The lead up to New Year was spent in Kochi – which my parents thought was slightly dirty and full of tourists, and Sam and I thought was a relatively clean and calm paradise. However, you could scarcely find any local Indians, and the feel was very European; with Colonial Dutch and Portugese mansions and churches scattered everywhere. But of course the prohibition was still in full sway – with only the most upmarket hotels serving alcohol. This was a different side to India for me and Sam, and not a typical taste of India for my parents.
To remedy this we attended traditional Indian events at the popular Kathakali Centre, were we saw live sitar and tabla, and then traditional Keralan ritual theatre (Kathakali). The packed out theatre left utterly baffled with ears ringing, after men with faces painted like demons and wearing huge dresses conveyed story lines through use of facial expressions, stamping feet and strange arm gestures – all to the beat of a drum, the clashing of cymbals and a topless man warbling as though in severe physical or mental pain. It was a cacophony of colours and sounds, which I couldn’t decode even with the script – although I gather good vanquished evil at some point during the mystical warbling and banging. A man with a green painted face and hugely ornate earrings, raising his eyebrows suggestively and using a rocking motion to depict “wife” and then thrashing around for five minutes to convey “elephant” – was a personal highlight.
After soaking up all of the colonial ambience Kochi had to offer, we headed to Munnar on a two day excursion to sample a Keralan Hill station. We got lost in the mazes of vividly green tea bushes that covered almost every inch of the hills for miles and miles and then listened to a sermon on green tea.
And then of course, we went in search of an elusive gin and tonic – which our (useless) guidebook had promised on the lawns of “the High Range Club.” The place had a colourful history – not least for being highly selective on dress code and who they would admit. This was said to have been all but forgotten in the present day, and is now just a place to soak up the faded colonial era ambience and the mounted heads on walls… They saw us coming a mile off, and all but escorted us off the premises – no doubt they didn’t like the look of my parents, and it had nothing to do with mine and Sam’s scruffy and woebegone state.
New Year’s Eve day was spent sight seeing and elephant riding, before heading back down to celebrate the New Year and the old man’s birthday. We arranged to meet for a ‘special tea’ in one of the previously mentioned upmarket hotels. Here me and Sam suffered the embarrassment of being turned away from yet another posh establishment, and had to bargain our way in after smartening up to be able to meet my parents, who had already been let inside…
Tired from our journey and with one hour until midnight, we went for a peaceful walk along the beach, not expecting much to be going on. Slowly more and more people materialised, and we headed casually towards the sound of distant music. We found an area ahead cordoned off, with a guard only letting a select few through. Determined to wash the bitter taste of rejection from our mouths, we sidled up to the guard to try our luck, and to our surprise, were ushered in as others were pointed away. We knew something strange must be afoot.
We headed towards the small crowd ahead, as the music grew louder and louder – to suddenly find ourselves backstage, or more accurately on stage, at a huge drumming concert. Seeing thousands of chanting and dancing spectators below the stage we were stood on, was one of the strangest and least expected experiences of my life.
At a quick glance, we could see only western faces joining us in this VIP area. Some were thoroughly enjoying the privilege and dancing away, or else sharing slightly uneasy looks with one another – why were the Indian tourists separated from the westerners? We had the stage to ourselves, apart from the drumming troop, the MC and a 40 ft straw burning man with a grey beard and hat… The plot thickens.
Instead of the paranoid predictions of human sacrifice, it transpired that the separation was for our own safety, as we westerners were too fragile to handle the large and raucous crowd. However, safety considerations seemed to stop there, as after only a couple of casual requests to move back, the fire cracker filled burning man was set alight for the countdown, and soon after went up in an explosion of flames. The crowd stayed as close as it dared, as spectacular fireworks filled the sky – some soaring dangerously close to the crowd, spraying debris and delighted “oohs” everywhere.
Kochi threw a fantastic New Year party, and despite denying us the usual hangover, the adrenaline of being on stage in front of a thousand people and then having to quickly run away from a blazing burning man, that two minutes before I was leaning on, made for the most exciting start to a New Year I had ever experienced. May the rest of the year be as filled with as many firecrackers, drummers and exploding burning men.