Sunday 15 December 2013

The Mango Princess

Teaching women staying at the shelter of HOME, a Singaporean charity that supports foreign domestic workers in trouble with their employers, is an extremely inspiring job. It is amazing to see what my students can teach me. 

Meet Maribel (not her real name), from the Philippines. The first time I met her was during my story writing class. She sat in a corner, quiet between chatting classmates, hunched over her papers. On all the questions of my writing exercise she gave the same answer. The first thing she saw when she woke up in her bunk bed at the shelter? She wouldn’t know, she only felt sadness for missing her son. What breakfast looked and tasted like? She wouldn’t know, she only felt sadness for missing her son. Her most and least favourite activity? She wouldn’t know, she only felt sadness for missing her son.
Not sure how to cheer her up, I gave Maribel a clean sheet and said: ‘Ok. Then write about your son for me.’ 

Not much later Maribel had filled the entire page with stories about how she picked the eight-year-old boy up from school, and took him to the market. They would indulge in their favourite fruit: mango. Maribel told about all his favourite foods she would cook for him, which were her favourites too, and the games they would play.
Impressed, I told her how great her writing was. ‘You just showed me how much you care about your son, without once using the word love.’

The week after, Maribel joined the ‘Dreams’ class, where girls are encouraged to think about their future in a positive way. Whilst looking at the future, I learned more about Maribel’s history. She came from a very poor family, but had married a man whose parents were the owners of a mango farm, and quite affluent. Maribel’s in-laws had always looked down on their peasant daughter-in-law, straining the relationship with her husband. The light of her life was her son, and she focussed all her love on him. Her dream was to plant a mango tree, together with her son, in her own garden. This class, Maribel was much less shy, and smiled regularly.

Another week and another writing class later we met again in the Dreams class. During the introductions I marvelled at how Maribel had changed. She was now always the first to answer any question, stimulating others to join as well.
The exercise of the day was to name a person you admired. It could be a famous person, a neighbour, or someone in the family. It should be someone you would like to be, if only for a day. Maribel was the first to write the name of who she wanted to be on her paper, and showed it proudly to the others. She had named Cinderella. The other girls nodded approvingly. But Maribel was not looking to be rescued by Prince Charming. 

Maribel told us how her life had been like that of Cinderella. Her own mother had died young, and her rich in-laws had never treated her much better than they would a servant. She wished for the strength of Cinderella, because Cinderella never lost hope. Cinderella found love and happiness in small things. And she always stayed friendly and kind, despite her hardships. Maribel hoped she could be just like that. 

Maribel is still staying in the HOME shelter, waiting for the Ministry of Manpower to solve her case, so she can go home and plant that mango tree with her son. Maribel is not waiting for Prince Charming. She will make her own happy end. 

Sunday 8 December 2013

I believe!

It does not cease to amaze me how big my kids are getting. My eldest recently turned six. This had to be celebrated in style with a football (yes football, I refuse to say soccer) party, where thirteen six-year-old boys (no girls allowed) turned our green lawn into a mudslide. A few days later, Tijm lost his first tooth.

It had been wobbly for a few days, and during more football on our mud field with a friend, he came running and screaming. I thought the worst, but these were cheers of joy. Proudly, I was shown the enamel evidence that had come out while Tijm was heading a ball in the goal.

Later that day we discussed the tooth fairy, and that Tijm should leave his tooth under the pillow, so he could receive a shiny coin for his piggy bank. Tijm looked up at me, incredibly. He shook his head. ‘No, mama, I don’t believe in the tooth fairy. That is just weird.’

A few weeks earlier we had had a similar conversation, where the subject of Santa Claus was raised.
‘Mama,’ he had said. ‘Father Christmas does not exist, does he? Not in Singapore.’
I was dumbfounded, freaking out in silence. What do you reply a five year old?

‘Off course he does,’ I started. ‘Don’t you remember seeing him last year, at the shopping centre? You even shook his hand?’
Tijm pondered, unconvinced. He shook his head. ‘I don’t believe it.’
We talked some more, but I could not convince my headstrong boy.
‘But what about Sinterklaas?’ I finally asked, heart pounding. I had not expected this to happen for a few more years.

Tijm looked back defiantly. ‘Sinterklaas?’ he said, as if that was a completely different matter. ‘No, Sinterklaas is real. Off course he is.’
With a mama-can-be-sooo-stupid look on his face he walked away, ending the conversation, leaving me relieved and confused at the same time.

Dealing with magical creatures like Santa Claus, his Dutch cousin and precursor Sinterklaas, the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny (or Easter Hare, in my country) is difficult enough for any parent of a precocious child, but doing so in a multicultural community like Singapore means walking an even tighter rope. Why does Sinterklaas only deliver his present to Dutch kids, where Santa Claus seems less selective and hands them out freely, yet not to everyone? Does he visit the Chinese kids? What about the Malays? The expats, the French, Italians, German, American, Australian and British, everyone cherishes their own traditions, yet does not hesitate to borrow freely from others what seems nice as well. The resulting melting pot is great fun, but can confuse even the most keen-to-believe kid.

On the other side there is the home country, which gets closer and closer each year on TV and internet. How can we see Sinterklaas arrive in the Netherlands, having travelled for months to get there from Spain on his steamship, and then see him arrive in Singapore only a week later? How can he visit schools and parties on all continents, does he go back and forth by warp zones?

Finally, there is the most pressing question for Tijm: is all the fun over now Sinterklaas has been so generous on December 5th, or will Santa Claus bring more presents on the 25th?

Time will tell, and for now, for me, there is only one answer: to believe. To keep believing in the magic of childhood, which exist everywhere.

Wishing everyone a very merry Christmas, wherever you are, whatever you believe, and however you choose to celebrate!

Monday 2 December 2013

A house with a history

I always like a place with a bit of history. Shining marble, or slabs of steel and concrete do not excite me much. I prefer old things, coloured with the patina of time, the cracks and scars telling their stories. With our current house, it seems I got a bit more than I bargained for.

The so-called 'Black and White' houses of Singapore, in one which we live, were build in colonial times by the British government. I had heard rumours that, emptied of their white inhabitants, they were used in World War II to house Prisoners of War. But I did not know the details. One day, felled with flu, I lay in my bed, reading a novel about a lady interned in a Japanese camp in Sumatra. My flustered mind started reeling, imagining myself lying just here, in that same spot, on a much less comfortable bed - on the floor even- struck by malaria, the Japanese on duty marching past the window. A European ‘expat wife’ like myself, in those days, would have been the enemy of Japan, and therefore, would have to be locked up. 

Sketch of Sime Road Camp by artist unknown (taken from

A few days later, with a much clearer mind, I remembered my feverish dream. The thought of it would not leave me alone, and I planned to find out the truth about my house. Were women like me really imprisoned here during the war? I had read that civilians had been send to Changi prison, completely on the other side of the island.

My search for the history of the house led me to Jon Cooper, a British historian who works for the Changi Museum in Singapore. He has been doing a lot of work on the Adam area, first by investigating the battle of Adam Park, just across the motorway. And more recently, Jon and his team have started exploring our own little drive. Emails and phone calls were exchanged, and one evening last week Jon came by to share the history of Adam Drive with all our neighbours. The reason I had not been able to find out more myself, was that the name of the street had been changed. During the war, this area was known as the ‘Sime Road Camp’. 

Overview of Sime Road Camp, drawn by internee (given to me by Jon Cooper)

The led up to the war in Singapore was chaotic. Most people believed Singapore was like a fort that the Japanese would never take. Defences were aimed at the sea in the south, but the Japanese took an unexpected route: overland, through the dense jungles of Malaysia in the north. 

Before the Japanese invasion, the British Army and Royal Air Force decided they needed to centralise their control, and they started to build new headquarters on Sime Road. The road that I can see behind our back garden, from the very desk I am typing on. They also started building new houses to house the military. But the Japanese arrived before these were finished, and only concrete platforms and drains had been realised. General Percival and his staff had to abandon their new headquarters, and retreat to Fort Canning.

Initially, like I had rightly heard, both western Prisoners or War and civilians were interned in Changi Prison, on the East coast of Singapore. The Japanese took up their headquarters on Sime Road, in the same ‘Green House’ on the hill, the outbuildings of which can be seen from the back of our garden. Later, both British and Australian Prisoners of War were moved to Sime Road. They were set to work in McRitchie reservoir, building a Shinto Shrine commemorating Japanese casualties during the campaign. They were housed in huts they built from wood and attap, on the concrete platforms the British had build. Later again, these prisoners were sent to Siam and Burma, to work on the railroad. 

In the last years of the war, Changi prison became full to the brim. Now civilian internees were moved to the fresh air and greens hills of Sime Road. More wooden huts were built, on the existing platforms and around. It was a large camp, part of it now covered by the motorway. Only one area remained intact, where after the war new, stone houses were built on the platforms, again for the military. This is the area we now call Adam Drive. It is one of these houses in which we now live.

And what had this area been in the Sime Road camp? The women’s camp! So my dream had not been that far from the truth. Maybe not in my current stone house, but in a wooden one on the same spot I was laying, white women like myself had been interned during the war. From the map Jon gave me, a copy of which you can see below, it seems likely our house is in the place of hut number 10. 

Painting by Leslie Cole, showing the inside of a Sime Road hut with women and children

 At the end of the war, the Sime Road camp housed over four thousand people, including around a thousand women and a couple of hundred children, and was like a town in itself. There was a hospital, a farm area, church, carpentry, school, and even a pub called the Flying Dutchman. 

To find out more about life in the camp, I read the ‘Diary of a girl in Changi’, by Sheila Allen, who stayed in both Changi Prison and Sime Road camp. Having read much about the life in Japanese camps in Indonesia, I am impressed at the relatively good circumstances in these camps. There was electricity, and hot running water. The women busy themselves with organising concerts, school, Christmas parties, and other activities to keep them busy. They are separated from they husbands by barbed wire, but still, babies are born, showing some contact must have been possible. Still, life was extremely hard and uncertain, food rations were very low, and many people died of malnutrition and disease. 

Map of Sime Road Camp (made by Jane Booker Nielsen of the Changi Museum, oct 2013)

When we now walk around Adam Drive we see it with different eyes. Our mind will erase the trees, which look century-old, but of which we now know they are much younger, as the area was open and grassy then. Everywhere we try to recognise camp pictures and settings of stories. We mentally erase stone houses and plant wooden huts in their place. We picture the farm at the spot where my kids like to play on the swings. We search for entrances to the mysterious tunnels. We plot the image of the Flying Dutchman pub over the carport that is now in it’s place. The work of Jon and his team is on going, and they have found some new researchers in us. Who knows, what we will unravel?

Sunday 17 November 2013

The last mile

The typhoon Yolanda shook the Philippines upside down, and the rest of the world as well. As always with a disaster of this scale, aid organisations tumble over each other to provide help quickly. Money is transferred; clothes, food and medicine are collected. But do these goods actually reach their destination?

In the maelstrom after the tsunami it became clear that not all well-meant help is equally useful. Affectionately collected articles of clothing sometimes were deposited on the roadside, by desperate chauffeurs, simply because there was nowhere to store them. They rotted away in rain and mud. Depots in harbours and on airports overflowed with donations that were direly needed just a few miles down the road. For many people on faraway locations foreign help did not reach this ‘last mile’.

Getting involved

Nine years ago Arnout Mostert, Dutch expat in Singapore, sat behind his desk, feeling itchy. He felt helpless. He wanted to do more than just draw his chequebook. With two friends he boarded a flight to Phuket, to see with their own eyes how they could best be of service. On landing in Phuket they found, to their surprise, supermarkets and ATM machines well stocked, and aid organisations setting up and struggling to get started. They heard about areas on the north coast, forgotten areas, that were difficult to reach, and where no film crew had been. 

On the road

The three Dutchmen rented some pickup trucks and set to work. They filled their trucks with everything that they were told was needed, baby food, drinking water, tinned foods, medicine, and gruesome but true, a type of local tiger balm that people rubbed under their noses to combat the ever-present rotten stench of death. 

From Phuket, Arnout and his friends drove their laden trucks to faraway fishing villages, handing out help where needed, and back to replenish supplies. Back and forth. Through email they raised funds amongst friends and relatives. Costs of hotels and other personal needs, the friends paid for themselves. 

And, again

Now a new disaster has struck on his doorstep, Arnout felt the same pull, especially after last time's success. The first time I heard about his plans was through one of his friends, my husband in fact, who asked my permission for a donation. Not much later Arnout’s story went viral on Facebook. The Dutch community in Singapore, and many others, jumped in with money and their time. The gym teacher of the Hollandse School was given a week off to help. So many people joined, that this week several teams will be able to hit the road. 

Together with local volunteers and the Philippines army and police force, Arnout and his team are working hard to bring much-needed goods to far-off, forgotten locations. Goods are bought locally, and packed and transported under police protection to places where no organisation has been yet. 


On his Facebook page Arnout tells his about his work. About his problems to rent trucks, because the Canadian Army took most. About his attempt to get 500 plastic bags without having to pay a peso. About locals asking for building materials, as the damage to houses is significant. About how bad the damage is in places, but also how great the locals are in helping with efforts like his. 

At the moment Arnout and his crew are on the island Panay, in the west of the Philippines. The plan for the next days is to fill gaps around the towns Capiz and Estancia, where the Canadian army has not been able to get. 

The work is by no means finished. 

Do you want to help, with cash or with deeds? 

Check Arnout’s facebook page for more details:

Disclaimer: All photo's are taken from Arnout's facebook page, and reprinted here with his permission. Arnout can be seen in the top picture, middle right in white polo shirt, next to Martin, the HSL teacher present on site. The lady on the left is Mylene Herbilla Yanga, a local volunteer. 

Sunday 10 November 2013

I spy, with my spiky eye

When you walk past the stretch of jungle at the beginning of our lane you can smell it. The king of fruits. Loved and hated by many for its distinct flavour. Sweet, pungent, creamy, fragrant. Overpowering. To us, the scent of durian smelt like an expedition. From the street we could not only smell, but also see the fruit, deep in the wood, a tantalising fifty meters high. Looking at our flip-flopped feet, and the snake-infested, bushy undergrowth, we realised our expedition was ill prepared. We searched the ground for fallings of the rambutan tree next to the road instead, but the monkeys had left us only shells. 

Then we spotted them, further down the road, in solid boots and gloves: durian pickers. They were loading their catch in the back of their truck, and we rushed over for a look and a chat. The durian pickers told us that the best trees were deep down in the darker jungle. And, that there was an old man sitting there, guarding his favourite tree, waiting for the fruit to fall.

I pointed at our shoddy footwear, and told them I was afraid to go in. It didn’t seem safe. ‘I wouldn’t want one of those heavy, spiky things falling on my kids heads,’ I shrugged. 

The pickers laughed. ‘No,’ one of them assured me, ‘that won’t happen. You see, durians have eyes. They see. And they aim.’
I smiled too. ‘So do they aim to hit my kids, or to miss?’
He laughed again. ‘No, they aim to miss.’
‘But the snakes won’t,’ his mate added. ‘Don’t go in. Here.’ 
He rummaged through their catch, and handed me a pristine specimen.

We thanked the pickers warmly, and on the way home the durian’s spikes pricked painful red holes in the palms of my hands. 

One needs to get past all its clever defences before the fleshy delights of the durian can be savoured. First, the smell. The smell of a fresh, uncut durian has no equal. Buildings have said to be evacuated, just because someone smuggled in a durian - a gas leak was suspected. 

The durian reeks so persistent that is not allowed to take the fruit in buses, subways or even taxi’s. When our own car stank for days, Roel forbade me to transport the fruit there as well. 

Those who have accepted the smell, and smuggled the forbidden fruit home, have to put up with the next defence: the thorns that cover it’s round surface can make nasty cuts, and only a strong knife can cleave the thick skin. Only after all that has been overcome, the king of fruits will divulge its creamy rewards.

Durian flesh is, to put it mildly, an acquired taste. Me? I love it. There is a film of me, maybe six years old, savouring the fruit eagerly, and ever since I have been hooked. My family is not yet convinced. The next day, when we eat the velvety, fragrant flesh of the fresh forest fruit, Roel admits: it is not too bad. Actually, it is almost pleasant. And yes, I can quote him on that.

Monday 4 November 2013

Miri market mysteries

It is simple. I love markets. It does not matter much what they sell, antiques, bric a brac, made-in-China plastic tat. I love it all. Best of all: food markets. My husband gets a very heavy foot whenever we pass a market on the road, but for me, markets are the highlight of any holiday. Off course we had to see all the markets when we visited Miri, the city where I lived as a child in Sarawak, Borneo, a few weeks ago. Since we were staying in a hotel, I could not buy any of these lovely foodstuffs, so there rested no other option than to take my camera, and shoot away. Today I share my treasures. 

The colours of markets can make every casual snap a piece of art. 

This vegetable on the left is midin, or lemidin, and it can only be found in Sarawak. They are the tops of wild jungle fern, and served stir fried with sambal or cooked with Chinese wine and garlic. I have rarely eaten a tastier vegetable, and dream of it still. The pink flowers on the right, in the small pink bowl, are ginger flowers, used for laksa, and I imagine the flowers and leaves in the middle are of the ginger family as well. 

So pretty, but I have no clue. Some type of aubergine?

These guys, petai, we find in Singapore as well, but here the thick, juicy beans you buy shelled from their long, winding pods. The petai, or stink bean, grows wild as well, on tall trees. It's flavour is surprising, lovely with prawn and sambal, and will make your urine (and some say breath) stink. 

Displays like this make my mouth water. The beans on the left are winged beans, which have a funny shape when you cut them, that gave them the name 'star beans' in our house, one of my futile attempt to make my kids think of vegetables as fun. 

Bario rice. This rice, from the mountain area of Bario, is famous, and full of flavour. I kick myself now, why did I think bringing some home would be too heavy for my suitcase?

This is a mystery. Ikat, unfortunately, is not the name of this mysterious vegetable (or fruit?), it simple means bundle. My mother suggested it could be batu raga, a wild type of mango, but I am not sure as the shape is different. 

P'ria, or bitter gourd, looks like a wrinkled cucumber, very pretty, but it is a bit of an acquired taste. It is definitely growing on me, though. 

Not a clue what this is..

Just sereh, lemongrass, but I love the presentation. Beats any supermarket cling film hands down. Markets. Gotta love 'em. 

Monday 28 October 2013

Jimmy’s story

Last week I wrote about my old house in Miri, Sarawak, which was brand new when I moved in as a four year old, and that now will be torn down. Thirty-three years may not sound old for a European house, but the tropics have a different pace. Heat, humidity, mould and sea wind make things deteriorate fast, and though the house seemed fine to me, I can imagine maintenance is expensive. 

Piasau Camp, the estate the house is in, is a stretch of land that the oil company my father worked for leased from the Sarawak government since its establishment in the 1950s. With the sea on one side, and Miri encroaching the green enclave on all others, this land has become prime real estate. What will its future hold? Will it be sold to a developer, to build housing estates, with large, modern Chinese palaces, with concrete plastered walls and no gardens to speak of, like the ones that former inhabitant have, reluctantly, moved to? Or can there be another future for Piasau Camp? 

In comes the hero of Piasau’s story: Jimmy. Jimmy has lived in Piasau camp for over ten years, very happy in its lush green surroundings. He lived there with his partner Faridah and their offspring, having a jolly good time at his dwellings just across the boat club. 

What makes Jimmy so special that he might be the one to save Piasau camp from becoming yet another slab of concrete? Jimmy is an Oriental Pied Hornbill. Hornbills are the national birds of Sarawak, and there are not that many of them left. To have a nesting couple so close to habitation is special, and it might just be that Jimmy will save the day, as Sarawak government has made promises to turn the camp into a Hornbill Reserve. 

Although promises have been made, Piasau Camp and Jimmy’s future are not secure yet, and on our last day in Miri we join a nature walk organised by the committee working hard to make these plans a reality. A leisurely walk around the camp is planned, and if we are lucky, we might spot some hornbills too. But when we arrive, we learn that Jimmy and his family have just left. 

The number of people that has joined the walk amazes me, many of them in green matching T-shirts sold by the organisation. A handful of expats, but especially many local Sarawak families, the kids on scooters and bicycles already whizzing around Piasau’s quiet lanes, the parents equipped with cameras, binoculars and mobile phones. 

While we wait for the walk to start, I learn more about Jimmy’s colourful history. After living and nesting happily for over a decade with his mate Faridah, as monogamous hornbills do, a drama took place. Faridah was found murdered by a poacher, her stiff body dumped in a rubbish bin. The culprit has been caught, but why he did his horrendous deed remains a mystery. The whole community was in shock, and feared for their Jimmy. On their facebook page, Jimmy’s fans cried murder. 

But now, a few months later, Jimmy has found his Juliet. Chatting to some of the other walkers, I suddenly hear a cheer go up. The hornbills have been spotted! Everybody rushes over, camera’s at the ready. Jimmy and Juliet give a great performance, cuddling and kissing on the branch of a large tree, every kiss drawing more cheers. To finish the show, Jimmy swoops off and circles around, showing off his perfect horned profile.

We see two more of Jimmy’s offspring that day, hovering around the casuarina trees. A magnificent sight, and we all keep snapping. Later, we walk past the hornbill nest, just a hole in a tree. 

Hopefully in the not too distant future Juliet will lay her eggs, and Jimmy will feed the babies with his large beak through the small slit, until the young will be big enough to fly out and help in conserving this place of my happy childhood memories, and live a long life in the Piasau Camp Nature Park.

Monday 21 October 2013

Sarawak revisited

My dad’s confident statement that he can find his way to our hotel proves optimistic. Still, from all of us he seems the least astounded by Miri’s metamorphosis, having been back several times since we left. My mum, on the other hand, looks completely blank. ‘I don’t feel like I have been here before,’ she exclaims. Looking at the map, she is excited to discover a few familiar street names. ‘I remember the first traffic light in Sarawak being build,’ she cries. ‘Right there, on the corner of the Pujut Road.’ 

In the early eighties of the last century Miri, a town in Sarawak, the Malaysian state that takes up most of Northern Borneo, was a sleepy village. The oil boom, both fossil and palm, together with extensive wood logging has been responsible for its explosive growth. Not exactly a metropolis yet, Miri is now a sprawling provincial town of 300 000 inhabitants. Being just across the sea in Singapore, I have been dreaming of revisiting my childhood memories, which I collected in a children’s book a few years back. Since I was only seven when we left, and I am hoping my parents can guide me on this trip down memory lane.

The first morning we head off to find our old house. We lived in a ‘camp’, a housing estate supplied by the oil company that my father worked for. Rumour has it the whole area will be torn down by the end of the year, so this is our last chance. When we cross the river to Piasau Camp my mother sighs with relief. Finally, she recognises something. The river is covered by two bridges; the old wooden narrow one that would only take one vehicle, so people had to take turns, is now restricted to pedestrians. A large, concrete new bridge flanks it. Inside the camp with it’s simple layout it is not long before we find the house. Our house. Easy, it is the last one in the street, just before the road ends and the beach starts. The first thing we notice is how overgrown everything is. We were the first people to inhabit this house, and the garden was empty. My mother, who is a keen gardener, transformed it into a paradise full of flowers. Now, the abandoned house has a neglected jungle for a garden, and the little dike and the sea beyond it are no longer visible.

There are more differences. The roof is no longer green, but off-white. From our row of casuarina trees, of which I still have the scar to prove I fell out of when I spotted a snake, only one is left, two are reduced to stumps. The broad patio looks less inviting than it used to, covered in mosquito netting, but is probably the more comfortable for it. 

Other things are unchanged. The smell of the sea mixed with jungle green. The playhouse, which we can pretend is the same as the one I used to play in with my brother and sister. The white tiles on the floor. The sound of cicadas. 

To get to the beach we have to wade a muddy track, cross a dilapidated bridge, but then, it is as fabulous as ever. The kids run around, and I am jealous of my own five-year-old self, fortunate to live in such a beautiful place. 

After this first morning we explored further, and found many of my childhood’s favourite places and stories. Stories I will write down and share, I hope, shortly. Stories of the hornbills in Piasau Camp, the waterfalls in Lambir Hills, the search for Iban longhouses and Sarawak laksa.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Island hopping

Every weekend in Singapore can be a mini holiday. And as Singapore is more than just the main island, it actually consists of sixty-three islands all together, it is time to explore another one than the one we live on. 

We, our family of five and my visiting parents, take a bumboat out to Pulau Ubin. At the ferry terminal, where we are waiting for some more people to arrive to fill up a boat that seats twelve, Roel nudges me. Shouldn't we have bought our passports? No, I reassure him, Pulau Ubin might be out in the Strait of Johor, it is part of Singapore. Still, just after landing on the island, my mobile bleeps ‘welcome to Malaysia’, and that reflects just how we feel at Pulau Ubin: in a different country. Guidebooks will tell you that Pulau Ubin is where you can go if you want to see what Singapore used to be like years ago, before skyscrapers and shopping malls overtook kampongs and muddy hills.

Straight after alighting from the bumboat it is obvious what people come here to do: cycling. Rows and rows of shops try to let us their two-wheeled wares. The bicycle does seem the nicest and easiest way to navigate the islet, and we Dutch feel right at home. Even though Opa and his grandson watch them with hungry eyes, we decide not too. Apart from the grandparents we have a toddler in tow, and the temperature is soaring well into the thirties. Shall we, anyhow, do it? No. We really shouldn’t.

Oma asks how large this island is, and whether it is the same size as the Dutch wadden-island of Texel. I laugh. The whole of Singapore is not much larger than Texel, and Pulau Ubin measures little over ten kilometres square. After a short walk through a sensory garden we feel hot, flustered, and hungry enough for a Pepper Crab lunch and some cool drinks. In Singapore’s heat energy levels get drained fast, and proper walks, like bicycle tours, are best left for cloudy days. 

We decide to take one of the taxi’s waiting by the jetty to drive us to the Chek Jawa Nature Reserve. It is a mangrove reserve, which worries Oma, as she is not wearing the right shoes for mud tramping, but again, I can comfort her quickly. Pulau Ubin is still Singapore. Singaporeans do not trod mud. The whole reserve is laid out with wooden boardwalks, through both mud flats and sea, perfectly suited for toddlers in buggies, kids on scooters or their flip-flopped grandparents. Distances are short, and there are plenty of nice shelters on the way for rest and much needed hydration. 

There so much to see and admire. Weird mangrove trees with their roots sticking out through the mud, and their seeds, hanging like arrows pointing from branches. Mud skippers. Mud lobsters, or better said their mounds that look like muddy volcanoes. Fiddler crabs with humongous claws. Striped nose halfbeak pointy fish. Snails. Lizards. Birds. Wild boar snuffing up our buggy. A Mock Tudor house on a hill, with a view. And, as this is still Singapore, across the sea oilrigs, an LPG tanker, and plenty of aircraft in the sky. 

So. Singapore Island, Sentosa, and Pulau Ubin done. Only sixty to go.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

In my car: U-weeeh!

Driving in Singapore can be a lot of fun. Getting in lane, on time. Zigzagging motorcycles. Zooming taxis. Traffic jams. ERP systems. The U-turn. Finding your way with satnav equipment that does not seem to know its way around any better than you do.

The fun starts when I leave my house. When I exit our little jungle cul-de-sac, I have to turn left onto the main road. Even if, like most of the time, my destination is to my right. Our main road is eight lanes wide, with a unpenetrable barrier down the middle. And no, it is not a motorway. At the first traffic lights that I encounter, I can only go straight, or turn a pointless left into yet another dead end lane.

When I continue down, skirting the large nature reserve that takes up most of central Singapore, if I am lucky and it is after nine thirty in the morning, half way down the road I can make a U-turn. I knew of U-turns before moving to Singapore, off course, but this city has taken the phenomenon to a new level. The U-turn is ubiquitous, even my kids love talking about U-y’s, (pronounced u-wee), where to do it, how to do it, and most importantly, when not to. Because, in Singapore, you can only do it when there is a square blue sign saying you can. Which, in the case of the gap in the barrier halfway down our main road, means you can only do it after nine thirty in the morning.

And there is a reason for this. If I continue on, down the road, and I make my U-turn under the viaduct, I will get stuck in a jam. This jam, which I will have been able to observe with increasing trepidation while I was driving all those miles up the road, I have no means of avoiding. If I am not too unlucky, ten to fifteen minutes later I will find myself again passing my own street, but now in the correct lane. Appointments between eight and nine in the morning? Not a good idea.

The way back home requires no U-turn, but presents its own challenges. Our little drive is a left off the main road, just after you cross the motorway. And when I say just, I mean just. When you arrive, eager to turn left, you need to cut across traffic exiting the motorway. You have about ten meters to do so. And can you really blame motorists for not noticing the give way sign or the dotted lines at the exit? I often find myself stopping, honking, angrily shoving myself through, eyes closed, fingers crossed, hoping for the best. If you don’t make the turn? You will face the aforementioned drive to the U-turn, with a drive all the way back to the next crossing to make yet another U-turn which will allow you to try again in maybe fifteen minutes time. That is, if it is not before nine thirty in the morning…

Sunday 22 September 2013


The tropics are full of nasty diseases. Our old condo was in a ‘red alert’ danger zone for dengue, a tropical virus that gives you high fever, rashes, and more worryingly, can drop the platelet count in your blood. It is a dangerous disease, and several people die of it each year in Singapore. This year has been extremely bad, and the government has started a crusade against the tiger mosquito that is responsible. There are campaigns, posters, and in danger zones regular checks whether people don’t leave any puddles or buckets of water unattended. Linde’s four-year-old friend next door had it, in our old place. Off course, it had us worried. Linde, sweet smelling, pink Linde, is a mosquito magnet, her legs spotted so we get frequently asked whether she has chicken pox. We soon decided that the citronella Singaporean parents use on their children wasn’t strong enough, and we slathered DEET, liberally, on her and Jasmijn. Tijm, I boasted, had inherited my genes, and had never had a mosquito bit since we moved to Singapore. 

Life, like mosquitos, attacks in unexpected places. Our new jungly neighbourhood is full of big, stripy tiger mosquitos, but not as full of people, so the risk should, in theory, be low. Then, one day, two weeks ago, we visited a neighbour who was unwell. Although she had all the symptoms, she tested negative for dengue, but we sprayed the girls liberally with DEET anyhow, as, well, you never know.

Now, you don’t know, and later that week Tijm was the one who fell ill. He had a temperature, pain in his legs, and not much later developed a blotchy rash. He could not walk. I hurried him to the hospital, where, Tijm in his sister’s buggy, we ran into the same neighbour. They had just done more blood tests. The doctor told me the same he told her. There are a dozen viruses that can produce symptoms like the one she and Tijm were experiencing, dengue only one of them. Luckily, Tijm tested negative. We were then told all the other viruses were not as dangerous, would not kill Tijm, and as they were viruses had one thing in common: there was no cure. Bed rest, plenty of fluids, and he would be ok in about a week. Based on the symptoms he suspected the chikungunya virus, a virus one whose main symptoms are severe joint pains, and itchy rashes, similar to those of dengue, but much less dangerous.

Two weeks and positive blood tests later, I am not too proud to state that I can now pronounce the name of this disease without breaking my tongue. I can tell you that that weird name means ‘that which bends up’ in Makonde language, and I can also guess why they would name it that. And, I can spell it too, chikungunya, without faltering. After Tijm bounced up from five days of tv and unlimited Ipad, daddy has been stricken, and now I, myself have too. I worry for my girls, my mosquito magnet girls. But Linde scratches her numerous bites indifferently, till they bleed, and, so far, is standing strong.

Monday 16 September 2013

On the way

After yoga this morning I felt I ought to take a taxi home, as after a week with a child out of school, struck by a disease with an unpronounceable name, I am very much behind with my work. Walking the mile to the bus stop, the subsequent waiting, followed by yet another walk, would take up precious time. Taxi’s in Singapore are cheap and quick, that is, if it doesn’t rain, and you can actually get one. 

It did not rain. 

But I did not get the taxi. 

If I had taken the taxi… 

I would have missed a lovely walk across the Botanic Gardens

I would not have passed Adam Food court, and would not have enjoyed the cheeky iced Teh Halia (ginger tea) and yummy Rojak (Chinese spicy salad) I treated myself to

I would not have had the chat with the old lady at the bus stop

I would have missed the friendly hello of the cheerful bus driver

I would not have gotten to observe the Filipina girl playing and joking with her blonde charge in the bus 

I would not have seen the two bright yellow, black masked Oriole’s darting around the trees on the green (a prize if you can spot them in the picture!)

I would not have had a cuddle with Louis, the neighbour’s cat, as the car’s noise would have scared him away from our steps  

Yes, I would have written a thousand more words towards my new book. But hey, if you don’t live, what is there to write about?