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.


An artist's representation of an Indonesian gecko.
Courtesy of Margaret Sullivan

You 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 common. 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 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 ceilings 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 wilderness. 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 bluntly.

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 religious 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 segment of that day. Each worshiper kneels at the appropriate small stupa, puts the candle in a holder, lights it and, bowing several times, offers the flowers and incense, and prays.

At dinner, the ladies bubbled on and on about their day, and particularly about their visit to what they called the “exotic gold temple.”

“How nice,” one opined firmly. “They must have gotten lighting candles from Catholicism.”

With exquisite timing, a pinky-sized gecko let go of the ceiling. Plop. It landed in one woman’s soup bowl, splashing dollops of the liquid onto the tablecloth.

The Art of Geckos

Years later, as my husband, Dan, our children and I moved from tropical post to tropical post, geckos became our house familiars. And grist for my artist’s mill: Exaggerated, three or four feet long, their brightly painted bodies and bulging eyes, widely splayed toes, curled tails and big bellies sprawled across the ceiling, down a wall, around a corner.

The high ceiling of the downstairs reception room in the American consul’s residence in Cebu, the second-largest city in the Philippines, was the best “canvas.” Soon after we moved in, I climbed a ladder, used crayons to draw the outlines, chose several colors and painted in the shapes. Blue, orange-brown, deep rose? Or was there a red in there? Five geckos graced one corner of the ceiling, twisted together on different planes.

Several nights later, we hosted our first official party. “Le tout Cebu” came, curious about the new consul and his wife. The guests arrived, enjoyed drinks and pika-pika (nibbles), and greeted each other as they continued the day’s gossip and began looking around to see how we had changed the house. In time, the creatures on the ceiling caught a guest’s eye. Then another snuck a puzzled look. Others suppressed a smile.

No one ever said anything to me about the ceiling—then. But when I returned to Cebu years later to visit friends, the first thing everyone always said was: “You had those great geckos on your ceiling.”

The big toktu, on the other hand, were more likely to live on the outside wall by a security light. They were not nearly as cute as their indoor cousins, but they had loud voices! Their distinctive call started with a rumbling “tok tok tok” until it built up to a distinctive “toktuuuuu.” Repeat and keep repeating.

In the Philippines, we were told: “Count the repeats. Seven and 13 are good luck.” Just three calls were bad luck. Once you know, you always count.

Toktu don’t just live by the lights outside. Some of them must be amphibious and love toilet diving. I discovered that the hard way, soon after we arrived in Rangoon. When I got up in the middle of the night to do the needful, I started to sit down without looking. Whoosh! Something ran out from under me. I jumped, having met my first toktu, up close and far too personal.

Snakes Alive

Snakes, of course, don’t make a distinctive sound. They just slither. Some spit. As the daughter of a doctor of worms and parasites, not to mention bugs, I never thought I would teach my kids to be afraid of such critters. After all, I grew up watching snails leave slime trails up my arms and being shown my own intestinal worms in glass tubes.

But in northern Nigeria, with a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and a toddler who were all much too curious for their own good, Dan and I realized we had to scare the bejeezus out of them about snakes. After six months in a second floor walk-up on the main street of Kaduna (with stuck kitchen drawers we couldn’t open until the dry season, only to then find them so overflowing with cockroaches that my stomach still churns at the memory), we moved into a brand-new house on the edge of the bush. There we had a garden. Or what would become a garden when the doka (deep-rooted scrub bush) was finally dug out.

With that yard came maciji—snakes. The name of one species, translated from Hausa, was the “there is no tomorrow” snake. We drummed into the kids that when they saw any snake, they must turn and run, shrieking “Maciji!” We instructed the staff, particularly the gardener, to kill every snake they found and show it to me. I lost count of how many.

One Sunday morning in the dry season we invited another American family with children to lunch after church. Peter, the houseboy, appeared around the corner telling us they had a snake for us to see. He certainly did. A python at least 12 feet long, and maybe 18 inches in diameter was stretched out, headless, behind the servants’ quarters.

A few weeks into the dry season, northern Nigerians burn the bush to force a second growth of grass to feed cattle. The smoke stuns various critters, making it a good time to hunt. The night before, we had seen fires across the river and into the distance. Peter and a friend had found the python’s hole. Peter had stuck his leg down the hole, let the smoke-drugged python coil around his leg several times and pulled it out. They had whacked off its head with a machete and carried it back to the compound.

“What will you do with it?” we asked.

“Good to eat,” Peter responded.

Peter and his friend carefully removed the skin, scraped it and staked it out on the ground to dry. They then hacked the body into cross sections about eight inches long and smoked them slowly over a smoldering fire behind the quarters.

We bought the skin, which went to innumerable “show and tells” in our kids’ classes back in the States before we finally trashed it.

We also bought two pieces of the smoked meat and ate one, tastefully prepared by the cook (I never asked how). The meat tasted like and had about the same texture as smoked pork chop.

The other piece remained in the freezer so that when inspectors came from Washington, I could serve it to them for dinner: “We live on the local economy. Do enjoy the python.” Alas, we were reassigned before that opportunity came along. Last seen, that piece was still in the freezer.

Stinging Visitors

Scorpions look like miniature lobsters except that their tails, which end in a nasty stinger, usually curl up over their backs ready to strike. The stings can be extremely painful, and are dangerous for small children.

I first encountered them as a teenager in Rangoon. Without warning, one or more would appear on our living room’s red-concrete floor, tail up and waving. Once one even materialized in the middle of the floor between two lines of dancers doing the Virginia reel!

In fact, scorpions appeared so frequently that we developed a foolproof disposal system. Take a newspaper and plop it on top of the intruder; then drop one or two copies of Fortune magazine (best because they were big, thick and heavy) on top of the paper. Jump up and down on the magazines to smash the invader to bits.

After removing the magazines for next time, carefully wrap the squished scorpion in the paper and trash it. Repeat as needed. (We got so blasé that even my 6-year-old brother dispatched scorpions with great aplomb.)

When my own family moved to northern Nigeria, we faced the same threat. The good news was that African scorpions tended to stay out in the yard. But the bad news was that they were bigger than the Burmese variety, and more dangerous.

When our gardener got stung while clearing a flowerbed, his badly swollen hand and arm were an object lesson for the kids. They quickly developed a healthy skittishness about turning over rocks, and learned how to do it without putting their fingers underneath.

We did have one or two scorpions turn up in the house. But our experience paled in comparison with that of some Peace Corps Volunteers who were teachers in a much smaller town further north. They were playing bridge one evening in the walled courtyard of their house. A scorpion climbed over the wall and down toward the ground. The person who was “dummy” whacked it. Soon another came over the wall. And another. Over the course of the evening perhaps 50 appeared. Whoever was dummy was the designated scorpion whacker for that hand.

An Unwelcome Souvenir

When our two-year tour in Kaduna ended, I supervised the packout myself (there were no moving companies then). A local team loaded most of our worldly goods into a lift van that would travel by sea and eventually catch up with us. I packed a separate air freight shipment that would be delivered once we were in our new house in Virginia.

Weeks later, as I was unpacking that box, I discovered a scorpion flopped on top of the stack of dinner plates. I don’t even touch dead scorpions, so I reached for the interloper with a pair of tongs. Up popped the tail. Away it skittered across the plate and down into the box. Uh oh!

Watching the box from a safe distance until Dan returned, all aplomb lost, I kept trying to think of where in the Washington area you called to treat scorpion stings. Walter Reed? Did we have a phone book yet? Did the phone even work?

“Oh, Dan,” I called, relieved he was back. “There’s a live scorpion in the dish box. Let’s get the box into the carport to finish unpacking it. Here are tongs. Get the plates out. Carefully.”

Dan lifted the plates piece by piece, looking under each one cautiously till the scorpion appeared, nestling itself under the last one.

“You could sell something like that to the zoo,” suggested the van driver who was delivering the goods left in storage.

“No, we need to kill it,” I declared. Which Dan did by squashing the box over it, firmly.

“And burn the box. Now. Who knows how many eggs might be in there? We don’t need scorpions in our Virginia garden.” So he burned it at the bottom of the driveway. That took care of that.

Bravery Above and Beyond

Oh, yes, the giant cockroach up the loose dress? The time: 1960. The place: a reception at the home of the British deputy high commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, then-Malaya. I had worked closely with his wife in a well-baby clinic sponsored by the women of St. Mary’s Anglican Church, so she and her husband were kind enough to invite us.

Dan was the first third secretary the U.S. embassy had ever seen, and that night we were far and away the most junior of the diplomats and government officials at the reception. I could sense the disapproval emanating from the by-the-book, rankconscious U.S. ambassador’s wife when we greeted her. We then went to find our ambassador. He was talking with the jovial Brit who was still head of the Malayan navy.

Several months pregnant, I was wearing an elegant, loosefitting party dress. As we stood in the middle of the crowded reception talking to the two men, I felt something crawling up what I assumed was the outside of the back of my dress.

“Dan,” I whispered. “Please brush off the back of my dress.” He did so unobtrusively, but fruitlessly, so I said, “Please reach just inside the neckline and find whatever it is.”

“It” was a huge cockroach.

While Dan rushed to the open veranda door to evict the hitchhiker, I carried on chatting as calmly as I could. The ambassador was clearly not amused. The head of the Malayan navy smiled broadly. Fishing a coin out of his pocket, he presented it to me as a “Royal Medal for Not Screaming: Bravery Above and Beyond.”

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 Sullivan 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 article, “Remembering Another Unforgettable Day,” and this piece are among the essays that will appear in a forthcoming book, Fragments of a Mobile Life.