A nomad mother in Singapore

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…