where I need to knead myself daily to loosen my stiff shoulder. We talk about his village, which has fishermen and fruit plantations. He himself opted out of the fruit, leaving his family plantation to his brother. His other inheritance was more valuable to him: the wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine his father taught. Where Mr Foo senior used to order all his herbs in China, junior does not trust the Chinese. He goes into the jungle, to collect his own. His own son, Tommy, who has joined him in this ‘Father and Son’ reflexology business, refuses to join him on foraging trips into the snake-infested jungle. Now and then, Mr Foo and Tommy talk in rapid Cantonese over my head, looking and pointing at the hotel and its guests. 

We chat on, and Mr Foo tells me his children were smart, but did not manage to get into a local university. Malaysian universities only accept a small number of non-Malays, even though the proportion of ethnic Chinese and Indian in the country is more than significant. Wealthy Chinese send their children to Singapore or overseas, but Mr Foo could not afford this. 

We move to my head, and neck, and I stay quiet for a bit. ‘Your head is blocked,’ says Mr Foo, ‘especially on the left.’
I nod, as he attempts to loosen my neck, shoulders and arms.

We discuss the shiny condos that spring up to the sky all around the island, on-going construction, and soaring real estate prices in Penang. The massage business must be going well, Mr Foo has two apartments in Georgetown he rents out to pay for his village bungalow.

Then, all too sudden, my hour is over. The next client, an elderly German lady that winters in Penang, is waiting. Mr Foo is booked up days ahead.

I walk back to the pool with the noisy kids, covered in a lingering smell of cloves, loose limbed, and the feeling I got to know not only my own body, all the hotel gossip, but also Penang a bit better.