Why I find community in other countries when I'm away from home for the holidays
It's a dreadful 93-degrees here in Siem Reap, Cambodia. For now, this is home—at least for a month. As the daughter of a South American immigrant, home has always been a strange, diffuse concept for me. I'm a full-time traveler, and home is typically where I happen to be with my 70L backpack; my turtle shell, a roaming home. Not having a stationary address has made it easier for me to be away from my family during the holiday season.
I have my headphones on as I stroll along the Siem Reap River by monks in vibrant orange robes. I'm listening to a classic Christmas playlist, the only thing that reminds me, remotely, that it's the holiday season. The first few notes of "Home For The Holidays" play and I begin to cry, like I do every time I hear this song.
There isn't a particular place that my heart longs for when I tear up listening to Christmas songs thousands of miles away from my family. Like most people, I grew up alternating holidays between my paternal and maternal families. But my two sets of relatives are literally worlds apart. My mom is American, from Kansas City, and my dad is Latino, from Uruguay. Growing up in a multicultural family made the holiday season complex.
I've always been torn between the two identities—but most especially during the holidays. Some years we'd stay in Kansas City, others we'd go to Uruguay. It weighed heavily on me that I barely knew my dad's side of the family. We'd only get to see each other for a few weeks every couple of years. Before Facebook messenger, we didn't have any means to keep in touch beyond the occasional expensive long distance phone call. I was also aware that I was obviously different from my mom's side of the family in nearly all aspects—from the color of my skin to fundamental values.
December in Uruguay is the height of summer and all things good in life. Families gather for meals that start after 10 p.m. and never seem to end. Young people dance on the beach and in the streets until the sun rises and sends them whirling off to bed. On New Year's Eve in Punta del Este, the entire bay erupts in endless displays of fireworks as Candombe drums make the streets vibrate and champagne flows freely. (Uruguayans know how to celebrate.) Although Uruguay has had a separation of church and state for over a century, most people here are Catholic. Spending the holiday season in Uruguay exposed me to devout religion. My abuela was never without her rosary and my tía would always make my dad stop at altars for the Virgin Mary. My dad, however, had been kicked out of Catholic school as a boy and renounced Catholicism.
My abeula's tiny blue home was about the size of the living room of most of my aunts' houses in the States. My tío cooked enormous amounts of meat on the red brick parrilla, which was dangerously close to the chicken coop, as my primos and I helped to cut potatoes for ensalada rusa and stole spoonfuls of dulce de leche meant to go on top of decadent flan. I don't know how we all fit into that house, but the available space was filled with pure joy.
There are no sparkling lights or tinsel during the holidays in Uruguay. It is a time for family gathering and religious praise. For Dia De Los Reyes, we'd leave out a shoe for the Three Kings to fill with bounty. You can't fit a Barbie or an Easy-Bake Oven into a shoe, but I loved the tiny treasure that I'd find inside, even if it was just a Bon O Bon chocolate.
Back in Kansas City, we'd almost always have a white Christmas—not just because of the snow but because of the dynamics within my mom's white family. The atmosphere was festive but tense. My Uruguayan dad stuck out like the black sheep he was, and so did I, his loud Latina daughter. His in-laws teased him for still having a hard-to-decipher accent after nearly 40 years in the States and accused him of dyeing his black hair that had barely any gray strands. The only time we felt accepted was when our white family members delighted over the Uruguayan foods we'd bring to holiday gatherings.
Although I was never religious and got banned from bible study as a kid, I loved attending the Christmas Eve service at Unity Church with my grandma and mom, who had a rare bond that can only exist between a mother and daughter. Remembering joining hands with them and singing "Silent Night" brings me so much sorrow and joy that it's hard to separate the two emotions. After the service, we'd go to my eldest aunt's house. Christmas in Kansas City is starkly different than Christmas in Uruguay. In the living room, a gigantic Christmas tree would be adorned with hundreds of gifts underneath. After dinner, all of the cousins would put on holiday-themed pajamas and my uncle would pass out gifts one by one while wearing a Santa hat.
Some years later my parents, sister, and I started to feel less welcome at family gatherings—we don't even get invited now. I can't help but wonder if our exile from the family was self-imposed or due to our differences in culture, beliefs, lifestyle, and ethnicity. And around this time, I began to dread the holiday season.
I left any trace of home—in Uruguay or the States—when I started traveling full-time in 2015. Though I don't normally feel homesickness, when the chorus of a Christmas carol seeps into my consciousness, I recognize my loneliness. To combat the feelings of holiday sorrow, I've found new ways to celebrate and shape the season into one that brings me personal joy. I spent my first solo holiday season in Thailand. While the Thai population is primarily Buddhist, there are festive features in the country during Christmastime, including large Christmas light decorations and carolers. Novice monks would shout "Merry Christmas" to me whenever I left a temple.
I knew that being alone on Christmas Eve would be difficult so I took action and booked a full-day immersive experience at an organic farm in Chiang Mai. I wanted a fun (but meaningful) distraction that would keep me busy and engaged in the present moment. We visited a local market to hand-select farm-fresh produce, picked herbs directly from the garden, and prepared dishes that were bursting with flavor. Just like after any good holiday meal, I left in a food coma and dozed away in a hammock that swayed beneath the warm winter sun. I woke up in time to learn how to use butterfly pea flowers to make blue sticky rice that we ate with mango and coconut cream.
The day was perfect. I'd only been gone from the States for about two months but knew at that moment I would be okay on my own, no matter where in the world I was. I've kept up the tradition of doing something exciting during the holidays to keep myself focused on creating new memories rather than dwelling in painful nostalgia.
In 2016, I was fortunate enough to spend the holidays with my parents and sister; we spent Christmas Eve in Barcelona, one of my favorite cities. It felt like we were back in Uruguay with all the sparkling wine, tapas, and Spanish chatter. The trip was especially wonderful because it was my dad's first time visiting Spain, where his own father was born. A few days before New Year's Eve, I left my family and flew to India, my home for the next six months.
I was in a relationship last Christmas, which eased the pain of being away from family during the holidays. We were in Chiang Mai, the city in Thailand where I'd spent that first holiday season away from home. After offering to pay for the meal, I was able to convince my meat-eating Spanish ex-boyfriend to go to a vegan buffet for dinner on Christmas Eve. As we feasted on plant-based renditions of local specialties like khao soi and Western dishes like cashew-nut alfredo pasta and veggie burgers, we FaceTimed our families and sent friends silly selfies. We released traditional paper lanterns into the sky and wished that we'd spend all holidays together in the future. We broke up exactly one month later.
I'm alone again for the holidays this year. On Christmas Eve, I'll be volunteering with formerly captive elephants at a reputable animal sanctuary, Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. EVP is an ethical hands-off haven for semi-wild elephants that live freely in their natural habitat. And I'm no longer dreaming of a white Christmas. I pine for the sunshine of a stranger's smile and the communities I find in my homes away from home.