Sunday 23 February 2014

Pangolin down the drain

This morning I heard screaming, first Indah, our helper, and then my husband. I rushed over, thinking Indah had been bitten by a snake. Or attacked by a monkey. But no. When I arrived at the back of the house, I realised these were screams of excitement. 

In the concrete drain that surrounds our house, under the metal roster, we saw something wriggle. Something scaly. My heart leapt. I had been looking out for this creature ever since we found a dead one in the bushes behind our garden, it’s fishy nauseating smell permeating the house. It was a pangolin. 

The pangolin was rolled in a ball, and lying quite comfortably in the narrow concrete channel. Was it asleep? Was it stuck? We looked closer, at the scaly body. There was its nose, there its tail. And another nose. There were two pangolins in our drain!

One the one hand, they seemed quite comfortable, on the other hand, they did look like they might be stuck, the exit of this drain being far away at the other side of the house. We did fancy a better look as well, so we decided to lift the metal roster of the drain. 

The two pangolins, mother and baby, were amazing. Beautiful. What a Monday morning surprise. The pangolins were as surprised as we were, disturbed from they morning nap, and sniffed at us curiously. 

Pangolins are friendly, toothless animals that eat ants and termites. A trail of ants must have led them down our drain. They are mainly nocturnal, and our drain would have seemed a comfortable burrow to snooze in. The back of the pangolin is covered in hard scales, which felt hard to the touch when we stroked it, each scale hard like a tortoise shell. 

Their bellies are soft, and when in danger they roll up into a ball. This defensive behaviour does not prove very successful, as it makes them easy to pick up, and pangolins are extensively poached, especially by the Chinese. The flesh, apparently, tastes great, and the scales are used in Chinese medicine to treat anything from cancer to rheumatism. Because of this, the Sunda pangolin is now critically endangered in Singapore. Yet there are two of them sleeping in our drain, right now. 

Pangolins can eat up to 200.000 ants in just one day. That makes them far better at pest control than the company we use. They are welcome guests. We hope they will stay for a while!

If you are lucky to see a pangolin or similar rare mammal somewhere in the wild in Singapore, you can report your sighting here, to help researchers learn more about their behaviour, so they can protect them better. More information on the status of Singapore's Sunda Pangolin you can find here

Thursday 20 February 2014

Dreams in a hat

Some women know exactly what they want. Bernadette is one of those. From the determined look in her eyes you can see she is not to be trifled with. Others need a little help finding their way in life. 

My 'Dreams Class', that I teach to domestic workers staying in the shelter of the charity I work for, is all about giving them hope for their future. Some positive feelings, and two hours of fun. To help them find their way in life, their dream, we are playing a game called ‘Dream in a Hat’. Everybody jots down three or four dreams for the future on a small piece of paper, their own or imagined, crazy or realistic, everything goes. All our dreams get folded into little squares, and thrown into my floppy pink hat. I give the hat a good joggle. We are going to take turns picking a piece of paper from the hat, to see what dream fate will deal us. 

The first girl in the circle, Rosie, opens her piece of paper and grins. ‘What did you get?’ I ask. ‘Show us.’
She holds up the paper in front of her: ‘My own house’ it says, in green felt pen capitals. 
‘And, do you like it? Do you want to keep it? Tell us why.’

The rule of the game is, that if you do not like the dream you pick, you can have another one. But you have to wait until everyone else has had her pick and the hat comes back to you. Dreams don’t come true overnight. You need to be patient. Luckily, there are enough good dreams in the hat for everyone.
I can guess what she is going to say. Building their own house is one of the favourite dreams of the domestic workers I teach this workshop for. 
And yes, Rosie nods, she likes this dream. She hugs the paper to her chest. Everybody else nods as well, and we don’t spend much time on the explanation. It is a good dream to have, and it is not unrealistic either for these women to build a house in their home country with their Singapore wages. 

The next girl, Ratna, picks her dream. ‘A good school for my son’ it says. She shrugs. ‘I don’t have a son,’ she says. ‘I don’t want this one.’ 
I take the dream from her, and hold it out to the group. ‘Anyone wants this one? Who has a son?’ Many hands go up, so I say, ‘ok, why don’t you share it.’ 
Ratna will have to wait until the hat comes back next round. We match up some nice dreams with happy girls. ‘Be with my family’, ‘Take my kids on a beach holiday’ and another ‘Build my own house.’ One girl passes on ‘Start a restaurant’ as she does not like cooking. She would prefer to start a cleaning business.

The hat has now reached Bernadette. She reads out her dream and sniggers. ‘I don’t like this one,’ she says, dangling the note from the tips of her fingers. I take it from her hand and read it out loud. 

It says: ‘plant a beautiful garden’
‘What is it you don’t like about it?’ I ask. ‘Don’t you like plants and flowers?’
Bernadette shrugs. ‘Sure. But I don’t want a garden. I want a farm. I want rice paddies and an orchard. What use is a garden?’

‘Well, a garden can be beautiful to walk in. It can make you happy. I would gladly take that dream from you, I love gardens. But I think you should keep it. Sometimes you need to start with a small dream, and take it from there. You can plant vegetables in your garden, sell them for a profit, and expand your farm later.’
Bernadette nods hesitantly. The hat goes further, handing out happy families, bright futures for children, a seamstress shop, foreign travel, nice new employers and many more dreams. Ratna gets ‘to become a business woman’ and keeps it, sharing with us she would like to start a clothes shop. 
At Bernadette’s second turn she gets ‘to raise my own chicken for eggs’. 
‘See,’ I say. ‘Your farm is already expanding into the egg business.’
Bernadette looks uncertain, but then everyone laughs, and Bernadette too. 

In the last round, someone generously share’s her dream ‘buying a piece of land’ with Bernadette. The three pieces of paper Bernadette now holds make a nice farming business. 

‘I have three now,’ she says. ‘Can I keep them all?’
‘Off course,’ I smile. ‘You can never have too many dreams.’ 

I love it how this game, with all its randomness, always teaches some important life lessons. It teaches better than I ever could. At the end of the workshop, when we share our vision boards of our dreamed future, Bernadette tells us her real dream is to help other people, like she did a few years back when she worked for a charity that assisted victims of one of the many typhoons that hit the Philippines. ‘Once I have the farm running and my kids are provided for, I will work for charity as well. That is my real dream.’

Everyone applauds Bernadette. I do too. The hat had given me 'to be a good mother for my kids', which I liked, and kept. In my mind I add Bernadette's real dream to mine. You can never have too many dreams. 

Sunday 2 February 2014


They are not easy to avoid when you live in Asia with young children. For me, amazing as they can be, they stir up a lot of mixed feelings. It doesn’t matter were you go. All luxury resorts are very much alike. 

The first thing I notice when we alight the speedboat on the pristine beach, are the brightly sunburnt tourists strolling on the beach. By the pool, more of them lie on sun loungers, covered in tanning lotion, like lobsters on a grill. They make me want to climb on my soapbox and announce: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there has been an amazing new invention: sunscreen. It is remarkable, revolutionary!’

If you look a bit further along the pool, under the trees, you can spot the Asian guests, covered by long sleeved swimsuits and wide brimmed hats, rubbing on the whitening lotion.

And us? We search for a spot in the middle, in the half shade. We are expats, off-white enough to distinguish ourselves from the people in our home countries. And, as expats do, we liberally apply factor 50, to avoid painful red shoulders and cancer. Or worse: being mistaken for a tourist.

Finding a spot close enough to the pool to keep an eye on our splashing kids does not prove easy. Not that there are that many people around the pool. No, only a few beds are occupied. Most are merely covered by a towel. A towel spread widely, sometimes to cover two beds in one go. A towel more pristine than the beach. Before breakfast is over, all the good spaces are taken, often by people who do not appear until lunchtime. Why is it that staying in places like this brings out the worst in people? When we stay in small, friendly places we always make many new friends. In large resorts, I make enemies.

We spot one empty bed, by the poolside. Quickly I spread my towel and pile our bags and toys on the floor. Before I can sit down, a lady returns to the bed next to me. She starts swearing in a language I don’t understand, then switches to rudimentary English. I stole her husband’s sunbed. Picking up my towel, I state the bed was clearly empty, and that her husband is nowhere to be seen. She then accuses me of stealing her towel, and rushes to get a new one to cover the reclaimed bed. Later, we spot her husband, playing cards on the terrace, his towel draped on the back of his chair. He does not return poolside that day.
We find some chairs behind the pool, and have a great time swimming and relaxing.

In short, we had a great break. We did what we came to do: absolutely nothing. We lay in the sun, swam, sailed, made a boat trip and ate tasty, albeit bland food, asking for extra chilli on the side. We recharged our batteries. Can I say we have been to Thailand? Hardly. No, we went to resort-land.