Photos and Story by Melissa Ruttanai
“Most of the time, I don’t really miss my family.” My Belgian friend Ana shifted on her feet and shrugged in a very matter-of-fact way. “But then, during Christmas, I can’t stop thinking about home.”
On December 14th, the Lima Clubhouse of the South American Explorers Club had its holiday party. A grill sizzled away with hot dogs and burgers. A German volunteer, Juliane stirred a mammoth pot of mulled wine, or Gluhwein, and Christmas music streamed in from a computer on the front desk. With both members and non-members welcome, the SAE filled with travelers from around the world. Some folks were working expatriates, others chronic nomads. But during this time of the year, we converged on the SAE club, looking to spread holiday cheer.
Celebrating Christmas in Lima, Peru
Throughout Peru, green wreaths decorate shopping malls and nativity scenes cluster around every plaza. The basilica hosted a children’s choir over Kennedy Park as 8 million Limeños gear up for a day of gift-giving, wine-drinking, and merrymaking. It’s Christmas in Lima and although the city is technically in the middle of the desert, Peruvians up and down the coast sip hot chocolate and slice open huge round cakes of Panettone bread. Electronic shops kick into full-campaign mode and every other apartment window blinks with holiday lights. Walking through the Ovalo in the Miraflores district, I look up to see giant commercial billboards, inviting me to enjoy the “Magica Navidad”, the Christmas magic.
For backpackers all over the world, the holiday season equates to a mélange of meanings. For us, the end of the year signifies higher hostel rates and overbooked rooms. It means planning with travel buddies over Facebook to coordinate Christmas parties, New Year’s Eve plans, and accommodation recommendations. It signals a time to count those passport pages and make sure you have enough for next year. Christmas for travelers is about logistics—who you’re going to meet, where, when, and for how long. Meanwhile, we ignore that homesick needling in our chests that chronically hearkens: You haven’t been home in over 4 months, 8 months, 2 years.
But at least there is refuge.
This year, my husband and I found ourselves in the mega-metropolis of Lima with an open invite to join the festivities at the SAE’s annual Christmas celebration.
Year-round the organization offers great advice and concrete information about traveling through South America. With four clubhouses and exclusive online information, the SAE helps travelers find tours, accommodations, discounts, volunteer work, and even some free WIFI in a congested city. The staff is congenial, comprised of full-time workers and a handful of volunteers who reside upstairs. Together, they organize trip reviews, book exchanges, charity events, luggage storage, and free Spanish classes.
For the holiday party, the entrance fee of 8 soles or about US$3 included a ticket for the first cup of (addictive) mulled wine. Burgers, hotdogs, and a cheese plate with white corn choclo were also for sale. In the sitting room, many travelers mingled with new friends and familiar faces from the clubhouse. Banter remained light until the games began.
“Pass the Parcel” came first, where to the sound of music, participants passed a wrapped gift from one person to the next. Once the music stopped, whoever held the box peeled away one layer of wrapping. The parcel stopped twice with my husband Neil, but in the end, the music cut out and the box dropped into my lap. Opening the package, I had won a Christmas mug stuffed with Peruvian chocolates and sweets!
After a short break, the volunteers introduced the next game, while dragging a whiteboard and markers out into the sitting room. It was time for Pictionary and Charades. Sofa chairs shifted, teams divvied up, and the competition heightened as people pulled slips of paper and proceeded to draw and act their way to victory. The scene was similar to Christmas Eve at my sister’s house, with my cousins bunched together over board games for a night of trash-talk and subtle cheating. At the SAE, people shouted in surprise, the room muted over in disbelief, and the game continued into the evening. One volunteer even threw himself to the ground, shaking his fist like a madman as he acted out his clue.
Suddenly holidays on the road seemed a little bit like home, even if we stood among strangers who just like us were traveling the tourist route.