Holidays abroad are a double-edged sword. On one side, you feel like you’ve been given a Get Out of Jail Free card. You’re relieved of the pressure of figuring out who you need to buy for, what you should get for them, and whose house you need to be at when. AmIright single, childless peeps? On the other side, being abroad without all that chaos just feels wrong. Can it be Christmas without animals conspiring to overthrow the tree, without freeing a Barbie doll from her plastic and cardboard restraints, without that one relative always spilling the gravy boat…(oh wait, that’s me!)…or without nieces and nephews filling up a living room with wrapping paper faster than you can say Feliz Navidad? In December 2018, Nate and I pondered this question from South Africa.
There are some things that can be done to artificially recreate the Christmas spirit, of course. Like doodling your own Christmas cards while listening to Mannheim Steamroller and drinking wine to numb the pain. Haha….kidding! Everyone knows that Bing Crosby goes better with wine. We decided to skip buying gifts for each other because it’s stressful and we just don’t have the luggage space…erm….because I already filled it with souvenirs. Don’t judge me. Instead, on Christmas Eve our gift was to wear our best (Read: our least travel trashed) clothing and treat ourselves to food that wasn’t deep fried by the side of the road. We went to the very hip Mad Giant restaurant in Johannesburg and ate our hearts out. It was seriously amazing. If you’re ever in the city, go to Mad Giant!
Christmas day presented a greater challenge since everyone was rightfully with their families instead of manning shops or restaurants. Thanks to Nate, though, we’d thought ahead enough to purchase two frozen pizzas that we could cook up for Christmas dinner. We comforted ourselves with pizza, Skype calls with family, and feelings of superiority at having not sold out to the materialism of Christmas. The materialism of buying-a-bunch-of-touristy-souvenirs-you-don’t-need-and-will-cost-you-more-in-shipping-than-the-cost-of-the-actual-items is obvs an exception. I told you to stop judging me.
After Christmas, we moved on with the next holiday challenge: New Year’s Eve. My adult life has been cursed with failed attempts at having a fun, sexy NYEs, even when I’m back in America and within easy access of friends. Something always seems to conspire to ruin the night, like not being able to see fireworks, being trapped by a thousand tiny Asians, or accidentally poisoning myself with iron tablets. Yes, those are all true stories. This year, we decided to get ahead of the game and move to the coastal city of Durban, South Africa so that we’d at least have the beach.
Durban did have several stunning beaches where Nate could surf and I could read from a sunny spot on the sand. It is also the home of “bunny chow,” which is like a Panera bread bowl, but instead of a bowl, it’s a hollowed out loaf of white bread filled beyond the brim with chicken curry (see above). We also connected with three amazing ladies from Johannesburg: Anesu (below top right), Khali (below bottom left, second from the right), and Zodwa (below bottom right, far left)*. All three of these women had come independently from Joburg for the first time to try their hand at single travel, and they were all killing it. They were all staying at our hostel in Durban, and we instantly bonded over bunk beds, beaches, and aspirations. They brought some much needed girl talk and laughter into my life at a time when I was really missing friends back home. I owe them each a debt for making the holidays more than something to just get through.
Sadly, my girl power pack each needed to find their way back to Joburg before the New Year. Nate and I were alone again, and it looked like the NYE curse would continue. Things were especially bleak about 11 pm on December 31, 2018. We’d planned on going to a bar to bring in the New Year, but the only bar in walking distance was closed. We walked slowly along the boardwalk outside of our Airbnb dejected. As a last ditch effort, we decided to go back to our room and connect to the wifi to see if we could find an Uber that wouldn’t cost us an arm and a leg to get to the city. As we passed through the lobby, though, we came upon several other families who were deep into their own holiday spirits. From the moment they saw us, they absorbed us into their numbers and handed us shots of tequila. For the next hour, we danced, shouted at each other, and took photos together like we’d been friends since the beginning of time. Just before midnight, we moved our party to the beach. Kids ran amok throwing minor explosives into trash cans while adults found amusement in the kind of easy conversation that’s greased by alcohol and sustained by the giddy anticipation of renewal and regeneration. It was just a bunch of strangers, a boombox, and some cheap booze. It was by far the best New Years I’ve had since I was a kid throwing fireworks into trash cans. It was nothing short of amazing.
It’s true, you do give up a lot for the holidays when you travel away from home. It sucks to be away from friends and family, no matter what a pain in the ass the holidays can be. BUT if you’re open to new people and new experiences – garnered with a glass of wine or a splash of tequila – the holiday spirit is never far behind.