A nomad mother in Singapore

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The pursuit of happiness

People all over the world are on the move. And I don’t mean expats booking their autumn break in Bali to escape the Singapore haze. No, I am referring to people leaving their countries in a less comfortable manner, with the help of traffickers and flimsy rubber boats. Europe, for example, is flooded with migrants from other, less prosperous continents. A crisis, it has been called. In the Netherlands the public seems to identify two kinds of migrants: the refugees, the ones that fled war and violence, and are more or less deserving of our help and attention. Then, there are those commonly referred to in Dutch as gelukzoekers.

Gelukzoeker is an interesting word, it can be translated (and interpreted) in two ways: someone searching for happiness. Or, someone looking for a stroke of good luck. I can’t help but wonder which of the two people mean when they use this word. 

Asia has its portion of people on the move too. Meet Siti, single mother from Indonesia, a country not torn apart by war, where no terrorist organisation threatens her or her children’s life. Siti left her young sons with her mother to find her happiness, or maybe just a small slice of good luck, in Singapore. Why, I ask her.

Siti rolls her sad eyes. Life is hard for a single mother on Java. Working in a sugar cane factory, she barely earned enough to buy food for her two sons, let alone school uniforms or books. Then she lost that job too. No jobs ma’am, on Java.

Siti did not flee from war, but from poverty. She got a loan from an agent and boarded a plane for a job as a domestic worker in Singapore. Now, eight months of hard work later, she just paid off her loan, and would have been receiving her first salary. But that did not happen. Siti was unlucky.

Her employer made her work from five in the morning until after midnight, with little rest in between. The amount of food she received was too little for the hard work. She never had a day off. She never heard a friendly word. Siti became depressed, and ran away.

I met Siti in the shelter of HOME, the charity I work for. With the assistance of HOME, Siti filed a complaint against her employer to the Ministry of Manpower. She was unlucky again, and her request to be transferred to a new employer was not granted. Siti’s former employer, angry about her running away, is sending her back to Indonesia. With empty pockets.

The difference between the Singaporean approach to migrant workers - welcoming them in, but under strict, sometimes harsh conditions- , and the European way, where getting in is tough (and sometimes lethal), but if you do get in you are treated well, has widened my view on migrant issues worldwide. Unfortunately, that does not bring me any closer to a conclusion, let alone a solution.

The truth probably lies in the middle, and both parties could learn from the other. I am stuck with a growing frustration about inequality in the world, and that birth-lottery that is so grossly unfair. Neither Asia nor Europe seem to handle things in a way that I'd consider well, humane, and to the best of their ability. Xenophobia and 'own people come first' sentiments thrive all around. We could do so much more, for refugees and economic migrants alike.

I have learned one thing, economic migrants like Siti, gelukszoekers, are not looking for welfare, charity and free houses. They simply want a job. Safety from violence and privation. An opportunity to make a living and provide for their families. And some protection from exploitation, human traffickers, abusive employers and dire work-, and living arrangements. 
But migrant workers are out of luck. In Europe these days, poverty, no matter how dire, is not seen as a justifiable reason to flee a country. 

In Singapore many migrants find what they came for: a job, and money to send home. A certain amount of hardship they take for granted. The life of these migrant workers is not easy, but they do what is needed for their families to survive and thrive. Do they find their happiness? Maybe some do. Happiness is a luxury not everyone can afford.

HOME is a Singaporean registered charity that works for the well-being, justice and empowerment of migrant workers and trafficked victims in Singapore. As a non-profit organisation they rely on private donations to fund their work. Please visit www.HOME.org.sg for more information, or if you want to contribute by donating or becoming a HOME volunteer. 

Photo by Dominica Fitri, HOME

 * Siti's name has been changed for privacy reasons. The woman in the photograph is another Indonesian domestic worker, who stayed with HOME a few years ago, and has agreed to her photo being used from HOME promotions. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Haze

It is the talk of the town, trending on Facebook and twitter, and I personally have not one, not two, but three apps monitoring it every hour: The Haze. With capitals.

In Europe we have snow days, where the whole country grinds to a halt, schools and offices get closed, and in Singapore we have The Haze. The Haze is basically a blanket of smoke that spreads from Indonesia over South East Asia, and depending on how the wind blows, Singapore gets more or less of this acrid smog. It has been going on for almost a month this year. The Haze is monitored with the PSI, the pollutant standard index, and when you meet anyone, you don’t ask how they are anymore, you ask (through your becoming M95 dust mask) if they have heard the latest PSI. Then, everyone will pull out their phones, and compare PSI ratings on their respective apps. Our lives are ruled by PSI right now, under 100 we are fine, between 100 and 200 we have to limit outdoor exercise, and when we reach 300 life becomes really hazardous. A PSI above 300 is what all mothers fear: Above PSI 300 schools will close again. Kids have bigger problems; they have not been able to play outside for weeks.

So what is this Haze that rules our lives? What causes it? And, more importantly, can we do anything about it?

A common perception about The Haze is that it is caused by ‘slash and burn’ practices in Indonesia, mostly Borneo and Sumatra, where land is cleared to make space for crops, like palm oil and paper fibre. This is however, a gross simplification of the issue. ‘Slash and burn’ has been practiced for centuries, not only in Indonesia, but worldwide, and is a quick, dirty and cheap way of clearing land for agricultural purposes. What is burnt is either the original forest, or left-over palm trees after the oil seeds are harvested. While this is a nasty practice, with many bad side-effects for nature, it will not cause a haze as bad as The Haze.

The Haze is a more recent phenomenon. Over the last decades, Indonesia has started to cultivate peat lands. Peat is a mixture of organic materials that have been deposited over generations. Leave them a lot longer and they will become oil. Peat is usually soggy, and swampy. But, for the purpose of growing oil palms, it is drained by digging canals. The remainder is a very dry, highly combustible material: dry peat. One tiny spark will set it ablaze. Peat fires can simmer up to several metres underground, which makes them very difficult to put out. Regular water spraying is not enough. Peat fires can smoulder for weeks, producing a nasty, acrid smoke: The Haze.

Even ‘sustainable palm oil’ producing companies that have abandoned ‘slash and burn’ techniques still drain their peat lands. During the dry season a small campfire or cigarette butt is enough to get a fire going without any bad intentions. There are no longer simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ palm oil farmers. Palm oil has become a ‘dirty’ crop.

We might complain here in Singapore, but the worst victims of the haze live much closer to the fire pits: The people and animals of Borneo and Sumatra. Where we, in our air-conditioned houses, with N95 masks and air purifiers, complain about our measly PSI (250 as I write this), PSI values close to the hotspots can easily reach 2000 or more. Over there, people often live in bamboo huts, have no air-conditioning, nor air-purifiers, and have no escape routes to tropical islands upwind. Where we complain about headaches, a cough and red eyes, they are in danger of much more serious ailments.

And I am not even yet mentioning the loss of habitat for myriads of wildlife, as both Sumatra and Borneo harbour some of the best stretches of pristine rainforest in the world, inhabited by many endangered species. Or the local economies that suffer badly, schools and businesses that have had to close, and tourists that have ceased to come.

So what can we do? That is the harder question. It is easy to start pointing fingers, at palm oil corporations, large or small, the Indonesian government, and this is widely done.

All the way down the line, off course, we are all to blame. We purchase this palm oil. We, here in Singapore, and we, here in Europe, America and everywhere. We all use it. Even someone who thinks she doesn’t, does. It is in soap, shampoo, toothpaste as well as many food products. The amount of palm oil produced and consumed worldwide goes up steadily. In Europe it is used as ‘bio-diesel’, ironically marketed as a sustainable alternative for fossil fuels.

I have always been a strong advocate of responsible consumerism. You are what you buy. And by refusing to buy products that contain palm oil, we send out a strong signal to the world: this is unacceptable. This is easier said than done, though. Palm oil is often hidden as ‘vegetable oil’, or in household products that barely have an ingredient list at all, or one that is incomprehensible for anyone without a chemistry degree (or even someone with one, as I can testify). To add to that, palm oil is traded as a global commodity, and tracking its origins is hard. Even companies that try to do the right thing and buy sustainable palm oil struggle to do so. Also, as I mentioned before, one can argue if there is such a thing as sustainable palm oil.

I can’t help but wonder; if I, a product developer with 10 years of experience in the food industry, that specialises in sustainable development, fair trade and the environment, can’t see the trees though the (burning) forest, how can anyone?

The matter of palm oil and The Haze is far too complex for consumers to grasp. Although I applaud any effort people make in this direction, I think the real change needs to come from another direction. But where?

The Indonesian government on Java can’t smell the haze, and conveniently looks the other way. In any case, corruption is as widespread in this archipelago as islands, and finding a solution for anything is a challenge in Indonesia. Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer, and both local and national politicians are closely interwoven with the business. President Joko Widodo has claimed he will be able to solve the problem in three years. A long time if you are choking.

The international press in the rest of the world does not seem too bothered either, and this environmental disaster gets very little coverage. Are they too scared that any pointed fingers will inevitably point back to the Western world itself? Do they find the issue too complex to tackle? Or is it just because it is not their children breathing in the acrid air?

The only solution can be one where Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s), governments and large corporations work together and take their responsibility. We, the citizens, voters and consumers, need to somehow demand this. How we are going to do this? I have no idea. I’m am putting on my N95 mask, and go feed my kids, fingers crossed that I don’t feed them or wash them with palm oil today. I suppose the peanut butter is out....

Monday, 31 August 2015

Dutch Summer

The first thing Jasmijn says when we exit Schiphol airport is:
‘Mama, you said it was summer in Holland.’
There is a cold wind boxing our ears, and a drizzle makes the already chilly air feel downright freezing. All I can do is shrug. Welcome to the Netherlands. Yes, it’s July.

We spend the afternoon huddled in front of the fireplace, nursing cups of hot cocoa. Outside it’s fifteen degrees, with raging wind, branches flogging the windows, and rain coming down in buckets. We don’t venture out until the next afternoon, when the sun cautiously peeks through fluffy clouds.

Whilst we were packing, our Indonesian help did not understand why I was packing long trousers and cardigans. Like Jasmijn, she asked ‘But it is summer there, right?’ I tried to explain the concept of light summer coats, and our lack thereof, but she did not really get it.

Despite the wary sunshine on our second day, I tell Tijm to dress warmly. Remembering the day before, he demands a long-sleeved top. He wore his only long-sleeved T-shirt yesterday, and it is smeared with hagelslag, so I dangle a short-sleeved one in front of him. He objects; his arms will get cold. I show him a jumper, and he stares at me, unbelieving. ‘I cannot wear two things,’ he exclaims. I wonder whether this is the time to tell him we’ll be adding a third layer when, or if, we’ll venture outside.

The sun perseveres, and we have a few hours of fun in the dunes with cousins and all the blown-over trees from yesterday’s storm. Layers get shed, shoes thrown in the sand and just in time for tea the rain starts again. The following week we see a lot of museums.

After a one-week break in balmy Portugal we head back north, to Friesland, where we are treated to a whole week of summer. Real summer. We swim, we sail, fish, we traipse through mud, and get dragged behind boats on a rope. We discard the hastily bought light summer coats – wind and rainproof – and sport our swimsuits most of the time.

At the end of the week I realise the Dutch summer has done it again: The rain is forgotten, and the sun filled days on the lakes are etched in my memory forever.

Back in Singapore’s clammy heat I miss the freshness of northern summers, the crisp air that fills your lungs with energy at every breath that you draw. I miss the sweet, gentle sunshine that you can sit in without burning to a crisp. But I am no fool. I have lived in Northern Europe long enough to know how extremely rare those weeks are.

I pick a shady spot in my garden, suck in the hazy sweltering air, fraught with heavy, murky and mouldy smells, specked with whiffs of tropical flowers. Our European summer was great. And I’m happy to be home.

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.