29 September 2015

Snake Encounters

I remember, growing up in Nigeria, that snakes were a fact of life, everyone had met one at least once and of course the stories of the encounters grew in the telling.  Our house in Warri was in land reclaimed from the swamp, we had a bungalow set in a large garden surrounded by drainage ditches. One morning when I was away in boarding school my mother looked out to see my 6 year old sister frozen in fear as she was locked in the gaze of a spitting cobra.  Our mother and the cook dispatched the beast.  That was not the only snake, we would frequently get visitors to the garage and patio and we could hear them slithering about in the roof, the snakes were mostly cobras and black mambas.  My mother was a dab hand at dispatching them with a hoe to the head, often helped by our cat Kipper, who, on seeing an intruder, would set up a loud wailing to alert us then play with it until it was coiled in knots before stepping aside to allow my mother delivered the coup de grace.

One very full snake, sated and still in a tree in Mulu
There was considerable local mythology attached to snakes, whenever we killed one we had to cut off the head and tail which could not be buried in the same grave as or in line with the body - if we did we were told that the spirit of Mammy Wata (a river goddess/mermaid) would reanimate the snake which would come to seek revenge for its death.

Snake encounters were frequent.  One family nearby had a mamba in the roof that found its way into the living room and the house had to be evacuated until the snake was killed and yet more friends had baby cobras in their lavatory, the whole experience set their young daughter's potty training back quite considerably! Another family lost their parrot to a hungry snake that managed to get into the cage.  The really big snakes such as pythons were a much rarer sight although I do remember one being hit by a car near the company clinic.  I don't recall meeting snakes in Lagos, the ones that survived in the city were probably rather shy of humans nor did we meet any snakes during our time in Turkey (spiders were another matter) or Venezuela and Kazakhstan was too cold for them.  In fact other than Nigeria I have seen more snakes in the UK than anywhere else.

Here in Malaysia I expected to see a lot of snakes but other than in the zoo and one in a tree on a trip to Mulu national park I have not seen any. I know they were there in Miri, indeed this huge Python was found just round the corner from our house, but we had no encounters at all which suited me down to the ground.

One long city snake!
Imagine my surprise then to turn around from my computer this morning to see, through the window, a snake coiled up next to the laundry drying on my patio.  He was beautiful and, I think, a juvenile as he was no more than a metre long, very thin with a tiny head.  His eyes were very big in his head which was an apple green although the back of his neck was red.  His body had green and black stripes. He held my gaze for quite some time but as I was holding the baby I could not get a picture.  By the time I had put the baby down he slithered back on to the grass but stayed there long enough for me to get a, very poor quality, 'phone shot.  I tried to grab my camera but he had moved away.   I then sent the dogs into the garden to frighten him away from the house.  The cat is, sadly, too young to set against a snake.  I don't possess a hoe or any other implement suitable for getting rid of snakes.

Thank goodness the one in our garden is small
you can just see him in the centre of the very poor

We called the exterminators who said that given the description they did not think he was poisonous.  They can not lay sulphur (the preferred deterrent) around the house because we have a lot of rain at present and it will just be washed away.  I have decided to leave dog mess in the garden for the moment and scatter  kitty litter around the patios (snakes hate cat litter) and mothballs by the doors.  Anyone going out to do laundry (our washing machine is outside) will have to stamp their feet.

It is a fact of life that snakes are around us all the time but we don't know it.  I suspect he lives next door as the house is uninhabited and he can enjoy an undisturbed life.  I don't want to do him any harm but equally I don't want him to think that he can enjoy my garden as part of his territory or getting into the house.  Snakes are beautiful, fascinating creatures but not ones I want to get to know intimately.  

Posted on the Animal Tales linky hosted by Eco-Gites of Lenault


Click the picture below for more posts on life in Malaysia

Ersatz Expat

25 September 2015

A farce of stereotypes...

We all fall prey to the temptation to stereotype people. I know I do, although I try very hard not to, from time to time a thought will creep into my head before I squash it down.  We have all heard them, Americans are brash (actually very few of the Americans I know fall into this stereotype), Irish stupid (again I have not met that many), British are drunkards (there is truth in the fact that the British like to drink but I think few actually ever get drunk), Germans efficient and unfeeling (efficient yes, unfeeling, not that I have noticed), French elegant lotharios (most the French I know well are happily married and very straight laced, some are elegant but many are not), women can’t drive or read maps (really!) and so it goes on. 

behind one of these shops lurks an unfriendly smile...
While there can be a kernel of truth behind stereotypes that have lasted for many years it can be damaging to make assumptions on an individual and their character and competence based on an inaccurate and generalised point of view.  This is particularly so in an expat community where we have to work and get along with people from around the world, having a preconceived notion of what they will be like can potentially sour a professional or personal relationship before it ever gets off the ground.

Stereotypes persist, however, and I came across one the other day in the most bizarre of locations.  I wear a very particular brand of underwear.  I can get it easily in some department stores or online in the UK and some specialist stores in Kazakhstan stocked it.  Sadly neither Miri nor Ipoh have a lingerie shop that sells my preferred brand. Since it has been nearly 2 years since I was able to purchase some of these essentials I was contemplating placing a mail order when my husband saw a brand outlet in a mall in KL.  On our next trip down I made a beeline for the store expecting to be able to stock up to my heart’s content. 

I gave the shop assistant my measurements (both British and European) and, without even looking at me properly she said ‘you can't have that size, too small,' up until this point I thought she just had a very good eye and I had expanded a little, but she ruined the illusion by continuing 'you are European, Europeans are all larger than Malaysian women’.  I must admit to being rather shocked – store assistants are usually trained to flatter the purchasers not to insult them!  In any event while I may not be as slim as I was aged 18 I am the same size as I was at 28 and while I expect to put on a little weight as I move towards my 40s I don’t intend to buy clothes that don’t fit me now just in case!

I would not have minded, genuinely not have minded if the woman had asked to take measurements because she wanted to double check as I don’t want to spend money on something that I can’t use.  I don’t even mind being told that in general Asian women are more petite than Europeans because that is, generally true and I would be a fool to be offended by that. I was, however, rather shocked that a woman (who was, incidentally, larger than me – not that size should matter at all but I found it amusing given the point she was trying to make) refused to sell me something I had asked for based on my ethnicity.  I decided not to buy anything at all in the shop, I did consider writing to the brand’s regional manager but I don’t want to get the woman in trouble and she might have had a bad day or a particularly unpleasant customer just before me or she might even (and this is a stretch as she was very coherent) have had trouble expressing herself in English.  In any event I will give the store the benefit of the doubt and sort out a mail order or get my sister to post some stuff out to me. 

This stereotyping only concerned clothing, nothing of real import, but it still left me quite bemused and a little upset (until my husband and I decided it was just amusing), I can only imagine how terrible it must be for someone to have their professional, personal or moral credentials and abilities questioned on the basis of their origins.  I will be making extra effort to question it whenever I hear others make such statements.

Click the picture below for more posts on expat life

Ersatz Expat

22 September 2015

Hornbill attack!

Last year we moved to Miri in Sarawak (one of the two Malaysian states on Borneo).  The state is known for its Hornbills (they are the state emblem) and tourist memorabilia is awash with the stuff.  We picked up a few decent carvings before we left as memories of our time there.  Hornbills are fairly ubiquitous and with their big beaks it is impossible to mistake them for anything else.  Our home was in a suburban area and we did not get them in our garden but we could see them at the beach just a short 5 minute drive away.

Hornbills, the state symbol of Sarawak are beautiful
birds with a striking bill
The closest encounter I had, however, was during a trip to the Miri Zoo.  My sister and I had taken the children (who were desperate to show her the local crocodiles) and I decided to get a few shots of one of the Hornbills in his cage.  The bird was either a thoroughly unpleasant individual or he was just having a bad day (I wouldn't blame him on either count as I am sure he would rather be living in the wild).  

This one had his beady eye on me....
Whatever the explanation he certainly took a dislike to me.  One second he was sitting quite contentedly on his perch, showing of his spectacular beak and plumage, the next he had launched himself, screaming, directly at my face.  I was thoroughly relieved to be separated from this close relative to the harpy by a sturdy close mesh cage.  He certainly made me jump – quite a sight given that I was 37 weeks pregnant at the time!  The strange thing was that, having made his feelings towards me quite clear, he returned to his habitual perch to preen and show off to all the other visitors. 

And decided to attack....

I was pleased to meet him in the zoo and not in the wild!
I will enjoy my hornbill carvings and the memories they contain of our all too short stint in Sarawak but I will never be tempted to get close to the real thing again.

Posted on the Animal Tales linky hosted by Eco-Gites of Lenault


Click the picture below for more posts on life in Borneo

Ersatz Expat

17 September 2015

A step back in time...

In the 1990s I lived in Lagos for a year.  We had moved there from Warri (in the Niger Delta) where we lived on a company camp and the big treat in Lagos was that we had our own house.  It is true that we also had a 3 meter wall around the (huge) compound and a security force that amounted to a private army to keep us safe but we had our own home and garden separate from other expats on the beautiful Inner Crescent.

12 Inner Crescent, Lagos, one of the most beautiful homes I have ever lived in
 The house was run down when we arrived, the company had promised a complete renovation in time for our arrival but sadly it was not to be, we had to spend almost two months in a guest house, visiting number Inner Crescent every day to supervise the works but the results were worth it.  The original parquet floor was still in place and in very good condition.  We had a high ceilinged, airy dining and sitting room and my parents and I enjoyed a suite each consisting of a bedroom larger than my first flat, a dressing room and a gigantic bathroom.  My sister snagged the coveted over driveway room with its garland of bougainvillea but she did have to share my bathroom and dressing room. 

Echoes of Malaysia's colonial heritage can be seen peeking out here and there
Some are rather more cared for than others
The two bathrooms were joined at the back by a balcony where, in days gone by, stewards and house staff would hoist the water up by pulley to bring into the bathrooms.  By our time this system had, thankfully, been replaced by a water tower for which we received regular deliveries.  Sadly the trucks were often not properly washed out and regularly used to transport other materials so the water never really got us very clean.  It was, however, usually hot and mostly plentiful.  There was a set of bungalows to the rear of the property where security and house staff could live with their families and grow vegetables while benefiting from the safety of the compound.  We even had our own generator (a necessity in Nigeria) and a beautiful array of fruit trees.

The house was a throw-back to a former era
The house sounds grander than it was, it was quite small by colonial standards, but it was beautiful, possibly the most beautiful house I have ever lived in and we have very happy memories of our time there.  One of the lovely things about Malaysia is that we can see examples of similar architecture all around.  Many of the old mansions have run to ruin but some have been preserved.  Walking around Georgetown with my father we saw many that made our minds leap with half remembered stories with which we regaled (bored) the rest of the family.

The Lagos home was truly beautiful
The garden and building of this restaurant in Ipoh
are so reminiscent of my former home
The night before he left we took my father to STG (Sabah Tea Garden) a restaurant here in Ipoh that is set in a renovated Colonial building.  From the driveway to the building it was so similar to our old home that it made our hearts ache.  Expat life is a litany of goodbyes, of changes and it is rare that we are able to return to a place we have been happy.  I doubt I will ever return to Nigeria and even if I did I would not be able to live in that house or even see it as it was - my Father saw it on a trip to Nigeria in 2006 and said it was roofless and falling to pieces.  Living in Malaysia has allowed me to pass on some tangible form of that memory to our children and that is something I treasure very deeply.

I could move in tomorrow!

Click the picture below for more posts on expat life

Ersatz Expat

15 September 2015

Good and Evil on the Streets of Ipoh

Sometimes in life, and more often in expat settings than in the comfort of our home countries where we know how to avoid these things, we come across evidence of man's capacity for depravity.  I will never forget some of the scenes I witnessed at orphanages in West Africa, particularly once seeing a baby victim of 'JuJu' or black magic rescued from the bush where he had been strung up and left for the animals to eat.  These sights taught me from a very young age that there is true evil in the world and that there are people who lack even an ounce of compassion for life in all its beauty and variety.

The refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, the problems faced by the Rohingya, the struggles of communities in Africa against scourges such as famine and Ebola virus and countless other usually silent tragedies that cross our radar briefly before being forgotten in the hustle and bustle of our day to day existence remind us of the beast in man and its ability to visit suffering on others.

A few weeks ago I had taken our old dog to the vet for a pre-op consultation and, when leaving, we came across this crate of puppies.  They were found in a cemetery, tied into a heavy jute bag and left to suffocate and dehydrate in the heat.  Their rescuer had found them and, having washed them down with antiseptic was bringing them to the vets for a check up and inoculations. Thank goodness the puppies seemed none the worse for their ordeal and they were happy and confident enough to talk to our old dog Bessie who was desperate to take care of them.

I ran into the same man a few days later when our dog was in for her operation.  He had some more puppies with him.  He  has a soft spot for animals and is well known in the town so that people call him if they see any strays dumped.  He currently has 41 dogs in kennels in his garden.  All inoculated, all being socialised and trained and he keeps all dogs until he can find their forever home. The vet told me that he is a regular visitor.  We can't take on any more pets (although Bessie would love another puppy) but I know he is doing his best to find loving homes for every dog that comes his way.

I took a photo of the puppies, rescued from a horrible fate and starting out on a far better life than they could possibly have ever hoped for.  Our older daughter, who was with me at the time, said if the man who dumped them was a devil incarnate then the man who saved them was an angel.  These may only be puppies, the action may only be very small in the grand scheme of the problems of the world but she was very right, this picture reminds me that if there is the capacity for wickedness in us all then there is also the capacity for great good.  Something worth remembering given the depressing nature of the news at the present time.

Posted on the Animal Tales linky hosted by Eco-Gites of Lenault


Click the picture below for more posts on life in Ipoh

Ersatz Expat

10 September 2015

Positivity Burned in the Oven!

I like to try to remain positive whatever life throws at me and I like to think I make a pretty good stab at it.  Last week, however, something happened which sucked the positivity out of me for a while at least.

The gruffalo was fun to make
Although I am not a great cook I do enjoy cooking for the family and experimenting with new recipes.  I also love baking and typically make more cakes than are strictly good for us.  There has been the odd disaster (such as the time that I bought kelp powder masquerading as matcha powder for use in some green tea cupcakes.  I had to convince the kids that the seaweed cupcakes really were yummy!) but by and large I am a competent hand and turn out reliably tasty stuff even in the face of some true ingredient challenges.

Kelp cupcakes... not really a success (although we
conned the kids into eating them).
When we arrived in Ipoh I felt very let down by our landlord who having promised to provide a proper oven declared when we arrived with family and stuff in tow that a tabletop one would be more than sufficient.  I could cope with the filthy house, the lack of running water and the leaking roof but the lack of (promised) oven really got to me.  He had us over a barrel given that we were on a quick move and some of the other houses we had seen had no walls.  Our company had paid deposits and signed contracts on our behalf and as we could not move into a hotel with the dogs we just had to suck it up.  Everything else was remedied, the house cleaning paid for etc and they did buy me a slightly bigger table top oven when I threatened to withhold a percentage of rent but it is not particularly good.  It has no fan function, has a single shelf and while it has top and bottom elements to make up for that I have not yet mastered the knack of getting it to cook evenly.  There is a spit for roasting but if I use that I can’t roast off potatoes at the same time (although there is barely space to get a duck in the oven) and the spit does not work for cakes.

The dragon took ages (but it was green tea not seaweed flavoured)
To add to my expat kitchen woes I have  a fairly useless hob, it has three burners but only one works properly and that has an ‘on’ ‘off’ function with no temperature control.  These are real expat/first world problems.  I have food in the larder and a means of cooking it so by that measure we are wealthy beyond belief.  Nevertheless suffice to say that I am not getting much pleasure from cooking at the moment and I know I am turning out some fairly inferior meals.  I am currently on the hunt for simmer plates to get some control over my gas hob but they are not a popular item in Malaysia and I get blank stares everywhere I ask for them. 

Hello Kitty was fine
 Our two daughters celebrated their birthdays recently: the older one was 7 on the Tuesday and the younger turned 1 the following day.  This was a great week, I love their birthdays and I love baking for them.  Over the years I have turned out some pretty decent attempts at cakes and the children have always loved them.  We have had Whales, Hello Kitty, the Gruffalo, Butterflies, Dragons etc.  Some worked better than others but all have been appreciated.  Our older children get cupcakes to bring into school to share amongst friends and a ‘family’ cake that we enjoy at home along with the meal of their choice.
But in the absence of writing icing her cupcake siblings' whiskers took hours
The oven can just about cope with cupcakes although the ones at the back are always a little better done than the ones in the front a judicious use of icing deals with that problem.  This year, as normal I sent my daughter in for the first day of school with cakes for her class.  In every other school these have been lapped up but my daughter was rather upset to tell me that most of the children just threw them in the bin when she said that we had made them together.  They wanted bakery standard or not at all!  Now admittedly these were not the most beautiful cakes we have ever made but that is because our daughter wanted to help me so we decided to go for something simple (pink sprinkles) rather than a challenging design for her to get frustrated with.  Her good friends had a few extra and the staff and security guards seemed to enjoy their ones so all was not lost.

The butterfly was popular
She had asked for a grown up cake as opposed to a ‘design’ for her family cake so a chocolate sponge (slightly charred on one side and just cooked on the other) was covered in icing and decorated with strawberries much to her delight. 

A grown up cake for a 7 year old girl

The real disappointment came the next day.  Having collected the older two from school I set about making the baby’s first birthday cake.  I usually make a spiced pound cake for the baby as an iced cake is too sweet for someone age 1, I then decorate it with some writing icing.  Our older daughter had a butterfly and I had a small sunflower tin ready to do duty for the small cake, I had visions of outlining the leaves in icing and filling the centre with some sugar flowers I had picked up in the shop.  It would be beautiful!  Sadly my oven had other ideas.  I had enough mix for two tins, the sunflower and a loaf both to go in at the same time, I have made this exact recipe with these exact tins many times before with perfect results every time.  Disaster struck – the tops and bottoms of the cakes cooked well enough but in some feat unknown to culinary physics my oven and I managed to arrange for the centres to completely fail to cook.  When I gave up and took them out of the oven after double the usual time the sunflower collapsed in a mound, the top tasted like speculaas biscuit (I am quite proud as I have loved these since I was a child and always failed to make them when I try), the centre like a sort of wet, uncooked spiced pudding mix.  It was clearly an unmitigated disaster.  The loaf which had been intended to do lunch box duty for the rest of the week fared a little bit better; it at least held its outer form although the centre collapsed spectacularly.  Not wanting to cook another cake at 7.30pm we filled the centre with cream and strawberries, put a candle in the middle and sang happy birthday.  The baby loves strawberries so she was quite happy, but the cake was, sadly, completely inedible. 

The worst birthday cake in the world!
I now feel rather guilty that our third child had no proper birthday cake and I feel vaguely resentful of my kitchen which has sucked a lot of the fun out of one of my hobbies.  I am trying to put a positive spin on it but failing at this point in time, nevertheless I know I need to stop the 'pity party' soonish.  I have managed to bake better cakes where I have had to use a substitute for every single ingredient  but this oven has stymied me.  I guess I could look on it as just another expat challenge.

Posted as part of the My Expat Family Link Up.

Seychelles Mama

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

Ersatz Expat

3 September 2015

Haze, Haze, Go Away!

Hazy days in Malaysia are not pleasant at all.  At around this time of year we are plagued with the stuff which is the product of forest fires in Indonesia.  The smoke and dust from the fires is spread across the Straights of Malacca and blankets Malaysia in a pea-souperesque fog that is thoroughly unpleasant.  It causes dry eyes and skin, a sore throat and can lead to breathing problems.

Picking the children up from school, the mountains are very close (the closest
are 500m or less) and can typically be seen with no problems.

Haze is tracked by the Department of the Environment and the meteorological office and generally reported on in all television, newspaper and radio weather reports.  We got a lot of haze in Miri last year, a result of forest burning in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) spreading the pollution towards us but I, rather naively, thought that here in the Peninsula, with the sea separating us from the problem, we would be ok.  Sadly there were over 380 reported hotspots (burning zones) on Sumatra today and the prevailing winds are sending it all over towards us.  Malaysia is not completely innocent in all of this, of course, as burning does go on here as well but the same hot spot survey reported only 7 patches of burning taking place in Malaysia at the current time.   The haze problems started last week and the papers say that we can expect to have it with us for a while yet.

The air quality in Ipoh has suffered accordingly.  At the present time our Air Pollution Index is 102 so just registering as ‘Unhealthy’.  By 200 it is considered ‘Very Unhealthy’ but I must admit to having no desire to experience those levels.  Even at these lowish levels  I have noticed that my eyes are sore and not tolerating my lenses particularly well.  I may have to take the plunge and be seen in public wearing my glasses!  I am just pleased that none of the family are asthmatic. 

A view from the Perak Cave Temple that is usually clear....
Visibility is also quite reduced, I took a visitor to see the famous Perak Cave Temple today and the view across the city was quite restricted.  Schools are still allowing children to play outside but I have noticed a few people wearing masks or covering their faces and these numbers will increase if the pollution index creeps up (we are only at the bottom end of ‘Unhealthy’ and nowhere near ‘Very Unhealthy’).  For the moment I am just making sure the family drink a lot of water, stay inside where possible, keep doors and windows shut and using plenty of moisturiser and moisturising eye drops.   We have not stopped our evening runs just yet but we are going out for shorter periods of time and we are not taking the baby out to feed the fish in our local lake. 

Hopefully the problem will resolve itself soon....

.... Or not.  10 days later and our haze problem has only got worse.  Visibility is now down to around 600 meters (I can now not see the mountains in the first photograph) and the readings are high, not yet in the 200s but we can taste the pollution.  The children are still going to school but are being kept indoors all day.  To be honest I think they are better there as we have some broken window catches in our home and very few ACs so air quality wise they are better in the larger building. Needless to say we are not running, not walking the pets and I am thinking about buying masks for the children.  Our poor older dog is suffering the most, she is wheezing badly and finding it quite difficult to breathe after even the shortest trip outside.  The weather service tells us that we can expect this to clear soon with the Monsoon and change in winds on its way.  It certainly can't be soon enough.

Click the picture below for more posts on life in Malaysia

Ersatz Expat

1 September 2015

An Otter in Penang

A few weeks ago my father arrived to stay with us for a few weeks.  Because it is smaller and closer to our home than KL he flew into Penang airport.  We decided to make the most of it and rented an apartment (via airBNB) in Georgetown, the capital of Penang state and on Pulau Pinang island.  Georgetown was the historic centre of British trade in the region for a period of time in the 19th Century, superseding Melaka but losing out, in the end, to Singapore.  The centre of Georgetown is a protected UNESCO world heritage site and full of wonderful old Chinese shop houses side by side with some gems from the colonial era. All in all a place to enjoy culture not wildlife.

Gurney Drive in Georgetown, not where you would
expect to enjoy a wildlife encounter!
Walking along the seafront one morning we came across a beautiful female sea-otter.  We noticed her sitting quite comfortably on some rocks no more than 5 meters from the pavement.  We did not try to get any closer for fear of scaring her  and did not even try to change the lenses or even settings on the camera for fear of losing her.  We need not have worried, she was quite happy for us to take some pictures of our encounter and stayed with us for about 5 minutes before disappearing off into the sea to hunt for fish.
An otter enjoying the colonial sites of Penang

She was completely relaxed, talking to her friend Mr. Crow

She played around on the rocks for a while

Before swimming off in search of some fish
Posted on the Animal Tales linky hosted by Eco-Gites of Lenault


Click the picture below for more posts on life in Malaysia

Ersatz Expat