A Holiday Story

I came upon the holidays with a certain level of dread. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is far from unusual. For those of you who know me, you know I’ve got a pretty classic case of Grinch with a pinch of extra bitter when it comes to Christmas. I’ve never had anything against Thanksgiving, though. I tend to like our Southern-style and tex-mex menu as we all crowd into one small house and pick up any strays that Santa Cruz has to offer. New Years… eh. Almost always a disappointment. So I tend to expect very little from the “Holiday Season” as a whole.

But you know what’s funny? Something we all know too well: You never really appreciate what you had until it’s gone. As November reared its ugly head I knew I was in trouble.

Look how fancy and special!!

Look how fancy and special!!

As IST came to a close we got an invitation for everyone in the Barat Pack (those volunteers living in West Java) to head out to the home of Ms. Kristen Bauer, US Charge d’Affaires in Jakarta. (No, I don’t know what that really means or what she does on the regular, but doesn’t it just sound classy??) We were all stoked for the opportunity to schmooze with some diplomats so the RSVP was unanimous and resoundingly excited.

It’s about two hours to Jakarta from Bandung by train and for me to get to Bandung is more than a little bit of a trek so instead of lumping the whole journey into a day I met up with some pals in Bandung. One of my nearest and dearest, Girl Alex (there are a lot of Alex’s in PC Indo, we have to distinguish somehow), and a regular Barat Packer, Dan, met up with me in the Big City. We had a grand ol’ time at our usual haunts of delicious Western food and spent some extra time shooting zombies at a local arcade. Because, y’know, I’m still about 8 years old on the inside.

The tongue helps master the art.

The tongue helps master the art.

When we arrived at our hostel the next day I was happily surprised at the epic nature of our little hostel. This isn’t saying overly much, as I have not seen many hostels in my day, but this was certainly a backpacker’s heaven. There was a pool table, Game Center, and mini-movie area downstairs as well as an adorable little roof garden. I wasn’t in Jakarta long so I didn’t get time to explore very much but I did enjoy a very nice taco and some tequila shots, so I would say that’s plenty enough exploring for this gal.

Soon enough we are all scampering about trying to discern what “Smart Casual” means. It was certainly one of those moments when I was missing my American ensemble. You come here and get so used to the local fashion of batik as formal that when you’re faced with trying to look western-style classy again you’re sort of at a loss. I fumbled through alright, in the end, with some help from my ladies on hair.

Dude. Look at that house. It's huge.

Dude. Look at that house. It’s huge.

We piled into three taxis to try and find our way to Ms. Bauer’s house. After a few failed attempts and circling the block for a bit we stumbled out of the cars to the armed guard and giant walls that could only signal a dignitary’s abode. We showed ID and had our names checked off of a list as we filed into the grounds. I did very well in resisting every urge I had to make an unreasonably large number of comments on being on “THE list” and having my people call their people. You should all be very proud.

After living in a desa for so long I think I forgot myself and how to act in such situations because my jaw nearly hit the floor when I saw the size of her house. Easily a mansion, exquisitely furnished and decorated. You walked into the front room to a grand piano that looks seldom used and continued into one of the two sitting rooms while the caterer was setting up the food in the dining room. Never in my life have I felt more out of place than in that moment, feeling like a small and relatively poor girl from a village who had to scramble to find anything appropriate to wear and sometimes forgets English words after being in the desa too long. But as I walked in and loosened up a bit (red wine may have aided in said relaxing) I realized all of these people were a joy. Ms. Bauer was there with her husband as well as a gaggle of Returned PCVs (RPCVs) who now worked in Indonesia for the American Government in a number of capacities. We were fortunate enough to even have the new Ambassador show up for an hour or two. He had just arrived in the country a week prior and turned out to be quite a charming gentleman.

Happy Holidays from PC Indo! Aren't we the cutest??

Happy Holidays from PC Indo! Aren’t we the cutest??

As lovely as it was to get all dressed up with everyone and meet new people, I was honestly just there for the food. I can say this with a growing level of certainty as I look back on that evening and my mouth still waters. It was a perfect American Thanksgiving feast. It started with a fabulous squash salad, then came the Turkey (First Thanksgiving where I actually ate some!), followed by corn casserole, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, cooked veggies, and even individual sized apple pies and pumpkin pie mousse. When they opened the trays you could sense the anticipation from every PCV in that room as we pretended politely to listen to the Ambassador speak before we ate.

We spent the rest of the night chatting and eating and enjoying the complimentary wine until heading back to the hostel to hang out on the roof for a bit. I went home not long after and returned to desa life, leaving the extravagance of the big city behind for a bit.

As Christmas loomed it’s ugly head ever nearer Courtney, Girl Alex, and I decided to stay a little closer to home for this vacation and try to do something relaxing and, above all, cheap. In keeping with these ideals, some folks came to my neck of the woods and we rented a little beach house for Christmas! We managed to drag along our friends AJ from the West and Steven from the East.

The only way to spend time at the beach: build a sand recliner and chillax under an umbrella.

The only way to spend time at the beach: build a sand recliner and chillax under an umbrella.

I went up to Bandung to collect everyone and escort them to my site, as it can be a little tough to get here if you’ve never been. We set up camp at our little house on my favorite tourist beach, Sayangheulang, and immediately began to embrace beach bum life. I don’t think Court spent more than 5 hours away from the beach at any given time and she most certainly left a few shades darker. I could most frequently be found hidden under my umbrella, usually fully clothed, and with more sunscreen than is really useful to keep me safe from that equator sun. I, unfortunately, did not come away completely unscathed but I did the best I could. (Special shout out to my family from everyone here in appreciation for the two bottles of SPF 50 we went through! Maybe some aloe in the next package?)

It was a marvelous blur of building our very own Christmas tree, making bonfires on the beach, watching the stars twinkle in and out behind clouds, and cooking delightfully delicious western inspired meals.

At the end of the week we all returned to stay in my tiny house for a few days to save money. We still cooked on our own and even walked to a nearby beach one day. Before we left for Bandung for New Years we topped off our Christmas extravaganza with a spa day! That’s right, folks, I have a little salon in my village that does an amazing “Cream Bath”. Basically you get a deep conditioner and a pretty killer scalp massage and arm massage. All of that goodness for $7.50. BAM. That’s a lot for me, but I just wanted you Americans to be jealous for a second.

Look at these ladies! Ready for anything!

Look at these ladies! Ready for anything!

New Years, for once, did not let me down. We spent far too long traveling the circuitous, serpentine road and all but Aji proceeded to pass out as soon as we checked in to our lovely home-away-from-home hostel. After rising from our near comatose states, we ladies got cute as can be for our New Years adventures.

We found Aji (he has a marvelous habit of wandering wherever his little heart will take him) and had a pleasant dinner at our favorite local eatery. Not too pricey with some lovely pasta and reasonably priced booze. (It’s always happy hour there. It’s a magical place…) I had a craving to dance like a crazy woman, so we took our leave of our little red signed place (after 6 months I still can’t remember the name) at around 11:30 and went to a club not far away. It was loud, over crowded, the beer was ungodly expensive, there was a cover charge, and I loved it. Even without tourists everywhere it oozed this sense of raucous American nightlife that I had so been craving. It’s not something I desire very often, but sometimes you need a dose of irresponsibly loud music to remind you you don’t really like it all that much. We danced and were merry on the floor as the DJ rang in the New Year with very little pomp or circumstance while we watched from our rooftop debauchery as fireworks erupted over the Bandung skyline.

Aji took a dive over the three of us for this photo op. Ever the funny man.

Aji took a dive over the three of us for this photo op. Ever the funny man.

Courtney and Girl Alex were not feeling top notch after the long ride and a crippling stomach bug so they opted to return to their cozy beds shortly after midnight. Aji and I, however, had other plans. We bounced between bars and clubs like hyper charged ping pong balls. (Anyone remember the movie Flubber? Yeah. Now you’re with me.) Someone made the mistake of letting loose two like minded people on the city at New Years after months of conservative seclusion in little desas. Once places started to shut down around us, we decided it might be a good idea to amble on back to the inn. We grabbed some grub from a local mini-mart and giggled our way back to the hostel where, as luck would have it, Girl Alex was just calling her cab to get her to the airport on time. We ate our coco-puff inspired cereal (sorry Kevin…) and drank our lemon water and proceeded to raise a weary Alex’s spirits at 4:30a. After a fond farewell to our final Eastern comrade we proceeded to our respective sleeping areas and promptly passed out. Of course, I woke up mid afternoon the next day and had a lovely FaceTime with my family in which I still had on last night’s make-up and earrings. Totally respectable adult, here.

Aji and Court and I spent the day bonding and laughing and watching The Hobbit 2 (totally worth it) before we said our good-byes the next day. I hustled to the bus station the next morning and managed to grab the direct line back to my site. Approximately 6 hours later, over the aforementioned serpentine and circuitous road, I happily greeted my host family and retreated into the quiet confines of my room, whence I have yet to emerge.

I love people and I love my friends. I love vacation and, as it so happened, I loved this year’s holiday season. But even with all of that, there is this void, a marked hole where Christmas used to be. As much as I do loathe the idea of what the holiday has become, I love my family and its traditions. I love that I’m the only one who insists on bringing down every stuffed animal we have acquired over my and my sister’s lifetimes. I love that my mother still gets all stupid over every single ornament. I love that Kevin reads to us every Christmas Eve and that my sister and I, until this year, have never once spent a Christmas Eve apart. Not even in separate rooms. Not even in separate beds anymore. In all my 26 years I’ve never spent a Christmas away from my family. The one Christmas I had to be away for the day, my mom postponed the entire holiday until I got home. Even when I was a bratty teenager I showed up; when I was a punky college kid, I never missed it. But now, as I (somewhat) mature, I find that I missed it when it mattered the most. What this boils down to is that, until I get home in 2015, I don’t get to have a proper Christmas. I don’t get the stuffed animals and the family snuggles and the weird ornaments we’ve collected over the years. I tried to replace them this year and, while I came out with something fun, it was not my Christmas. It was a pale shadow of a tradition that, as it turns out, I hold very close to my heart.

Lest I leave you on such a sad note, let me remind myself to think of this time as its own version of reality. Sure, I don’t get the Christmas I treasure, but I get different versions of the holiday. I got a delightful New Years and a mouth wateringly tasty Thanksgiving. There will always be a level of difficulty when it comes to my beloved American Holidays (Valentine’s is coming up and I have to say, I’m not too sad to live without that one. St. Patrick’s will be a little rough, though…) but I traded them in for Ramadan and Indonesian Independence Day. A different sort but exciting in its own new and adventurous way. And, ultimately, this experience made me realize how much those silly experiences mean to me and how much I can’t wait to get home and be my Grinchy self again. (Note: My heart DID NOT grow three sizes. It stayed the same Grinchy size.)