Thursday, 15 August 2019

Goodbye bacon, hello tofu

We knew we were in for some surprises in Bali; after all, we moved from metropolis Singapore to a small rural community in Indonesia. Tumbak Bayuh is a village on the west coast of Bali, about ten minutes from the sea and the hustle and bustle of touristy Canggu. It is a different world. 

We are surrounded by fields. When we walk the dog, we have to be mindful of the cows that graze in between the sawah. Chicken run amok everywhere. Friendly farmers wave at us as we plod along the narrow ridges between the mud. Last week we ran in to Pak Candra, our security guard at night, working his day job tending to a field of beans. He immediately pressed an armful of long beans on us, as well as a pile of tiny cucumbers. Dinner sorted. 

It is obvious people here, in a farming community, are much more in tune with nature. But farming life can be harsh, for people and animals alike. Many Balinese families keep a few pigs at the back of their house. Exploring the back alleys we pass the friendly, noisy giants in their small concrete pens. A few days ago the kids came home from school upset. On the way they had witnessed the rather uncomfortable transport of a large pig on a truck – I think we can all guess its destination. I won’t share details, but it suffices to say that they decided to become vegetarian on the spot. I explained that they had been eating pork for years, and that in other countries animals raised for meat are not treated particularly nice either. But we, the consumers, don’t get to see that. The animals and their torture are effectively hidden. The Netherlands for instance, is a huge pork producer, yet I have never seen a pig outside a petting zoo there. 

As we eat little meat in our family anyway, Roel and I decided on solidarity – we would all not eat any meat for a month. Better for the animals as well as the world, since meat production is a mayor contributor to climate change. Jasmijn stated that if she hadn’t died by then, she might consider doing it long term. Linde was fine as long as she didn’t have to become vegan and stop eating cheese. Tijm, our resident carnivore, will struggle the most. Roel is already considering cheating (he got invited by a friend to eat babi guling, suckling pig, shht, don’t tell the kids) As I rarely eat meat I was full of encouragement, until I found out they intended to exclude seafood too. To show that they meant it, they made up a contract, signed it, and put it up on the fridge. 

Thankfully the Green School lunches are all vegetarian, and we have plenty of meat-free recipes up our sleeves, like Indah’s tempeh, sambal eggs, and our children’s favourite: crispy tofu. This is the dish that you can serve to any visiting child that claims not to like tofu. Trust me, I tried it with the pickiest of playdates! I have promised friends many times to share the recipe, so finally, here it is! And, without Indah to cook us for us, it is all hands on deck and Linde helped in the preparation. 

Crispy tofu

extra firm tofu
2 eggs
light soy sauce
fresh lime or lemon juice
pepper & salt

You need a firm, dry tofu to make this successfully. In Singapore we used Tau Kwa, which is perfect, but in Indonesia and Europe the tofu is often more wet, so make sure to drain it well. If necessary, squeeze out excess water. Cut it in bite-sized rectangles, roughly the size of chicken nuggets. Marinate the pieces in about two tablespoons of soy sauce and one of lemon juice for a little while. Season with salt and pepper.

Crush the cornflakes - we use a mortar and pestle but you can also crush them with a roller pin - until they have the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. 

Now, make an assembly line: one bowl with about half a cup of corn starch, one bowl of beaten eggs, one with the cornflake crumble. Toss & turn each cube of tofu in the corn-starch, egg and cornflakes consecutively. Make sure they are coated all around. 

Heat a generous layer of oil in a low frying pan or wok. When it is very hot, toss in the coated tofu pieces. They need to be fried in a single layer, so it will take a couple of round. Fry them on both sides until brown and crispy, it only takes a few minutes.

We all enjoy them with our favourite sauces, the kids like tomato ketchup and mayonaise whilst the adults prefer sweet Thai chili or sriracha.

* the gorgeous pig photographs are courtesy of fellow Green School parent Ted!

Monday, 12 August 2019

Greener in Bali

The grass is always greener elsewhere, and as a nomad, I evidently got itchy feet after seven years in Singapore – a personal record of living in one place. But one can’t just pack up and leave, you in fact need to go somewhere, which raised the difficult question: where should we go? That exact question has been buzzing around our household for years.

Often a next move for expats is dictated by work, but if there is no such push, just a general pull and a sense of adventure – the world is your oyster. That sounds like the ultimate luxury, but it also makes things ultimately complicated. Drowning in a sea of too much choice, too many factors – good education for the kids, a pleasant climate, liveable surroundings, a good culture for raising kids, and exciting prospects for work, we felt stuck. We were tired from the high pace of city-state Singapore. We needed a break; time to spend together as a family before the kids were too old to want to spend it with us.

The question I have been asked uncountable times the last few months is: why Bali? I always want to answer; why not Bali? After debating for years what our next move would be we eventually decided on an impulse, after seeing a Facebook post on one of the green attractions of this green island: a Green School. Combined with my own fascination for all things Indonesian, Roel’s wish for a fun place to spend his upcoming sabbatical overthinking his next steps, it seemed perfect.

So here we are. In Bali. In our new house overlooking rice fields, with our new Bali rescue dog, discovering new things, learning a new language. Away from the safety and comfort that was Singapore. And we are starting to figure things out. The Bali traffic no longer defies us, as we find order in the chaos and the politeness of the Balinese (if you get cut off on your scooter you can bet it’s a fat white Bule on that bike). We are starting to find out where to get our groceries (and sorry Linde, we do really need to cut down on cheese, who would have believed there is a country in the world where cheese is more expensive than Singapore?)

The kids are starting to settle in in the new school, and I can say one thing: things are definitely greener there! This is the school where all new parents (including me) sigh: I wish I was a kid again so I can go to school here… The classrooms are made of bamboo and have no walls. They are situated in lush gardens. There are rabbits and chicken, and cats wandering about for Linde and Jasmijn to cuddle. Tijm has started Middle School where he can select exciting elective subjects like surfing and free diving. The focus is on sustainability, the school wants to educate the green leaders of tomorrow. At the same time they are innovative educators, the guiding principle is that school should in fact be fun, as kids learn way more when they can follow their passions and enjoy themselves. We hope that they will manage to challenge our boy with a passion for maths as well as sports.

And, there is plenty for the parents too. Roel and I enrolled in a course where we will work alongside the Balinese to learn about the rice cycle, establishing ties with local farmers and develop a shared vision for expanding organic rice supply. I can’t wait to get my feet in that mud! Roel’s other goal this year is learning to surf whilst I am looking forward to many mornings like this one, where I sit on my patio alternating writing and gazing at our amazing view. I am starting to believe this was a good move.

And then of course there is always the follow up question that still defies me: how long do you plan to stay? There is only one answer to that: I have no idea. 

(Okay, some photos, because I know you all want me to poke your eyes out with the gorgeousness of our new surroundings. And yes the guest room is ready... )

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