New Year's Eve is fraught with expectations. Travelling in a foreign country on many a late December, those expectations are multiplied. I've spent so much time and energy planning to be in the right place at just the right time. Inevitably, when midnight rolls in, it can't help but be an anticlimax. As difficult as it is to recall a New Year's Eve - put it down to the side effects of celebration - I have occasionally found myself a worthy misadventure, or moment of New Year bliss.
Working in the United Kingdom, I was compelled to zip over to Ireland for New Year's, taking advantage of those ridiculously cheap euro flight fares. With no guidebooks and no itinerary, I found myself at a hostel in Dublin, freezing in the winter chill. Locals usually offer sound advice, in this case leading to a watering hole in the city's Temple Bar entertainment district. The great thing about bar-hopping in Dublin is all the bars are raucously Irish. It was here that I learned about the Irish tradition of young ladies giving a free pass to passionately embrace anyone of their choosing. Single men may want to take note. However it's best not to get too enthusiastic. One young lass had her way with me, before showing me her engagement ring, with a cheeky Irish wink suggesting it was best I quickly move on to greener pastures.
In the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, massive superclubs open for several occasions during December's holiday madness. Traffic crawls along the lovely beaches of Florianopolis, with Brazilians bemoaning a heavy influx of Argentine and other South American tourists. I joined up with some locals and backpackers for a three-hour bus ride to Bali Hai, a huge party complex with multiple dance floors and bars. It is here I made a gringo mistake: the North American New Year's Eve climaxes at midnight. For Brazilians flocking to clubs, that's just the start of the party. Subsequently, at midnight, we found ourselves almost alone, while the dirt parking lot outside was throbbing with people and booming car stereos. Locals know better to load up on cheap booze outside, wait until after midnight, and then enter the clubs, dancing into the afternoon, avoiding heavily overpriced cocktails. A friend paid for a long taxi ride home - the price of a plane ticket - rather than face a slow, post-party bus back to the city.
Some cities are New Year's Eve party rock stars. New York's Times Square will attract one million people this year, and be watched by millions more on TV. Similarly, London's Trafalgar Square draws in thousands of English and tourist revellers. I went to Central London for New Year's once, and never quite recovered from spending the greater part of the night looking for a toilet to relieve too much warm beer. Fireworks light up hordes of locals and tourists on Rio's Copacabana, the second biggest event in the city after its annual Carnival. Some people dress in yellow for money, or pink for love, but most are dressed in white for good luck. You'll need it if you're to make your way through the heavy crowds and traffic. Another New Year's Eve hotspot is Sydney, which hosts an epic fireworks display duplicated at several points along the harbourfront. I watched them from the rooftop of a nearby apartment building, where finding a parking spot seemed only slightly easier than chasing down a kangaroo.
Quietly in contrast, I cherish the memory of counting down the New Year on the blackened steps of Stone Town's House of Wonders. A former 19th-century Sultan's palace, it is the largest building in Zanzibar's capital, recalling the island's wealthy yet distasteful past as one of the centres of a booming slave trade. Once a glorious seat of power, the House of Wonders is a museum, now mostly restored, but back then it was crumbling and cracked. I hopped a low fence with a couple friends, carrying some cold beer, waiting for our wristwatch countdown. We were trespassing, and lucky not to have been chased away. Yet we left respectfully, leaving not a trace, taking only the memory of an unforgettable moment.
Tomorrow night, I'll be with my old friends and family in Johannesburg, South Africa. It's my first visit in almost a decade, and so much has changed. Yet all these years chasing the right place to watch another year tick over has taught me one thing: It's not about the location, the party, the country, the music, the booze or the fireworks. It's about the people you choose to surround yourself with, while reflecting on another year of history, and all that it brought. Wherever you are in the world, may the next one bring you peace, health and success.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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