Life among the pagodas
(Our front yard: one of the reasons we wanted this place was to have a yard for our kids. If a car is parked in here, you can barely walk around it on either side. But since we don’t have a car, it makes a great play space!)
It has been three months since we moved into this house. I have wanted to share some photos for those of you who are curious about the inside of our place (and honestly, who isn’t curious about the inside of other people’s homes?), but I’d been putting it off until we installed some shelves. Just the other day, Jim put up the last of the shelves, and the living space feels more settled now. So, without further ado, here is a little home tour. I took these photos on a typical day at the Randall house, mess and all. Though I will concede that I made the bed first!
When I started to write this piece, I thought it would be short, but then as I started explaining parts of our house, I realized that many rental experiences in the West are vastly different than ours. When you look for a house to rent in the US, you generally don’t have to ask yourself if there will be regular power in your neighborhood and what the average voltage is, if the wiring in your house will work, how many places will leak, whether there are rodent infestations, how to dispose of grey water, etc. And if these sorts of issues arise, they are generally not left entirely in the hands of the renter, and the city or the landlord is involved at some level. (Though without doubt there is systemic corruption in low rent areas of the U.S. that leads to similar issues.)
When we rented, the house did not have window/door bars, kitchen flooring, screening, or air conditioning. We chose to put down tile in and we opted to air condition our sleeping rooms, both for sleeping comfort in the hot season, and for a dry room to store things in rainy season. We decided to leave the rest of the house unscreened and open, so we can leave the door open and interact more easily with our neighbors, all of whom also have open air homes.
Our goal in moving here was downward mobility, and living in a way that makes it easier to engage with those around us; this is something we are constantly evaluating as we go along. We are constantly deciding together which parts of our western life get to hang around, and which ones need to be set aside for the sake of relationships; finding ways to make our life here functional and feasible for our family without launching ourselves into a lifestyle where it is impossible to connect with those around us. For us right now, that meant moving to this neighborhood, despite warnings from some that we were moving to “the wrong side of the tracks.” [The older I become, though, the more I realize how “the wrong side of the tracks” idea is existent in every community, and says more about our human tendency to look down on others than it does about people on the other side of those tracks.]
(A backyard of sorts. Right now it is just a sandy spot where I am growing some basil, and where we hang clothes to dry. Beyond the fence is an open, grey-water sewer/creek for the neighborhood. We screened the back door to keep the mosquitoes out, as they like to breed in slow or standing water.)
Our house is sandwiched by two similar houses, and there is about an 18-inch gap between houses, so we could theoretically pass things back and forth between houses with ease. I passed a Christmas present through our window and into our neighbor’s living room this morning. The windows on the north side of our house line up slightly with the windows of the adjacent neighbors’ house, so we often talk to them through the window about our day, what we are cooking, or what we happen to be eating. We can smell their cooking everyday, which is a pleasant thing most of the time. Sound travels between houses, such that the footsteps of the heavy walker next door, or the neighbor kid crying, or the sound of someone calling out give me pause to wonder, “is that sound coming from my house?” I’m gradually getting the hang of it.
Houses here do not come with built in storage space or shelving (with the exception of a built in shelf for the family idols), so as parents of small children, it’s helpful for our sanity to have lots of shelves and hooks. Because the house is open air, lots of dust flows in through the windows every day, and having things off the floor is also practical from a cleaning perspective.
As a general rule, most houses here require some work, and this one was no exception. You can check out this post to see what it was like before we moved in. We (that is, Jim) have spent a lot of hours installing hooks, shelves, fans and fixtures to make the space as efficient as possible.
(Dining room/hall/tool area)
We moved in during rainy season, which meant that we were finding new leaks each time there was a hard rain. Most of the water was coming into the bedroom, running down the wall from somewhere on the second floor. But it wasn’t a consistent pattern, and depending on which way the wind was blowing when it rained, it would leak in different places. For a while we were baffled by these leaks, until we realized that the windows/window frames throughout were poorly designed and would fill up with water, then overflow. So Jim drilled dozens of tiny holes in each window frame in order for the water to drain.
(You can see the holes drilled at the bottom of the window frame here.)
Our dining room is also the bike garage/tool shop. We only eat here a few times a week, and when we do we pull the table off the wall so that we can sit around it more comfortably. Even so, it makes me a feel a bit claustrophobic eating there, because it is a narrow space, about 6 feet wide. The rest of the time we eat our meals Myanmar-style in our living room, sitting at a round folding table that is about 18 inches off the floor.
Lena’s room is about 6 feet wide by 10 feet deep. We had these white wooden boxes made by a local carpenter for storage, and they definitely help in making things feel tidier. She sleeps on a mat on the floor, and we will probably keep it that way for the foreseeable future; the mattress can easily be put on its side to increase the play space in the room.
When the air conditioner was installed in Lena’s room, the holes to mount it were drilled sloping into the room, so water poured into the room through those holes during rainstorms. It was wet enough that the air conditioning couldn’t dry it out in between rains, and as a result the room stayed really damp and lots of mold grew on the walls. We are waiting till we’ve had a good few months of dry weather, then Jim will caulk the holes, and we will grind the moldy paint off the bedroom walls and repaint, so she is not living in moldiness. Hopefully next year the room will be drier!
For the past 2 years or so we had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and we decided that since dry storage space was at a premium at this new place, we should have a bed made so that we could store things underneath it. Jim told me he was ordering a tall bed, but I had no idea until it arrived that it was built for giants! It is such a tall bed, the biggest downside being that it isn’t as easy to just sit on the bed with the kids. The upside is that it is quite practical for storage, and the baby’s bed fits perfectly underneath.
(Bamboo is helpful for clothing storage! Jim used bamboo poles in order to hang his clothes up high. And he hung another one below that to use as a pull-up bar.)
Despite the air conditioning, mold still grows in both rooms, and if clothing has any spot of dirt on it and is put away, it will grow patches of green or brown mold in a matter of days. Living here, we will have to be more proactive about storing things clean and dry in order to cut down on the extra cleaning and laundry caused by mold. I am coming to terms with the fact that in rainy season, I will have to commit myself to one of my least favorite pastimes, ironing, in order to fully dry anything I want to store away. Our former house was taller than all the neighboring houses, which meant it had lots of daylight, and was drier/less moldy, but it was also much hotter because it was not shaded. Our new place has less daylight, but is much cooler because it is shaded on both sides. So, tradeoffs! Because of the frequent power outages here, I think I prefer the natural coolness of our home, even though it comes with more mold.
(The whiteness on the wall is due to water seeping throughout the rainy season. The bathroom has a flat roof in order to accommodate our water tank. We realized it would make no sense to paint over it, as it would simply reappear next year.)
When we rented the house, the bathroom was barred off, and I didn’t know if there was even a bathroom behind the door. We assumed we would have to build a simple bathroom. We later discovered the last tenants were not allowed to use the bathroom for some reason, and so it had been shut off with wooden slats. It turns out that our bathroom is pretty nice. Jim installed an exhaust fan to help get the humid air out of the room, and it helps in keeping the floor dry, too. (We also have a squatty toilet outside of the kitchen, which is great, because some of our friends prefer the squatty to using a western toilet.) The bathroom is a typical SE Asian wet room, so it serves as the shower and a drain for all the grey water from the washing machine and the bathroom sink.
(our outdoor squatty potty)
There is a lot of sediment in the city water here. Our last place was on a well and had delicious, dirt free water. Here we are on city water; the pressure is not as good and the water is occasionally off for long chunks of time. Like nearly every other home here, the water to our home comes to us from the city and into an elevated water tank above our bathroom. So when the power is out, the water in the tank still flows, thanks to gravity! Because the water here is not as clean, Jim decided to filter it before it even reaches our tank, so we can shower and bathe in filtered water and avoid some skin problems, etc. For good measure Jim also set up our Sawyer water filter, and it filters water from a bucket suspended in the shower room through a pipe that runs into water jugs on the opposite side of the wall (see the photos below). We have yet to get sick from drinking our own water, so that is kind of nice! (Judging by the precautions Jim is taking with our water system, you might infer that he has endured many stomach bugs during the 12 years he has spent here. You would be right.)
(Our drinking water flows through the blue pipe, into the paint bucket above, then it flows out of the bucket, through a mini Sawyer filter, and through the wall…)
(…and into these water jugs.)
(These are filters pretty commonly used throughout the city, and we have them installed here to filter the city water that comes through our kitchen faucet. The water runs from right to left. I don’t take clean running water for granted quite so much now that I live here.)
Our kitchen is technically a lean-to off the end of the house. It has a metal slanted roof, with a gap between the roof and the walls. This is great for allowing hot air to escape, but sparrows also have been flying in and out of the kitchen and nesting in one corner. Jim climbed up and blocked off a portion of the gap, and that has helped. We didn’t want to close it off entirely, or the hot air would never escape the kitchen. The metal roof has a patch of translucent roofing in it, kind of like a skylight, so we won’t have to cook in the dark when the power is out.
When we moved in, there was a built-in cooking counter with the exhaust fan above it, and there was an old sink in the corner closest to the door. We already had the table counters in our previous place, and had realized they would fit the space. So we had a new sink installed and tile built around it, and the fridge and table counters fit around it perfectly. We bought some colored backsplash for a treat, to add a bit of color to the room, and I love how it looks. Because there is no cupboard storage, we installed the wire shelves above the sink, and wooden shelves above the counters for cleaning products/food storage. Our trusty two-tub (i.e. not automatic; which is more work, but great for spinning clothes super dry in its separate spinner) washing machine sits against the bathroom wall and drains into the bathroom.
(I love the open shelving, even though it is more cluttered looking, because it keeps my ingredients from getting too terribly lost and forgotten!)
These are our guestrooms. We installed exhaust fans and wall fans in these rooms to allow for more air flow, and the exhaust fans help to suck the hot air up out of the house.
The rest of the upstairs is an office/playspace/storage area. It is a good 10 degrees hotter than the downstairs, so we are only up there on cool days or in the cool time of day. Jim installed a ceiling fan and it does help a lot.
On cooler days I like to leave the upstairs windows upstairs open for a breeze, but that has proved to be a bit stressful, as several different cats have come into the house on different occasions. The other night one got trapped when we shut the windows for the night without realizing he was there, and I just about jumped out of my skin when he came running downstairs, trying to find an exit. Another time a cat crawled in the window of the guestroom where my sister was staying, at about 4 a.m. and sat on a chair, mewing at her until she woke. And we won’t discuss my feelings about the cat that pooped upstairs. So I still like the fresh air, as it does get stuffy, but I can’t completely relax if I leave the windows open, as the nearby houses afford many ways for cats to get into our house. We might screen off a window or two up there in the future.
We made our own curtain rods with bamboo and PVC piping. The idea was mine, but Jim did all the work. PVC pipe was cheap, and we got a bundle of 8-foot long bamboo poles for about $4. Budget friendly décor all the way! Just out of focus in the photo above is a pulley Jim installed for hanging his bike. Because our bikes have some hard-to-replace components, we store them inside every night, as replacing stolen parts is a nuisance at best. We hang them to save some floor space.
Another innovation I am proud of is our hat lampshades. We used Rakhine fieldworker hats as lampshades for lighting some of the rooms throughout the house. They look so cozy and allow us to use something older than the cold, unfriendly florescent tube lightbulbs that are so ubiquitous here, and make us feel a little bit like we are living in a crime lab.
(Our sitting room/dining room/playroom)
The screenless-ness of our living areas is not a problem as regards mosquitoes, the wall and ceiling fans Jim installed are enough to deter mosquitoes. However, sparrows are constantly flying in and out of the house through all the open windows, and even though they aren’t able to build a nest in our rafters, they bring nesting material in with them every day. We really don’t want to screen the place if we can help it, though, because it will make it much hotter indoors.
Now that I look through the pictures, I realize they make our house look a lot cleaner and less dusty than it is. I suppose photos are like that for everyone. As I wrote this piece I said to Jim, “the one thing house photos really cannot do is depict how hot it gets here!” You will just have to come and visit in order to understand that.