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.

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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.

Put the batter on the press
Put the batter on the press
Wait an unspecified amount of time
Wait an unspecified amount of time
Finally, one seems passable
Finally, one seems passable
Eventually, there are enough to share
Eventually, there are enough to share

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?

Although you can take a taxi to the Night Safari (which is right next to the Singapore Zoo), it’s also possible to use public transportation. We took the MRT to Marsiling and then transferred to Bus 926 which drops you off right in front of the Night Safari. There are three other MRT stations that have direct buses, and you can use your EZ-Link card to pay your fare when you get on and off the bus (by far the easiest way to use buses in Singapore). This is the cheapest way to get to the zoo and not really difficult at all. However, if you are opposed to public transportation, there are tourist buses that leave from various parts of the city that will take you directly to the Zoo/Night Safari (naturally these are more expensive).

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…

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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!

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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.

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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!

Look! A night lion! He's so majes... hey, wake up! Night lion? Hello?
Look! A night lion! He’s so majes… hey, wake up! Night lion? Hello?

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?

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (17)

  1. September 20, 2013 at 9:58 am
    Sep. 20, '13

    Hello Steph! I love this post. I can only imagine what full-time traveler would be like in a relationship… all the changing dynamics that happen. And its not like it something you can really prepare for and plan … you just have to ride with the tides.

    And I love the pictures in this post – especially the lion! My favorite animal. They are beautiful

    Cheers,
    Marissa – TinyPilgrim
    Marissa Carnahan recently posted..Useful & Inspirational Blogs

    • September 23, 2013 at 12:05 am
      Sep. 23, '13

      Thanks, Marissa! Full-time travel has definitely taught both of us a lot more about what it means to be flexible and give ourselves over to new experiences and I am eternally grateful to have had the adventure we have had thus far. I’m getting better with riding those tides of which you speak and I hope I continue to only improve.

  2. September 21, 2013 at 3:02 am
    Sep. 21, '13

    I’m sure your imposed choice of having Ben & Jerry ice cream instead of KFC was probably for the best. We wanted to follow the local traditions and had KFC as Christmas dinner and didn’t like it.
    Franca recently posted..Weekend Photo Theme – Home Food Nostalgia

    • September 23, 2013 at 12:07 am
      Sep. 23, '13

      We have been in Asia for over a year and still have yet to step into a KFC! I think that’s a huge success, but maybe it’s also a defeat? If only the same could be said about McDonald’s, but we have been lured under those golden arches on more than one occasion…

  3. September 21, 2013 at 4:15 am
    Sep. 21, '13

    Ahhh…the dreaded Christmas family decisions..what a nightmare! As mine and Scott’s families are separated by a transatlantic crossing, we have been trying to start a tradition of spending Thanksgiving in the US and Christmas in the UK. However, that hasn’t been really working out while we’ve been travelling and who knows what will happen next year! I also don’t like the idea of spending Christmas somewhere hot and foreign (which was why we hot-footed it back to England last year for the holidays!) but it sounds like you really had fun and made it your own, which is what’s most important.
    Julia recently posted..Creaky Knees and Links I Love

    • September 23, 2013 at 12:09 am
      Sep. 23, '13

      Your and Scott’s situation is infinitely more difficult than ours is, so I definitely feel ya. I mean, if we got really crazy and didn’t have to deal with snow, theoretically we could drive from one family to the next, but it’s just been so much more restful and rewarding to just pick one place per year and accept we’ll see the other one the year following. Good luck with your own balancing act!

  4. September 21, 2013 at 9:41 am
    Sep. 21, '13

    Christmas has always been stressful for me to navigate, but I’m still a little nervous at the idea of not spending it with family (I think it will be harder for me than I think). This year will be the last holiday season I’ll be home for a while, so I’m going to try and enjoy it, but like you said, I’m really excited to start my own traditions 🙂
    Claire recently posted..Don’t Let Money Take Over Your Life

    • September 23, 2013 at 12:11 am
      Sep. 23, '13

      I am sure that if I were just on my own then spending the holidays without family would have been a real nightmare, but it meant so much to have friends hosting us and, of course, to have Tony by my side. Part of growing up is leaving the nest and spreading your wings and while I can’t really imagine making a habit of spending the holidays away from family, these moments are only as important as we make them and it’s just as possible to enjoy quality family time at other times of year!

  5. September 21, 2013 at 5:03 pm
    Sep. 21, '13

    I have spent a couple of holidays abroad – in Hawaii as a child and southern Spain when I was 19. I’m with you, there’s nothing like a Christmas with snow, but who’s really going to complain in Hawaii… or Spain? It’s always nice to hear of couples making the most of situations like yours and that you were able to turn a Christmas away from family into your own. This one certainly sounds memorable!
    Colleen Brynn recently posted..Moon Over Mongolia

    • September 23, 2013 at 12:15 am
      Sep. 23, '13

      When I was little, we did one or two Christmases in Florida, so I have done a few holidays without snow before. At the time I was just so excited to be visiting Disney World that I didn’t much care about how festive (or not) the season felt… perhaps if Singapore had its own Disney franchise (if only we’d been in Hong Kong!) it would have felt like a throwback to my childhood!

  6. September 22, 2013 at 6:47 pm
    Sep. 22, '13

    I couldn’t stop laughing at the part about KFC and Ben & Jerry’s… when in Rome…

    I spent last Christmas on a megayacht in Belize with a Jewish family. Now THAT was weird. No KFC either 🙂
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Doing my part – a lionfish recipe.

    • September 23, 2013 at 12:18 am
      Sep. 23, '13

      Sometimes I think that we’re better off trying to do the exact opposite in situations where trying to recreate a specific experience is just going to fall short… if you can’t have turkey for dinner, why NOT have ice cream, right? 😀

      Megayacht Christmukkah! I could imagine getting used to that…

  7. September 26, 2013 at 5:08 pm
    Sep. 26, '13

    We spent last christmas in Taipei and New Years in Hong Kong. I LOVE Christmas in Taiwan. It’s so much less commercialism. You know how it just feels like a rat race in the States. I dislike getting gifts because half the time, it’s not even what I want or need. But, I felt less pressure in Taiwan. It was just so nice.
    Nicole recently posted..Wednesday’s Wonder: Prague (An Overview)

    • September 27, 2013 at 8:35 am
      Sep. 27, '13

      Your comment made me laugh, not because I disagree with you, but because when we were in Taiwan (specifically Taipei) there was SO MUCH Christmas stuff around, from ornate trees at the train station, to Christmas carols being played in the malls. And yet whenever we talked to Taiwanese people, they were like, “Oh, we don’t celebrate Christmas here. It’s not a big deal.” Not a big deal?!? I can’t even imagine how Taiwanese celebrate things they actually are about!

  8. January 24, 2014 at 1:11 am
    Jan. 24, '14

    I am planning a Singapore tour for my family (with 2 kids, ages 6 and 9. I really love your nifty insights on the places you visit.

    Tell me which attraction did you enjoy more – Morning Zoo or the Night Safari?

    Also any recommendations on what to do Christmas day in Singapore?

    Thanks!

    Juvy Ann

    • January 24, 2014 at 5:08 am
      Jan. 24, '14

      The Night Safari is probably a bit more unique, but I think I personally preferred the regular zoo. It’s hard to say why, but I suppose part of it is that the Night Safari can feel a bit rushed and I felt like it was a lot easier to relax and enjoy the animals during the daytime.

      As for what to do on Christmas day, we found that most things were open on Christmas so you’d probably be able to do anything that catches your eye. Maybe a day out on Sentosa? You could do Universal Studios or visit the beautiful oceanarium, or there are plenty of rides and activities that the kids would likely enjoy.

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