Holidays Away From Home: Fun On The Run!

I turned the big twenty while working on a Tasmanian sheep farm in between my regular job as a tour guide and cook on fourteen-day camping trips around Tasmania.  I was living on the sheep farm in an old school bus I had renovated into a pretty cool camper and I was about to have my first Christmas overseas and away from my family.  I had been in Australia a year and as the holidays approached I started to get woefully homesick. I couldn’t imagine how it would possibly feel like Christmas when not only was there no Montana mountain snow, it was scorching hot summer outside.

Luckily, the family that owned the farm was great.  Even though they didn’t even celebrate Christmas, that year they decorated a tiny gum tree and prepared a special Christmas meal just for me!  The highlight of the meal was a lamb from the farm cooked on a spit.  The smell of it wafting through the air slow cooking on the spit made my mouth water all day long.  Along with homemade ginger pumpkin soup and macadamia nut bread, my favorite Australian dish accompanied the lamb; a beautiful meringue-based dessert called Pavlova.  It was topped with fresh whipped cream and covered in sliced kiwi. For a homesick American girl, it was more than a little touching that they went to so much trouble. Even then I spent most of the dinner trying not to cry.  That was the first Christmas of many to follow I spent overseas. 

These memories made me think of all you backpackers, ex-pats and temporarily misplaced travel explorers that are away from home missing your families, and not sure how to celebrate this year.  So today, this one is for all of you guys celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Rohatsu, Posadas Navidenas, Wicca Solstice, Chinese New Years, Yule/Yada and Winter Solstice to name just a few.

For me, it’s Christmas.

One year in China, I had been bracing myself for a Christmas Eve spent eating peanut-butter crackers from the depths of my backpack in a youth hostel in Shanghai with my girlfriend Tami.  Quite unexpectedly, the evening morphed into singing Christmas carols out of tune at the Hilton Hotel, drinking champagne and stuffing our faces with a huge international holiday feast.  Earlier that day we spotted a poster advertising the Christmas Eve festivities, but it was the detailed description of the extravagant mouth-watering menu, that sealed the deal.  We were hooked.  When backpacking on a shoestring budget, a party at the Hilton was definitely not in the budget, but with a little financial reshuffle, we decided just this once we could break the budget and treat ourselves to Christmas.  After all, the youth hostel and peanut butter crackers would still be there tomorrow.  Truth be told, I would have sold my winter boots if I had to; without question, I would have sold Tami’s.

So Remember, when you are really stuck, you can usually find a big hotel throwing a holiday dinner or party.  Splurging on the moderately expensive holiday celebration was money well spent, and that comes at the top on my list for being easy, fast and readily available last minute.

Tami and I were taking the train to Beijing the next day and to help offset dinner, we had downgraded our private births to first come first served hardback seats.  That’s how it came to be that we spent Christmas day eating boiled chicken legs, homemade fire-breathing Chinese moonshine and playing cards with a group of Chinese guys while we clicked along on a train headed to Beijing.  Even though we didn’t share a language in common, we managed to teach each other card games and it turned into a hilarious night of laughter and burning hooch; most likely causing permanent damage to my esophagus.

Sometimes the worst seats are the best seats.

One year in Osaka, Japan a bunch of us pooled our money and bought a complete turkey dinner from a big Hotel.  The perfectly cooked turkey came complete with stuffing, and too many side dishes to list including a pumpkin pie with a container of whipped cream for dessert. They even included plastic plates and cutlery.  All we had to do was open the wine.

So, if you find yourself without a kitchen or the means to prepare a meal, there are many grocery stores, restaurants, and hotels where you can purchase a complete holiday dinner to-go.

I’ve had a lot of unusual Christmas’ over the years and admittedly some might consider Egypt a poor choice for celebrating the birth of baby Jesus, but it just so happened I had made friends with Mohammed, the manager of the Beausite Hotel and Guest House where we were staying.  When I was asking him for ideas, he enthusiastically offered to take a group of us out for a real local’s style night.  Organizing a party with fellow travelers was quite easy because they were also at a complete loss.  So they were more than a little enthusiastic to join in on our Mystery Christmas Eve Celebration in Cairo.  I called it that because I also had no clue as to what was in store for us.

We began the night in the middle of some big street festival under a canvas teepee with his family eating tabouli, hummus, and my new favorite; camel’s milk cheese on fresh pita bread.  After we bid our goodbyes, we walked to a coffee shop (which only men frequent in Egypt).  We smoked out of huge hookahs while sipping on our thick and sweet Egyptian coffee.  It’s a wonder I have been able to fall asleep since.  A huge man stood up and started singing (one could say bellowing) Arabic songs into a cheap microphone with decibel breaking static and frequent squealing feedback.  It would have been unbearable except for that the whole place broke out into smiles and laughter complete with clapping and foot stomping.  I had no idea what I was clapping and foot-stomping to, but hey, I was living in the moment.

Later our new best friend Mohammed managed to get all of us into a local’s only nightclub for “some kind of show”.  We didn’t bother asking what kind of show. That being said, I suppose it comes as no surprise that Christmas Eve ended with me on stage belly dancing in my Birkenstocks.

That was one hell of a memorable Christmas!  An absolute must for any traveler is the ability to Go With The Flow or every day will be an exercise in forlorn frustration and futility.  Worse, you miss out on all the good stuff you will never find in a guidebook.  This night, in particular, stands out as an excellent example.  Putting down your guidebook and asking advice from a local you trust, is the best way to jump off the beaten track, even better when you have a local guide.  I will add to that following your gut instinct and heeding their warnings is paramount.  Regardless if you find yourself with a dipshit that insists on walking into an area you were warned about, stick to your gut and make your own decisions.  NEVER get sloppy drunk and pay attention to your surroundings always! In short, TRAVEL SMART, especially when you jump the beaten tracks.  Having said all that, my best advice is JUMP!

I spent Christmas mornings sipping champagne mimosas on the beach with my island family during the eight years I lived on the island of St. Thomas.  The U.S. Virgin Islands are duty-free and tax-free, so booze is really cheap, but food is expensive.  For instance, I could buy a bottle of cheap champagne for $3.00, but orange juice was a whopping $8.00.  It was island tradition to tell the island newbie’s that we would grab the champagne and they could “just grab some orange juice on their way”.  I love traditions.

Quite by necessity, I came up with a great idea for decorating a Christmas tree while living in the Caribbean that is not only cheap but also easy.

I didn’t have a tree stand, so I wrapped a five-gallon paint bucket with wrapping paper, stuck the tree in the bucket and filled it with rocks and dirt.  Then I added water until it was sturdy enough to hold to the tree.  Afterward, I wrapped it in a string of twinkle lights left over from a birthday party.

I printed wallet size photos of my friends, family and favorite memories of the year on some photo paper I had lying around. (You do that by selecting a group of photos, then select contact sheet in layout preferences. You can change the size by how many columns you choose.  I went with standard wallet/passport size) Next, all of them need to be cut out and unfortunately; I hadn’t thought that part through.

So I invited my girlfriends over for a tree decorating party, filled them with copious amounts of wine and got them to cut out the photos, poke a little wire ornament hanger in each one and hang them on the tree. Wink!

That year I cooked Christmas Eve dinner for fifty-four friends, all far away from home.  From the kitchen, I could hear “Look at this one!” or “Do you remember that day?” It was really fun. The little tree continued sending out happy vibes when the island breeze blew through the apartment.  All the little photos would flutter, making the sound of a flock of birds taking flight. Glorious.

Decorating the entire Christmas tree cost me eighty-seven cents for the little wire hangers.  Well, that and some cheap wine.

My 77 yr old mom and her group of mountain-women friends go hiking up into the mountains of Montana every Wednesday morning. The week after Thanksgiving (the end of November), the ladies decorate a random tree along a hiking trail with shiny ornaments, strings of popcorn and cranberries, as well as a few ornaments they make for the birds and squirrels, such as a corncob rolled in peanut butter and birdseed. It is a popular holiday tradition in the mountains and inspires people to throw on long underwear, leave their toasty warm homes and go hiking.  In mid-January, the ladies return up the mountain to retrieve all of the ornaments and hike them back down off the mountain.  There is nothing like snow skiing through the mountains and coming across a decorated tree, twinkling under the snow as if it’s waiting there just for you to discover it.  Magical!

Decorating a tree or the front gate of a friend’s yard as a surprise, a tree outside the window of senior citizens home, or along a country road to bring a smile to stranger’s faces, are just a few of the ways you could take this Montana Mountain tradition and run with it.  You can even make all of the decorations yourselves because Love is in the details, and details after all, are free. 

One year I found myself with a plethora of hotel toiletries from all my traveling.  I was spending the holidays alone that year and feeling a little blue. So my girlfriends and I grabbed some purses and daypacks we no longer used, and filled them with the hotel toiletries, energy bars, tampons, toothbrushes, razors, combs, gift cards to a grocery store, hot chocolate, magazines, books etc., and gave them out to random homeless people.  The reaction and gratitude from them was overwhelming.  Sometimes all someone needs in order to live another day is to know that someone cares about him or her.

It is amazing how doing things for other people brings you so much joy when you are feeling lonely, and it beats sitting at home or in a strange hotel alone.  You will never find yourself anywhere in the world, where you can’t find something you can do to help others. Churches are a good place to find community projects in need of extra hands, as are shelters, second-hand stores and NGO’s (non-governmental organizations).  You can stop by restaurants and ask them if you can come at the end of the day and take the leftovers to give away.  It is amazing how many people want to help, and you will soon find yourself busy feeding hungry people. You can volunteer your talent at orphanages, women’s shelters, crisis centers, community youth centers; anywhere. Be it writing, photography, construction, or comfort; everyone has something to offer.

Traveling from one European village to the next just before Christmas one year, I combed through all the little village shops searching for just one perfect Christmas tree ornament from each country. It was like searching for hidden treasures and it turned into my own little scavenger hunt that was not only within my extremely limited budget, it is apparently going to last my entire lifetime.  To this day, my unique assortment of ornaments from around the world, are some of my favorite treasures.

I ended up in Europe unexpectedly when at the end of a two-year trek in Australia and South-East Asia; I bought an airline ticket in Bangkok back to the states for Christmas.  It allowed six stops in Europe at no extra charge, and it just so happened I had three months before Christmas at moms. How was I going to turn that down, right?  Sure, the ticket had some gaps which required a few stints hitchhiking in between a couple countries, but that’s just geography.

Before I flew out of Bangkok, I traded my mosquito net for a hat and pair of mittens from another backpacker that just arrived from Canada, picked up a used guidebook at a street market that was ten years out of date called Europe on $25 a day, and learned how to count to ten in French before we landed in Paris. I was set.

So if you find yourself away from home and wandering around aimlessly with little money in your pocket this Christmas season, go on a search for little things that remind you of that place and start your own scavenger hunt. I did the same thing with a charm bracelet.  Charms, as it turns out are everywhere and really cheap.  Seashells, sea glass, and a combination of sand from different beaches on different islands and in different countries I collected in film canisters (the good ole days) hold a handmade candle I bought at an Amish village.  Beer and wine labels, coins, postcards, bus, train, museum and monument tickets look awesome on a bar top covered in three coats of sheer polyurethane and make for fun travel stories that always keep the conversations upbeat while everybody shares their own over an evening of cocktails.

Reflecting back on the many holidays I spent overseas or away from home and away from my precious mom and family, I remember how challenging it was at times, to get into the holiday spirit. Sometimes I was alone, other times I was with friend’s I had made in that particular country, or fellow travelers I had met along the trail. You may feel resigned to not celebrating at all, but you must pick yourself up by the bootstraps, and make something special out of it, in your own way.  After all, if you are on Globestamp, you are a true traveler, and that is what true travelers do!  I would love you to leave comments below and share your ideas for your fellow travelers, or different things you did that made your holiday on the road a true celebration. Tips, Tricks and Insider Scoops are always appreciated, and I would love to hear your stories.

I hope some of my ideas inspire you to create your own one of a kind celebration, and I’m looking forward to hearing about them.  So, please share with the rest of the class in the comments!

Wherever in the world, the wind has blown you this holiday season as my mom says…Bloom Where You Are Planted!

As we say in the Caribbean, One Love and Jah Bless My Broddas and Sistas,  May Peace And Joy Be To All of You and Yo Brethren!!

 Cynthia Stetzer©


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