A Very Merry Kerala New Year (or Burn Santa Burn)
Santa goes up in flames on the beach, Ft. Kochi (New Year's Eve)

A Very Merry Kerala New Year (or Burn Santa Burn)

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Happy New Year.  I got to 2006 a half day faster than I would have if I’d just stayed home. 

Yesterday I spent the day cruising the balmy, palmy backwaters of Kerala, watched men in mini-skirts play tug-of-war and, and saw a 10m-high Santa Claus burned in celebratory effigy.  Yup, just your usual New Year’s Eve.

 Kerala is famous for its backwaters – canals through tropical palm swamps.  You ride through on a boat that is piloted by two gondoliers who use bamboo poles to drive the craft.  It’s all really quite peaceful.  I wish we’d had a bit more instruction from our driver/guide (e.g. One of my fellow passengers: “What is that white flower?”  Guide: “That is called ‘white flower.'”) but it was still great to pick out our own sights: white eagles, iridescent kingfishers and, of course, the local life on the shore.  I don’t know why I’m so captivated by seeing people do their wash in the river but I am.  We probably saw a half-dozen methods of fishing on the trip.

 The highlight of the day was probably lunch.  We stopped on a small peninsula and feasted on South Indian fare, all laid out on a banana leaf as a plate.  The menu consisted of big fluffy rice, watery stew called samber, fried rounds of bead, mango pickle, and two vegetable dishes, one of which I think was cooked in coconut milk.  The place is truly swimming with coconuts.  Of course we ate with our hands which is pretty normal here.  It’s a bit of a tricky mental adaptation but it does make you feel a bit more involve with your meal.  It’s just funny to get pruny fingers from a half-hour of eating.

 We returned to Ft. Kochi, inspired by rumors of big beach-side festivities for New Year’s; parties that might serve coconut beer which is a local delicacy that is made from the naturally fermented sap (ok, maybe it’s not really sap but it’s some sort of internal juice) that is tapped from the trees.  It turned out that the beer was not to be had – or, at least, not to be found, but I did get in a good walk around town before nightfall.  I gave a few rupees to kids dressed up as Santa who were trick-or-treating (for lack of a more precise term), and then watched some of the locals as they played Indian pinata and an inspired few rounds of tug-of-war in the region’s traditional dhoti wraps.  In the background, a giant Christmas-cum-New Year’s tree towered over a local park, festooned with stars and streamers.

 Aside from occasional fireworks that people were shooting off, there wasn’t much build up to the final countdown to midnight.  In fact, I don’t think there was any of the 10-9-8 – stuff, unless it was in Malayalam and I didn’t understand it.  It was funny to not have any contact with the outside world at the time; I’m so accustomed to watching TV and seeing what’s happening in other cities in other time zones.  At the stroke of 12, a giant Santa Claus structure was set on fie on the beach.  Throughout the evening we heard about this immolation of St. Nick but I just couldn’t believe that was the tradition here in Kerala which maintains its strong Portuguese and Dutch Christian heritage.  I asked a lady at my hotel why they do it – bear in mind that my hotel has Psalms as decoration and an eerie red-light-lit framed photo of Jesus – and she said it wasn’t a Christian tradition but has evolved by mischief makers here in town.  Well, whatever the story is, it was probably the first and only time I’ll see the old year pass in such a fashion.

 After the big burning, a bunch of us headed back to the restaurant bar and tried to make an evening of it.  Mostly a British group, they kept the beer coming – which is served here with a nod and a wink in tea pots (so you have to order the “special tea” if you want beer).  Despite the big crows of locals in dhotis (India seems to have a special advantage in rallying huge crowds of people), the sound of tabla drums and the flutes I associate with snake-charming in the background, and the fishy smell from the seashore, it all seemed very Western for a time.  I decided it was time to call it a night when I began to seriously discuss doing a modern-day stagecoach trip across Europe with one of the Brits who’s planning such an endeavor.

 A very happy, healthy, and prosperous 2006 to all.