A nomad mother in Singapore

Friday, 10 July 2015

Summer holidays

I am typing away, answering well-overdue work messages. Behind me fighting erupts, screaming and loud thuds. They are playing a game of rainbow snakes, a friendly and simple card game for all ages. Battle snakes, more likely, given the racket. I ignore it. With success. The clamour dies down. Possibly my kids too.

Less than a minute later they prove alive and well, tugging my arm.
‘Mama. We are hungry,’ they nag.
‘Make a sandwich,’ I mutter, absentmindedly.
‘What can we have on it?’
‘Anything you like,’ I answer.
They saunter down to the kitchen.

From the corner of my eye I see them piling plates, bread, and a large jar of chocolate paste on the dining table. Well, it’s the summer holidays; I shrug, and turn back to my computer. I hear smacking, and a chomping sound that comes close to a peaceful silence. After a minute of munching the giggling starts. The giggles become sniggers and chuckles. Louder, and louder. They are having fun.

It is not till a chocolaty hand taps on my shoulder that I turn around.
Three completely brown faces stare me in the eye.
‘You didn’t…..’ 

I hesitate between a screaming fit, hysterical laughter, keeping on ignoring them, or, last but not least, joining the spa experience. I could use the de-stressing.

After a shower and a change of clothes, I decide it is all my fault anyway, for neglecting my kids, so I surrender. ‘Who wants to play a game?’

‘Yes,’ Jasmijn cheers. ‘I’ll pick one.’
She comes back with Monopoly Deal, her favourite card game.
Linde and Tijm are slumped on the sofa, reading comics.
After some coercion they join us at the table. Jasmijn wants to start, and slaps a rent card on the table.
‘No,’ everyone else shouts, ‘you can’t do that, you don’t have any property.’

Deal might be Jasmijn’s favourite game, but Jasmijn can only read three letter words, a number the text on the cards exceeds easily. Big brother Tijm is happy to help, screening her cards and making sure to use them to his own advantage. After an hour of card tossing, cheating, yelling and arguing, Linde wins. I think.

In any case she wins the game of claiming victory, and I ignore my strong suspicion that Jasmijn won half an hour ago, during my brief absence to chat to the gardener. No one noticed, least of all Jasmijn. Howling, Tijm mows all the cards off the table and rushes back to his comics.

I sigh. Almost two weeks over. Five more to go.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Turtle Heroes

We are looking at a small patch of beach where the sand has slightly collapsed in the middle. No matter how hard we stare, we can see no movement. Under the collapsed sand is a hawksbill turtle nest, and the caved sand signals the hatching process has begun. During our weekend at Pulau Tengah in Malaysia we come back to check several times a day, but the little turtles won’t hatch until just after we caught our boat back to the mainland.

Because of these elusive little fellows we decide to make ourselves useful during our lazy trip to the island: with our friends we volunteer for a beach clean-up. Numbers of sea turtles are dwindling fast all over the world, and one of the reasons is the tons and tons of plastic polluting the oceans, as well as the beaches these turtles lay their eggs on.

Turtle Beach cleanup Pulau Tengah
A small boat takes us to the aptly named Turtle Beach, just ten minutes away on the other side of the tiny island. Once ashore we get kitted out with gloves and large garbage bags and get to work. We find tons of plastic bags, cups, bottles, straws, slippers, rope, toys, and much, much more.

The Turtle Heroes!
Tijm and Linde need some convincing to stop collecting shells and pretty pieces of coloured glass, but my turtle stories do convince them, and it is not long before our bags are full. On the way back, sitting on the pile of rubbish in the boat, we feel good.

Proud on the boat
Our guide Carmen, from Turtle Watch Camp, tells us more about the turtles in this area, and how their numbers are swiftly reclining. It brings me back to my childhood, and our camping trips to visit the turtles at Ras al Hadd in Oman. We would camp on the beach under the stars and were woken late at night to witness the giant turtles come ashore to dig nests and lay their ping-pong ball eggs. 

My sister looking at a turtle at Ras al Hadd

In the afternoon we had seen their round heads bob in the surf, impatiently waiting for the safety of the dark. There were so many of them. The morning after the tracks the nesting females had left made the beach look like hundreds of trucks had crossed in the night.

Ras al Hadd beach in the early 1980s

When I revisited Ras al Hadd in 2008 many of these turtles had gone. A resort on the beach, ironically named Turtle Resort, had scared them away. Seeing the destruction of one of my favourite childhood memories was painful.

The connection between tourism and nature is a tricky one. Well-meaning tourists may do more harm than good. Large resorts have taken over the beaches where turtles used to lay. Yet tourism can also help fight another threat that faces turtles: poachers. Tourism might provide new ways of generating income for local people, and conservation projects like Turtle Watch Camp can help educate them on the value of nature surrounding them. 

Back at home we watch the video of the hatching we missed. We hope our hot and hard work has helped just the tiniest bit, and that one of these little fellows will make it back to Turtle Beach and produce yet another generation.


Do you want to be a Turtle Hero too?

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Trouble in Paradise

The kids are settled at the breakfast table, fiddling with their cereals. I walk over to the chicken run, to give the impatient, clucking hens their breakfast too. I stretch my arm to open the door and freeze in my tracks. I am looking right into the eyes of a giant snake.

The snake is curled around the fence just next to the door, eye level, neck and tail sticking out, and the fatter, middle part of his body leaning on the wood inside. I shrink back, screaming, almost falling over my retreating steps. The kids come running from their breakfast. ‘Stay back,’ I shout.

It takes a few seconds before it hits me. Quickly my eyes dart over the hovering chicken. One. Two. Three. Four. My heart sinks. My eyes go back to the fat part of the snake, stuck inside the run, the part that he can’t squeeze through the wire mesh. A snake is stretchy, and can fit through a very small hole. But not a chicken. Nor a snake with a chicken inside him.

The kids come out and stare at the python with big eyes, excited by the turmoil. They have not realised yet what it means when there is a python stuck in the chicken run. I am pondering how I can explain this, when we hear yelling from the front patio. Monkeys have snatched our abandoned breakfast and run up the roof, munching cheese and bread. It truly is a jungle out here!

Back inside I gather my wits. I call the wildlife rescue hotline. I cuddle Jasmijn, who has now realised her favourite chicken is not in the run. I try to explain that nature is cruel, that snakes need to eat too, and isn’t chicken rice her favourite dish? I rush them to the bathroom to brush their teeth before the school bus arrives. In the meanwhile the python has given up trying to get his fat stomach through the mesh, and has coiled up for a nap just behind the door. The chicken run around the coop, unperturbed, annoyed at the delayed breakfast. After the school bus has left the wildlife rescuers arrive. Armed with sticks and long tongs they open the door, and bravely grip the python. Moments later it is safely in a carrier cage and I can breathe again.


My relief does not last long as I find the stiff body of Keetje inside the hen house. I blame myself, for the last month I have neglected to lock the hens in at night, allowing the nocturnal predator to get inside. A quick headcount shows that the lump in the python’s long body has to be Wilhemina. I blink away tears. The snake got our two most beautiful hens.

‘A medium size python’ the rescuers say. Reticulated pythons can reach up to seven meters, but this one, that must be well over three metres, is more than enough for me. We chat some more, and I learn about these majestic, yet frightful snakes. I am happy to hear they are not really dangerous to humans, that they won’t bite unless provoked. That does not help my chicken.

Then, I learn that snakes can vomit. There are no words to describe the grossness of a snake vomiting up a chicken, especially if that is your own, beloved hen. Luckily the bathing of the snake to get rid of the nasty smell before it goes in the van, is so hilarious that it, mostly, manages to replace that image in my mind. The snake is popped in a bag and will be taken to the zoo. There, it will be chipped, and in a few months released again in the wild. I hope, far, far from our chicken run.

The remaining hens seem unaffected, they eat, they lay eggs, and cluck away happily. The kids are sad. And me? I see snakes in each tree root, check under every bed, and jump if anything brushes past my leg. I shudder to enter the chicken run. I console myself with my newly gained wisdom that usually only one large python roams in every square five kilometres. I hope it will be a while before a new one moves in. 

With a big thank you to the good people of Acres, I wouldn’t have known what to do without their amazing volunteers. Please consider making a donation via their website, I sure did, you never know when I’ll need them again. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Ultimate Borneo Spa Experience

Last week, during our desert island getaway off the shore of northern Borneo, we experienced a very special treat. There is nothing as relaxing, rejuvenating, or fun, as a spa session for the whole family, is there? 

But this was no ordinary spa. This was a jungle adventure spa. To reach it, we had to trek about half an hour through the jungle. Armed with mosquito spray, flip-flops, old clothes, and a solid dose of anticipation, we followed the signs ‘to the mud volcano.’

It wasn’t long until we reached a clearing in the forest, in the middle of the small island that was created by just this mud volcano mere centuries ago. Here was our spa. A spa that offered no fluffy bathrobes, pristine towels or soothing new age music. No. This spa was a bubbling pool of grey, smooth mud. Giant water striders skated over the surface. 

Insects or not, in seconds we had shed our clothes and the kids jumped in the first, most shallow pool. This mud turned out to be the densest, and in seconds all three were stuck. So we pulled them out and tried the next pool, in which the mud was the consistency of creamy yoghurt. Thick enough that lying flat, or even sitting up, you could float on the surface comfortably, and thin enough to propel yourself forward with slow sweeping motions. 

We rubbed the mud all over our body, our faces, and in our hair. We massaged and scrubbed it in, hovering on top of the slush. The sound of cicadas, screaming monkeys, and the wind in the leaves proved much more relaxing than any muzak could ever be. 

After we hadn’t an inch of clear skin left on our bodies it was time to rinse off. To do that, we had to walk back to the sea, down the jungle track we came up. Have you ever attempted to walk down a slippery jungle path with feet full of slick, slimy muck? We tried to clean up our feet as much as we could with an old T-shirt, slipped in - and repeatedly out - our flip-flops, and slithered on our way.

Having arrived safely back at the coast, we plunged straight in, and turned, the warm, clear, and normally bright turquois waters of the South China Sea grey. It took a while to get the mud out of all our crevices, but the water was fresh, the sun shone bright, and hey, we were on holiday.

Our ultimate spa experience was concluded on the beach with a soft sandy scrub session performed by four little hands. Needless to say, my skin has never been smoother. Fluffy bathrobes are definitely overrated.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

When the rain is away...

It was exactly the same last year. After Jasmijn's birthday in early January, the rain stopped. At first, it is pleasant to be relieved of the Singapore sky opening itself every afternoon in battering showers. Our mudpool of a garden dries up, mould can finally be extinguished, and playing outside after school is on again. The weather, sunny yet still cool from months of rain, and with a nice breeze, is refreshing and delicious. 

Last year the dry spell lasted three months. Three months in which our green grass turned yellow, our red soil cracked, and our jungle lost its lusciousness. Singapore’s sweet water reservoirs started drying up and the government worried. I worried too, but not about water. Because something else happens when the rain’s away: The snakes come out to play…

Even though our house is surrounded by jungly patches, we don’t get too many slithery visitors. Well, there was that four-meter python I almost stepped on down the road. And the nest of black spitting cobra’s in the neighbour’s blinds. And that highly venomous Malayan blue coral snake, that Roel cycled over one morning, and that tried to bite his paddling ankles. But apart from that, we were fine.

Until the drought hit. For lack of water, snakes will venture further afield to quench their thirst. Admittedly, most of our visitors were of the benign kind, tree snakes, house wolf snakes. I am not easily afraid of animals. There is just one kind I don’t like. You can guess which one.

striped kukri snake

So when there is a small snake at the gate, which, according to my newest snake app, can be either a harmless striped kukri, or a highly poisonous banded malay coral snake, my worst maternal instincts come out. I am ready to kill. And I will. It is surprisingly easy to kill a small snake with a shovel.

And there is more killing going on in our garden. One day, we are drawn outside by Indah’s screams, and she points at a five foot long constrictor snake in our palm tree, coiled around a stiffened squirrel. I hold my hands in front of the kids eyes, trying to hurry them back inside. ‘No,’ they shout, eyes gleaming, ‘we want to see this.’ We watch the snake stretch it’s jaws wide, and swallow the squirrel whole. The chickens see it too, and won’t lay for a week.

My kids are braver than me. One morning, last year, Jasmijn walked out of the toilet, calmly claiming ‘snake, mama.’ By then, we were well trained to recognise the innocuous house wolf snake draped around the bowl, which we granted mercy, and threw over the fence on the same shovel.

So this week, when I passed what I thought was a large stick on the road, a stick that suddenly uncoiled with hissing tongue, my heart thumped for hours. I hope it will rain soon. So the snakes can stay in the jungle. Much safer. For us, and for them.

As I am usually too busy panicking; photo courtesy of Norman Lim, http://www.wildsingapore.per.sg

Sunday, 25 January 2015

A big girl and a busy mama

She had been talking about it for months. Pleading. Whining. When, o when can I start big school? When the big day finally arrives her pluck has shrivelled.

She hides behind my skirt, hugging my leg. I take her around the class, looking at the home corner, the books, the building toys. We put her bus chain on the peg, her coolbox with lunch and snack in the locker, and her water bottle in its crate. I point at a chair that has a picture of a bear and her name: Jasmijn. She loosens up, and agrees to sit while the rest off the class trickles in. I chat to the teacher.

When I want to take a picture, for papa, for the archives, she runs away, waving an angry finger to her mama who should know better.
‘Don’t take a photo, mama.’
That’s my girl, and I know she is her own self today.
‘I’ll go now,’ I say quietly. She looks unsure.
A hug and a kiss later, she lets go, reluctantly.

I, on the other hand, am keen to go. Jasmijn starting primary school is a milestone I had been looking forward to for years. Four years. Not that I don’t like my kids, but I have found that I enjoy them more when I spend some time away from them, doing something that challenges my brain more than a game of monopoly- the junior version.

On my fingers I had counted that I would have two afternoons and one full day more childfree time than when she still went to pre-school. Twelve hours. Hours that I had already allocated to additional projects at work, a new book, more blogging. I forgot that I was usually ten hours short every week. And therefore, in reality, it would be a meagre few hours more.

These thoughts make me more stressed than I already was. I decide to take it easy, this first day of the rest of my life, and after I finish all my urgent work emails, I opt for a soothing massage.

That afternoon, when I pick her up she walks out of the class, on the hand of the teacher. I bend for a cuddle.
‘How was school?’ I ask.
‘Fine,’ she replies.

In the car I try more, what did they do all day?
She needs some time to think.
‘I played outside,’ she then submits.
‘Nice. Anything else?’
‘I played inside too.’
‘Was the teacher nice?’
More thinking. ‘Yes.’
When my next question gets no answer, I turn around to the back seat.
She has fallen asleep.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Winter flower

It seems at the same time a lifetime ago, and just yesterday when I wrote this piece. The flower in the photo is called 'winterjasmijn' in Dutch, winter jasmine, and it flowered on this day four years ago in our cold, bleak English garden. Something else flowered that day too:

Tijm is at preschool. Linde’s asleep. I lie on the sofa and contract. Again and again my eyes wander to the hands on the clock. I count the minutes till the next cramp. Ten minutes. Again and again, all day long. Never speeding up, never getting on. We won’t get there this way. I sigh. I look outside, at the dreary grey day. It’s not raining, but the branches are heavy with big fat drops. My eyes wander over the wet, barren plants, dull and dark. Then, suddenly, I see a flash of colour, a bright yellow star. Last summer I planted the bush. But it has struggled, in it’s arid, bleak corner under the fence. I didn’t water it enough. The rabbits munched on it. Only one stalk remained, it’s half dead buds drooping down. I had given up hope. But now, on this rainy January morning, a lonely star flowers in the winter jasmine. I rub my aching bump. This is a sign. It will be a girl. And she’s on her way.

But the contractions keep messing about. Slower, then quicker, sometimes painful, then less, it goes on and on, through the weekend. Until Tuesday morning, when I wake up with a jolt. Pain. Real pain. But not enough. Too slow, every ten minutes, again and again. Roel heads off to work, me to the order of the day. Play group, laundry. Tijm to preschool. Linde in bed for her nap. And then, suddenly, slow becomes fast. My brain and body barely keep up. I do. Tidy up. Call Roel. Set up birth pool. Call hospital. Line busy. Call again. And again. Roel arrives, takes Linde away. He is back and I won’t let him go. Rapids of hormones grip my body. The doorbell rings. I still won't let go but Roel frees his hand with a yank. I feel a plop. A gush. The midwife comes in while I stare at the puddle around my feet.

‘This baby is coming,’ I shout. ‘Now!’
The contraction eases down and so do I. ‘Do you need to check me, look, down there?’ I ask.
She looks into my eyes. ‘No,’ she says calmly. ‘Do what you have to do.’
I feel a new contraction welling up. I groan. ‘I won’t make it to the pool.’
She takes my hand. ‘Come,’ she smiles. ‘Let’s make a dash for it.’

I am in the pool and my body pushes. Not too fast, my brain thinks, I will tear. But it’s too late. She is already out.

I am back on the sofa. Outside it is getting dark but I don’t need to see the flower anymore. She is on my belly now. My daughter. My second daughter. Jasmijn.

Slow returns. We have a cup of tea with the midwifes. There’s no rush, they just got here. Jasmijn is weighed, measured, checked. Approved. She drinks. She drinks greedily. Leisurely Roel tidies up, empties the pool. We call grandparents, aunts, uncles. Then it’s time for Tijm’s pick up. I lie on the sofa and wait. I hear the door. High pitched voices in the hallway.

‘Mummy, mummy. Baby. Bath.’
I smile. We are all here.