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New Years´ Past

In the "Cult of Escapism": New Years´ Past

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Years´ Past

The end of 2010 had me thinking about New Years’ past, so I’ve come up with my Top Five Most Memorable. 
December 31, 1999
I am in a fallout shelter in the Kentucky mountains, surrounded by seven years’ worth of Campbell’s soup, beef jerky, and duct tape.  The machines have taken over and we humans have taken to caves and sewers and are adjusting to a dark, desperate life. 
The reason ’99-’00 was so memorable was because it was not so memorable.  The computers didn’t crash, traffic signs signaled the same as ever and legions of terminators did not roam the streets.  I drank apple juice out of an imitation champagne bottle at my cousin’s house in Westford, MA and watched the Boston fireworks in the distance.  I anticipate this is exactly what the transition from 2011-2012 will be like, despite the apocalyptic predictions.  Except by then, of course, we will have flying cars and meals in pill form.  The future!
December 31, 2000 or 2001
Either 2000 or 2001 works because both years I was in Middle School and both years I was in Hong Kong, sitting near the harbor, the city behind me and my attention on the waterfront.
During the holidays, the buildings of Hong Kong are gilded with Christmas lights from the ground floors to the rooftops.  I’ll never forget one building – it had a twenty story Santa that spent the night waving at the water, as if to say, “Look! My Christmas decoration is larger and more expensive than everybody else’s!”  Renting “junks” (boats) is very popular this time of year and many run routes up and down the harbor, dishing out drinks and pointing out lights.  On New Year’s, the harbor also hosts the fireworks.
For thirty minutes, the water goes up in flames and no matter where you look, there is something exploding in front of you (there are enough glass building that turning away from the water means seeing the flames in a dark, distorted mirror).  There is no champagne in these memories either but I wouldn’t trade those fireworks for the best bottle of Dom.
December 31, 2005
It’s 11:50pm and nothing is awake.  My parents, my sister, the sheep, and the neighbors have all decided that eight hours and rising early are more important than counting down.  Did you say, “Sheep?” 
My family and I are in New Zealand and just finished a 33 mile hike, which brought us up mountains, down mountains, under waterfalls, and through valleys, whose terrain varied so much and so often that they could have filmed Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, and the Sound of Music all within five miles of one another. 
We are now touring the country, attempting to prove that there really are more sheep than people (there are).  As such, we are sleeping near a pasture in what I remember as a bungalow or very upscale trailer without wheels (and without the barbeque pit and stereotypical undershirt-clad, redneck family).  It is green and beautiful and dark and quiet and very much the opposite of Times Square. 
I’m convinced that without the ten second countdown, we’ll never get to 2006, so I’m awake, dutifully checking my watch and hoping that maybe the sheep will set off some fireworks.  I count down the ten seconds alone, whispering in the dark.  Nothing happens.  The sheep set off a few fireworks, but mostly just sparklers. 
I’m 17 and three months from getting into college.  Alcohol and women have climbed my list of interests and college seems rife with both.  Additionally, popular depiction of New Year’s Eve is people screaming, champagne flowing, strangers French-kissing in the streets.  Convinced that this was happening everywhere except in this pasture, I vowed to do something epic for every New Year’s hence.  One year later, I had the best New Year’s of my life.
December 31, 2006
I have never seen so many people in one place.  It feels like all six million residents of Taipei are going downtown – each with ten or fifteen family members who flew in from southern China.  Mike, Megan, and I are on our way downtown to meet our Taiwanese friend and my future roommate, Wayne.  We had earlier agreed to meet at Taipei 101, the largest building in the world and host of the fireworks display.  This was a terrible idea.
People kept telling me about how crowded the trains were on New Year’s Eve.  Having lived in Tokyo and routinely used Shinjuku station – the world’s busiest station and transit point of over one million people per day – I shrugged the warnings and boarded at the station nearest my house, about 40 minutes outside of the city.  Here, the train was crowded but not crushingly so.  Soon however, the train was what I (and any other sane person) would deem “full.”   We were all bound for the same destination and no one ever got off.  Nevertheless, the conductor braved each stop, daring the train to accommodate another 50, another 80 bodies.
You couldn’t move anything, not your hand, not your foot – you could barely turn your head.  If someone had put a gun to my head (impossible, since he would never get his arm up that high) and told me to take a step in any direction, I would have failed and he would have shot me.  But this is a feeling I have experienced at concerts, when the lights go black and the crowd surges forward, crushing everyone against the stage. It was also similar to riding the train in Tokyo during rush hour, when station attendants push people on and hold them until the door closes – like leaning on a full suitcase and forcing the zipper.  What I was not prepared for was the station upon arrival.
We stepped off the train, only to stand still.  Even on the busiest day in Shinjuku station, there are hundreds of thousands of people but they are all moving.  Here, the trains on either side were stuck, unable to deposit their passengers because there was quite literally no room left on the platform to accommodate another body.  The rest of the station was the same, with everyone shuffling towards the same transfer point.  What was normally a three minute walk from one train to the next took over an hour. 
This may sound miserable, but unlike rush hour, when everyone is either exhausted and grumpy from lack of sleep (going) or from a long day (returning), everyone here was laughing and chattering and enjoying themselves.  The ridiculously crowded station was only a minor obstacle between these people and a night of partying and arguably the best fireworks display in the world.  So, despite 2.5 hours dedicated to a 40 minute trip, my friends and I were in good spirits.
Upon arrival, I attempted to phone Wayne to find out where he was.  Unfortunately, six million people in a three mile radius had the same idea and the network was overloaded.  But we figured if we went to 101, things would work themselves out. 
The goal for every Taiwanese citizen that day is to get as close to 101 as possible and make camp in preparation for the show.  Some show up early in the morning with blankets and provisions and wait for 15 hours for the fireworks.  It was about 8:00pm and we had to step over and on top of people to get to the tower, but as long as you were not trying to sit down, nobody seemed to care.  So we got to the tower, but as you might have guessed, the tallest building in the world has a rather wide base and simply planning to meet “at 101” is pretty worthless.  We kept at the phone but the chances of a call going through were about as slim as Steven Seagal winning Best Actor.
Losing hope, we continued circumnavigating the building, when suddenly two teenage, Taiwanese females called out, “Jack! Michael!”  Stunned, we turned to see Wayne smiling back at us from the screen of a digital camera.  The girls told us that they did not know him, but Wayne had approached them and instructed them to look for three white people, two male, one female, and to show us this picture and make us wait.  Meanwhile, Wayne was at the other corner of the tower, scanning the crowd and periodically checking back with the girls.  One of the girls called Wayne and somehow got through.  Then Steven Seagal walked by with a two foot golden statue.  Then Wayne came and took us to the best place in the city to watch the fireworks.
Wayne has a close friend who I’ll call Tom, who is extremely wealthy.  He is also extremely generous and fun to party with and within minutes of entering his house, we were fed and offered full reign of the alcohol.  It is here I learned that wealthy families do not stock Busch Light for their parties.  The rest of the night, my lips knew nothing short of Johnny Walker Black and there were bottles behind bottles on top of bottles of champagne.  Everyone was young and fun and well dressed; Tom’s girlfriend was literally a professional model.  This is pretty much what I had in mind in the pasture the year before. 
At first, it was all very classy, with everyone “socializing” and ice cubes quietly clinking inside glasses.  Then someone suggested we play drinking games and things got hectic.  Taiwanese love drinking games.  At some point in the middle of the laughter and debauchery, my friend Mike produced some berries he had purchased from a street vendor.  These berries alter your taste buds and make limes sweet, hot sauce mild, Steven Seagal movies entertaining, etc.  We passed them around and spent the next two hours biting limes and laughing hysterically at our impervious tongues. (Note – I am not using “berry” as a pseudonym from “ecstasy” or any other drug – this is an actual berry sold on the streets of Taiwan, among the mangos and the vegetables.)
It was so much fun the countdown almost seemed like an interruption, until we climbed to the roof.  Tom’s building is not only directly across the street from 101, it’s tall and designed for human use.  The city glowed in anticipation below and around us and we glowed with it.  At 11:58, the lights on 101 went out and you could hear six million people gasp at once.  Ten seconds counted up the side of the building and we screamed it out, trying to drown out the rest of the city and failing miserably.  Then Taipei 101 exploded.
December 31, 2010
I can’t see him, because the light is directly behind his head and I can’t understand him, because he is speaking Sabonera, a subset of the indigenous language Ngoberre reserved for mystics and medicine men.  I’m thinking, “I come to Panama and learn Spanish, then I get put in the Comarca and have to learn Ngoberre, and now you’re telling me there’s another indigenous language that I don’t understand?  Damn.”
To say the man I’m talking to is drunk would be a serious understatement.  Minutes after he is done talking at me, he decides his time is better spent sleeping in a chair and periodically throwing up.  He is not alone.  Soloy is just as drunk and has been since morning.  In a five minute walk down any given part of the street, one is likely to see six people passed out in the road and at least ten fights. 
I am sitting on a hammock on someone’s patio, waiting to be fed so I can politely leave and try my luck elsewhere.  Drunken men are taking turns approaching me, apologizing for the others (“Sorry, he’s drunk”), and then babbling for about twenty minutes, the same way the last man did.  I listen as best I can and hastily finish my food.  Changing locations doesn’t improve my situation much but at least I have fresh drunk people to listen to. 
Two hours pass and I have been pretending to drink, receiving shots in a Styrofoam cup and then tossing them over my shoulder when no one is looking.  More food is served (the highlight of the night) and at 11:59, a middle aged man is trying to speak English with me and not doing so well.  With ten seconds left, I cut him off mid-sentence and point to my watch.  “Look! Ten seconds left in 2010!”  I count down, trying to encourage him to join me; he looks confused.  I finish the countdown alone and look around, no one seems to have noticed.  At about 12:05, one man declared, “It’s midnight!” and started shooting off cheap fireworks. 
The Panamanians also have a tradition of creating straw men, filled with fireworks, and setting them off at midnight.  The act represents the passing of the old year and I have been looking forward to it all night, imagining people gathered round a flaming effigy, cursing the old year as spectacular fireworks spray from the body.  Instead, Mr. 2010 is tossed unceremoniously into the yard and lit on fire.  Then everyone goes back to what they are doing.  I watch intently, waiting for the fireworks, and am disappointed with a few pops and a lot of smoke.  At 12:30, I call it a night and go to bed, stepping over sleeping street bodies and skirting fights. 
As I left to meet other volunteers at the beach the next morning, many were still drinking, still fighting, and still sleeping in the street.   I was later told that they did not disburse until around 1:00pm – more than 24 straight hours of intoxication and violence.  Next year, I’m going home for the holidays. 


At January 12, 2011 at 7:40 AM , Blogger Alyson said...

"Look for three white people" made me laugh out loud.

I had several New Years where I did nothing because I had no friends in New England. And also one year where I had plans but then got a stomach bug and spent the evening puking, but without the aid of alcohol. Maybe I should spend a New Years abroad sometime.

At July 2, 2012 at 6:54 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read "The sheep set off a few fireworks, but mostly just sparklers" and nearly laughed my ass off at work. Well played.

PS Please write a book.

At November 26, 2012 at 11:12 AM , Blogger bama said...

Great review of New Year's past! Great read to end my work day here at the Wastewater treatment plant in Kingsport, TN.


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