I AM 11,481 kilometres away from home. Here in Santiago, the capital of Chile, I find myself far from family, pints, craic, and the biting cold of a normal Irish Christmas.
I’ve spent some time now in Chile, exploring its cities and countryside alike, climbing mountains and hiking in the wilderness, swimming in ice-cold mountain pools and trekking along the snow-laden Andes. But now the festive season is upon us and I am somewhat nervous.
It will be the first time that I will spend Christmas away from home, and that I will make my own Christmas, create my own memories, and maybe even start some of my own traditions.
A new chapter in my life
For me, it is a milestone in both my travels and my life. This will be a marker in my personal lifelong narrative, a new chapter in my new home.
It is something that happens to everyone at some point or another, a time when home no longer simply means your origins, but also the place where you try to carve out a living for yourself in whatever corner of the world you have found yourself in.
This Christmas, both my fiancée and I will be away from our respective homes and families, and together we will do our best to make a Christmas that is full of love and memories.
We are from two very different parts of the world. I hail from a small town called Ardee, an hour from Dublin, while my fiancée has her roots in Venezuela, in a city where summer never ends.
Together, we will celebrate each of our country’s and culture’s traditions. On Christmas Eve, when most of South America celebrate, we will feast on “hallacas” (shredded pork and raisins wrapped in spiced maize flour, boiled in a plantain-leaf parcel), followed by strong coffee and a slice of “pan de jamon” (imagine a swiss roll, only filled with butcher’s ham and olives). At midnight we will sing and laugh and dance.
On Christmas Day we will have our lunch of roast chicken, roasted and mashed potatoes, red wine gravy, and if I can find some brussels sprouts (even though I hate them). All of this will be accompanied, of course, by the traditional midday beer.
Christmas in a warm climate
We will be in the depths of summer, and this Christmas I will be dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, something that is fundamentally un-Christmas-like. The temperature will top out at around thirty-five to forty degrees Celsius, and the extreme dry heat will keep us confined indoors for much of the day.
When I think of how this Christmas will be, I feel both apprehension and excitement. It is a moment of opportunity, and where there is opportunity, there is always potential for heartbreak.
But I am optimistic, and I know that even if this Christmas doesn’t have that same special warmth that is always present at home, it will at least be memorable, and it will definitely be happy.
Our culture of exile
There are two things that stop me from feeling overly homesick. The first, I believe, is the natural Irish mentality. We are a culture bred from exodus. We have a foothold in every corner of the world.
In Morocco I wandered by an Irish pub, its green wooden exterior serving as a sharp contrast to the rust brown surroundings. In Peru, I enjoyed a pint of Guinness that tasted as if it had been poured straight from the tap in the Guinness Storehouse. Being Irish means always being home and everywhere I go I take a piece of my home with me.
Looking at the stars
The second is Orion. My brother is an astronomer, and while I never took to it with the same passion, I have always been fascinated with the Orion constellation.
If you look to the heavens, when the night sky is clear and the glaring lights of civilisation are far away, you will three bright stars in a row. This is Orion’s belt, the most recognisable part of the larger constellation. I have always had a liking for the belt, mainly because it is always so easy to spot and it is always beautiful.
Now, when I find myself on a night-hike through a jungle or across a desert, or sometimes just alone in Santiago, I look towards the sky and try to find Orion. The same stars I looked at in my home country stare down at me here, the same three brilliant points, and suddenly I don’t feel so far from home.
So, this Christmas, thousands of kilometres from home, I will celebrate in the manner of my host country and continent, before celebrating in the manner of my own country.
And then, when all has been drunk and eaten and eyelids are heavy, I will take one last beer outside and find Orion, and I will make a silent toast to home, happiness, and all the other travellers who find themselves far from family and friends, and hope that they can find the same comfort that I do.
Brendan Farrell is a writer, backpacker, and teacher. He has been traveling across South America for over a year, from Venezuela all the way to Chile. You can follow more of his adventures at http://strollingnotions.irish and on Instagram: @strolling_notions.