Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Eating worms for charity

My ‘modern’ life is safe, clean and comfortable. It is also hectic, more connected to devices than nature – and leaves a disproportionately large ecological footprint. Living in Bali I am starting to realise this more and more, as I witness how people live in the villages surrounding us. The Balinese lifestyle puts a bigger emphasis on spiritual wellbeing than on economical growth. Work is easily abandoned for yet another ceremony – to the despair of many expats. To be fair, at times that includes me, but at the same time I am glad to see there are still people in this world that don’t think everything is about money. That is not to say there are no challenges here – that many Balinese don’t also want that new handphone or a faster scooter. But life does seem to flow at a different pace, and there is a lot to learn for bule like us. 

As fascinating as the Balinese culture is, I have an old dream: to dip my toes in even deeper mud than that of the Balinese sawahs. Triggered by memories from my childhood in Malaysian Borneo, I have always been fascinated by tribes living in the deep jungle, trying as much as they can to live in and off the forest. This dream, however, is not that easy to fulfil when you have young children – one doesn’t just bugger off and say ‘bye guys, mummy is of on her own to stay with some headhunters for a few weeks…’ 

So when I heard of the upcoming expedition organised by Women on a Mission, I knew this was my chance. With a group of twelve women I’m going on a ten-day trek to stay with an indigenous tribe in the Indonesian jungle. The twelve women joining are Singaporean or (former) expats in Singapore. Twelve privileged women, used to comfortable hotels, clean sheets and air-conditioning – trekking through dense jungle, sleeping in makeshift shelters full of creepy crawlies, bathing in rivers, eating sago worms; it has to be an unforgettable experience!

The original plan was to visit the Korowai tribe in West Papua – the most Eastern part of Indonesia that harbours the largest stretch of unspoilt rainforest in the region and ranks very high on my bucket list, not only for the amazing nature, but also the fascinating yet tragic Papuan people. The political situation in West Papua has been unstable for a long time. The Papuans are fighting for independence from Indonesia, and violence has escalated recently after racist incidents on Java. It would be irresponsible to travel to the region at this time. The Papuan struggle for peace is far from over, nor is my dream to visit them, and I hope both can be accomplished in the future.

Thankfully, Indonesia is huge, and WOAM managed to find another tribe that will welcome us. We will stay with the Sakuddei, one of the tribes that live on Pulau Siberut - the largest of the Mentawai - a group of islands west of Sumatra. Almost half of the island is a national park, covered in dense jungle. The tribes eat what the jungle provides, sago, fish and shrimp from the rivers, wild boar and the famous sago worms I’m particularly looking forward to! 

The Indonesian government ‘encourages’ indigenous tribes like these to assimilate, leave their homes in the jungle and re-settle in villages on the coast. Their habitat of primary forest is cut down for timber, or redeveloped for palm oil. I am keen to learn how the Sakkudei manage to preserve their tribal identity in the modern world. In preparation for the trip, I have been in touch with Suku Mentawai, a local NGO whose mission is to improve the health, well-being and livelihood of the Mentawai community by supporting indigenous culture and teaching its wisdom to the younger generation. They have agreed to meet when we are there, to discuss in what ways we can support this important cause.

The wisdom Suku Mentawai teaches young people on Siberut is old. Whilst life in new resettlement villages is often one of poverty, as there are few jobs there, tribal forest lifestyles are infinitely rich; developed over centuries to be in tune with their surroundings. The Mentawai traditionally live in uma, communities where everything is focused on balance: with each other and nature. Central to their beliefs is that everything has a soul, plants, objects and animals as well as people – and these souls need to be in a good relationship with each other. Every community has a kerei – or shaman - who can communicate with souls and the spirits of ancestors.  These shamans also have a wealth of knowledge of magical medical plants from the jungle.

Shamans, astonishing nature, eating worms; there is a lot to look forward to on this trip. The other thing the rainforest surrounding the Sukkadei is famous for is mud. Knee and thigh deep mud that we will have to hike through for hours – because the best things in life don’t come easy. What there won’t be is Wi-Fi, or even a mobile network – which will provide us with a much needed digital detox. And the upside is that not many tourists venture out there, so we will have all the privacy we crave. Aside from these physical and mental challenges I hope there will be much to learn in the forest, particularly about living together on this planet, in harmony with each other and nature. 

About Women on a Mission

Women on a Mission (WOAM) is a non-profit organisation, headquartered in Singapore, which aims to raise awareness and funds for women’s rights and empowerment, partnering with existing non-profit institutions that serve the underprivileged, with a particular focus on women's issues. Every year they organise challenging expeditions - self-funded by each participant - to raise money for the chosen charities. This will be WOAM’s 10thexpedition and they have raised over SDG 1 million to date for their chosen charities. The upcoming expedition’s objective is to raise $100,000 SGD for Women for Women International – UK, a charity which provides women survivors of war and conflict with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. 

So whilst the participants of the trek are roughing it in the jungle, with their blisters, belly bugs and jungle meals, they ask their friends to sponsor them. Not for them - they themselves are lucky to go on this amazing adventure. But because there are many women in the world who have been through terrible events, and they need our help. 

Please consider supporting me to reach our target, donations made through the page below go directly to Women for Women UK 

Photos courtesy of Rob Henry of the Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF), partner of Suku Mentawai 

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Pesky pest or yummy treat?

Can you guess what local delicacy this is? Read on and you will be rewarded... 

In Bali we are surrounded by sawah – rice paddies. So what better way is there to get ourselves acquainted with Balinese life than to learn how to farm rice?

For the past weeks Roel and I have been immersing ourselves in mud - learning from local farmers how they work, the issues they face these days, and see how they have been switching back to traditional chemical free farming methods. As soon as I feel less of a newbie on all matters rice, I will definitely be sharing more of that, but or now, here is a little appetiser to get you hooked on farming life in Bali. Yesterday we took revenge against one pesky pest we encountered: snails. 

After we spent weeks preparing the mud; ploughing, hoeing, stamping, fertilising, seeding, it was finally time to plant our tiny padi plants in the neat rows our farmers had drawn for us in the mud. With about ten bule it took us a couple of hours, and when we sludged out proudly, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed to hear that a Balinese farmer can do this in an hour. Alone. 


Later, when we came back to inspect our work, we saw how pesticide free farming presents challenges: a horde of hungry molluscs had been feasting on our babies. One of the fields particularly saw more than half of the padi devoured by snails - thankfully not the one we had been working on. As we don’t use chemicals, we started googling, asking around for natural remedies to scare the snails away; ideas from beer-filled traps to crushed eggshells and human hair were tossed around. But the Balinese farmers had a better idea: let’s have a barbecue!

As Green School parents we all know that to preserve our planet we need to eat less meat; the production of beef, lamb and pork greatly contributes to climate change, deforestation - and of course there is animal welfare to consider. So I can say that I personally rejoiced at the idea of eating some sustainably sourced, free range protein. Guiltless meat! Bring on the snails.

 We roamed the field and surroundings to collect as many of the buggers as we could and collected them in a large bucket. And as I am sure by now you are all very hungry from reading this story: here is the recipe for grilled Balinese rice field snail! Even my children agree: they are enak! Delicious. 

1. Rinse the snails and bring them to boil in a pot of water with a generous handful of salt. Boil for 10-15 minutes until scum starts floating to the top.

2. The scum is what you don’t want, so rinse this off. Then use a satay stick take out the flesh: only the first fleshy bit is good to eat. The black part deeper in the shell contains the gut. 

3. Rinse the snails again, first with salty water, then with fresh water until no more mud comes out. Then string them onto bamboo satay skewers. You can grill the on a coal fire, but a gas grill works well too. Dip and coat the snails in some kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) and grill until fragrant.

4. Serve with pecel, Indonesian peanut sauce and sambal (mashed chili). Ready made peanut sauce can be bought in supermarkets here, in varying degrees of spiciness. They are very easy to cook – just add hot water! They are great with any kind of satay, as well as vegetables, I always have some ready in storage for a quick lazy meal. 

Monday, 2 September 2019

That thing with Bali dogs

When people talk about the ways of Bali – which are supposedly both mystical and mysterious, I’m always sceptical. A very down-to-earth Dutch person doesn’t believe in such things, obviously. But Bali didn’t need long to prove me wrong. 

Roel and I have had a long-standing argument about pets, which basically boiled down to the fact that he wanted a dog and I didn’t. But now he was gallant enough to accompany me to the island of my dreams. 
So when someone posted a cute doggy on my Facebook wall, that happened to be staying in a kennel on the East Coast, conveniently located mere miles from where we were spending our holiday – it made sense even to me. Lara, a cute little Bali rescue dog joined our family. She was about one year old, raised and leash-trained by a Dutch dog rescuer. Lara has a sweet temperament that started to make me rethink my stand on dogs. 

One had better like dogs when visiting Bali. Because the main thing with Bali dogs is: they are everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. It is hard to walk more than a few meters without stumbling over one of the mongrels that live on Bali’s streets. Although they look like street dogs, the majority actually has an owner. Unfortunately, some of these owners have a different mentality towards pets from what most of us westerners are used to. Lucky for the dogs, an army of dog lovers are ready to sweep to the rescue of the mangy, the underfed, the scabies sufferers. They feed, medicate, sterilise and educate, important work that will hopefully help establish a healthy, happy population one day. 

They also swamp my social media daily with pictures of cute puppies in search of a ‘forever home.’ But I was resolute – I’m done with sleepless nights, potty training and needy infants. No matter how hard the girls begged, we would not get a puppy.

But then, one unlucky day, Bali strikes again. As we drive off from the Pantai Munggu carpark, where we tried to coerce Lara to like walks on the beach, we feel a bump. Roel looks up from the wheel and a queasy feeling comes up in my stomach. We pull over and we rush out of the car. Long story short – we hit a dog.

Not only had we hit a dog, it turns out we had hit it right in front of one of Bali’s dog rescuers – which are only slightly less ubiquitous than dogs here. She had just had this little stray vaccinated. Of course we immediately offered to pay for any veterinary costs.

It turned out the dog had broken both hips and needed surgery - expensive surgery. Since we live in a country where some people cannot even afford medical care for their children, we found ourselves in a moral dilemma. Was it justified to spend this amount on a stray dog? On the other hand, not only had we promised to pay, we felt responsible for the poor creature - after all we did drive over it. I think you can now all see that there is only one way this story can end? 

There is no way we could put a dog back on the streets after spending so much on medical bills. Little Munggu, estimated to be about six months old, is a cute black puppy with the saddest eyes ever. Having adopted me as her new mother, she follows me around everywhere like the puppy she is with her slow limp. In the end, it didn’t matter whether I wanted dogs or not. The dogs got me. 

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Goodbye bacon, hello tofu

We knew we were in for some surprises in Bali; after all, we moved from metropolis Singapore to a small rural community in Indonesia. Tumbak Bayuh is a village on the west coast of Bali, about ten minutes from the sea and the hustle and bustle of touristy Canggu. It is a different world. 

We are surrounded by fields. When we walk the dog, we have to be mindful of the cows that graze in between the sawah. Chicken run amok everywhere. Friendly farmers wave at us as we plod along the narrow ridges between the mud. Last week we ran in to Pak Candra, our security guard at night, working his day job tending to a field of beans. He immediately pressed an armful of long beans on us, as well as a pile of tiny cucumbers. Dinner sorted. 

It is obvious people here, in a farming community, are much more in tune with nature. But farming life can be harsh, for people and animals alike. Many Balinese families keep a few pigs at the back of their house. Exploring the back alleys we pass the friendly, noisy giants in their small concrete pens. A few days ago the kids came home from school upset. On the way they had witnessed the rather uncomfortable transport of a large pig on a truck – I think we can all guess its destination. I won’t share details, but it suffices to say that they decided to become vegetarian on the spot. I explained that they had been eating pork for years, and that in other countries animals raised for meat are not treated particularly nice either. But we, the consumers, don’t get to see that. The animals and their torture are effectively hidden. The Netherlands for instance, is a huge pork producer, yet I have never seen a pig outside a petting zoo there. 

As we eat little meat in our family anyway, Roel and I decided on solidarity – we would all not eat any meat for a month. Better for the animals as well as the world, since meat production is a mayor contributor to climate change. Jasmijn stated that if she hadn’t died by then, she might consider doing it long term. Linde was fine as long as she didn’t have to become vegan and stop eating cheese. Tijm, our resident carnivore, will struggle the most. Roel is already considering cheating (he got invited by a friend to eat babi guling, suckling pig, shht, don’t tell the kids) As I rarely eat meat I was full of encouragement, until I found out they intended to exclude seafood too. To show that they meant it, they made up a contract, signed it, and put it up on the fridge. 

Thankfully the Green School lunches are all vegetarian, and we have plenty of meat-free recipes up our sleeves, like Indah’s tempeh, sambal eggs, and our children’s favourite: crispy tofu. This is the dish that you can serve to any visiting child that claims not to like tofu. Trust me, I tried it with the pickiest of playdates! I have promised friends many times to share the recipe, so finally, here it is! And, without Indah to cook us for us, it is all hands on deck and Linde helped in the preparation. 

Crispy tofu

extra firm tofu
2 eggs
light soy sauce
fresh lime or lemon juice
pepper & salt

You need a firm, dry tofu to make this successfully. In Singapore we used Tau Kwa, which is perfect, but in Indonesia and Europe the tofu is often more wet, so make sure to drain it well. If necessary, squeeze out excess water. Cut it in bite-sized rectangles, roughly the size of chicken nuggets. Marinate the pieces in about two tablespoons of soy sauce and one of lemon juice for a little while. Season with salt and pepper.

Crush the cornflakes - we use a mortar and pestle but you can also crush them with a roller pin - until they have the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. 

Now, make an assembly line: one bowl with about half a cup of corn starch, one bowl of beaten eggs, one with the cornflake crumble. Toss & turn each cube of tofu in the corn-starch, egg and cornflakes consecutively. Make sure they are coated all around. 

Heat a generous layer of oil in a low frying pan or wok. When it is very hot, toss in the coated tofu pieces. They need to be fried in a single layer, so it will take a couple of round. Fry them on both sides until brown and crispy, it only takes a few minutes.

We all enjoy them with our favourite sauces, the kids like tomato ketchup and mayonaise whilst the adults prefer sweet Thai chili or sriracha.

* the gorgeous pig photographs are courtesy of fellow Green School parent Ted!

Monday, 12 August 2019

Greener in Bali

The grass is always greener elsewhere, and as a nomad, I evidently got itchy feet after seven years in Singapore – a personal record of living in one place. But one can’t just pack up and leave, you in fact need to go somewhere, which raised the difficult question: where should we go? That exact question has been buzzing around our household for years.

Often a next move for expats is dictated by work, but if there is no such push, just a general pull and a sense of adventure – the world is your oyster. That sounds like the ultimate luxury, but it also makes things ultimately complicated. Drowning in a sea of too much choice, too many factors – good education for the kids, a pleasant climate, liveable surroundings, a good culture for raising kids, and exciting prospects for work, we felt stuck. We were tired from the high pace of city-state Singapore. We needed a break; time to spend together as a family before the kids were too old to want to spend it with us.

The question I have been asked uncountable times the last few months is: why Bali? I always want to answer; why not Bali? After debating for years what our next move would be we eventually decided on an impulse, after seeing a Facebook post on one of the green attractions of this green island: a Green School. Combined with my own fascination for all things Indonesian, Roel’s wish for a fun place to spend his upcoming sabbatical overthinking his next steps, it seemed perfect.

So here we are. In Bali. In our new house overlooking rice fields, with our new Bali rescue dog, discovering new things, learning a new language. Away from the safety and comfort that was Singapore. And we are starting to figure things out. The Bali traffic no longer defies us, as we find order in the chaos and the politeness of the Balinese (if you get cut off on your scooter you can bet it’s a fat white Bule on that bike). We are starting to find out where to get our groceries (and sorry Linde, we do really need to cut down on cheese, who would have believed there is a country in the world where cheese is more expensive than Singapore?)

The kids are starting to settle in in the new school, and I can say one thing: things are definitely greener there! This is the school where all new parents (including me) sigh: I wish I was a kid again so I can go to school here… The classrooms are made of bamboo and have no walls. They are situated in lush gardens. There are rabbits and chicken, and cats wandering about for Linde and Jasmijn to cuddle. Tijm has started Middle School where he can select exciting elective subjects like surfing and free diving. The focus is on sustainability, the school wants to educate the green leaders of tomorrow. At the same time they are innovative educators, the guiding principle is that school should in fact be fun, as kids learn way more when they can follow their passions and enjoy themselves. We hope that they will manage to challenge our boy with a passion for maths as well as sports.

And, there is plenty for the parents too. Roel and I enrolled in a course where we will work alongside the Balinese to learn about the rice cycle, establishing ties with local farmers and develop a shared vision for expanding organic rice supply. I can’t wait to get my feet in that mud! Roel’s other goal this year is learning to surf whilst I am looking forward to many mornings like this one, where I sit on my patio alternating writing and gazing at our amazing view. I am starting to believe this was a good move.

And then of course there is always the follow up question that still defies me: how long do you plan to stay? There is only one answer to that: I have no idea. 

(Okay, some photos, because I know you all want me to poke your eyes out with the gorgeousness of our new surroundings. And yes the guest room is ready... )

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

This snail moves on

I like to call myself to a nomad – a Bedouin. But there is something that distinguishes me from a genuine nomad: they tend to travel light through life. And I carry a lot – a lot - of stuff.

When people ask me where home is, I simply point around me. Any place can be my home, as long as my husband and children are there and - my stuff. That is why I sometimes call myself a snail, not because I am slow (admittedly I’m not the fastest runner, that’s a different story) but because I carry my home with me wherever I go. And it’s a full home.

My children take after me. Since they were very young, every time we travel and arrive in a new hotel, sometimes for just one night, they start nesting. They divvy up the beds, arrange their stuffed animals, notebooks, pyjamas and other items on it and voila; they feel at home. They often refer to hotels or guesthouses we stay in as home too.

The thing is, I can get ridiculously, sentimentally, attached to objects. I still remember some items I lost years ago, and genuinely miss them at times. The little blue vase with flowers that was a wedding present and that the cat smashed. The yellow glass lamp my parents bought for us in France, one that careless builders broke. The necklace my late grandmother left me and got stolen in the US when I was a teenager.

One of the reasons that could cause my attachment is that I rarely simply buy something. Years ago I needed a new teapot, and spent hours online, browsing vintage websites to find the perfect one. At some point my husband looked over my shoulder and dryly commented: ‘Normal people just go to a shop and buy a teapot….’

So when we move house or country, which is on average every few years, I pack up all this stuff and ship it to the next location; even if it is across the world. But our upcoming move to Bali proved a painful one. It soon became clear why most houses there are rented out furnished: Indonesia is a country where nothing is easy. At the same time, storing furniture in Singapore proved more expensive than renting a house in Bali.

When I asked for advise on an online group, the first comment came in quick: “sell everything, you will feel so happy and light after.” A big ‘no’ groaned up from my stomach. Never would I sell my collection of vintage enamel trays! The antiques we collected over the years! My Omani silver! Or our gazillions of books!

Thankfully, where there is a will there is a way; eventually. We will ship as much small items as we can manage to Bali, and store the bulk of the furniture in Europe (yes, you hear correctly, on the other side of the world. In fact, have a container with our furniture sitting on a boat, going round and round, would still be cheaper than storing in Singapore. But that seemed too insane, even for me.)

Our plan leaves me with one big thing to do in the coming month before we leave: get rid of as much as I can. Sell, give away, dump. Some items, like hideous IKEA wardrobes, or the sagging sofa, I’m happy to see the back of. Others, like our colourful outdoor dining table, I’m sorry to lose, but I can comfort myself with the thought that similar – better – ones can be bought cheaply in Bali.

Now I just hope one thing: that shipping the stuff I’m sure to amass there will be much easier to ship out. To wherever, whenever we will go after.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Domestic drama

Dinner is never a quiet event at our place, although this is normally due to our children’s lack of table manners, or their refusal to sit still and well, eat. But today we have another form of entertainment: a family of wild jungle fowl. 

Mother hen struts around the grass niftily, a clutch of three babies in close pursuit. It’s close to bedtime, and mother look up at the trees, searching for a good spot to roost. She spots a fine branch, takes off and flutters steadily to a high-up branch. Her three babies look after her with trepidation. Mummy went very high! After a minute of staring, number one flies up. Its little wings can’t reach quite as high as mum, and it lands on a dead palm leaf halfway. After some quiet deliberation, number two follows suit. It ends about a meter higher that the sibling, and perches on its higher branch triumphantly. Number three now can’t stay behind, and flies up, managing to come highest of all. But none of them is as high as mummy, and slowly they flap their way further up.

Suddenly, there is a rustle in the bushes and a fierce rooster appears. He flies up determinedly to where his wife is sitting, and a ruckus erupts, with leaves shaking and chicken shrieking. The flustered hen soon jumps down from the tree again and lands in the grass with a thump. The babies look down from there spots at different height, confused how to proceed. 

Dad comes down too, in hot pursuit of mother. He runs after her with his tail up high, and his wings slightly spread. Mother is in no mood for this, and runs off, her wings open too, her legs bent and her neck low. For a minute they chase each other in and out the bushes whilst their offspring looks down, showing their dismay with louder and louder discerning cheeps.

The first one decides to take action, and dives down from the tree. At this point, cat Snowy, who like us has been observing the scene from a distance, decides to get in on the action. Slowly she prowls towards the baby, prompting Linde to panic and rush over to save the baby. The chick decides to scramble, quickly clambers up the bushes, until it is safely out of reach. Linde too decides to cut her losses; barefooted as she is, she doesn’t dare follow into the wet bushes, where Snowy stares up longingly to the little fluffy snack.

The other two babies, still sitting up high, still cheeping noisily, now decide to come down too. Soon all three of them run around the grass, looking for mummy, who is still being chased around the bushes by dad.

Mother finishes off the kerfuffle with a big peck into dad’s tail. He settles down, slowing to a strolling pace, as if he never did anything more exciting this evening than a turn around the garden.

Snowy sticks her nose out from under the bushes, spying the three chicks in the middle of the grass. She attempts to stalk, but has counted out dad, who swiftly runs past her, scaring the little cat back to our table for a tumble with sister Pepper.

The family, reunited, leisurely strolls off to the other side of the garden, the three babies running their little feet off to keep up with their parents.

We sit and watch and enjoy. Who needs a television when you have a garden?

The story of the suitcase

Yesterday the suitcase went home, after spending forty years in a dusty attic. A few years ago we found it there when we lifted the trap door to get rid of the rats. For something sitting in a tropical attic amongst rats, civet cats, termites and who-knows-what-else it was in a remarkable good shape. 

There was still a label attached from a boat journey, Durban to the Portsmouth, in 1976 - coincidentally the year I was born. Curious about who lived in our house that long ago - yes I'm that old - we tried to find out who the owners of the suitcase could have been. But we had no luck, our search yielded nothing. Still, we could not bear to throw the suitcase away, and it became a plaything for our children. 

Yesterday, when I was just about to leave the house with my visiting parents, my father spotted a lady taking photos of our house. Living in such a special, historic house, we are used to snoopers, but this woman took it to a whole new level. 

When she saw us see her looking at our house, she immediately came up to apologise politely. She explained she had lived here in the 1980s with her own young family. Sensing a story, I invited her and husband, waiting her patiently in a taxi, inside to see how the house had changed. As the taxi uncle got more and more impatient, they all too soon had to move on. 

It wasn't until they were saying there goodbyes that I remembered the suitcase. I recounted how we found it, and how it was probably from a family living there before them, as it the attached label was dated sometime in the 1970s. 'Yes,' the husband responded, 'we were still in South Africa in the seventies.'
And something in my brain clicked.

Yes, the suitcase was theirs! Our lady visitor was so excited she immediately insisted on taking it home with them, home being Australia where they had settled for now.  The husband grumbled, 
we are only allowed to check in two pieces, but to no avail. That suitcase was going home! 

With a smile we waved off the couple and our suitcase - now theirs again. Reunited after 40-odd years!