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CHRISTMAS: I Won't Be Home for the Holidays

December 23, 1990|CHARLES T. POWERS, Powers was The Times' Nairobi bureau chief from 1980 to 1986. Since \f7 1987, he has headed the paper's Warsaw bureau. and \f7

For Travelers, there is inevitably a moment when the exhilaration of discovery gives way to an acute sense of being a stranger in a very foreign place. As soldiers, diplomats and foreign correspondents know, that sense of displacement may be keenest at times of traditional togetherness and homecoming. Here, current and former foreign correspondents share some of their most memorable Christmases away from home.

KENYA, 1980

The train from Nairobi, high on the Kenyan plains, down to Mombasa on the coast, was slow and groaning and took all night. It was pulled by a team of diesel engines but wasn't much different, from the perspective of the dining car, than it appeared in the movie "Out of Africa." The waiters, sure-footed as spiders on a rocking leaf, served soup from dented silver-plate tureens. Soft lights gleamed off polished wooden walls, the cutlery jingled. It was Christmas at the coast, and the train was crowded.

My wife and I had come with motorcycles, a pair of high-riding Hondas, loaded into a baggage car. Other travelers came with trunks and suitcases. A pair of shameless greenhorns, we brought packs, canvas bags and a tent, lashed to racks on the bikes. We would wander the coast and camp for Christmas on a beach.

We awoke to the sudden swelter of the equatorial coast, off-loaded the motorcycles and set out southward, pitching our tent beneath palms in a place so remote we had to ride miles to find something cold to drink. After two days--dirty, sunburned, raw with the bites of sand fleas and mosquitoes--the idea of more formal accommodations took on the attraction of a mirage. But every hotel on the coast was full to overflowing.

I had a new-found friend, a Scotsman who had lived 25 years in Kenya, who had invited me to drop in to visit at the modest resort where he and his family had been going for Christmas for years. We went, back through Mombasa, across the ferry at Kilifi, north toward Malindi, arriving weary and scorched.

Naturally, there were no places. The white-washed cabins were all occupied, but my friend interceded with the management, which consented to bend its no-camping rule. It was as though we had fallen into a huge family gathering. In fact, there were a score of families, all regulars who booked their cabins from Christmas to Christmas, a year in advance. For two days, they averted their eyes from our shameful tent, this flagrant breach of protocol, and then, owing to some early departure, a place was found for us.

Slowly, we were taken in to a new world, a world of displaced Englishmen in Africa, and enveloped in the stories of their lives, recollections of the Mau-Mau uprising, memories of farms and lion hunters.

Every afternoon at 4:30, after a nap through the heat of the afternoon, tea and scones, still warm from the oven, arrived on the cabin porch. For dinner every night, if desired, there was fresh lobster, and trifle pudding for desert. And for Christmas, Yorkshire pudding with the turkey and roast beef. And talk, into the night, on bent camphor-wood chairs set in the sand on the edge of the beach. They were discussions touched often with melancholy over the new order, the dwindling fortunes, the growing number of college-aged children, born in Kenya, opting now for British citizenship and leaving for England, voting with their feet on their future in Africa. It was an ending, they said, that had been a long time coming. But it had been a merry time while it lasted.

That was the first of six years in Africa, and although we spent two Christmases in Europe, the Kenyan coast pulled us back most strongly. Our last one was far down the coast from our first, although not far from our original bivouac under the palms. Lucky at last, we found a beach cottage to rent for the holiday. Good friends joined us, along with my daughter, all the way from Los Angeles.

We, too, felt like veterans by then, tanned and weathered and nearing our own departure. We sat out under the stars, our chairs in a circle. We had our own stories to tell, and we told them and laughed a lot and surveyed the full moon with binoculars, as though searching for our next destination in its silvered face.

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