Dr. Graham Pluck
Minds, Brains, & Internationalism

Travel, Internationalism, and Academia Blog


Ten Christmases on the road

For Helen and me, Christmas is a time to travel. Not travel home to family and friends, but to travel to new places. In fact, we’ve spent the past 10 Christmases in all sorts of places, only linked by not being home. We did try to return home for Christmas in the UK in 2010, but it’s really not a good time to fly to snowy England, we ended up being diverted all over Europe. The journey took three days. So, travel to new, non-snowy places works best.

As an academic I get a reasonable amount of leave over the Christmas and new year break, usually enough to fit in three weeks of travel. Needless to say, every Christmas experience has been different. In a sense it’s a slightly more hard-core version of independent travel, as you are generally more of an outsider during the Christmas period, as everybody else around you has their own Christmas routine, at least in Christian countries. Even in countries that don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s still a more foreign experience than traveling at other times of the year, as you are aware of the festive season that family and friends are experiencing, over social media and phone calls, while not actually experiencing a jot of it yourself.

We’ve found Mexico to be a particularly good place to travel to over the Christmas period, as they do celebrate it there, and there are lots of interesting festive events. For example, we got to see a Mayan Ball Game being played in Merida. The game was extremely important and popular in pre-Columbian America, and there are dozens of preserved ball game pitches, particularly at Mayan city ruins. As tourists you usually only get to see the renovated ruins, and read a little about the importance of the game. But we go to see a rare game being played. In Oaxaca, we got to see the incredibly quirky Noche de Los Rabanos (night of the radishes) were locals compete to make the best sculptures out of radishes. Take a moment to try and envisage that. Mexico is also great for Christmas travel as nothing closes, the shops and restaurants stay open as usual, even on Christmas day. And Mexico is such a diverse country, that you can have multiple trips, and a completely different experience in each.

Asia is also incredibly diverse, but in contrast to Latin America, travelling in Asia gives generally gives a very different Christmas experience. In many Asian countries Christmas is recognized to the extent that there may be Christmas trees in some public places, but little else to remind one of the festive season as it would be celebrated in many Christian countries. So here are some pictures our of 10 years of Christmas on the road, covering places in Latin America and Asia (and the South Atlantic).

2011: Colombia
When we were in Colombia for Christmas, the civil war between the government and Marxist groups such as the FARC was still raging. This is a Christmassy flyer that was given to every passenger on a bus we were travelling on. It looks nice and festive, but was aimed to get the attention of anybody who is secretly a paramilitary fighter. What it says in Spanish is: “This Christmas give your family a most special gift, demobilize now. Think about it, there is another life. Demobilization is the way out.”
Colombia 2011.jpg

2012: Taiwan
This Christmas was spent on Green Island. Nobody was celebrating Christmas at all, we spent the day visiting pagodas and ate Chinese food for lunch. We had no internet in our hotel, but we found that the island’s police station had no password on it’s Wi-Fi. So, we sat outside the station and Skyped home to our families in the UK, on ironically stolen internet. 
Green Island Taiwan 2012 v2.jpg

2013: Myanmar
This year we travel with friends to Myanmar. Again, Christmas is not a thing here. We spent the Christmas day visiting the Golden Pagoda in Yangon, and eating delicious tea leaf salads. Later in the trip we visited Bagan, which is one of the most spectacular places we’ve ever been. There is a photo of it in my Travel page.
Yangon Myanmar 2013.jpg

2014: Mexico
As described above, a highlight of this Christmas was the Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca, but another highlight was the moles, Oaxaca is home to some of the best Mexican cuisine, in particular a variety of thick spicy sauces called mole. New year we spent time in Mexico City, where some pickpocket tried the ‘ketchup trick’ on me. This is when they scrumptiously squirt you with ketchup, blame some passing kids for it, and then help to clean you up with tissues, while secretly picking your pockets. I know that trick. I told the would be thief to go forth and multiply.
Oaxaca Mexico 2014.jpg

2015: Mexico (again)
This time we were in the Yucatan peninsula. In this photo I’m at a nativity scene in the zocalo, in Merida. I’ve found that in Latin American countries nativity scenes are a lot more imaginative than I’m used to in the UK, for example the inclusion of elephants.
Merida Mexico 2015.jpg

2016 Mexico (again)
What can I say, Mexico is a great place to visit over Christmas. This trip was again to the Yucatan peninsula, which is a great place for independent travel, particularly if you like archaeology. We have visited a lot of Mayan ruins over the years, maybe about 30 different sites. This Christmas day was spent at the Tulum ruins, which are very unusual for being right on the coast, virtually on a beach.
Tulum Mexico 2016.jpg

2017: The Falkland Island / Islas Malvinas
This year we spent Christmas on Pebble Island, the Falklands. This is a really isolated part of the world, with only about 7 people on the island at any one time. Most people who make it there, which isn’t many, go to see the penguin colonies. But I spent Christmas day hiking the island in search of flight wrecks from the war between the UK and Argentina. There are actually several wrecks to find, they have never been cleared from the land, and for some quirk of the weather here, the wrecks have not eroded and look exactly as they would have when they were shot down during the war 35 years earlier. There are literally hundreds of thousands of pieces or wreckage scattered across the ground, from whole panels of aircraft, joysticks, and machine guns, to pieces of wire and fuses. The surprising thing about the Falklands is just how culturally British they are: possibly the only place in the southern hemisphere were Penguin biscuits are widely consumed.
Pebble Island the Falklands 2017.jpg

2018: Back to Mexico
We couldn’t keep away, this time though we spent most of our time in Chiapas. This is one of the most underdeveloped and isolated parts of Mexico, and was the scene of an armed peasant uprising in 1994. The Zapatistas still control huge parts of the state, which they organize into caracoles, which are communist enclaves. Around 338,000 people live in these communities. Visiting the Zapatista capital, Oventic, is possible, but challenging to organize and get to. Mexicans and people from the USA are not allowed, as the Zapatistas are technically still at war with the Mexican government, and as communists, distrusting of the USA. A visit to Oventic involves being shown around their schools, clinics etc., by a Zapatista in a balaclava, to hide their identity. This photo is from the Zapatista controlled community centre and café in San Cristobal de Las Casas.
San Cristobal de las Casas Mexico 2018.jpg

2019: Ecuador
Despite living in Ecuador for several years, 2019 was the only year that we spent Christmas there. We left our home in Quito, which is in the Andes, to spend the festive period on the coast. We had a fantastic AirB&B, literally on the beach, at a village called La Entrada. Christmas was spent gazing out over the Pacific Ocean towards Asia, were we left for to live the following week.
La Entrada Ecuador 2019.jpg

2020: Kazakhstan
The Covid year. We had plans to spend the Christmas in India. Covid put a stop to that. As we are now living in Nursultan, Kazakhstan, that’s the best we can do for Christmas travel. The one thing that is Christmassy about the place is that there is lots of snow. This photo of me with our dog, Albert, was taken near our apartment. In the background you can see the Hazarat Sultan mosque.
Nursultan Christmas 2020.jpg

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