The Christmas Letter

I hope your year went well. This is the 13th annual edition of The Christmas Letter and I’m happy to say that twenty nineteen has been an amazing year for us. We’ve been on the road for five months now, and have visited about 15 countries and 40 places. It feels like we’ve been traveling all year though we were home for the first seven months. I don’t remember that part much.

Vivian started 2019 wearing a cast after breaking her arm at the end of 2018. She finished 6th grade, made amazing friends, and grew up a lot. Her love of writing and sketching really took off.

Evan enjoyed 4th grade, especially friends and his favorite period – recess. He continues to be a bundle of contradictions, a loving turd.

By the beginning of summer Jo methodically started preparing for our impending departure by moving our shit a.k.a our personal belongings to Goodwill every day. Towards the end of July I packed my bags for Africa. Aaron met me in Arusha and we climbed Kilimanjaro.

A little bit after that Jo, Carol and the kids arrived in Arusha and we officially started our year long family vacation. Carol left us after Africa and we headed off to the Mediterranean and Egypt followed by India and Bhutan. Then we took a short break from traveling and came back to Austin for Thanksgiving. In December we resumed where we had left off, with a few days in Singapore and the rest of the month in Australia.

Vacationing requires work. Planning the trip as it unfolds, having Vivian and Evan study periodically, keeping everyone fed, and going from place to place takes effort. But in between it’s magic. We’ve splashed in stunning beaches in the Mediterranean sea and Indian and Pacific oceans, climbed up hills in Africa and Bhutan, stepped on to the sand dunes of Egypt, swam and sailed down the Nile, rafted down the Mo Chu river, climbed inside the Great Pyramid, watched the sun set over the ruins of the Acropolis, cringed at crocodiles devouring drowning wildebeest on the Maasai river, marveled at lions copulating in the Okavango delta, played with starfish in the shallow lagoons of coastal Kenya, enjoyed a breakfast at St. Marco’s square in Venice, chatted with school kids in a slum in Nairobi, spun the prayer wheels at a nunnery in Punaka, patted koalas in Brisbane, watched a storm brew over the city walls of old Dubrovnik, ridden bicycles on cobbled stoned paths along the shores of the Adriatic, toured Robben Island prison with an ex-convict, drank with the regulars in Gansbaai watching the Boks play the All Blacks on the television, rode on a tram in Kolkata, admired the erotic sculpture at Konarak, watched Christmas carolers in Singapore, celebrated Diwali in Hyderabad and Christmas in Brisbane, gazed upon Tutankhamen’s solid gold death mask, surfed down a giant sand dune in Western Australia, snorkeled in the Mediterranean, paid our respects to Michael Angelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Dante in Florence, kissed my wife in the back seat of a gondola in Venetian canal, admired the breathtaking views from the balcony of Nueschwanstein castle, mingled with the lederhosen-sporting locals at the St. Rupert’s Day fair in Salzburg, ran along the rocky cliffs of the Western Cape to spot whales, got drenched in the spray rising from Victoria Falls, witnessed thousands of wildebeest thunder across the northern Serengeti during their migration, listened to a lion conservationist tell us about her work in the Ngorongoro crater, and looked at the fossil beds of Olduvai gorge where our species got started.

We’ve visited old friends and made some new ones. Along the way Vivian and Evan discovered a little bit about the world and Jo and I learned more about our family and ourselves. We were horrified by apartheid and how its long tentacles reach towards the future but we were uplifted by the hopeful children in the school in Mathare. We were amazed by the social lives of the wild dogs of Okavango, the most ruthless predators in the delta who tenderly take care of their young. We are struck by the open warmth and friendliness of the Egyptians and horrified by the clamp down on their protests just weeks before we got there. Everywhere that we saw division and tribalism and the ugly underbelly of fear and greed we also heard people telling us that the only way forward is together. The old cab driver in Greece who worries about the swarming immigrants from Africa and Syria said “But we have to take care of them”.

There is one place where there isn’t a silver lining. It is how we’ve fucked up planet home. Most places we visited are reeling from unusually late or early or too little or too much rain, or unexpected heat. Whether we are causing the change or not, the world seems to be entering a period of misery caused by climate change. How will this affect the lives of our children ? I don’t know. But hope by itself is a misguided sentiment. Ignorance is worse. Willful short sightedness is criminal.

As we travel I hope Vivian and Evan and Jo and I learn a little more about other places and people. Yesterday an old friend posted this quote by Dr Chuba Okadigbo, a Nigerian politician and philosopher I’d never heard of:

If you are emotionally attached to your tribe, religion or political leaning to the point that truth and justice become secondary considerations, your education and exposure is useless. If you cannot reason beyond petty sentiments, you are a liability.

Here’s to not being a liability. And to Merry Everything and Happy Always.

Warm wishes and love from Evan, Vivian, Jo, and me.

Dec 26 2019. Burleigh Heads, Queensland, Australia.


We flew from one of the smallest countries to one of the largest – an entire island continent country with one of earth’s longest continuously surviving indigenous cultures separated from the rest of their species for fifty to hundred thousand years.

We’ve been Down Under for 15 days and we’re loving it. It has mostly been a beach kind of vacation. Fremantle and Yallingup in Western Australia have spectacular beaches with clear sparkling blue water and white sands. Melbourne, Brighton, and Sandringham are more urban beaches with golden sand and colder waters (and occasionally a few flies at this time if the year). Burleigh Heads beach on the Gold Coast about 100 km south of Brisbane is beautiful with the best swimming and boogie boarding so far.

Australia to us casual tourists feels more like America than any place we’ve been on our travels. In fact, like Texas. Superficially (because I don’t know any better), people seem warm and friendly, drive trucks, barbecue, listen to country music, and wear cowboy hats. They drive on the left but otherwise the highways are more like in the US than Italian autostradas or German autobahns. But Christmas feels different. There doesn’t seem to be a frenzy of buying. And they don’t seem to make a fuss about decorating. For Christmas Eve we had a great dinner at a restaurant and then went bowling. On Christmas morning we hiked up to a lookout at a national park by the beach and watched Aussies congregate on the beach to seriously picnic.

The kids got edible Christmas gifts because we don’t want to buy any crap that adds to their luggage. And they got loads of books downloaded to their devices.

Jen joined us in Melbourne and I quickly realized that I am out of shape. But now, after a week, I feel like I’m back to being able to help Jen put away a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc during the day and a nice Cab in the evening. The wine here is good. We’ve enjoyed wandering into any old liquor store and picking up bottles we’ve never heard of before and always ending up with something supremely drinkable. The Australian god and/or his people are also more chilled – liquor stores are open at 9pm on a Sunday night!

Evan and Vivian have really enjoyed boogie boarding and swimming. For two kids that sometimes act like smiling costs money, I’ve seen noththing but huge grins on their faces when they are hurtling along on the surf. Jo and I have enjoyed walking on the beach, though rarely together : (

Jo planned a few activities that I thought I’d roll my eyes at but they have been great. The koala encounter was amazing and the kids learnt a lot about these gentle strange marsupials. Sand boarding down huge dunes of sand blown inland from the beaches was spectacular and probably what the kids will remember most about Australia. A spooky late night flashlight tour of the convict prison in Fremantle, with a couple of special effects and actors kept us on edge till the very end but also taught us a lot about Australia’s convict history and the English’s strange proclivity for island incarcerations. I enjoyed hearing Vivian and Evan contrasting and comparing the Fremantle prison with Robben Island. The visit to the Science Museum in Melbourne was hugely educational and entertaining, especially the Lightening Room where they zap different things inside a giant Faraday cage with artificial bolts of lightening from a Tesla coil.

In certain places in Australia there are more Chinese and sometimes Indians and Malays than there are white Australians but it’s spotty because at other times Australia looks like the whitest place I’ve seen. If the whites are unhappy perhaps the Aboriginal people can find it in their hearts to console them. But so far Australia seems to be making it work as a melting pot (though there was this very awkward expression of gratitude to the “original owners of this land” by multiple presenters at the science museum in Victoria). Perhaps the notion of being Australian is strong and can bind people to their larger tribe. While we’ll be here for another ten more days, we can confidently say we’d love to come back to Australia!


The City of Lions! Or so the name means in Hindi / Sanskrit. The only lions we saw in this uber-urban city state is a statue of it’s mascot – the half-lion and half-fish merlion.

The flight time from SF to Singapore is a whopping 17 hours. That’s five movies and a nap. The kids weren’t happy but everyone survived. We boarded the flight in San Francisco on Monday morning and got off the bloody airplane at Singapore on Wednesday night ( which includes the day we “lost” traveling west over the Date Line).

Singapore is a tiny place, coming in at about 190th by size in a ranking of all the countries in the world – a list that has about 200 members on a good day. It has about 4 million residents and another 1.5 million non residents who work here. It is smaller than the Austin metro area and has more than five times the number of people. It has a higher GDP per capita than the US and one of the highest human development indices in the the world – which is a measure of health, education, security, lifespan, and other factors that measure the “first-worldness” of a country. Singapore is clean and safe. With millions of people congregating in places I never once saw a police officer or an emergency vehicle while we were here.

The kids loved Singapore. In fact Evan has declared it as one if his favorite places. Vivian wandered the designer stores at the mall at the base of the building with the ship on top (from Crazy Rich Asians, also simply called Marina Bay Sands) and marveled at two thousand dollar cases for carrying AirPods. The mall is beyond posh. There’s a Louis Vuitton Island mansion in the bay (really). And a food court that shames other food courts. The botanical garden is great and the orchid garden within is out of the world. The traditional nasi lemak breakfast served at the park cafe is a decadent way to start a Sunday morning.

Our hosts and dear friends had been invited to a party at a new Bollywood dance club called Gabbar (a Bollywood reference that even I got!) at Clark Quay and I tagged along. It was weirdly fun though I spent a good part of the evening at the club next door called Cuba Libre with a great Latin band where I left more at home. At some point, while tossing back a cocktail of expensive whiskey, gin and tonics, overpriced mojitos, and cold Asahi Super Dry’s, I realized what it is. Singapore feels like Disney World and Vegas smooshed together. Everything is made up. And there’s a lurking feeling that this mediated reality is supported by a huge underbelly of non transparent forces.

I hate Disney and Vegas (I tried to type “intensely dislike”). But I grudgingly admit that I like Singapore. We visited Singapore with the kids eight years ago and they enjoyed it even more this time. Will we be back? Surely. Unless their internet truth police make me take down this post and ban me from returning.

Why I liked coming back to Austin 

[This is a guest post from Evan. Evan makes a mind map of an idea or topic and then writes about it as a part of his schoolwork.]

Hello my name is Evan and I’m going to write about why I liked coming back to Austin. My family and I are going on a year long trip around the world, so I miss a lot of things that I’d usually have in Austin such as: friends, family, restaurants,and my house.

I especially miss my friends because my sister is 12 years old and my parents don’t want to play with me so I have no one to play with. I also really miss my relatives but I guess none of them live in Austin. I miss my house a lot and in my house I miss my room, and in my room I miss my bed. Speaking of places I miss, I really miss the Austin public library. I REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY really really really miss a lot of the restaurants I ate at too. We visited Austin after about three months. While we were there I visited my friends for lunch at school. After that I also stayed for recess. We played a game that I had made up called Capture the Human, which I also really miss.

The reason I miss the library is because when we’re traveling books are to heavy and I’d have to buy them. I’m lonely because I have no one to play with. My mom and dad said that they’d try to play with me but it isn’t working. Those are the reasons I liked coming back to Austin.


There’s an obscure law that says “When traveling around the world, if you need a haircut you may go back home”. God knows we all needed haircuts. So we made a big black carbon footprint from Delhi via London to Austin and arrived there, disheveled and jet lagged on a particularly cold November afternoon.

And confused, especially Evan. He asked if it was safe to use the sink water to brush his teeth. And what kind of adaptor he needed to charge his Kindle. Indeed he is a traveler now.

We got our haircuts and we ate at our favorite joints. I managed one walk around Town Lake and up and down the hill at Edward’s Park and a couple of workouts. Jo took off for a birthday party in Baja – a vacation in a vacation in a vacation.

During our travels the kids had some concerns that their friends would forget them. Vivian and Evan effortlessly reinserted themselves into their neighbors’ and friends’ homes and at both schools like they had never left.

We spent our second week at Canyon Lake. I had big plans to do nothing at all. We hung out with family, watched a couple of movies, ate, chilled, and ate some more. Carol made her fried chicken, Nicolle cooked her chili, Greta and her mother had a special extra spicy batch of holiday tamales (that Evan assisted me to devour), and Vivian helped make noodles for grandma’s chicken noodle soup (traditionally made by Jo’s grandma out of an old hen but now a hen that’s been growing old in Carol’s freezer). Evan slept over at his cousin’s, we ate donuts at Sweeties, and I did nothing for a week.

We took stock of our baggage, real and imagined, and made some adjustments. I added a couple of items of clothing to my duffle bag but decided against replacing the chromebook I left on a Thomas Cook flight back in September. Overall, the bag is lighter than before. Poor Vivian is now lugging around four math books. Evan has a new pair of black jeans, finally making up for a pair that was culled from his luggage the first time around, and he is feeling whole again. Jo exchanged her aging iPad for the newest pro and dumped her cheap Chinese noise cancelling headphones for the latest and greatest AirPods. She also replaced her carry-on and tried to replace her main duffel bag but switched back at the last minute. I bought a soccer ball for Evan and a volleyball for Vivian, hoping to pack them deflated, along with a hand pump, but neither survived the Thanksgiving Family Gathering.

Watching Evan and Vivian interact with their friends in Austin hammered home how much they miss them on the road. I continue to electronically stay connected while traveling and have had the luck of traveling with and visiting many friends. They don’t. Vivian understands what she is getting instead and it is a bargain that she is willing to make. Not so with Evan. He misses old fashioned play and horsing around and made up playground games and endless inane Minecraft conservations with nine year old boys. My biggest tweak for Part Two is to be more playful with Evan. I’m going to play more Uno and chopsticks at airports and listen attentively when he reads aloud particularly funny (but not really) passages from his books. And throw a ball or a beanbag or a frisbee whenever possible. And run and play and fall and climb more often.

There is a silver lining to missing something or someone though. For Evan and us the lesson is that friends and our time with them is valuable. And while you can’t go back in time, you know what you want from the future. And that you can always go home for a haircut.

Restarting after a week at Canyon Lake was difficult – almost as hard as starting the first time. But we got it done and left Canyon Lake on a beautiful fall Monday morning and after many hours of travel we arrived at Singapore’s Changi airport on Wednesday night. Like the seasoned crew in the second Guardians of the Galaxy, we strode in slo-mo out of the terminal and into the steamy Singapore night, ready and eager for Part Two.

Friends in Delhi

After Bhutan we were to continue eastwards to Thailand and Singapore. But about a month ago we decided to instead take a shortcut through Delhi to Austin. I wanted to meet friends in Delhi, and the kids and Jo thought it would be nice to spend Thanksgiving back in Austin before traveling eastwards.

A day and a half in Delhi is pretty short but we got to meet everyone. We went to Arjun’s parents’ from the airport. I first visited them here 32 years ago. They were younger than I am now, which isn’t saying much, but still. Arjun’s dad took us for lunch to the beautiful Delhi Golf Club, where we ate outside surrounded by huge trees and the golf course and centuries old ruins and the famous Delhi smog. You see the red bandana around Evan’s neck? He’d slip it over his nose occasionally to fight the smog. And in the photo from the golf club you see the bearded guy? When Vivian was a few months short of being three years old she sat at that very table and looked admiringly at Shaunak and said “What a guy!”

We stayed at my friend Mayura’s in Delhi. I’ve known her for about 45 years. We mostly hung inside her lovely home on the outskirts of Delhi and chatted and caught up while the kids remained hooked to their devices. We went to my friend Sanjay’s house for dinner. Rkie came up from Hyderabad literally for dinner. I’ve known Rkie for more than 40 years. Sanjay took me to another room to meet his mother. She mostly stays in bed but her eyes are as bright as sparkling diamonds. When Sanjay asked if she remembered who I was, she said in Punjabi, “Of course. He used to come home for alu parathas”. That was 35 years ago.

Friends are why we came to Delhi – friendships that were started decades ago and sometimes under appreciated for years but rekindled in seconds. You meet a lot of people. You have had hundreds of acquaintances, class mates, kids’ friends’ parents, coworkers, sailing buddies, fellow travelers, soccer team mates, room mates, and possibly plain old mates. And only some of them are friends that you travel to go see. My wise wife posted something from Delhi while I was dragging her around the city to meet people I’ve known longer than she’s been alive. Here’s the screenshot of her post on FB. Yes – I appreciate her observations. And much more.