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tuktuk Halloween


dsc_1140This weekend I volunteered our house for the annual Phnom Penh Tuktuk Halloween. This family event attracts over 400 trick-or-treaters each year. Residents and businesses sign up to be included on the route that winds through the BKK neighborhood. One kind neighbor translates all of that information into a map which is then distributed by a local coffee shop. Expats and Cambodians alike come out in swarms clogging up the streets with their spider-webby spooked out tuktuks.

Participants whose houses are not on the route are asked to donate bags of candy to help defray the cost of supplying treats to such a large crowd. I ordered a generous amount through the pouch and kept my fingers crossed that all of the US candies and chocolates would arrive in time. And they did! We had more than enough to allow even the occasional overly-zealous fistfuls to go unnoticed.


I didn’t have much in the budget for decorations but that didn’t matter.  It’s my philosophy that the less you spend, the more you tap your creativity. It was with this philosophy that I started clicking through pinterest and finally settled on making a bunch of disembodied mummy hands from masking tape. I sat with the Bushbaby during after school chill out time, wrapping my left hand, sticky side away from my skin, then rewrapping with sticky side down to seal it off. After, I gently nipped through enough to loosen and remove glove, then taped the incision, and a mummy hand was born! I thought they were effectively creepy without entering into “stuff of nightmares” territory. Total cost at 60 cents a roll came in under 10 bucks.


Colette decided early on that she wanted to be a witch. I picked up a yard of slinky (cool) fabric from a market for $3 and zipped it up into a breezy dress. We tattered the hemline to “make it look like the gators got me while out collecting spell ingredients from the swamps.” I bought her lovely handmade broom from a street vendor for $2. My costume was thrown together in an instant but ended up being the thread that tied our family together. Once Colette saw my face, she changed her mind about the classic witch make-up and opted for a “day of the dead” version instead.



Snakes and she took off for trick-or-treat rounds with friends and I stayed behind to pass out candy. The good stuff went pretty quickly, but we had plenty of hard candy backups to replenish the bowl. (Sorry late comers!) After an hour my duo was back to rest for a few before heading out on the final leg. Colette carried on with friends but Snakes stayed behind with me this time, defying the steamy Cambodian climate from keeping him from his beloved gorilla suit.




Although he lost a few pounds in water weight, the gorilla’s cameo was a success. But isn’t it always? I wish you all a safe and happy Halloween!

Cambodia, foreign service blog links

crab market and beyond

As I mentioned in the last post, our family would be perfectly content to fritter away an occasional weekend at the Veranda Resort in Kep with nary a concern for what might lie beyond. Though in the event of a longer stay, like our second visit, curiosity got the best of us and we loaded in to our trusty land cruiser, Old Yeller, to do some exploring.


The main attraction in Kep is the crab market. Shown above, it is located directly on the Gulf of Thailand, with fishermen/crabbers (?) dragging in their haul by the basketful. There’s a collection of restaurants stretching down the boardwalk serving massive plates of grilled fresh crab for around $5. The market itself boasts an array of seafood, sold by the kilo, and packaged into coolers for safe transport back home. Buyers crowd in to inspect the catch and haggle for the best prices.




This region is also known for its peppercorns. They were widely regarded as some of the world’s best before the devastating collapse of the country decades ago. Kampot peppercorn farms are making a comeback and reclaiming their place on the culinary scene. Vendors sell little bags of dried black, red and white ones and bundles of fresh green ones, still on the stalks. There are farms in the area open to visitors. I’m sure we’ll visit on a future visit and stock up for holiday care packages!


We had also read about a nearby temple, Wat Kiri Sela, in our Lonely Planet guide. It’s a 30 minute drive from where we were staying in Kep, near the town of Kompong Trach. It was the final weekend of the Cambodian religious holiday, Pchum Ben, Day of the Ancestors. We were thrilled to have this opportunity to visit a temple during a holy time and light sticks of incense, offering prayers for our ancestors.


The doorway to the Wat is carved into the foot of a giant limestone karst (a new word for me- bigger than rock, smaller than a mountain). A disco buddha with colorful blinking lights flashes his garish welcome. Once visitors descend into the caves, a well trodden path leads you to a central opening, surrounded on all sides by the karst formations reaching skyward. The air is sweet and hazy with incense.

Around the perimeter are endless caverns, passageways and free-standing altars to explore, with multiple shrines throughout waiting silently for worshippers to pass and offer their prayers, food, or money or add to the firework bouquets of incense. As one might expect with food involved, the monkeys weren’t far behind.



We bought a bundle of incense from one of the entrepreneurial local kids. Colette loved to catch the candle’s flame and wait to see it glowing before she’d blow it out and tuck it in next to the others. We said prayers for Grammy and she whispered that she’d really like a pitbull puppy or a kitten or a snail. It was a memorable experience for us all and has piqued my interest to explore temples closer to the city. And a visit to the Wat capitol of the world, Siem Reap, is in our near future (my November birthday!) I can’t wait!




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weekends (and worlds) away


A three hour drive south of the our home in Phnom Penh is Kep, a quiet crabbing village on the Gulf of Thailand. Up until the 70s, it was a thriving resort town frequented by the French and Cambodian elite looking for a break from the city. Though very little of that opulence remains, many resorts and cafes have sprung up in recent years. We hope to make it a semi regular respite for ourselves, visiting on the off months when not much else is planned. It’s affordable and a quick and interesting drive (if traffic is in your favor).



We’ve visited twice now, both times to the same resort, La Veranda. Built in stages, it is a collection of villas and spacious hotel rooms each with their own private and generous veranda, interconnected through a series of winding wooden walkways nestled in to the side of the tropical forested hills. There’s a fantastic restaurant, coffee bar, library and spa. Once you’re settled in, there’s really no reason to leave. A choice of two gorgeous pools with entirely different vibes, make it a nice escape for both couples and families. And then, for those of us traveling with littles? There’s “The Happy Hut”.


Staffed from 9-5, kids over 3 years are welcome to pop in and get their Gods-eye on while parents lounge at the pool with frosty drinks or duck into the spa. Since they consider themselves an “eco-friendly” lodge, nearly all of the craft materials used are natural, recycled or repurposed. Our girl can’t get enough. Every morning at the (free) breakfast she impatiently waits for the little hand to hit 9. “Is it time yet??!? What do you want me to surprise you with?”

Then down the maze of pathways we wander, debating the merits of one more painted shell sun catcher or maybe a laminated monkey mask for her wannabe primatologist father….big decisions when you’re 5. We arrive at the Happy Hut where the ladies are waiting to greet her.



Our first visit was for just one overnight. We never left the compound until we were booted at the noon check-out time, stretching it to the last possible minute with Colette crafting and Snakes getting one final 4-hands massage. Normally we prefer to explore while in a new area, but we were absolutely content to stay put.

The restaurant has a menu heavy with fresh, local seafood. (It’s less than a half mile to the bustling crab market which we passed through on our way out of town. But more on that later.) The comfortable space is open to the breezes, facing the sun setting over the Gulf. Reasonably priced food with some splurge worthy items, like decent bottles of wine.


They offer room service or delivery of food and drinks anywhere on the compound so if the restaurant isn’t your thing there’s a tranquil infinity pool and bar where you can take your nightcap and/or dessert. Any time is a fine one for their selection of sorbets and gelato. Not a bad deal at under $100/night.


On our return trip, we stayed for two nights. This allowed us to go on some daytime adventures which I’ll fill you in on tomorrow!


P.S. Dear readers- Thank you for your kindness and all of the words of encouragement regarding the death of my mom. As expected, life moves on. I’m doing my best to live a good and decent life, curiosity on high, seeking beauty every day and rooting for the underdogs.

Cambodia, family

finding peace

We arrived in Phnom Penh in late July. It began as one of the softest landings we’ve had. The trans-Pacific flight was predictably brutal but our excitement overshadowed all of that. We went to temporary housing for ten days, happy to have an immediate internet connection and access to two refreshing swimming pools. The Bushbaby had recently hit her stride back in the States with cannonballs and independent swimming and she was eager to continue in this 90 degree heat.


Things went smoothly as we moved into our beautiful home in a great, walkable neighborhood, a ten minute tuk tuk ride from the embassy in one direction, 10 minutes to Colette’s school in the other. All of our household things met us at our new place the day we moved in, having traveled from Chile back in March. Snakes’ new truck had even made it here unscathed. I was amazed at our good fortune.

13920213_10153543233431710_5492241385250318703_oI snapped some quick “before” shots so I could do my favorite presto-change-o blog post to welcome you all into our new home once I got things sorted. We were humming along, Snakes adjusting to his new position, me and the Bushbaby unpacking and organizing things. I felt like we had finally shaken the wicked jet lag which had taken nearly two weeks!

And then….

I received an urgent text from my sister to call her immediately. Aw, I thought, her 12 year old family dog, a sweet old lady, weimy-mix had been up and down with health issues recently and I feared the worst. I signed in to skype and dialed her up, ready to listen to dog stories and offer comfort to my niece and nephew. But I was wrong. It was our mom. And she was dead.

This all happened a month ago, and now as I glance at the date- I realize it’s to the day. Nothing can ever prepare you for this. My mom was healthy. I HAD JUST SEEN HER. She was turning 70 in October. She was vibrant and creative and strong and funny. She was the lady you wanted to have a glass of wine with and brainstorm about everything, if you could only stop laughing long enough to jot some things down. She was my best friend. She was so many people’s best friend.



Snakes got out of bed and onto the phone with his boss. We are given an allowance from the State Department for one bereavement ticket. The cost for my family to fly the next day to Michigan from Cambodia is something I’d rather not discuss, but I couldn’t understand the idea of doing this alone. I desperately needed those two with me for the 23 hour flight back home. This is why we have credit cards, right?

My sister and her family had gotten in a day before us from Colorado and started with the funeral arrangements. I admired her so greatly for finding the strength to discuss embalming and select appropriate casket-wear. I still couldn’t understand what it meant that our mom was dead. I stumbled through her house, running into her everywhere. Tripping over her shoes in the hallway, picking up her jacket that kept falling from it’s hook when I walked by. I looked at the tomatoes arranged on the windowsill in her kitchen and wondered if she’d bought them. I ate one whole. I put all of her clothes on, step-sistered my size tens into her size eights and wrapped myself up in her scarves. I slathered myself with her expensive face creams. I searched her lipsticks for a kiss she may have left behind. I replayed one of the many many many messages I have from her on my phone. “Hi Dollface! It’s your mommy!….”

Snakes took the kids out to movies, breakfasts, Lake Michigan and anywhere else in a 30 mile radius that seemed remotely like fun. My sister and I pressed on the best that we could. She went to the florist to commission a big tangle of wildflowers to be draped across her casket. Absolutely NO carnations!! Stop on the roadside for Queen Anne’s lace if you have to. She dropped the clothes at the funeral home. She touched up the electric yellow fingernail polish that had chipped from my mom’s nails. She met my mom’s hairstylist and dear friend who had offered to style her hair one last time. I wish I could say she was beautiful, but there is no beauty in the unexpected death of your mother.


I spent my time organizing an after service luncheon in my mom’s garden. A neighbor had generously offered to have it catered, but for any of you that know me or have been following my blog- you know I couldn’t sit by while ham buns happened. Not while I was still drawing breath. I resolved to honor my mom in the only way I knew, throw a party. I hadn’t slept in days and the jet lag had me running on fumes. About the only thing I was capable of was chopping and whisking.

Snakes did a pulled pork. I threw together a tangy dijon potato and green bean salad, broccoli slaw, a giant pile of crudite with my mom’s famous blue cheese dressing. I juiced bags of citrus for carafes of grapefruit-forward margaritas. Girlfriends from Detroit brought lemon bars, a rhubarb blueberry pistachio crisp, coconut corn muffins with pineapple butter and chocolate chip cookies. When I tired in the kitchen, I went outside to string up these bamboo fans I’d found in one of the markets in Phnom Penh the day before we’d left.


Everyone came back here after the funeral service. We played Loretta Lynn and BB King and Lucinda Williams. We drank margs, toasted to my beautiful mommy and watched her grandkids chase each other through her yard. This should’ve been her 70th birthday party. I kept imagining it was. That any minute she’d walk around the monster rose of sharon bush and squeal with laughter. I’d hand her a drink and give her a huge squeeze. She’d marvel at the Willy Wonka “lollipops” hanging from the trees, wheels already turning on how she’d fashion them into an elaborate mural on her dining room wall. I’d kiss her on both cheeks and look into the smiling eyes that are my own. I’d tell her what an incredible lady she is, how greatly I admire and love her. How much she inspires me every single day. All of these people would. All of these people who’s lives she’s touched, here in her backyard. What fun!!  All of these people eager to line up, raise their glass and share a laugh.


I don’t know how to begin to handle this grief and this loss I feel.  It’s a dark cloud that follows me everywhere and I know once I slow down it is going to consume me. I keep moving forward. I know I can’t outrun it and I will eventually need to turn around, brace myself and step into it with as much grace as I can muster.

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the adventure continued.

IMG_9348Where were we now? Ah, yes. Reeling in one massive anchor and splashing southbound along the Chilean coast for a two week vacation through the fjords, around Cape Horn and ending in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Five hours in, sea sickness swallowed the Bushbaby whole. (Note to all: preemptive dramamine never hurt anyone.) It took nearly four days and as many hours passed in the ship’s med unit receiving IV fluids to fully recover. But after she had her sea legs, there was no stopping her.hottub

Each night she was eager to check the scene at the Stardust Theatre, rushing to the front row for a seat, her pink crushed velvet cape billowing behind her. Never mind if the performer was a lounge singer, tango dancers, a magician, juggler or gaucho performance artists. (Or her very own mother vying for, and…ahem…winning, the title of Miss Norwegian Sun.) This kid LOVED it. When we got back to the room at the end of each day she would snag the next day’s schedule and implore us to tell her what performance awaited us the following evening.

We had sprung for a balcony cabin which was such a luxury. Watching the full moon rise over Patagonia while gliding through the Beagle channel, glass of wine in hand, bundled up on our private terrace-we’d never had such a relaxing vacation.


IMG_9311IMG_9322My husband, the investigative reporter, thrives on research. He had set up rental cars and/or boats at our various ports so we could explore independently. Penguin colonies in southern Argentina, sweeping vistas on the Falkland Islands, a boat ride around the sea lions favorite rocks in Ushuaia. It was just the right amount of adventure, exploration and relaxation. IMG_9240IMG_9369IMG_9408

And now with SIX days remaining, I need to share a related story and what I maintain as a major foreign service stroke of luck. Coincidentally, another cruise line is doing their end of season, “repositioning” cruise THIS very weekend that we are set to leave. We were able to cost construct our ride home, which is actually less than the price of 3 full-fare airline tickets from here back to the states. So this Sunday instead of rushing around an airport and squeezing ourselves onto a cramped and exhausting overnight flight, we are climbing aboard another cruise liner and chugging up the coast, passing through the Panama Canal and ending in Miami where we will begin our home leave before arriving back in DC the second weekend of May. In late July we leave for Phnom Penh, Cambodia. So we have some time for visiting family and friends and more importantly, time enough to figure out if there’s a ship leaving from Baltimore and heading to Southeast Asia. Let me know if you hear of anything. IMG_9275IMG_9424IMG_9448IMG_9450IMG_9351IMG_9561

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IMG_8223Seven days left. The countdown has begun and I believe it is a fine time to plunk down in front of the computer and do some blogging. I’m disappointed with myself for only managing two posts in all of last year. I am amazed with bloggers who are posting regularly while working full time jobs- since I’m relying on that as my excuse. What follows is around 5 posts packed into one.

Two years have gone by and it’s never enough. Two years offer a taste of that sweet spot when you’ve got your life as organized as lives get with friends made and routines established. And here we go again- time to sell the plants, just as they’ve revealed who prefers which window and how long you can be gone before everyone starts to lose it.

IMG_8453Last I checked in was early November. My birthday came on the 13th and a friend and I took a long weekend to Elqui Valley, filled with vineyards and pisco distilleries. It is a 6-7 hour drive northwest out of Santiago. We enjoyed a relaxing few days out of the city and I logged the longest stretch I had spent away from the Bushbaby to date. (She’s 4 –and a half!! –now). Back in Santiago that Sunday, I was welcomed home with a butterfly cake, birthday songs, gifts and endless kisses. A perfect ending to the weekend and ideal preparation for what was soon to come.

IMG_8475December kicked off with our second annual Gingerbread house party. Last year we kept it to a modest roar with 3 of her friends, but had a harder time narrowing the guest list this time around. Snakes and I started early in the week leading up. We mixed, rolled, baked and assembled EIGHT houses. Colette was SO excited to host her friends and reveal the thrilling project waiting on the dining room table. She parked herself at the front door, as a good hostess should, eager to greet her guests as they stepped off the elevator.


Mountains of gummies spilled from a center bowl on the table, individual dishes of royal icing to stick everything into place. A success for sure- and a tradition to continue.



The weekend after was her end of year party and ballet recital at school. It was much more emotional than I expected. She got a special little mention in the welcome speech from the school’s director about how when she’d arrived two years ago, as the school was just opening its doors, she was the first english speaker and knew no spanish. When she walked out onto stage to introduce herself on this night, she did it first in English and then followed up with Spanish. I try not to brag (too much) on here, but I was so proud of her!

Christmas Eve and Day were spent with friends having BBQs and pool parties. I was more than a little distracted since I was heading to Chengdu, China for a 3 week work trip that evening! As I mentioned before, I’ve been working at the embassy this tour. A rare opportunity presented itself (for any working spouse with a current top secret security clearance) to take a temporary assignment in Chinese consulates as a biometrics clerk. Our circumstances and good fortune allowed me to accept.

I hopped on a plane at 11pm on Friday evening and stepped out into the bitter Chengdu haze around 8pm on Sunday.

IMG_8907 (1)This was the view on most days from the window of my hotel. It’s a color photograph. Despite this dreary forecast, I was entirely pacified by the bright flavors and endless selections of addictively delicious and affordable food. After a solid 6 hours of recording fingerprints each morning, I would walk the streets of the consulate neighborhood taking photos and pushing into busy cafes with a smile, a nod and a fistful of cash. My vocabulary was limited to words like “right hand”, “left hand”, “thumbs, please” and “press harder”.  As such, I was only able to order by motioning to a fellow diner’s lunch and smiling while offering cash to the clerk. I never had much success ordering a beverage, the closest I came was to receive a tall glass of murky noodle water one afternoon. Oh, but the FOOD!IMG_9094


Absolutely nothing like the glossy brown gravy choked “Chinese food” of my midwestern youth. I would happily return for this experience alone. Once other temporary assignment officers arrived, both of whom spoke fluent Mandarin, doors blew wide open and group lunches blessed my days. Instead of my usual modest bowl of noodles (around $2), we’d dine together and order many dishes to share. It was absolute heaven, each plate better than or perfectly complimentary to the last.

The 3 weeks passed quickly, but I missed my sweeties with a palpable and increasing actual heartache. I arrived back in Santiago on a Friday morning and that Saturday began our family vacation, our first cruise ever, a two week journey from Valparaiso, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Did you know they offer free child care?) I hope to pick up tomorrow evening right here since this is already too long and I need to get crackin’ on this packin’! The computer will be gone in two more days so it’s my last chance for a while. Until then, wish me smooth sailing! IMG_9186

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All this time

IMG_8172I’m deciding to just jump back in over here. No microphone tapping, no apologies, no excuses. There’s too much to share, personally, professionally and of course my foreign service/expat blogger duty to let you in on my perspective of life in Santiago.


I seriously considered shuttering and bulldozing this blog and starting fresh. It’s been nearly a year. I’ve said it before, here I’m saying it again. I love this online community and my piecemeal scrapbook. So onward I will press.


Quickly, the biggest events nutshell: Right around the time that my adventurous in-laws and our niece arrived for a 3 week visit back in February, the 8 month wait for my security clearance ended. I’ve been working full time at the embassy ever since as a roving OMS (Office Management Specialist). (I am infinitely grateful for the paycheck but my creative side itches non stop for a good scratch.) Snakes went for a temporary assignment to Guayaquil, Ecuador for the month of March, during which time my dear auntie came for 2 weeks to help out. Some of our favorites from A-100 currently posted in Suriname came down for a long Father’s day weekend. And finally, we took our R&R to the states for nearly all of August where we attended a family reunion in northern Michigan and spent the Bushbaby’s 4th birthday with family in Pennsylvania. (R&R tickets have since been revoked; we were the last family at post to receive this benefit having been paneled JUST before they decided to take them away. What luck!) Ideally I will flesh all of this out with stories and photos, but not making any promises. Now then… back to the present.


For weeks now, nay months! leading up to Halloween the only thing I heard from La resident Princesa was that she and her crew were all planning to dress as Elsa for the festivities. I shook my head, smelled the defeat closing in, knowing that my annual fantasy as a costume designer was nearly snuffed out. Throwing my Hail Mary, I suggested that she and I head to the fabric markets and carefully select the most sparkly, shimmering icy blue fabrics our money could buy. Mama could fashion them into the fanciest Elsa gown that Santiago has ever seen! Tears. THIS was met with tears. It MUST be purchased through the computer screen or it just will not do!IMG_8096

I realize how this sounds- that I wasn’t allowed to make my daughter’s costume from scratch. I know plenty of parents would rejoice in this good fortune, dialing it in to Amazon, shelling out the 30 bucks and checking it off the list. Perhaps you’re wondering how I allow my 4 yo to dictate such orders to her own mother. To that I say, I’m working full time now and I’ve learned to choose my battles.

Even so, I couldn’t shake the image of myself curled up on the sofa, sewing project in hand, tacking ancient bits of chandelier crystals I’ve been dragging around for years, yearning for such a debut on the intricate bodice of an ice queen costume. With less than a week to go and Snakes out of town, Colette and I were enjoying a movie night. Making a dinner of popcorn and milkshakes while watching “How to Train Your Dragon”.

I casually mentioned how cool I thought the blonde little rough and tumble character, Astrid is. How much of a resemblance I found between her and my own little hooligan snuggled in next to me. Hmmmm. Seed planted….. Ten minutes later, my heart soared when she turned to me and said, “Mama, I don’t want to be Elsa. I want to be a Viking Warrior.”I casually mentionbed

I hopped to it in the coming days. Any blocks of time which presented themselves were spent punching holes, slicing scraps of leather to fringe, stringing up skulls and setting rivets. Between Snakes and his cabinet of curiosities and my leather studio, we had a respectable arsenal of raw materials. In the end, she only wore it to one of the 3 parties she attended but I’ll chalk it up as a victory for viking warriors and creatively oppressed office workers everywhere.

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