Kristin and I spent New Year's Eve in a thick crowd of Buddhists and Muslims watching a pedophile's dream cabaret. For one brief moment a paper mache Osama bin Laden head rose up above the crowd, before mysteriously disappearing back into the night. This is how the Thais put 2001 to rest.

Several of Hat Yai city's civic groups and business leaders sponsored PARADISE NIGHT, a New Year's Eve block party next to the popular Odean department store downtown. At one end a band of young men in matching Hawaiian shirts played tepid rock music to a seated audience. We gravitated to the other end, where a second stage was filled with dancing preteens lip-synching Thai funk anthems over throbbing disco beats. The girls, ten year olds at most, wore little gold lame skirts and tube tops, draping themselves in feather boas. They strutted like go-go dancers, shaking body parts they don't yet have like seasoned professionals. A handful of unamusing hosts would bounce up on stage periodically, reminding everyone that it was New Year's eve and threatening us with fireworks.

After the preteen peepshow the BJ Band took the stage, playing pop ballads and dragging dancing foreigners on stage. A Swede in tattered army shorts and a bandanna over his balding dome danced with the band's front man to the delight of all assembled. The Swede danced backwards into a monitor and almost pitched himself into the crowd. We were packed so tightly together, standing toe to toe, he never would have struck the earth.

The singer kissed the next farang he brought up on stage, an American named William who was cursed with a large nose and a weak chin. An Aussie named John had a similar physiognomy and both men were equally insipid when interviewed during a break.

"What do you find most attractive about Thailand?" the hostess asked.

"I find the most attractive thing about Thailand is..." John said, pausing to marshal his wits which steadfastly refused to be marshaled, "HAT YAI WOMEN!"

Even when translated, this rousing sentiment fell limp.

"Do you like Paradise Night?"

"It's the best things ever!" William enthused. "Best ever."

The Thai tendency to put foreigners in front of crowds and ask them to speak is the stuff of nightmares. Should you ever come here, please prepare a short speech and commit it to memory. Don't get caught out like John and William, ineffectually pumping your fist in the air hollering,"I LOVE HAT YAI! WOO WOO!"

After several civic leaders spoke at great length about God-knows-what, we counted down into 2002. At the stroke of midnight, I turned and kissed Kristin as the crowd roared and the sky above lit up with fireworks. The roof of a nearby high-rise hotel launched a volley of glittery exploding spider webs into the air as many audience members showered the rest of us with sparks from handheld pyrotechnics. It was beautiful madness and I had to change film right in the middle of it.

As I took pictures of the sky high display I felt a tug-tug-tugging on my waist. I turned to see Kristin pulling on me, delighted as I was with the bedlam surrounding us. The closeness of humanity, the explosions echoing endlessly off the tall buildings, sparks and ash flying in our eyes and the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air distilled the moment into something pure and chaotic. I loved it... though, if Kristin was so delighted, why was her face ashen gray and her glassy eyes fixed on the ground?

"Are you okay?" I asked, somewhat rhetorically.

She rolled her eyes as an affirmation, an explanation of the rising claustrophobia and a warning of imminent collapse.

"Do you need to go?" again, with questions already answered.

She wobbled her head 'yes' and we started away, driving ourselves through the dense crowd as sparks flashed over and around us. Very politely and forcefully I pushed people out of our way, shoving them like swinging kitchen doors. Kristin held my arm tightly as we searched for air. When we found a clearing, we stopped, breathed and wished strangers "Happy New Year."

In minutes Kristin was fine and we walked back to our hotel, ready for the rest of 2002.

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