Sunday 24 March 2024

The wild side of Mount Faber

A magical place...

The steps on this photo lead to one of my favourite places in Singapore, one I love to visit when I need some peace and quiet. Any idea where it can be? This rather wild place is very close to my own house. 

Urban jungle, concrete jungle, these are terms often used for highly urbanised Singapore. Visitors are always surprised to see how we live here, and how green this city is. Not only is there a plethora of parks, but also roadsides are lushly planted. Singapore aims to be a ‘City in a Garden’ and is succeeding admirably. We are lucky to live on the foothills of Mount Faber, in a house is surrounded by nature. Every morning we get woken by a cacophony of birds, with junglefowl roosters and koels fighting for the honour of being the loudest. During the day we are treated to choruses of bul buls, laughing thrushes, the occasional honk of a sea eagle, and many other birds that I struggle to identify. 

Lure of the jungle...

The other advantage of living in a nature park is the fabulous trails on our doorstep. For these I gladly tolerate the busloads of Chinese tourists that are ferried up the hill over the narrow road passing by our house, to the viewpoint at the top. Despite its formidable name, Mount Faber is ‘only’ a hill, stretching up all of 106 metres, but still the view from the top is magnificent, with central Singapore beside us, the suburbs behind and ahead Sentosa and the sea, with - on a clear day - glimpses of Indonesia’s Riau islands beyond.

For years my doctors have been telling me I needed to walk more, that this will improve my joint pains. But for some reason, people tend not to do things simply because they are ‘good for them.’ I needed a better reason, so we got a dog. And with this dog, I now take long walks almost every day. Those who know me better, know that nothing makes me more happy than hiking the deep jungle. I don’t have to go far.
Our 'hidden house' 

Exploring the back garden ...

Our house is built against the slope of Mount Faber, and the back of the garden is steep. Very steep, but not steep enough to stop me, and to discover the fence separating our garden from the nature park has collapsed years ago. Beyond, the forest lures me in. 

The south slopes of Mount Faber are overgrown with quite dense jungle. Interestingly, old photos show that this growth is quite recent. In the 19th century there were rubber and pineapple plantations on these foothills, a fact bought home to me by the loudly exploding seedpods of the rubber trees still surrounding the house – the first time I thought we were under siege. Later, the slopes were cleared for habitation. By the time our house was built in 1919, to house the staff of the Telegraph company, the view to the sea and Keppel Harbour was apparently unobstructed by either forest or the imposing Reflections condo. It must have been magnificent. 

Pathways at the bottom of Mt Faber, leading to... ?

I am not the only jungle enthusiast in Singapore, and this stretch of forest surrounding our house contains a plethora of informal pathways. Muddy, steep, full of rocks, overgrown with plants and unmaintained, on these trails it doesn’t take much to imagine oneself in deep dark Borneo or Sumatra. Despite the whole area only being several square miles, it is easy to get lost here. Trust me, I have done it. But if you keep going up, all paths will eventually lead you to Mount Faber Loop, the road circling the top of the hill. So unlike deep Borneo or Sumatra, getting lost here is a fun game. 

'Stairs to nowhere' with Alexandra bricks

There is another fun aspect to walking here: a hike on Mount Faber’s slopes feels like an exploration of the history of Singapore. In several places you will stumble over deserted stairways, overgrown with weeds and tree roots and leading nowhere, in red bricks with the name ‘Alexandra’ stamped on them. These were made by the Alexandra brickworks and likely date from the 1940s, showing that once this area was much more built up. There is a mysterious tomb, dedicated to a Japanese shipyard worker who died here in the war, and of whom little is known, let alone why he was buried here. There is an old concrete water tank, overgrow with fig stranglers, on which someone placed two plastic chairs, making it a nice platform for a rest mid-walk. There are old wartime bunkers you can sneak into. Every walk there feel like an adventure, an exploration. The most impressive spot? That is, no doubt, the old reservoir. 

Keppel House at Keppel Hill 

At the foot of Mount Faber, on Keppel Hill, sits Keppel House. A grand old colonial house that once was built to house one of the managers of one of the dock companies of Keppel Harbour. It was built a few decades before ours, in 1899, and its occupants must have been as grand as the mansion itself. Some distance behind the house, in what is now the nature park, is a deserted reservoir. It is said to have been one of three reservoirs that supplied water to the houses and harbour below. Later it became a swimming pool, concrete steps still lead to a diving board that is no longer there. 

The hidden Keppel Hill reservoir

The old reservoir feels like a place from a fairy land. The sunlight filtered by the trees above creates beautiful, swaying patterns on the dark water below. Quiet in a sheltered place with little wind, the only ripples on the water are created by the insects that dance over the surface. The dark cool water both lures me in and repels me, there is no knowing what lurks in the deep. A cesspool, or a fairy paradise? There are multiple stories of drownings here when it was used as a swimming pool, both in the 1930s and during the war. 

I love to sit here and contemplate. But then the dog, impatient to get home, nudges me, and we walk on. There is so much more to explore. Small streams cascading down muddy banks. A field with fragrant betel leaves to sample. Steep paths that friendly fellow wanderers have fitted with ropes, to enable walkers to hoist themselves up. A magnificent banyan tree that feels like a cathedral. 

Banyan cathedral 

I often list my favourite places in the world in my mind, and the wild south slopes of Mount Faber have definitely earned their place on it. I hope they won’t be ‘developed’ any time soon. I hope this place never loses its magic.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Our Black and White House

My talented daughter created this beautiful artwork to celebrate the launch of my new novel “The Black and White House”. The attentive reader will notice how it looks very much like the cover of the book, but with another title, and showing a different house. The real book cover features our old house in Adam Park, where the novel is set. So what is the mystery house in this image?

Well, this particular house comes with some exciting news: we moved back to Singapore! My daughter drew the house we live in now. That same attentive reader might recall the last few posts I wrote here, and me complaining about the cold and dark weather in the Netherlands. You can understand my elation at being back. To me, it feels like a homecoming. Suppressing the guilt caused by dragging the slightly reluctant teenagers along gets easier now they seem to have settled in quite happily at the new school, and I can’t praise my amazing husband enough for making this move possible. 


So although I am very excited about this new house we now live in, I need to sell books, so first, I am going to take you back to Adam Park. When newly arrived expat Anna moves into her Black & White, it feels very far from a homecoming. Living in Asia for the first time, with her husband working long hours, she slowly unravels alone in the rambling house. There are strange noises in the hallway, and Anna isn’t sure all of them belong to the many critters and creepy crawlies that she shares the house with. 

Many of us will have shared Anna’s troubles of moving to a new area, particularly in a new country. She struggles to find her own job, being very blonde and without any local experience, speaking all the wrong languages. To add to her turmoil, memories of her grandmothers colonial childhood in Indonesia keep popping up, making her confused about how she can fit into modern Asia. 


Then, Anna meets Salimah. Salimah has her own history with the house, and a number of ghosts from the past she needs to battle with. When one of those ghosts seem to target her teenage daughter Nazra, Salimah too feels her carefully constructed life starting to crumble around her.  

The novel follows the two women forging a fragile friendship, despite their cultural differences, until they get pitted against each other over the adoption of a baby. I won’t give too much more away, do please read the book if I got you hooked.  


Curious about this new house in the picture? You will need to be a little more patient. There is plenty to explore in our new neighbourhood, from deserted reservoirs to mysterious Japanese tombs and Malay graves in the middle of the jungle. My fingers itch, just like my legs from walking into the deep forests both inside and outside our garden. Stories will follow! 

"The Black and White House" is published by Monsoon Books and was released this month. It can be bought at bookstores in Singapore and online bookstores worldwide. For instance here

Thursday 6 July 2023

‘The House’

I have a thing for houses, which is odd for a self-proclaimed nomad. I have at times compared myself to a snail, one that carries her house on her back, but the reality is that what I carry around is a forty-foot shipping container full of furniture and knickknacks. Next week, the movers will come to pack it all up again to put it on a boat back to Asia.

Most people I tell this look at me with astonishment. You only just finished renovating your house here? Yes, after nightmare renovations that took years longer than anticipated, that are in fact still not finished, that took many sleepless nights and much more money than anticipated, we are leaving, yet again. Warmer shores beckon. Why? That’s another story, for another time, it suffices to say that Dutch winters are not great for the arthritic, nor is the Dutch medical system, and our villainous contractor didn’t help enamour us with this country either.

It's summer now. The sun is shining. The almost-finished house has turned out beautiful, with all its light, glass and green. As much as I love going, leaving is always hard. Leaving a life, but also a place behind. We have stayed in some very special houses that have inspired my writing over the years. My novel ‘A Yellow House’ was set in our first condo in Singapore, the yellow house in the title refers to the actual dream house our domestic helper Indah has built in Indonesia from her Singapore earnings. My children’s series JungleGirl Mia is set in Adam Drive, a bungalow where we lived surrounded by the jungles of a national park. Wildlife often sprawled into our garden, inspiring the adventures Mia has with her friends.

Our next house at Adam Park has an even more illustrious history. A veritable battle took place between the Japanese and the British, and later prisoners of war stayed there before being shipped off to Birma to build a railroad. Many say these houses are haunted, and as a novelist, what else can one do but write a novel set in such a place? ‘The Black and White House,’ which will be launched later this year.

So, what is next? I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last few months on Singapore real estate websites, and whilst we explore exciting new places to live, I ponder another question: what to write? Write about the place we have begun to refer to as ‘The House’, the one that despite endless streams of builders we will have to rent out before it’s even finished? One that despite my wish to leave I have come to love. Though the adventures with our villainous contractor would make an excellent thriller, to be honest, it’s a chapter I’d rather close. Sitting in my favourite chair in my favourite spot next to the large bamboo bush, I dream of another place, the one that inspired the design of this green Dutch house. An idea for a new book germinates in my brain. Working title: 'A House in Bali'.

In the meanwhile, do pre-order: ‘The Black and White House’. It’s a haunting tale of fear and friendship set in Singapore. That house in Adam Park, unattainable now rents have exploded in Singapore, will always haunt my dreams as the most beautiful place I ever lived. For now. Let’s see what’s next.

Monday 3 October 2022

Bali style autumn

We wanted our new house to be open and bright, similar to the outdoor living rooms we enjoyed in Singapore and Bali, where we were rarely inside. Because the climate in The Hague is rather different, the whole back and side of the house were to be made from glass. In warm weather sliding panels would open to the sunny, south facing garden, giving us that breezy Bali feel. For now, the house could not feel further away from Bali. Autumn storms blow freely inside, rendering it completely uninhabitable. We were hoping to be in by Christmas. Last Christmas, that is. But we are still (very) desperately waiting for the glass panels for downstairs…

For months, few words have come from my chilled fingers onto my screen. My brain is a mess, like my life. Why did we have this ominous idea to renovate a house? The thing is, if I have to live through those chilly Dutch winters, I prefer to do so in comfort, and ideally without raking up a ginormous gas bill and making heating unnecessary in the long term because climate change will turn Northern Europe’s climate Mediterranean. What I need is insulation. 

But the type of house I like – charming, old, ramshackle – tends to be badly insulated, which is fine in the tropics, but staying in a draughty rental house made me realise that that wasn’t for me as long as I was in Northern Europe. We fell for a house with large sunny garden, directly by the dunes and very close to the sea, but, as to be expected, it was in a deplorable state. We ended up tearing it down to just a few bare walls. Honestly, building a new house from scratch would have been easier, but the front of the house was a protected cityscape. We never renovated a house before, and I can tell you, I never will again. Even though we don’t do the physical work ourselves. I won’t regale you with all the details, it would take a full novel, but as the contractor said, Murphy’s law applies to this project. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. That the contractor likes to deny their own culpability in all of that is something I also won’t discuss here. But as we are nearing the second anniversary of the purchase of said house, I would really like to know whether we will be living there this coming Christmas. The problem is that even though there is light at the end of the tunnel, it just doesn’t seem to get any closer. Quite the contrary. When we packed up our rental house end of July, we thought it was for just a month, hence all our winter clothes went into storage. Our moving deadline is currently set for the end of October. We have been housesitting, staying with my parents and in several holiday rentals. We are safe and dry so can’t really complain, but my patience is running out. And I do really start to miss my thermal underwear.

Maybe there is a message in here – that buying and renovating a house isn’t for a perpetual nomad like me. It feels like the whole world is conspiring against us, making sure that this house never gets finished. I have always loved being on the move, being a nomad, exploring new places. But moving around in the same city, I find no joy in that. It’s not an adventure, it’s simply a nuisance. Many a time I have threatened to sell the whole thing and move back to Asia. We still might. But the thing is: We can’t really move abroad until the bloody thing is finished.

Wednesday 9 March 2022

Hollandse Hokjesgeest

I spent last night in bed crying because I had been dumped. No, not by my husband. Not even by a mysterious lover. I had been dumped by my rheumatologist. He said, in his very direct Dutch way, that though he acknowledges my problems are caused by the exact disease he specialises in, he cannot help me. He then spoke those memorable words that must be hammered so deep into every Dutch doctor it sometimes seems all they can say: go home and take a paracetamol.

He was my third rheumatologist since we moved here (I know, less than 2 years ago) and my frustration mounts with every time I encounter that what bothers me most about the Netherlands: hokjesgeest. How to translate hokjesgeest? Geest means spirit and a hokje is a small cage or cubicle - it suffices to say it embodies the exact opposite of thinking out of the box.

Hokjesgeest is what made us flee Dutch education, where at a very young age children are tested, labeled, and pigeonholed accordingly. It also reigns supreme in Dutch medicine, where doctors can’t help any patient without a proper label. A label you only get if you pass a stringent checklist. I spent a frustrated decade in the Dutch medical mill, until I moved to the UK and swiftly got diagnosed by a British rheumatologist that admitted my condition wasn’t ‘classic Ankylosing Spondylitis’ (AS) but who also said ‘auto immune diseases are very complex, and we don’t understand them completely. Your SI joints are inflamed at the moment which matches best with AS.’ The look of confusion on my Dutch doctors’ faces when the Brit uses the terms AS and RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis) alternately in his reports says it all.

The Dutch doctors with their checklists, procedures and labels make me long for the more lackadaisical British, as well as the pill pushers of Singapore. I have to admit that doctors in Asia have a tendency to overmedicate, but this quote from my Singapore doctor resonates with me still: ‘We like to also help less extreme cases with advanced medication. This will not only improve the patient’s quality of life, but also stops the disease from escalating until it is too late.’

Let me stress my Dutch doctors were not bad people. They were friendly, smart and knowledgeable people. Mostly. The first Dutch rheumatologist said my sicca symptoms (dry eyes, mouth and well, dry everything) were not a part of AS, though she admitted they were common with RA. But I did not have that, I had AS. Hence could not have sicca symptoms. When I disagreed, quoting medical research, she replied: ‘Everything you read online is not true.’ For the record, I had not been reading, the website I consulted was from the national rheumatoid association.

The second Dutch doctor measured and confirmed the sicca symptoms, then uttered this confounding line: ‘If you look online you will find that in many countries, doctors would suggest you have Sjogren Syndrome, but in the Netherlands we have a stricter definition and I can’t diagnose you with it.’ He was a Sjogren specialist, and that was it for him.

The third one, an AS specialist, made me feel optimistic when he said that sicca symptoms were common in AS patients. But down the line, he ended up being the one dumping me.

When I asked him to prescribe the medication that helped me in the past, he told me no. I did not comply with the checklist for it, he would never get the paperwork approved. When I asked him, just to satisfy my curiosity, to put bureaucracy aside, and tell me if he personally felt the medication could help, he got very uncomfortable. He said he did not have enough experience to answer that question because ‘we don’t do that here in the Netherlands.’ This is one of those conversations where afterwards I had a lot of retorts. ‘But you gain experience only by doing!’ and ‘Don’t you read international journals or talk to fellow doctors abroad?’

At my last consult he said: ‘The rheumatoid diseases that we treat are like the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole lot of them under the sea that we don’t see.’ There was no room for me on his lifeboat. He sent me back to the GP to see if another doctor can figure out what can be done against the pain that he agrees is most likely caused by a disease he specialises in.

The one health care professional that I feel understands my body, that helps me, is my physiotherapist. He does not look at scans, nor blood tests. He looks at me. He feels. Unlike my last rheumatologist, who I only saw in person once (consults are done over the phone these days), he sees me every two weeks. He listens to me and his advice is always spot on.

Pondering my medical journey, I have one final fun quote for you. The medal for the most hilarious thing a Dutch doctor said to me goes to an interim huisarts (GP) I saw in the early onset of my disease, who spoke the unforgettable words: ‘Why don’t you come back when you feel better.’ I’ve never been more speechless. She did not even mention paracetamol.

Thursday 20 January 2022

Indonesian soul food

January is a tough month in Northern Europe in the best of circumstances. Days are short, December festivities are over, and spring is not yet on the horizon. It is cold and dark. Dutch weather reports however remain unapologetically optimistic. It will be a beautiful sunny day tomorrow. Most of the country won’t get to see the sun, it will be veiled by thick fog, but some of you may get lucky!

We get our vitamin D from tablets and a sunshine lamp I purchased online. And to top off all the fun, we are in a lockdown. Blue Monday this year stretches into a long, blue month…

Unsurprisingly, the kids scream for soul food, to be precise: chicken soup. So I defy my resolution for a vegan January and succumb. What we need is Soto Ayam Indah!

The bright yellow turmeric used in this hot chicken soup should lift our hearts out of the blue. To my shock, I realised I never posted the recipe here. An omission that ought to be remedied fast, so you can all enjoy its super powers. Indah means beautiful in Indonesian, and that is what this soup is. It is also the name of the woman who worked for us in Singapore and whose cooking was famous amongst all our friends, the woman who spend many a night perfecting her recipes to get the flavours exactly right. We miss her just like we miss her soup and the sunshine.

Quantities are never specific in Indah's (or my) recipes. This is because spices vary in quantity and strength, so tasting as well as gut feeling is required. I prefer to err on the side of too much spice, feel free to adapt the recipe to your own taste.

Soto Ayam Indah

For the stock:

1 whole chicken, washed and roughly chopped in pieces

2 salam leafs

2 kaffir lime leaf

2 stalks serai (lemongrass)

3 cm lenguas root (galangal)

1 celery stalk

1 green onion stalk 

Coarsely chop the spices. Put all ingredients in a large stockpot and cover with water. Add salt to taste and bring to boil. Cover and let simmer for about an hour.

While the chicken stock boils, you can make the spice mixtures, the rempah and sambal, as well as prepare the other accompaniments thar are essential to this dish. Rempah and sambal are both spice pastes, the main difference being is that rempah is used in cooking where sambal is served on the table for everyone to add on the plate. 

For the rempah: 

6 kerimi nuts (candlenuts) 

2 cloves of garlic

handful small shallots

5 cm fresh turmeric

1 ts white pepper

1ts nutmeg

In Asia shallots are tiny and you can use a small handful. In Europe they tend to be bigger and 1-3 would suffice. Grind all the ingredients together (you can add some oil or water if your blender needs that) and fry the paste in a little oil until it smells fragrant, just a few minutes. Set it aside for adding to the soup later. If you want to go old school, use a grinding stone, some say it improves flavour.

For the sambal:

1-2 tomatoes

2-8 red chilis

5 shallots

2 cloves of garlic

Chop all coarsely and boil together for a few minutes until soft. You can vary the amount of chili and tomato based on how spicy you like your sambal. Then grind or blend everything together into a paste. Season with salt. Set aside in a bowl to serve on the side later for those liking some extra heat.


After the chicken has boiled, take it out of the stock. When it is cooled down a little, pull the meat off the bones. Here I tend to deviate a little from Indah’s recipe, as I like my stock strong-flavoured. I put the bones back in the pot and simmer them a few hours more, creating a fragrant bone broth. You don’t want to boil your chicken meat that long, as it would lose all its flavour. In the meanwhile, as your broth bubbles away, fry the chicken meat in a wok until crispy, let it cool a little, then pull it apart into small pieces and set aside in a bowl.

Indah always serves the soup it straight up, with floating herbs and all, but you can also choose to strain it. Either way, make sure to remove any chicken bones if they are there!

Now add the rempah to the stock, then bring it to the boil again. Add 2 tomatoes sliced into quarters, some stalks of green onion, and chopped local celery leaves. Don’t leave it to boil long now, just heat it thoroughly and serve hot!

Serve the stock with all the toppings, which I like to lay out on the table for everyone to help themselves: boiled beehoon noodles (you can also serve rice on the side instead), crispy fried shallots, boiled (quail) eggs, lime slices, quickly blanched tauge (bean sprouts), blanched Chinese cabbage, more shreddedcelery leave and green onion, the sambal, the shredded chicken, and some kechap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce).

Selamat Makan!

Thursday 14 October 2021

World Arthritis Day

I am not good at these ‘days’ that people cook up for whatever reason. I’m notorious for forgetting my wedding anniversary or my parent’s birthdays. This year I managed to almost forget my own birthday. I love a celebration, but why tie it to a date? So it isn’t at all surprising I found out the 12th of October is World Arthritis Day only after it happened. Not a celebration, but an excellent way to bring attention to a rather invisible disease that can make life quite miserable for a lot of people. People like me.

Like many fellow sufferers I am a master of disguise. My husband complains the rest of the world gets to see the cheerful me, active and full of spunk. He gets the moaning, grumpy me that lies on the sofa and groans about the loads of laundry that – literally – break her back. That shouting monster that is hiding behind the smile. I’ve tried explaining that he should take it as a compliment that he gets to see the ‘real me’ – but of course he is right. The most important people in my life, my family, deserve better. That terrible creature should not be the real me. It is just so darn hard.

The last few weeks I decided to try a different approach. I’d throw off the mask for everyone. My first instinct when someone asks ‘how do you do?’ is to say ‘fine,’ even when I’m not. What would happen if I told the truth? The result was shocking. Shocking in its absence. Do people find it awkward to talk about these things, or do they just don’t care? Or was my answer too jokingly given, my consequent shrug too distant?

It doesn’t help to have a disease with a name nobody can remember or spell, not even me. In English, it’s Ankylosing Spondylitis, in Dutch Bechterew disease (officially they changed it to Axiale Spondyloartritis or SpA, so now it has two names, even more confusing). Even rheumatologists barely understand this highly complex disease that manifests itself with a long parade of constantly changing symptoms. If you visit several doctors you get as many opinions. Every time I move, my new doctor questions whether I actually have it, only to grudgingly admit, after many tests, that I do, indeed, have it. Even if my symptoms are not ‘classic,’ apparently. The first symptom people think about with arthritis, an auto-immune disease that attacks your joints, is pain. What many don’t understand is that another symptom can be a lot more debilitating: Fatigue. A symptom so vague even doctors rarely take it seriously.

Moving to a colder climate has been hard. I miss the heat that warms my achy joints. I miss the humidity that makes I don’t have to use eye drops several times a day to see clearly. I miss the sunshine that melts away the cobwebs in my head. I miss the Asian masseuses that knead away my stiffness. I miss my lovely fulltime household help. The cold brought new symptoms that my immune system repressing medication cannot fix. Arthrosis in my hips, sicca symptoms (a drought all over my thirsty body) and the ones that are the hardest ones of all to talk about: mind fog and depression. Now autumn is in full swing, getting out of bed in the morning gets harder every day. My body just doesn’t see the point.

Thankfully I manage every day, one step at the time. I focus on the good things of living here. Being close to family, seeing friends I hadn’t in a while. Exploring the Netherlands and Europe, meeting new people. Things that give me energy. What can be hard to explain (particularly to my own husband) is that the best way to fight depression and fatigue is to get active. A day in the office supporting refugees might make my body total loss, it also gives my sense of self an essential boost. A morning of caring for baby hedgehogs shows me there is a point to my life. Joining events at my children’s school makes me feel I am part of their lives. Planting a food forest gives me hope for the future. Without all of that, who am I? Lying on the sofa might rest my body, but it stiffens my joints, and worse, my soul. I simply cannot do it.

My new novel has been on ice all of last year, as has this blog. Is it energy I lack to write or something more fundamental? A question I can’t easily answer. In the end, it is all about balance. Prioritising. Invest in things that make me happy rather than wear me out mentally. So that is my new year resolution for the coming winter, because as I said before, why link those things to a date?

Just one question remains: who will do all that laundry?