Saturday 29 June 2013

Further encounters

After our first brush with the primate neighbours, the monkeys and us have lived together peacefully. The macaques roam around the forest, and only visit occasionally. On those days I have learned to keep windows closed and bananas out of sight, so they will play in the garden quietly and snack on palm seeds instead.

There is plenty other wildlife to encounter too. In the morning the cock-a-doodle-do of wild roosters wakes us. Roel has spotted one of the flying lemurs this area is famous for, squirrel-like creatures that come out in the twilight, gliding between the trees. Little brown, non-flying, but extremely agile squirrels abundantly whirl through the trees around us, as do colourful birds and butterflies. We are less impressed with stories about a wild boar molesting one of the neighbourhood’s dogs, and the next-door neighbour who had a nest of baby black spitting cobras. We have been in awe of a monitor lizard that stretched over a meter, leisurely strolling over the road, and remain unperturbed by his smaller cousins, the chi-chaks and geckos, that roam freely through the house. They are friendly little creatures, feeding on insects and mosquitos, the only annoying thing about them being the little droppings they leave.

No, the real hazards of living on the border of the jungle have been botanical rather than animal, at least so far. The decorative grasses in the garden cut my hands with their razor-sharp thorny leaves till I bleed. And after two weeks of drought and haze, it took only the smallest of tropical storms for the old mango tree behind the house to drop a large branch, on top of our roof. Neighbours told us roof damage by falling trees was a common problem. A large part of that same mango tree had fallen on the roof before, and the former tenants experienced a mayor leakage in the bathroom. The landlord, the Singaporean government, was so slow repairing the damage, they finally left. By the time we moved in, the house had gotten a brand-new roof. So when we complained that we wanted the tree gone we were curious what would happen.

Surely, the next day a smiling Indian bloke arrived with a small chainsaw. Unfortunately, it was the same twenty-odd year old boy who had done the ‘professional’ cleaning of our house, dirtying kitchen cabinets I cleaned before him with his muddy rag. The same boy who clumsily mutilated the palm trees in the front garden, which bought me disapproving looks from the professional gardener I later hired. When I saw him, the only thing my brain could do was shout: No. Drop the tool. No. I am not letting you anywhere near my mango tree. No. I could only picture the whole thing smack down, bang in the middle of our shiny new roof. He smiled again, offended, assuring me it would be no big deal, he had cut bigger trees. But I stood my ground. And so does the tree.

Thursday 20 June 2013

The Haze Craze

In Western Europe life grinds to a halt when more than a few centimetres of snow falls, or the thermometer creeps above thirty degrees. No one will talk about anything else than the weather.

In Singapore heat or torrential rain faze no one, but we do we have something else: The Haze. Every year in the dry season Indonesian farmers set fire to their land. To clear out old crops, wasteland or forest, to fertilise it with ash. Palm oil, predominantly, but also other crops. The smoke caused by these slash and burn farming techniques drifts over the narrow sea straits to Singapore, where people will have a cough, and a few days where they think the neighbours should really stop having so many barbecues.

This year it is different. With a larger than normal amount of fires, and an unusual dry and cloudless spell, the haze has reached crazy heights. For days the Pollutant Standard Indexes (PSI) have been soaring, from below 50, Singapore’s normal, fresh air, to the first shocking time the ‘unhealthy’ 100 mark was crossed. How we now long for that clear 100 PSI sky…

From 150, it went to 200, ‘very unhealthy’, and while everyone was glued to screens showing latest figures it kept creeping up, to 300, ‘hazardous’. Today, for the first time ever in Singapore, the mark of 400 was crossed. This is no reason for a celebration. A PSI of 400+ is simply extremely hazardous. People are recommended to stay indoors, whack on the aircon, wear facemasks that are sold-out nationwide, and refrain from doing any strenuous exercise.

And just this week we moved to a rickety pre-war bungalow, without aircon, with leaky doors, where we planned to spend most of our time outdoors, in the large and lush garden. Initially we rejoiced. When the haze hit central Singapore we stayed relatively fresh in our forest, the high trees filtering out the worst of the mess. But day-by-day the smoke crept through leaves and now it has reached us too. In the morning we wake up with a headache, a sick feeling in our stomach and a soar throat. Our hair smells like a chip shop.

Only yesterday I complained we were all a bunch of spoiled expats, who just got too excited. Facebook was fuller with haze than the sky, with questions about where to get air-purifiers, or the best ways to get out of this place. Today, with a PSI over 400, I can’t even speak to you about those more important things, about the poor locals in Indonesia living in what must be an inferno, the affected wildlife, the Western countries that share responsibility for this problem, as it is us buying these products, us not wanting to pay more so these farmers can use other, more sustainable, expensive and time consuming methods to clear land. I don’t have the energy. My head hurts too much.

How long this will last? No-one knows, days, weeks, or even a month. It all depends on the weather, but the haze blocks our red stinging eyes looking up at the sky, praying for rain. Rain that still has not come. So we stay inside, play games, shuffle the furniture, watch films, and try to entertain the kids. Today the summer holidays have started. Expats rush out of the city, flights back home have sold out. We are not going, not yet. So we will have no outdoor play, very little friends, and aching bodies.

This afternoon, we will attempt a rain dance. Will you join us?

Monday 17 June 2013

Meet the neighbours

Our first, brief, encounter was whilst I was viewing the new house, when it wasn’t ours yet. I noticed one of the branches in the highest tree swaying gently. Squinting my eyes, I saw a dark shadow clambering up a thin branch, then quietly jumping out of sight.

We moved in, got unpacked, settled. A few days after, on a late afternoon, I heard the gate bell ring. It was an old-fashioned, copper affair. It did not toll firmly, but hesitantly, irregularly. I walked out to see who was there, and met a motley crowd at the gate. A few crouched on the floor, some spilled over the pillars. Two babies were swinging back and forth gently on the creaking gate door. I laughed, and called out the kids: ‘Come meet our new neighbours!’
Jasmijn pointed excitedly, ‘aap, aap,’ but Tijm and Linde could barely be pried away from the telly. They had plenty of those at their school.

The next morning we enjoyed breakfast together. We ate our toast on the patio; they munched on the seeds of the palm tree. Occasionally some husks or leaves dropped in the grass, or we heard the swishing of the leaves as they swung over to another tree. We admired their agility, their jumping skills. We even commented that their table manners did not seem too bad.

After we put the kids on the school bus I noticed a large hump hanging in the baby papaya tree. The one I had carefully cultivated on our old balcony, the one I was so happy it had survived the move. We ran over, shooing and shouting, and the brown creature ran off, taking with him the entire crown of the tree. He rushed into the high palm tree and chomped away happily. Annoyed, I examined the bare stump. ‘You monkey,’ I cried, shaking my fist at the fluttering palm fronds.

I went to brush my teeth. Then I heard screaming from the kitchen, and rushed over, toothbrush in mouth. On the worktop he sat, in the middle of a pile of banana peel. Roel rushed in too, screaming, and the creature scrammed out the window. He sat his bum on the concrete outside and bared his pointy teeth, angry to have his breakfast disturbed. We quickly closed the window and hid the remaining bananas in the bread tin.

Our new neighbours have bad manners. They poo on the lawn and our laundry. They steal our food. They wreck our garden. Yet I cannot help myself. I sit back and watch them play, jumping from branch to branch, as if they can fly. I watch the babies clinging to their mothers bellies, hugging them close, then running off, playfully chasing each other round the gate. Yes, they are a menace. But they are also darned cute.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Greener pastures

My relationship with moving house is mixed. I love it, I hate it. The hassle, the packing, the changing of your address, again, with all those organisations, it costs so much time. Even with my experience. In the last seven years alone we moved five times, through three countries. Every child was born in another house. After the last, intercontinental move I lamented we would stay in this place for years, at least. I was fed up. It is nine months later and can you guess?
We are moving. It is my own fault. I am a nomad that always thinks grass is greener on the other side.

A lot greener. The first time I saw one I fell in love: Black and White’s. A Singaporean phenomenon. In this city of high-rise buildings you can find a few scattered oases, where black and white houses are hidden in lush greenery. With large, luxuriant gardens. When it was still British the government built these colonial houses. Old-fashioned, white buildings with black accents, you can picture the memsahibs sitting on the veranda’s, in long white dresses, fanning themselves in the un-air-conditioned heat.

Not only is the grass greener in those gardens, at least there is grass. Our roof terrace has only tiles. I want one. The Black and White houses are now owned by the Singaporean government, who rents them out, by auction. There aren’t many, and to get one you need to bid high, go way out of town, or get lucky. I had been checking the website with it’s meagre offering for a while. And when a cute bungalow, slightly out of town yet inside the school bus area, and reasonably commutable to Roel’s work came up, I saw an opportunity. It did not even take too much effort to convince Roel to let me put the sealed envelop with our bid in the appointed drop-box.

Next week we’ll go. This week I booked movers, but more work is waiting. In contrast to most apartments in Singapore, these houses are let completely stripped bare. It needs a cooker, hood and fridge. Air-conditioning. Curtains and blinds. The garden is a jungle. Paperwork needs signing, our old house needs a new tenant, cleaning, painting and steaming.

Every time I visit the new house I see and hear why we are doing this. No traffic noise, no building noise, only the twittering of birds and the piercing sound of cicadas. This will be the vegetable plot, that the football field. Behind the house, my herbs. The new dining table will go outside, on the veranda. It feels like living in the jungle, and that is no illusion either. Our garden borders McRitchie reservoir, one of Singapore’s largest nature reserves. As nature knows no borders both greenery and wildlife spill over the fence. Birds, monkeys, snakes, and god knows what else.

Our new house is not just a house. It is an adventure. We will stay there for years, at least. Really!

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Singapore Girl

‘Jasmijn, do you want a sandwich?’ 
‘No,’ she shakes firmly, ‘chickice’ 
Chickice? What does she want now? 
Angrily she shouts it again, and again. 
Luckily Indah gets it. Jasmijn wants chicken rice. 

Our Jasmijn is turning into a real Singapore Girl. Chicken rice might well be the most popular dish in Singapore, and is loved by all our children. Whenever we eat in hawker centres, where mama and papa gorge on exotic goodies, this is one of their favourite choices, alongside Malay sateh and Indian thosai.

Chicken rice has all those properties that make it attractive to young children. It is white. Mild flavoured. All components are easily identifiable. And it does not contain any vegetables apart from some pieces of cucumber.

For precisely those reasons I used to think chicken rice boring. But, the more I eat it, the more I start to appreciate it. The soft, yet fragrant flavours. The creamy, crumbly rice. The spicy, fresh chilli sauce with ginger and lemon. It was about time to try this at home.

Boiling chicken is not something we traditionally do in Europe, unless we make soup. But when you think about it, it has many advantages. The chicken will turn out juicy and plump every time, you cannot cook it too long, no risk of dryness. And there is a lovely chicken soup the next day.

As with all famous dishes there are as many recipes as cooks. Google showed particularly helpful, and after some surfing the dish started to unravel its secrets. So I had a plan, a chicken, and a sick Jasmijn in need of some broth.

Unfortunately that same, sick, Jasmijn decided to be stuck to me like glue, so handling of boiling liquids proofed possible. Again, Indah saved the day. It turned out she had cooked the dish many, many times before, after her former Chinese employer thought her the family recipe. Indah could cook chicken rice with her eyes closed. And so she did, while I hovered around, clutched by a moaning toddler, making notes and pictures.

The quantities in the recipe are not precise, feel free to adapt them to your personal taste or the size of your chicken. Not all the stock is needed for boiling the rice, the remainder can be used for chicken soup. To make it stronger you can add the bones after you have cut up the chicken and boil it a little while longer.

Chicken rice 

Step 1: the chicken
1 chicken (preferably free-range, if you can get one)
5 cm ginger
3 cloves garlic
1 stalk lemongrass

Wash the chicken and rub it with salt. Boil a large pot of water, enough to just cover the chicken, not more.

Peel the garlic, lemongrass and ginger and pound them to release the flavour. Stuff half in the chest cavity of the chicken. When the water boils, put the chicken and the remainder of the spices in the water, put the lid on, and bring back to the boil.

Turn off the heat and leave for about 45 minutes. If you want to you can turn the chicken halfway, and bring the water back to the boil. You can check the chicken by sticking in a chopstick, if the juices run clear it is cooked. Take it out of the stock and leave to cool.

Step 2: the rice
2 cloves of garlic
2 leaves of pandan (leave if hard to get)
3 cm ginger
2 cups of rice
4 cups of chicken stock (see step 1)

Heat some oil in a wok and fry the finely chopped garlic. Add the dry, uncooked rice and fry till it is coated with garlicky oil. Transfer to a rice cooker or casserole together with the stock, ginger and pandan.

Boil until all the stock is absorbed and the rice cooked.

Step 3: the chilli sauce 
3-6 chilli’s of choice
3 cm ginger
2 cloves garlic
a few spoons of lime juice
a few spoons of chicken stock/ fat

For the sauce you can use a mixture of large, milder chilli’s that give a nice colour, and the hotter chilli padi, depending on how hot you like it. I like to use 3 each

Puree, chop or pound all the ingredients to a smooth sauce. Add a few spoons of the top layer of the chicken stock, trying to scoop as much floating fat as possible. You can adjust quantities of each ingredient according to taste.

To serve you rub a mixture of one tablespoon of sesame oil and one of light soy sauce over the chicken. Then chop it into small pieces. Sprinkle some fried onions on the rice, and serve with pieces of cucumber.