Christmas in a Foreign Country

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At any time of year other than late December, if someone asks me where I wish I could be, I can reel off a list of places I’d love to travel. But come Christmas time, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than home. In my 33 years, I’ve spent just one Christmas away from family – and it was about as far away as I could physically be: halfway around the world in a small town in West Bengal, India.

I had been backpacking through South Asia for about three months with a friend, and homesickness was threatening. We debated ignoring Christmas altogether, because both of us associated the holiday so strongly with our families and it seemed painful to try to mimic our snowy Canadian traditions in hot, dry and unfamiliar Santiniketan. But then a few cheerfully wrapped gifts arrived for us at the poste restante in Calcutta (do today’s digital travelers even use these anymore?) and we decided to embrace the season.

The most important element was cooking a proper Christmas dinner. We’d both “gone veg” since arriving in India, and hadn’t eaten anything resembling turkey for months. The house we were staying at in Santiniketan had a basic stovetop range but no oven, so Justin (a supremely capable Newfoundlander) built us an outdoor oven out of a pile of bricks in the backyard. The “cooked from scratch” theme would continue, as we headed to the market to buy a live chicken, which he skilfully decapitated. (I’ll assume it was a skilful job – I was hiding inside at this part.) Cleaned and plucked, the chicken roasted inside the make-shift oven while Justin and I took turns fanning the flames below.

Earlier that morning, we had drawn the curtains in our room to resemble a dark, cosy Christmas morning. Ignoring the heat outside, we wrapped twinkling lights around a potted palm tree and opened our gifts together. Some, like the chocolate Santas from home, we consumed before they could melt any further. Others, like the silver necklace Justin had bought me in Kathmandu, I still have 14 years later.

We walked into town later that evening to call our families in Ontario and Newfoundland, just as they were sitting down to their Christmas dinners. I suppose today we could use a 3G network to Skype them, but in 1997, the phone was passed around the table and we got to wish parents, siblings, grandparents and cousins a very Merry Christmas.

To all our travelers and guides, whether you are at home or abroad, we wish you a holiday filled with friends, family, love, laughter and memories.
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