Sunday, 2 December 2018

Home for the holidays

In multi-cultural Singapore we have a never-ending sequence of free days and colourful celebrations that we all join in happily. The Deepavali henna had barely faded from the palms of my hands when Sinterklaas arrived at Marina Bay in his bumboat. As soon as the Sint leaves it will be time for Christmas and then the year will be over, but not the Singapore holidays as the main event has yet to come: Chinese New Year.

Usually, I am not the kind of expat that is prone to homesickness, not even over the holidays, but this year I find myself excitedly looking forward to a traditional Dutch Christmas at home. In Northern Europe this is a depressing time of the year. You take off for work in the dark and come back in it too - if you have an office job you won’t see daylight at all. Not that you miss much, a Christmas of falling snowflakes is more fairy tale than reality, days in December are likely to be drab, grey and wet. We need a party to get us through that, and Christmas marks the shortest day of the year, the darkest.

Our Singapore rainy season is well timed - huddling inside whilst a tropical storm rages, with gusts of winds sweeping through the trees, rain hammering on the windows; it is just as it should be this time of the year. Other things, less so. The light-up at Orchard Road is a depressing one this year; with not a Christmas decoration in sight Orchard Road makes clear once and for all what Christmas is all about for some: Disney. And commerce. It makes me glad to be Dutch, and makes me stick even firmer to our traditions: no presents at Christmas.

I never once received a Christmas present as a child. Christmas to us is about being together with family, special food, candlelight, singing carols. Even without presents, Christmas was magical. The smell of fresh pine (not the chemically sprayed American ones they have here – that keep smelling long after the needles drop off, but the real deal, from the forest) mixed with Christmas spice, open fires, stollen with almond spijs.

Fear not, there is no need to pity me - or my children. Because we have Sinterklaas. On the eve of his birthday, on December 5th the good old holy man, Saint Nicholas with his trusty junglepieten will drop off bags full of presents. Pakjesavond is the event of the year for Dutch children. Pepernoten (spicy tiny biscuits) are thrown around, and there is no end to unique candy associated with this day: marzipan, chocolate letters, taai taai, schuimpjes and borstplaat. For the adults: bishop-wine.

My favourite part? Sinterklaas is a holiday to get creative. This is the day to get back to your annoying little brother or teasing your classmate in a snappy poem and crafty joke as surprises are exchanged. Or house is already full of glue, cardboard, paint, papier-mâché and kids yelling ‘don’t come in, don’t look!’

And when the giving is over, later this December, my whole family, ooms, tantes, opa and oma will come together in our home for a real Dutch-Singaporean Christmas. With Christmas Day brunch and Indonesian rijsttafel and not a gift in sight. Because nothing you can wrap up can ever beat being together!

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Adventures with the apes

 Sumatra holiday part 1: Adventures with the apes

‘Watch out,’ the guide in front of me yells over his shoulder when he suddenly stops in his track. ‘It is Jackie. Jackie loves to hug. But don’t worry, she is not dangerous like Mina.’ In this jungle we are not alone, we hike with some p
henomenal creatures: orang-utans. 

We are in Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, more specifically in the environs of Bukit Lawang. For years I have wanted to do a proper jungle trek with the children, camp out it in the bush, and this place offers something that I hope will entice my offspring to hike six hours a day without moaning: the chance to encounter both semi-wild and wild orang-utans. 

And we are not disappointed. First we run into Ratna, a semi-wild female and her baby. There used to be a rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang, which closed years ago as the forest is fully populated. The reintroduced orang-utans stay close to the village, and humans, creating an excellent opportunity for eco-tourism. The rehabilitated apes are mostly females, who mate with local wild males. But unsurprisingly, there are also problems with human orang-utan interactions. 

Up the hills!
Hungry for lunch, but we have a follower!
Thankfully our guides (unlike some…) are very responsible and explain how we should never get too close to the orang-utans, and they never feed them or leave trash behind – in fact, on our second day we have to postpone our lunch for hours when a wild orang-utan kept following us and we could not sit down and dig into our excellent fried rice and noodles. The children weren’t sure whether to be annoyed with hunger, or amazed by the attention.

Mina and Tara
But, as out guide Tara explained, there was one exception to his no-feeding rule: Mina. If we met her he might have no choice but to feed her, as she was known to become aggressive. He had scars to show for that. So when we entered her territory (orang-utans are solitary animals that stay in a set area), lo and behold, there Mina was, standing in the middle of the path with upheld hand to demand her toll. Tara carefully doled out sunflower seeds whilst the other guides herded us past swiftly and safely. Mina with her scarred face, looked imposing and to be honest, rather scary. 

Karien grabbed by Jackie

Karien being forced to stay by Jackie
So later that day, when we approached Jackie, I was a bit apprehensive about this ‘hugging’. And rightly so, as when the guides cautiously herded us past her, Jackie grabbed me firmly by the arm and pulled me to her. Orang-utans have amazing strong grip! The soothing voice of Tara told me to sit still, and not worry. Jackie pulled me down, forcing me to sit on the floor next to her. The guides tried to distract Jackie with snacks that did not interest her in the least, so I sat there, with the rest of the family laughing at me. Jackie, looked at me with big pleading eyes and it took me a lot of restraint not to give her a full bear-hug. Human attention was clearly what this lady craved. 

Through the river!
First night Indonesian dinner
After I was finally released we saw several more wild orang-utans and their nests high up in the tree. But of course orang-utans are not all there is to see in Gunung Leuser Park! During our three day trek we saw lizard, giant ants, butterflies, all sorts of greens and sceneries. Our first evening camping by the river we spotted a group of Thomas Leaf monkeys (called Beckham by the guides, can you guess why?). 

Thomas Leaf Monkey
Down the hill!
We were unimpressed by the long-tailed macaques (we can see these in our own garden), but the baboon-like pig-tailed macaques were exciting, if not a tad intimidating. Building dams whilst washing up in the river, eating the most amazing Indonesian food cooked by our guides, and sleeping in the sounds of the screeching jungle – it all made an amazing experience. 

A much needed break

Tijm's favourite thing: building dams

The second day Tara, impressed by the speed and endurance of our children, decided we were fit for the long steep way. It is beyond me why, but on a normal road my children lag behind needing constant urging, yet on a steep mountainous jungle trek, with only tree roots and lianas to pull you up, they rush up leaving me short of breath. The steepest of climbs offers the highest rewards: from the top of Orchid Hill we had an amazing view over the Gunung Leuser Reserve and its flowing hills. That evening we had just arrived at our new camp and were having a quick bath in the river when the skies broke; a big thundering storm made the river we had just swam in bulge from of its course into a thundering rage. 

Arrival at camp 2
Breakfast by the river - morning after the storm

Second day river camp
Storm! The river 2 meters higher than before...

It was a simple tropical storm, one we are used to in Singapore, but deep in the jungle we were sill in awe. Not long ago flash floods caused by illegal logging upstream had swept away most of Bukit Lawang village – a story that makes us firmly aware of the brutal forces that get unleashed when we humans interfere with nature. We sat in our mostly-dry shelter munching snacks and drinking sweet hot tea and kept our fingers crossed it would eventually stop – if the river would not calm down we would it be able to tube down it the morning after. Thankfully we woke up to yet another beautiful day and we swiftly tubed back to a day of relaxing in the village. 

Tubing home!
Our experience with the magnificent Mina and Jackie left me with mixed feelings. These semi-wild orang-utans were spoiled for life when they were taken from their mothers as a baby and raised by humans. After rehabilitation they lead good lives; they roam in their natural habitat and by reproducing with local wild males help preserve the species. They have become a tourist attraction, which has its complications, but at the same time eco-tourism can play an important role in providing income for the local community. Eco-tourism promotes awareness on the importance of nature conservation and I hope in that way Mina, Ratna and Jackie can all continue playing their part in reserving all the important species that live in the Gunung Leuser Nature Reserve. In any case, we had a great time and learned so much. 

Kings and queens of the bush

View from Orchid Hill
Best breakfast ever

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Pipsqueak and Squeakpip

One morning before school the cats dragged in something that at first sight looked like a naked rat. Closer inspection showed the tail too short, the nose too blunt for a rat. This was more exciting: this was a babys quirrel. Linde, who considers anything tiny ultimately cute, was instantly there to declare we had to keep it. Then the other cat dragged up a second little creature from underneath the pineapple plants and we all looked up. There, in the jackfruit tree, on a hanging branch, hung a cluster of sticks. I’d seen it before but only now realised what it must be: a rather ill-designed squirrel nest.

Linde, holding the tiny ones in cupped hands, urged me to google the care of baby squirrels. Heating them up seemed to be the first step, so Roel cradled them, blew warm air onto them, until they woke from their stupor and started wriggling. By now, the kids had to go to school so we put them on a heating pad in a cage safe from cats and took off.

It turns out squirrels are cute but rather stupid; according to local wildlife charity Acres that I consulted babies falling from nests are a common occurrence, likely as newborn baby squirrels - as I now know - are rather wriggly little creatures. Therefore many websites were dedicated to what my daughter had ordered me to do: the great squirrel rescue. Despite Linde’s loud protests I knew the best thing to do was to reunite them with mummy.

Google told me never to give them cow’s milk, so I hydrated them with some warm sugar-salt solution, made a make-shift nest near the tree where mum could see them, and went grocery shopping. When I came back, sporting an eighteen dollar tin of special mammal formula, I was not sure what to hope for: That mum had picked them up and my purchase was pointless, or that I would now have to spend the next few weeks syringe-feeding two baby squirrels. My mixed hopes were both rewarded: one baby was gone, the other still there. 

That afternoon the rain was too deep to put a naked baby out, so to Linde’s utter delight we got started with feeding the newly-christened Pipsqueak. 

But when I found out that 3 hourly feedings, just like with human babies, mean day and night, that baby went back in the tree as soon as it was dry. But sadly, no mum showed up. In the morning, groggy as any new baked mother that has been up too often in the night, Tijm woke me up holding something brown and wriggly.

“Mama, Pipsqueak escaped. Pepper got him.”

The thing could barely crawl, let alone climb! How was that possible? The cage revealed Pipsqueak soundly asleep, and Tijm was holding his sister, Squeakpip, fallen from the nest once again. This mum was one lousy nest-builder indeed!

In serious doubts now about the feasibility of my reunion plans, tiredness still won over: I had to get them back in that nest! That day, mum picked up Pipsqueak, leaving us with smaller, weaker sister Squeakpip, who stayed with us all that rainy weekend. With a weeklong trip to Sumatra on the horizon, I started Monday with more tiredness and resolve, and I am please to announce that finally, on Tuesday afternoon, Squeakpip too has been reunited with her mother.

Linde has been searching hopefully underneath the jackfruit tree morning and afternoon, but I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed and hope they won't fall out yet again!

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Breaking down borders with stories

This weekend I was asked to talk at an inspiring event organised by Migrant Writers of Singapore and the National University of Singapore (NUS) with the theme: Open Borders, Stories have no boundaries. My friend and domestic worker writer Rea Maac, also a speaker at the event, told me they asked me to speak because I, as she said ‘opened borders for the domestic workers'. A lovely compliment.

Rea's comment made me reflect on the different ways one can use stories to open boundaries. As a migrant and a writer myself, I realise the importance of this. After all, there are many borders - physical as wel as invisible - that we encounter when we migrate to a new country.

The question I started pondering about is: how hard is it to really connect to Singapore, to become a part of it? When I first moved here six years ago I found it hard to make Singaporean friends. I did not work at the time, and as a mother the easiest way to make friends is at your children’s school. But at our international school there were no Singaporean kids; MOE (the Ministry of Education), does not allow them to go there. Likewise, because we do not have permanent resident (PR) status, it is almost impossible for my children to get a place at a local school. The result is that my children have friends from all over the world, but few from Singapore.

Many so-called ‘expats’ complain about how they feel like they live in a ‘bubble’. Of course we are aware this is a privileged bubble; the minimum salary to be eligible for the coveted Singapore EP (employment pass) is high. But a luxury bubble is still a bubble. It can feel uncomfortable.

Then, let’s look at work pass (WP) holders, what is life like for them? WP holders are low wage migrants that come to work in Singapore. Examples are domestic workers, that live in with their employers. Or construction workers, who mostly live in dormitories. The families of this type of migrants - in contrary to those of EP holders - have to stay behind in their home countries; even it they would be allowed to come, a WP salary is not sufficient to support a family here. I would like to say that we migrants are all the same, but if I did, I would deny the truth: our lives are very different. Because of the nature of their work and living arrangements, as well as social stigma, it is even more difficult for WP holders to make Singaporean friends.

Thankfully, now I have lived here over six years, I have made a number of lovely friends, Singaporeans and all sorts of migrants alike. But this took time and effort. Singapore is a multicultural melting pot, but fact is, when it comes to migrants it can still be quite segregated.

So how do we open those borders with stories?

For many years I conducted workshops through local charity HOME with domestic workers. Creative writing workshops and also a ‘dreams class’ to empower them. In that dreams class we played a game where we would brainstorm about what we would do if we won the lottery. Sorting our many ideas – both theirs and mine- that we would jot on post-it notes, taught me one thing very clearly: our dreams are very much the same. Buy a house in our home country. Provide a good education for our children. Study. Travel and see the world. So even when our lives might be different, the fact that we share the same hopes and dreams is what binds us.

So when we share stories about migrants, particularly low wage migrants like work pass holders, in Singapore, do we focus on our differences, or on the similarities?

Talking about migrant workers’ rights we often talk about the injustices they face. These stories strongly focus on the differences, on the unfairness in the treatment some migrants get. Domestic workers that get no day off, get their handphones taken away, suffer verbal or physical abuse. Construction workers that don’t get paid or are exploited. It is of course important to raise awareness of these issues. But the danger in these stories is that they often portray migrants as victims, as weak people that need protection.

It is important we share other types of stories too. When we talk about the similarities between different migrants and Singaporeans, about hopes and dreams, love and sorrow, we show that we are all the same - deep down. We are all humans. Stories like that can help create a shift in way Singaporeans look at migrants. As humans, they deserve to be treated humanely.

So when I work with domestic worker writers I don’t want to hear only about the difficulties they faced here. I also want to hear about the love they have for their families, the things they enjoy to do in their spare time, the plans they make for their futures. Most particularly, I want to hear about their dreams.

Many of the stories I collect get shared on the MyVoice blog, which I started in 2014 as a platform to give a voice to domestic workers in Singapore. Earlier this year HOME published the anthology ‘Our Homes, Our Stories,’ that I edited, which contains 28 real life stories written by domestic workers in Singapore.

All the strong and amazing women I met while working with domestic workers in Singapore inspired my debut novel that was published by Monsoon Books this summer. To reach a large audience I wrapped up the many of the plights of domestic workers I encountered over the years in an exciting plot. A Yellow House is fiction, inspired by real events. By real people.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Real Yellow House

In my novel A Yellow House that came out this summer [minor spoiler alert!] the yellow house of the title is a dream. A goal. It is what Aunty M wants to build for her daughter Nurul in Indonesia with the money she made working in Singapore as a domestic worker. But did you know this actual yellow house already exists in Java?

For years I taught a ‘Dreams Class’ at HOME shelter for ill-treated domestic workers. The shelter houses women that have run away from their employers. Women stay at HOME shelter for a plethora of different reasons. Some haven’t been paid their salary, are overworked. Some were abused – physically or mentally. Others were simply homesick but their employer didn’t want to let them go. Women stayed there for days, months and sometimes even years.

In the Dreams Class we take them away from their troubles for a few hours. A favourite in this class is the Million Dollar question. 

We are lucky, we have won the lottery, 1.000.000 $$$! 
In the brainstorming game that follows, the first thing almost every single woman does, is built a house for their family. A house is solid, will last and can be shared with loved ones. It is the ultimate dream for many migrant workers. Talking about these imagined houses made twinkles burn in their eyes while we talked about how best to make our dreams come true – even without winning the lottery.

Years ago we visited Indonesia with Indah, or own helper (I always struggle to use the more PC word domestic worker when it comes to her, not only as it is so long and stiff, it just seems too impersonal. The word friend comes to mind when I talk about her but that doesn’t do her justice either – she is so much more). Driving through her village in Central Java Indah pointed out all the beautiful houses of her friends. ‘That one works in Hong Kong. That one, Singapore. There, she went to the Middle East.’ Then we passed a small hut with slatted bamboo walls and an attap palm roof. ‘They stayed here.’

It is obvious how working abroad can bring prosperity to a country but we should not forget what it costs the families involved. In A Yellow House, Aunty M’s daughter runs away – she can’t forgive her mother for abandoning her for years, even if this is the only way to pay for her education.

Back in Java, past rolling rice paddies and past mosques with gleaming spires, a sugar cane factory and many houses of all colours, we finally reached our destination: the original yellow house. A tad jealous I admire Indah’s house which is painted in my favourite colour: a warm, rich, ochre. 

Inside we meet her family and eat the best meal we ever had. Getting to know her family, friends, her village and her beautiful house deepened our relationship and understanding of her life. 

Women like Indah and those joining my classes at HOME shelter inspired me to write A Yellow House and share their stories with the world. I shared a photograph of Indah's house with the designer who made this gorgeous illustration for the cover:

So did Aunty M ever get to build her yellow house? Well, I gave away enough, if you want to find out, you’ll have to read the book! 

A Yellow House is published by Monsoon Books in the UK and available in bookstores in Singapore and the UK as well as online retailers (for instance here or here) or on Kindle or Kobo.

In the Netherlands it will be available in bookstores from October 2018 as well as here or, already now as ebook.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Lots of cats and a snake

A few months ago I wrote about the wilder, more dangerous aspects of black and white living and owned up to my fear of snakes. It turned out my fear of snakes was completely warranted. This summer our cat Mitzi disappeared and guess who our number one suspect is?

Traffic is slow in our area which means there are few road kills. And since she has been micro-chipped but not found anywhere we can only fear the worst. Pythons are known cat killers and who did we see slithering on our drive not long before she disappeared?

We did not plan on getting a new cat. Sure, the increased amount of rats scuttling across the terrace had me tempted. But we still miss Mitzi. And I felt a bit guilty about not heeding the advice of the charity where we picked up Mitzi to keep her inside – which would have been sheer impossible anyhow since we basically live outside. And I feel that keeping a cat inside is akin to animal abuse - better enjoy life to the fullest and die happy than wile away being safe. Still, no charity in their right mind would give us a cat now.

Of course fate intervened. One day my ears pricked up when zonked on the sofa in front of Netflix. Did I hear Mitzi? I rushed outside and found Indah with a bowl of cat food and a little black feline. We’d seen the cat around – there are many strays in our area – but usually Mitzi chased her off. The next morning Blackie came back and played with the kids all morning. They got very excited and begged to keep her. After checking with all the neighbours she was in fact a stray I gave in. But we never saw her again after that week.

So we went on with our happy cat and stress-free existence until Indah’s friend kept WhatsApping us photos of two little ones in need of a home. Their mother was a local stray that had given birth in her garden to a litter of six. They spayed the mother and released her back into the wild. One of the babies died, one ran way, two got rehomed. There were two left. They had been vaccinated, taken care of lovingly but the employer did not want to keep them. What else could I do but take our cat carrier and drive over?

So now we have to seven-month-old kittens. Two sisters that immediately got diarrhoea – either from stress, new food or poisonous plants – and were locked in a very smelly side room for the last week. Since they seem to have finally remembered what potty training is all about I just let them out and as I write they are frolicking around and creating havoc in the house (they won’t go out for at least a few weeks, until they are not only settled but spayed – two cats is more than enough, thank you very much). They dig up houseplants, jump on every available surface, practice their piano skills, run full speed and fight endlessly. Since they are also the most sociable, cuddly and affectionate cats I have ever seen and unlike Mitzi are up to being manhandled by the steady stream of playdates coming to admire them, we forgive them. They have been here for only a week but already we can not imagine our life without them. So I am proud to introduce what Roel so elegantly calls our new python food: Pepper and Snowy. 

All that is left now is to keep our fingers crossed and hope they will outrun the enemy.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

Beef Rendang

My sister was visiting and having seen most of Singapore’s sights, decided she wanted to do something special: a cooking course. Beef rendang was top of the list of favourites. I felt it was not worth spending hundreds of dollars on a class though. Indah’s rendang is the best I have ever eaten. I had wanted to get her recipe off her for some time, and thankfully she agreed to teach us of the finer points of rendang making in our own kitchen. 

When Indah first started working for us, I asked her if she knew how to cook rendang. I don’t eat much meat, but make an exception or this fragrant delicacy. As an Indonesian, of course Indah knew the dish, but no, she had never cooked it. She had worked eight years for a Chinese employer, perfecting her Chinese cooking skills, but neither them nor the western employers she worked for after had ever asked her to cook any Indonesian food. Indonesian happens to be one of my favourite cuisines – for the Dutch it is as familiar as Indian is for the British, we consider nasi goreng with satay one of our national foods.

‘And when you were little,’ I asked, ‘would your mother not cook curry’s like that?’ Indah looked at me with shy eyes. ‘No ma’am. We could never afford beef.’

In the years that followed Indah, who has a natural talent for spices, perfected her rendang recipe until she finally has one she is happy to share, with us as well as her family back home. So I proudly present: Indah’s beef rendang recipe.

Beef Rendang (Indonesian sweet beef curry) 

1 kg stewing beef, in cubes
600 ml coconut milk
~ 4 tbs oil
3 stalks lemongrass (sereh)
10 kaffir lime leaves (jeruk perut)
2 turmeric leaves (kunjit)
1 tbs tamarind pulp
1 cinnamon stick
4 tbs fried ground coconut (kerisek) (or dried grated coconut)
2 asian bay leaves (salam)

2 cm fresh galangal, in slices 
4 cardamon pods
7 cloves
2 star anise
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt

For the spice mix (bumbu)
5-20 large red chili’s
20 small shallots
8 cloves of garlic
2 cm fresh ginger
2 cm fresh galangal
2 cm fresh turmeric
1 ½ tsp ground dried coriander (ketumbar)
1 tsp ground dried cumin (djinten)
½ tsp ground dried nutmeg
½ stalk lemongrass
8 candlenuts (kemiri)

Outside of Asia, some of the ingredients might be hard to get. Don’t worry, your rendang will still be tasty. Fresh ginger is fairly ubiquitous these days, it’s nephews galangal and turmeric less so, so you can use the dried, ground variety instead. Candlenuts give a nutty, creamy texture to your spice paste, they can be substituted with other nuts like almonds or macadamia. Turmeric leaves can be left out. Don’t replace the salam leaves with Western bay leaves, they are very different in flavour. Better to leave them out altogether if you can’t get them.

First, make the bumbu:

For curry, always start by making the spice paste. Traditionally this is done in a mortal and pestle, but these days we use a modern blender. You can use as many or as little chili as you like, depending on taste. Add all the bumbu ingredients, coarsely chopped, to the blender. Blitz until it is a fine paste, adding a few tablespoons of oil if needed to make it smooth. Don’t add water!

Then, start cooking:
Then we need to fry the bumbu, for this heat a little oil in a big pot and stir well after added the paste. Fry until fragrant, 5-10 minutes should do it. Then we start adding the other ingredients. First, the herbs. 

The lemongrass, chopped into pieces of a few cm, and slightly crushed to release flavour. The kaffir lime and salam leaf slightly torn. The turmeric leaves, if you can get them, are very large, so roll them and tie into a knot. Add the cinnamon stick, sliced galangal, aniseed, cloves, cardamon and fry all for a few more minutes before adding the beef. After the beef is slightly browning, add the dry coconut and coconut milk. Let the tamarind paste soak in a few tablespoons water and add the juice but leave out the seeds and hard bits. 

Stir well, and let the curry simmer for at least 1 ½ hours. The longer you let it simmer, the darker your rendang will become in colour. It will be even tastier the next day! Taste the sauce, and finally add salt and sugar to taste. Adding a bit of sugar will help combat spiciness. 

Serve with rice and vegetables. Green vegetables like beans, sugarsnaps, kangkong, or spinach work well. 

Don't eat meat? You can make this rendang with tempeh instead!

Interested to see more of Indah’s recipes? Check out my personal favourites: her fried tempeh and sambal eggs.