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?

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Learn through play

The neighbour’s boy hovers around the patio.
‘Can Tijm come out to play?’
‘Sure,’ I nod, and call inside, ‘Tijm, come out, your friend is here to play.’
Tijm pokes his head around the door.
‘No,’ he shakes. ‘I am doing my homework.’
‘I think you have done enough homework,’ I reply, ‘come out, it has stopped raining for a minute.’
‘No, I want to do more homework,’ he yells back.
I walk over, and, after a heated struggle, have to forcibly remove him from behind the computer.

For me, being Dutch, a five year old doing homework at all is freaky enough. Five year olds in the Netherlands learn through play. At least, that is what I think; I have not actually set foot in a Dutch primary since the late eighties. It does not surprise me though, that it is the English department of the Dutch international school issuing homework first. At age five, Tijm loves it. With this kind of homework, what’s not to like? 

The program has to be American. Together we log in, and start reading. Every time Tijm listens to a book, he earns stars. Every time he reads a book himself, he earns more stars. If he records his reading for the teacher, bonus stars. All the questions right on the quiz? Extra super bonus stars. As the stars accumulate, Tijm’s rank climbs. From private to lieutenant-commander, he is now a captain. With stars earned he can buy prizes. To do that, he has to take his rocket, and fly to one of his planets. For thousands of stars he can purchase new planets, in fancy colours. That is, if he saves them, and stops spending. On his first planet Tijm has a room where he can store his star purchases. So far he bought: a cactus that grows cupcakes, a pirate-gorilla-robot, a red desk chair, a furry orange creature, a floating squarish robot, a telescope, and a funny plant with eyes on sockets.

As soon as Tijm gets up, or gets home from school, he rushes to the computer to earn more stars. He reads, reads, and reads. One book a week, the teacher suggested. The first day, together, we polish off level aa, around fifteen books. The next day, when I am not watching, he clears most of level A. Together we record some of his level A reading for the teacher, and I must admit, I am impressed by my five year old, smoothly reading the words in this language that is not his first. When I am away in the afternoon he finishes level B. The next day, together, we try level C, and he struggles. Past tenses, played instead of play, ate instead of eat. I start to explain tenses, past, present, future, and wonder how far ahead we are getting? In his Dutch class they are learning to spell ‘I am’.

At the suggested rate of one book a week, he would have reached C in about a year. But there is no stopping Tijm. And I find myself pondering a question I never thought I would: How can I dissuade my son from doing so much homework?

Tuesday 3 September 2013

The tree, the sequel

As mentioned before the biggest problems in our jungle home have not been of the animal kind. Falling branches, spiky leaves, and, most annoyingly, the tiniest of all: funguses. 

After I send home the landlord’s last attempt to free us from our roof-threatening mango tree, it took only two months of gentle reminders, annoyed emails and angry phone calls for them to send reinforcements. Not one, not two, but four Indian blokes turned up this time, professional-looking in their matching green T-shirts and yellow helmets. Having not seen much tree cutting before, I got myself comfortable for the viewing.

The first thing to do with any job, is extensive observation. The four guys stood and stared at our tree for a good ten minutes, taking pictures on their phones from all angles. Then, a heated debate followed. In Tamil, and I assumed it was about the right way to attack the tree, whilst making sure it would not fall on our recently repaired roof. It seemed there was a problem. The manager had to be called. As their English was not much better than my Tamil, it took a while to sort out the muddle. Finally, we cleared it up. They had been told to deal with a fallen tree. Our tree stood tall and lofty. After this was established there was not a problem at all. Tools were brought in. 

First, a rope needed to be attached to the tree. After several throws with a weighted rope, almost breaking the aforementioned recently repaired roof, one of the guys took of his boots, and with an impressive speed he climbed up the trunk, as smoothly as our macaques. The rope fastened, I saw why four people were needed for this job. One busied him with a chainsaw; the others pulled the rope, coaxing the tree in the right direction. Just before the tree came down with a thundering crackle, a crimson sunbird settled in the crown of the tree. In the green leafy mayhem that followed I lost the flash of bright red. The roaring sound of the tree’s trunk was followed seconds later with a loud thunder in the sky. 

So now they are dragging out the remains of the tree in the pouring rain, while I sit typing away under my dry, undamaged roof. But I have work to do too. First, make the wet guys some hot, warming coffee. Then, I have to get a soapy cloth and fight my next battle. The hardest one, against the smallest enemy: the mould. Especially in this supposed dry season, that has proved wetter than any monsoon should be. The de-humidifiers I bought made a great difference, our house no longer smells like a bowl of mushrooms. But we need to stay vigilant. The terrorist black spots keep crouching up, and in, from every corner. I dream up an equally efficient crew to battle those, small as ants, dressed up in matching green T-shirts and yellow helmets, snapping pictures on miniature mobile phones, and calling tiny managers, before bringing out brushes that can sweep up mould from the tiniest of nooks and crannies. Sigh. Well, a girl can dream, right?