In Pennsylvania, the temperature is sure to have dropped below freezing point and my extended family would have gathered to celebrate Christmas. The family is large, but close, and get together around the fireplace in my parents’ house every year, catching up on our lives and eating the holiday comfort foods, while two cats and an energetic Labrador Retriever misbehave nearby.
Around the same time, 8000 miles away, I was driving a rented car through the night from Kruger National Park back to Johannesburg: The opposite side of the car, the opposite side of the road, the opposite end of the globe.
Subash and I arrived in Johannesburg a little over a week ago. We spent the first day at the Apartheid Museum, a critical and sobering education for anyone in this part of the world. It’s beautifully designed, bringing the human cost of racism and segregation clearly into focus. It leads you through winding passages, dark like the history itself, and ends in the light with a photograph of a long single file of thousands of black South Africans waiting their turn to vote for the first time in 1994.
The SuperSport Park in Centurion is beautiful, and the first I have been to so far where people are not only allowed but also encouraged to lounge on the grass along the boundary. It is lovely to see, and must be a reason why Test matches here are still so popular. Entire families spend the day there, with children playing cricket in the shade beneath the umbrellas just across the divide from the professionals.
I spent my time lounging on the grass and doing Very Important Research on the new and unusual stadium foods to be found there, including potato chips on sticks, miniature doughnuts, and pizzas in cones.
As time marched on, more and more people left to join family for the holiday. Away from the ground, Christmas decorations glistened in the storefronts and malls. At a crafts market, the sellers told me that I could buy everything left on my Christmas list right there at their stalls. I didn’t tell them my family was miles away and would wake up on the 25th without me, that anything I shipped there would arrive well after the day.
Once the Test match between South Africa and West Indies ended on December 20, we headed out for the incredible Kruger National Park, definitely a Christmas present to myself if there ever was one. We spent two days driving through the park, which is about a third the size of Sri Lanka. It was an amazing experience, and we saw elephants, giraffes, zebras, springboks, and even a lion within ten kilometers of entering the park. We spent as much time there as we could, managing to exit the last gate out on Christmas Eve exactly one minute before it closed for the day.
And, so, on Christmas Day, we found ourselves driving the 400 kilometres back to Johannesburg, and then catching a short flight to Port Elizabeth for the next South Africa v West Indies Test.
I had expected to spend Christmas Day in transit, with nothing to mark it from any other day. While my family ate and drank, laughing and sharing stories, we would be in a car or at an airport. This didn’t bother me really, as it is just one of the prices you pay to have an amazing trip. Even so, I was sad not to be at home, missing the comfort one feels when people you love come together.
Imagine my surprise, then, when we arrived at our next home-away-from-home in Port Elizabeth to find a Christmas lunch waiting for us. In one of the innumerable kindnesses we have been the recipients of on this trip, a friend picked us up from the airport and drove us out to the country to her mother’s house. Her English boyfriend and she were visiting from Cape Town, and her family members opened their arms to fit two weary travelers far from home. We went in, wrinkled and bleary-eyed, and found a beautiful spread awaiting us. The hosts had decorated it with British and American flags, and we settled in for a delicious meal. Meat is a big part of the average diet in South Africa (the joke goes that chicken and fish are vegetables here), and they had everything from turkey to gammon to ox tongue. Dessert was an apricot jam pound cake with custard – called ‘Jan Ellis’ – and fruit trifle.
It was an unexpected treat, and it was wonderful to be a part of a family gathering. It had everything I was missing – warmth, laughter, and delicious food.
The kindness of the people we have met on this trip continues to astound me. From Trinidad and Barbados to England, Ireland, India, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka, and now South Africa, dozens of people have gone out of their way to help us along.
It was a Christmas unlike any I have had before. Six months, eight countries, and cricket matches in 12 stadia have brought us here. Along the way, I have seen sea turtles, lions, leopards, camels, water buffaloes, elephants, and tens of other species I had only heard the names of before. There have been mountains and deserts, ocean winds and monsoons.
Only time will tell what the new year brings. We have three more months on the road before we are due to return home to Pennsylvania and my family. I still miss them all dearly, and can’t wait to see their faces, but I know that no matter where we are, the amazing people that cricket has brought together would make us feel at home.