In the lull between Christmas and the New Year most travelers seem to be moving. One spot for the holiday, one for the party. Lots of people are heading north to Goa, where the beaches are busier and pricier yet maintain more nightlife. Here in Gokarna, the only parties are groups of revelers around beach fires sipping on rum and pulling on hash joints.

It’s a good time, to say the least, but for many it’s simply too relaxed. They want throbbing bass lines and laser light shows and world class DJ’s. Not I.

I’ll stay here, sleeping in the same bamboo and palm leaf beach hut, enjoying tandoori calamari at the same couple of restaurants, reading on the same patch of sand, floating in the same bit of Arabian Sea. It’s repetitive, sure. But stressful it is not.

I’ll take this opportunity (I hope) to impart on this site some observations and musings I’ve been developing during my time on the road. You may have noticed that the vast majority of my blog posts are focused on where I am and things I’m seeing. On mishaps with Tara or adventures with locals. What  I haven’t done is sum up India in and of itself, regardless of my interactions with it. A brief introduction follows, but I hope you’ll see a few more posts up here before the end of the decade.

It isn’t immediately obvious when you first arrive, but India is a startlingly multicultural country. For many of us it’s difficult to distinguish even between people of different South Asian nationalities, let alone within the countries themselves. Yet only half of the population of Nepal is actually Nepali by ethnicity, even if they’re all (mostly) citizens. In India, with the population exceeding a billion and a civilization as old as civilization itself, the differences can be startling.

In the mountainous north, every valley has its own traditional clothing, festivals and delicacies. Even many of the facial features and body types differ between the various regions. Many Himalaya residents resemble Tibetans more than Indians, with Buddhism dominating. Just to the west is Islamic Kashmir, where locals have sharper features and are just as likely to have red hair as black, and green eyes as brown. I’ve been asked several times if I was Kashmiri.

In the south of the country skin tones are darker and facial features more rounded than in the north. There is considerable overlap, obviously, as millennia of migration and regional warfare mix bloodlines. But I’ve learned to recognize a South Indian from a North Indian. Noting differences in regional languages helps make the distinction, but it isn’t an easy process.

In India, there are 18 official languages and over 250 recognized dialects. Despite being the official language of the federal government and of most entertainment (Bollywood included), Hindi is only spoken as a first language by 20 percent of the population. As a result many locals are multilingual, speaking passable Hindi and English in addition to their mother tongues.

The other major regional wild card is the food. Ah, the food. In all its glory, Indian food must rank amongst the great cuisines of the world. It is most easily split along geographical lines, with the Northern styles most common back home. Punjabi dishes such as malai kofta, chicken tikka masala and palak (saag) paneer dominate restaurants all across the north and central regions of the country. In the South, one finds spicier dishes such as vindaloos and also crepe-like dosas, stuffed with potato curry and served with a coconut chutney.

But the real key to local Indian food are the smaller distinctions – the local delicacies. Unlike the vegetarian dominated Indian food, Kashmiri food involves lots of meat – especially goat and chicken. Lamb rogan josh is a personal favourite. In Calcutta, street stalls sell egg rolls – the closest thing to a breakfast burrito you’ll find. Even smaller towns and cities will boast a particular sweet or dish as locally famous. Samosas are ubiquitous yet in certain places they come with chick pea curry and curd (yogurt) and in others potato curry and green chilli sauce.

Even something as simple as a cup of chai carries with it different flavours and serving styles. In the northeast cities, such as Varanasi, the tea comes in a small clay cup which is amusingly smashed on the ground when emptied. Apparently this used to be more common, as the idea of reusing a glass touched by a member of a lower caste was unimaginable. I can’t help but wonder if economics, rather than a relaxing of caste-based discrimination, had an effect on this policy changing over much of the country. At three rupees (seven cents) a cup, it must be hard to justify giving a wholly new vessel to each customer. Far in the north of India, at an altitude of 4000m, I had the best cup of chai yet. Up there, with access difficult to important spices, the locals grow their own on the mountainsides, often using wild ingredients. It was a spicy tea, almost too much so. Amazing.

I’ve only been here for five months, but already I feel better equipped to recognize the profound diversity that exists in the subcontinent. I try to stop at sweet shops in every town I’m in and ask for whatever they make locally. I walk into local restaurants and suss out what most of the people are eating, then order ‘one plate,’ pointing at someone’s meal. Sometimes, depending on the English abilities of the staff and clientele, I have absolutely no idea what I’m eating.

When I come home (eventually), I’ll spend some time searching out regional Indian restaurants. I’m just a little worried the chai will be a let down.