Thursday, 31 March 2011

March Memories Photographic Challenge - The Results

I'm writing this two thirds of the way through March because I have realised that I won't be able to post at the end of the month.  In fact I can't post at all during the last 10 days of March because I'll be on holiday in Myanmar...  We booked this trip ages ago, well before I even thought of this challenge, but I didn't put the proverbial two-and-two together and set the challenge anyway.  Idiot!

Anyway, despite inadvertently giving myself 10 days less that I should have had, I have managed to complete my own challenge (phew!) and have, through the magic of Blogger, set this to post on March 31st.

So here we go, my 16 things for March 2011:

1.  Celebration.  We've had lots of birthdays in my class over recent weeks, and the children seem to have started a very nice habit of bringing a birthday cake in to share with their classmates (and teachers).  This was a particularly tasty one - a dense chocolate brownie cake with crunchy praline on the bottom... yum!

2.  Stripy. I thought this one would be simple, but wasn't struck with much inspiration for stripes this month...  still, here's a slightly unusual take on the theme.  As part of our Eco-Week in school our year group visited a local recycling centre.  The kids were fascinated by the place, and so was I.  This is a close-up of a huge bundle of cardboard which has just come out of the compressor.

3.  Empty.  All out of Sauvignon Blanc...

4.  A Game.  I'm a total Scrabble-on-Facebook addict and am usually playing about 7 games at a time, with various people from family members to friends from primary school.  I took a shot of this particular game because I'm winning it!

5.  New.  My new toy - an iPhone 4.  Buying this was a big event for me - I'm not really a 'gadgety' kind of person, and I've always just had the cheapest possible pay-as-you-go phones, but I'd been hankering over an internet phone for about a year.  I finally made the leap into the world of the smartphone at the beginning of March.  Unfortunately within a week the stupid thing had gone wrong...  so this is my second iPhone of the month.

6.  Work.  This term Year 3 have been focusing on environmental issues, culminating with an extravaganza entitled 'Trash to Panache'.  This was a catwalk-themed assembly where the children modelled their 'wearable art' - inspired by some aspect of Brunei - that they had created from rubbish as a homework project.  Never one to miss out on the opportunity to dress up and make myself look ridiculous, I couldn't resist joining in with a floral-inspired tunic-top, created from carrier bags.  Chic.  Sometimes I can't believe I actually get paid to do this job.

7.  Growing.  I had SO many potential shots for this one, Brunei being a pretty verdant country!  However, I was most excited by this one.  Earlier this month we went for a walk in an area called Bukit Markuching, a new area for us to explore.  As we climbed up the first hill we found ourselves walking through a little plantation of various fruit - lime, banana, papaya... and pineapple!  I had never actually seen a pineapple growing before, and in case you haven't either, they don't grow on trees (as I had previously assumed) but on small spiky bushes.

8.  Home-made.  It's hard to find 'nice' bread here; much of it is full of sugar, which really isn't to 'Western' tastes, so I've taken to making my own.  That probably makes me sound really smug, but it's very simple and I only make one loaf a week, which is plenty for us. 

9.  Favourite. One of my favourite things about being in Brunei is the amazing wildlife, and this is one of my favourite creatures so far.  He was spotted on a walk at Tasek Lama, and I spent a good 10 minutes photographing him - he barely moved, no matter how close I crept.  What a poser!

10. Blue.  A particularly gorgeous day in Brunei with clear blue skies.  This is the palm tree in our garden (yes, I know, don't hate me).  The sky was bluer than this really so I'm not 100% happy with this one, but it was the best blue photo I managed this month.

11.  Evening.  Egrets at the Saddle Club as we cycled back from the beach one evening.  I used to get very excited whenever I saw an egret in the UK, but here they're common as pigeons (only much more beautiful).

12.  Pattern. This was another one I assumed would be easy.  I thought I'd just pop into a mosque and snap some of the tiled patterns...  but it just didn't happen, what with the busyness of the end of term.  So here's a beachy one instead.  Our beach is covered with these starburst patterns; they're made by little crabs who excavate burrows by rolling up little balls of sand and pushing them out of the holes.  Amazing.

13.  Flight.  We live fairly close to the airport here.  Actually this is Brunei, which is about the same size as Dorset - we're fairly close to everything here!  The flight-paths seem to vary but there are days when every plane that takes off or lands goes right over our house (that's our roof and palm tree in the picture) and there are times when it sounds rather as though they are about to land in the garden.

14.  Yesterday. I'm so tired today (17th March - when I'm writing this particular entry) because yesterday was the day of our year-group trip.  After the recycling centre (see photo 2.) we went to Muara Beach to do a beach-clean-up.  It was boiling hot and we were eaten alive by the sandflies, but despite all this it was fantastic.  In a mere 15 minutes we filled loads of bin-bags with various detritus found on the sand - and best of all it really brought home to the children this very real environmental problem.

15.  Fabric.  Some beautiful Robert Kaufman fabric from Hokko.  I couldn't resist it.  Despite thinking it's slightly too silly to actually wear, I'm having it made into a simple skirt.

16.  Loud. Small but VERY loud, these geckos aren't known as 'Chit Chats' for nothing!  This one is - thankfully - outside the window, but there are plenty who reside in our bedroom and act as spookily accurate alarm clocks, generally shouting to us at about 5.30am...

I'm looking forward to seeing other people's March Memories soon!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Off on Holiday again...

We're off to Myanmar (Burma) tomorrow.  Exciting.

Photo courtesy of my friend Jo...  hope she didn't mind me borrowing it...

Back in a couple of weeks with news, views and food to report!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Pantai Jerudong Fish Market

Brunei has a long coastline, and there are many public beaches (pantai in Malay) along this coast.  We are fortunate to live a mere 5 minutes' walk from a beach here, so we don't often bother going to any of the other beaches as they're all pretty similar (and 'ours' is always deserted!)

However, we have recently discovered that Pantai Jerudong - about 15 minutes' drive west of us - is the base for many of the small fishing boats that ply their trade off the Brunei coastline, and it also has an excellent fish market.

I suspect the place is very busy first thing every morning as the local restaurants come to stock up, but we went at about midday on a public holiday so it was pleasantly quiet.  There were several fishermen around mending their nets...

and drying their washing on their boats!

Inside the market itself we enjoyed wandering around marvelling at the variety and beauty of the fish on display.  Well, I think they're beautiful, although I can see that many people might think otherwise!

I was more than a little surprised to see sharks for sale...  look at these baby Hammerheads:

Perhaps these are used for the controversial shark-fin soup?  I certainly didn't purchase any. 

We don't often cook fish, and I didn't have a clue what most any of these fish were.  I suspect I need to find a friendly English-speaking stall-holder to talk to one of these days.

Or perhaps I'll just come another time and buy some of the fish that were cooking on this barbecue.  They smelled very tempting!

And I wasn't the only one who thought so...

Even if I didn't come back for the fish, the adjoining fruit and veg market would be enough to tempt me back.  Lots of stalls selling fresh local produce at good prices - what's not to like?

Bananas (pisang), as you can see, were plentiful!

As usual there were many things on the fruit and veg stalls that I simply couldn't identify - all of the above for example!

Several stalls were also selling these hanging decorations.  On closer inspection I saw that they were made from phone-cards - clever! 

Brunei doesn't have quite the number of size of markets that you might find in other south-east Asian countries (Thailand and Vietnam for example) but it's exciting to find one that's used by locals and sells fresh local food.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Brunei Critters

Whenever I visit a new country (or even go to live in one!) it's often the wildlife that interests me most.  In Canada we would regularly cycle up to the pond to see the beavers swimming around, and never got over the excitement of seeing hummingbirds in our garden.  Seeing a black bear in the wild was also an amazing experience - although I still regret not managing to see a wild moose. 

Here in Brunei there are countless exciting creatures...  many of them living in and around our house!  However, last weekend we spotted a new critter.  We noticed a movement in the undergrowth near the path whilst walking at Tasek Lama, and a closer look revealed this curious chap:

He didn't seem bothered by me creeping ever-closer with my camera so I managed to get some quite detailed shots.

I love the blue flecks on his back, and his amazingly long tail.

We had never seen one of these before - I have no idea what it is...  any suggestions much appreciated!  I couldn't help but wonder if it was some kind of chameleon as it was so well camouflaged amongst the leaves, and it had those incredible 'swivelly' eyes.

Bizarrely enough, the following day - whilst at the Empire Hotel - we spotted a near-identical critter on the rocks by the beach.  Identical apart from the colour (lending weight to my chameleon theory perhaps?)

He had exactly the same loooooong tail:

And the same row of spines down his neck.  He's looking at me wearily and saying 'Bugger off!' here - I think he was getting heartily sick of me crawling across the rocks towards him, forcing him to keep scuttling away.

After our tea we came back out to sit and watch the sunset over the sea and were massively excited to see HUGE turtles swimming just off the coast!   No pictures I'm afraid - they bobbed up and down pretty fast, I'd never have managed to get a photo, and also the light was fading fast - but take it from me, it was a fantastic sight.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Macaron Afternoon Tea

Tipped off by a fellow Brunei Blogger (thanks Boel!), we headed off to the Empire Hotel for afternoon tea today.  They were having a macaron-themed weekend, and as I love macarons it seemed like a must-try event.  I have made macarons a couple of times before, once with a blackberry theme, and once with rhubarb and orange flavours, but I haven't attempted making them in ages.  They're great fun to do and delicious to eat, but pretty time-consuming.

The idea of an entire meal made from macarons was too enticing to miss.  We arrived at 3pm, only to find that it was fully booked.  However, we put ourselves down for the 'second sitting' and went and sat in the hotel grounds with our books.  Fortunately when we returned at 4pm there was a table free.

The table of macarons looked incredible, such amazing colours.

If you look closely at the bottom picture you can see that there were both sweet and savoury options available...

We decided to start with the savoury ones.  I have to admit I was expecting the macarons themselves to be savoury, but no...  they were all sweet.  Was I naive to hope for savoury macarons, or is that impossible as their ingredients are simply egg white, ground almonds and sugar?

Anyway, it was certainly a 'taste sensation' eating prawns, pate, egg, cheese, smoked salmon and roast beef with horseradish atop a sugary macaron... and perhaps not a taste sensation I'd be that keen to repeat! 

The sweeter versions were much more appealing.

I started with a 'modest' (cough) plateful with a mere 5 macarons (Rob went the whole hog with 7!) and all 5 were tasty.  Perhaps the nicest was the blueberry jelly one in the foreground as it wasn't too sweet; the jelly was pleasantly acidic.  The two pink ones had a strawberry filling, the orange one was peachy, and the white one at the back of the plate was vanilla.

Rob's plate also included a chocolatey one, and a vaguely violet-flavoured one.  As you can see they were beautifully presented, but I felt that the chefs had missed a trick by not flavouring the macarons themselves.  They were all 'plain' (apart from the vivid colouring of course!) with only the fillings providing the different flavours.

Of course we had to return to the buffet table several times, just to make sure we had sampled everything on offer!  Oh dear, all-you-can-eat deals are very dangerous.  We both left with extremely full stomachs and sugar-rush headaches...  a very exciting tea, but maybe just a 'once in a lifetime' experience?!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Parents' Evening

I love most things about being a teacher, but one of the worst things is parents' evenings.  Actually, scrub that, one of the worst things is the anticipation of parents' evenings.  I always absolutely dread them, but once they get going the vast majority of parents are lovely - and appreciative - and I end up really enjoying the opportunity to chat with them. 

I've now in my 13th year of teaching and I can count the number of parents who've been rude or aggressive at these meetings on the fingers of one hand...  but I guess those few mentally scar you for life!  (Although at least now I can look back and simply roll my eyes at the excruciatingly embarrassing 10 minutes I spent with the newly-divorced couple who swore constantly at eachother...  and the husband of one of my then-colleagues who rudely told me I was teaching PE 'wrong'.  Awkward!)

Anyway, it's struck me before, and did again this evening, that some of the parents clearly dread the whole experience as much as I do!  Some come in nervously and sit up very straight on the tiny chairs, looking petrified that I'm going to tell them their child is some kind of behavioural nightmare without 2 braincells to rub together...  but luckily I didn't have reason to say much that was negative about any of the children in my class this year!

Thanks to my ex-colleague Chris for introducing me to the following poem by the great Allan Ahlberg.  Chris used to stick a copy of it onto his classroom door at every parents' evening, and I like to think it cheered up a good few parents - it certainly always makes me smile!

Parents' Evening

We're waiting in the corridor,
My dad, my mum and me.
They're sitting there and talking;
I'm nervous as can be.
I wonder what she'll tell 'em.
I'll say I've got a pain!
I wish I'd got my spellings right.
I wish I had a brain.

We're waiting in the corridor,
My husband, son and me.
My son just stands there smiling;
I'm smiling nervously.
I wonder what she'll tell us.
I hope it's not all bad.
He's such a good boy, really;
But dozy - like his dad.

We're waiting in the corridor.
My wife, my boy and me.
My wife's as cool as cucumber;
I'm nervous as can be.
I hate these parents' evenings.
The waiting makes me sick.
I feel just like a kid again
Who's gonna get the stick.

I'm waiting in the classroom.
It's nearly time to start.
I wish there was a way to stop
The pounding in my heart.
The parents in the corridor
Are chatting cheerfully;
And now I've got to face them,
And I'm nervous as can be.

(From Heard it in the Playground by Allan Ahlberg)

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Thai Food - Chicken with Basil

On our very first trip to Hua Ho supermarket in Brunei we found, in the vegetable and herbs section, a huge bunch of Thai Basil.  We were SO excited - it's difficult to find in the UK, but it's quite an important flavour in Thai cuisine.   It doesn't taste much like its near-namesake - it has a very distinctive aniseed-like flavour, and I wouldn't use Basil and Thai Basil interchangeably, they're just too different.

Anyway, we bought the Thai Basil and went away merrily convinced that we would have a ready supply of it whenever we fancied... But of course we hadn't seen it since!  We've now realised that this is often the case when shopping here in Brunei.  The supply-lines from various other countries seem a little erratic and often you can go looking for a particular ingredient which you know is always in stock... and it's nowhere to be found.  Ah well, it's all part of the excitement!

This was a preamble to the huge excitement of finding Thai Basil for the second time in our 6 months here!  Yes, it was back in Hua Ho last Saturday so we bought a large bunch and then set about creating a week's worth of meals around it.

We have recently discovered a great Thai restaurant in Delima, thanks to our friends Chris and Yvonne.  It doesn't have a vast menu, but is seriously cheap and cheerful.  One of the dishes that either Rob or I often order there is Chicken and Basil with rice, which costs all of $3 - a perfect lunch!

We ate this dish often whilst in Thailand in December and have been keen to recreate it ever since.  However, the lack of Thai Basil was obviously an issue, but also the lack of a suitable recipe.  Our Thai recipe book gives fish sauce as the main ingredient in the sauce, but we felt that that wasn't right - the dishes we'd had in Thailand, and in our local Thai restaurant, definitely didn't include the distinctive taste of fish sauce... so I set about creating my own version.

We decided that Oyster Sauce and Soy Sauce should be the basis, plus a generous spoonful of grated Palm Sugar.

I fried 5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped, along with a small  onion, sliced into half-moons.  Then I added a finely chopped chicken breast (not quite minced, but chopped into little pieces).  The green beans and mild chillies followed once the chicken was almost cooked through.

Then the sauce - Oyster Sauce, a little chicken stock (from concentrate), then a slosh of Soy.  The sugar was stirred in now too.  I tasted it and remarkably it was perfect!  Exactly as we have eaten it so many times in restaurants!

I stirred a handful of Thai Basil leaves through at the last minute, just giving them time to wilt, and served with a mound of rice.

We also made a huge batch of Green Curry as Thai Basil is a great addition to this, and we have frozen any leftover Thai Basil leaves...  just in case it's another 6 months until we find it again!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Thai Food - Pad Thai

The archetypal Thai street-food, we ate plenty of this on our last trip to Thailand, particularly in Bangkok.

Cheap and cheerful and always freshly cooked in front of you, it's a guaranteed tasty supper.

Back at home in Brunei we decided to try it ourselves...  and let me tell you, it's not quite as effortless as the ladies on the stalls make it look, even when you lazily use a sachet of paste!  However, it's not difficult and we'll certainly make it again.

We wanted a vegetarian meal, so used firm tofu instead of meat.  This was delicious, and something I'll definitely use next time I make this dish.

Thick rice noodles soaking in cold water before boiling:

Lots of vegetables; this is a healthy dish!  Several chillies went in too, plus a beaten egg.

The finished Pad Thai - made entirely according to the instructions on the back of the packet!

We seasoned it at the table with a splash of fish sauce and a squeeze of fresh lime.