Just three days before the big day, I received a Christmas present from the UK in the shape of my parents. The base for our time together was Fort Kochi, and so we chose a nearby beach for the first few days; as what Christmas would be complete without sunbathing on the beach?
Cherai is a very long and narrow stretch of beach, spanning from semi-dirty and overcrowded with Indian tourists, to completely pristine and deserted, with only the depth of sand for a deck chair. There were only a few places to eat, and even fewer to have a drink, as the state of Kerala had introduced a prohibition that made buying alcohol anywhere near impossible. However, this didn’t deter some restaurant owners, who were happy to serve you a “special tea” in a mug and hide the bottle under the table – although you’d get some funny looks if you requested this in some places.
So the stage was set for an alcohol and snow free Christmas. We played cards by the pool with Santa hats on, attracting a few bemused stares and then tried to pull some coconuts down from palm trees to wash down all the pool water we swallowed whilst attempting to play piggy in the middle.
However, all hell broke loose when the sun set, and the atmosphere was less British Christmas jolliness and more unbridled carnival mayhem, as it felt as though the entire population of Kerala had descended upon our little beach. People were running into the sea fully clothed, rolling around in the sand, throwing it at each other, screaming like children and wrestling. Slightly different to the Christmas traditions we have back home. We then had to walk 3km for our Christmas dinner, as local tourists zoomed by on motorbikes yelling, “happy birthday” or “happy new year” – do they know it’s Christmas time at all? The meal consisted of about 5 varieties of fish and curry, despite the food being different, the concept was the same; eat until you can’t move. But instead of vegetating in front of the fire and Christmas television, we were sat by the Arabian Sea with a cool sea breeze and the flickering lights of lanterns – topped off with a firework display and beach hut shaped cake. I thoroughly enjoyed deviating from the traditional Christmas itinerary; spending the evening by the beach, and even having my parents to keep us company and play silly card games with. We were then driven home by our renegade tuk tuk driver, whose unexplained absence had caused the sweaty pre-dinner walk. With a slap on the wrist, he promised to pick us up early the next day to take us to our Boxing Day backwaters trip. Needless to say, he didn’t show…
We eventually made it to our backwaters trip, which in true India fashion took about 3 times longer than anticipated. We travelled along the wide, palm-tree lined waters at a relaxing pace, which didn’t match the serious tones of our tour guide – who could have been describing an epic tale of the battlefield, rather than pointing out the different types of flowers. We found a good way to escape prohibition, as we were shown that some of the “toddy” trees produced natural alcohol, that matured to around 80% if left for a few hours – no wonder all of the villagers had big smiles on their faces. These villagers also possessed an interesting set of skills that included catching mussels from the bottom of the riverbed using only their toes and putting up with the boats and boats of tourists that passed through their home – and even cheerily waved their fish at you as you passed by.
The backwaters were incredibly peaceful and untouched by modern society and were a welcome change of pace from the crazy Indian roads, that were to greet us the second we boarded the bus back. Upon returning to Cherai we defied Keralan law and lived up to our Brit stereotype as we enjoyed a few sneaky gin and tonics in the hotel room – ready for the next leg of celebrations for New Year in Kochi.