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!
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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

8 October 2014

Newborn Customs....

Since our new daughter was born early last month I have been thinking a lot about the different customs that we have surrounding new babies.

When I was born my parents immediately sent out birth announcement cards – in the Netherlands it is expected that these are sent out as soon as possible.  When our first baby was due in the UK I was surprised that the soonest print companies could get cards to me was one week, they could not understand my rush and seemed to think I would be busy with other things.  Not wanting to write out a lot of cards by hand I searched and searched for a company with a quick turnaround. I finally managed to get them in three days – I felt terrible for the delay but all our English friends found it quite normal.  Indeed I have received announcements up to 6 weeks after a birth.  For our latest baby I did not want to spend the time searching for a printers in Malaysia on top of finding a new house, unpacking and settling the older children into school so we decided to rely on electronic announcements only – the modern age does make things easier and we thought our families would forgive us in the circumstances.  I am a hoarder, however, and have birth and death cards and wedding and christening invites for almost all our family members going back to my grandparents generation kept in our storage container so I may have some ‘limited edition’ cards made up for close family (quite pathetic I know) just so our latest daughter is not missed out.

In the UK and Ireland it is not uncommon to save a tier of the wedding cake (fruit cake) to use as the christening cake of the first baby.  My mother in law saved ours and her friend  (who did the decoration on our wedding cake) did some fresh decoration for the christening. 

In the UK you are advised (for SIDS purposes) to keep a baby’s room at a positively arctic 18°C but wrap the baby in about three blankets plus pyjamas, I managed this for one day before turning the heating up but I wonder if this low temperature may be related to the high cost of heating in the UK and to make sure parents do not feel guilty for not having a warmer house (British houses are almost always horribly cold, with people preferring to layer a lot of clothes).  In Kazahkstan houses are usually at least 25° and even then babies are well wrapped up against chills, often looking as though they are far, far too hot.  In Malaysia the advice seems to be to cool the room to about 24-5° which is what we used to keep our house in the UK at – a British health visitor would have a fit! 

When we lived in Nigeria it was common for new mothers to be given a drink of Guinness to restore their iron levels.  Certainly I can vouch for the fact that this horrible custom is not (thankfully) common practice in either the UK or Malaysia. In the Netherlands new mothers are fed a snack of beschuit (rusk) with pink or blue sugared  aniseed balls (muisjes so called because they look like tiny mice).  My mother brought some blue ones back to the UK for our first baby.  

In Kazakhstan and Turkey it is traditional for a baby to be kept away from visitors for 40 days and in Malaysia a confinement period is common post birth with the specifics (usually relating to what the mother can eat and what she is allowed to do) depending on the background culture of the family concerned.  Some cultures even have customs relating to whether or not the mother can wash and what with (ginger water is one of the more palatable alternatives, a mix of cows urine and milk less so).  This was probably sage advice to prevent infection from dirty water in the past. 

The other day we were invited to a ‘Full Moon’ celebration for the baby of a colleague of my husband.  This baby is our little girl’s time sister.  They were, by complete co-incidence, born within 15 minutes of each-other in neighbouring operating theatres.  Her mother and I came across each-other in recovery and the little girls spent their first few hours side by side in the nursery.  Because of cultural traditions this little girl was not out and about for the first month and her mother was in confinement so this party was a big thing for the family – we were honoured to be invited. 

In the UK things are far more fluid – some people do retreat into their homes and families but rarely for as long as a month, this depends on the desires of the parents rather than any hard and fast cultural custom.  We have never really stayed at home and people we met out and about here in Miri were very surprised to see a newborn baby.  The lovely thing here is that everyone seems to look and comment – the last time I was out I stopped for a coffee and to give the baby a bottle and the baristas all came out from behind the till to coo and admire.  That is still done in the UK but is much more restrained.
One of the nurses here in Miri told me that it is not common to just throw away the umbilical stump as it is seen as being part of the baby, in Nigeria (and much of western Africa) the placenta is often removed and buried carefully as a ‘twin’ of the child.   I have never given in much thought although this time my husband had to ‘sign away’ the placenta to the hospital.

Paediatric tests can be different as well.  We were not given a (routine in the UK) heel prick test for our little girl as the conditions tested for are a problem for Caucasians but not an issue for Asians.  We had to make a special appointment (with our OB of all people) to arrange for the test to be done. Of course some traditions are dependent on religion (circumcision for example) making them more common in some parts of the world than others.  

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

Ersatz Expat

2 October 2014

Expecting abroad - Pregnancy in a strange land

When you find out you are expecting most couples will run the gamut of emotions from ecstasy (if planned) to terror.  Your mind then turns to ‘what next?’.  In your home country it is fairly simple – you know how processes tend to work so will go to your doctor and be guided by them.  You will probably have family – parents, in laws, aunts, cousins and friends who have been through the system and can give advice if you want it.

When you are abroad things get a little more complicated – expectations are different and sometimes the language can be a hurdle.  I had our first two children in the UK – I had lived there for some years and was quite accultured but no one in my family had been through the system there before.  My mother and I were shocked when we found out how unmedicalised it was and it made us both feel very uncomfortable.  Being au fait with the language and cultural expectations, however, meant that I could advocate for what I wanted.  Interestingly a friend has just had this experience in reverse – she is from UK and currently expecting in Australia – she finds the process there far too medicalised for her taste. 

We were still in Kazakhstan (but due to move to Malaysia in the third trimester) when we found out about our third child and I had to negotiate a complex web of Kazakh hospitals, general clinic, insurance and the potential contacts in Malaysia as well as speaking to my lovely UK OB and arranging for her to speak to and send my operative notes on to my new consultant in Malaysia.

Because I was not going to complete the pregnancy in Kazakhstan it was decided not to book me in to the Kazakh system but to have ad hoc appointments every few weeks.  My general clinic would attend appointments with me to translate for the sonographers and OB.  This was a great idea until it transpired that the representative had no knowledge of obstetrics in either Russian or English – I ended up doing most of the translation/speaking myself including making sure we understood the results of the anomaly scans.  Because I refused an amniocentesis I was not permitted to have any maternal blood risk checks in Kazakhstan although this had been permitted in the UK.   It was not until we arrived in Malaysia that I was able to understand with 100% certainty what my OB was saying to me. He had to rely on my translations of the Kazakh notes for background and ended up doing a from scratch work up.

Advice and expectations differ greatly from country to country as well.  In the UK dietary advice for expectant mothers is very strict and extremely restrictive.  Both Kazakhstan and Malaysia seem to be far more easy going, at least as far as food is concerned.  My Kazakhstani friends were, however, horrified that I would wear high heels when expecting as it was ‘dangerous’.  I was seen as cavalier for lifting and moving a dining chair and one told me, in all seriousness, her husband had been warned not to drink beer while she was expecting as it might harm the baby!  In the UK I was allowed to take paracetamol for a cold or headache and antibiotics for tonsillitis.  In Kazakhstan I was told I could not have antibiotics or painkillers at all (though I managed to sneak some paracetamol from a pharmacy saying they were for my husband) Conversely it is not unusual to see expectant mothers in saunas and jacuzzis in Kazakhstan – something completely beyond the pale in the UK. 

In the UK you are given a firm estimated day of delivery – (our first child is the only one we know who actually arrived on that day) and everything is calculated in the number of weeks and days.  In Kazakhstan I asked when this date would be and was told – ‘some point in September – when the baby feels like coming’.  In Malaysia the system is similar to the UK and the doctor and I spent some time working out when we could safely schedule the operation. In the UK women are rarely weighed but sugar and bloods are checked assiduously – in Kazakhstan and Malaysia I was weighed at every appointment – I did not, however, have as many blood or sugar checks. 

UK visitors to hospital tend to be restricted in number and time. Even fathers are thrown out at the end of visiting time to allow mothers and babies to ‘rest’  a strange rationale as I know I would have rested more had my husband been able to help look after the babies.  I recall my parents and sister being barred from coming in (with our breakfasts) to meet our first baby, it took us a long time to convince the nurses to let them in.  Here in Miri I was told I could have the whole family to stay over and sleep in my room if I want (for a small surcharge).  They were most apologetic that our children would not be allowed in the operating theatre!  The mind boggles as to the requests they must have for that pre-emptive statement to be made with apology!  

My babies have all been operative deliveries. In the UK, as  long as a local anaesthetic is being used the baby (if healthy) is given to the father and stays with the parents in the Operating Theatre.  Here in Malaysia I was allowed a quick sight of the baby before she was whisked away to the Nursery my Husband rushing behind to get out of scrubs and back into his clothes so he could keep her in view the whole time.  I spent another hour and a bit rather bored and wishing I had a book to read as the operation was concluded, with recovery checks etc it was about two hours before I got to meet the baby properly.  The nurses kept trying to take the baby back to the nursery for her checks and to ‘give me a break’.  As soon as I was allowed to walk I followed them everywhere – they were quite surprised that I did not want to be away from her and concerned that the walk (all of 200m) and standing around might be too much.

Top tips
  1. Find out how things work in your host country and see how it differs from your expectations.
  2. Speak with friends and family at home to find out what their experiences were.
  3. Decide with your husband/partner where you want to have the baby – is your host country safe or should you go home?  This will depend on the host country and whether you have any complications, be aware that a text book pregnancy does not guarantee a text book, problem free birth.
  4. Try and find a health care professional who will support you in your wishes for care and delivery.  Be prepared to research options and advocate for what you want.
  5. Be realistic about care – in some countries you will not be allowed whale music, dim lights and a water birth.  In others this will be encouraged, if you have your heart set on a particular type of birth you may need to arrange for a doctor who agrees with your ideas or (at the extreme) move to a country that will allow it.
  6. Take ‘advice’ with a pinch of salt – it varies from country to country, try to find out the reasons for the advice and weigh your own risks.
  7. Be aware that cultural expectations can be very different – in some countries your baby will stay with you at all times – in others it will be removed.  If you do not want this speak to the hospital staff and explain why.  We found staff happy to accommodate our ‘strange’ requests and allowed us into the nursery when our daughter was brought down.
  8. Remember that the doctors are professionals and, at the end of the day, want only the best outcome for you and your baby.  

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

Ersatz Expat