Saturday, June 30, 2007

Off To New Horizons

Firstly, happy birthday to Liesbeth!
This will be my last blog for a while as tomorrow we are heading south to New Zealand! We'll be swapping 34 degrees + for chilly winter weather so it's going to be a bit of a shock for all of us.
I'll update when I can but don't hold your breath. In the meantime we will still be reachable through email, so won't be completely out of touch.

See you on the other side!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

It's For The Birds

Something which many people don’t realise is that despite being a small, densely populated and built up island, there is an amazing variety and number of birds in Singapore. According to Wikipedia, there are 400 different types of birds here including indigenous and naturalised varieties and escapees from places like the zoo and Jurong Bird Park.

We are often surprised ourselves by the birdlife we see out our windows, considering we are less than one kilometre from Orchard Road. Of course the huge gardens of the Black and White houses behind us is what attracts many of the birds, as their mature trees and grounds have remained untouched more or less since they were built about 80 years ago. One of my favourites is the Black Naped Oriole (first picture), which is bright yellow with black markings and has a very distinctive, musical call.

Another popular favourite, especially with the boys is the white egret. For some reason we often see these seemingly living a risky life picking in the grass looking for bugs in median strips on the highways or on traffic islands!

Other colourful visitors are green parakeets which seem to nest in large family groups, and their bright plumage supplements the more common families of sparrows, thrush, blackbirds, swallows, finches and other song birds we don’t know the names of.
Occasionally we also see one of the big birds of prey prowling its territory here. There seems to be a resident bird of prey – it may be a black kite – (second picutre) which often lands on the neighbours lawns and stalks with a very impressive gait along the hedge line, now and again stabbing its hooked beak into the undergrowth to grab prey, probably lizards and beetles. When it’s done it roosts on the roof of the house for a while before flying off.
The family living in the house owns two Labrador dogs and at least two cats, all of which keep a healthy and respectful distance from this rather fierce looking visitor.

Occasionally I also spot what I suspect is a huge Red Backed Sea Eagle floating over, his white belly shining in the sun (picture 3). These birds are mostly scavengers but I haven’t seen this one land; he or she sails over on an updraft at high attitude, presumably looking for food. It's wing span is certainly impressive and it's so great to be floating on your back in the pool gazing at the deep blue above and have one of these huge predators slowly glide into view.

A couple of years ago our neighbour at level 2 even spotted a crested hornbill out the window one day! This is a very unusual looking bird, so she promptly range the local bird park to enquire if they had lost one. However apparently this is another native bird although it is only spotted wild about 4 or 5 times per year. Imagine seeing one here so close to the inner city! I’ve included a photo of a hornbill below but I don’t know if this is the same variety as was spotted here.

Anybody planning to visit Singapore should definitely schedule in a trip to the Jurong Bird Park which is one of the islands best attractions. Check out for information and pictures.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Misty Mornings

Although I have to admit that I’m not really a morning person – until the first coffee has hit my stomach I’m fairly dysfunctional – I do love the mornings. It’s usually the best time of day, full of possibilities still to be worked out.
When I was a student I worked at thoroughbred studs every vacation to earn extra money. We would be at the stables by 5 am to put the yearlings out into the paddocks in groups of 5 or 6. The Waikato area where we lived in New Zealand is a green and fertile basin, with a relatively high humidity which often caused morning mists which lay heavily in the fields until the sun rose high enough to burn them off. I still often think back to how the sun would slowly seep like a big orange ball over the horizon, lighting up the waist-deep layer of ground mist which swirled and eddied as we walked our still sleepy horses to the fields. Apart from a bright chorus of birdsong the only sound was the soft tread of hooves on the dusty track and the occasional snort or jingle of a bit as a colt shook the sleep from his head. Once we let the horses go we would lean on the gate and watch them, the sunlight now just bright enough to light sparks in their manes as they started to move through the grass. Long legs still obscured, curling eddies rose from the mist as they seemed to float on a white cushion of cloud, moving soundlessly at first through the thick damp grass. First the horses would walk away tossing and shaking their heads until one snorted a challenge and the group would start to trot, gaining speed until they were in a full canter by the time they reached the far side of the field, only dimly visible in the half light. With a thunder of hooves they would race each other around the paddock, kicking up their heels and tossing their heads, long swirls in the mist sweeping out behind them as they thundered past then disappeared into the half light once more. It was a magical moment and one which we never tired of watching.

Once I moved to Holland to take up a holiday job as an au pair for horses in the village of Vorden it was back to early morning starts, at least in the summer months. I would get up when it was still dark to saddle the big bay cob I rode, Daffyd. I rode out with a white pony on a lead rope alongside. As we headed into the forest the sun would be just coming up, a deep red stripe appearing over the trees while a crisp moon still hung overhead. It’s really the best time of day to ride: the flies don’t start biting until later, the air is still cool and the only company I hd in the woods were the foxes, squirrels and birds.

These days we don’t have any horses around us – you need to visit the zoo to see them in Singapore – but mornings are still a special moment. It’s often quite hazy here when the sun comes up due to the high humidity and very still air. There is a chorus of birds – musical orioles, screeching green parrots and all sorts of chirping song birds – and the incessant whistle of cicadas. Before the heat rises too much (it will be 34 C today) I like to come down to the pool side and write my blog. I’ve included some photos of a misty morning a few days ago, taken looking out our lounge window at the historic ‘Black & White’ houses behind us.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Singapore's Chinese & Japanese Gardens

This weekend we were looking for something to do with the kids to burn off their energy when we hit on the idea of going to the Chinese and Japanese Gardens. One of the great advantages (for us) of moving to Singapore is that we get to do so many things as a family.

Previously hubby commuted five hours per day and was wiped out at the end of the week from getting up at 5.15 am and not returning until 7.30-8 pm every night. Here however, although he returns home in the evenings at about 7.30 pm, he gets to hang around for breakfast and puts the kids on the school bus each morning. And despite working on Saturday until about 1.30pm, he is not worn out by travelling. His half hour commute is considered very long by the locals but it’s not a problem for him, plus he has a nice drive along tree-lined roads - parts of which are bordering on jungle – and instead of grumpy commuters packed into trains gets to see monkeys sitting on the roadside each day.

Another advantage is that we are living on a very small island – just 700 square km – which is jam-packed with things to do. The government’s family-friendly policies ensure that there are plenty of free or cheap attractions and they really make the most of the limited open space available.
Anyway, I packed a quick picnic lunch, we filled our water bottles and we headed off to the Gardens.
These are, as the name suggests, two large ornate gardens/parks side by side, one Chinese and the other – you guessed it – Japanese. Covering 13 hectares, they are surrounded by a man-made lake and connected by ornate bridges. Holger visited here with his Dad years ago so it was a bit of a sentimental journey for him.
The gardens are lovely, each dominated by a tall pagoda with a spiral staircase of exactly the right dimensions to wear out small children! It was really hot on Sunday – the sort of humid heat so intense that even your eyeballs sweat – and we were all dripping perspiration by the time we reached the top. (Having complained about the cold in Holland for the past 11 years I never, ever complain about the heat here, at least not within hubby’s hearing range. Whenever he mentions how hot it is, I say “it could be worse – it could be snowing”).

Of course if you are under seven years old the only logical thing to do once you reach the top of a tower is to run straight down again, so we then explored the bonsai and statue gardens. There is a live turtle museum with dozens of different types, including a rather bizarre two-headed six-legged one called Double Happiness which apparently is one of the few in the world to have survived. At least it’s never lonely I guess.
Finally there was a pond filled with thousands of koi carp. For a dollar you could buy packets of food to feed them and create the most incredible feeding frenzy you’ve ever seen. A massive churning ball of flapping splashing fish would appear wherever the food landed. Even Carl was impressed, for once speechless for a few seconds are he’d chucked the first handful of food in. (Being a McIntyre male Carl is doomed to be an endless chatterer, as anyone who has met my Dad will know! Recently Dad’s niece got married in Australia and one of the speeches referred to how it was widely known that her father (my uncle) could even speak underwater!)

Finally, having finished our food and drained our drinks it was time to get our pink sweaty faces back in the car and head home. Half an hour after leaving the Gardens a hush fell over Balmoral Crescent once more as we all slept off our exertions. Another successful Sunday outing.

He Did It!!!

He did it!!!

That was the text message I sent to Holger this afternoon after Niels had returned triumphant from his Swimming Diploma test (Zwemdiploma A). Finally, after months of lessons, endless moaning and groaning about how he didn’t want to go any more, umpteen occasions when we’ve been half way to the location only to have the lesson cancelled due to thunderstorms....finally, it’s over.

We made what I suspect is a common mistake and enrolled Niels in swimming lessons back in Holland far, far too early. The swimming pool Gestapo in Lochem would have everybody believe that your child has to start lessons at four years old. So there was Niels, a kid who loves swimming and is very confident and able in the water, stuck on the side of the pool with 15 other kids, some who were even afraid to stand in the knee-deep water, let alone swim. Months of shivering on the sidelines had well and truly wrecked his motivation by the time we moved here.
Fortunately we chanced upon a very good teacher and Niels only shared his 40 minute lesson with one other child most of the time. The lessons were held at a nearby condo which has a gorgeous huge pool, plus big paddling pool where I could entertain Carl every week. Even so, we are all pretty bored with it by now so hip hip hooray for Niels for getting his certificate!

He was convinced that getting your swimming diploma actually meant you got a gold cup, so I arranged that for him too, because he deserves it.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Hairy Fruit and Gorgeous Prawns

I feel like I’ve restrained myself for ages so it’s time to move back to one of my favourite topics…food! This morning on returning from the Tiong Bahru wet market I thought to myself once again that it’s great to live in a place where there is such an incredible range of fresh food available. I go to the market every week to buy fruit, vegetables, chicken and fish, and occasionally pick up some pork or flowers as well. I keep meaning to take my camera and get some shots of this bustling Chinese market to show you what it’s like but haven’t got around to it yet.
Basically Tiong Bahru is a large triangular marketplace. All around the outside are tiny shops selling a myriad of little things. Women’s clothing (in tiny Asian sizes I couldn’t even fit one leg into), similarly petite shoes, cheap handbags, pyjamas, towels, hardware, pots and pans, live fish and plants. There are a couple of shops selling paper effigies to burn at the temples; perfect paper and cardboard miniatures ranging from tuxedos to sewing machines to sport cars, clothes, shoes and jewellery. The idea is you burn these as an offering to the Gods and you will be rewarded by receiving these items in the afterlife. There are also quite a few Chinese medicine and spice stalls, plus two tiny places selling the unique finely ground coffee powder the Chinese love so much.
Inside the market, one side of the triangle is lined with vegetable and flower stalls, another with fruit and eggs plus pork and beef down at one end; and the third is a large collection of stalls selling fresh chicken, seafood and tofu products. In the centre is opento the sky to let the sunlight pour in. Everything is incredibly fresh, kept carefully chilled on piles of ice or refrigerated shelving, and spotlessly clean. It arrives from 11pm the night before, largely from Malaysia and Indonesia, and the market is open for business from the wee hours. By midday it’s basically all over. Above is a hawkers market where for about $2.50 you can sit down to a meal of soup and noodles, rice, steamed buns, satay, Chinese pancakes, pig organ soup…any Chinese food you can imagine.
Today’s purchases included, as always, fresh prawns. I’m not afraid to admit it: prawns are my addiction. In the picture above you can see the 2 kgs (yet that’s two kilograms) I got for $7/kg. That’s 3.50 euros per kilo! Ridiculously cheap and utterly fresh and delicious, the friendly vendor is happy to chuck in some big chunks of ice to keep them cool until I get home. My favourite market day lunch is prawns thrown into a hot wok with minced garlic and ginger and sprinkled with sea salt. Toss until just cooked then tip into a big serving bowl and drizzle with fresh lime juice. MMMMMMM! Only takes about 7 minutes and utterly delicious. Carl and I can eat our way through a huge pile of these babies. Today I bought more than usual but I’ll drop a pile of them together with some chunks of snapper into a smoky seafood chowder for dinner tomorrow, plus there will be enough for lunch too. I also purchased red snapper, at about $22/kg. The fish vendors are always very cheerful and offer to fillet and remove the skin from your fish. They are always surprised I don’t want the bones, head and skin; the Chinese cook these up into all sorts of tasty dishes but frankly it’s just not my thing.
On to fruit & veg: at the back right of this photo you will see a big bowl of rambutans. If you don’t know what these are, they basically look like…well….testicles. Really. Bright red when ripe, they are covered in thick fleshy hairs on a leathery skin which you split open to pop out the balls of white fruit inside. They taste a bit similar to lychees with a touch of citrus. To the left of the rambutans is a bowl of lychees, which look like shaved testicles! There seems to be a theme here…
The bright yellow pieces on the right are the pods from inside a jack fruit, which if you see a whole one is a huge ugly green pimply fruit of irregular shape which looks like a deflated rugby ball. Far too big to eat a whole one before it goes off, you just buy a dish of segments at a time. It tastes like banana crossed with mango.
In the middle is a bunch of local (Malay) bananas, deep red/brown in colour and quite short. They are very fat – Carl can’t fit them in his mouth! – and taste incredibly sweet and creamy.
Under the bananas is a bag of ginko nuts, from the ginko tree I suppose. These have been peeled and blanched and you toss them into your stir fry for a lovely soft nutty flavour.
There are a couple of different sorts of green leafy plants, kind of like miniature bok choy or spinach. I don’t know what they are called but there are about 20 different types and I get a couple each week to toss in the wok with sweet ketchup manis soy sauce, garlic and ginger.
The long skinny green things are beans which are just like regular ones except they are about 50 cm long! You can ties them in big knots and have all sorts of fun with these crazy things. If ever you need proof that plants thrive in this hot humid climate these ‘Jack in the Beanstalk’ proportion legumes would have to be it.
So that was today’s collection of weird and wonderful things. Next time I’ll pick up a kampong (“village”) chicken complete with head and feet and gross you out!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Isn't he an angel...when he's asleep?

I just had to share with you a few photos which were taken of Carl recently.

We love this first one of him fast asleep on his bedroom floor – for some reason Carl seems to prefer falling asleep on the floor, as often as not flat on his face on the wooden floorboards just inside his room! At least on this occasion he chose his nice soft airplane mat to snooze on (see blog about the mat here:
At night when we do our last check of the kids before going to bed we'll usually have to hoist Carl up into his bed from a little warm spot on the floor. It's amazing how heavy 15 kg can seem when it's an unconcious little boy. You can see in this photo that he still curls up into the foetal position to sleep sometimes – this is how babies are positioned in the womb. Aaaaahhhhhhhh

The next one I snapped when Carl was playing with a fireman’s hat he’d made at pre-school. He was very proud of his creation and this photo shows a hint of his true character – fun loving, mischievous, and definitely planning his next naughty move! I don't know if he will really end up ever being a fireman but the volume of noise he can achieve when he is "being a siren" as he so succinctly puts it certainly puts him in the running for an honorary position.

Finally there are a couple taken at his pre-school when they had an animal day, with all sorts of baby animals for the kids to see and talk about.

Carl is now 3 years and 4 months old, and growing up so quickly. He still loves to cuddle up to me and whisper “I love your boobies” in my ear but he’s also developing quite a temper and has been known to shout “I’m not naughty, you’re the naughty one – so there!”
He'll then yell at the top of his lungs "you are you are you are you are..." repeat that about 20 more times at 90 decibels and you'll get the idea.
He has also developed a very dramatic flick of the head and sticking of his nose in the air when he doesn’t want to do something!
Last Sunday, right on queue for when hubby was home Carl picked a fight with him about staying is his room to sleep. Actually it doesn't matter what the subject is, the routine doesn't vary much. After ten minutes of doing the Good Dad routine - quietly reasoning and forcefully sitcking to his guns - Holger was being worn down by Carl's relentless screeches and series of "NO! NO! NO!" Finally after what must have felt like an eternity hubby staggered out of Carl's bedroom, pulled the door shut behind him and leaned his head back on the door. "My God" I heard him mutter to himself. I couldn't resist: with a sweet smile I said to him "welcome to my world".

The other day I was telling Carl off for doing something – probably waking us up yet again in the middle of the night. I was giving him my very sternest bad-cop routine complete with wagging finger when he suddenly put his hands on his hips, fixed me with a glare from under his crinkled brow and snarled “GGGGRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!”. I was so surprised and it was so funny I cracked up laughing, which of course was exactly the reaction he was after. With a devilish smile he said “bye Mummy!” then skipped back to bed with an obvious sense of victory.

Who could stay angry with a kid like that?

Carl at Jip & Janneke pre-school