I’ve just had my fourth weird Christmas in a row. By “weird” I mean that my family was absent – or rather, I was absent from my family because I was overseas. That’s weird in a bad way, but what’s been weird in a good way is spending Christmas in countries that don’t have a commercial seizure over it. It becomes very simple, and that’s very pleasant.
Like anyone away from home, I improvised some sort of celebration, or went with the flow of whatever was going on. It wasn’t always a success, but I won’t forget any of them. And that must count for something…
I was in a cutely-named hill station called Ooty. My Christmas companion was Mark, who I’d literally met on the road a month previously. We were to have a romantic Christmas.
Mark – Quick Stats
Home city: Manchester
Hobbies: collecting knives from the farthest-flung places of the Earth
We had a fireplace in the room which was exciting. For added atmosphere, I dragged in a dying eucalyptus tree from the side of the driveway and we decorated it with pink toilet paper. On top was the big red paper star Mark had bought me.
As I recall we had a few too many whiskeys on Christmas Eve and I started an argument. Very un-cool timing.
We woke in the morning to men shouting angrily outside our room. The tone sounded nasty. Then a foot came crashing through the glass pane of our door. Mark roared like a lion and I cowered in the bathroom.
When we ventured outside we saw men hurtling plastic chairs, shoes and insults at one another. When one of them noticed us in our pyjamas he calmed down and explained in perfect English the reason for the scene. He owned the guesthouse and had just returned from Switzerland to discover that his ‘boys’ has been renting out rooms without his permission and pocketing the profits. He was so angry that he smashed his foot through our room, thinking it was empty.
He was very embarrassed, apologised profusely and promised we wouldn’t pay a single rupee to stay there. And with perfect Santa timing, he then promised us a special gift.
Thirty minutes later there was a knock at the door and outside was a man with three horses. He beckoned for me to hop on.
All my Christmas wishes came true in that single moment. Ever since I was a little girl, I had dreamt of finding a pony standing in the backyard on Christmas morning (eventually I did get a horse, but she didn’t arrive on Christmas Day). Sure, it was a decade too late, but that really wasn’t important.
Mark discovered that he was a natural Marlboro Man and we cantered through the forest whooping like kids.
This was the Christmas that never was. I spent the day alone, having decided to opt out and let the inner Grinch inside me bloom.
I had been in London for less than six months, so I didn’t have the sort of friends that would drag me out of my flat to celebrate. I was living with four artists and they’d each gone back to their homes in Wales, northern England, and Slovakia – and one girl, Sarah, went to an Australian party on the other side of town. There are no trains or buses in London on Christmas Day so she had to stay there for two nights. Joining her was less appealing than the idea of having the flat to myself for two whole days and using the time to write.
And in a way, it was also nice to exercise a choice about Christmas. I thought that by opting out for one year, I would perhaps appreciate the rest more fully.
It wasn’t snowing, but it was close to zero that morning. The house had no heating, so I turned on the oven, opened its doors and sat at the kitchen table with my laptop. It was so cosy that I peeled off the layers as I ate my gourmet snacks. My plan was to write a story about the scariest night I spent during my year travelling – the night I slept in a petrol station in Nepal after escaping from a scary, scary man.
I kept working on it over the next week but I wasn’t ever happy with it and never finished it.
This was my “sexy and stupid” Christmas.
It was stupid because I thought it would be hilarious to eat turkey in Turkey on Christmas Day. I thought my goal was realistic because I had seen restaurants in Istanbul advertising a Christmas lunch.
But what eventuated was the following conversation (if you could call it that) repeated about ten times:
Jessica to restaurant tout: “Do you have turkey?”
Restaurant tout: “Yes, yes, Turkey food.”
Jessica: “No – turkey” [flapping my arms like a chicken].
I gave up when I realised I was behaving like the village idiot.
I had a kebab and walked along the beach front and watched the street cats fight on the rocks. At any rate I was more preoccupied with thoughts of my pending flight to Iran than with Christmas food.
In the evening I went to a Turkish bath house as a special treat. My clothes were deposited at the gate (just about) and a large, half-naked Turkish woman instructed me to enter the sauna. After I returned she tipped buckets of warm water over my head. This process was repeated several times and then I took my place on the circular marble table in the middle of a beautifully authentic-looking hamaam. There were seven other nymphs getting the same treatment – a massage and soapy exfoliation. We were turned this way and that. It was quite a sight, and reminded me of a master’s oil painting, or of the days when emperors were fanned with palm leaves and fed grapes…
Christmas began at work on the night of the 23rd. We gathered around two huge cream cakes with “Merry Christmas” and “Peace be with you” written in icing. Someone found a Christmas song on their computer. I was invited to cut the first slice while the others clapped. Then I handed the knife to a Christian, and he passed it to another. Everyone ate it and we went back to our keyboards with sticky fingers.
On Christmas Eve I sub-edited the “Christmas today” story which was fun, and it took me back to the day when I stood next to Jesus’ manger in Bethlehem (true! Well the bit about me standing there, I can’t vouch for matters of the Bible…).
On Christmas morning I went to a special church service for the first time in my life. My friend’s sister sang in the leading choir band and it was all really colourful and happy. I recognised some of the carols and sang the English words quietly while the others naturally went for Bangla. But when ‘Come all Ye Faithful’ was performed, I could only remember the corrupted naughty-kid version of the original: “Why are we waiting, slowly dehydrating?…”
As we left the church, a fresh-looking guy from MyTV asked to interview me about my Christmas in Bangladesh. I mumbled something really dumb about the shops being closed in Australia for The Big Day but here it was business as usual. On the second take he asked me to focus on my prayers. This made me a bit nervous, but I opted for “world peace, love and kindness for all.” I don’t know how priests do it…
After the TV guy left we sat on a parked Harley Davidson-esque motorbike and had our picture taken and then ran away.
Then we went to a church built by the Portuguese in the 17th century. I called my parents from the graveyard because I thought it would be a peaceful place, but seven little street urchins surrounded me, then parroted my words and asked for money. I was frustrated by the distraction and I shouted at them to leave me alone – 10 minutes after my message of peace and love…
We had Christmas lunch at my friend’s house which consisted of amazing Bangla dishes of beef, chicken, salad, sausages and rice. My friend’s mother heaped our plates as though it were our last supper. We went up on the roof to smoke and take stupid pictures after staring at the slums and the market below.
When my friends went to work I decided to see my first friend, Ali the rickshaw driver, who hangs out the front of Hotel Pacific in Mohtijheel. We had tea and talked about “the Belgium woman” who said she wants to stay in a hotel with him. So have other foreign women, apparently. He showed me his photo album which he keeps in storage under the rickshaw seat. At the last photo, he said, “This is a bad man. This man not like woman – he likes young boys.” This bad man left Bangladesh about five years ago.
Then we talked about why he doesn’t like to get high anymore and some other street talk that isn’t appropriate for a blog.
Back in Ramna, I bumped into the photographer I’d previously interviewed, so I went to his place and he showed me his coral and fossil collection. I had yet more tea and I told him it was Christmas for me.
Then I came home and ate the leftover Crunchie bar my sister had given me in an Australian christmas stocking.
Watch this space.