The lush vegetation, coconut and papaya trees are reminiscent of so many places in Central America, the Caribbean, or the coasts of South America. There are beautiful green mountains jutting out in the background. They vie in majestic beauty for those of the Andes, only these have lotus ponds and rice patty fields interspersed in the foreground.
The residences and businesses are painted with avocado and lime greens, pomegranate and mamey pinks, lilac lavenders, banana and star fruit yellows, papaya oranges and sand or garbanzo colored beiges. The security doors are a mix of roll down metal sheets painted in a rainbow of colors and bars, not unlike the rejas that cover most windows in Latin America. The walls that line the streets are covered with graffiti-like commercial and political messages, but the script is in Tamil or Malayalam, with their own curvaceous non-Roman lettering.
Kerala is a communist state. Even though we are legions away from Russia and Cuba, there are red images of the hammer and sickle, and men sport Che Guevara t-shirts. However, commercialism is everywhere. All the billboards here show gorgeous women with straight, jet black hair, olive complexion and huge dark eyes. While most the images look like the same model, one seems to resemble Salma Hayak. They all have the same smile, just draped in different colored saris. There are a few men in billboards, who all look somewhat like the TV host from Slumdog Millionaire.
Sidewalks are few, stray dogs are many. Cars are small, motorcycles are big. Where are we now? Men carry kitchen gasoline tanks on their shoulders from the dispensary while schoolchildren in their uniforms walk to and from school in clusters. Sometimes they cram into a bus or open-aired taxi. The children ride six to eight inside a two-passenger vehicle. Girls with girls. Boys with boys. Despite traditional Indian apparel, school girls often are dressed in the standard parochial school blue jumper with short sleeve shirt.
Most buildings are concrete blocks. Some have thatched roofs. Others have tejas, or rolled down aluminum. Many have street side walls four-feet high, and some are topped with broken glass bits from beer bottles, to ward off any unwanted entry.
The kiosks dotting the streets show off all their merchandise to people driving or walking by. Bananas are everywhere. Pink bananas, yellow bananas, and three-inch platanitos all hang in clusters from their stalk, while fried plantain chips, just like chifles, are sold in little plastic bags for 10-18 rupees.
Bottles of carbonated drinks are hung decoratively around the kiosks like Christmas lights. They are pink, yellow soda, brown and light yellow. Beneath the sodas are large clear plastic canisters filled with candy. Sometimes there will be a street side grill with roti or chapatti which are similar to freshly made crispy flour tortillas on the comal.
Vehicles and people are maneuvering the streets in both directions, without sidewalks or traffic lanes, to the piti piti of the car, bus and bike horns. One of the biggest differences here from Latin America is that the drivers ride British style, on the left-hand side of the road. That also means you enter a bus from the left side, rather than the right.
India is actually a sub-continent, surrounded by oceans, not all that different in size and shape from South America. In Latin America, it’s not uncommon to see small roadside shrines to La Virgen de Guadalupe or another patron saint, and candles and images are common, even in buses. In southern India, most towns will have one highly decorated shrine covered with golden flowers, adorned with deities and smelling of incense, burning ghee and maybe some coconut. Bus drivers here hang garlands from their rear view mirror.
Speaking of buses, the ones in India are packed just like those in Latin America. But as you make stops, there are no rambling vendors offering fruit, snacks or drinks. Nor do the passengers bring their own breakfast, lunch or dinner on board. The difference could be because Indians eat only two meals a day. Or, maybe because eating of meals in India is a bit more ceremonial. Another reason could be that Indians like to wash their hands before and after eating their forkless and spoonless meals, which like those of Latin America are heavy on the rice and seasoned with plenty of peppers and spices.
Some of the red or turquoise painted buses and most of the taxis in Southern India are open aired. The buses have the same Latin American system of a driver and a cashier. The money takers here are skinny men with a magician’s ability to pass through invisible spaces between hordes of people. In many areas here, it’s obligatory for the bus, taxi and rickshaw drivers to wear safari style khaki shirts. When they don’t, they are fined. This gives them a more professional look than the men behind the wheel or pocketing the bills in Latin America.
Here, too, the buses stop along the way to pick up passengers at no particularly marked bus stops. They may have a sign suggesting only 11 passengers stand in the aisle, but in reality, 11 are crowded in just between three rows of seats. People are encouraged to lean into the area where the lucky folks got a seat, to allow for more people to scrunch in together. Similar to the buses in Latin America, the space next to the driver is a prime spot for luggage or a friend of the driver. Unlike the courteous Latin men that will often give up their seat to a female, the Indian men rush to grab a seat as quick they can.
South India may be just as different from Northern India as is Quito from Guayaquil or Tierra del Fuego and Buenos Aires. Yet, worlds apart, there are so many likenesses, that bring a sense of home and welcoming to a very foreign land.