A nomad mother in Singapore

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.


video


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. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Healthy?

Trying to make sense of the challenges of healthy eating

We all try to eat healthy, don’t we? Well, we try, yes. Maybe. But it is not that easy. Learning to say no to all those yummy cakes and cocktails is one thing, but an equally difficult matter is the question: what is healthy these days?

Scanning the internet, we can find millions of conflicting opinions on what ‘experts’ (either scientifically trained or self appointed) believe is good for us. Some promote high fat, others low fat eating. Some worship meat, others ban it. There is the Eatwell plate (‘schijf van vijf’ in Dutch), 5 a day, Paleo, Atkins, vegan, superfoods, glutenfree, low fat, low carb, high protein, and much more. Can’t see the forest for the trees? You’re not the only one.

In the nineties we were led to believe that eating too many eggs would raise our blood cholesterol. So we limited our egg intake, or didn’t but felt guilty at every bite. Then, a few decades later, the big news came: the effect of dietary cholesterol, like the one found in egg yolk, on our blood cholesterol is minimal. Even the heath authorities admitted their mistake. We can gorge on eggs again.

Then there is meat. Protein is good for you, it makes you strong, gives you energy, so if we stick to lean meat we are good, right? No, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says, red meat and particularly processed meat like ham and salami, will increase the risk of cancer. A worldwide outcry from meat lovers resulted. Many disagree, especially followers of low carb, high meat diets like Paleo, where you eat only things that were available already in the era of cavemen. Whether cavemen were particularly healthy is unknown, and beside the point, believers claim that the evolution of our digestive system is so slow that it has not yet adapted to ‘modern’ additions like dairy, potato and grain.

Are you still there? Let’s take an easy one now: fruit. Fruit tastes delicious, and has an amazing reputation. Fruit is healthy, say five a day preachers, as it is full of fibre, vitamins, and minerals. So can we unanimously applaud fruit? No, say some, fruit is full of sugar, and whether sugar comes in the shape of a can of coke or a round red apple, it is still sugar. And sugar is bad, that is the one thing experts seem to agree on. Not only does it increase risks on obvious things like diabetes, tooth decay and obesity, it has also recently been linked to blood cholesterol, cancer and heart disease.

So do we need to further discuss sugar? Can we just agree that sugar is bad for us? What about the difference between naturally occurring fruit sugars, unrefined raw sugars, honey, maple syrup and highly processed table sugars or worse, the high fructose corn syrups that are so cheap and therefore popular in the food industry? Different types of sugars have a different effect on our blood sugar levels, yet have the same amount of calories. And yes, they all provide energy, but apart from that they have mostly negative effects on our bodies. Having said that, naturally occurring sugars are balanced by the fibre, vitamins and enzymes in fruit and vegetable, which help the body deal with the sugars more easily and give added benefits. Refined sugars, on the other hand, are mainly ‘empty calories.’

Fat then, you ask, what about fat? It is surely bad for you too? If we can’t rely on simple facts like ‘fat will make you fat,’ we will completely lose it. For sure, public opinion is still very much anti-fat. Products claiming to be low fat, or even fat free, fly of the shelves. That the fat is replaced by other ingredients like sugar, starch or chemical additives, is conveniently hushed up. While most official food authorities still take the anti-fat stance, many others, often backing themselves by scientific studies, will disagree. The thing is that, like with sugars, one fat is not the other.

You knew that already, it’s the saturated fat that is bad for your, right? It clogs up your arteries, raises the risk for heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer, you name it.
Sure. Following that line of thought coconut fat, one of the most saturated fats in the world, coming in at a whopping 80%, would be the worst for you. In comparison butter, which contains only 55% saturated fat, should be much healthier.

Yet, in recent years, foodies have hailed coconut oil as the best thing since cod liver oil. It is a miracle, and can cure most diseases under the sun. With my degree in chemistry and 10 years of experience in the food industry, I have to scratch my head here.

To brush up my knowledge on saturated fat, I google ‘why is saturated fat..’ I wanted to add ‘bad for you’ but my eye fell on the first two suggestions google gave me for my query: ‘why is saturated fat bad for you’ and ‘why is saturated fat important.’

The food industry loves saturated fats. Why? They are stable, solid, and have many other properties that make them easy to use in ready-made food products, like increasing stability, mouth feel and shelf live. Highly saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature (butter/ ghee, cocoa butter, coconut fat) whereas the more unsaturated ones are liquid (olive oil, sunflower oil, canola/ rapeseed). Every fat is in fact a blend, and to really judge a fat you need to look at the entire profile, but I won’t bore you with too much chemical detail. Simply put: highly unsaturated fats are seen as ‘healthy’, and saturated ones as ‘bad.’

Saturated fats are also expensive. That’s why the food industry has found a trick: hydrogenated oils, also called trans-fats. Basically, you chemically trick liquid oil into being solid fat. These artificially saturated fats are especially bad for you. And our coconut fans claim the naturally occurring saturated fat, like the one in coconut oil and butter, is a whole different story.

In a similar way, margarine tricks liquid oil into being a spreadable substance by adding emulsifiers. Originally invented to save costs (butter was dear), margarine was later recommended for health reasons. After all, it is made from liquid, unsaturated fats. And by adding more additives, even less fat is needed to make a spread. Food authorities still promote non-dairy fat spreads like margarine, particularly low fat varieties.

Are they right? Who knows, but one thing is clear: there is more to fat than saturation. Highly processed vegetable oils like sunflower and rapeseed contain high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids, which can be harmful in excess. In contrast to the omega 3 fatty acids, which you can’t really get enough of. These beneficial fatty acids are found in flaxseeds, walnuts, (soy)beans, olive oil and fish.

I could go on for pages about fat, but let’s leave it in limbo for now.

What about those additives, you wonder? Health authorities claim they are researched, approved and therefore safe to use, but the opposition cries murder. There is often no clear evidence to prove them right, but even I, a trained (food) chemist, struggle to believe that all these chemicals can be good for you. So sorry, no univocal answers there either.

Now for the good news, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on: vegetables. Vegetables are good for you. Vegetables are the best. Yeah.

I thought one option at least was safe. Until I recently visited a nutritionist. I had to sum up what I liked to eat, and as I am such a vegetable lover I was sure to get kudos. I smiled when I read out my list.
On spinach, she shook her head. Full of oxalates.
Beet roots? No, root vegetables are full of carbs, better avoid.
Tomatoes, I offered, hesitantly, or aubergine, my absolute favourite.
The look on her face said it all. Oh no, nothing in the nightshade family.
Apart from sweet peppers. They were the best, she said.
And onion and garlic were super healthy too.

The thing is, I hate the taste of sweet peppers, and onion and garlic make me so bloated I look 3 months pregnant.
So at that point, I gave up.

Right now, to me, only one thing is perfectly clear: Nutritional science is very complex. If even the experts disagree, how are we supposed to understand what is good for us? I have decided on a different approach: common sense.

I feed my family a varied diet, rich in wholesome, natural, unprocessed products. Low on processed carbs, sugars and chemical additives. High on flavour. I avoid products where my experience has shown they cause adverse reactions in my own body. And sometimes we cheat. We are, after all, only human.