The Foreign Service Journal - September 2016
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Margaret Sullivan has spent much of her life within

15 degrees of the equator, beginning with 18 months

in Rangoon as a teenager in the 1950s. She later lived

in Kuala Lumpur, Kaduna, Jakarta, Cebu, Freetown

and Singapore with her FSO husband Daniel Sul-

livan and their four children. A longtime blogger for The Huffington

Post, as well as an artist, Ms. Sullivan has two books and numerous

magazine articles to her credit. A

Foreign Service Journal


“Remembering Another Unforgettable Day,” and this piece are

among the essays that will appear in a forthcoming book,


of a Mobile Life.


ou can’t live in the tropics without

intimate contact with creepy critters.

We old hands delight in swapping

sagas about these encounters and

regaling new arrivals with our tales

(the more unnerving, the better) to

watch them squirm. Imagine a three-

inch flying cockroach that crawls up a

loose dress during a posh diplomatic

reception—more about that later.

For starters, little house lizards are ubiquitous. Their gentle

“tik tik tik” conversation inspired different onomatopoeic names

in each place we lived. Gecko, a Malay word, is the most com-

mon. They are known as tjitjak in Indonesia (in the new spelling,

cicak) and tiki in the Philippines’ Visayas.

With sensuously sprawled, clay-pink bodies, huge round

eyes, and four velcro-padded toes splayed out at the end of each

widespread leg, they cling to the walls and ceilings or scuttle

Creepy Critters

We Have Known


Life in the tropics demands that you make peace with a range

of “creepy critters” you are bound to encounter.


around to snap up insects. They bring good luck to your house,

the locals tell us.

I first met geckos (and their bigger, louder, more dragon-

like cousins, toktu) in 1951 when Dad took an assignment in

Rangoon with a precursor of the U.S. Agency for International

Development. My parents, siblings and I moved into a barn-like

prewar house where geckos roamed the nearly 20-foot-high ceil-

ings with impunity, ultimately playing a leading role in a favorite

bit of family lore.

Sometime during our second year there, two American ladies

of a certain age, friends of friends of friends of Mother’s, came

to town as part of an ambitious trip having something to do with

doing good works. They had prepared to encounter a vast wilder-

ness. Wearing stout shoes and sensible dresses, they brought

along their own primus stove, dry food, pith helmets and water

purification pills. We kids thought they were weird, to put it


Mother took them up to the Shwedagon, Rangoon’s huge gold

Buddhist pagoda built on a sacred hilltop to house eight of the

Lord Buddha’s hairs. Like thousands of other people, they climbed

steep flights of cool stairs lined with stalls selling all sorts of reli-

gious accoutrements—flowers, incense and candles as offerings—

and other crafts. (I still serve dinner with a pair of brass spoons

Mother bought there and gave us when we married.)

At the top, all visitors remove their shoes to show respect

before stepping out onto the sizzling white marble plaza. The

main stupa is ringed with small ones, some gold, some white-

washed, each dedicated to a particular day of the week and seg-

ment of that day. Each worshiper kneels at the appropriate small

stupa, puts the candle in a holder, lights it and, bowing several