We had promised to visit a friend (Vimal) in Kerala for Christmas. One of those travelling tales – we bought a SIM card in Kuala Lumpur, got chatting with the guy in the shop, and found out he was from Kerala, in India.
“Oh,” we said, “We’re going to Kerala next year.”
“I’ll moving back to Kerala next year,” he said. “You must come and stay with my family.”
And so we did.
This is Kochuveli Beach (it is across the road from his family home, but you wend your way between houses for about 200m to get from the road to the sand). The strange discoloration in the water is not, as we thought at first, stirred up orange sand – it is acidic runoff from the titanium factory a kilometre or so up the beach.
Ravi wasted no time joining in with the fisherfolk who were pulling in their nets at sunset.
We generally went to the beach at sunset, because we grew up on the east coast of a very large piece of land (Australia), and we haven’t been travelling long enough to be blase about seeing the sun go down into the ocean.
We were pretty exhausted when we arrived – the train got in at 6am, so even though we had a decent amount of sleep, our body clocks were definitely jet-lagged. We were, by then, well adapted to India’s slow morning starts.
It turned out that we were invited to a wedding two days before Christmas, though, so there was not a lot of time for resting.
Jenny had a sari, which was suitable for wearing to a wedding, and Ravi’s one and only button-up shirt and (very old and faded) dress shorts were deemed appropriate – fortunately, because there really wasn’t any time for clothes shopping!
On Christmas Eve, we went up the road to see “the big church” with all its bling, and to have our photo taken with the illuminated statue of Jesus.
This church has been under renovation for five years already, and when it is finished, it will be the biggest church in Trivandrum.
Kerala is a Christian state – this is where the Apostle Thomas reputedly did his evangelising. Due to the subsequent influence of the Portuguese, all the churches are Catholic – rather militantly so, actually. Our friend told us with some indignation that they didn’t approve of The Salvation Army in Kerala, because “they don’t believe in Mary”.
Declining the opportunity to explain the Protestant reformation and the theological implications of “believing in” Mary, we moved on to dinner and then the traditional Midnight Mass.
(As a side note, we saw many icons of Mary on household altars in Kerala, where she was offered flowers, food, and incense, and her image touched before touching ajna chakra and anahata chakra in typical Hindu style – even today’s Catholic Church in Europe might take a sideways glare at such practices!)
The church was standing room only – actually, it was more crowded than that, with many people choosing to sit outside and listen to the sermon over the speaker system.
Churches in Kerala don’t have pews – people sit on the floor!
Life in India is much more grounded than life in the West – while most people with houses have chairs or beds to sit on, they also happily sit on the floor, even when chopping vegetables, or doing some other task which would have seemed to be much more easily and ergonomically done on a table.
After the sermon, there was a procession of people bringing cakes to the priest to be blessed. The blessed cakes were then returned to the parishioners for consumption.
This is, of course, the identical ritual to the prasad ritual of the Hindus, in which sweets and fruit are brought to the guru to be blessed, and are then distributed as gifts to the devotees. (Shhh! Don’t tell the Christians of Kerala that …)
The young men sitting outside used their smart phones to pass the time until the sermon was over …
After Mass, it was back home for family photos, and breaking out the blessed cake and Christmas “wine”.
The Christians of Kerala are theoretically opposed to the consumption of alcohol, which is why the Christmas “wine” was non-alcoholic – at least most of it was. One batch we sampled was decidedly fermented …
However, many people “drink very well”, despite the theoretical prohibition.
Vimal organised a boating expedition for Christmas morning. Apparently, Christmas Day is one of the few days of the year that the ladies of Kerala bathe in the ocean.
The beach was heavily populated by groups of women standing in the shallow water (because few of them know how to swim), fully clothed (because women never expose their skin, apart from faces and hands).
Our crew were dressed in identical football (soccer) uniforms. Apparently, the soccer uniform of your favourite club is appropriate streetwear in Kerala (if you are male), and they are a popular Christmas present from parents to young men, in particular. With their name on the back. As you do.
We saw lots of other groups of identically-dressed young men, too, as we motored along the beach.
This was when we were shown the titanium factory, and vowed not to swim in the reddened water any more.
We had a couple of swims in the clear water farther out, and farther south (on the other side of the factory outlet), and it was lovely.
After Christmas, things calmed down a little. There were still many families who wanted to invite us for a meal, or for wine, and Ravi was invited to participate in the traditional Boxing Day Modelling Competition at the church. Yes, modelling, as in pouting smoulderingly for the cameras. In age divisions, starting with the under-5s.
Vimal’s mother (who insisted that we call her “Mummy”, as her three sons did) was a bit concerned by all the attention we were getting, and particularly from the gamin (villagers).
Apparently, it was a bit of a social faux pas to accept an invitation to someone’s house for wine, when they weren’t the right kind of people.
They had said they were cousins, and dozens of people in houses in the area were, indeed, cousins, aunts, and in-laws, but these particular people actually weren’t relatives. Not that we could tell.
Mummy said we weren’t to go anywhere unescorted any more, just to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Vimal and his brothers agreed to make sure we always had a chaperone, and then quietly ignored the pronouncement henceforth.
Even some relatives were problematic, apparently – we were supposed to go to lunch at a sister-in-law’s house, but somehow Mummy felt that one thing after another needed to be done first, and in the end we got there at 5pm for a cup of tea. (The family had waited lunch until 2pm, hoping we would arrive.)
We weren’t quite sure how to balance our own integrity and keep our promises without upsetting the subtle and complex social undercurrents. It wasn’t entirely clear whether we were celebrities or the kind of “honoured guests” that have strictly limited freedom of movement – or both!
That said, the family were lovely, especially Mummy, who fed us enormous amounts of South Indian delicacies, and Vimal’s brother, Vino, who drove us around to several places, and even waited patiently with the car outside the zoo for several hours while we explored with Vimal.
We saw glorious tigers, one in a beautiful outdoor enclosure with his own swimming hole, pink pelicans (yes, baby pink, all over), and the amazing Giant Squirrel, which was the size of a house cat and had purplish-brown fur!