My supervisor warned me already during the job interview. “Do you like being home for the holidays?” he asked.
“Well, you can’t count on it in this job. Here we celebrate the holidays when we find the time, not when the calendar tells us to.”
So here I was, two months later, alone and female on my first foreign assignment. Sure, I’d backpacked around much of the world already in my twenty-three years, and didn’t always have an opportunity to call home. I had even toyed for a while with the idea of settling in Israel, with everything that would have involved, and who knows how often I would have gotten to visit my family. But that was all in the past now. I was now in rural Pakistan, far from the main highways, reporting on development projects for my NGO, and December was winding down fast.
“We couldn’t arrange transport,” my supervisor told me over the satellite hookup. “The mountain roads are impassable. With a little luck you can hitch a ride to Islamabad in a truck five days from now. We’ll have you home by New Year’s Eve.”
“Great,” I replied. I wanted it to sting.
“I told you what to expect,” he shot back, like a cork out of a champagne bottle. “Missing the holidays is all part of the fun.”
I had good reason to want to be back in time. At least my parents did. 9/11 had occurred less than a year earlier. They had watched the first tower collapse from an upstairs window in their house. Even though they have always supported me in everything I have done, they thought I was crazy to apply for a job that would take me all around the Middle East and South Asia.
But I loved my job. And I loved Pakistan – little suspecting that much of what I encountered there would go bottoms up in the floods that struck the country just a few years later. I particularly appreciated my two colleagues, Malik and Salim, who had alternately and graciously served as my hosts, drivers, and interpreters for the past week as I toured village projects. They were strangers themselves - Malik came from Karachi and Salim from somewhere near Lahore – and they knew better than any of the locals how I felt being stuck there when all of my friends had long since left for home, or for the nearest equivalent.
It was Christmas Eve. I had long since filed my report and was reading a crumpled Danielle Steele novel an earlier volunteer had left behind in the tiny office we rented on the edge of the town. The door opened and an icy mountain breeze lifted the papers off my desk. “We’ve got a surprise for you,” Malik told me as he walked in from the late afternoon gloom. “It can’t be easy being so far from your family today.”
I looked up. Malik was holding a freshly cut tree in his hands. The scruffy, shrub-like evergreen was maybe five feet tall and looked almost – but not quite – like a miniature fir tree. “What is that?” I asked. Malik told me the name in Urdu. But that’s not what I meant. What was he doing with a tree in the office?
“We thought you’d like a tree,” he said, his black eyes sparkling like two polished lumps of onyx. “That’s your tradition, right? You set up a tree and decorate it?”
It wasn't beautiful, but it was ours.
I nodded, too surprised to respond. While Malik picked up a hammer and began hammering two thin boards to the stump of the tree to make it stand upright, Salim blew in, snow in his dark curls, carrying a cardboard box stuffed with groceries. “Christmas dinner,” he said. Smiling broadly at me, he unpacked a chicken, a sack of rice, assorted vegetables, and several pieces of baadaam ki jali, sticky Pakistani pastries made of almonds, pistachios, and cardamom seeds, wrapped in a newspaper. "Sorry I couldn't get wine," he told me. "You drink wine at Christmas, don't you? For wine we'd have to go to Islamabad, and if we could get there then you'd already be home by now!"
While Salim prepared the chicken for baking in our tiny coal oven that also served as a heater, I cleaned and diced the vegetables and Malik fashioned ingenious tree ornaments from bits of paper, wire, foil, and seeds from the garden. We entertained each other with stories of home until it was time to eat.
After our feast, Salim produced a bootlegged video he had scrounged up at the market. “It’s called ‘Jingle All the Way,’” he called to me across the office. “With Schwarzenegger. It’s the only Christmas film they had.”
“That was really crap,” Salim told me when it was over. I'd already figured that out two hours earlier. “And you mean to say you’re really leaving us and returning to that?”
“It’s not quite like that,” I replied. We had a good laugh as I switched off the laptop, and then Malik said it was time for presents. I had given some thought to the matter earlier in the evening, and had dug up my last two photo books – one of New York, the other of Washington. First, though, it was their turn to give me something. The two aid workers joined in handing me a bulky package wrapped in brown paper. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. I stripped off the paper and discovered a gorgeous dark green and red sari. It must have cost them a big chunk of their pitiful salaries. “To remember us all by,” Malik told me, smiling into his tea.
“I’ll wear it every Christmas.”
They oohed at their own presents, and spent several minutes paging through the photos. “This is more like it,” Salim said.
The sun had gone down hours ago. Only a barking dog disturbed the peace of the night. “Christmas carols,” Malik said abruptly. “Don’t you sit around the tree and sing Christmas carols?”
“You know, I don’t normally celebrate this holiday,” I told them, half apologizing.
The two men looked at each other a moment before bursting out into laughter. “Do you think we do?” Salim asked.
We retired a few moments later, Malik and Salim to their lumpy mattresses in the office and me to the even lumpier twin bed in the little living room next door. Our sleeping arrangements were highly irregular for Pakistani sensibilities and I couldn’t help sensing a girlish unease at the thought of two presumably sex-starved (and handsome) young men plotting on the other side of a thin wooden door. But on this night, as on the seven preceding it, my two co-workers proved to be the soul of gallantry.
The truck picked me up two days later. After endless detours and delays, I arrived at my parents’ house on the morning of December 31. That night the three of us raised a glass to my adventures.
I still wear my sari on Christmas Eve, and sometimes I feel an urge to buy a pirated copy of “Jingle All the Way,” Schwarzenegger and all. My experience with my Pakistani friends gave a whole new meaning to the expression “home for the holidays.”