Maybe I’m lucky, but despite what anyone tries to tell you, I haven’t found the notion that “marriage changes everything” to be true. If Tony’s and my relationship has changed in the four years we’ve been married (and surely it has), I credit that more to simply having been in the trenches with one another that much longer than I do to a piece of paper. If anything has caused the most upheaval in our relationship, it’s undoubtedly been uprooting our life to travel long-term: When we left on this trip, neither Tony nor I once doubted that we would love our new lifestyle, and while I don’t think we were wrong, it has definitely taken us time to get to this point. The switch to full-time travel was far more disruptive and stressful than I had imagined, and while I think much of that discomfort has been vital in causing me to grow as an individual and for our relationship to strengthen, it has been a bit like how a blade is strengthened by being placed in a fire and repeatedly struck. I think there are a lot of married people out there who, in a paroxysm of ardor, claim they would go to the ends of the earth for their spouse, but what I’ve learned in this year is that going to the ends of the earth with your spouse is an entirely different (and sometimes, less romantic) proposition.
Truthfully, the only real minefield that Tony and I have ever had to navigate that came as a direct result of getting married was how to deal with the holidays, particularly Christmas. Now, I have married friends who stress about how to split time between their two families when both camps share the exact same area code, and while I’ve no doubt that trying to juggle who gets Christmas Eve against who gets Christmas morning and racing across town poses its own set of headaches, try figuring this kind of stuff out when your two families are in two different countries and nowhere near one another. Maybe in some ways it’s easier for us because we just had to get ruthless: our fair and reasonable solution was that we would alternate, spending the holidays with Tony’s family one year and with my family the next. Sure, neither of us liked the idea of potentially going two years between visits home, but it was the only thing that made sense. I also put out the suggestion that every so often we should do our own celebrations wherever we called home (or maybe somewhere exotic) and give our families the option to come to us so that we weren’t always the ones schlepping ourselves across North America.
Well, this past Christmas, my wish finally came to pass when Tony & I found ourselves celebrating the holidays as far from home as either of us had ever been.
It was bound to happen at one point or another, but as the reality that we’d be spending the holidays in balmy Singapore with nary a flake of snow in sight sunk in, I finally felt the wistful pangs of homesickness. I feel no shame in declaring Christmas my favorite holiday—I love the music, the lights, the food, the cheesy specials on tv. I love that for a few days, everything seems to slow down and the world just seems a little bit softer and sweeter, like we’ve all agreed to be a bit kinder and happier. As a Canadian, to me it never really feels like Christmas without snow; if ever there is one time of year when I look forward to being cold so that I can cuddle up with the people I love, then this is that time. This year, there would be no trimming a tree, no turkey, not even any presents, and neither Tony nor I would be surrounded by relatives.
But we would have each other, as well as the company of good friends and the chance to make some new Christmas memories. This trip was all about expanding our horizons and having new adventures, so rather than moping over all the things I’d be missing out on, I threw myself into having a weird, wild, and—above all else—wonderful Christmas.
We celebrated Christmas Eve with Chris, his fiancée (and former Vanderbilt colleague!) Peiyan, and two of their coworkers. We spent the evening laughing and drinking (a critical part of any Christmas celebration!), nibbling on an international spread of snacks (including some horrifying Dutch licorice that had the gall to be salty on top of everything else and was so bad we all found it rather funny) and paying tribute to Chris’s Norwegian heritage. Together, we whipped up the batter for krumkake, a waffle cookie enjoyed during the holidays that is cooked on a patterned griddle, and took turns trying to form them into their traditional conical shape using a wooden roller. Some of the krumkake wound up rather crispy and others were rolled more dexterously than others, but fun was had by all and the results were delicious, so all in all, for krumkake novices, I’d say we were pretty successful.
The following day, we decided to continue our unorthodox celebrations with a visit to Singapore’s famous Night Safari in the hopes it would make our Christmas Day a little more magical. After all, nothing says Christmas like riding around on a tram in the dark gazing on lions, tigers and bears, right?
Arriving at the park, we had some time before the gates opened and wanted to grab some dinner. As we learned from Dale & Franca during our time in Taiwan, apparently many Asians celebrate big holidays dining out at KFC, and so we decided to have fried chicken in their memory in lieu of roast turkey. Alas, in a show of poor planning, the KFC at the park closes an hour before the Night Safari opens, dashing our plans for the worst Christmas dinner ever. So, we went for a more festive but equally irresponsible option and decided to have Ben & Jerry’s ice cream instead! there was no way I was going to get snow in Singapore, so frozen dairy products would have to suffice…
When the time came to enter the park, we realized the line for the tram was insane and decided that rather than spending half our evening in line to see the park we would actually, you know, go see the park using our own two feet. So, off we toddled, into the pitch black night to go see some wild animals, which sounds more like the start of a horror movie than one about Christmas (same diff?).
Rather than being terrifying, however, wandering around in the dark observing tons of creatures we had never before laid eyes upon was really fun. The paths to get around the safari were really well signed and—because most people were queuing for the tram—never claustrophobic or too busy. Similarly, although this is not generally the trend in Asia, the enclosures were of good sizes and clearly had a mind for the animals’ comfort—while you wouldn’t ever mistake the experience for traipsing across the African plains, the pens for the most part embraced an open-concept, natural design. Cleverly, not only does this result in a pleasing aesthetic for visitors, it also allows for easy observation: with the exception of the leopards, we managed to spot every animal housed at the Night Safari. Talk about a holiday miracle!
I think people who visit animal attractions probably fall into one of two camps: those that like to marvel at the big beasts like rhinos and elephants, and those who like to seek out the cutest animals in the park to coo over. I think it’s pretty clear which camp Tony & I fall into, but just in case it’s not, while we saw many very cool animals at the night safari (some we had never seen before, like pangolins and gharials), our favorite animals of the night were the short clawed otters (they remind us of our corgi, Rory!), the mousedeer (they’re so tiny & adorable!), and the fruit bats (their snub pig-faces remind us of our dog, Emmy, when she sleeps on her back!). The fruit bat enclosure was particularly cool as you get to walk into a large dome where the bats are free to fly about as they please. As their name suggests, fruit bats are herbivores and quite docile, so there’s nothing to fear from them, but, much to our bewildered amusement, this did not stop most of the Asian visitors from running about screeching as soon as they entered the pavilion. Put this up on the list, along with pratfalls and people getting socked in the face, of things that make Tony laugh uncontrollably.
We really enjoyed walking the Night Safari, but after doing the loop set out for us, we realized that there were certain parts of the park that are off limits to pedestrians that you can only view from the tram. Although I definitely found this frustrating, having spent about two hours wandering around meant that now there was virtually no line for the tram, so we hopped on with about an hour before the park closed and experienced the “safari” portion of the night. Most of the big game like the lions and hippos can only be seen from the tram, which is probably for the best because the habitats have minimal boundaries and in some cases we got really close to the animals. It was actually quite staggering to observe just how massive some of these creatures are—who knew rhinos got so gigantic?
If there was any downside to the tram (which is included in the cost of your entrance ticket), I’d have to say that the guide’s narration swung between being completely incomprehensible to being intelligible but inane. Moreover, the tram only stopped at a few of the enclosures, so getting photos was really difficult, if not impossible given the poor light conditions. If you’re hoping to document your time at the Night Safari, having a camera with a large sensor and a fast lens will be crucial; Tony had to pull out all of his pro photography tricks to nail the ones we managed.
The one other niggling thing about the Night Safari is that neither of us was fully convinced that all the animals on display were truly nocturnal: I’m sure we’ve all seen elephants and otters out during the day at regular zoos, and a few of the creatures that we came upon that evening were actually asleep!
Despite these nitpicks, we really enjoyed our evening at the Night Safari; we were shocked when we realized that if we didn’t hustle, the MRT would close and we’d be stuck taking a cab all the way back into the city. Like startled gazelles upon the plain, we dashed out of the park and after experiencing serious déja vu when we saw how long the line for the buses were, hopped in a cab and had it take us to the closest subway station. This meant we had to miss out on some of the shows and performances that took place at the park, but to be honest, they looked kind of tacky and not critical to our Night Safari experience. Huffing and puffing, we managed to make it onto the very last train of the evening, proof that we had made the right choice.
Facing down the holidays was without a doubt one of the hardest things we’ve had to deal with since leaving on our trip. It was hard for Tony & me to go without the traditions and comforts of home, but then again, one of the best things about being a couple is getting to start new traditions of our own. Who can say whether Tony & I will ever celebrate the holidays again with Scandinavian pastries and a walk amongst wild animals. All I know is that this was the first Christmas that was truly ours, a Christmas unlike any we had ever experienced before, and I think we really embraced that. Unconventional though our celebrations may have been, I realized that it was still a Christmas where family came first, it’s just that my definition of who I consider family (or as good as) has certainly expanded. Looking at it that way, far from being a melancholy Christmas, I’d say it was a very merry one indeed.
Tell us: Have you ever spent the holidays abroad? What new holiday traditions have you started or tried out during your travels?