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christmas

A Backwater Christmas

You’ve probably just woken up from your post-Christmas meal nap and are either waiting for the Doctor Who or Eastenders special to start. It has been an incredibly alcoholic/calorific day and you can’t remember a time when you weren’t at a dinner table or splayed out on a sofa. The jumper you are wearing has a snowflake or a reindeer on it and you don’t care a little bit. Your dad is probably still asleep, snoring and has forgotten to take his party hat off. This is what Christmas usually looks like. However, writing this in Allapay on the backwaters of the River Periyar in Kerala, I can’t say that we have had the most conventional Christmas.

They don’t really celebrate it here even though a significant number of people are Christian – however, the hotels containing tourists really do make an effort. I managed to pack a couple of Christmas jumpers in the vain hope that I could wear them without melting underneath. My thin “Chilling” jumper was just about bearable for breakfast before it got absolutely ridiculously hot. Considering the weather has always been freezing at home in the last few years, this was a much welcome change. In Greenwoods, there was a beautful treehouse that we climbed to peer over the town of Thekkady before we left for the final place, Allapay. Then I saw a turkey. A real live, gobble-gobble turkey and I raced down to see it. It was particularly grumpy, but it was huge and the irony was too strong for me to not take a picture with it.

Skipping ahead the three hour long car journey, Allapay was back towards Cochin where we started, and so it was humid beyond belief. However, this was mitigated by the fact that it was bang in the middle of the backwaters, which are like canals and very famous in the area, which cooled the land around them. You could see palm trees, paddy fields and so many house boats – it was almost like a Venice-themed set for Lost. To top it all off, the only way to get to our hotel was to get there by boat. Yes, a boat bus.

We jumped onto the barge and made our way across the lake to the Lake Palace resort. When my Mum said that she was going to organise a five star trip for my 21st I thought she was joking, but this place was literally like paradise in the middle of nowhere. Set up a serious of cottages straddling the river, the entire hotel was completely integrated into its surrounding environment. Our “room” is surrounded by a man-made lake, the centre of which stands a swimming pool. You have to get around here by golf cart and they offer free pottery classes. And when someone offers you claywork on Christmas, you would be an idiot to say no. So I’ve set up a class for tomorrow – go figure.

The highlight of the day though was the boat ride over the backwaters here. They are separate from the rest of the ocean and act like roads for the fishing and agricultural markets. One of the key features are the thatched house boats that were traditionally set by fisherman over week long campaigns where their family could stay with them. Now they are a cool tourist attraction and inevitably everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. To be honest, all of the other things aside, it was nice just having the tranquillity and the sunset behind us as I thought about how different it would have been in England. There wasn’t a television or Shrek re-run in sight.

With only a few more days left in India, it has dawned on me that this is the last time I am going to be here for a while. Having been here three times in two years and seeing over half the country, it is time to take a break. Saying that, it is going to be sad to say goodbye to this, and especially enjoying these last few moments with my family. I will be forever grateful to my Mum and brother for single-handedly putting this whole thing together. I am not a birthday person at all, but this is the best way to celebrate it.

I may not have learned anymore about Christianity this year (it has been difficult to do so with no wifi and few English-speaking churches out here) but I have learnt the importance of having my family around me. It is easy to lose a sense of that at university when you have been away so long.

I may have met turkeys, made pottery, climbed tree houses, swum in a pool inside a lake, ridden on a few boats, worn a ridiculous jumper in the crazy heat and eaten Indian food instead of Christmas dinner. Like I said, it’s been an unconventional festive season. If this is the last thing I get to say about South India, then all I can say is that it really is “God’s Own Country” as they advertise it everywhere.

I think they just have better tea.

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What a sunset

Malayalam Hymns

I am going to pause in my journey of scheduling posts and jump straight to the now. The clock has just passed 12 here and it is officially Christmas Day in Kerala. Merry Christmas! It is the first time that I have spent Christmas abroad and we could not have picked a more diverse place to celebrate it than here. If you are reading this from any Western country, then you will probably already have your plans laid out and your Christmas tree stacked. The only trees that exist here are of the palm variety and it is actually hot outside…it doesn’t feel like a traditional festive season at all.

Knowing that the day is about to come, let’s have a chat about Christmas Eve. I should say that as a family we do not celebrate Christmas in the form of gift-giving or eating a large meal that means you fall asleep at 4pm. However, we have been going to Midnight Mass since I was 6 and we always try to read a bit of the Bible or learn a bit more about Jesus – yes, we are weird enough to celebrate it as Christ’s birthday and try to open our minds a bit.

The picture of a church and hymns has been etched in my memory ever since I can remember. My Dad has always had respect for Christ and believes that the levels of his sacrifice transcends religion – it is something that we can all take something from. Therefore the agenda was to find somewhere where we could attend Mass. What transpired was finding a church in the town that we have just arrived in, Thekkady (I will get to how we got here later on), and working out when it was a good time to come to the Church.

It turns out that they don’t really do Midnight Mass here. It came as a surprise considering 50 percent of the population of Kerala is Christian, which is possibly the highest proportion of the faith across India. If we were going to celebrate Christmas, then it was probably going to be best to do it here. However, the service consisted of a number of plastic chairs in the courtyard of the church, with the service starting at 9:30 and finishing before midnight (I don’t understand why) and it consisted of a number of hymns completely in Malayalam with a homage to Santa Claus on a banner in the background. We lasted about 45 minutes before we realised that our seats were probably best left to those who actually understood what was going on.

Having said that, it was not a complete washout. The hotel/heaven we are staying in at the moment, Greenwoods, is a small village in the middle of the bustling town covered in greenery and blessed with tranquillity. It reminds me very much of the university in Mumbai. I will get back to the hotel situation in the post on Boxing Day, but for now let’s focus on this resort. For the festive season, they had put on a full Christmas dinner combined with a cultural show to highlight the fantastic talent that existed in Thekkady.

Everything was utterly marvellous. From a beautiful ensemble of classical South India music to the pounding passion of the local drum band and tribal dance, it was a real insight into the reality of Kerala. There was no commercialisation (other than a creepy Santa costume) and it was all outside in the open, surrounded by the beautiful ecosystem of trees and flowers that they had created for guests. It was nothing like we had every experienced before, but we felt comfortable in our skins and Christmas jumpers. It felt much more like a celebration than at home.

When you do the same thing every year, it is easy to lose the excitement. Hell, if I was sitting in my living room watching Shrek 3 for the seventeenth time after a big Christmas meal, then I imagine I wouldn’t feel inspired to open my laptop, let alone write anything down. But I guess that is a missed opportunity even if you don’t celebrate the festive period in the same way that everyone else does. Maybe doing something different might open your eyes to what else is out there.

I am not saying you can jump on a flight here tomorrow (or today – the timezones are still a mystery to me) but maybe there is something back home you can do to get in the Christmas spirit. Maybe it starts with Jesus, I don’t know.

However you are celebrating, all of us are wishing you a warm holiday season from South India! I only hope the weather where you are is as gorgeous as it is out here.

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Five Minutes on your Birthday

We were up until about 1 o’clock this morning. However, we were not excited in the run up to ripping wrapping paper off gifts or preparing ourselves for a day of constant consumption, we were contemplating. My dad, brother and I, in the absence of being well enough to go to Church this year found ourselves sitting and watching Midnight Mass on the television; one of the few times we have not actually made it in person in my life.

My father made it a tradition well before I was born. That on the eve of Jesus’ birth, we would go to Church and be a part of a tradition that has spanned for over a thousand years. We are not Christians, but it would not be Christmas without hymns, carols, prayer and a sense of peace. Although that is lost on many this year and in the last few.

The holiday has changed – it has become many different things to many people now. I actually think it is great that people spend this time with their families and even if we need to spend lots of money, buy into a consumerist culture and do all of these things as pretence, then at least it is a start. Festivals are supposed to be about remembrance and if that enables you to stop and think, then you can only take the positives from that.

But don’t lose the meaning. It is like going to someone’s birthday party, eating all of their food, enjoying their hospitality and then forgetting to say “Happy Birthday!” to the host. The reason why you all turned up in the first place. Enjoy the festivities, and make the most of your time with your loved ones but realise the sacrifice that one man made, whether you believe in the story or not.

It is not about being pedantic, neither it is about being critical nor mocking the beliefs of others. There are days where we can put our arguments to the side and understand how important sacrifice is and how one individual personified this. I usually use Christmas to read the Bible, or to learn another story about a man that is so revered around the world. It is a shame that when we subscribe to so many fantastic characters, we forget Jesus Christ because Christianity becomes a barrier.

A Prophet in Islam, an Avatar in Hinduism and the Saviour in Christianity; there are very few individuals that many of the most prevalent religions have reverence for. Take some time to understand why he was so special, even if it just for a minute in between the Eastenders special and that movie you have been looking forward to seeing. Because when you tuck in to your dinner, there was someone who broke bread and wine for your salvation, whether you followed him or not, because he believed that you would be the answer.

He believed in man. In you. I don’t think 5 minutes out of your year on his birthday is too much to ask.

Midnight Queues at ASDA – Christmas

The title is pretty self explanatory, but it might need to be expanded on a bit. Yesterday, my brother and I went to see a film and on our way back home we stopped for petrol at the local supermarket. Turning into the car park we could see some commotion coming from the main entrance, with about 30 people hanging around the doors trolleys in arms. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

We parked the car in plenty of space and made our way to the crowds of people. Now there was a solid 70 people crowding around a set of doors that were not going to be big enough to hold them. We asked a few people what was going on and they said the same thing as us – they had no idea what was going on, but they saw people crowding around and they couldn’t resist. We couldn’t have been there more than 10 minutes, but in that time more than another 100 people grabbed trolleys, queued or warmed up in their cars.

At 00:01 the shutters came up and the doors open and people shoved and pushed their way in to the store. At this point, we both approached the security guard and asked him what bargains and deals were out to entice people to get to the store so early? He said nothing. Everything was exactly the same price. I think my jaw literally hit the floor. There was more than a score of people, in the freezing cold, to get into a supermarket, with no more incentive than getting to exactly the same goods six hours earlier than everyone else. And then it hit me.

Is this what we have turned the holidays into? Getting into everywhere first, trying to look for bargains and meeting our own selfish needs? But that isn’t what the holidays are about, especially not Christmas. Sure it is exhilarating to be in those queues, trying to find what you want, beating every other person to the punch, but in the season of giving, how can we be satisfied with just taking? I am not here to be Scrooge…by all means spend money on your loved ones, show them your love in any way that you can, even if it is only this one day every year.

But the most important thing to remember is not just the fun, but to be grateful that you can celebrate the holidays with all of those people around you (and the other ones) and rejoice in being together with your health, wealth and luxury. Because today, or tomorrow rather, was the day that a solitary boy was born in the most auspicious circumstances, who would remind us that a life given to the service of others is the greatest life lived of all.

So raise your glasses, to Jesus, to Christmas and to the world as we make it through another day and another year. God bless us all, every one – and a Merry Christmas to you all.