A nomad mother in Singapore

Monday, 13 February 2017

Cock-a-doodle-doo


Most mornings we are awoken by a cheerful cock-a-doodle-doo. It is a nice way to wake up, a reminder that nature is calling, and the day has started. Admittedly, it is slightly annoying at 5am, but hey. When you see the beauty of the fellows making this noise, much is forgiven. With their striking plumage and solid strut, the roosters of the wild jungle fowl are a joy to behold. They love our garden too, and the wild roosters like to prance around our own layer hens, who look demurely from the run at these attractive males. 




It seems not everyone feels that way. Not far from us a group of wild fowl was thriving, and after several complaints from local residents, the government decided to act. All the fowl were caught, and culled. Not even turned into proper free-range chicken rice, but disposed of. Needless to say, the other half of the residents were livid. They loved their chooks. 

Now, there is a raging debate online whether the fowl in question were in fact jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of our domestic chickens, an endangered, and therefore protected species. This particular flock was featured in a BBC documentary on urban wildlife, and I struggle to believe that Sir Attenborough and friends would not know their jungle animals?

The government obviously does not want to admit a mistake, and is trying hard to prove these birds were, in fact, no such thing. That they were feral chicken, domestic ones gone wild, and that have interbred with the jungle fowl, and therefore look alike. Biologists claim that these mixed-breeds need to be culled, to protect the clean bloodlines of the jungle fowl race. Can you imagine someone suggesting to do such a thing with human race populations? It has been done, historically, and never ended well.

To calm us all down before I continue, let me show you the photos of the immensely cute mother with four chicks we saw in our garden this weekend. 






Pure-blooded or not, we love all our game, noisy as they are, but I still became curious which race 'ours' were. On the internet it is suggested that 'real' jungle fowl has grey legs and a bright white spot by the side of the head. Most of the roosters we see have the white spot, so does mother hen above. They are all good flyers, that we have seen roost high up in the top of the trees, so I am included to think they are proper wild jungle fowl.

But one of my favourite roosters, seen below, perched on the fence, has a noticeable long, single feather tail, lighter grey legs, and no white spot. So I worry for him. Let's hope none of the neighbours call the police. 



Wednesday, 8 February 2017

To meat or not to eat?

A question that has been on my mind for a while is: should we eat less meat? In this article, that I wrote for The Magazine by The Hollandse Club Singapore  I'm looking for some answers. 


Over the last century global meat consumption has steadily gone up, and with new parts of the world developing and being able to afford more meat, this is only expected to increase in the decades to come. Everyone loves meat. So why is that a problem?

Traditionally, people have become vegetarian out of principle - because they do not agree with killing other creatures, or the way in which animals in the modern meat industry are treated. Some do so for health reasons; meat consumption has been linked to a higher risk of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, kidney-, and gallstones. 




In the last few decades, another more pressing reason to eat less meat has emerged: the global animal industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, making up an estimate of 15 to 18% of global emissions. Burping and farting cattle emit methane, a 20 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

Almost all scientists agree: climate change is the biggest challenge the world faces this century. But acting on this knowledge is a challenge for most of us. Our expat life style with yearly intercontinental flights home, frequent weekend trips, swimming pools, and constant air-conditioning is hardly the most sustainable.

Luckily, there is one thing that Asia offers that can help us in our battle against climate change: delicious sources of vegetable protein. Silken tofu, tau pok, tau kwa, as well as tempeh, seitan, miso, and natto. But many expats struggle to prepare these products, and stick to what they know. Which is, too often, meat. Let’s try to get creative, but first, let me explain why eating less animal products is important.

The ecological footprint of meat


Let’s start with some statistics:

* The production of beef releases four times more greenhouse gases than that of a calorie-equivalent amount of pork, five times more than poultry, and fifteen to twenty-five times more than an equivalent of vegetable protein.

* To produce one calorie of protein of beef, twenty-eight calories of energy – often from fossil sources- are needed. For one calorie of soy; only two.

* The production of beef requires roughly 28 times more land, 6 times more fertilizer, and 11 times more water than the production of pork or chicken, and that of crops far less even.

* Raising animals for food is the biggest polluter of our water and topsoil, more so than any other industry.

Deforestation

Forests, the earth’s lungs, have the capacity to absorb CO2, but increasing stretches are cleared to become agricultural land, causing wild animals to lose their habitats. The majority of crops being grown worldwide are used as animal food, rather than being consumed directly by humans. It's more efficient to grow a crop and eat it, than to feed it to an animal as it builds up muscle mass, and then eat the animal. If meat consumption would be drastically reduced, all of humanity could be fed without the need for any more deforestation.

Throwing around figures like this is relatively easy, but getting the picture clear is much more complicated. Many studies contradict each other, and it can be very difficult to make the best food choices, especially if you want to take environment, animal welfare, and your own health into account.

Life cycle analysis


A good way of looking at the environmental impact of a product is a life cycle analysis, where all stages of a product are taken into account. The results can be surprising, for instance one assessment done for packaged orange juice found that over a third of the lifecycle emissions came from just the synthetic fertilizer used on the orange groves. Often people think buying local will eliminate transport emissions, but in many cases 'food miles' actually make up a relatively small percentage of the overall carbon footprint. How the food is grown and produced is much more important.

So let’s all change to organic meat?


Yes, changing to organic or free-range meat will definitely improve animal welfare, and environmental pollution, but when it comes to land use and greenhouse gas emissions, these products are actually worse. Free ranging cattle take longer to grow, spend more energy on movement, and thereby emit more methane than stabled animals. Also, the efficiency of large-scale production can limit the amounts of energy and water used.

Non-intensive rearing of livestock, such as raising animals by grazing on marginal land, or feeding them waste produce, would be a way to allow meat-eating in lower quantities with less environmental harm.

There can only be one conclusion to draw from these facts: Eat less meat. The average American eats 125 kg a year, a Brit 80, and a Thai? Only 28.

Many people these days choose to eat one vegetarian meal a week, and slowly increasing that can give a significant reduction of your ecological footprint.

If you find completely meatless meals difficult, another way is simply to decrease portion size. In a pasta sauce, increase the amount of vegetables and add less mince. Rather than go straight to veggie hamburgers, start by adding a handful of lentils to ground beef, so you can gradually get used to the flavour and texture. Food preferences are simply a matter of habit. Can you not get your children to eat tofu? Coat blocks of it in crumbled cornflakes, and fry them crispy.


Of course now the question arises: what to eat instead? Fish? Fisheries typically emit less greenhouse gases than stables, but unfortunately we are rapidly depleting the oceans, and fish farms have many issues of their own. And the production of cheese emits about the same amount of greenhouse gases as that of pork, and more than that of chicken. From all the animal proteins, eggs rank the best when it comes to battling climate change. But they are still outranked by all vegetables.

The graph above shows that vegetable protein, like grains, pulses, nuts, mushrooms, quorn, seeds and soy are our best choices when we want to reduce our carbon footprint. If you see these products in the supermarket, and don’t know how to prepare them, why not whip out your smartphone, google the ingredient and a number of suggestions should come up.
It is true; going (partially) vegan can be daunting at first, but the wealth of information available online is a great help. Buy a vegan or vegetarian cookbook and by playing around, you will find that with a little bit of effort and creativity, vegetarian food can be immensely versatile, and often surprisingly flavourful.





Sunday, 15 January 2017

Looking the cat out of the tree

We have this saying in Dutch, de kat uit de boom kijken. It means, literally translated, looking the cat out of the tree. I always imagine a bunch of people looking at a cat stranded in a tree, hoping it will get down on its own. Though that is not exactly the drift of the saying, it implies someone observing a pretty long while, before acting. We now have a cat that is looking herself out of the tree.

I have always wanted a cat, but since my mother was allergic I was never allowed. I swore I’d get one as an adult, but somehow never did. Between the rabbits, the chicken, the frogs and the hamster, I forgot about the cat.  Then, we had a rat infestation at the same time that Jasmijn was begging for a new pet for her birthday, and I suddenly found myself at a cat shelter. Imagine twenty cats looking at you through bars, some sleeping, some meowing neurotically, some just sitting there and staring. Where do you even start? Luckily, most were kittens, and we’d decided to go for a slightly older one, a female, as they were supposed to be better hunters. That narrowed it down a bit. I approached one pretty tree-coloured one, and stuck my hand through the bars. She woke up, stretched her back, and walked to the bars. She started nuzzling my hand, for a good few minutes, and when I retracted it, sat there and stared. Those big green eyes…


I was sold. As a formality, I looked at the other cats, which were nice enough. But they weren’t her. That weekend we came back with the family, she was allowed out for a minute, and after more admin and tough questions than were needed to deliver a baby, we were allowed (only just) to take her home.


We put her up in the small study room and she ran under the cabinet. From there, she started to look the cat out of the tree. Slowly, she comes out, if you sit next to her on the floor, and cuddles up, rubbing her head to your hands, legs, side, basically every part of your body she can reach, purring along. She will settle for nuzzling a doorpost or chair leg too. When we open the door to the living room, slowly, after much deliberation, she sets a few steps in the room. One slight noise or movement, brings her back into her safe room. Until she realises there are cuddles to be had, and she forces herself out.  After, she sits and stares. She watches, with those massive green eyes. She looks the cat out of the tree, and doles out cuddles. We all love our Mitzi already, even if she is the laziest, shyest, cuddliest cat I have ever seen. I can’t see her killing a fly. Our rats will be happy too. 



Sunday, 13 November 2016

The blobs



Linde was the first to point it out to me, ‘Mama, what is that?’

The yellowish blob was hanging on the edge of the pool, just above the surface, resembling a ball of construction foam – you know, the stuff you squirt from a can. I figured the builders left it there. When I pulled it off, and threw it in the garden, its soft squishiness surprised me. Maybe the chlorine water had rendered it so soft?



When we saw another one the next day, I pinched myself. Surely that had not been there before? I scraped it off carefully, and examined it more closely. On the inside of the spongy grey-yellow foam, there were little white balls. Some kind of eggs? It took a bit of effort on Google to figure out his was the egg mass of the four lined tree frog. 


In the evenings, when we were sipping our drinks by the poolside, we’d see the tree frogs come down from the surrounding trees, and host lustful pool parties. They hovered around the edges, croaking out to prospective mates loudly. Occasionally, we caught them in the act, ‘get a room, you two!’ 



The kids got used to our daily blobs, and we had to set rules, no throwing, and no putting them down your sister’s swimsuits. Once, we must have missed a blob, and the pool was full of tiny tadpoles. The children spend a morning painstakingly catching every single one with their hands, and collecting them in the pail where we were hatching some blobs already. We had tadpoles aplenty; we were now running a frog farm.  



 The tadpoles thrive on chye sim and spinach, and it did not take long before the first legs appeared. As soon as they could crawl, they would jump out of the pail, and join their friends in the trees. Worried about being inundated by tree frogs, we had to find a solution for our little swimmers. 


Since I found out that our hens loved snapping up these swimming wormlike creatures, I skim the pail regularly to avoid tadpole excesses. Extra protein is always good for our egg layers. 




We love our frogs, a friendly, albeit nocturnally noisy addition to our Adam Park Farm.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Expatland

When we just moved to Singapore, a friendly aunty in the park asked my children where they were from. They looked at each other, hesitantly, and then at me. Born in the United Kingdom, from Dutch parents, living in Singapore; the answer was not easy. More curious than the asker I shrugged, and waited for their own response. ‘England?’ my then five-year-old son offered. He looked at me. I nodded. That was right. But there are more right answers.

After three years at the Hollandse School in Singapore, my kids became more and more Dutch, almost too much for my global taste. When my daughter was asked to list all the countries she had lived in, the Netherlands topped her list. That she never lived there, my headstrong then six-year-old would not accept. Now, at an international school with more nationalities than I can count, we are back to inconclusiveness about the big ‘where are you from?’

I share my children's confusion. I too was an expat-child. Every three years I moved to a different town, country or continent. Often we lived in a ‘camp’, a compound with only expats working for the same company. The camp had it’s own school, shop, and sports and private club facilities. The camp was a country in itself.

Life abroad changes you. You adapt to a new culture, learn new ways of doing things, and when you come back to your own country, you feel like a stranger. I still clearly remember the move to the Netherlands when I was ten.

We would go ‘home’, my parents had said, but I did not feel at home in that country, that I mostly knew from holidays and visits to grandparents. I felt different, yet everybody expected me to fit in, my parents included. I looked and sounded the same, didn’t I? I remember it as the most difficult of all the moves I have made, and trust me, there were more than a few.

I could not wait to get out of that tiny, cold, and to me, constrictive, country, so after secondary school I left for a gap year abroad. A few countries and continents down the line, I finally know where I feel at home: Everywhere and nowhere.

Being a stranger in a new country is hard for some, but to me it feels great. Comfortable. Outside of the Netherlands I don’t feel the pressure to fit in, and I can just be me. Maybe that is why Singapore, a multicultural immigrant city with a vibrant expat community, fits me like a glove. Here, everyone is different. Four years down the line, I am happy to stay just a little bit longer. I am not finished here. And I have finally learned the correct answer to that dreaded question. 

‘Me? I’m from expatland!’

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The hens that came along

When I wrote about our latest house move, I did not fill you in yet on our feathered ladies, obviously, they came with us, and also obviously, that did not go without hiccups. 

Firstly, a general update on the ladies is in order. Yes, ladies, as we have no more gentlemen left in our run. At some point we had three. From our first batch of three chicks, I guess we saw it coming with Ronaldo, but we did not realise that Daisy's courageous, cheeky streak was also caused by testosteron. She became a pretty white rooster. An then Lily, one of our rescue chicks, suddenly got a suspiciously large comb, and when she crowed, we knew she too was, well, a he. I managed to exchange Ronaldo and Daisy for two pullets; our chicken uncle was starting to notice how lucrative the business of selling laying hens to crazy expats was, and he could use two solid guys for breeding. 



Our gorgeous Messi

Poor Lily, who we renamed Messi, with his cripple feet, was a different story. Messi and his sister had been hatched at a local primary, as part of a science program. I am not sure what the teaching objective was, but the kids must have learned that chicks are disposable things, that don't need proper care. They came to us malnourished, and in Messi's case, with several broken toes. We healed them with vitamins, worms, and a lot of TLC. Messi kept falling over initially, but eventually became a healthy big guy, albeit with a permanent limp.  The video shows baby Roos and Messi after they'd been with us a week. 


video

Initially, we decided he could stay. Yes, his early morning wake-ups were annoying, but he was pretty and we were fond of him. Then, Messi got bossy. He seemed to accept my seniority, but attacked Indah on several occasions, and since the chicken run is a favourite hangout for visiting kids, we could take no risks. Unfortunately there are not many options for a cripple rooster. I will spare you the details, but Roel manned up to do the difficult part, Indah did the plucking, and I cooked the coq au vin. I know many chicken holders might cringe, but as a partial vegetarian I rarely eat chicken, and if I do, I like to know where it came from, and how it was treated. I’m no hypocrite, and I would much rather eat my own rooster, lovingly reared, than one maltreated on an industrial farm. 



In front Fien, Lucy, Sushi and in the back Cherry and Roos
So who moved with us? Veteran Lucy, our now big baby Fien, Messi’s sister Roos, and the two new pullets, Cherry and Sushi. Five in total. 

The old run was broken down, and rebuilt in the new garden. It was not until the gardener pointed at the tree above, a large rain tree, that we saw the dead branch exactly above the run. Within the year, it will likely drop, and squash the run. When the gardener tried to cut it, it turned out there was a massive bees nest right beside. The branch – and the bees – are still there, waiting for our landlord to find a pest control company that is capable of climbing up that high.

The egg stealer
Our troubles were not yet over. The rebuild of the run had been sloppy, as the friendly neighbourhood monitor lizards were quick to notice. One squeezed his three feet long but skinny body through the wire. He did not hurt the hens, but stole all the eggs. After several failed attempts to lizard-proof the run, I thought I finally cracked it. To my surprise, we still found broken, eaten, eggs. It seemed our lizard friend had thought the hens a dirty trick! Some plastic, hard eggs, have helped to overcome this nasty habit, most of the time.

Our ladies seem happy enough, and are laying well, apart from youngsters Cherry and Sushi, who will hopefully start soon. With three eggs a day we indulge again in egg-eating feasts, and hope that for now, our hens lives will be less eventful. If only that dead branch cooperates….

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 still greener, but also an inch higher, and 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.