Why travellers can never say that they've 'done' a country

Has anyone ever told you they've "done" India? They're crazy. And they're wrong. Unless they've been to every one of India's 29 states, unless they've met a good percentage of the nation's 1.3 billion people, unless they've tried to speak all of the languages and been to all of the cities … Then they haven't done India.

They've done part of India. They've done a small slice. Because India might officially be a country, but it's more like a continent.

It's a huge landmass made up of those 29 states and seven union territories that all feel like nations of their own. Most states have their own language – there are 22 officially recognised tongues in India. Most have their own food: you find out there's no such thing as "Indian" cuisine when you arrive and taste the dhosas of Kerala and compare them to the curries of Punjab.

Most states have their own architecture, their own landscapes, their own customs, their own beliefs.

There are shared traits across the sub-continent, of course. There's a collective obsession with cricket. There's a press of humanity and an almost unquenchable local curiosity that you'll encounter in every state and territory.

But by and large, India doesn't feel like a country. It's not a country. It's amazing that it manages to come together at all, that 1.3 billion people manage to elect a government and exist as a nation. Because everything in this country is so different everywhere you go. Jump in a train, ride it for a few hours, and you'll get off somewhere unrecognisable.

India is amazing like that, but it's not unique. I've become interested recently in countries that aren't really countries at all, in places that cling to some sort of unity even though they're made up of so many distinct and fascinating parts.

Most countries have diversity, but these places are different – they have different language groups, different cultures, different traditions that have been ingrained for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And yet, they're officially single entities. They're ideal for travellers, these place, because they just keep offering more the more you get to know them.

Spain is another of those countries. If you think of Spain as a mono-cultural bloc where everyone eats paella and takes siestas, then you're wrong. (Er, mostly – siestas do seem pretty popular country-wide.)

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Spain is a country made up of 17 autonomous communities, from the fiercely independent likes of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, to more relaxed unionists in places such as Andalusia and Madrid. There are five official languages in Spain – Castilian, Catalan, Galician, Basque and Occitan – plus another two, Aragonese and Astur-Leonese, that are widely spoken in their communities of origin.

Each community in Spain has its own culture. Its food is distinct. Its history is distinct. Its customs and its traditions are distinct. The Catalans, for example, celebrate Christmas with a character called Caga Tio, a smiling log that poops nougat (seriously). The Basques, meanwhile, have Olentzero, a larger, uglier version of Santa who dresses like a lumberjack and scares kids who've been bad. No one else in Spain seems to have even heard of these things.

So to say you've "done Spain" is insane. Maybe you've done Catalonia. Maybe you've done Andalusia. But you probably haven't. And anyway, that's not Spain.

China, obviously, is the same: a huge country with 12 official languages and far more tongues spoken by minority ethnic groups. There are, famously, "eight great cuisines" in China, food that's completely different depending on where in the country you happen to be.

Papua New Guinea is similar, though on a completely different scale. There are more than 850 different languages spoken here. Many major towns are cut off from the rest of the country, inaccessible by road, left to develop their own cultures, their own ways of life.

Russia is a collection of 22 nominally autonomous republics – places like Tatarstan and Dagestan – as well as 46 standard provinces. South Africa, too, is hugely multi-cultural.

All of these countries are places that travellers can spend years exploring and never grow bored, never feel as if they've got a handle on the nation they're currently navigating. What is this place? What makes it tick? You'd have to cover every territory and meet every ethnic group to find out.

So, have you done India? Have you done Spain? Have you done China? Never. And that's a beautiful thing.

Which countries do you think are the most diverse? Have you been surprised by the autonomous communities of Spain, or the differing states of India? Can you ever say you've "done" anywhere?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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