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.