27 August 2014

How to get rid of Ants

Unlike Nigeria (snakes, spiders, crocodiles, termites, scorpions, rats, cockroaches), Turkey (camel spiders) and Venezuela (beautiful but aggressive iguanas, ants, mice, cockroaches)  postings in Europe and Kazakhstan were dream destinations as far as creepy crawlies were concerned.  In fact, for the nervous expat Astana is a bit of a dream – no spiders, no snakes, no ants – no nothing.  There are benefits to cold postings! 

Borneo is different we live on a lush, tropical island and share our space with many different animals and insects.  Some we welcome - our house is full of little geckos who keep down the mosquitoes and small spiders.  The kids have named each one (Bug Muncher is the largest) and we hear their little chirrups in the evening as they perform their public service.  Others are less welcome, luckily having dogs helps keep a lot of the less welcome visitors (rats etc) down.  If our older dog dies while we are here we would probably consider getting a cat to keep any visiting snakes at bay. Kipper, our Nigerian tabby was very effective at this although sadly they also like to go for geckos which is a real shame. 

I am a reluctant housewife and generally the further north we are the easier going I am.  When we are in the tropics my standards of housekeeping soar.  No-one is allowed to eat a biscuit without a plate (and all washing up is done immediately), crumbs are swept up straight away and the area bleached.  The kitchen surfaces are bleached twice a day and straight after any use, the floor is bleach cleaned morning and evening, cupboards once a week and appliances wiped down after every use.  All food is kept in lock and lock airtight containers or in the fridge.  Our bread bin has a strip of double sided tape along the outside. 

Despite all these precautions our kitchen has been home to a steady procession of tiny little visitors. I find ants endlessly fascinating – if I see a line of them outside I love to watch them at their work to see how they co-operate and work with their group mind.  This is, however, outside, I hate ants in my house and I particularly hate ants that come into my kitchen. 

I searched the shops for borax or ant killer but it is difficult to track down.  Cockroach killer is prevalent and very, very effective on the ones that come out of hiding.  It does not, however, tackle the problem at source and allow the ants to bring the poison back to the nest.  Our two dogs also seem to love licking the spray from the walls so I do not like to over use it.

A large number of my friends live abroad in various places around the world and came up with the following suggestions:

  • Cinnamon:  Luckily this is fairly cheap in Sarawak and smells good.  Ants dislike it, however, and try to avoid it.  It does not seem to kill them but it does reduce the number who get into the house if you sprinkle it by their entry points.  It is also non toxic to dogs.
  • Jam Traps:  For outside tables place the legs in jars of water with jam or honey to stop the ants climbing up and walking over your food.  Less useful in the house as children and pets could knock them.  We did use these in the kitchen in Nigeria from time to time. 
  • Black pepper:  much like cinnamon but less fragrant.
  • Cornmeal/Polenta/Cream of Wheat:  The granules swell inside the ants and kill them.  This is completely non toxic to pets and before eating it the worker ants carry it back to the nest so it destroys them at source.

I have been using a combination of cinnamon and polenta to reduce our problem.  They work to keep it down but sadly the ants keep coming back and I was not convinced that the nest was being affected.  While the house is only rented I do not want my landlord to have to deal with an entrenched structural problem caused by ants.  

In the end I managed to track down some ant killer and put the boxes down for a few hours.  The effect was amazing – the whole nest seemed to come out to eat the granules as they were gone very rapidly.  My walls were covered in black workers and queens – the advantage of this rather revolting visitation was that I could track down all the entry points and shock dose them with targeted spray of cockroach killer.  It took the housekeeper and me about three hours to clean the corpses from the kitchen (we ate out for two days) and the landlord has since siliconed the gaps shut.  Hopefully this will solve the problem.  

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

Ersatz Expat

18 August 2014

Orange Chicken Fajitas (with home made guacamole and salsa)

Fajitas are a perfect quick fix meal.  Prep up a deconstructed salad, some meat, sour cream, guacamole and salsa and you are away.  If you are short on time you can use shop bought guacamole and salsa, but if you have the time there is nothing like home made.  Pour over some sauce and refried beans and you have enchiladas.  Our family love fajitas in just about every combination.  This one, however, is a favourite in hot weather as the taste is so fresh and summery.

 You will need:
  1. 1 Chicken breast per person.
  2. Olive oil.
  3. 1 large juicy orange.
  4. 4 limes.
  5. 1 Avocado per person.
  6. 2 large and a handful of cherry tomatoes per person.
  7. 1 small red onion per person.
  8. A bunch of coriander, roughly chopped.
  9. Spinach
  10. Salad leaves
  11. 1 red chilli (to taste).
  12. A handful of pine nuts.
  13. Fajitas.
  14. Portion of Sour Cream.

NB I use the small, juicy limes that we get in South East Asia.  You may find you need to adjust for the larger US/European limes.

Time taken: 1 hour, difficulty level: easy


The recipe looks long and fiddly but is actually very easy.  It would be perfectly feasible to delegate parts of the preparation (ie the guacamole) to another family member.  Children, in particular, love to help as they see the ‘recipe’ they are responsible for on the table and being used by the rest of the family in the end product. Mine love hand shredding lettuce and mashing guacamole.  

  1. Trim the chicken breasts and marinade in some olive oil.  Squeeze in the juice of half an orange and two limes. (be aware that acid in the citrus will start to cook the outside of the meat). 
  2. After a half hour marinade place in a 180 °C oven (355F) until cooked through.  Remove to cool before shredding and placing in a serving dish.

  1. Halve the avocados and scoop out the flesh into a bowl.
  2. Chop half of the red onions very finely and add to the bowl.
  3. Chop a large tomato per person very finely and add to the bowl.
  4. Squeeze over the juice of one lime and mash the ingredients together.  You may wish to add salt and pepper to taste.

  1. Chop the remaining tomatoes and red onion and combine.
  2. Add coriander and the juice of the remaining lime. 
  3. If you wish to make a hot salsa add the finely chopped chilli. 

  1. Mix the spinach and salad leaves with the segments of the remaining orange half and the pine nuts

Make up
Place some salad onto the middle of the fajita, add some of the chicken and top with salsa, guacamole and sour cream.  Fold the end over the fillings and roll.  You can either prepare the fajitas in advance or, as I prefer, put all the ingredients on the table and allow people to make their own.


This recipe works equally well served in tacos

or in pitta pockets.  You could substitute any salad leaf of your choice for the spinach – rocket would work quite well or, alternatively just plain shredded iceberg lettuce. 

You could use orange in the salsa and guacamole instead of lime for a less astringent taste. 

The salad works very well by itself – you could add some slices of beetroot for added crunch and some of the chicken or curls of parma ham for protein to make it into a substantial lunch as opposed to a side.

For a quick version of this recipe you can substitute shop bought pre-cooked chicken and ready made guacamole and salsa.  Shred the chicken unevenly.  Pour the guacamole and salsa  into your own bowls and squeeze some lime juice into them.  Stir some chopped coriander into the salsa, shake some pre-washed salad leaves into the serving bowl and add pine nuts and some orange segments.  No one need know.

Turkey is a viable (and cheaper) substitute for the chicken.

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

Ersatz Expat

11 August 2014

Relocation - how to deal with culture shock.

When people ask me where I am from I find it almost impossible to answer.  Readers may have noticed that rather than mention a nationality as such I call myself a global soul or perpetual expat.  In essence I am a true TCK (third culture kid) although I dislike that term. 

Being an expat means life can change, very dramatically from year to year.

With so many international and intra-national moves under my belt I should deal with the emotional upheaval with no problems at all.  I have found, however, that this is simply not the case.  As a child I must have caused my parents endless heartache and annoyance at moving time.  I usually got an unexplained stomach ache about three weeks before we moved.  It did not matter whether I was excited or nervous about the move, my stomach would start to ache. 

Culture shock is a common and acknowledged expat phenomenon and there has even been research on how people adapt to their new home.  Expats tend to identify five stages of relocation (after Olberg).
  • Honeymoon
  • Irritation/Anger
  • Rejection/Regression
  • Intergration/Assimilation
  • Re-entry

I usually find stages 1-3 combine in the early days of a new posting to give rise to a maelstrom of emotions.  Exploring new places is exciting, finding out what there is to do and what is new and different is a heady experience.  We go to all the local attractions, research what flights are available, dreaming of the exotic holidays we can take and I trawl round shops and supermarkets getting excited about what is on the shelves.  Irritation usually creeps in early for me and I know I have to nip it in the bud so that I don’t reject our new life and the opportunities on offer.  

I tend to assimilate and integrate quickly and easily (I have had so much practice and it helps that I have no real geographic ties) so when I move somewhere new I get frustrated that I am not learning things more quickly.  I am my own worst critic, of course it is not unreasonable, after just two weeks, to not know how to contact the city council, pay a bill, hold a conversation on local pension arrangements in the local language.  I have to make myself remember that, although I could do all this in our previous posting some of it took me a little time to get my head around. Sometimes simple moves can be the most confusing.  I will always remember my very capable mother (who could talk down armed militia in the middle of the African bush) getting very stressed at the thought that she might have missed the registration deadline with the local council in the UK - she was working to Dutch bureaucratic rules!

It helps, when relocating to be aware of the stages set out above and how they might apply to your character.  If you know and understand you can deal more easily.  Like me some people find the second and third stages last a very short time, others may take months to work through them.  Processes and times are also different for each location and it is not always a linear progression.  Sometimes an expat might sail through all the stages and start to integrate well, enjoying their life only for something to set them back and for the realities of their situation to overwhelm them.  This can often be triggered by bereavement in the home country or children moving back 'home' to boarding school but there are many reasons.  It is vital, therefore, to build up support networks early on, find friends, get involved in activities that you enjoy.  It is also important to keep a close eye on other expats around you, has someone started to withdraw, are they quieter than normal, are they struggling but hiding it for some reason? It is a delicate balance between offering help and interfering, however, so let people go at their own pace.  Be aware that once someone has been helped they may be embarrassed and may not wish to speak with you again (unless the problem re-occurs).  This is perfectly normal – try to understand even if you are hurt.

Working expats are often more insulated from culture and relocation shock than the trailing family.  Life changes little, you get up, go to the office, do your job and come home.  Of course the new job will have work related stresses, particularly if a promotion is involved or you now have to work in another language but this is separate from the country specific stress.  The lives of the trailing family are more affected, the children have to adapt to a new school, the other spouse to making life work in a completely different environment.  Sometimes a trailing spouse has to remake their whole identity – this is particularly true if they have left behind a career and are now defined, by default as the “husband or wife of X”.  Finding a job in the host country can be challenging and frustrating – I am a highly qualified financial litigator but I have not worked in the law for years.  I have, however, had a range of different jobs including a stint as a school librarian! 

Family members should be kind to one another at this time – look out for signs of upset or worry.  Just because one child is settling well does not mean that siblings are as happy.  Just because you had a wonderful day at the office does not mean that your spouse enjoyed miming the problems with the pipes to the plumber who was sent around to fix them.  Just because you had a dreadful day registering with the local doctors does not mean your spouse does not need to get work stress off their chest.  In the home country the support of family and close friends is near at hand – in the host country, particularly in the early days, the nuclear family is the only support.  Be aware of this, make a special effort.  Most expat families find that they become very close and have extremely strong bonds because of exactly these experiences but sadly some can find themselves riven – the constituent parts dealing with emotional problems in a vacuum of support. 

How to deal with culture shock – top tips.
  • Spend time before your move understanding what you will and won’t miss. This helps you process your emotions about leaving and help you concentrate on your new home when you get there.
  • Make contact with people in your new home ahead of time where possible.  This means you can identify potentially challenging aspects of your new life and start to prepare for them.  It also gives you some potential friends and a proto support network.
  • Be open and honest with children about changes to their lives.  Ask them what would help them feel secure in the move.  This may be something physical (a toy, a reminder of their old home/school) or not (an arrangement allowing them to speak to an old friend once a week on skype etc).  If you can make it happen do.  If you can’t be honest, never make promises you cannot keep but do help them identify viable alternatives.
  • Watch out for each other.  You and your family know (or should know) each other better than anyone else.  Keep an eye out for changed behaviour that might be a symptom of struggling with something. 
  • Be kind to yourself, no one expects you to be adept at dealing with all aspects of your new life straight away.  You are allowed to ask for help with things.
  • Be positive but honest.  There is good in every situation – try to look at things in a positive light even if it is only that you will have a good laugh and an amazing story to tell one day.  Do not, however, be relentlessly and unrealistically positive.  Sometimes bad things happen and if you do not acknowledge it now you may find it harder to deal with later. 
  • Find ways to keep traditions that are important to you and your family.  If Christmas, Eid, Diwali, your national day etc, are something that you always celebrate make sure that you manage this.  You may need to make some changes but these links with your old life are important.
  • Learn as much as you can about local customs before you arrive.  Most cultures are very forgiving of solecisms perpetrated by accident but you will feel happier in yourself if you know what behaviour is acceptable.  Similarly try to learn as much language as you can – even a few words and phrases can help.
  • Accept every invite you get for the first three months at least.  Expat communities are often small and new arrivals are exciting, everyone wants to get to know you.  Receive an invite to the local tennis club?  It does not matter if tennis is not your thing – go and socialise and get to know people, you will get more invitations from people you meet there.  Random invitations tend to start to dry up after three-six months as people assume you have become settled and found your niche and friendship group.  Make the most of the opportunities you are offered in the early days. 
  • As you become more established in your new home keep an eye out for new arrivals.
I have subsequently added this to Life With A Double Buggy's  Expat Linky- click for even more Expat treats.....

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

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Ersatz Expat

5 August 2014

Shopping in Sarawakian Supermarkets

One of the things I was looking forward to on our move to Miri was the wide range of food that would be available compared to Astana, particularly fresh vegetables. 

One of the big challenges of Expat life is learning what is available to buy in your new home and how you will have to adapt your culinary skills to deal with it.  Food shopping in Astana was, initially, a challenge because of the language/alphabet barrier.  We soon learned what we could and could not buy and by the time we left had found just about everything we needed.  Malaysia, of course has no such language barrier and has a good reputation for food.  Unlike Astana import is easy so there is a wider range of produce available.

While we were still in the hotel we started to look around the different supermarkets that were available, the best seem to be the out of town Hypermarket – ‘Giant’ conveniently on the way to/from the school and our very local ‘GK’ and 'Pottery' (which sells everything except Pottery). 
Premium British Supermarket products can be bought here.
Quite a surprise.
They stock a complete range of Western and Chinese product as well as local favourites and some Indian stuff.  The Western food seems to come from UK or Australia/New Zealand.  Most of the UK products are Waitrose branded.  Waitrose is a premium, upmarket supermarket in the UK and it was a real surprise to find them freely available and at a similar price.  British expats can rejoice in the easy availability of home favourites Baked Beans, Tomato Ketchup, HP Sauce, Marmite etc, there is less to excite the European palate.  I am overjoyed to be able to get a full selection of baking products including food colouring, flavouring and speciality sugar (I no longer need to grind my own or mix in molasses).  In fact the supermarkets excel at providing a wide, complete range of just about any dried or canned good you can think of.
Soya milk for those with allergies.  
I had heard that Pork was difficult to find in Malaysia but most supermarkets have a good non Halal section where we can buy Ham, Bacon, Frankfurters etc.  Wine and Beer is also for sale but we are not big consumers of alcohol in the home.  
Indian and Chinese food is popular and there are lots of  ingredient
options - this range of 'easy cook'  curry spices comes from Pakistan
The supermarkets do not perform so well when it comes to fresh food (which is plentiful in the markets - no one stop shopping here).  The meat selection in general is not great -  fresh chicken is available in many permutations (whole, fillets, feet, thighs etc etc) but it is a little watery and lacking in taste.   Frozen lamb and frozen beef can be found but it does not look particularly appetising. 

Food colourings and flavourings for baking - an unexpected bonus
Dairy is another item that surprised me with the restrictions.  Cheese is limited – most cheese sold seems to be in packets of processed slices.  We can get a better range at GK and Pottery (including, to my Husband's delight, cheddar) but it is expensive.  Fresh milk is in the chiller cabinet but, like Astana, most seems to be UHT longlife.  It is fairly tasty and better quality than the Kazakh milk.  I have become used to the way things are done in Kazakhstan though because I was genuinely upset to be restricted to a single type of sour cream!
There is a very poor juice selection - with a limited range
of flavour.  Most is from concentrate and over sweet.
My daughter is somewhat distraught at the lack of cherry juice and indeed the range of juices available is more akin to that in a British supermarket – we were spoiled with the fantastic offerings in Kazakhstan. Funnily enough we also expected a great range of teas, another thing we were spoiled with in Astana and the UK but sadly average blended tea seems to be the norm here with only one or two speciality offerings. 
Blended tea seems to be popular - very few
speciality teas are easily available.
I understand from friends that Brunei is the place to go to buy meat, cheese etc and, for those who like to have a glass of wine or beer, a duty free shop is available between the borders.  Our visas are being processed at the moment so we have not been to visit.  I also have the number of a lady who makes Cumberland sausages – I will be giving her a call shortly to try out her meat. 

The fruit and vegetable selection is also surprisingly limited in the supermarkets.  I have been advised to shop in separate green-grocers or a local market for these and it is no real hardship to pop over and enjoy the wide selection available there.  All have been heavily treated with pesticides, however, so have to be disinfected and cleaned  or peeled thoroughly before use

We have settled into a rhythm now - Supermarket for dried and staple goods, markets for fresh.  There is a good complex (E Mart), on the way from the School which has a supermarket set next to a market and our home bank branch - a useful combination.

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

Ersatz Expat