A nomad mother in Singapore

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.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Cold

‘Mama, I’m cold,’ Jasmijn shivered this morning at breakfast, hugging her bare arms to her T-shirted chest. ‘I want a jumper.’ 
Admittedly, these singularly rainy weeks have left the Singapore weather fresher and cooler than average. Still, average being hot and sweaty, the temperature hasn’t dropped much below twenty-eight degrees. Twenty-five at night, maybe.

It is not the first time my tropical kids complain of cold. They often come out of the pool on a cloudy day with blue trembling lips and goose bumps all over. They don’t get it from a stranger either. I sleep under a light quilt these days, and no, we don’t have air conditioning.

When we first moved to Singapore, Tijm was scared there would be no Christmas. After all, all the Christmases he could remember had been white. He quickly came round to the concept of Christmas on the beach though, and it has been three years since we saw a European winter.

I have not missed it one bit. I have not missed spending half an hour wrapping up the kids in layer upon layer of wool, only to have the first child having taken everything off again by the time I finished number three. Or that by the time they finally all have been covered head to toe, with only noses peaking out, one will need the loo. Nor that by the time you have finally unwrapped them, put them on the toilet, wrapped them again and made it to the park, it is dark. O, yes. At 4pm.

I don’t miss any of that. I love our ‘flip-flops on everyone, we are going.’ I love the fact that when we got rained of the football pitch yesterday, and the kids thought rolling in puddles was a great idea, nobody contracted pneumonia.
The tropics suit us perfectly, and I vouched never to leave again in winter, preferring tropical typhoons to sleet and drizzle any day. Because I know winter, and I know that it rarely involves ice-skating and snowman building under sunny, crispy skies.

Next week, we will board a Singapore airlines flight to Munich. We will then drive to western Tirol and spend Christmas in the… snow. Real snow, not the bubbly kind that Tanglin Mall’s foam machines spit out. So far, twenty centimetres have fallen and we keep our fingers crossed for more. I keep my fingers crossed for something else as well: that they wont’ freeze off.

I hope Tirol is still like it is in my childhood memories, sunny and white, and beautiful. I’m sure it will be, and that my kids will love it as much as I did. Still, I am not sure what I am looking forward to most, the skiing, or the hot spot in front of the fireplace afterwards.

Friends and family will meet us in Tirol with a supply of snowsuits, mittens and boots. Let’s hope the furry fleeces Sinterklaas supplied us with, which the kids have been parading around in ever so proudly the last few days, will get us there safe. And warm.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Creating my own kraut



The beautiful kraut crock, or ‘Keulse Pot’ (Pot from Cologne) that I inherited from my grandmother earlier this year, and painstakingly wrapped in an old jumper before packing it in my suitcase and flying it to it’s new home in Singapore, had been eyeing me for a few moths. So when I read that one serving of homemade sauerkraut contains more pro-biotics than a whole jar of pills, I knew the time had come: I was going to make my own ‘zuurkool’, or sauerkraut.



I was not sure whether the hot and humid Singapore weather was going to be a blessing or a threat when it comes to home fermenting, but I assumed there was only one way to find out: I bought a large head of cabbage. 






Some research online taught me the basics, and I went about it in the way I do with most things: tackle it head on, without too much of a plan. Indah shredded the cabbage for me very nicely, and very finely, in a way I would not have been able to manage myself. I added 2 smallish spoons of unrefined sea salt to the cabbage  (use 1 tablespoon for a little, and 2 for a large head of cabbage) and mixed it well. The amount of salt you need to add to the cabbage is no exact science, as every cabbage size and type is different, as well as the salt. This suits me well as I am not too exact myself (and that is someone with a MSc in chemistry speaking, go figure), but if you find it difficult to deal with, just taste your salted cabbage. It needs to be quite salty, without being overwhelming. 



Now comes the fun, and hard part: you need to massage, knead, squash, push and work the cabbage until the brine comes out. Yes, with your (cleanly washed) hands. The salt will set off the process of osmosis (that’s the chemistry degree talking), and water will leak from the cells of the cabbage to the outside, mixing with the salt to make brine. The kneading breaks cell walls to assist this. The salty brine that is formed will stop the bad bacteria from growing, whilst encouraging the nice, healthy lactobacillus that will help ferment the cabbage and improve your gut health. You need to create enough brine for the cabbage to be fully submerged, as any bits sticking out will go mouldy. If you don’t have enough brine, you might need to add more salt, but before you do that, leave it to stand for a bit and work it some more, you don’t want to oversalt, as this will ruin the batch. You can push the cabbage (which will wilt down to a lot less volume) down firmly to get the brine to the top. 



Now it is ready to go into your pot, and don’t worry if you have not inherited a nice vintage crock, any jar will do. You need to weigh down the cabbage so it stays down under the brine, you can use a plate, large stone, or a ziplock bag filled with pebbles (which I did) or even water (make sure it doesn’t leak!) If you want you can put in an additional layer underneath he weight, consisting of some whole cabbage leaves to keep the kraut from floating up. Don’t put a tightly closed lid on the jar, the CO2 formed in the process needs to escape. You can cover it with a clean cloth instead, or a loose top. 






Then you wait. Check your kraut every day to make sure it is still submerged, and depending on the circumstances it will take one to several weeks. Mine was delicious after just one week in the hot Singapore weather, after which I transferred it to a Tupperware jar, and put it in the fridge for safekeeping. If you want to know whether it is ready, the best way is the simplest: taste it. If you want to be more technical, you can measure pH, it needs to be below 4.5. But the best measure is you, if your kraut tastes great, it is great!

Mine was, but it still took copious amounts of applemoes (applesauce) to convince the kids of the edibility of Mama’s newest project. 






Mama eats her kraut raw, is loving it, and has already started on he next project: a more spicy, oriental version of this traditional Dutch recipe: Korean Kimchi, ladled with chili. Something tells me no amount of appelmoes will convince the kids to eat that one…

Meet the girls

After two and a half weeks in our garden, I am happy to say: our hens have settled in nicely. They love their spacious new home, and have quickly started to lose the unnatural behaviour they acquired in the cramped quarters of battery cages. When they first arrived they had no idea what to do with themselves. But now, they are starting to behave just like, well… chicken. They scratch the muddy ground, dig sand baths, lay their eggs in the nest boxes, and eat a varied diet of kitchen scraps, vegetables and chicken food. I even caught one snapping up a small cockroach this morning. They have learned to go inside in a thunderstorm, or when night falls, and some even understand the principle of sleeping on the roost, though others, despite my repeated attempts to hoist them up there after dark, prefer to huddle underneath, sitting in their own poo. They also learned that life in our garden might be more fun, but that it also carries more risks. The monkeys lolling about on their roof no longer bother them, but after observing a large snake strangling and eating a squirrel a mere ten meters away, some stopped laying for a week. The 5-foot monitor lizard snooping around the run probably did not help either. Since we have seen nor snake nor lizard for a while, they are back in action, and we struggle to keep up with the 4 to 5 eggs they produce a day. The fresh air and good food is doing them well, their feathers are fluffing up, their combs straightening, and becoming less pale. 



And off course, like real hens, they bicker. Life in a coop is strictly hierarchical, and slowly the pecking order reveals itself. So without further ado I present our leading, laying ladies. 



Josephine




Josephine is a large, full feathered hen, and the leader of the pack. She is especially popular with Jasmijn, who calls her my ‘knuffelkip’ (cuddly-chicken), as her feathers are lush and soft and she loves a cuddle. Josephine is a sociable hen, one of the first to rush over when anyone enters the run. As her position as top hen requires, she sleeps on the top roost, overseeing her flock. When there is food to be had, Josephine will put herself in prime position, standing in the middle of the dish, ensuring she gets first dibs. 

Keetje


Keetje (a Dutch name sounding a bit like Katie) is our ragamuffin, and Linde’s favourite. Curious, cheeky and bold, she was to first to dare eat from our hands, and she rushes over if there is anything to be done or seen (or eat). The rear of her back has a large bald spot, her comb is mangy, her head featherless, and the feathers she does have are scruffy, making us suspect life at the farm has been hard on little Keetje. She seems to have found her proper position in this flock, and is turning into one happy hen, whose attention is fought over by all the neighbourhood kids, that urge Linde to ‘share’ ‘her’ hen with everyone. 

Wilhelmina


Wilhelmina is a large and regal looking hen, hence her royal name. Wilhelmina always looks immaculate, with never a feather out of place. She had a pale, golden colour, with a white-flecked neck. Wilhelmina is beautiful, and she looks like she knows it. First we thought she was arrogant, and aloof, and suspected her of being top hen. Later we found she is just shy, and Wilhelmina is the only one that still won’t eat from our hands. She will hover in the corner until I am well out of the way, and those other pesky hens give her enough peace to eat. Her chosen sleeping position on the floor under the roost is another indicator that, despite her royal looks and demeanour, Wilhelmina’s position in the flock is low. 

Feetje and Leentje


Feetje and Leentje look very much alike, to the extend that I still struggle to keep them apart. Both have large, drooping combs that hang over their eyes like a fringe that needs trimming. Both have knotted tails with its feathers cut off. Both have bald spots on their long necks. The main distinction is that Feetje is slightly larger than Leentje, and that her comb is even larger and floppier. Both are friendly, cheerful hens, happy to drop by when there is food to be had.

Tilly


Last but not least there is Tilly. Tilly is a fierce looking hen, with a dark red comb, and bright orange feathers with white, fluffy bits sticking out. Like Feetje and Leentje, Tilly stays a bit more in the background, but she is getting more confident by the day, and I suspect that when her feathers are fully recovered from life at an intensive farm, she will be a beauty indeed.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

They have arrived!


A nomad that dreams of having her own backyard farm. That sounds a bit strange, right? Well, that’s me. This week a lifelong dream got fulfilled: I got my own hens. 

This wasn’t easy to achieve in Singapore, a city where most people live in high-rise flats or polished marble houses. They don’t have a garden, let alone raise their own livestock. Singapore’s kampongs with their free roaming chickens are long gone, and keeping poultry is now only allowed in a confined run. Which brings us to challenge number one: building the run.
Obviously, since no one keeps chickens, there are no ready-made coops for sale. DIY is not our strong suit either, so we needed ‘a guy’. As the hens won’t be allowed outside, the run needs to be spacious, and off course predator proof. To my big relief Singapore does not have foxes, but there are plenty of other lurkers on the loom. I don’t know if our monkeys will actually attack chicken, but am pretty sure they will appreciate the eggs. And then there is the big bad python, and other, smaller, sneakier snakes. Not to mention the huge monitor lizards, I am not even sure what those eat.

I won’t tell you the exact quotes that we got initially for getting this built, but they blew me away (ok, I will tell, one asked 8000 dollar)(++) After we finally found someone to do it for a slightly less extravagant number it took time, debate, redoing, and delay by massive rainstorms but finally: It was ready!





Which brings me to challenge number two: getting the chicken. You can’t just buy them at a pet store, nor anywhere else for that matters. Smuggling them in from Malaysia, where they are freely available at any market, did not seem a good plan either. Thanks to the Internet I met a fellow crazy expat who kept chicken and behold, she knew ‘a guy’, who knew a guy who had a chicken farm. After a delay of only a few days (some issues with farm regulations, off course, this is still Singapore) he delivered. Six brown fat hens now range across our run. 


Observing the chicken has proved a lot of fun. Not only we like it, the curious monkeys love using the top of the run as a trampoline, and seeing how far their arms can reach in. Birdie, our free ranging cockatiel, does not seem too bothered that the hens have taken over his temporary residence, and he has found a new perch in a branch above. The wild cockerel has gotten exited too, strutting his stuff circling the run. Both parties seem pretty miffed at the barrier between them.




Off course there are challenges with keeping chickens coming from a commercial egg farm. 
These girls have been living in a small cage all their life. They have not seen a vegetable in their life, and the looks I get when I put some in their feeding dish are very much the same as those my kids would have given me. They sleep under, rather than on the perches we so carefully constructed in the henhouse, just like they have no clue what to do with the fancy nest boxes. They lay where they walk. And laying, these ladies can! 





We all enjoy the clucking, cackling, squawking, and cooing. We observe our new hens, which are a great addition to our urban safari lodge. And, most of all, we enjoy our farm-fresh eggs.