Last Christmas I was poolside with a gin and tonic in hand, writing about all that I had seen on safari that day in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. Our morning had begun in the dark with a slip of a moon, bleary-eyed over 6 am coffees. We left the Myewa Hotel as the last of the stars bled into dawn. There were kob en masse, picking their way through the long grass, two lions and a cub at a distance, long-tailed mousebirds spinning in lazy circles and dozens of startled bushbuck running in a whisper.
The infinity pool at the hotel perched over Lake Edward and Lake George. The sky that day was a violent purple, growling thunder edged closer with the frequent spikes of lightning. Elephants at the water’s edge dragged their trunks along the surface of the lake, spitting and spraying their torsos in a seemingly choreographed dance, oblivious to the storm that would throw down rain in angry torrents in less than an hour.
I wasn’t feeling Christmas at all. No glitter, tinsel, nutcrackers, wet snow, buttery shortbread or carols on repeat. But I was lying by a pool, sweat trickling down into my navel, my mouth raw from eating so many wedges of fresh pineapple at breakfast. I was watching elephants by the lake. My mind was still reeling from the prickly thrill of seeing the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park just days before.
I thought of how lovely the Canadian landscape would be with marshmallow snow topping fence posts, pristine aprons of snow in the branches of weeping cedars and pines. But, I was in Uganda, and marvelling at the verdant tea plantations and flat expanse of savannah, dotted with the exotic animals that I had completed so many elementary school projects on.
I spent this morning reading my Christmas journal entries from last year, and 1994, when I spent three months volunteering in Costa Rica. The words pull up vivid images of the jungle and the hum that penetrates you as soon as you step into it. I was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest—and when you live in a cloud forest, you wake up in the clouds due to the elevation. The rain was pelting down on the corrugated iron roof of our cabin as we gathered around our makeshift Christmas banana tree. We made ornaments out of tin cans (and were happy that we`d had tetanus shots before the trip). Alex had tucked away a bottle of Argentinian white wine from his dad`s village, Alice had Australian lollies to share. Phil pulled out a prized bottle of amber Quebec maple syrup and pancake mix that won us over in an instant. There were a few cans of beer as warm as bathtub water, and egg nog that came in cartons with the rum already in it.
I was the Dona in the kitchen that Christmas Day. I had prepared a marmalade-lemon juice-coconut sauce marinade for the chicken and managed to make peanut butter-banana-oatmeal no-bake cookies. The jungle kitchen was very basic—i.e. cooking was done over a fire pit that had to be constantly tended to due to the leaking roof. There was no running water (except off the roof into the fire)—we had to slog up plastic jugs from the river which we treated with iodine tablets. And Mother Hubbard`s kitchen was bare! I often felt like a contestant on Just Like Mom (a TV Ontario show where competing kids had a cookie bake-off (with one minute of prep time), and the poor mothers had to guess which sloppy cookie their kid made. Contestants were given all the same ingredients: chocolate chips, flour, eggs, garlic, wieners, Coke, mustard, relish. It was just a gong show of gross. Jungle cooking was similar considering the pantry was only stocked with cans of mackerel, stewed tomatoes, marmalade, oatmeal and five kilos of peanut butter.
Somebody suggested we sing Christmas carols to channel more of a festive feel in the heart of the rainforest. There were 12 of us—from Canada, Guyana, Costa Rica and Australia. We soon realized that collectively we didn`t know the words to one entire Christmas carol. However, everyone knew the jingle for The Flintstones and Gilligan`s Island.
Flash forward to Christmas 2009 which kind of snuck up on me like my Chad Kruger Nickelback hair that needs a desperate cut. Snow flakes are drifting by the window sideways. There are a few sparkly decorations scattered about the house to induce festiveness. Dogs are walking by in boots and jackets, often wearing more clothing than the children that are also in tow.
My sister is home for a week from Banff and is landing on my doorstep tonight. Her arrival (and too-soon departure on the 28th) reminds me of the impact of my boomerang lifestyle. As much as I love having Christmas abroad in rainforest huts and safari lodges, there is a place where we should be for Christmas, and that`s home.
I selfishly spent one Christmas Eve in Toronto, just because I wanted to buck all tradition and watch Bridget Jones Diary and Love Actually and eat greasy Chinese food. I had friends over who had lost their sense of home, or simply weren`t invited to come home with their loved ones because it wasn`t appropriate. People would talk. Aunt so-and-so can`t handle it. Your father can`t accept it. Meanwhile my father was saying he should play the lottery more often because he had two out of three that were gay. How lucky was he!
I am still appalled by the response to Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison`s Christmas card controversy. The card is a proud photo of Brison and his civil partner, Maxime St. Pierre (married in 2007) in an autumn field by the ocean with their retriever, Simba. Newspaper websites were forced to shut down or disable comment sections on the article because of the backlash. Apparently not everyone is ready to don their gay apparel, even at a time when we are supposed to extend goodwill to men. But maybe only straight men?
As lucky as I am to have spent a Christmas in Uganda with bathing elephants, and in Costa Rica with flocks of toucans barking outside the hut as I wrote in my journal, I`m even luckier to have a home to go home to, where my loved ones are equally loved and embraced.
I have two parents, still married after 37 years, and a brother and sister that I genuinely like. We are as rare as a flock of toucans being spotted in downtown Toronto. Dax, Kiley and I will head home on the 24th as a convoy. My mom will have the phyllo pastry ready for Dax to make his traditional spanokapita. There will be champagne in the freezer and Pavarotti blasting at concert levels (which will send my parents back and forth, alternately, to the stereo in a lower volume, higher volume contest). We will listen to The Cat Carol by Meryn Cadell, as we always do, and cry over the cats and dogs that we loved so much. They each have memorial ornaments on the Christmas tree with engravings that are traced over with fondness.
My dad will eat six slices of toast, waiting for the rest of us to realize that we`ve forgotten about the turkey dinner because we are slowly getting smashed on champagne bubbles. We will laugh at the classic stories that are re-told every year. The story of Dax and the unicycle and his failed attempt to ride it on Christmas morning will be heard, again. How he grabbed the mantle piece and almost took my dad out with the garland and clock that weighed as much as a piano.
We`ll make fun of Kiley and the hockey stick gift she insisted my dad would love. It was signed by all the Toronto Maple Leafs and came with an official document—it should have been The Best Christmas Present in the World. Or so she thought. My dad couldn`t identify a single signature as they were all farm team players and rookies.
The photo albums will eventually come out and Kiley and I will argue who had the bigger Brooke Shield`s eyebrows. My dad will eat more toast. We will reluctantly sit down to eat, somewhere around 9 o`clock and then decide to open presents somewhere around 11 at which point both my parents will fall asleep watching the other unwrap.
And when they finally tuck into bed, Dax, Kiley, Mark (Kiley`s non-gay partner)a and I will sit on the kitchen counter eating cold turkey and shortbread until we`re sick.
And this year I won`t have to send a postcard to my family with a sappy wish you were here because I`ll be there. Home, and that`s where we all travel back to on sleepless nights, when we are oceans away, submerged in hot baths and at Christmas.
Merry Christmas and all that rot, as my mother would say (but probably deny).
Last year`s blog entry Egg Nog and Cat Carol Crying– https://julestorti.wordpress.com/2009/05/07/egg-nog-and-cat-carol-crying/
The controversial Christmas card–http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2009/12/21/canadian-mp-gets-widespread-support-after-christmas-card-controversy/
Just Like Mom footage– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AFXK-bhMug