It has become very clear to me that if I wanted to begin to really feel I had "seen" India, I would need at least 5 months here. Unfortunately, I have only one month. So I have cherry-picked a few places to see in that time, trying to get a little flavor of the south, which I hear is very different from the north, but still hitting a few of the northern must-sees.
So I spent the last week in Kerala province, which is the southernmost province on the western side of India, stretching almost down to the tip of the country. Because the country is so vast, I could not possibly generalize about it after one week, but I will generalize about Kerala. After many warnings about what I should expect here, I could hardly believe how easy the traveling is. Compared to some other places - the closest comparison I have from my own experience in terms of culture and level of development is perhaps China - the people are incredibly friendly, the harassment factor is low (though definitely still present), the mood is laid back, and most of all, there seems to be a sense of respect among the people here. Maybe it goes back to so many religions coexisting in one place, or perhaps it's because the main religions include Buddhism and Jainism, which are both quite peaceful and respectful religions, but there seems to be a general regard not just for other human beings but also for animals, which is really refreshing.
So I can definitely see why India is a backpacker paradise. Not only is it super cheap, but as a woman traveling alone, I felt particularly safe in Kerala. Women here look out for each other. We have separate seats on buses, and separate carriages on sleeper trains. Men will give up a seat to let women sit together, and sometimes there are even separate queues for women. Some people might look at that as old-fashioned, but for me it's great, because it reduces the grope factor, and even better, the worry factor.
As for the food, it redefines "spicy" for me. Not spicy in that it burns your mouth, since really it hasn't been particularly hot so far. However, I have never felt such intense and varied flavors before, even in the Indian food I have had at home. And talk about a vegetarian's paradise! If you think vegetarian food = rabbit food, I would suggest coming to India to get re-educated.
So as for what makes Kerala worth a stop, mainly it's beaches that are the main tourist draw, plus yoga and ayurvedic medicine and massages. There is a huge network of backwaters that you can cruise on, and up in the hills is one of India's biggest tea growing regions. In fact, the visit to the tea plantations of Munnar was probably the highlight of the week, although relaxing on a gorgeous beach after being massaged with hot herbs (that admittedly smelled a bit like dinner) was not so bad either. The coastal portions of the region are rather over-touristed (mainly, it seems, by French and Germans), but I was amazed how even in those places the locals have been generally friendly, and once you get inland a bit, they are some of the most welcoming people I've met.
In a few hours I fly to Mumbai, the end of my tour of southern India. I am sad to have my time in the south cut short, and I know I have missed many, many highlights. If there is one thing I know for sure after this week, it is that I will one day be back to see them.