Christmas is usually a special time we spend with our family. But is it always so? Having been on the road most of the time for the past few years, I have learnt to appreciate the moments I spend with my nearest and dearest.
There were Christmas days we spent on different continents, when I could only reach them on the phone, calling from places which had nothing in common with the Polish festive season.
The Christmas Eve from 5 years ago was nothing like the one we celebrate in Poland. I still remember standing at the roadside with my friend, waiting for a ride somewhere in south-eastern Turkey two days before Christmas. Blessed be Turkey with its hitchhiker-friendly attitude! Seeing two people with backpacks waving their hands on the side of the road, no Turkish driver would ever think they are crazy. A man heading towards the highway picked us up when we were still in the city. Once we reached the highway, a truck driver pulled over for us before we even tried to catch a ride. He was a Kurd: something we would have never guessed because of his fair complexion. He was going to Iraq, and just for a fleeting moment we felt tempted to visit that country, too. In the end, we decided to go the Turkish Kurdistan instead. We wanted to cover a distance of about 500 kilometres, driving along a mountain road which ran along the border with Iraq and Iran. According to our map, the area was completely undeveloped except for two cities and two small towns. The region was in turmoil. Every now and then, we came across military checkpoints controlled by soldiers who were invariably surprised to see us. Whenever we got off the truck for a while, we found ourselves at the bottom of a deep valley. The temperatures in the mountains had plummeted to below zero, and there were piles of snow on the sides of the road.
On a frosty and windy morning we almost froze to death waiting for a ride. The road to the east climbed to mountain passes at an altitude of up to 2700 metres.
In the evening, we arrived in Van, the capital city of the Turkish Kurdistan. The biggest city in the region, it looked like an island of light in the snow-covered rocky wilderness. At night, the streets were crowded with people, most of them young and casually dressed. Many girls and women wore no head covering, which is quite uncommon in Kurdistan. It was Christmas Eve, and yet there were no seasonal decorations, Christmas trees or lights in the streets. We had to make do with a Christmas Eve dinner at a local restaurant, and the simple dish we had was neither delicious nor festive.
A year later, we ended up celebrating the day on the opposite end of the continent. We waited for the first star on a terrace overlooking the ocean and tropical jungle. We were on an island 50 kilometres off the coast of Thailand. A big house on the top of the hill had become our haven for two winter months.
A meditation centre on a Thai island – sounds fabulous, doesn’t it? And it really was, even though the small centre was actually our workplace. Its owners, an American woman and a man from Venezuela, had only taken over the facility a few months earlier. Even though our list of daily chores was long, we still had quite some time for ourselves. Each day started with a yoga session, followed by breakfast and a few hours of cleaning chores around the place. Afternoons were free and we could do whatever we wanted to. Our neighbours included geckos: forest dwelling lizards. They were very friendly and useful, even though they scared some of our guests – imagine a lizard the size of a dachshund! The sound of their pelting feet coming from the attic would often wake us up at about 6 a.m. The best thing about living on the top of the hill was that even the slightest breath of wind could easily reach us. We enjoyed the breeze from the ocean while the houses down the hill had to endure scorching heat.
During the day, we usually stayed at the beaches, in the bars and on the streets of the nearby town. Here, too, there was no trace of Christmas atmosphere. Only the sun, sand, and hordes of tourists escaping winter. The night market in Thong Sala attracted huge crowds and teemed with life every night. Despite limited space, thousands of people gathered there after dark. Once you got there, you simply could not help indulging in sweet balls dusted with nuts, banana cake, or grilled octopus.
Is it even possible for a place like this not to have a festive atmosphere? There is nothing I would trade for the sense of freedom which comes from travelling and being on the road. However, this special time at the end of the year makes you realize that “to travel” also means “to come back.” To the places we know, to the people we love, and to our traditions. It is the time you need to renew your bonds in order to be able to set out on yet another journey with new energy.
Łukasz Supergan – a traveller, photographer, and journalist. A two-time winner of the Kolosy award in the category “Feat of the year.” His solo traverse of the Zagros Mountains was shortlisted for the National Geographic Traveler awards.