Wednesday 6 December 2017

Our Homes, Our Stories

Oh my, I realise it has been terribly, terribly quiet here on the blog the last months. I suppose it is time I tell you why I have been so busy lately: I have been working on a new book, that will be published on International Women's Day in March next year by HOME, a Singaporean charity that has supported and empowered migrant workers since 2004. Have you ever wondered what life is like for a migrant domestic worker in Singapore? This book will answer that question, and more.

In Our Homes, Our Stories, women that work in Singapore as live-in domestic workers share their real-life stories. They write about illicit love, rogue agents, abusive employers, and that one thing they all suffer from the most: missing their families back home - in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and India. The women write about sacrifice, broken trust, exploitation, lack of food, salary deductions and constant scolding; but also about supportive employers, the love they have for the families they take care of, or how they use their time in Singapore as a stepping-stone to realise their dreams for the future.

A writing class at the shelter 
Writers Meri Ledi and Ainun at work

Volunteer Raelee working with one of the shelter residents

All proceeds of this book go to HOME, and all the writers in Our Homes, Our Stories are part of the HOME community, either as volunteers on their one weekly day off, or as residents at HOME shelter for ill-treated domestic workers. With a team of volunteers we did workshops at the shelter and HOME Academy around the theme ‘home'. We worked closely with the women, coaching them to improve their writing, the structure of the story as well as their grammar. We taught them how to rope the reader in from the first paragraph, and how to keep their attention until the end. As many of the women shared intimate, strong and compelling stories, this was not at all difficult to do, all they needed was to be nudged in the right direction. For some women, who had a very limited grasp of English, we brought in volunteers that could work with them in their own language – Indonesian, Burmese, Tamil, Punjabi. But where possible, we let them write directly in English, helping them to choose the correct and best words suited to convey what they wanted to say. We always aimed to conserve the writer's own voice, after all, it is her story to tell.

Karien and writer April Lin

HOME Academy workshop (Jo Ann, Karien, Gilda and Novia)

Writer Linda and volunteer Pleun

I am immensely proud of what we made together. I am proud of the brave women that opened up their souls to share their lives with you on the blank paper we gave them. I hope it will help you, the reader, to get a better insight in who these women are, and what drives them to leave their family, often their young children, behind to take care of those of others.

In order to bring this book to print, we need funds. We are getting closer to our target, but it would be great if you can support the project by pre-ordering your copy. For people outside of Singapore, we can ship (at your own cost) or you can order the ebook version. 

Find our crowdfunding page here: 

Follow us on Facebook to get regular updates on the book:

And do look out for the MyVoice blog for any other news on the book, interviews with the writers, and much more:

Writer Lakshmi at work

Tamil speaking workshop with volunteer Jayanthi

Friday 8 September 2017

Poor Scruffy

We’ve been on the fence about Scruffy for a long time. Last Sunday, I heard loud cackling from the coop. Always worried about pythons, I rushed over to see a large brown shape, most likely an eagle, flapping away from a branch on the tree overhead. Inside the run, Scruffy was standing on top of a stool, cawing at the top of his voice. All the hens were inside, in the henhouse. I felt so proud of my dapper cockerel protecting his ladies, that I forgot his vileness for a while.

But not for long, because eagles were not the only thing Scruffy was protecting his ladies against. The next morning, when I left the run and forgot to walk out backwards, or look into his eyes admonishingly, he attacked me from the back immediately. Thankfully, I managed to slam the door right into his sharp beak, but needless to say, I did not particularly want to go back in again after. I was not alone in being less than amused with his temper that morning: through the wire mesh I observed Scruffy chasing the girls all across the run, in a way I was not sure was meant to be romantic, but in any case was pretty violent, and not at all appreciated by the ladies.

Roel said we had to do something, and we had to do it now. Scruffy, obviously, had other ideas about that, and we spent a good fifteen minutes chasing him around the garden – that roo can run! I won’t get into details about what happened after, it suffices to say nobody enjoyed it, but it was swift and yes, the rumours about headless (or broken-necked in this case) chickens are very much true.

Some people might find it distasteful that I post a photo of my stewed rooster, but you know what, many of my friends post photos of their food on social media, including fowl, fried, roasted, cooked, or with rice. Do you know what I find distasteful? Industrial, or broiler, chickens that are raised by the tens of thousands in windowless barns, that grow so fat so quick they can’t walk, that have wounds on their legs from sitting in their own manure all day, and that are cooped up so tightly together they peck each others backs bold from boredom and frustration, with an aggression that exceeds Scruffy’s on his worst days. The air they breathe full of ammonia and faeces, makes them suffer from respiratory illnesses. There is more to say about that, but I think you get the picture.

Having kept chickens for years now, I know what sociable animals they are, how they like to dig in the sand, climb on roofs and benches, and huddle up comfortably together. Chickens are fairly stupid, but not stupid enough to endure what is happening in those industrial farms.

So yes, we kill and eat our own rooster, who grew up pampered in a large run, with six wives, and plenty of food, fresh air, sand and clean water. And yes, I proudly present this lovely dish of ‘Rooster in Prosecco’ (well, we happened to have an open bottle, and were out of red wine). And I have to admit, Scruffy was much nicer stewed than he was in real life.

Thursday 24 August 2017

Not so Scruffy

He struts around the run as if he owns the place, not I. Whenever I enter, he keeps a shrewd eye on me, ideally positioning himself between his harem and me. I have learned never to turn my back to him. He might look plucky, but he always attacks from the back.

Scruffy is the youngest in the flock, yet about double the size of the hens. His head is crowned by a magnificent, bright red, comb, flanked by equally impressive wattles. When he was a few weeks old his feathers poked in all directions. A pineapple chick, Indah laughed, and Roel aptly named him Scruffy. When he started to grow at an alarming rate, and his comb became suspiciously big and red, it became more obvious day by day: Scruffy was a boy. 

A few days old, and still scruffy

Of course roosters are pretty useless when you keep chickens for eggs. In fact, this batch of hatchlings we had been fairy lucky; out of four chicks, Scruffy was the only boy.

Scruffy at a few weeks, comb starting to show

Scruffy grew up not so scruffy at all. His long white tail feathers arch up elegantly from his back, and the golden ones on his neck contrast brightly with the red of his comb. His favourite position is on top of a stool, towering even more high over the ladies, from which he will crow – all day long.

Since his testosterone has kicked in, Scruffy and I have been at a standoff. If I come bearing food he accepts me, grudgingly. Do I merely to come by to look for eggs, he will eye me suspiciously until I leave. I feel his eyes piecing my back when I look in the hen house for eggs.

A few times he has confronted me, high on his haunches, his neck feathers upright, but even in this position his impressive chicken size is nothing to my human one. But I have seen the spurs grow on his legs, and have no wish to test their sharpness.

So one or twice a week I show him who’s boss. I grab him, and push him to the ground firmly, all the time telling him I’m in charge, not him. Roel has dunked his feet in ice water for a similar face losing session. Afterwards, Scruffy retreats in a corner, licks his offended feathers and shakes his wattles. He behaves himself for a few days, until his cockiness rears again. He can’t help it. He is an eight-month-old cockerel.

The big question is, can he stay living with us? Since he attacked Tijm, the kids refuse to collect eggs. But what to do with him? Linde bawls when we suggest turning him into coq-au-vin like predecessor Messi. Indah suggests releasing him to go and live with the wild junglefowl, but will he manage there? Once, when I accidentally left the door of the run open he showed a wild rooster - half his size - all corners of the garden. But unlike them, he can’t fly for the safety of the trees at night. Is it better that we eat him, or the pythons? Or will he be successful, but mess up the gene pool of the endangered junglefowl with his hybrid features?

To be honest, Scruffy is an arrogant bastard, and I am not sure even the hens like him and his aggressive romantic advances, but still, I hesitate to kill him. I have seen him break out of his egg, grow into the insecure adolescent he is now. We know he can’t stay, we have been talking about it for weeks. Yet here he still is. He is so gorgeous.

Sunday 23 July 2017

A park, two tents, and one-and-a-half air-mattress

After our three-week trek through Portugal, France and the Netherlands, where we saw family, as well as old and newer friends, we still had almost a month of summer holidays left. A week of doing very little was restful enough for me to give in to the kids' repeated pleading: we would go camping. 

We went off to buy two cheapish tents, and tested them in the garden. But that was not real enough. The most adventurous places to camp in Singapore are on offshore islands, but to practice; Singapore’s mainland parks have campsites too. I decided on Pasir Ris. It has plenty of cycling paths, a wetland reserve, a huge playground, and we had never been there yet. I figured few people would be crazy enough to go camping in the height of summer, and that we could just get a (free) permit on site. But when Roel, who did not trust me, decided to register online, it was already full. We would have to go to East Coast Park. Also nice. 

After we had packed our sizable seven-seater to the brim (we were going one night), our escapade started, as many do, with fights and shouts and accusations that shook the foundation our marriage wobbly. The first challenge was locating an AXS machine to print the camping permits Roel had registered for. No, there is none in East Coast Park these days, regardless of what maps say, and yes, there is in fact one about 100 yards from our house, which we noticed on the way home. Of course all of this was my fault. 

Then there was the thing with the air mattresses. It turned out I had packed one single and one double – for five people. The upside of the mistake was that it saved Roel some breath, because when I unpacked the pump, I realised I had forgotten to pack the connector valve thingy. It also saved us a trip to a nearby sail club to scrounge electricity (I had not managed to locate the foot pump in our piled high storeroom). What we did find, rolled in the air mattress was the cap of another – the double one that sleeps 3 kids – that had gone missing when friends had borrowed it a few months ago. The matching air mattress, sadly, was not here. 

Blowing up by mouth the offensive objects, left Roel so out of breath that he had none left to argue when I said that, during my futile quest around fellow campers to borrow a pump, I had spotted a better spot for the tents. Directly at the beach, closer to the toilets, and not right in front of – later on potentially smelly – BBQ pits. He gave in grudgingly, and I dis- and reassembled our tents, in not too much more time than the 3 seconds promised on the package, at the new spot. 

We cycled, drank sugar cane and lime juice, picnicked, swam in the murky sea and told stories around an imaginary campfire. We ate our pre-cooked quiche and salad with gusto, but still looked jealously at our neighbours grilling crabs and satay on charcoal. We slept uncomfortably, hot and sweaty, huddled with the two of us on a single air mattress under the roaring planes taking off at Changi Airport. But the next morning, breakfasting with chocolate croissants and crackers with Nutella in the morning breeze, we looked at each other and smiled. Three happy campers rode around on their bikes. Yes, we promised them, we’ll go again. We now know where the AXS machine is... 

Wednesday 29 March 2017

We're off to see the dragons: Komodo National Park

The evening before, I struggled to go to sleep for rain and wind battering the windows of our hotel room, and the first thing I did when I woke up was look out the window to the sea. There were layers of cotton wool clouds, some worrisome darkening in the corners by the mountains, but it was dry!

With our fingers firmly crossed, we took off to the harbour, and after only a little bit of waiting we set sail. The sea was slightly choppy, and the sky a tad overcast, not ideal for a day of snorkelling. But moping is not allowed on holidays, and we were excited to finally go and see the Komodo National Park. Much of the Park is sea, and our first day was dedicated to the wonderful world under the surface. First stop, Kanawa Island, where we snorkelled off the jetty, and just when we were putting on our fins, we saw the first wonder of the day floating just beneath us: two spiky lion fish. I literary dunked the camera under and snapped away. 

Lion fish at Kanawa Island

We did not see too much more, as the water was still choppy, and after lunch on the boat we proceeded for more snorkelling at Sebayur Kecil island. We saw many amazing fish, including the kid's favourite, the tomato fish, and many sea creatures. Roel and Jasmijn spotted one very rare being in the shape of a huge dark lump, somewhat like a finless dolphin. Guide Paul recons it can only have been a dugong, or sea cow, a very rare sighting indeed! It was gone too soon to snap a photo. 


Tomato clownfish

The sea was very choppy, and landing on our Pirate Beach Camp for the night was adventurous, but we were elated to arrive in our slice of heaven for the night. The promised camping was more like glamping, with running water and electricity (which they managed to get going just after we showered the kids in the dark). The rough beach was perfect for play, collecting huge shells, or just relaxing.

Our trusty yacht

The next morning gleamed bright and blue, perfect for seeing more under the sea, first stop Batu Bolong. If you’d jump in an aquarium, you would not see this many fish, in all colours of the rainbow. We spotted a huge barracuda, as well as countless others, small and big, bright and dark. The coral was unspoilt and radiant. 

Next stop was Manta Point, and just when we were face to face with one of these gentle giants: the camera battery was flat! Nevertheless, the creatures were awe inspiring, and even though Jasmijn had been claiming she’d never swim with huge (they can reach up to 4 meters wide), scary creatures like this, she jumped in and did it. 

Lunch was at Mawan Island, where we climbed the hill for the most amazing view of the surrounding islands, in the now perfect sunny weather. We saw a very pretty blue spotted stingray here, as well as many little blue fish. 

Afterwards, we set sail to see the dragons!


Boat bums

We had only been on the island a few minutes when the fist one, a smallish juvenile, casually strutted past. We saw many of the prehistoric looking giants around the ranger station, where they liked to lounge. 

Juvenile Komodo dragon at the ranger station

Our guides kept stressing that they don't feed the lizards, that they merely come for the great smells wafting from the ranger kitchen, but they seemed a bit too well-fed for us to believe that. Then again, with three small children in tow, I rather like my dragons with a full tummy. The guides were armed with sticks, to ward off wayward dragons, and the ones that we saw move, did so at a les than alarming pace, but still. Knowing a bite of these guys is lethal, unless you want to spend a month in hospital on IV antibiotics, is enough for that tinge of terror residing in a mothers stomach make you hold your breath, apart from using it occasionally to hiss 'stay behind the ranger' to your excitedly bouncing offspring. The bite of a Komodo dragon is not poisonous, but contains a nasty cocktail of bacteria that will slowly kill even a karbau, the large local buffalo. The patient dragon will follow a bitten buffalo around for days until eventually drops dead, and can be guzzled down. 

After admiring the lazy lizards at the ranger station we went for a walk around the island, which had amazing views, but not a dragon in sight. 
We're going on a lizard hunt 
Rinca Island views
When we were back on the boat it was time for the last stop of the day, sunset at Kalong Island, where (they say) a million flying foxes live. At sunset they wake up collectively, and start their nightly trek to Flores mainland to hunt their dinner. An amazing sight to behold!

Flying foxes at Kalong Island

Flying Foxes on their way to Flores

Then it was time for us too to head back to Flores, in the dark that quickly descended. Our adventure was almost over, and it was one we wil never forget!

Monday 27 March 2017

Fun in Flores

In search of adventure this spring holiday, what place better to fly to but Flores, Indonesia; the islands of fire mountains and dragons? 

We started with a quiet day of acclimatising, and exploring the environs of Labuan Bajo, in western Flores.  We did as the locals do, and rented motorcycles. Many a family was squeezed on one bike, mama and dad, a baby wedged between, and additional children in front and back, but we opted for two scooters instead. Touring with the wind in your hair and the sun in your back, between gorgeous hills and turquoise bays, rice fields and villages, is such a more intimate experience than looking out from the window of a car, and much more exciting and enjoyable. We visited remote beaches, muddy caves, crossed rivers and many, many bumps and holes in the road. Scootering might look easy, but I have the scrapes and scratches to prove that finding your balance is not that easy. Without children's helmets, it can be a tad unnerving, and honesty forces me to admit that the reason I toppled over was because I went too slow...

Girls on bike 

On the road

Labuan Bajo peninsula

The next morning we sat on our ship in the harbour waiting for the crew to sort out the promised yet absent children’s life jackets, so we could start the next chapter of our adventure; a three day tour of the Komodo National Park. The air got darker and darker, and when the sky broke, the rain did not take long to soak us to our underwear in our smallish boat, regardless of its roof and plastic blinds. The wind pushed the tranquil sea into ominous waves, and as the storm swell, the captain spoke the redeeming words: we could not sail today. 

An hour later, still moist, we sat in a bleak hotel lobby hotel playing cards, when we received the message that the forecast was bad: tomorrow there would not be a tour either. Tijm rejoiced in the idea of two days of games, I less so, so when Roel suggested we head out to the mountains today instead of later in the week, I jumped at it. After arguing with the hotel about payment (or not) of the room that we had occupied for just an hour, we checked out again, and took off to downtown Labuan Bajo to find ourselves a car. A friendly driver took us up in the mountains of West Manggarai, the crater lake of Sano Nggoang being our evening's destination. We had figured this would be about 2 hours away, but we had not taken into account the status of the road, and the wet weather – quite obviously it was raining in the mountains too. To say they were potholes in the road would be a broad understatement, in many places heavy rains had pummelled away large chunks of the road, and we had to cross many a waterslide, mud pool or pile of rocks. Thankfully, our trusty driver navigated them calmly and securely, safely yet slowly. After a few hours, we realised that at this pace, it would take us at least three to four hours to make it to the crater. But the scenery was amazing, the cloudy forest full of lush ferns and trees, and the views that occasionally shone through the mist was so gorgeous that time crawled by as fast as our car. The experience beat the hotel lobby by far.

Flores overland roads

Pit stop at main road

Amazing views

By the time we reached the lake, it was late afternoon and even though we had read there were some homestays here, we had no clue whether they would have room for us. Mobile network ceases to exist in central Flores quickly outside of the touristy town of Labuan Bajo, and there are no landlines either, so there had been no way to call ahead. We had figured, no tourists, apart from us, would be crazy enough to trek to in the mountains in weather like this. When we had asked our friendly driver if he could help sort out accommodation, his English being worse than my Bahasa Indonesia (which covers menus and food fine, but not too much else), his smiling nods about a 'villa' by the lake were not much of a comfort. 

Sano Nggoang Crater Lake
When we got to the lake, it shimmered gorgeously in the foggy twilight, and we drove around it to reach Nunang, the village on the other side. The driver looked worryingly at a rocky road down to the lake, uttering the single word 'wow.' As he had been unfazed by the hugest potholes so far, this was slightly worrying. But after some encouragement by friendly villagers, he turned the car down, with only a tiny frown, and drove all the way down to a large, newly constructed two-story house at the end of the road, on the shore of the lake. There safely arrived, he pointed and smiled: 'villa.'

Flores bamboo house

The villa by the lake

Most of the houses in the villages we had passed were made of bamboo matting, or concrete bricks at best, so the term seemed justified. A man opened the gate for us, and beckoned us in with a wide smile. His name was Petrus, as he introduced himself with a firm handshake. In good English, he explained he had built this villa together with his brother in law, to receive guests by the lake. Then, he looked apologetically. The house was fully booked, with guests arriving from Jakarta that evening, to stay for a week, on business. It seemed this was a most rare occurrence, and ultimate bad luck I our timing. His English was not sufficient to relate what their business was in this remote area, but after some questioning, he did manage to explain that they had made the reservation by sending a message to his friend in town, who had delivered it on his motorcycle. As we were hours from any town with hotels, over a badly potholed road, and it was fast getting dark, I was now getting slightly nervous. The kids were tired and hungry, and our stores consisted of water and peanuts. But I need not worry, Petrus said, we could stay at his house. 

Petrus and Sisilia
It turned out Petrus had two nice bedrooms with double beds in his own house, for guests; one for us, one for the kids. Stuffy from a long day in the car, we decided to take advantage of the dry spell, and headed to the Crater Lake for a dip. The lake is over 500 meter deep, and fresh, with a slight sulphuric tinge - no fish can live here. When we hit the water, the sky cleared, and the last rays of the setting sun cautiously bathed the mountains surrounding the lake. 

Swimming in the Crater Lake at dusk

After we'd dried and dressed, Sisilia, Petrus' wife, turned one of the hens roaming the garden into tasty fried chicken served with rice and vegetables. Dinner was served with stories from Petrus, who liked every opportunity to further improve his English. The beds were comfortable, and a generator provided light at night. The guests from Jakarta turned out to be here to install a more sustainable source of energy than Petrus’ noisy generator: the village was to be a test site for a geothermal energy station. The next morning a meeting would be held with the town to decide on the best location. 

Kids bedroom

Dinner, left in yellow our driver

After a good night sleep, broken only by roosters and rain battering the metal roof, and a breakfast of nasi goreng and homemade sambal, we decided to warm up in the village hot springs by the lake. Bamboo poles guided the hot water in little showers, and when the cold rain started again, we had to fight, as there were four of them, and five of us. 
On our way to the hot springs

Warming up

We had hoped to further explore the area after breakfast, but the on-going downpour left us little choice but to move on. Luckily, by the time we had reached Wenang village, the rain had stopped, and a watery sun peaked through the clouds. Friendly Fiona from the village agreed to guide us through fields of rice, coffee, vegetables, cacao and candle nut trees to see Cunca Rami, a waterfall where we could swim, according to the guide books, in lovely shallow pools below the cascade. 

Fiona stopped in her tracks when we reached the river. Normally, it was ankle deep, but now it was frothy deep, and she shrugged we should turn back. Unfazed, and wanting to make most of the dry weather, we decided to cross, the girls on Roel and Fiona’s backs. 

Cunca Rami

When we got near the waterfall, it was just like a storm had started again, the spray of the falling water blowing far and wide, making us wet again. Even Fiona was impressed by the bulk of the waterfall, doubled by the rains, but swimming was out of the question because its roaring size made foaming whirlpools in the shallow pools. Back in the village, Fiona treated us to local coffee, while she taught kids a game with unshelled candlenuts.

When we arrived back in the mobile network sphere of Labuan Bajo, we were happy to learn that the weather had cleared enough to resume our next highlight: the Komodo Adventure Boast trip.