Sunday 2 December 2018

Home for the holidays

In multi-cultural Singapore we have a never-ending sequence of free days and colourful celebrations that we all join in happily. The Deepavali henna had barely faded from the palms of my hands when Sinterklaas arrived at Marina Bay in his bumboat. As soon as the Sint leaves it will be time for Christmas and then the year will be over, but not the Singapore holidays as the main event has yet to come: Chinese New Year.

Usually, I am not the kind of expat that is prone to homesickness, not even over the holidays, but this year I find myself excitedly looking forward to a traditional Dutch Christmas at home. In Northern Europe this is a depressing time of the year. You take off for work in the dark and come back in it too - if you have an office job you won’t see daylight at all. Not that you miss much, a Christmas of falling snowflakes is more fairy tale than reality, days in December are likely to be drab, grey and wet. We need a party to get us through that, and Christmas marks the shortest day of the year, the darkest.

Our Singapore rainy season is well timed - huddling inside whilst a tropical storm rages, with gusts of winds sweeping through the trees, rain hammering on the windows; it is just as it should be this time of the year. Other things, less so. The light-up at Orchard Road is a depressing one this year; with not a Christmas decoration in sight Orchard Road makes clear once and for all what Christmas is all about for some: Disney. And commerce. It makes me glad to be Dutch, and makes me stick even firmer to our traditions: no presents at Christmas.

I never once received a Christmas present as a child. Christmas to us is about being together with family, special food, candlelight, singing carols. Even without presents, Christmas was magical. The smell of fresh pine (not the chemically sprayed American ones they have here – that keep smelling long after the needles drop off, but the real deal, from the forest) mixed with Christmas spice, open fires, stollen with almond spijs.

Fear not, there is no need to pity me - or my children. Because we have Sinterklaas. On the eve of his birthday, on December 5th the good old holy man, Saint Nicholas with his trusty junglepieten will drop off bags full of presents. Pakjesavond is the event of the year for Dutch children. Pepernoten (spicy tiny biscuits) are thrown around, and there is no end to unique candy associated with this day: marzipan, chocolate letters, taai taai, schuimpjes and borstplaat. For the adults: bishop-wine.

My favourite part? Sinterklaas is a holiday to get creative. This is the day to get back to your annoying little brother or teasing your classmate in a snappy poem and crafty joke as surprises are exchanged. Or house is already full of glue, cardboard, paint, papier-mâché and kids yelling ‘don’t come in, don’t look!’

And when the giving is over, later this December, my whole family, ooms, tantes, opa and oma will come together in our home for a real Dutch-Singaporean Christmas. With Christmas Day brunch and Indonesian rijsttafel and not a gift in sight. Because nothing you can wrap up can ever beat being together!

Sunday 28 October 2018

Adventures with the apes

 Sumatra holiday part 1: Adventures with the apes

‘Watch out,’ the guide in front of me yells over his shoulder when he suddenly stops in his track. ‘It is Jackie. Jackie loves to hug. But don’t worry, she is not dangerous like Mina.’ In this jungle we are not alone, we hike with some p
henomenal creatures: orang-utans. And let me tell you, these ladies are some characters. 

We are in Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, more specifically in the environs of Bukit Lawang. For years I have wanted to do a proper jungle trek with the children, camp out it in the bush, and this place offers something that I hope will entice my offspring to hike six hours a day without moaning: the chance to encounter both semi-wild and wild orang-utans. 

And we are not disappointed. First we run into Ratna, a semi-wild female and her baby. There used to be a rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang, which closed years ago as the forest is fully populated. The reintroduced orang-utans stay close to the village, and humans, as that is what they are used to, thereby creating an excellent opportunity for eco-tourism. The rehabilitated apes are mostly females, who mate with local wild males. But unsurprisingly, there are also problems with human orang-utan interactions. This is after all Indonesia...

Up the hills!
Hungry for lunch, but we have a follower!

Thankfully our guides (unlike some…) are very responsible and explain how we should never get too close to the orang-utans, and they never feed them or leave trash behind – in fact, on our second day we had to postpone our lunch for hours when a wild orang-utan kept following us and we could not sit down and dig into our excellent fried rice and noodles. The orang utan would likely try to steal our food if we did; one of the park rules is that you cannot eat within sight of one of them. The children weren’t sure whether to be annoyed with hunger, or amazed by the attention of our stalker.

Mina and Tara
But, as out guide Tara explained as we walked on, he had one exception to his strict no-feeding rule: Mina. If we we would meet this fearsome lady, he would likely have no choice but to feed her, as Mina was known to become aggressive. He had scars to show for that, a large slash on his lower leg caused by her bite. So when Tara mentioned we  were entering Mina's territory (orang-utans are solitary animals that stay in a set area), lo and behold, there she was, standing in the middle of the path with an upheld hand to demand her toll. Tara carefully doled out sunflower seeds whilst the other guides herded us past swiftly and safely. Mina, with her scarred face, looked imposing and to be honest, rather scary. 

The other orang utan Tara had mentioned by name as one to watch out for was Jackie. Jackie had been reared humans as a child, and was rescued and subsequently released here over a decade ago. Like Mina, she longed to be with humans, but food was not what Jackie was after. Jackie, Tara explained rather mysteriously, 'liked to hug.'

Karien grabbed by Jackie

Karien being forced to stay by Jackie
So when we approached Jackie, after the rather fearful encounter with Mina, I was a bit apprehensive about this ‘hugging’. And rightly so, as when the guides cautiously guided us past her, I suddenly felt a tug on my arm. Before I had time to realise what was going on, Jackie managed to grab me firmly by the hand and pulled me towards her. Orang-utans have amazing strong grip! The soothing voice of Tara told me to stand still, and not worry. Jackie yanked me down slowly, forcing me to sit on the floor next to her. The guides tried to distract Jackie with snacks that did not interest her in the least, so I continued to sit there, with the rest of the family laughing at me. Jackie looked at me with big pleading eyes and it took me a lot of restraint not to give her a full bear-hug. Human attention was clearly what this lady craved. We sat there for what must have been at least twenty minutes. Every time I tried to pull my hand free, Jackie's leathery fingers would close tighter around my arm, the bristles of her hairy arm tickling my naked one. Looking into Jackie's calm, sorrowful eyes allowed to let me keep my cool, that is, as cool as you can be after a wild animal has wrestled you to the ground...  

Through the river!
First night Indonesian dinner
After I was finally released, thanks to many snacks and plying words from Tara, we hiked on, as much in awe of these creatures as ever. We saw several more wild orang-utans and their nests. The wild orang-utans stayed clear of us humans, in the safety of the high trees, exactly as they should. 

Orang-utans are not all there is to see in Gunung Leuser Park. During our three day trek we saw lizards, giant ants, butterflies, all sorts of greens and majestic sceneries. Our first evening camping by the river we spotted a group of Thomas Leaf monkeys (called Beckham monkeys by the guides, can you guess why?) bathing together with us in the river.

Thomas Leaf Monkey
Down the hill!
We were unimpressed by the long-tailed macaques (we can see these every day in our own garden), but the baboon-like pig-tailed macaques were exciting, if not a tad intimidating. Building dams whilst washing up in the river, eating the most amazing Indonesian food cooked by our guides, and sleeping in the sounds of the screeching jungle – all in all an amazing experience. 

A much needed break

Tijm's favourite thing: building dams

The next day Tara, impressed by the speed and endurance of our children, decided we were fit for the long steep way. It is beyond me why, but on a normal road my children lag behind needing constant urging, yet on a steep mountainous jungle trek, with only tree roots and lianas to pull you up, they rush up leaving me short of breath. The steepest of climbs offers the highest rewards: from the top of Orchid Hill we had an amazing view over the Gunung Leuser Reserve and its flowing hills. That evening we had just arrived at our new camp and were having a quick bath in the river when the skies broke; a big thundering storm made the river we had just swam in bulge from of its course into a thundering rage. 

Arrival at camp 2
Breakfast by the river - morning after the storm

Second day river camp
Storm! The river 2 meters higher than before...

It was a simple tropical storm, one like we are used to at home in Singapore, but deep in the jungle, under the sagging cloth of our tent roof, we were very much in awe, and a tiny bit of fear. And not without reason: not long ago flash floods caused by illegal logging upstream had swept away most of Bukit Lawang village – a story that makes us firmly aware of the brutal forces that get unleashed when we humans interfere with nature. We sat in our mostly-dry shelter munching snacks and drinking sweet hot tea and kept our fingers crossed it would eventually stop – if the river would not calm down we would it be able to tube down it the morning after. Thankfully we woke up to yet another beautiful day and we floated down the river back to the village. 

Tubing home!

Our experience with the magnificent Mina and Jackie left me with mixed feelings. These semi-wild orang-utans were spoiled for life when they were taken from their mothers as a baby and raised by humans. After rehabilitation they lead good lives; they roam in their natural habitat and by reproducing with local wild males help preserve the species. Because they are comfortable being up close with humans, the animals have become a tourist attraction. This has many complications, as Tara's scars and Jackie's hugging habit prove, but at the same time eco-tourism plays an important role in providing income for the local community and the preservation of the forest. Eco-tourism promotes awareness on the importance of nature conservation, without it and the money it generates, this area would have been likely turned into palm oil plantations like so much of Sumatra has.  

I hope that Mina, Ratna and Jackie can all continue playing their part in preserving all the important species that live in the Gunung Leuser Nature Reserve. Meeting them has been a privilege, on that taught us a lot about both nature and humans. 

Kings and queens of the bush

View from Orchid Hill
Best breakfast ever

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Pipsqueak and Squeakpip

One morning before school the cats dragged in something that at first sight looked like a naked rat. Closer inspection showed the tail too short, the nose too blunt for a rat. This was more exciting: this was a babys quirrel. Linde, who considers anything tiny ultimately cute, was instantly there to declare we had to keep it. Then the other cat dragged up a second little creature from underneath the pineapple plants and we all looked up. There, in the jackfruit tree, on a hanging branch, hung a cluster of sticks. I’d seen it before but only now realised what it must be: a rather ill-designed squirrel nest.

Linde, holding the tiny ones in cupped hands, urged me to google the care of baby squirrels. Heating them up seemed to be the first step, so Roel cradled them, blew warm air onto them, until they woke from their stupor and started wriggling. By now, the kids had to go to school so we put them on a heating pad in a cage safe from cats and took off.

It turns out squirrels are cute but rather stupid; according to local wildlife charity Acres that I consulted babies falling from nests are a common occurrence, likely as newborn baby squirrels - as I now know - are rather wriggly little creatures. Therefore many websites were dedicated to what my daughter had ordered me to do: the great squirrel rescue. Despite Linde’s loud protests I knew the best thing to do was to reunite them with mummy.

Google told me never to give them cow’s milk, so I hydrated them with some warm sugar-salt solution, made a make-shift nest near the tree where mum could see them, and went grocery shopping. When I came back, sporting an eighteen dollar tin of special mammal formula, I was not sure what to hope for: That mum had picked them up and my purchase was pointless, or that I would now have to spend the next few weeks syringe-feeding two baby squirrels. My mixed hopes were both rewarded: one baby was gone, the other still there. 

That afternoon the rain was too deep to put a naked baby out, so to Linde’s utter delight we got started with feeding the newly-christened Pipsqueak. 

But when I found out that 3 hourly feedings, just like with human babies, mean day and night, that baby went back in the tree as soon as it was dry. But sadly, no mum showed up. In the morning, groggy as any new baked mother that has been up too often in the night, Tijm woke me up holding something brown and wriggly.

“Mama, Pipsqueak escaped. Pepper got him.”

The thing could barely crawl, let alone climb! How was that possible? The cage revealed Pipsqueak soundly asleep, and Tijm was holding his sister, Squeakpip, fallen from the nest once again. This mum was one lousy nest-builder indeed!

In serious doubts now about the feasibility of my reunion plans, tiredness still won over: I had to get them back in that nest! That day, mum picked up Pipsqueak, leaving us with smaller, weaker sister Squeakpip, who stayed with us all that rainy weekend. With a weeklong trip to Sumatra on the horizon, I started Monday with more tiredness and resolve, and I am please to announce that finally, on Tuesday afternoon, Squeakpip too has been reunited with her mother.

Linde has been searching hopefully underneath the jackfruit tree morning and afternoon, but I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed and hope they won't fall out yet again!

Sunday 23 September 2018

Breaking down borders with stories

This weekend I was asked to talk at an inspiring event organised by Migrant Writers of Singapore and the National University of Singapore (NUS) with the theme: Open Borders, Stories have no boundaries. My friend and domestic worker writer Rea Maac, also a speaker at the event, told me they asked me to speak because I, as she said ‘opened borders for the domestic workers'. A lovely compliment.

Rea's comment made me reflect on the different ways one can use stories to open boundaries. As a migrant and a writer myself, I realise the importance of this. After all, there are many borders - physical as wel as invisible - that we encounter when we migrate to a new country.

The question I started pondering about is: how hard is it to really connect to Singapore, to become a part of it? When I first moved here six years ago I found it hard to make Singaporean friends. I did not work at the time, and as a mother the easiest way to make friends is at your children’s school. But at our international school there were no Singaporean kids; MOE (the Ministry of Education), does not allow them to go there. Likewise, because we do not have permanent resident (PR) status, it is almost impossible for my children to get a place at a local school. The result is that my children have friends from all over the world, but few from Singapore.

Many so-called ‘expats’ complain about how they feel like they live in a ‘bubble’. Of course we are aware this is a privileged bubble; the minimum salary to be eligible for the coveted Singapore EP (employment pass) is high. But a luxury bubble is still a bubble. It can feel uncomfortable.

Then, let’s look at work pass (WP) holders, what is life like for them? WP holders are low wage migrants that come to work in Singapore. Examples are domestic workers, that live in with their employers. Or construction workers, who mostly live in dormitories. The families of this type of migrants - in contrary to those of EP holders - have to stay behind in their home countries; even it they would be allowed to come, a WP salary is not sufficient to support a family here. I would like to say that we migrants are all the same, but if I did, I would deny the truth: our lives are very different. Because of the nature of their work and living arrangements, as well as social stigma, it is even more difficult for WP holders to make Singaporean friends.

Thankfully, now I have lived here over six years, I have made a number of lovely friends, Singaporeans and all sorts of migrants alike. But this took time and effort. Singapore is a multicultural melting pot, but fact is, when it comes to migrants it can still be quite segregated.

So how do we open those borders with stories?

For many years I conducted workshops through local charity HOME with domestic workers. Creative writing workshops and also a ‘dreams class’ to empower them. In that dreams class we played a game where we would brainstorm about what we would do if we won the lottery. Sorting our many ideas – both theirs and mine- that we would jot on post-it notes, taught me one thing very clearly: our dreams are very much the same. Buy a house in our home country. Provide a good education for our children. Study. Travel and see the world. So even when our lives might be different, the fact that we share the same hopes and dreams is what binds us.

So when we share stories about migrants, particularly low wage migrants like work pass holders, in Singapore, do we focus on our differences, or on the similarities?

Talking about migrant workers’ rights we often talk about the injustices they face. These stories strongly focus on the differences, on the unfairness in the treatment some migrants get. Domestic workers that get no day off, get their handphones taken away, suffer verbal or physical abuse. Construction workers that don’t get paid or are exploited. It is of course important to raise awareness of these issues. But the danger in these stories is that they often portray migrants as victims, as weak people that need protection.

It is important we share other types of stories too. When we talk about the similarities between different migrants and Singaporeans, about hopes and dreams, love and sorrow, we show that we are all the same - deep down. We are all humans. Stories like that can help create a shift in way Singaporeans look at migrants. As humans, they deserve to be treated humanely.

So when I work with domestic worker writers I don’t want to hear only about the difficulties they faced here. I also want to hear about the love they have for their families, the things they enjoy to do in their spare time, the plans they make for their futures. Most particularly, I want to hear about their dreams.

Many of the stories I collect get shared on the MyVoice blog, which I started in 2014 as a platform to give a voice to domestic workers in Singapore. Earlier this year HOME published the anthology ‘Our Homes, Our Stories,’ that I edited, which contains 28 real life stories written by domestic workers in Singapore.

All the strong and amazing women I met while working with domestic workers in Singapore inspired my debut novel that was published by Monsoon Books this summer. To reach a large audience I wrapped up the many of the plights of domestic workers I encountered over the years in an exciting plot. A Yellow House is fiction, inspired by real events. By real people.

Sunday 9 September 2018

The Real Yellow House

In my novel A Yellow House that came out this summer [minor spoiler alert!] the yellow house of the title is a dream. A goal. It is what Aunty M wants to build for her daughter Nurul in Indonesia with the money she made working in Singapore as a domestic worker. But did you know this actual yellow house already exists in Java?

For years I taught a ‘Dreams Class’ at HOME shelter for ill-treated domestic workers. The shelter houses women that have run away from their employers. Women stay at HOME shelter for a plethora of different reasons. Some haven’t been paid their salary, are overworked. Some were abused – physically or mentally. Others were simply homesick but their employer didn’t want to let them go. Women stayed there for days, months and sometimes even years.

In the Dreams Class we take them away from their troubles for a few hours. A favourite in this class is the Million Dollar question. 

We are lucky, we have won the lottery, 1.000.000 $$$! 
In the brainstorming game that follows, the first thing almost every single woman does, is built a house for their family. A house is solid, will last and can be shared with loved ones. It is the ultimate dream for many migrant workers. Talking about these imagined houses made twinkles burn in their eyes while we talked about how best to make our dreams come true – even without winning the lottery.

Years ago we visited Indonesia with Indah, or own helper (I always struggle to use the more PC word domestic worker when it comes to her, not only as it is so long and stiff, it just seems too impersonal. The word friend comes to mind when I talk about her but that doesn’t do her justice either – she is so much more). Driving through her village in Central Java Indah pointed out all the beautiful houses of her friends. ‘That one works in Hong Kong. That one, Singapore. There, she went to the Middle East.’ Then we passed a small hut with slatted bamboo walls and an attap palm roof. ‘They stayed here.’

It is obvious how working abroad can bring prosperity to a country but we should not forget what it costs the families involved. In A Yellow House, Aunty M’s daughter runs away – she can’t forgive her mother for abandoning her for years, even if this is the only way to pay for her education.

Back in Java, past rolling rice paddies and past mosques with gleaming spires, a sugar cane factory and many houses of all colours, we finally reached our destination: the original yellow house. A tad jealous I admire Indah’s house which is painted in my favourite colour: a warm, rich, ochre. 

Inside we meet her family and eat the best meal we ever had. Getting to know her family, friends, her village and her beautiful house deepened our relationship and understanding of her life. 

Women like Indah and those joining my classes at HOME shelter inspired me to write A Yellow House and share their stories with the world. I shared a photograph of Indah's house with the designer who made this gorgeous illustration for the cover:

So did Aunty M ever get to build her yellow house? Well, I gave away enough, if you want to find out, you’ll have to read the book! 

A Yellow House is published by Monsoon Books in the UK and available in bookstores in Singapore and the UK as well as online retailers (for instance here or here) or on Kindle or Kobo.

In the Netherlands it will be available in bookstores from October 2018 as well as here or, already now as ebook.

Monday 27 August 2018

Lots of cats and a snake

A few months ago I wrote about the wilder, more dangerous aspects of black and white living and owned up to my fear of snakes. It turned out my fear of snakes was completely warranted. This summer our cat Mitzi disappeared and guess who our number one suspect is?

Traffic is slow in our area which means there are few road kills. And since she has been micro-chipped but not found anywhere we can only fear the worst. Pythons are known cat killers and who did we see slithering on our drive not long before she disappeared?

We did not plan on getting a new cat. Sure, the increased amount of rats scuttling across the terrace had me tempted. But we still miss Mitzi. And I felt a bit guilty about not heeding the advice of the charity where we picked up Mitzi to keep her inside – which would have been sheer impossible anyhow since we basically live outside. And I feel that keeping a cat inside is akin to animal abuse - better enjoy life to the fullest and die happy than wile away being safe. Still, no charity in their right mind would give us a cat now.

Of course fate intervened. One day my ears pricked up when zonked on the sofa in front of Netflix. Did I hear Mitzi? I rushed outside and found Indah with a bowl of cat food and a little black feline. We’d seen the cat around – there are many strays in our area – but usually Mitzi chased her off. The next morning Blackie came back and played with the kids all morning. They got very excited and begged to keep her. After checking with all the neighbours she was in fact a stray I gave in. But we never saw her again after that week.

So we went on with our happy cat and stress-free existence until Indah’s friend kept WhatsApping us photos of two little ones in need of a home. Their mother was a local stray that had given birth in her garden to a litter of six. They spayed the mother and released her back into the wild. One of the babies died, one ran way, two got rehomed. There were two left. They had been vaccinated, taken care of lovingly but the employer did not want to keep them. What else could I do but take our cat carrier and drive over?

So now we have to seven-month-old kittens. Two sisters that immediately got diarrhoea – either from stress, new food or poisonous plants – and were locked in a very smelly side room for the last week. Since they seem to have finally remembered what potty training is all about I just let them out and as I write they are frolicking around and creating havoc in the house (they won’t go out for at least a few weeks, until they are not only settled but spayed – two cats is more than enough, thank you very much). They dig up houseplants, jump on every available surface, practice their piano skills, run full speed and fight endlessly. Since they are also the most sociable, cuddly and affectionate cats I have ever seen and unlike Mitzi are up to being manhandled by the steady stream of playdates coming to admire them, we forgive them. They have been here for only a week but already we can not imagine our life without them. So I am proud to introduce what Roel so elegantly calls our new python food: Pepper and Snowy. 

All that is left now is to keep our fingers crossed and hope they will outrun the enemy.


Sunday 12 August 2018

Beef Rendang

My sister was visiting and having seen most of Singapore’s sights, decided she wanted to do something special: a cooking course. Beef rendang was top of the list of favourites. I felt it was not worth spending hundreds of dollars on a class though. Indah’s rendang is the best I have ever eaten. I had wanted to get her recipe off her for some time, and thankfully she agreed to teach us of the finer points of rendang making in our own kitchen. 

When Indah first started working for us, I asked her if she knew how to cook rendang. I don’t eat much meat, but make an exception or this fragrant delicacy. As an Indonesian, of course Indah knew the dish, but no, she had never cooked it. She had worked eight years for a Chinese employer, perfecting her Chinese cooking skills, but neither them nor the western employers she worked for after had ever asked her to cook any Indonesian food. Indonesian happens to be one of my favourite cuisines – for the Dutch it is as familiar as Indian is for the British, we consider nasi goreng with satay one of our national foods.

‘And when you were little,’ I asked, ‘would your mother not cook curry’s like that?’ Indah looked at me with shy eyes. ‘No ma’am. We could never afford beef.’

In the years that followed Indah, who has a natural talent for spices, perfected her rendang recipe until she finally has one she is happy to share, with us as well as her family back home. So I proudly present: Indah’s beef rendang recipe.

Beef Rendang (Indonesian sweet beef curry) 

1 kg stewing beef, in cubes
600 ml coconut milk
~ 4 tbs oil
3 stalks lemongrass (sereh)
10 kaffir lime leaves (jeruk perut)
2 turmeric leaves (kunjit)
1 tbs tamarind pulp
1 cinnamon stick
4 tbs fried ground coconut (kerisek) (or dried grated coconut)
2 asian bay leaves (salam)

2 cm fresh galangal, in slices 
4 cardamon pods
7 cloves
2 star anise
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt

For the spice mix (bumbu)
5-20 large red chili’s
20 small shallots
8 cloves of garlic
2 cm fresh ginger
2 cm fresh galangal
2 cm fresh turmeric
1 ½ tsp ground dried coriander (ketumbar)
1 tsp ground dried cumin (djinten)
½ tsp ground dried nutmeg
½ stalk lemongrass
8 candlenuts (kemiri)

Outside of Asia, some of the ingredients might be hard to get. Don’t worry, your rendang will still be tasty. Fresh ginger is fairly ubiquitous these days, it’s nephews galangal and turmeric less so, so you can use the dried, ground variety instead. Candlenuts give a nutty, creamy texture to your spice paste, they can be substituted with other nuts like almonds or macadamia. Turmeric leaves can be left out. Don’t replace the salam leaves with Western bay leaves, they are very different in flavour. Better to leave them out altogether if you can’t get them.

First, make the bumbu:

For curry, always start by making the spice paste. Traditionally this is done in a mortal and pestle, but these days we use a modern blender. You can use as many or as little chili as you like, depending on taste. Add all the bumbu ingredients, coarsely chopped, to the blender. Blitz until it is a fine paste, adding a few tablespoons of oil if needed to make it smooth. Don’t add water!

Then, start cooking:
Then we need to fry the bumbu, for this heat a little oil in a big pot and stir well after added the paste. Fry until fragrant, 5-10 minutes should do it. Then we start adding the other ingredients. First, the herbs. 

The lemongrass, chopped into pieces of a few cm, and slightly crushed to release flavour. The kaffir lime and salam leaf slightly torn. The turmeric leaves, if you can get them, are very large, so roll them and tie into a knot. Add the cinnamon stick, sliced galangal, aniseed, cloves, cardamon and fry all for a few more minutes before adding the beef. After the beef is slightly browning, add the dry coconut and coconut milk. Let the tamarind paste soak in a few tablespoons water and add the juice but leave out the seeds and hard bits. 

Stir well, and let the curry simmer for at least 1 ½ hours. The longer you let it simmer, the darker your rendang will become in colour. It will be even tastier the next day! Taste the sauce, and finally add salt and sugar to taste. Adding a bit of sugar will help combat spiciness. 

Serve with rice and vegetables. Green vegetables like beans, sugarsnaps, kangkong, or spinach work well. 

Don't eat meat? You can make this rendang with tempeh instead!

Interested to see more of Indah’s recipes? Check out my personal favourites: her fried tempeh and sambal eggs.

Thursday 26 July 2018

Nine weeks

Time can fly past in a blink, or take forever.

The first week everyone was tired after a year of school, and we lounged in the garden, the pool, played Carcassonne, read books and comics, had playdates, sleepovers and made a quick visit to the Zoo before our yearly membership ran out.

Then we went on holiday. A week in France, a week in Friesland. After that daddy went off to London for work while I spent a week in Holland with family and then another week in Friesland where the kids learned to sail and I could write. It was lovely in sunny Europe, in the hottest summer since the one I was born in, we saw old friends, family, and all too soon we had to board a plane to fly home.

When we got home we had four more weeks to go.

The first week we were tired. Visiting ‘home’ countries are not holidays for expats, they are an endless stream of social events where you try to squeeze everyone in, and at the end you have gained at least five kilograms and tell yourself: next year we’ll just go climb Mount Everest, that will be much more relaxing.

We rested. We hung about in pyjamas, uncombed, unbrushed. We read a lot of comics again, lounged in our pool, slept off the jetlag. The week after, which is now, they became bored and restless. They miss school, their friends that are mostly still traveling, and are in dire need for some routine. I am itching to get back to work, but the stolen moments in between tearing apart fighting kids are not really long enough to do some proper writing, more than a quick blog, so instead I take the kids out most days. Wear them out, so they won’t have enough energy left to hurt each other all the time.

Why do my kids fight so much? Linde has perfected her karate kick and Jasmijn is still nursing the scrapes from Tijm’s friendly tackles – on tarmac. If only they fought in silence I would leave them at it, but all of this is accompanied by ear-piercing shrieks from the girls and bone crunching growls from Tijm. (And their father still asks me why I don’t wear my hearing aid around the house…)

To tire them out I dragged them to the summit of Bukit Timah, Singapore highest hill, but since that is only 163 meters high, that did not take up more than a few hours. We went to the museum to cool off, cycled in East Coast Park. That one day I had to be out for work Indah took them to the Botanic Gardens on scooters.

Whenever I hope for a quiet few minutes I give in, in to iPads, Donald Duck comics and hagelslag sandwiches, things that I vowed to be strict about this summer. Because sometimes I just need a little peace. A little break. Sometimes I need to actually get something done, an email sent, a deadline made. Working from home is a very different scenario with three noise making machines present all day, still I have a novel and a charity book to promote, articles to write, events to organise. With barely enough brainspace to write a simple blog, let alone anything literary. 

It has been eerily quiet the last half hour that I was writing this. Should I enjoy my peace or go check whether they finally did kill each other this time?

Two more weeks to go.

Friday 20 July 2018


It is what everyone is saying to me at the moment: ‘Congratulations! You must be so excited!’ 

And every time someone says that I cringe a little inside and am briefly lost for the appropriate answer. Yes, of course I am very excited about my debut novel ‘A Yellow House’ coming out this summer. But at the same time I am terribly nervous. How will it be received? Will people like my writing? Will the narrative keep them gripped till the end? What if people will hate it, or worse, nobody will buy or read it. 

And how will Singapore react to an Ang Moh writing about the controversial subject of migrant domestic workers? I might have spent the better part of the last five years researching the subject thoroughly; still, the trolls are probably out there sharpening their thumbs to pummel me down. 

And it is not just about me. Little Maya, my protagonist, has become like another daughter to me, and just like I had difficulty letting go of my flesh and blood children last week when I sent them off to camp, I am apprehensive at releasing Maya into the big bad world. Will everybody love her like I love her? 

Thankfully relief came in the form of my very first review last week and it was a good one - and not even written by a friend. Thank you Tripfiction for that boost of morale. After having spent the first part of the year promoting the ‘Our Homes, Our Stories’ book, it is a great relief to have a professional publisher for my novel and, even better, a publicist this time around. The local publicity will kick-off when the book hits bookstores here in early August, so Singapore, you will need to be a little more patient. 

In the meanwhile, the book can be ordered online as an ebook or paper copy. In the UK, Netherlands, and other countries, you can just walk into any bookstore and they should be able to order it for you if they don’t stock it. And please, do remember to review the book on Goodreads and/ or Amazon.  (Do review whether you like it or not, but please let me down gently if you don’t..)

So, now for some  spamming: please all ‘like’ my new author Facebook page:

Follow it closely as there will be a book-giveaway coming up there soon!

Thursday 12 July 2018

Empty Nest

Usually I am a cold-blooded mother. When my kids went to school for the first time I did not shed a tear, I breathed a sigh of relief; finally some time for myself. I have never had any qualms about waving my kids off to school camp in Malaysia or Indonesia, or leaving them with grandparents for a second honeymoon in the Maldives. 

I had been eying this sailing school in Friesland near my parents’ holiday home for years. Their live-in full week camps were from seven years onwards, and I counted down. Roel had to work in London so I visualised me, in the holiday home, with my laptop, writing - other people not only entertaining my children, but also teaching them to sail. A useful skill to have when your grandfather has a fleet of boats, yet no one in the family has the patience or didactic skills to teach you. Sailing camps on the Friesian lakes are a not-to-miss part of any Dutch childhood. 

I have many good memories of spending weeks in ‘Valk’ boats, rain or shine (often rain in fact). I did mention to my kids, not too emphatically, the ‘sleep at home’ option the sail school offered. Of course two of them wanted to sleep there, so the third reluctantly agreed with my suggestion of ‘giving it a try, you can always call me if you really don’t like it.’ After all, she is only seven, and I am not that mean.

In the lead-up to the camp the kids were too busy being on holiday to even think about it, and I, mindful of the rainy camps of my childhood, spent my time ordering warm fleeces, wind and waterproof suits online. A week before the big day I started to get nervous. Weren’t they much too young to stay on their own for a full week? Our kids are the type that regularly get dragged to remote countries and homestays or whatnot without them batting an eyelid, so they just shrugged when I asked them if they were looking forward to the camp. 

We arrived in Goingarijp on a hot sunny afternoon. The staff was friendly, welcoming and also smart enough to throw the kids into a boat and onto the lake straight away so the parents had little choice but to wave and leave. Thankfully I had been stupid (or cunning) enough to forget to pack sailing shoes for them. They were sitting nicely on their shelf in Singapore. So the next day I strategically had to dropped new ones off in the late afternoon.

That night I had not slept well. Not being used to being all-alone in a house (too quiet, yet with eerie noises – who makes these?) I couldn’t sleep, so plenty of thought had ran through my mind. What if they hated it? What if they got homesick? What if the temperature dropped and they wouldn’t think of putting on the jackets? What if they did not have enough clean underwear for the week, shouldn’t I stop by halfway to pick up some laundry? In short, I was being a terrible … mother. 

I think you can imagine what happened when the kids saw me that afternoon. Nothing. They barely looked at me. They thanked me for dropping off the shoes and went about their business respectively playing games, reading comics, and having a shower. I needn’t have worried about the laundry – they hadn’t changed their underwear yet. After some begging from my side I got a quick hug and a kiss. A brief chat with the still friendly staff later I was back on my way.

So did I leave them alone after that? Of course not. I did sleep like a baby, but the next day when Opa and Oma arrived we did go out on the motorboat to have a trip around the lake. Me, spying on my kids? Never! I did however take a cute little video of them in their boats. For daddy in London. 

Monday 4 June 2018

The wild side

Do you ever have those days, those days where you are busy shooting monkeys out of your papaya tree with a super soaker and when you try to get a better angle to hit the motherf*ckers, you almost step on a large monitor lizard with your bare feet? And that later that night, as you arrive home after a party, there is a four-meter python on your driveway and the taxi uncle mutters under his breath: ‘Why on earth do you live here?’

No, you don’t have those days? Well, this was just my Saturday. A lot of people ask me what it is like living in one of Singapore’s (in)famous ‘Black and White’ colonial houses. The only real answer to that: it is a unique experience!

If you are into old rickety houses with oodles of charm and nooks and crannies to lose your children in during the too long summer holidays that international schools offer in exchange for extortionate school fees, these houses are for you. And if you like a bit of history thrown into the mix - even better. Especially if you don’t mind that history bloody, with a genuine WWII battle in your garden, a POW camp in your very bedroom and the accompanying ghosts roaming your lofty verandas. Go for it.

But if you like your real estate polished, smooth, your roof leakage-free and your bathrooms clear of mould – think again. And of course, you need to have a certain tolerance for the wilder aspects of tropical living. Up in the sky on the twenty-seventh floor of a concrete condo you can be fooled into believing the opposite, but us ground-floor and garden dwellers know better: Singapore has a wild side.

And that is what I love most about our Adam Park house: the immense garden. That place where our kids can build huts, where we host marshmallow roasting campfires, where I scoop the leaves out of our very own pool three times a day. Where the kids play football, badminton, tag, hide and seek and swing on our jungle swings. Where we breed tadpoles and butterflies, keep chicken, plant flowers, herbs and vegetables. Where guests comment that they don’t need to leave the house, that staying with us is resort experience enough. That is, those guests that don’t mind sharing their bathroom with our resident toad. At Adam Park, we are never allowed to forget whom we share this lovely green space with.

The second thing people ask when we talk about our house is usually: ‘But what about the snakes?’

For some reason I have the reputation of that tough gal, that head horror that fearlessly leads the way in jungle hashes through the wildest terrains, the one that scoops up snakes from her daughter’s bed (who was at school, thankfully) with a broom and dustpan, and throws them over the fence without flinching. Admittedly, I do those things, but what people don’t see is that even tough that was a perfectly harmless bronzeback tree snake, my heartbeat went through the roof. So it is time to admit here, once and for all: I am terrified of snakes!

I am afraid of the black spitting cobra I saw slithering though the front yard from the window, the extremely poisonous malay coral snake that bit my cycling husband in the rear tire. Even the harmless wolf house snake, kukri snake and the beautiful colours of the tree snakes make me nervous. I have become proficient in identifying local snakes, thanks to the internet and the SG snakes app but still, I remain restless. A child bitten by a cobra can die in hours. 

(as I am typing this on our patio, a two-feet monitor lizard is sneaking up at me. It is still around five meters away, but bloody hell, that face with its forked tongue is just too much like a snake for its own good!)

Anyway, this Saturday night, I did not sleep so well. I kept imagining all four meters of that python coiled around our cat Mitzi. Or seeing its long, chequered body with several chicken-sized-bumps in the middle. When I woke up late, hung-over and restless, I was relieved to see all my children sitting on the sofa reading comics quietly, Mitzi snuggled up cosily between them. It took several minutes for me to work up the courage to go outside to let out the chicken from their supposedly snake-proof coop. Supposedly, as the hugest python can squeeze itself through the tiniest gap and that coop is as rickety as our house. Our chicken run is the most efficient python trap, as any python with a chicken inside his belly is too lazy and fat to get out again. We have ‘caught’ four already, and yes, I have ACRES on speed dial. Thankfully, all the chicken were safe. That is, for now.

Despite the snakes, the lizards, the monkeys, the omnipresent ants, the ear-numbing noise of cicadas and last but certainly not least the terrifying risk of falling trees, I would not want to live anywhere else. 

Every day here is an adventure!

Monday 19 February 2018

Auntie's tempeh

After a visit to Indonesia Indah once bought back the most amazing dish I ever tasted: Tempeh Goreng, or crispy fried tempeh, prepared by her Auntie. I had eaten tempeh before, but the one you can buy in Europe, vacuum wrapped, has nothing on the fresh one you buy here at the wet market. Also, I never really knew how to prepare it properly. Of course Indah was up to the challenge of replicating (or should I say improving?) the recipe of her Auntie.

Tempeh is a fermented soy bean product, which is more coarse then tofu; you can still see and taste the texture of the individual beans. If you have the proper starter, you can make it yourself relatively easily, but in Singapore it is not hard to get at wet markets or even supermarkets like NTUC Fair Price and Giant. The fresh ones are the ones rolled in green large leaves, and you need to feel & squeeze the packages to judge their ‘ripeness'. If they are not ready, the individual beans have not merged together, and you need to give it another day or so to ferment. Good tempeh should be a solid, white block. Once it turns black, it has gone too far. If in doubt, ask the seller for advice. 

Before you fry it, cut the tempeh in slices or just under a centimetre thick. Heat a couple of centimetres oil in a wok, and fry the tempeh until it is crispy and golden brown. For large amount it is best do this in several portions to ensure crispiness. Set aside the fried tempeh while you prepare the rempah - spice mixture. 

The quantities of these spices is indicative, this will be enough for 4-6 people. But Indah and I prefer to err on the side of too much when in doubt. You can play around with the amount and types of spices used based on your on taste and availability. 

· 5 shallots

· 2 cloves of garlic

· 2-6 chilis (use some large ones for colour and flavour, and as many of the small yet hot chili padi as you dare)

· 2 cm fresh galangal (lenguas / blue ginger) root

· 5 kaffir lime leaves (jeruk perut)

· 2 salam leaves (Asian bay leaves, we grow them in the garden but you can omit) 

· several tablespoons dark of palm sugar (gula malaka) chopped finely (add more or less depending on how sweet you like it)

· several tablespoons of tamarind paste (assam), dissolved in half a cup of warm water, seeds removed. 

Chop the onion, chili and galangal fine. Remove excess oil from the wok, and fry them in the wok in shallow, hot oil for a few minutes. Add the kaffir lime and salam leaves, and half a cup of water. Add the tamarind and palm sugar and stir. Let it cook for a few minutes. 

Add the fried tempeh, and stir well until all the flavour has been absorbed and the dish is nice and hot. 

Serve with rice and vegetables (like kangkong or stir fried long beans). For a more fancy vegetarian feast, add sambal eggs. I always like to make large quantities- this dish keeps well and is also delicious cold the next day.