Conda started writing when she was 10, when she realized growing up to be an alien wasn't all that realistic. More about her writing life (and recipes!) can be found at her blog Condas Creative Center.
Singapore was Asia light, a gentle introduction to the Pacific Rim, or so I believed. Perhaps my experience would have been like visiting a moist Disneyland, had it not been for the lizards. I settled in at my friends' house, an old colonial, little changed from the day it was first built. The bedrooms on the second story possessed high ceilings with fans, natural air conditioning. The small holes on the walls close to the ceiling, I imagined to be decorative and not real. I was wrong.
I collapsed that evening in the guest bedroom, exhausted by jet lag. So tired it was tough to sleep and I drowsed, listening to the whir of the ceiling fan. Underneath that whir came another sound, a clucking, gulping sound I'd never heard before and disturbing enough to make me flick on the bedside light.
On the ceiling above my head was a lizard. I realized later that the lizard was only a hand span long, not the monster I saw with my body-clock-ruined eyes. The lizard spotted me at the same moment I saw him, craning his neck in an impossible angle to peer at me. Then he fell off the ceiling.
Onto my face.
I felt the leathery brush and prickle of tiny claws as he tumbled down my cheek. I shrieked, no, squeaked, all my air having been used up in fear.
In the next few moments I discovered two facts about lizards that I had never possessed any desire to learn.
They can move at incredible speeds over all sorts of terrain, rumpled bed sheets, pillows, my tummy and thighs. Worse, they can jump.
The lizard and I performed an elaborate dance on the bed, I leapt, then him, then me, then him twice. After several dosey-do rounds the lizard did a double back flip off the bed, raced across the floor and up the wall and out one of the holes. Rather than being impressed by his athleticism and applauding, I collapsed back onto the bed, kept the light on and dreamt all night of tiny claws, waking up every half hour or so to scan the ceiling. The lizard must've told his friends about the crazy dancing woman, for I had no other nocturnal visitors.
The next morning I stumbled down to a late breakfast and met the amah, Annie. The closest translation to amah is maid, though that doesn't begin to describe the myriad functions, duties and tasks of an amah, who is maid, cook, confidante, travel agent, tour guide, nanny and confessor.
"I'm Annie the amah," she announced to me, "and you look very tired. I have an herb, I'll make tea."
While Annie, a Tamil Indian, plump in her sari, bustled around the kitchen, I told her of my ordeal.
"Chit-chuk," Annie said.
"Chit-chuk?" I said
"The little lizards, because of the sound they make, chit-chuk, chit-chuk, chit-chuk," Annie said. The name, repeated three times fast, did sound like the harbinger of terror I'd heard last night. "Very beneficial, eats bugs."
My experience hadn't been all that beneficial.
My skepticism must have shown because Annie continued, "And peanut butter, just like an American, just like you." Peanut butter in Singapore was an expensive rarity, purchased only by Americans in specialty shops and hoarded jealously, a taste of home.
Even sleep deprived, I didn't feel I resembled a six-inch-long lizard in any way.
Annie gestured toward the sink and without thinking I looked. A spoon rested on the bottom and on the handle of the spoon perched a chit-chuk, a smaller brother to my attacker. He rolled one shining beady eye at me as if to ask, "What are you looking at?" and then returned to licking off the remnants of peanut butter on the spoon.
"We call him George," Annie said.
I wanted to call an exterminator, but said nothing.
"He look like a George, yes?"
He looked like vermin. I sighed. Singapore was going to take some getting used to.
By the time I headed to Indonesia, I felt like a seasoned traveler of Asia. I'd even been guilty of leaving a dollop of peanut butter for George from time to time. Pride cometh before another lizard.
Traveling on a bus from Samosir Island to Bukit Tinggi, I congratulated myself on my blasé reaction to sharing the bus with chickens, a pig (riding on top, better view) and a busy line of cockroaches that trundled along the window sills on some special mission.
Even when I dozed off in the middle of the night, only to awaken to an empty bus and the sound of rushing water, I remained calm. Maybe not calm, startled maybe, but definitely not hysterical. I only yelped a little bit when I realized the bus was surrounded by a fast flowing river. And I was reassured when the bus driver gave me a little wave. Turned out the passengers had disembarked and crossed over a bridge so the bus could ford the river empty—and they didn't wake me out of Indonesian courtesy. After all, they'd spent the first few hours of the trip practicing their English with me.
Indonesians believed the best method of mastering English was, when in doubt, say yes with confidence and assurance and many times. My conversations went like:
"Is this the bus to Bukit Tinggi?"
"Does this bus go to the island of Bali?"
"This bus can drive on water?"
"So we won't drown?"
"Yes! Yes! Yes!"
Six hours after confirming that the bus did indeed drive through water, we stopped at a pull-over by the side of the road.
I watched everyone disappear into the jungle and then spotted the thatched roofs among the foliage. Aha, civilization, at last. I was desperate. I hoped for at least a cold soda pop and a restroom. Make that a glass of Indonesian coffee, warm, syrupy sweet and with coffee grounds floating on top. Served with a generous portion of nasi padang, fried banana with sticky rice, by the man in one open hut. Delicious. The only restroom was a shared outhouse, but after hours of bus travel, I no longer cared.
First in line, I flung open the outhouse door only to discover I did care. A steroidal hulk version of my chit-chuk friend George: a neon green lizard as long as my forearm perched, all proprietary, on the wooden slats that served as a toilet seat.
"Oh, sorry." I shut the door. Wait a minute, I thought. I went back to the breakfast shack and pointed at the outhouse.
"Yes? Yes?" The fellow still passing out nasi padang said.
I gestured in what I hoped was a good air drawing of a big lizard.
"Yes, yes," the man said. He flapped his hands in a shooing motion.
Reassured that I could shoo the monster away, I returned to the outhouse. "Out! Out!" I shouted. I mimicked the nasi padang man's gesture.
The lizard reared up onto his or her hind legs and hissed, displaying an alarming number of lizard sharp teeth. No English/Lizard dictionary was needed to know what that teakettle sound meant. I slammed the door again and stood there. Looking at the lush foliage, I realized the buildings were spaced too close to attempt my deed outside.
Back at the thatched hut I repeated my mime. To the man's "Yes, Yes," I said "No, No," until he rolled his eyes and grabbed a broom. He whacked the broom on the side of the outhouse with the door open a crack. Out slithered the lizard, casting a distinct glare at my direction as he went. He knew who his evictor was, and he'd remember, his look seemed to say. Good thing I was headed out of town.
My first morning back in Singapore, I stumbled into the kitchen, grateful for electricity and running water. George squatted at his post, all six inches of him guarding the sink, his territory. He scuttled back and forth across the counter top, demanding his peanut butter breakfast before I had mine.
"Sorry, George," I told him, "you'll have to wait."
He appeared to understand, his scuttling taking on a stomping quality, if something that small could stomp.
I relented and got out the peanut butter, and placed a big dollop on a spoon within his reach. "I guess it's true what they say," I said as I watched him dig in, "size doesn't matter."
Editor's Notes: (Why this is our ideal story.)
Three related events. This isn't a necessity for all good stories, but for us to consider a story ideal, it must contain three events (beginning, middle, and end). Smooth transitions between the events add to the readability and believability of a story. There are character reactions to each event. Character reactions to the events are very important. The plot escalates, and the resolution is appropriate and satisfactory. The main character is genderless. Some people will argue this is wrong, but I love genderless first person point of view. To me, it has more potential because it appeals to both men and women, but also, it allows the reader so make their own decision about the gender of the main.
Why the conflict is so strong is important things are going on. Something lands on your face while you're half asleep. It freaks you out, and it's a big deal. You're going to tell your partner at breakfast, "This giant moth landed on my face last night." It's frightening when it happens to you, especially with something as big and foreign as a lizard. With the second event, things get even worse (the plot escalates). If you've been on a bus for hours and there's no place to relieve yourself, it's a significant problem. The size of the lizard in that outhouse could easily bite you bad enough that you could bleed a lot or lose a finger, and if you just go behind a building to pee in some village, the villagers might beat you with sticks. Finally, in the end, taking the time to feed the lizard, and to a degree communicate with it, you've made a sort of peace with the lizard community. This resolves the conflict in a good way.
I don't encourage people to use clichés in their stories, but in this case, that is the character's reaction to the ending, and you want to end with a character's reaction to an event not an event.
All good stories do not follow this paradigm, but I'm prepared to wager that if you follow this paradigm (establish the conflict in the beginning, escalate the conflict in the middle, and resolve the conflict in the end), you'll see more stuff getting published.