Three New Year’s Eves Across Three Continents


NYE 2012: Manitoba, Canada

THERE’S A PARTY at someone’s house, but I don’t want to go. There’s only one friend left in my hometown I truly care about seeing, and I don’t want to make small talk around him with people I used to know six years ago, before I went to university in another province and didn’t return.

Fortunately, Kyle’s willing to skip the party. The scarcity of my visits to my hometown makes my presence more valuable. The supply and demand of relational economics.

The scarcity of my visits to my hometown makes my presence more valuable. The supply and demand of relational economics.

He picks me up at my parents’ home and we go for a drive, with the vague goal of making it to Winnipeg, the only sizeable city for hundreds of kilometres. I’m not sure what we’ll do when we get there, but it doesn’t really matter.

It’s quiet when it’s cold, truly cold, the kind of cold that clamps down on the Canadian prairies in the winter. A stillness settles over the earth and the air is clear. Your thoughts are quieter, resting like the hibernating animals.

We cut through the cold and the stillness, the expansive sky pulled taut from horizon to horizon like the skin across a drum. If you could reach up to tap it, the heavens would shake.

There is a small town called Brunkild on the way to Winnipeg. When I lived in Manitoba as a child, we played the Brunkild Game whenever we drove to Winnipeg. The rules to the Brunkild Game are simple: if you see a person as you drive through Brunkild, you win. I once heard of someone who claimed to see seven people as they passed by, but in the years I lived in Manitoba and the hundreds of times I took this highway, I don’t remember ever seeing one.

Kyle and I decide to stop in Brunkild at the bar that sits on the highway. What happens at the Brunkild bar on New Year’s Eve?

Not much. It is a dive bar of the worst kind. Dark and dingy, with wooden tables I don’t want to touch for fear of finding years of spilled beer coating the table tops.

There are exactly two other people there, excluding the bartender who serves us our drinks. A guy shows up with a karaoke machine and sets it up in the corner. He’s the only person to take the mic.

I’m leaving in two days. My five-month travel itinerary starts in Asia and ends in Europe. When the trip is behind me, I’ll return to Canada to start grad school, the next step in the linear regression that has been my life, a steady climb away from the x- and y-axes.

Kyle lived in South Africa for a year. I tell him I’m afraid the trip will change me, that it will disrupt the careful line I’ve plotted. I’m afraid my life and my friendships won’t be the same when I return.

“They won’t,” he says.

We tire of the bar and hop back into Kyle’s car to continue to Winnipeg. When we get there, the restaurant Kyle wanted to go to is closed, so we go to Tim Horton’s instead. I get a bagel with cream cheese.

We’re somewhere on the highway, skies stretched before us and behind us, when the dashboard reads 12:00, and then 2013 is here.

NYE 2013: Battambang, Cambodia

THIS IS HOW YOU celebrate New Year’s Eve in Battambang, Cambodia: you leave.

People drain from the city in northwestern Cambodia to go to other Cambodian cities and to Bangkok. Some use these cities as launchpads to places even further afield; they are in Phuket, Hanoi, Singapore, Bali, Seoul, scattered throughout southeast Asia in a way that highlights how easy our lives. We move between countries more easily than many people move between cities.

But after my five months of travel earlier in the year turned into seven, I’m tired of dirty bus stops and canned airplane air, so I stay in Battambang.

I like it here. I like it so much I chose to move here rather than go to grad school. The boxes on my Canada to-do list can wait; I’ve got six-month contract with an NGO starting in a few weeks, and maybe I’ll extend the contract when it’s over. Maybe I’ll be here for another year, or for another two. I don’t know.

At Christmas, I told my family I had a job and I would be staying another six months. My dad congratulated me on the position, and my mom broke into tears.

When the year changes, I’m standing on a bridge with six friends over the river that nearly flooded the city in the rainy season, only two months ago. We count down from ten in Cambodian. Dop, pram-buon, pram-bei… Fifty metres away, two men stand in the riverbed and set off fireworks. Our eyes take in the colours, red and white and green, and our lungs take in the smoke.

2014.

A few days later, I email friends proposing next New Year’s Eve in Rio de Janeiro. We’ll dress in white and drink champagne on the beach, basking in the heat of a Brazilian summer. We’ll start 2015 by watching fireworks explode over the beach, like dandelion spores spreading across the ocean, and we’ll make New Year’s resolutions to help us make this year different, better.

I don’t need to be in Canada next January. I don’t need to be in Cambodia, either. I don’t need to be anywhere, which makes me feel reckless and happy.

I don’t need to be in Canada next January. I don’t need to be in Cambodia, either. I don’t need to be anywhere, which makes me feel reckless and happy.

NYE 2014: Sydney, Australia

WHEN 2015 ARRIVES, I’m not watching fireworks on a beach in Brazil. I’m watching them on a beach in Australia.

I made friends in Cambodia that have returned to Australia, and so I visit them for three weeks in January from Cambodia, where I still make my home. My friends are in Sydney and they’re in Melbourne, and they’re great hosts. We flit from beach to beach.

It seems all of Sydney is on the beach. People from Sydney have strong opinions about the best beaches for swimming, for surfing, and for avoiding tourists. In the five days I’ve been in the city, I’ve been to four different beaches. Or maybe five.

That night it’s a beach in a northern Sydney suburb. The fireworks are at 9pm, a reasonable and family-friendly hour. Children with glow sticks run in the sand. Behind us a father plays the guitar and sings with his kids.

We drink gin cocktails with mint and berries as we watch the fireworks, set off from a barge seventy-five metres from the shore. People hold up their phones to capture spider and peony fireworks as they explode, red and white and green reflected on the ocean below.

We drink gin cocktails with mint and berries as we watch the fireworks, set off from a barge seventy-five metres from the shore.

We clap when the fireworks are over, and then we return to the apartment to ring in the new year with more cocktails.

2015.

***

THE NEXT MORNING, we return to the beach. Surfers glide on the top of waves and children play in the shallows. The sky is bright. I wade into the water and watch the surf race forward, like white horses surging towards the shore.

I recently proposed next New Year’s Eve in Rio de Janeiro to friends again, though at the time I felt unsure about it. Surely after three New Year’s Eves across three continents, I wouldn’t want to add a fourth.

Yet that morning, looking into the distance where the water meets the sky, I feel the familiar desire to see another horizon.

That evening I have dessert with friends at a chic new gelateria with flavours like salt and pepper calamari, though we’re not brave enough to try that flavour. Of the flavours we choose, we agree the crème brûlée is the best.

Someone asks where I’ll be for New Year’s next year. I smile, saying I don’t know, but Rio is a possibility.

Everything is a possibility. Kyle was right. Five months of travel turned into two years overseas, and I’ve changed. Rather than viewing my life as a linear regression, I’ve come to see it as a scatterplot, or something that can’t be confined to a graph, like art. A Jackson Pollock, an abstract drip painting where if not for the frame, the colours would continue and the lines would end at a point only they know.

Just as the lines know where they end, I know wherever I am when 2016 arrives, I’ll be gazing at lights in the sky.

I don’t know much more, but right now, knowing that is enough.

Photo of Dee Why Beach, Australia (Allison Jane Smith).