Christmas elsewhere

*Burmese orphan children wait for holiday donations

*Holy cows...lounge on beaches in Goa

*Surrounded by beauty in New Zealand's Abel Tasman

Being away from home during the holidays is no easy thing. The holiday spirit does a number on nostalgia and at least I tend to pine for the decorated home, the shared meal with family, the music.

My first Christmas away was while I was studying in Spain. Luckily, my father has cousins in northern Spain, Vigo. It was special to connect with extended family I had never met before. After this, I had several winters home. I would travel from San Diego, Berkeley, and then Medellin to my place of roots, Pasadena.

While I enjoyed this ritual, it became more difficult to make it home the further away I lived. Tickets in that season are high and at times, I opted to travel instead…leaving my big visit home for summer.

Among places such as Egypt and Mexico, are these memorable Christmas’ abroad (note that they are all places of warmth in December):

1. THAILAND: This was our introduction to Asia and we were smitten. How could you not fall in love with golden temples, white sand beaches and the food?! Our itinerary included Chiang Mai, Krabi, and Koh Samui-all spectacular in their own ways. We stayed in a small town outside of Chiang Mai for Christmas called Chiang Dao. Friends recommended a place called Chiang Dao Nest and we happily made our bungalow home for 4 nights. Aside from the incredible cuisine, the mini resort had a family feel with nightly bonfires set up where guests could meet and mingle. During our stay, the owners offered a sign up for guests to participate in “giving back” on Christmas. Taking the money from a donation jar that had accumulated from the generosity of past guests, we jumped in the back of an open air truck and went into town with the task of purchasing items for children at a local orphanage: notebooks, colored pencils, stickers, small toys. On Christmas Day, we arrived with individual bags for each child and treats to share as well. The children welcomed us with song. I will never forget their faces, their smiles, their gratitude. I had never felt the Christmas spirit as much as I did that day. 

2. INDIA: India seizes the senses. Your nose is tickled by smells indescribable. Colors float in the forms of saris and lanterns. Your taste buds are constantly having a party. For Christmas 2008, yoga called us to India (well, Craig; I hadn’t really started practicing yet). Before arriving to our zen beach destination, we spent some nights in Mumbai where two weeks prior (November 26) there had been terrorist attacks on 10-12 locations within the city. Among these were two luxury hotels and other popular attractions. With initial hesitation, we decided to go forward with our plans. It wasn’t the lack of other tourists nor the charred facade of the Taj Mahal Hotel that struck us nearly as much as it was one day sitting at Cafe Leopold. A famous place for tourists and locals alike, we decided to check it out for lunch, unknowing it had been one of the targets. While waiting for our food, we noticed signs and photographs attached to collection jars that we later realized were cafe workers who had died in the shooting. Then, looking up and around, we observed the bullet holes in the walls and glass. Sitting in that spot knowing which others like us had done so not many days before, sent shivers down my spine. Throughout our time there, we conversed with Indians who shared in the sentiments of sadness, perplexity, and deep concern. How anyone could engage in such violence and theft of peace in a country of countless beauties is beyond me.

3. NEW ZEALAND: I have never met anyone that says differently: New Zealand is magical. It is nature on crack. Rolling hills, forests, waterfalls, glaciers, golden beaches, vineyards…it is a wonder it is not overrun by Californians! Last year Christmas break was spent BBQing, having fresh oysters, and camping under a star-studded sky. My sister and I hopped for a quick stay in the South Island with Nelson and Abel Tasman as destinations. We then took a road trip to Lake Taupo, Coromandel, and Bay of Islands. All I can say is that three weeks only scratched the surface of the beauty. I could have easily stayed for weeks at each place. While the exploration of this country was a wonderful opportunity, the specialness really was in the fact that I did it with my sister. As a new resident of NZ, she took in the touring with just as much enjoyment as I did. The chances for long conversations, giggle fits, and just being together for a long period of time were bonus. It seems in our adult lives those opportunities become rarer…and this one was certainly a gift.

There is something to be said about tradition. I admire it and do not take it for granted. Yet, spending the holidays in places other than home has opened me to things just as important: the differences between need and want, the sanctity of peace, and the treasure of time. For these lessons learned on Christmas’ abroad, I am forever grateful.

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