A nomad mother in Singapore

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Prepare to be amazed

A weekend city trip with 3 young kids can leave you with an acute need for a quiet vacation on the beach. But that does not mean it is not amazing. 

Our trip started in chaos, running around Changi airport to buy a last minute Bangkok city guide before the gate closed, and me racking my brain to dig up all those great tips that people shared in the last few weeks. After an elaborate study of the guidebook on the flight, in between games of Uno, hangman and reading Stickman for the fifteenth time, we settled on the museum where the Royal White Elephants used to be kept for that first afternoon. 

Bangkok is a busy, full city, and after our taxi, flight, and taxi ride to the hotel we walked, rode a sky train, and a tuk-tuk to get to the museum. When we arrived it was 3pm. The museum was closed.

Hot and weary, we rambled around the park, clutching the guidebook, unsure what was next with three overheated, worn-out kids. All of a sudden hordes of Chinese tourists, wrapped in colourful cheap sarongs over shorts, swept us up. Groups of them followed umbrella-holding guides to a large, renaissance style building. The tourists, guides nor the locals seemed to speak much English, but we took our chances. We bought tickets. 

More in-depth scrutiny of the guidebook revealed that we were in the Royal Throne Hall, which was even more impressive on the inside than the outside, with golden domes and ceiling frescos of naked angels, elephants and garudas. The hall was cool and vast, and housed an exhibition of gold and silk handicraft by royal artisans. The vastness of the golden halls silenced even the tourist groups, even our kids, into a serene site of glitter and glamour. We were amazed. There were golden boats, intricate woodcarvings, luminescent embroidered silk tapestries, and much, much more. The children were awed, and so were we. Our Bangkok trip had kicked off with a bling. 

The next few days showed more glimmer and dazzle, when we visited the Royal Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Again, neither hordes of tour groups, nor the blistering heat, spoiled our amazement. 

To cool off and chill out we then sailed Bangkok’s canals in a longtail boat, and the river on the ferry. Old houses, and ramshackle shanties were alternated with gleaming mansions and, off course, golden domed temples. Without too much purpose or planning we let a few more of the many, many faces of Bangkok amaze us. We fed fish for good luck.

We ate delicious food, hot, fragrant and spicy, less so for the kids. We relaxed by the pool, and got tortured with Thai massage. Our lack of preparation was not a problem. We were amazed any way. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Four Dutch girls, two tandems and 14.000 kilometres

Where I just went backpacking in South America for a few months after I graduated from university, these four young Dutch girls are looking for a bigger adventure. In just over a year they will cycle from Jakarta to Amsterdam. On two tandems. Not only that, they do it for a good cause: to raise awareness for women’s rights. A ‘Ride 4 Women’s Rights.’

A few weeks after their departure from Jakarta Carlijn, Monique, Lidewij and Sophie arrived in Singapore, staying with a friendly Dutch expat couple that took them under their wings. The next day I took them to HOME, the NGO I work for. HOME supports migrant workers in Singapore, and the Dutch girls were invited to join in my Dreams Class, where we dreamed about our prospective futures together with domestic workers staying at the HOME shelter. We found that, although the contestants came from very different countries (the Netherlands, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Greece and India) their dreams were not that different. We all wanted to start our own companies, build our dream house and be able to take care of our loved ones.

The day after the four girls cycled on, over the causeway to Malaysia, but luckily there was time for a quick interview. I was curious how they got the idea for this challenging journey. It turned out not to be the first time these women, that have been friends since primary school, travelled together. This time they wanted to do something different. ‘It was on our last trip that we realised that students like us are very self-centered. We took all our opportunities for self-development for grated, without stopping to think how special they are. Because we are all quite sporty, we wanted to add a challenge. To be aware, for 400 days, whilst cycling, of women’s rights, will be an unforgettable exploration. So that is how we started the ‘Ride for Women’s rights.’

The four women will visit various projects from Plan International and Care International during their journey, as well as other local projects that support women’s rights, and share their stories on their website. So far the group cycled through Indonesia to Singapore, neighbouring countries but which are worlds apart. Singapore impressed them as being ‘futuristic, grand, visionary, and full of expats.’ The ladies of R4WR don’t like to judge. Their journey is one of exploration. Yet they have to admit that Singapore is more modern, and much wealthier than Indonesia. The visit to HOME showed them that ‘beneath the veneer of Singapore there is a darker area, where for instance migrants rights are not always heard.’

How does the public respond to four cycling Dutch girls? ‘When in the busy Indonesian traffic two red tandems appear, men, women as well as children laugh their heads off. There is astonishment, but we also get positive reactions, when we tell that we will cycle 14000 kilometres from Jakarta to Amsterdam to raise awareness on women’s rights. Four girls cycling? Really…from Jakarta to Rembang? O no, all the way up to Amsterdam?’ They had not expected all these positive reactions, and the sign, conversations and meetings that came forth made a lasting impression on the four.  

Apart from the Far East they will also cross the Middle East. All countries that are not as safe as Singapore. Are they never afraid? ‘In the Netherlands we did training on how to handle aggressive situations. This was also a prerequisite for our parents and sponsors. Safety remains very important to us. In Indonesia we often slept at police stations, a golden concept. In every town or village we’d knock on the door at the local police office. After the first week police offices started to feel like home! Every office we slept at (on our mats) would provide us with a letter of recommendation for the next one. When we arrived at the last one, in Bali, we had 17 letters. Let’s hope this trick will work in other countries too.’

After Singapore, Sophie, Carlijn, Monique and Lidewij will cycle through Malaysia, then Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar before entering the Middle East. If you want to follow their adventures, do check their website at www.r4wr.or or find them on facebook as R4WR.

And if you have suggestions for projects to visit, or places to stay in any of these countries, don’t hesitate to drop them an email at info@r4wr.org

Sunday, 28 September 2014

When the cat’s away…

Roel went to Europe, and when he gets back, his first comment is that we have turned the house into a zoo. Our garden 
resembled a safari park already, but apart from a bunch of gecko’s and a hamster, as pets went, it was pretty calm. 

First, we find a rat’s nest in the beanbag. I don’t know if you have ever had a baby rat, eyes still closed, lying in the palm of your hand? Our pest control efforts all of a sudden seem mean and cruel, and my suggestion to give the little thing to Louis, the neighbour’s cat, as a present, is received with horror by the kids.

Next, Indah spots a bird in the frangipani tree. Nothing special in itself, but this one, with it’s yellow grey feathers and proud quiff, is not a local one. Indah soon lures it down from the tree, and has it eating linseed and breadcrumbs from her hand. It stays the night her room, perched in a laundry basket. Google tells us it’s a cockatiel, native to Australia and a common pet. The cockatiel is a bit under the weather, and at first we are not sure it can fly properly. A few days of bread and seeds get it’s strengths up. It darts out of the window. And the day after it is back. 

One morning, I notice the hamster cage roof open. I want to blame the kids, but I know, off course, it has been me who left it open last night. It is not the first time either. I close it quickly, and forget about it

That afternoon Indah points at Louis in the back garden. 

‘What does Louis have? A mouse? A baby rat?’

Louis drops whatever he is holding, and as it hops through the grass I notice two undeniable, and worrying, facts: The thing has stripes. And no tail. 

‘That’s no mouse,’ I scream, the open roof flashing through my mind. 
I jump, out the window, over the plant beds, up the hill, and grab it. 
Poor Marigold’s hind leg bends in a funny angle, and he has a cut on his right shoulder. 

A few days later Linde tells me, ‘Mama, have you not noticed Louis sitting next to Marigold’s cage?’
‘What the ghrfumble,’ I shout, chasing the tom out. 

Our bird, perched on his bamboo fruit basket, observes cooly. It has not moved much the last few days, even free to fly it prefers to laze around the seed bowl. But the tiger in Louis has awoken. Marigold might be locked safely inside, our free-ranging bird demonstrates he can fly fast and far, by dashing out of the house screeching, followed by a fierce looking Louis. 

Louis now prowls around the house, stalking our pets, in a killer mood. The cockatiel resides in the high palm tree before the house, while Marigold licks his wounds (or the antibiotic cream I applied) in the furthest corner of the cage. I had thought the cockatiel would be safer in our house than in the jungle. Now, I am not so sure. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Boontjes met vlees

Kids and vegetables, always a tricky combination. It is not that long ago that Linde looked at me, head cocked, stating with a weary voice: Mama, you know I don’t eat vegetables. She did not say it, but I could read the why do you keep serving them in her eyes. 

Yet a few months ago when I asked what she wanted to eat on her birthday, she summed up, without hesitating: green beans, broccoli, pink fish (salmon steak) and rice. In that sequence. I have still not recovered from the shock. 

Green beans especially have been a firm favourite in our household for a while now. We have had fights over who could get the last ones, and mean fights too. The other day we served two large packets of beans, and I had naively assumed that after two of my kids would have feasted on those, enough would be left for Indah’s dinner too. No. They ate them all. 

I still remember how much I hated green beans growing up, especially those served at my grandmother’s house. Memories of green beans boiled to death in the classic Dutch way still make me shudder. Obviously we are not having those. I have not boiled a vegetable since I-can’t-remember-when. We stir-fry. 

Credits for the popularity of green beans can be granted to a dish we call, very prosaically, ‘boontjes met vlees’. This translates into, well, ‘beans and meat.’ The dish is as simple as it is yummy, consisting of stir fried, ehm, beans and beef. 

Roel claims to be the inventor of this famous dish, the recipe of which has been further perfected by Indah (and we will tactfully ignore the fact that it seems in fact a classic Asian disc). Last Monday when we (we meaning Indah) cooked this dish I brought it out to five children, ready at the table, chanting ‘boontjes met vlees’, while banging their knives and forks on the table to the rhythm. Our little guests (who had it before and had requested it) complained that when their aunty made it for them, it was just not as good. 

And since I know that all you parents out there are now dying to get this famous recipe that will get your kids to gorge on green beans, without further ado I present Indah’s version of: 

Boontjes met vlees 
(stir fried beef with green beans)

500 g stir-fry beef, in thin strips
2 or 3 (~200g) packets of green beans, cleaned and in 3-5cm pieces
1 onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
kechap Manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) 

for the marinade:
3-4 tablespoons light soy sauce
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon corn starch
pepper and salt

I have given indicative quantities for most of the ingredients because we don’t really do exact measuring in our kitchen, and also because it depends on your personal preference. You can’t really go wrong much, and you can always add more soy sauce or oyster sauce later. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade, and add it to the beef. Let it sit for a while, at least half an hour. 

Heat a wok with a generous glug of oil and fry the garlic and onion for a few minutes. Add the beans, and stir-fry these for a few minutes as well until they are almost done, before you add the beef. Make sure your wok is hot and you stir well. When everything is cooked, add a generous glug of kechap manis to taste. Serve with plain rice.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The other side of Singapore #StopTraffickingSG

Singapore is an excellent city to live in for expats. Shining lights, clean, safe, with good schools, and amazing food. All the comfort you need, topped with an exotic sauce to give it just that hint of Asian flavour, without the dirt, hustle, bustle and hassle of many of its neighbouring countries. 

Some foreign residents, in their expat bubble, are not aware of another, much darker side of Singapore. They might have heard of some of the goings-on in Orchard Towers, or Singapore’s infamous red light district Geylang. They might have seen the foreign construction workers toiling on the newest high-rise buildings. Or they have seen domestic workers spending they Sunday morning washing their employers cars. 
But unless you look very, very closely, it is hard to see the plight of some of these workers. To see what sacrifices they made to get here. And what problems the more unfortunate migrants encounter. They are expats in Singapore too. Yet the advantaged position of expats on Employment Passes, in condo’s and with kids in international schools, is lifetimes away from that of a low wage migrant worker with a limited grasp of the English language, who travelled to support a family left behind in their home countries. They will work long hours for a low salary, sleep in squalid dormitories or store rooms, and get fed only just enough to sustain their hard labour. And that is when all goes well. It does not always. 

Trafficking in persons is a serious crime and a violation of human rights. Every year men, women and children are deceived or coerced into leaving their homes and moving to Singapore, only to end up in jobs and working conditions they did not expect. Leaving is difficult, because of huge debts owed to recruiters. These men, women and children often face long working hours with inadequate rest, or even physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. They may also be verbally abused or threatened by their employers and recruiters.

A few months ago Singaporean MP Mr Christopher De Souza proposed to draft a Private Member’s Bill dedicated to combating human trafficking in Singapore. The aim is to present the Bill in parliament in November 2014.
Singaporean Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) advocating human rights welcome the new Bill, and hope it will be a significant step in combating human trafficking in Singapore. HOMEAWARE, TWC2, HealthserveUNWomen and MARUAH have taken this occasion to raise awareness of human trafficking issues in Singapore, and jointly organised the StopTraffickingSG Campaign.

StopTraffickingSG urges the government to adopt a victim-centred approach in the drafting of the Bill on Prevention of Human Trafficking. The campaign organisers feel that without this, the Bill will not be sufficiently effective in combating Human Trafficking. 
StopTrafficking SG recommends the following to be considered:

· Victims have the right to accommodation, food, counselling services, legal aid, medical treatment, compensation and social support while their case is on-going.

· Victims are not prosecuted for being an undocumented immigrant or for working ‘illegally’ or for any illegal immigration infractions inadvertently committed while being trafficked.

· Victims have the right to work and a decent income while their case is on-going.

Victim’s rights need to be taken into consideration to ensure detection and prosecution of traffickers and trafficking-related crimes. If not, many victims will opt to return to their home countries without making a formal complaint to the authorities, rendering the Bill ineffective.
At the moment, trafficked victims are often reluctant to file complaints and claim justice. Investigations and legal proceedings may take several months or even up to two years before being resolved, during which time the victims are obliged to remain in Singapore. It is not guaranteed they will have the option to work during investigations, and many, being the breadwinners of their families, can simply not afford to stay to file a complaint. Sometimes victims are prosecuted themselves for being undocumented immigrants, or for working illegally, often unknowingly and due to the actions of their traffickers. The victim’s fear for the authorities stops them from seeking help.

Inclusion of victim’s rights will also align Singapore’s laws with international standards. A clear framework to protect victims of trafficking in Singapore strengthens relations with our neighbours, who are the main source countries of victims trafficked through and to Singapore.

Guaranteeing the victims’ safety, livelihood and sustenance in the Bill will give victims of Human Trafficking the incentive to report, identify and testify against perpetrators. This will aid the effective prosecution of employers and recruiters involved in trafficking persons into Singapore, and in turn assist the destruction of trafficking syndicates as well as bring justice to victims and reduce crimes that threaten the security of Singapore.

Visit the Campaign website, for updates and Human Trafficking Stories: http://stoptraffickingsg.wordpress.com/

Or find StopTraffickingSG on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/Stoptraffickingsg

Please sign their Petition for the comprehensive protection of the rights of Trafficked Persons in Singapore. Everyone with a valid address in Singapore is eligible to sign, regardless of nationality.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Guests of honour: traditional Javanese wedding

Together we bend over the phone, but the map is not of much help. It shows a muddle of small roads without any names, landmarks, or anything else recognisable. When I asked Indah for her address, she shrugged. Her village does not have names or numbers. In vain we search for any pointers. Finally, we agree on meeting her and her uncle tomorrow by the sugar cane factory half an hour away. He will lead the way on his scooter. 

Indah, cleans, washes and babysits at out Singapore house, and visiting her village is the end, and the highlight, of our Java trip. Not only because we get to see her beautiful yellow house, the charming and quiet village surrounded by rice fields, but also because we have been invited to attend Indah's friend's village wedding. 

We are the first ‘white people’ to visit this village, in the Karang Anyar area near Solo, so we are quite a sight. Indah’s uncle stares into Linde’s eyes, and asks what we put in them to make that icy blue colour. Because of my six foot height and long legs, girls giggle I look like a Barbie doll. 

All the aunties and uncles spoil our kids with boiled soy beans, krupuk and sugary sweets and cuddles. The lunch we get served, cooked by Indah’s aunties, is the best we had in Java. My favourite crispy fried tempeh, pecel vegetables with peanut sauce, tapioca leaves in coconut milk, krupuk and chicken for the kids. 

Indah tells us that this morning her auntie tried to catch one of the kampong chickens roaming around the house for us. It fled into a tree, and Indah bought a chicken at the market instead. 

The music down the road lures us to the wedding. There is a band, a traditional gamelan orchestra, three professional singers, and a sound system that could blast across the sea to Singapore. The guests sit waiting, women in colourful kebaya’s on one side, men in batik shirt and black peci caps on the other.

The wedding has not yet started, and we are whisked into the bride’s neighbour’s house to greet the happy couple, just in time to see her traditional make up being applied. The couple looks stunning in their blue robes; both bride and groom heavily made up, and decorated with long tresses of sweet smelling jasmine flowers. 

At first uncertain whether we are welcome, we are quickly put at ease (and slightly embarrassed) as we are ushered in as guest of honour, with special seats reserved next to the bride’s parents. During the lengthy ceremony we will be showered with sweet tea, food and snacks. 

The bride’s house has been remodelled with superb woodcarvings and wooden thrones, and is decorated with bamboo, fruit and flower ornaments. A wedding planner walks around, directing all the guests in their roles, whipping the bride into shape if she slacks from her upright position for just a minute. 

Halfway the formal ceremony a lady comes over to invite me to come and see the kitchen, bring your camera, she points, and smiles. Behind the scenes are as many people as in front. These are the villagers, explains Indah, traditional Javanese weddings are a village affair, and everyone helps out. Dozens of ladies cook, scoop and prepare food, which gets served out by lads in matching pink shirts. Everyone smiles from the excitement of me dropping by, and I need to taste all the delicacies. In the corner more ladies wrap left over food in djati leafs, which we will be handed to leaving guests. 

Back at the wedding, the official ceremony gets wrapped up by the couple having their pictures taken, and then leaving to get changed in another stunning outfit. In the meanwhile the singers entertain the guests, and food gets served. By now I have eaten more than I normally would in a day, but it just keeps coming. 

The bride and groom return in gold, and we make more pictures while some of the guests have a go at the microphone. They try to coax me to sing a tune as well, but I shake my head, grinning. It would not be pretty.

When the wedding is over we press thick red packets into the hands of the bride, happy and thankful to have been part of their amazing day. Later, on our walk around the village we encounter the groom on his scooter. We struggle to recognise him at first in a simple t-shirt and without his make-up. He grins shyly, and we wave and thank him again. They will later go over to his village to celebrate again. We are off too, back to Singapore, where we can look at the pictures and marvel at this amazing day that we wil never forget.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Javanese impressions

After visiting colourful, bustling Yogyakarta and the stunning Borobudur, we leave the touristy part of Central Java behind and head into the country. Our trip will take us in a circle around the two large volcanoes that sit in the centre of Java, Gunung Merapi and Gunung Merbabu, and we’ll see the mountains from all angles. The first stop is Wonosobo, a small town at the foot of the mountains. 

We  see a lot of Wonosobo, as the town has an intricate web of one way roads and side streets, and we have to circle it a couple of times before we can find the hotel. Traffic is fluid, and the town pretty, so we don’t complain. Our hotel is a charming colonial one, build as a retreat for Dutch planters in the 1920s. The only other tourists we see are, if not Javanese, Dutch, unsurprisingly.

That afternoon we visit the hot springs in Kalianget. Concrete, tiled public baths have been built around the springs, and they are full of locals having a bath. Some scrub themselves and their young children with shampoo in the sulphuric water, which has a lovely temperature just under 40 degrees. Needless to say we are the only white people, and quite an attraction. The sulphuric spa water is rust coloured, and smells like rotten eggs, but very pleasant, especially in the cool mountain air. 

Our fellow bathers, like everyone in Java, are friendly and inquisitive. Despite the often-poor English (and my equally poor Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese) many come up for a chat. They ask where I am from, and if I say Belanda, I always get a big smile. ‘Ah, Belandaaaaa, gooood.’

What will usually follow with hand, feet and many smiles, is a discussion about the kids, how old they are, after which I enquire after their kids, and where they are from. Many Javanese travel to see the sights of their own island, and we are not the only tourists. Just the only white ones.

I will end with remarking how beautiful the temple/ area/ pool/ volcano is we are at, and then our limited vocabulary will be depleted. Off course no conversation is complete without a posed photograph. 

When we entered the park in which the hot springs are, we had to buy a ticket. Then, we had to buy another one to park the car. Then, we had to buy tickets again to enter the pool. The Javanese like selling tickets. If you want to enter a park, parking lot, lake, or any place more or less worth seeing, someone will whip out a ticket book, and you will have to pay a fee. The amount will sound staggering at first, but if you take off four zero’s you roughly have the amount in Singapore dollars, and you realise it is not really that bad. The  kids are often free, and for the bigger attractions Indah gets a local citizen ticket, at a fraction of the cost of the foreigner one. We are happy to contribute to the upkeep of Java’s beauty, and another good thing about all those tickets are that the kids are entertained in the car for hours folding them into paper planes and throwing them at each other. 'Not at papa, he is driving!’

We joke we should get our own ticket book, so we can start selling tickets whenever someone wants to take our picture. In Indonesia, we’d be millionaires soon.

Since we bought the ticket, we decide to explore the park, entering it through a giant fish head. The park is, like many things in Indonesia, badly neglected. You can see it has been nicely build, but has never been maintained. One of the problems in Indonesia is that especially rural area’s don’t know a collective garbage collection. Even if you could get people to not drop their rubbish where they stand, what would they do with it? The only answer is burning it, which makes villages smelly and smoky. Many gorgeous places are full of plastic, spoiling the beautiful sights for us Europeans, especially ones used to the immaculateness of Singapore. 

Behind the park is a football pitch, where lads in meticulous gear and shoes play on a rough field. We sit and watch it for a while and eat our snack, and try not to add our plastic to the garbage behind us.