22 December 2014

How to find medical care in Astana

We may have left Astana a few months ago but finding (and coping with visits to) a doctor were such an important part of life there.  I meant to post this some time ago but  the demands of moving caught up with me.

Medical care in Astana ranges, in typical post soviet style, from the excellent to the dreadful.  You can find treatment for just about anything but you will not necessarily receive the comfort or care that you might expect back in your home country and the bedside manner is very different.  Doctors also subscribe to a holistic view of the person so expect to be given alternative and homeopathic remedies alongside your prescription.

Medical services in Astana can be confusing, particularly for expatriates as specialists transfer between hospitals so you may go to different hospitals on different days to be seen for one particular problem. Expatriates tend to have international standard health insurance managed through a local clinic, many of these claim to speak English.  Most of these claims are fanciful at best so be prepared to translate for yourself or bring a local friend along and give up all rights to medical privacy.  The standard of English at SOS is generally decent – they provide GP services and will arrange hospital appointments where necessary and attend with you to translate.  They have helped us with ophthalmologists, dentists, radiology etc.  OB/Gynae assistance was provided but was not as smooth as other services.    

Many of the clinic services will also claim to provide 24 hour responses but again not all of them do.  About one year in to our time there our daughter came to tell me that our son could not breathe.  I went to see him (of course this would happen when my husband was away on business and in the depths of winter), his lips were turning blue and he was rasping.  I was concerned that he was suffering from epiglottis (try working out how to explain that in a foreign language at 1 am) and called our clinic (who had promised a 24 hour emergency response) to hear that they worked only 8am-8pm.  I called our head of HR who was the emergency contact but she was travelling for the weekend and her ‘phone was out of signal.  As I did not know which hospital was providing services that evening I called our insurance international hotline and had my son assessed over the telephone.  They were mostly sure that he was ok but given his age and symptoms they wanted him checked by a doctor on the scene.  They were able to co-ordinate with one of the other clinics to make an appointment at the Mother and Child hospital and I then had to drive out in the middle of the night to find them.

Our employers changed clinics the following week and we found ourselves with SOS who do provide a guaranteed 24 hour response and ambulance services, in fact in the scenario we had experienced they would have sent a GP out for a home visit to decide whether or not hospital admission was warranted – a much better system.  A few weeks later I found myself using their services as I had suddenly become very unwell and needed an operation.  They arranged for pre-op  tests in Astana and then arranged for me to fly to Germany for the operation as they were not confident that the hospital providing those particular operative services that week was safe. 

Kazakh doctors tend to overmedicate. This collection
was for a simple case of tonsillitis.  
You can find yourself being given somewhat strange remedies – a visit to the dentist resulted in me being given super strength pain killers (phenol-barbitol!) and a herbal mouthwash.  When my daughter had tonsillitis we left the surgery with antibiotics, an antiseptic spray, painkillers, probiotics and a herbal remedy.  In the UK you just get the antibiotics and then only if you really push for them.  Conversely when I came down with tonsillitis a few weeks later I was given nothing at all except for instructions to have someone scrape my tonsils with a spoon dipped in hot antiseptic (they told me that I should ask my husband as I would bite the person who did it so it might ruin a friendship).  I was expecting our third child at the time and Kazakh doctors seem to take the precautionary principal very seriously with regard to medicines and pregnancy, the exception to this being herbal remedies – I was given prescriptions for all sorts of strange concoctions that I have to say went straight in the bin! 

Top tips:

  • Make sure that your insurance registers you with a primary care clinic.  In my experience SOS provide the best service.  
  • Download an app like google translate on your phone and enable a Cyrillic keyboard.  That way if you do not speak Russian or have an interpreter you and your doctor can communicate through google.
  • Check dosage instructions, contraindications and potential negative interactions of medicines thoroughly with the Doctor.  Pharmacists will very rarely double check your prescription with you and will not happily answer questions.  Instructions on the packets will usually be in Russian or Kazakh.
  • Following on from this if you are on regular medication bring it with you when seeing the doctor.  Sometimes your home doctor will have prescribed something that is not regularly used in Kazakhstan and it is helpful for them to be able to check the medicine and its interactions with any prescription they would typically write as they may need to amend their usual practice.
  • While Dr Internet is a recipe for worry and disaster it can help to research your medical issues before you go to the doctor.  Medical paternalism is still rife in Astana and doctors will not volunteer information, particularly when there is a language barrier, you will need to be quite specific in your questions.
  • Your insurance will probably have a 24 hour medical hotline in addition to the claims people.  Don’t be afraid to call them to check any questions you have with regard to your treatment or medication.
  • Try to arrange for regular ‘well woman’ or ‘wellman’ tests to be done in your home country when you are back – it is just easier than wading through results in Russian and coping with different cultural norms of privacy.
  • If you want your child to follow the immunisation schedule of your home country arrange for a letter from your home doctor outlining the schedule and provide this to your primary care clinic to arrange necessary injections.  You may have to give this to your child’s school and make it very clear that you do not give automatic consent to the Kazakh schedule.  We were quite happy for our children to sit on the Kazakh schedule but you may not wish to interrupt a part established regime.  
  • Try not to worry – the doctors want what is best for you.  They might not explain in the same way that you are used to but if you are having a heart attack you want them to treat you not talk.  Methods of treatment may be different but at the very least they will be providing the best available care to you.  One of my husband’s colleagues had an emergency appendectomy at a local hospital and was well looked after – certainly better than having an appendix burst on a flight to Europe or Dubai. 
Click  on the picture for more posts on life in Astana.

Ersatz Expat

11 December 2014

Expat Memories

This week's post is a self indulgent memory. 

I have written before about the problems of bureaucracy that are created by expat life.  As we are sending a request for our newborn daughter’s first passport back to the UK we decided to renew our other daughter’s passport at the same time.  She has only about 8 months left to go so we may as well get it done now.  They should be processed together (or so we are told) and then we will minimise the amount of time we are without papers for the girls. 

Paddling in Lake Bohinj - Slovenia
I have been leafing through her passport and I realise it is a record of her life.  Of course, holding an EU passport means that many of her experiences are not tracked.  Her trips to Ireland to meet my father’s family or our holiday in Italy where she delighted us all with her ‘ballet’ shows.  Our four week driving holiday in Europe with our tenacious girl who at 18 months walked through Budapest with only the odd piggy back, paddled bravely in the icy cold Lake Bohinj in Slovenia and giggled away as we read George’s Marvellous Medicine to while away the motorway miles.  All of these are invisible - even her return trips to the UK to see her grandparents are tracked only in exit stamps from our host countries. 

Exploring Tuscan towns
But more experiences are documented than not.  The visas to Kazakhstan track her development from precocious 2 year old to sophisticated 5 almost 6.  Our tiny little toddler has grown into a confident child, quick to smile and laugh.  Our girl who could hardly dress herself now showers on her own and chooses her own clothes, makes her own packed snack for school and reminds her older brother to bring his sports or swimming kit on the right days.

Early days in Kazakhstan - learning to walk in the cold.
The stamps for Lebanon bring back to my mind our just three year old, meeting her Granddad, Step Grandmother and Auntie for the first time since leaving England.  I remember her expression when she saw my sister in the Airport – she ran straight to her and would not leave her side for two hours.  She was able to explore crusader castles, see the legendary Cypresses and the Jeita caves.  I remember her charming the military garrison at the Tripoli castle and the pair of us running dripping into the souk to get out of some truly nasty rain.  I think how lucky she was to go there before hell descended once again on that beautiful country.

Exploring Kazakhstan - Borovoye Lake
The visa for Russia brings back memories of her tramping down Arbat and through Red Square, frozen in the icy winds and snow that had unexpectedly descended on spring time Moscow – thank goodness we had our Kazakh winter gear with us.  Our brave girl walked for miles, undaunted by the weather but ever so grateful for a restorative hot chocolate from time to time.  I remember seeing the understanding dawn on her that Russian was  a world language –every bit as useful as English and not just for use in Astana and impressing the staff at museums and in restaurants as she chatted away confidently.

Playing in the Moscow Spring
Defrosting indoors.
The stamps for Turkey bring back memories of her first trip to Istanbul – exploring the Topkapi Palace, the cisterns and the Sulemaniye mosque – places I had explored as a teenager.  I remember her enjoying the Grand Bazaar – getting sweets, tea and cuddles from all the shop keepers we spoke with.  I loved watching her dance at the wedding of an old friend of mine and introducing her to people I had known and loved in my years living in Turkey.

Hagia Sophia (plus scenic scaffolding!)
They also bring back memories of our trip to the South West where I was able, finally, to fulfil a dream of 20 years and see Ephesus and Pamukkule and enjoy this with the children.  Our daughter discovered a love of carvings - one of my favourite photos shows her running her hands over some plinths in Aphrodisias (with the full permission of museum staff) – enjoying the tactile nature of the carving and then pointing out similar carvings as we went round the site.

Walking around Kaya Koyu
In my memories I see her spend her first day ever on a sandy warm beach  and play in the sea, my mind watches her learning to swim in the pool at our apartment, enjoying pancakes in a roadside café after roaming through the ruined village of Kaya Koyu and wondering through the famous Lycian towns that pepper this part of Turkey. 

Her visa for Cambodia is redolent with memories of Angkor Wat, a place she professed (age 5) that she had wanted to see ‘since forever’.  She enjoyed her time there so much that one year on she talks happily of the beautiful apsara carvings and her friend Mr Theng, our Tuk Tuk driver.  When my husband and I married we honeymooned in South East Asia.  During the trip we went to Ayutthaya and I remember us saying that it was probably the closest we would ever get to visiting Angkor.  I am so pleased that this has changed and we were able to share it with our (older) children. 

Holiday in Cambodia.
Fascinated by carvings
When I look at her entry stamps for Kyrgyzstan I remember how she enjoyed the Burana Minaret and the trip along the Silk Road from Bishkek to Cholpan Alta on the shores of Lake Issykul.  She became very ill very quickly with a nasty bout of tonsillitis the day we were due to fly back to Astana.  It was not worth enduring a Kyrgyz hospital for antibiotics as we were due home in less than 18 hours and I remember how she bravely wondered from coffee shop to museum to coffee shop with a horrid temperature and a scratchy throat as we bought enough drinks to give her an excuse to sleep on a comfy sofa for an hour at a time before moving on to the next place.  I have never been so pleased to get back to our rather rickety healthcare provision in Astana!

On top of the world - sick but enjoying the old Kyrgyz Silk Road
Her final entries on the passport are her visa for Malaysia and stamps into and out of Brunei (trips to take Granny to see monkeys).  Every time I see her Malaysian visa I think about how well she has coped with this move (the first that she really understands), saying goodbye to her friends, teacher and school and launching herself into a new adventure.  The move has transformed her as well – there is less of the Central Asian sophistication and more of the South East Asian cute to complement her sunny, smiling personality. 

Six years on - playing by the South China Sea
So many of these experiences she has only had because she is an expat – we would not have flown to Cambodia from the UK, spent spring in Moscow, Christmas in Lebanon or Easter in Kyrgyzstan. She has packed more into her six years than many do in a lifetime and in the process she has learned to appreciate all the advantages that our life brings.  Whenever I am back at my father’s house I love to look through the pages of my old passports and the family photograph albums, marrying together photographs with stamps.  When our daughter’s old passport is returned to us I think I will scan the pages and put them, together with photographs and some memories, into a scrap book so that she can revisit them and share the memories with her own children in time.  

This blog is part of the My Expat Family Link Up hosted by Seychelles Mama - click on the link to read the other fascinating blogs on expat family life.

Seychelles Mama

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

2 December 2014

How to buy a car in Sarawak

We were one of only a handful of expats to buy a locally registered car (as opposed to a diplomatic registered car) in Astana.  The whole process was long winded, tiresome and incredibly confusing.
Here in Sarawak most expats buy their own car and the process is very easy.  

Miri is home to many second hand car shops (and a number of dealers).  Most cars for sale are either the Malaysian brands (Perodua and Proton) or Japanese models.  If you buy a new Japanese car you should check whether it is CBU (completely built up or made in Japan) and CKD (completely knocked down or build on license in Malaysia.  Second hand cars may be ‘recon’ (reconditioned).  Unfortunately most cars are automatic and it is difficult to find a car with a proper transmission.

Many people choose to buy a 4x4 – either a double cab flat bed truck or a seven seat/five door car.  I have wanted a flat bed for many years but sadly it is not practical for us here in Miri as the dogs need an air-conditioned boot to ride in so we went for the seven seater option.  This has the benefit of ensuring that all the family plus dogs can travel in the one car and that we can transport visitors without the need to take two cars on trips. 

Most dealers will sell the car with a finance package, road tax, registration and insurance.  If you prefer you can take out finance with your bank.  As with most car finance packages the larger the deposit the better value the repayments.  We looked at several finance options on newer cars but we wanted to buy something fairly old but in decent condition that would hold its resale value reasonably well and preferably to buy outright rather than finance (we had the proceeds from our Astana sale).  We had heard that it can be difficult to get financing on cars older than 10 years in any event.  It is also possible to purchase cars through private sale - many local internet forums list cars but make sure to check any judgements outstanding against the car and make sure that the ownership is proved if you decide to go this route. 

A colleague of my husband’s had an older car he wanted to sell so after a few test drives and an independent garage check we decided to buy it – we are now the proud owners of an ancient Mitsubishi Prado.  It certainly seems comfortable and the kids are looking forward to my being able to give their friends lifts home for play dates.  We decided to register the purchase in my name – the Astana car was in my husband’s as I was out of the country when the purchase went through.  This caused us endless problems as he had to  authorise any work, be present for the annual check and sign all sale documents.  Finding time in his schedule was next to impossible.  I was slightly worried that the authorities would not want me to own the car as I am on a dependant visa and driving on an International Driving Permit and not a Malaysian licence.  This did not, however, seem to cause any problems at all.

The purchase and insurance process was fairly simple and is handled by the JPJ (Road Transport Department) in Miri. We used an agent to help us as all registration papers are in Bahasa Malay.  We had to provide passport and licence copies for all named drivers, the passport of the seller and my passport as the purchaser.  We had to sign the transfer ledgers in the presence of the JPJ official and the registration paper was then stamped in my name, I paid for the Road Tax (about 800RM (£150)) and insurance for a similar amount.  The tax sticker and cover note were issued immediately and the car was mine to drive.  The whole thing took less than an hour - much simpler than the multi-step/multi agency process in Astana.  

The tax sticker, certificate of ownership and proof of insurance have to stay in the car at all times and must be produced if required by the police.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Borneo.

Ersatz Expat

26 November 2014

How to sell a car in Astana

I have written before about the lengthy and complicated process of buying a car in Astana.  Selling a car is even more complex. 

Even old cars hold their value well in Astana. Selling them is,
however, time-consuming.
Kazakhstan has just brought in new emissions laws and this means that only newer vehicles that meet the emissions codes may be imported into the country.  This has caused massive problems in the diplomatic community as the cars are registered on red plates without import.  Sale to a new owner is then exempted from import again.  The actual impact of the law is somewhat obscure but the practical effect is that no diplomat is able to sell a car of more than 10 years old – even cars approaching that age will be cheap and difficult to sell.

Our car, which we bought from a local, was not registered to us on red plates but on yellow, expat, plates with all import and duties fully paid by a previous owner.  This meant that our car was exempt from the new legislation.  We considered driving the car to Europe and leaving it with a relative so that we have a European side drive car for mainland holidays but I suspect, given the age of the car and the maintenance history, it would have failed any EU emissions tests and cost a lot of money to bring up to standard.

We did advertise the car for sale through expat channels but expatriate purchasers were reluctant to buy such an old car.  This was probably because of the level of uncertainty on the emissions law and its application to expat purchasers and because of the high costs of second hand imports (cars do not generally depreciate their value in Kazakhstan to the same extent as in Europe).  Our only practical option therefore was to sell to a local purchaser.

This actually made the whole process much easier – we were intending to go to the car mart on the ring road and hawk the car there but the colleague we asked to help us asked instead if he could buy the car from us – this was a perfect solution but I suspect the market would also have been fine as long as we had help with translation.  I could have managed the negotiations and garage work but dealing with the bureaucracy of the transfer without assistance would have been a nightmare.

In order to transfer ownership we had to take the car to the office of the road police some distance out of town, this would de-register our yellow plates.  I came along to drive and allow the purchaser and my husband to hop out and deal with paperwork as necessary.

The first two times we went to the police station the office was closed with computer problems but we were lucky on the third time.  I ended up with the usual experience when driving Kazakh men – ‘could I really drive a manual? (Yes did he want me to show him how)’ ‘did my husband mind being driven by me?’ ‘had I really been driving for 20 years at my age?’ ‘is the UK driving test hard, does everyone really learn on a manual – even the women?’.  I struck a blow for feminism by asking if the purchaser would teach his wife to drive, he considered my question for a while and said it might save him on the cost of a taxi when he and his friends went out to have a drink!  It was all fairly good natured, the purchaser is a lovely man and a good colleague during our time in Astana just with very different cultural expectations. 

After sorting out the plates we had to go to the ‘consul’ – I am not quite sure what we did there but it was, apparently, necessary.  None of us knew where this office was and we ended up driving around the right bank in rush hour calling various colleagues for an address – an hour later we finally tracked it down.  We then had to go to a notary and register the actual transfer of the ownership of the car which would enable to purchaser to get a technical check on the car and apply for numberplates.

We kept the car that night as there was no time to get a tech-check and register new plates.  The next day we passed it over to the purchaser so he could sort out his paperwork.  It was very strange to see the car under a different number that afternoon. 

We managed to get the sale sorted out one week before we left.  If I were doing it again I would start the sale process earlier.  There are so many hurdles to jump to re-register ownership, it took us three days to find the police station open and if any of the other offices had been closed it might have caused problems.  It was a bit of a pain being without the car for the final week and having to rely on other transport means but at least we knew it was sorted and done. 

Click here for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

20 November 2014

Fresh Spring Rolls - a memory of Cambodia

I wrote recently about how important food and recipes are as a souvenir of my travels around the world.  These delicious fresh spring rolls instantly transport me back to Cambodia and memories of a wonderful Christmas holiday there.  The rolls were on the menu of a cooking course my sister and I indulged in on one of our 'relax' days.  The ingredients (or good substitutes) are generally easy to source in most parts of the world.  I even managed to get the roll papers in Astana!

At the cooking course all ingredients were laid out.  My kitchen is less organised.  

You need:
Rice Paper wrappers (3 per person)
grated carrot
cucumber cut into strips
vermicelli noodles cooked and cooled
sliced spring onions
cooked chicken, shrimp or pork.

Place the rice rolls in a plate of warm water for 5-10s, remove from the water and place on a teatowel.  Put a selection of the ingredients into the roll, fold in the ends over the ingredients and roll up.  It is that simple, you can change the ingredients depending on personal taste and availability.  Serve with the sauce of your choice, I am partial to the following:

Ready to eat.  
You need:
Fish Sauce (3 tbsp)
Palm Sugar (2tbsp)
Lime juice (2tbsp)
Chopped garlic and shallot (1tbsp each)

If you cannot find fish sauce substitute a combination of soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce.  Muscovado sugar will substitute for Palm Sugar. 


Heat the fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice in a pan, cool and add the ginger and shallots.  Many people like to add crushed peanuts to the sauce –chopped ginger and chilli also work well.

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of the expat kitchen.

Ersatz Expat

13 November 2014

Family Visits

One of the defining characteristics of expat life is that it is lived at a distance, sometimes a great distance, from family.  Costs and bureaucracy add to the physical distance but there is an emotional distance too, often overlooked.

Visits help to maintain strong family bonds.
Living abroad changes us – it opens the eyes to experiences beyond the home country, makes you think in a different way.  Some things which seem so important at home become far less so after a few years abroad whereas other rituals which were never very important suddenly become defining characteristics of home and the home culture.  What goes and what stays is different for every expat 

Nevertheless while we change our family stay the same.  Very often they will have no idea of normal day to day life – many expats say their family members think they live in a permanent ‘Club Med’.  Other aspects of the expat lifestyle (housekeepers, drivers etc) may give rise to jealousy even if they are a necessary part of your life abroad.  I never forget the reaction of our family and friends back in Europe when they found out that for one particular posting I was followed everywhere by at least one armed guard. (my parents had more).  To them it sounded impossibly glamorous, to me and my immediate family it meant that there was a threat that had to be taken very seriously.  I worried whenever I was in the UK far away from my parents – never sure whether I would hear (and worse, have to break to my sister) the horrible news that the guards proved necessary. 

Some experiences can't be described over the 'phone
they have to be lived in person.  
These days, of course, my husband, children and I are the ones that are travelling.  My father and sister take this in their stride – it is life as we have always known it.  My husband’s family are experiencing this for the first time, our life is more strange to them and visits more difficult to arrange and undertake. I found, as a child, that it was easier once I had visited my parents in a new location, to imagine their day to day lives and how I fitted in to that.  Because of my itinerant life I have never had a physical home – home has always been about people not place and so family visits mean a lot to me. Family members can visualise how our lives are every day, although of course it is not quite typical as you lay on special experiences – trips to museums, heritage sites or good restaurants.  It is also important for expat children to understand that family will come and visit them and not just wait for the children to go back to the home country.  I loved it when my grandparents visited us in Norway and the UK - I visited my grandparents often and shared in their lives but there was something very special about sharing mine with them.  Our children feel the same and relish being the ones in the know.  During one visit to Kazakhstan Master and Miss EE were spending an afternoon with my father while Mr EE and I were at work, they refused to let him leave the house unless he was wearing enough outdoor clothes.  It was autumn and he thought they were being excessive but they were proved right when, 15 minutes into their trip to the park he was feeling the effects of the steppe wind!  

We have had, in our first three months in Miri, as many visitors as we had during our whole three years in Kazakhstan.  Malaysia is easier and cheaper to get to and there are no visas, it is a holiday destination in its own right.  Kazakhstan was beautiful – and probably far more exotic in the sense that fewer people visit – but many people were put off by the extreme temperatures.  Who wants a holiday in -35 degrees C?

It is important for family to understand where and
how you live to give context when you ring home.
Of course we also have a trump card here in Malaysia – our new baby daughter.  Unsurprisingly everyone in the family wants to meet her and therefore are taking the time to come out and visit.  The nature of these visits is very dependent on the family member.  My sister came to help when the baby was born but took a few days beforehand to explore Sarawak before taking over childcare/school runs for our older two while I was in the hospital.  We have just heard the exciting news that she will come to spend Christmas with us, bringing her new significant other for the first time, they will probably use us as a base - going away for a few days before coming back for a day or two with us.  We expect to see her more than any other family member as she will happily detour to see us on her way to and from any other holiday.

My mother and sister in law came a few weeks after the baby was born.  It was their first trip to Malaysia or even this part of Asia so we made sure to show them as much as possible (trips to see Monkeys, the Miri tourist sites, Lambir Hills etc) and treated my mother in law to her first ever Chinese meal for her 80th birthday.  It was also a chance to spend time with all three of the children.  My mother in law is elderly so may not come out again but we do hope to see my sister in law and the rest of the family in the future. 

Children in particular love to show off their home to visiting family.
My father popped over a few weeks after my in laws left – he had been in Miri years before and sees the older children on skype every week so came primarily to see the baby.  Nevertheless we were able to make some weekend trips – walking on the beach and visiting the Niah Caves heritage site.  The older children had a wonderful time and he taught them to ride their bikes – an experience with him that they will remember for the rest of their lives.  We expect to see a lot of him as well as travel is not difficult for him.  He is retired but still has many voluntary commitments and some remote work so he spends his mornings here ensconced in my office doing his work before spending afternoons ‘en famille’ – the internet meaning he can work here every bit as easily as he can at home. 

There is something so indescribably lovely about spending time, just ordinary time together, having people right there instead of at the end of a phone line and subject to the problems that time zones generate.  As I type this I can hear my father’s voice speaking to my husband in another room and it is a very comforting, happy feeling.  This must be how my parents felt when my sister and I were able to be at home.  Home truly is where the heart is and I love it dearly when all the pieces of my heart can be in the same place at the same time.  

Seychelles Mama

Click on the picture for more information on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

6 November 2014

Food Souvenirs -

It may seem strange to think of food as a souvenir of your time in country but taste and smell are two wonderfully evocative emotions and can bring back an experience like almost nothing else.  A lot of the food I cook makes me think of growing up with Oma in the Netherlands and helping her prepare meals.  Whenever I have to substitute one ingredient for another I think of my mother’s struggles and creative solutions in her expat kitchen (and thank her for teaching me how to get around such problems). I have a range of British recipes that I have learned to cook and they make me think of the friends who taught me.  Borek transports me back to Turkey, churros to Venezuela, shashlik to Kazakhstan and so on.  
Traditional Christmas pudding - a variation on
my Mother in Law's family recipe.
I shamelessly collect recipes from restaurants – if I like a particular food I find that the chef is usually happy to share.  Sometimes, in out of the way postings restaurants can be a good source of information on where to source ingredients and if you are really lucky and strike up a good friendship they may sell you some part of their wholesale order.  Friends are also an excellent source of recipes – a Turkish friend taught me how to make Baklava and Turkish coffee, a Peruvian friend shared her recipe for causa etc.  I think of them each time I cook their recipes.

Traditional English Scones - recipe courtesy of a family friend.
I have a range of cookbooks that I picked up at various destinations.  Even just reading through them can transport me back to a place and time and it is all the more fun to make food to share with friends.  Of course the internet is a treasure trove of recipes from anywhere and everywhere but there is something so satisfying about a cookery book.

A small selection of books from trips around the world.
In Kazakhstan our housekeeper (a self-confessed mediocre cook) would be fascinated with the recipes I cooked from around the world and I would give samples and translate recipes for her to bring home for her sister to try, they now eat hot cross buns every Easter!  In Nigeria we had a wonderful cook, Johnson, (my mother was required to cater for sit down parties of up to 60 people at least once but often up to three times a week) who loved nothing more than to pore over my mother’s extensive collection of recipes.  He would spend hours preparing shopping lists for dinner parties and experimenting with substitutes.  Other than the failed attempt at profiteroles (substandard flour I believe) everything he turned out was perfect, a real feat given the shopping restrictions in 80’s Warri.  He also copied presentation – I remember a bread pudding where the orientation and number of slices was an exact copy of the picture in the book.  His dream was to open a restaurant – we would happily have helped him set one up but sadly his older brother, head of the family, decided he should continue with the secure work for expat families to support their ageing mother and the family children. 

Meatballs with mash and red cabbage - one of Oma's favourite family meals.
Last Christmas we were in Cambodia spending a holiday with my sister who flew in from the UK.  It was a mutually (in)convenient location and a place we had all wanted to see for  a long time.  I have never had the time to indulge in a cookery course on holiday before now.  Siem Reap, however, has a wide range of cookery classes available and with three adults available to keep an eye on the kids it was possible for two of us to indulge.  It is definitely something I will look into again for future holidays.  Now every time I make fresh spring rolls I remember, not only a terrific holiday in Cambodia but a wonderful afternoon spent with my sister whom I miss very much in the day to day of expat life.
Fresh Spring Rolls - evocative of
a wonderful holiday.

So much of expat life is about impermanence, memories help root us to our own personal history and food memories are some of my favourite. I see this pattern now repeating with my own children - when I cook plov it takes them to Kazakhstan, Yorkshire puddings  (a recently perfected skill) remind them of their granny in the UK.  I wonder what will remind them of me in years to come.

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Expat Life with a Double Buggy

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Ersatz Expat

27 October 2014

Lambir Hills National Park

Miri may not have the range of architectural sights that we were blessed with in Astana but that does not meant that there is not plenty to do - most of it outdoors taking full advantage of our wonderful weather and gorgeous, tropical location.  

Miri is the gatepost/stepping stone to many of the wonderful sites Sarawak has to offer.  Some of these – like Mulu require a flight (out of the question for us at the moment until our passport problems are resolved) but some are practically next door.

There are many National Parks close to Miri showcasing the
stunning Sarawakian forest in its natural state.  
Lambir Hills national park is just 30km from Miri and makes for an easy day trip.  The Sarawak  Forestry Commission claim that Lambir Hills is the world’s most diverse forest eco-system.  The park is small but within it there is, apparently, the greatest level of plant biodiversity on the planet as well as a huge range of birds, mammals and insects; it is a centre for international research.  All this on our doorstep! 

The paths in Lambir Hills are well maintained
making the walking easy for everyone.
Trekking along the well worn forest trails with a family of small children means that we are guaranteed not to see much of the wildlife (and this even though our kids are silent as they can be in the hopes of catching sight of something truly interesting).  What we can see, however, are the stunning waterfalls.  The closer ones are easily accessible – just a 2 km walk to Latak where it is possible to swim in the pool and enjoy a picnic.  There are plenty of longer trails as well and they are all interconnected so you can mix and match your route quite easily.

Latak Waterfall - an easy, short walk and perfect
for a swim and a picnic.
The trails themselves are well maintained meaning that the walking is relatively tame and easy.  Unless you are doing some of the longer treks you will not need to wear specialist footwear or clothing – you see many weekend trippers doing the walk in flipflops.  Do not, however, underestimate the effects of the heat and humidity – it is enervating, particularly for visitors from abroad who have not yet acclimatised so make sure you stock up on water.  The ladies who run the café at the entrance to the park are very friendly – just go to the fridge to stock up and leave the money on the side if they are not there. 

Rivers flow through the Park creating some spectacularly beautiful
waterfalls - the hallmark of Lambir.
The wardens do keep track of the people who go in to the park as you have to pay an entry fee but we were not required to check in on our return so be punctual in leaving before the end of the day so that you are not locked in!

Our kids love Lambir – the bridges over the rivers give a sense of adventure and the sounds of the forest are intriguing.  There are some rope bridges across gaps in the path which are, of course, a magnet for kids.  They take it in turns to 'lead the group' and keep a careful ear out for any wildlife.  Lambir  was our baby daughter’s first walk in the woods although she did not get to see much as she was safely snuggled up in the baby carrier and covered against sun and insects!  With the heavy rains we will not be making quite so many trips there for the moment – rains mean mud and mud is slippery particularly when your centre of gravity is off with a baby in a carrier. 

Lambir Hills is safe for even the youngest children.
If covered up against sun and insects. (Our daughter  was 3
weeks at this point).  Sadly not a flattering look for me!
Click on the picture for more information on life in Borneo.

Ersatz Expat

19 October 2014

Marble Biscotti

Biscotti are the hard oblong biscuits that you can buy in upmarket coffee shops to dip in your morning Latte.  Of course such coffee shops are now fairly ubiquitous worldwide but often very expensive, even for expats.   The name biscotti comes from the Italian for ‘baked twice’ because they go into the oven two times, the name is the origin for the word ‘Biscuit’ in British English.  A regional version in Tuscany is called Cantuccini and is traditionally dipped into a fortified wine (Vin Santo).

As good as a coffee shop!
These tasty biscuits make a great treat to enjoy with your morning coffee.  You could also package them in groups of 3-4 with some ribbon and card and use as personalised gifts or to sell at a school bake fayre.
Biscotti are baked twice - as a log for the first baking

You will need:
  1. 100g (31/2 oz) plain chocolate, melted.
  2. 85g (3oz) unsalted butter.
  3. 140g (5oz) caster (superfine) sugar.
  4. 2 large eggs
  5. ½ tsp vanilla extract
  6. Rind of one orange
  7. 280g (10oz) plain flour
  8. 11/2 tsp baking powder
  9. 75g (23/4 oz) blanched, flaked almonds.

Time taken: 11/2 hours, difficulty level: intermediate

Cut and baked on the side to crisp up on the second baking
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C (375F)
  2. Melt the chocolate (either in a water bath or in the microwave depending on your preference).  Set aside to cool.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar until pale and creamy.
  4. Add the vanilla extract and orange rind to the eggs and beat lightly.  Add the mix to the butter and sugar and whisk.
  5. Add in the flour, almonds and baking powder and mix to a soft dough.
  6. Divide the dough into two parts mixing one half in with the melted chocolate. 
  7. Knead the two halves for about three minutes each on a well floured surface.  Divide each half into two again.
  8. Roll each ball into sausages about 30cm (12in) long.
  9. Place a chocolate and a plain roll next to eachother on a baking sheet and twist them around before flattening the combined roll to about 2.5m (1in) thick.  Do the same with the remaining two dough balls.
  10. Bake for about 25 minutes until lightly brown.
  11. Once done remove from the oven.  Turn the oven down to 170°C (35F).  Leave the logs to cool for 15 minutes.
  12. Using a sharp, serrated knife cut the logs on the diagonal into slices about 1cm (1/2 in thick).
  13. Arrange the slices cut side down on the baking sheet and return to the oven for 10 minutes.  Turn and bake the other side for a further 10 minutes until golden.
  14. Remove from oven and leave to cool and harden. 

Perfect for coffee mornings, bake sales or gifts.

You could choose to make just the plain version (omit the chocolate) or double the chocolate and make just the chocolate version.  Real chocoholics could replace the nuts with chocolate chips or coat the cooled biscuits in melted chocolate before leaving to set.

Most types of nut will work in Biscotti – try replacing the almonds with hazelnuts or walnuts.  Similarly you could replace the orange with lemon.  The opportunities and experiments are endless - it might be quite fun to design a version for each expat posting - I might use this as a project for the kids one half term!

Click on the picture for more information on the challenges of the expat kitchen.

Ersatz Expat

10 October 2014

Red Tape

There are many things I love about life as an Expat but bureaucracy is not one of them and several bureaucratic issues have come up this week. 

Usually bureaucracy is related to the host nation - I recall the hassles getting our Nigerian multiple entry visas when I was a child (until then our passports filled at an alarming rate with multiple 30 day visas, one each holiday visit).  I remember my Father having to get a certified translation of his (Latin) degree certificate when we went to Venezuela.  Kazakhstan was a nightmare - everything (literally everything) had to be notarised and apostilled.  This week the bureaucratic issue have been 'back home'.  

Our older two kids got their student visas back today.  Our son’s runs to then end of the school year when it can be renewed fairly easily.  Our daughter’s passport, however, runs out just before the end of term and the visa expires one month before that so we will have to renew it ahead of time – either by post or going back to the UK and arranging a one day appointment.

We also have to arrange a passport for our new baby as, at the moment, she is in Malaysia on just her birth certificate and we cannot go anywhere, in fact, we are still not sure if we can go elsewhere in Malaysia with just her birth certificate as Sarawak has separate passport control to the rest of the country.  We would like to have some weekend trips so we are trying to sort that out at the moment (the airlines say yes but to check with immigration).

Anyway we made enquiries with the Embassy before she was born and we were told it was a simple online process.  I assumed this would mean that my Husband’s passport and birth certificate details would be verified electronically and we could email a photograph and countersignature verified by the Embassy staff, the passport would be prepared and then sent to us. 

If only it were that simple.  We completed the application form and paid the (exhorbitant) fee only to find that we have to send the passport and supporting documents by mail.  Our passports are very necessary here in Malaysia – my husband travels to the Peninsula approximately once a month and we need it for identification if we go to the bank or even collect something from customs at the post office.  We are calling to check what we should do – we doubt we can use mine as parental ID as I am not a British Citizen.  It would be so much easier to just go to the embassy in KL or over the border in Brunei – this online process is meant to be easy but I suspect it boils down to cost cutting.  Still it is easier than renewing my passport last year – I had to go to Moscow to make the application as the documents never reached me in Kazakhstan (and no way was I entrusting my passport to a courier service that looses application forms).

Before we went to Kazakhstan I stocked up on copy birth certificates for my husband and the children as well as our marriage certificate.  I have only one copy of mine – my uncle tells me that Dutch certificates must be applied for in person so I will have to wait until we visit The Hague again to get more copies.  I am quite meticulous about keeping copies but somehow although we have many copies of my middle daughter’s birth and our marriage certificate we have managed to run out of our son and my husband’s birth certificates.  We used the last copies to get working/student visas here.  So we have to get certificates sent to Malaysia before we can send them back to the UK – crazy!  The UK does all the road tax renewals document checks on line so why not this?

It will all get sorted with time – the frustrating thing is not knowing when we can travel as a family again.  In the meantime there are worse places in the world to be stuck!
Seychelles Mama

Update November 2014

After some unhelpful email correspondence (which directed us back to the website which did not answer our questions) we spoke with a very helpful lady in the UK.  Apparently the passport office will accept a full copy (front, back and every page) of my husband's passport together with a letter explaining why we did not include the original.  We do not have to have the copy certified.  We can send off for our older daughter's renewal at the same time and they will (apparently) process and return them together.  Thank you Lorraine in the Passport Office for being so kind, understanding and practical.  It just shows that technology can be helpful but you can't beat the human touch!

Click on the picture for more information on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat