This trip has been a continuous sequence of mind-blowing scenes, interspersed with equally mind-boggling information. Now that we are in Southern India, the huge contrasts of this country are so apparent. Here, in Kerala, it is tropical, clean, and prosperous. That is just a nutshell of what seems different.
First, poverty is nearly invisible in this Communist area. Homelessness is illegal here, as is begging. Everyone is housed, has good medical care, and adequate food. This is not the case in the parts of India we've seen so far. We were told that 260 million Indians live below the poverty level which is defined as being able to eat one meal every three days. So in many parts of the country, people are starving. We saw people living in the streets or in tents or shanties in the North. Many simply lived on the roadside, or in the median between two lanes of traffic, or slept on their vegetable cart or in their rickshaw or closet-sized shop, or in a doorway. Wherever they could eke out a few feet of space for themselves and their families, that became home. We saw sleeping bodies by the hundreds wrapped in thin shawls and sleeping, cooking, and waiting everywhere we went. Here in the south, you see nothing like that. There are free medical clinics everywhere, and a huge vaccine program going on in every village. There has been no malaria here in at least 20 years!
Here the air is clean and fresh. In some of the northern cities we choked on blankets of smog, smoke, and pesticides being sprayed for mosquito control. Piles of garbage and litter were everywhere and both animals and humans rummaged through it looking for food. It was quite difficult to find a trash can while out in the city. Beggars and salesmen implored us when we walked through the streets. Here, by contrast, it is quite clean. They even have recycling in a few places!
Transportation is a hugely different matter as well. Here in the south, people follow traffic rules, stop at red lights, merge in a rational way, and drive sanely, even staying in the correct traffic lanes. Motorcyclists are required to wear helmets. There are sidewalks, something we haven't seen for 2weeks. Not so much where we have been up until now, where every foray out is a nail-biter for both vehicles and pedestrians. Here I saw no rickshaws, just cars and scooters. Where we are now, on a houseboat in the backwaters of Kerala, there are no vehicles at all, only boats and ferries and canoes. It is quiet and utterly peaceful drifting along.
Another huge difference is about animals. Here, people eat beef and even occasionally pork. There are no cattle or pigs milling around in the traffic, or searching for food amidst all the street rubble. Dogs are pets here and well cared for. They belong to families and seem happy and trusting, unlike the mangy, half-wild dogs of the north who roam everywhere, sleep on the street garbage, and are never spayed or neutered - hence tons of puppies. In Northern India we were told that about 90% of the population is vegetarian. Here in the south, about 95% eat meat. They have fresh fish every day for lunch, and so do we these last two days - delicious!
One huge difference is in the level of education. Most people in South India are well-educated. Most young people go to college. There are schools everywhere. Partly this is due to the influence of Christian missionaries who came here hundreds of years ago. There is also great religious tolerance. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews live side-by-side here and there are many prosperous churches. In the North, at least 90% of the population is Hindu. The day we arrived in Kochin was Diwali all over India, celebrated hugely and loudly with fireworks, lights, and festivals. Here in this area it is not celebrated at all - and that was a shock and disappointment. It has to do with a centuries ago defeat of the Dravidian people (the locals) and because of it they don't acknowledge this holiday.
We are told that there are 1650 regional dialects and languages in India. Here they speak one called Malayayam, which has a 56 letter alphabet of looping curliques. Our guide, Bapu, speaks 16 languages and has a degree in Indian history, and a vast comprehension of his country. He is liberal in his viewpoints, even to the extreme that he married a young widow from another city and has kept her secret even from their daughter and all their relatives and friends. But his parents knew and consented to this arranged marriage after the charts matched up beautifully and Bapu said that her widow status was not a problem to him. He also adopted a teenage girl who was living in dire straits after both parents died of cancer within 6 months, and he has paid for her education in a Catholic boarding school for the last 6 years. I think he is unusual in this.
Topographically the South has 3 climates: hot, hotter, and hottest. We are in the season they call "hot" which is a blessing! We are wilting in the humidity. In Kerala, 25% of the state is mountainous and forested; 25% is water; and the remaining 50% is for agriculture (rice, coconuts, bananas, spices, teak and rosewood) and residences. It is green and luscious, palm trees and tropical flowers all over. You could imagine you were in Hawaii if you just looked at the landscape. In the Northern areas we visited, it was rare to see greenery, and in the cities, every blade of grass or leaf seemed to be eaten up by some hungry creature.
Clothing is another giant contrast. Women wear saris but the younger ones are more inclined towards the shalwar kameez ( long shirt with tight pants under it). Colors are more subdued - off-white with an embroidered border is the traditional favorite here in the Kochi area. Men wear a dhoti, which is a strip of cloth wrapped like a sarong around their waist which can be flipped up to make a shorter skirt when it is hot(ter).
These are my first very superficial observations after 24 hours in this new world. And yet it is still unmistakeably India. Our guide, Babu, has talked to us for hours about arranged marriages (he says 99.5% still are arranged), and the rate of divorce is less than 1%. Widows are still considered to be as good as dead here. They must shave their heads, give up their jewelry, wear white, live outside the family compound, depend on others for sustenance, and they mostly can never marry again, or participate in festivals, etc., even if they are still young when widowed.
Dowry demands, although now illegal, still continue. Babu has one daughter whom he is arranging a match for (comparing astrological charts, negotiating dowry, etc). His future son-in-law's family wants gold (something like 70 pieces, each 8 grams); a new car; 50 new outfits for the bride; household effects such as washing machine, tv, dining room set, refrigerator, etc., plus this guy is supposed to pay for a wedding party for 1500 guests that lasts for 4 days. There is probably more that I've forgotten. He is working hard to meet all of the demands, but at the same time we sense that he is tormented by how crazy this situation is, and yet powerless to do anything different. He cannot jeopardize his daughter's future. She is already 22 which is considered old and less desirable. The family clock is ticking. And yet there is also the dreadful possibility that the new family will take all the dowry and in a few months send the girl back to her parents empty-handed. Apparently it happens.
Likewise, the caste system, which is also illegal, still is very much alive and well in India in hundreds of ways. One big one is that it takes bribery (think BIG rupees) to get jobs, interviews, documents, and so many other things here. Corruption is an immense problem, and it keeps the little people in their places.
Anyway, I don't mean to write a book, and this post is way too long. And I don't mean to imply that the South is superior to the North. They are like two different worlds, and there is so much to love about both of them. We have been without Internet for a couple of days, and so much has been brewing as we watch this adventure unfold. We have seen so much, learned so much, and still have a few more days of travel ahead! What a fabulous trip!
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