Tag Archives: house

Mutant Ninja Gecko

Last night I had a terrifying encounter with this freakish beast.

After eating KFC (Khouvieng Fried Chicken) and hanging out with us for awhile, our friend Carol was heading home. Tony opened the kitchen door, and this bizarre gecko came zipping in. It was unlike any gecko I’ve seen, and I’ve seen about a gazillion of them. About five inches long, it sported a massive head that was out of proportion with its skinny body, and its gait lacked the fluid speed of its ubiquitous cousins. When it dashed across the kitchen floor, its hind end swiveled sending the back legs into an exaggerated swing with each quick step.

As we laughed at its high-stepping trot up the cupboard, the gecko took refuge under our countertop convection oven. Carol speculated that it was a baby version of the gargantuan geckos that generally stay hidden and call out their ghostly high-pitched synthesizer voices: “GECK-oh, GECK-oh.”

Every day, geckos scramble up the walls and across the ceilings, pop out from behind curtains and furniture, appear in our shoes and bath towels, and otherwise cohabitate with us. Recently I got a little surprise when one jumped out of the toilet paper roll as I was pulling off a strip. We generally find them whimsical and amusing.

However, the mutant gecko in our kitchen looked like it was up to no good, so we decided to put it back outside. Carol and I scooted the convention oven out of the way and stared, wondering how to catch the little guy. She suggested using the metal salad tongs. I grabbed the tongs and gently clamped the gecko. As soon as I did, it turned and opened its huge mouth with a horrifying hiss. Carol and I shrieked, grabbed each other and instinctively backed away.

Final Score:
Mutant Gecko – 1
The Dents – 0

Carol went home, and we bolted the kitchen door and went to bed to dream of comically disproportionate reptiles lurking behind our kitchen appliances.

Here’s a video Carol took of the rescue attempt.

Conjuring Up Christmas One Cookie at a Time

At my bridal shower 17 years ago (!), Tony’s mom gave me a book of recipes for some of his favorite dishes. I nearly collapsed with laughter, barely able to blurt out, “Oh, you don’t really expect me to cook for this man?!”
Actually, I did try to cook for him in those early days, but we both felt a great sense of relief when Tony patiently wiped away my tears of exasperation and gently released my grip from the pot full of unidentifiable burnt crustiness. We knew the kitchen was no place for me. Since then, I’ve whipped up the occasional fried eggs or Campbell’s Soup Infused Casserole, and I do make good use of the George Foreman Grill. Otherwise, the kitchen is Tony’s domain.

However, there is one recipe from Catherene Anne that makes an appearance every Christmas: Peanut Butter Blossoms. I know these are common cookies and probably don’t seem very exciting to most people, but for Tony and me, they fill the house with the smell of Christmas and remind us of his mother, who was truly a brilliant cook.
So there we were – in Laos, recipe in hand, on the hunt for very un-Lao ingredients. Luckily, we live in Vientiane, a capital city with embassies from around the world and markets happy to cater to the expats who work here. At the little mini-mart across the street from our house, we found the easy items: white sugar, butter, flour (there were three kinds, all labeled in Lao, so I just closed my eyes and picked one), milk, eggs, and surprisingly, vanilla. I almost bought a bag of MSG, mistaking it for sugar, and fortunately I noticed the small graphic of a shrimp on a bag of tempura breading before using it as flour. Fishy peanut butter cookies? Hmmm … that might be popular here…
Tony rode the motorbike to another swankier shop to get the rest of the ingredients. There were no Hershey’s Kisses to be found, so he bought a couple bags of Hershey’s Nuggets. In all, one batch of cookies cost us around $50.

Saturday morning, I plugged in the iPod and turned on some holiday tunes while I searched in the kitchen for bowls, spatulas, cookie sheets and the rest of the paraphernalia. (When you don’t visit the kitchen very often, it’s rather frustrating to suddenly take on a big project such as this.) I soon found that Daeng had scrubbed all the Teflon off my cookie sheet, but no worries, I used a lasagna pan instead. Mixing flour into the peanut butter mixture is back-breaking work, and the fact that our kitchen was designed for midgets started to grate on my nerves. The counters come to my upper thighs, so I nearly had to double over to hold the mixing bowl. The Christmas songs also began to irritate me after just a couple minutes. They felt out of place in this tropical weather. I switched to some soothing classical stuff. I needed soothing.

Finally, I had a pan full of dough balls ready to pop in the oven. Except I didn’t know how to turn on the oven. I summoned Tony, who solved the mystery. He discovered our oven has a knob with two settings: Off and Max.


Not one to deviate from a recipe, I pulled out the first pan after exactly 10 minutes and smushed a Nugget in the center of each ball. As I always tell my students, we must make mistakes or we’ll never learn. I learned that 10 minutes wasn’t long enough, and a whole Nugget is a whole lotta chocolate. I left the rest of the cookies in for 15 minutes and used half a Nugget on each one. Perfect! Well, perfect enough.


The cookies met with resounding approval (if not some skepticism over who baked them) at our school’s Christmas party last night, and even the Lao staff enjoyed them. As Tony said this morning after gorging on the few remaining cookies, “I feel like Courtney Love, and Peanut Butter Blossoms are heroin.”
Here is Catherene Anne’s recipe. Enjoy!
Peanut Butter Blossoms
1 cup sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup creamy peanut butter
2 eggs
¼ cup milk
2 tsp vanilla
3 ½ cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 packages Hershey’s Kisses
Pre-heat oven to 375°F, assuming you are lucky enough to have an oven that tells you the temperature.
1. Mix together sugars, butter and peanut butter.
2. Fold in milk, eggs and vanilla.
3. Add flour, baking soda and salt.
4. Roll into small balls. Roll the balls in sugar.
5. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet (or lasagna pan) for 10 minutes.
6. Unwrap Kisses while cookies are baking.
7. As soon as cookies come out of the oven, put a kiss in the center of each one.

And It’s All Small Stuff

If I smell a little ripe today, it’s because:
(a) we can’t seem to figure out our bedroom A/C unit, so we wake up repeatedly during the night either in a pool of sweat or frozen solid, and
(b) we had no water this morning. Our helpful new night guard, Beng, fixed the water pump before he left, but by then I only had time for a quick prostitute bath with a packet of lemongrass wet wipes.
As Tony stared at the bathtub faucet and waited in vain for it to do something, he muttered, “This is a nightmare.”
In typical sympathetic fashion, I responded, “It’s not really a nightmare, is it? But it is frustrating.”
We both stomped out of the house, cranky and stinky.
My friend, Carine, lent me her car for a few days while she went out of town, but I had to return it this morning. On the way to work, I made a quick detour to the gas station and used my last few kip to put a couple liters of gas in the car. My empty wallet contributed further to my funk. (See the previous post, “A Fool and Her Money …” for background.) Grumpily, I put the car into gear and headed to school.
In that 10-minute trip, I witnessed several groups of Lao people waiting by the side of the road with their offerings of food for the village monks. The image of one little girl keeps popping into my head. She wore a public school uniform: a traditional dark blue sinh – a straight skirt woven of cotton or silk – and a button-down blouse. She must have been about 9 years old, so she had probably witnessed the morning collection of alms on nearly every one of her 3,000-some days on earth. Still, she knelt with her hands in prayer position and a smile stretched across her face as the monks chanted a blessing over her family.
The barefoot monks draped in orange are a common sight each morning here in Vientiane. But today, that little girl’s connection with the monks somehow soothed my frazzled nerves and served as a gentle reminder not to sweat the small stuff.

Changing of the Guard

We hired Ae, our night guard/gardener, at the recommendation of a VIS teacher, who was friends with his previous employers – a couple who had worked for a charity organization here but returned to the States last year. The teacher said Ae was desperate for work and had been calling him frequently to find out whether any of the new teachers wanted to hire him. Without pursuing any other options, we offered him a job. In retrospect, it’s highly likely the VIS teacher simply wanted to get Ae off his back.

Within the first couple weeks Ae was already asking for a loan. I sought the counsel of everyone I could find (Lao and foreign), and they all responded with a resounding, “Don’t do it!” However, Ae showed Tony his dilapidated little thatched-roof shack and told us (through a translator) that he couldn’t pay his children’s tuition. Saavy little bastard. When it comes to children and education, I’m a big fat sucker.

So, against the unanimous advice of friends, colleagues and strangers, and without Tony’s blessing, I gave Ae the equivalent of $120. He agreed to let us deduct about $12 from his pay every month till the end of the school year. Even the Lao teacher who translated during this discussion shook her head and suggested we take out a bigger chunk each month.
But did I listen? Of course not.

Last week, I gave our maybon Daeng the electricity bill and the money to pay it (about $150, a fortune even to us). Unfortunately, she delegated that task to Ae.

For the next few days, Ae kept trying to tell me something. He made gestures that looked like a bird flying overhead and rambled in Lao. I told him repeatedly to tell the story to Daeng so she could translate, but he acted embarrassed and wouldn’t do it. Finally, I called another Lao lady, who talked to Ae and conveyed his story: He was riding his motorbike to the electric company when all the contents of his shorts pocket blew out. He didn’t realize what happened until it was too late. He claims that’s how he lost our bill, all our money, and his whole salary.

Tony wanted to fire him on the spot, but I convinced him to sleep on it. Neither of us actually slept that night. Tony was seething with anger; I was confused about how to proceed. I feel a constant nagging guilt about our relative wealth in Laos, and I worry about being culturally insensitive. I decided to call our landlady, Mrs. Villay, who owns most of the homes on our block and seems to be the matriarch of the village.

Mrs. Villay lives two doors away, so she immediately came over with an old bill (so the electric company could call up our current charges) and a feisty attitude about Ae’s story. “We couldn’t believe you hired that man!” she said. “He’s not well. He spends all his money on cards. He is not responsible, so he cannot work for you.”

When I told her that I wanted to believe Ae, she scoffed. “He stole that money from you,” she said. “I am sure of it!” She has had her own share of sneaky employees; one maybon stole gold from the spirit house. “When I caught her, she cried and said her baby was sick, but I took her to the village chief and now she has to pay me back a little bit every month,” said Mrs. Villay. “You have to be strong!”

Strong is not a word often used to describe me when it comes to confrontation. Gullible, wussy avoider is much more accurate.

Anyway, this afternoon Mrs. Villay came over to help us fire Ae. Ugh. He turned in his keys and rode off on his moped, and Mrs. Villay said, “I think he’s happy. Now he doesn’t have to pay you back.”

We considered not replacing Ae. However, the grasses and rainforest plants in our big yard seem to grow about a foot a day, and there’s no way I’m going near them with a weed whacker when I know snakes are lurking nearby. So I asked Mrs. Villay if she knew of a trustworthy person looking for work. As it happens, her lovely handyman, Mr. P, has a son who is interested in the job. We hired him 20 minutes after firing Ae.

So Beng starts tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed!

Singing in the Rain

As the poster child for Seasonal Affective Disorder, I am a girl who knows rain. I know exactly how much rain it takes to put me in a funk (3 hours of nonstop drizzle). I know exactly how much precipitation must fall before I move from the funk to a near-vegetative state (24 hours of steady rain). And I can tell you how many dreary rain-filled days I’ll wait before plugging in the good ol’ Happy Light to bask in its simulated sunshine (7).
Therefore, the bliss I feel these days is truly unprecedented. Folks, it’s rainy season in Laos. And you ain’t never seen rain like this.
When we lived in Kansas, I once drove my Chevette with its rusted-out floorboards in a massive thunderstorm because I needed to pick up a Prozac prescription. At one point in my crosstown journey, the water in my car was up to my knees. But, I swear, that “downpour” was a mere sprinkle compared to the daily deluge here.
I later totaled my Saturn by driving through our church parking lot-cum-lake in another one of those famous Midwestern storms. Yet, again, I must insist that such spittle would not even qualify as “rain” in Southeast Asia.
In Laos, there’s really no such thing as “raindrops.” You can’t see individual drops because the water is literally gushing from the sky like an open fire hydrant.
And then … quite suddenly … it stops.
The rains cease; the skies clear; and the sun gets to work. The temporary pond that blocks my front gate drains away, and within hours even the mud dries up. Most of the time, those wild raucous house-shaking storms happen at night, and by morning, the air smells fresh and the roads are just a wee bit damp for my bike ride to school.
Occasionally, like today, the rains douse Vientiane all … day … long. You might fret that, by now, I must have moved from funk to comatose, but I feel remarkably upbeat. The sun’s promise to return soon has kept me sane so far.
Singing in the Rain

Our first snake!

Our gardener weed-whacked this poor little guy. That’s Tony poking it with a stick.
I asked Ae (the gardener) if it was poisonous … OK, lacking the Lao vocab for “poisonous snake,” I actually gestured a snake biting me on the arm and then me dying dramatically … but he just laughed and shook his head. Now I’m not sure if his head shake meant, “No, it’s not poisonous.” or “Holy crap, you’re a freak.”
Our first snake!


Yeah, they leave tell-tale signs of their visit all over the walls, but I just love the geckos here! We usually have one or two keeping us company in the kitchen or living room each evening. They stick to the wall with their plump little toes and freeze for hours at a time before scurrying off in search of a snack. I strongly encourage them to eat mosquitoes. As pets, they are no worse than my belated cat, Ketta, who begrudgingly allowed me to pet her just long enough to lure me into a false sense of security, at which time she’d whip her calico head around and sink her fangs into my hand. I fell for that trick again and again. Geckos are equally unaffectionate, but at least it’s not painful.
This poor little guy was hanging out in the kitchen when I got home from school. I set my camera on “macro” and got right down in his tiny face. He must have been blinded by the flash or paralyzed by fear because he was still in that position when I was heading upstairs to bed.


This may be the same one as the kitchen gecko. Dunno. But he was chillin’ in the living room this afternoon.


This is our carport, where the geckos get together for late night dining. About 10 of them scattered when I approached with my camera, but this one didn’t get away in time.


Bless Our House

Our landlady, Mrs. Villay, and her handyman, Mr. Pye, stopped by the house on Saturday with a couple trays full of little snacks and drinks. When I opened the gate, I said, “Oh, wow, thank you!” and Mrs. Villay said, “It’s not for you. It’s for the spirits.” So she put one tray on the front steps and the other in the backyard, burned some incense, said a little prayer, and then popped inside for a minute to chat. Most Lao people are Buddhist, and they usually have a little spirit house in their yard, where they leave all kinds of treats: bananas, sticky rice, noodles, beer, Coke, cigarettes, fake money, etc. We don’t have a spirit house, unfortunately, but I guess the next best thing is to make an offering in an auspicious corner of the property. Hope it worked.


Lovely Light Fixture

We had been living in this house for more than a week before I really noticed our living room light fixture. Its awesome-ness simply can’t be captured with a camera. The center looks a big like a bunch of grayish grapes. Five large beige scallop shells surround the grapes, but the extra long fluorescent lightbulbs stick out the ends of the shells. The most truly fabulous part of all is the rope lights with colored Christmas-y twinkle lights inside. Pink, green, yellow, orange. You really cannot imagine how truly hideous it is. But it makes me happy every time I look at it … which is a lot. I just keep picturing our landlady at Home Depot, thinking, “Ah ha! That is exactly the most perfect fabulous light fixture I ever saw! I must have it for my house!”
Lovely light fixture

First Impressions – The House

A driver took us to our new home straight from the Vientiane airport on Aug. 1. When Mr. Lamon pulled open the huge metal gate, the wildly overgrown yard distracted us momentarily from the two-storey French Colonial home. He unlocked the side door and beckoned us inside, where we found a layer of dust blanketing the vinyl furniture and hardwood floors. Gecko poo dotted the white walls, and the kitchen counters and cabinets showed signs of rodent infestation. Ant trails criss-crossed nearly every surface. Upstairs, dirt filled all the nooks and crannies of the rattan beds and night stands. The built-in closets and drawers of the four bedrooms were desperately in need of a good scrubbing.

As our spirits sank, our new superintendent Steve Alexander popped in and cursed a bit. The landlady had promised to clean up the house and yard, he said. He placed a few calls, and before long a cleaning crew showed up. Their efforts made the house habitable in the short run, but we knew a lot more elbow grease was needed before our shipment arrived. Luckily for me, Tony suffered terrible insomnia for the first week, so he whiled away the hours mop in hand while I enjoyed Ambien-induced slumber.

After just three days, the movers delivered our shipment – 124 boxes! We happily replaced the landlady’s furniture and began setting up our home. Slowly, it’s coming together. Tony fixed a stopped up shower drain, assembled several shelves and took down two hideous light fixtures. The permanent shower rod was installed too high, so water splashed under the shower curtain and all over the bathroom, but I solved that problem by purchasing a spring rod and installing it a bit lower. I also came up with the brilliant plan of covering the front door with a Turkish kilim (and using the kitchen door exclusively) to open up the living room space. Every day, we get the house a little more organized, a little more decorated. Today, I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast without having to move anything out of my path. Progress!

Any idea how to make the captions show up? If you’re interested, click on the photos to go to flickr.com.