Snakes passed a landmark birthday back in early July, one that deserved to be celebrated beyond the usual night on the town. (Look- it even merits a blog post!) He was hesitant because we’d both had a stressful and difficult year, but I pushed back, insisting that this was exactly why we had to pause and honor this time. I reminded him of a decade earlier when we threw a party for his fortieth in our Detroit backyard, “The Circus in the Hood”. We had an intern staying with us, working with Snakes at The Detroit News. As luck would have it, this intern also happened to be an accomplished juggler. We hired a local bluegrass band and a friend to tend bar. When the band took breaks, the juggling show would begin. We talked about it for years after.

Our social circles have changed almost entirely since then but we shot off a few hopeful emails to some old friends who were around for The Circus in the Hood.  Incredibly, one couple accepted. They flew in from Detroit to help mark the occasion. I decided that a dinner cruise would provide an solid framework around which I could create a beautiful meal and memorable experience for Snakes and our guests.


Boat rentals are available at the riverside for around $30/hour. They have an upper and lower deck, in case of rain showers.  I figured we could use the lower deck as our staging and prep area as well. The captain cruises south to where the Tonle Sap joins forces with the Mekong and putters along until the party decides it’s time to head back up stream. I reserved one for the evening and set to the details.

First I went on line to seek out pretty, lightweight melamine tableware and cups. World Market came through with the beauties pictured above. I found the gold foil placemats at a local market; each is a different design. The price was far too high at a dollar a piece but after some shrewd bargaining on my part, I was able to get four for that price. The candles are from Amazon, LED lights that flicker through the wax casing. Our friends from Detroit carried with them the battery powered string lights that are seen in the background. I am confident we will use all of these things many times over.


A friend who manages some local hotels recommended a couple of assistants who had experience working in food service. I was thrilled to have two extra sets of professional hands to help this all come together. I planned the menu with some input from Snakes. There were a few items he insisted on having, shrimp cocktail was one. Again, our traveling friends came to the rescue with some fresh and zippy horseradish carried across the Pacific to make the cocktail sauce complete.

We started with a white sangria, spiked with St. Germain Liquour and Grand Marnier. I swapped the recommended berries and peaches for local fruits instead, fresh mango and lychee. It was not a decision I regret.


I served bruschetta with lemon feta dip topped with those insanely addictive sweet hot cherry peppers from Trader Joe’s, a staple on my consumables shipment shopping list. I also made one of my oldest stand-bys and crowd pleasers, caramelized onion dip with kettle chips. It cannot, it will not be resisted. We all kicked back with our drinks in hand and a full moon rising over the Mekong as the captain pulled up the anchor and cast off. It was a beautiful evening, straight out of a story book.

Soon we switched over to champagne and shrimp cocktail which had both been waiting below on ice. The waiters brought them up and topped off glasses. Snakes took the opportunity to make a quick toast and thank all of our friends for joining us.




The sun went down as quickly as the champagne and the city sparkled from the river banks. We moved to the table and settled in for the salad course. I prepared a classic caesar since the greens needed to be fairly hearty and amenable to a little travel and humidity. Nothing fancy, but a homemade garlicky Caesar is popular for good reason. I had my helpers dress the greens just before service. Then they uncorked bottles of wine and placed them on the tables, refilling as needed.

The entree came next. I had poached red snapper in olive oil with fennel and tomatoes in my big Le Creuset dutch oven. It held it’s heat nicely in the heavy cast iron. I prepared this recipe once before when we hosted a giant gourmet picnic years ago on Belle Isle, a city park in Detroit, where we were mistaken for an art installation. But that’s another story. The point is, this recipe is delicious and it travels well. I paired it with an off-the-cuff green bean and potato salad with roasted tomatoes, dressed with a caper dijon vinaigrette.



Just as we were finishing up storm clouds began grumbling in the distance and a light rain sent us all to the lower deck. It was a perfect change of scenery by then, like shifting dinner party guests into the living room at home to relax with dessert and coffee after the meal. Though, cheese and dessert were yet to come, nothing so civilized as coffee was brewing.

Snakes opened presents while I served the cheese course and Sauternes. The ukuleles came out (I think we had three on board) along with a bottle of Four Roses bourbon.




Finally we sang happy birthday with uke accompaniment and a sparkler light show. The last and entirely unnecessary course was slightly tortured key lime bars. They’d gotten tossed around the cooler and squashed into their cellophane a few times too many. I doubt anyone noticed, I barely did. By then we were all merrily singing and strumming our way down the Mekong, headed back to shore.

***Photo credits go to the incomparable Mike G., an ideal dinner guest and a phenomenal photographer.




waking with the city


Each morning, as the neighborhood birds, beetles and lizards begin their chatter and I am merely one precious hour shy of a satisfying night’s sleep, the newest member of our family shakes the sleep from his head, tags jingling with pride and enthusiasm. He clears his throat and emits a high pitched whine which rides the airwaves up the stairways and through thick hardwood doors.  The hum of air conditioners does little to tamp the tone that jolts me from my dreams and doesn’t cease until my feet hit the floor. Good morning 5am!


In November, we adopted a street dog. Bonecrusher or Bones for short, named by the Bushbaby after hearing a euphemism for Dengue fever, the local mosquito born illness. He’s a great dog, considering he’d never been walked on a leash nor set paw in a house before arriving at our door. The guy has never once had an accident. And most importantly, he’s incredibly gentle with Colette and her friends. He patiently tolerates the tutus, headbands and big snuggly hugs.

It hasn’t been love at first sight as it was for me when I first met MY dog, Banjo, rest his legendary soul. But I’ve realized that Bones isn’t MY dog. He’s our family’s dog, and more specifically- Colette’s. So like any tender-hearted mama, I love him more all the time when I see how much joy he brings my lady. But back to that daily wake up call…

I strap on my sneaks and am out the door by half past five. If I’ve managed to prepare myself the night before, my iPhone is charged and loaded with my current favorite podcasts (The Daily from NYT, The 10 Minute Writers Workshop, Civics 101, Hidden Brain, and the usual suspects: TAL, TED, Lore and RadioLab). There’s no need to grab clean up bags since the streets and shrubs are full of them.

Some mornings I am nearly cross-eyed by the injustice of it all. Why can’t I be nestled into bed next to my husband at this obscene hour? Why can’t I get up on my own terms? Enjoy a coffee, check the news, putter around the house a bit. Banjo never did this to me! By the time all of these questions have been chased from my head by some riveting interview (or simply, Shankar Vedantam’s voice!) piping through my headphones, I’m hitting my stride on the riverwalk.


A variety of exercise groups mark my progress along the route. The first park I cross is Independence Monument where groups of men play a version of hacky sack. They lob a beanbag the size of a baseball back and forth using only their agile and dexterous feet. Other duos whack birdies to and fro in spirited games of badminton.

Next I cross over toward the riverwalk and through the throngs of well-fed pigeons that congregate in front of the palace. Bones is a keen hunter and will leap 3 feet in the air trying to sink his teeth into these plump little tarts. Last week he actually got one and I had to jerk him back in an effort to save the thing from his jaws of death. I may or may not have succeeded.


Onward to the riverfront where speakers blast Cambodian pop music to a group of early risers who clap and high-step to the tinny beat. Incense from a nearby pagoda, fried noodles from street vendors and sewer gases from the Mekong crowd the narrow passageways of my nostrils. I switch to mouth breathing and taste it all now too.



Further down the walkway an instructor guides a group of yogis through sun salutations. Around the next bend, a tai chi class is in progress. Unified in white, they swoop swords in graceful arcs and some mornings snap red fans open with a quick flick of the wrist and a loud POP!


I continue to the end of the path where a cluster of passenger boats is docked, resting from the night before and awaiting their sunset cruise assignments. I glance at my Fitbit to check my steps and the time. If I have some to spare, I climb down the concrete stairs etched into the side of the retaining wall to the river’s edge. It’s pretty ripe down there, but I enjoy the change of perspective and elevated heart rate that comes with sprinting back up the two flights to the street level, usually chased by stray dogs. There are around 10 sets of these double flight stairways that I shoot to accomplish, but usually only manage half that before my olfactories are overwhelmed.


Heading toward home now, the sun inches higher and intensifies. We take a slightly different route down a new section of the path, in front of nice hotels and restaurants. I peek through the fences, twined with fuchsia bougainvillea, into courtyards where gardeners take great care. The path ends near a ferry launch where motos stream like minnows off the decks. Almost all are loaded to the gills, families of five sardined onto that seat built for two, darting through the morning traffic, on their way to schools or markets.

I’m home in 15 minutes and patting my buddy on the head, thanking him for waking me in time to experience another colorful morning in Phnom Penh.

IMG_2592***all photos were taken with my “ancient” (4 year old-ha!) iPhone 5***



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!

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!




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.

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


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