Wednesday, 29 May 2019

This snail moves on

I like to call myself to a nomad – a Bedouin. But there is something that distinguishes me from a genuine nomad: they tend to travel light through life. And I carry a lot – a lot - of stuff.

When people ask me where home is, I simply point around me. Any place can be my home, as long as my husband and children are there and - my stuff. That is why I sometimes call myself a snail, not because I am slow (admittedly I’m not the fastest runner, that’s a different story) but because I carry my home with me wherever I go. And it’s a full home.

My children take after me. Since they were very young, every time we travel and arrive in a new hotel, sometimes for just one night, they start nesting. They divvy up the beds, arrange their stuffed animals, notebooks, pyjamas and other items on it and voila; they feel at home. They often refer to hotels or guesthouses we stay in as home too.

The thing is, I can get ridiculously, sentimentally, attached to objects. I still remember some items I lost years ago, and genuinely miss them at times. The little blue vase with flowers that was a wedding present and that the cat smashed. The yellow glass lamp my parents bought for us in France, one that careless builders broke. The necklace my late grandmother left me and got stolen in the US when I was a teenager.

One of the reasons that could cause my attachment is that I rarely simply buy something. Years ago I needed a new teapot, and spent hours online, browsing vintage websites to find the perfect one. At some point my husband looked over my shoulder and dryly commented: ‘Normal people just go to a shop and buy a teapot….’

So when we move house or country, which is on average every few years, I pack up all this stuff and ship it to the next location; even if it is across the world. But our upcoming move to Bali proved a painful one. It soon became clear why most houses there are rented out furnished: Indonesia is a country where nothing is easy. At the same time, storing furniture in Singapore proved more expensive than renting a house in Bali.

When I asked for advise on an online group, the first comment came in quick: “sell everything, you will feel so happy and light after.” A big ‘no’ groaned up from my stomach. Never would I sell my collection of vintage enamel trays! The antiques we collected over the years! My Omani silver! Or our gazillions of books!

Thankfully, where there is a will there is a way; eventually. We will ship as much small items as we can manage to Bali, and store the bulk of the furniture in Europe (yes, you hear correctly, on the other side of the world. In fact, have a container with our furniture sitting on a boat, going round and round, would still be cheaper than storing in Singapore. But that seemed too insane, even for me.)

Our plan leaves me with one big thing to do in the coming month before we leave: get rid of as much as I can. Sell, give away, dump. Some items, like hideous IKEA wardrobes, or the sagging sofa, I’m happy to see the back of. Others, like our colourful outdoor dining table, I’m sorry to lose, but I can comfort myself with the thought that similar – better – ones can be bought cheaply in Bali.

Now I just hope one thing: that shipping the stuff I’m sure to amass there will be much easier to ship out. To wherever, whenever we will go after.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Domestic drama

Dinner is never a quiet event at our place, although this is normally due to our children’s lack of table manners, or their refusal to sit still and well, eat. But today we have another form of entertainment: a family of wild jungle fowl. 

Mother hen struts around the grass niftily, a clutch of three babies in close pursuit. It’s close to bedtime, and mother look up at the trees, searching for a good spot to roost. She spots a fine branch, takes off and flutters steadily to a high-up branch. Her three babies look after her with trepidation. Mummy went very high! After a minute of staring, number one flies up. Its little wings can’t reach quite as high as mum, and it lands on a dead palm leaf halfway. After some quiet deliberation, number two follows suit. It ends about a meter higher that the sibling, and perches on its higher branch triumphantly. Number three now can’t stay behind, and flies up, managing to come highest of all. But none of them is as high as mummy, and slowly they flap their way further up.

Suddenly, there is a rustle in the bushes and a fierce rooster appears. He flies up determinedly to where his wife is sitting, and a ruckus erupts, with leaves shaking and chicken shrieking. The flustered hen soon jumps down from the tree again and lands in the grass with a thump. The babies look down from there spots at different height, confused how to proceed. 

Dad comes down too, in hot pursuit of mother. He runs after her with his tail up high, and his wings slightly spread. Mother is in no mood for this, and runs off, her wings open too, her legs bent and her neck low. For a minute they chase each other in and out the bushes whilst their offspring looks down, showing their dismay with louder and louder discerning cheeps.

The first one decides to take action, and dives down from the tree. At this point, cat Snowy, who like us has been observing the scene from a distance, decides to get in on the action. Slowly she prowls towards the baby, prompting Linde to panic and rush over to save the baby. The chick decides to scramble, quickly clambers up the bushes, until it is safely out of reach. Linde too decides to cut her losses; barefooted as she is, she doesn’t dare follow into the wet bushes, where Snowy stares up longingly to the little fluffy snack.

The other two babies, still sitting up high, still cheeping noisily, now decide to come down too. Soon all three of them run around the grass, looking for mummy, who is still being chased around the bushes by dad.

Mother finishes off the kerfuffle with a big peck into dad’s tail. He settles down, slowing to a strolling pace, as if he never did anything more exciting this evening than a turn around the garden.

Snowy sticks her nose out from under the bushes, spying the three chicks in the middle of the grass. She attempts to stalk, but has counted out dad, who swiftly runs past her, scaring the little cat back to our table for a tumble with sister Pepper.

The family, reunited, leisurely strolls off to the other side of the garden, the three babies running their little feet off to keep up with their parents.

We sit and watch and enjoy. Who needs a television when you have a garden?

The story of the suitcase

Yesterday the suitcase went home, after spending forty years in a dusty attic. A few years ago we found it there when we lifted the trap door to get rid of the rats. For something sitting in a tropical attic amongst rats, civet cats, termites and who-knows-what-else it was in a remarkable good shape. 

There was still a label attached from a boat journey, Durban to the Portsmouth, in 1976 - coincidentally the year I was born. Curious about who lived in our house that long ago - yes I'm that old - we tried to find out who the owners of the suitcase could have been. But we had no luck, our search yielded nothing. Still, we could not bear to throw the suitcase away, and it became a plaything for our children. 

Yesterday, when I was just about to leave the house with my visiting parents, my father spotted a lady taking photos of our house. Living in such a special, historic house, we are used to snoopers, but this woman took it to a whole new level. 

When she saw us see her looking at our house, she immediately came up to apologise politely. She explained she had lived here in the 1980s with her own young family. Sensing a story, I invited her and husband, waiting her patiently in a taxi, inside to see how the house had changed. As the taxi uncle got more and more impatient, they all too soon had to move on. 

It wasn't until they were saying there goodbyes that I remembered the suitcase. I recounted how we found it, and how it was probably from a family living there before them, as it the attached label was dated sometime in the 1970s. 'Yes,' the husband responded, 'we were still in South Africa in the seventies.'
And something in my brain clicked.

Yes, the suitcase was theirs! Our lady visitor was so excited she immediately insisted on taking it home with them, home being Australia where they had settled for now.  The husband grumbled, 
we are only allowed to check in two pieces, but to no avail. That suitcase was going home! 

With a smile we waved off the couple and our suitcase - now theirs again. Reunited after 40-odd years!

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.