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5 ways to enjoy the chill of a vacation without traveling

Travel is love. But here’s why you shouldn’t travel right now. And what you could do instead.

In the first week of March, I was busy dreaming about Bir – the mountains and monasteries, the mystic morning light, and cups of milky tea, when my phone buzzed with a message from Booking.com. They said that in light of COVID19, they were happy to let me cancel my reservation for free. After sulking for an hour – I did.

Ain’t no one too cute for Corona

Even if we can withstand the infection – it’s selfish to not think about people around us. About parents or people with impacted immune systems. And so, avoiding travel, which is not urgent, is the conscientious choice to make. We’ve done it when there are budget or time constraints. We’ve done it because duty or family called. So why not now when our communities need us?

That’s not to say that we must give shoulder to the wheel of life, and not shrug. In other words – breaking free of our daily routines, experiencing the new, and indulging ourselves every now and then, is all part of what the doctor ordered (More on the science of why we should travel is here).

My argument is we can try new habits or activities which give us as much of a kick as traveling. This is possible because of the brain’s enjoyment of everything new and shiny. That’s what drives our love for travel. Because what else is travel but a cluster of novel experiences? A jump off our hamster wheel life?

And so, we can attempt a cluster of new experiences without changing pin codes. This is possible because, as per psychologists, when the brain says, “I need a break,” what it means is “I need change.”

Let’s spend some time understanding this. Imagine a commuter on the way to work. There’s crazy traffic – like on Delhi’s Outer Ring Road. The commuter starts to get fidgety, frustrated, and then angry. It takes longer than usual to reach the usual destination (or achieve the regular result).

That’s the brain using its usual neural pathways.

Now, let’s think of the commuter taking an alternative route to work. She is curious about the new route, alert, and excited to see if it helps her reach on time. In the end, she beats the traffic, enjoys a smooth drive, and has discovered a quicker/scenic/easier route to the daily goal.

That’s the brain firing new pathways.

With these activities, which are both fun and meaningful, we can encourage neuroplasticity. Give ourselves a change (= break). And get that travel-high without changing postcodes or breaking the bank.

Sold? Here are my top 5 suggestions.

1)   Do an online course:
Udemy has courses in Neuroplasticity, Arts Therapy, and Investing in Stocks.
There’s also Skillshare – if you want to do poetry on Instagram, or mixed media art or just learn how to crochet dresses.
For the more academically inclined there are platforms like edX, Coursera and Khan Academy. Even LinkedIn does short vocational courses on everything from Humour in the Workplace to Video Script Writing.
Remote learning and working are the order of the day – so why not take on a subject or a hobby you’re curious about? Apart from how it makes your CV look, it’s just fun to do.

Top 5 film recommendations

2)   Curate a Film Festival at home:
A self-curated movie binge can be a close second to getting lost in foreign lands.
You could find yourself getting used to life in an ashram – swotting mosquitoes and swiping floors with Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love. Or chuckling over pasta and sizzling chorizo with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip to Italy or The Trip to Spain. I am still infected by Samin Nosrat Fateh’s fascination with salt in her epic Netflix series where she travels to different locations to understand what she calls the 4 basic elements of great food (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat).
These are my recommendations. Pop some corn, grab some fizz, dim the lights and off we go.


3) Do a Home Spa:


If you’re a luxury traveler who misses the resort spa – there’s no need to deny yourself at home. The benefits of a home spa are many:

– A good self-care routine can lower anxiety
– It can also make you look and feel better
– You develop a new skill
– You save a bucket of money

So why don’t you light candles? I recommend any soy wax ones (check out Omved). Even a Bath & Body Works one will last you ages. And to get you started:

     P.S. You can read more about essential oils here.

4)   Reading a great book (Listening will work too)

Few of us are in the habit these days, I know! But, let’s face it – “We, as a species, are addicted to stories.” We’re wired for stories. That’s why reading makes a great pastime when you can’t travel (and even when you can).  Jonathan Gottschall who wrote The Storytelling Animal asserts that when we read a book – the same areaslight up in our brain as the protagonists. We become the heroes and heroines of the novel, instead of remaining bystanders. What a great way to live vicariously!

5)   Meditate
What better way to engineer neuroplasticity than by meditating? According to research, a wandering mind is associated with lower levels of happiness.
So, retraining our mind through meditation can potentially make us calmer and happier. Researchers at Johns Hopkins agree. Obviously, the ones who meditate regularly certainly do. As Pablo D’Ors notes in his Biography of Silence, “The quality of meditation is proven in life itself.”
If we meditate well, we live well.

There is an infinite variety of meditation methods. So, feel free to pick and choose. But, as advanced practitioners say, once you like a method – be consistent. Godspeed!

What are your recommendations? Share the knowledge. Spread the love!


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Orchha Travelogue: The joys of an offbeat travel destination

My journey to a sleepy town in the centre of India (includes tips on where to get the best dal fry, things to do in Orchha, and how to experience the best of this hidden gem).

Busy street in Orchha leading to the Chaturbhuj Temple.
Mixing the old with the new, the inward with the outward – the small town of Orchha is waking up to the possibilities of tourism.

Orchha is not expecting us.

We get off the Gatimaan Express at Jhansi on a Sunday. The station is quiet. Outside, we spot 3-4 men in a huddle. Taking them to be cab drivers, I bargain for a ride to our stop in Orchha. Driver though he is, the man who grabs my suitcase, takes us to a rickshaw. I look at my friend, on her first visit to India, apologetically. She smiles and shrugs, “It is what it is.”

Quiet as the station was, the road to Orchha is anything but. “Aaj Pukh hai na (it is Pukh today),” the driver yells out. I have a sense that it has something to do with the constellation Pushya – the nourisher. Over a lakh will come for a glimpse of Raja Ram today. That’s why we’re catching all this traffic, the driver explains, proud of the chaos.

According to legend, Ganesh Kunwar – the queen of Orchha was a devotee of Ram. Once, she went on pilgrimage to Ayodhya and prayed that her Ishtam (Chosen Ideal) return to Orchha with her. Ram agreed on 3 conditions: one, that he would be king of Orchha, two, that he would stay where she placed his idol, and three, he would undertake the journey only when the constellation of Cancer or Pushya was in the sky. So, in the 16th century, Raja Ram became ruler of Orchha. And he is the reigning monarch to this day. Even today, he receives gun salutes at the Ramraja temple. This is the only city in India where Ram is worshipped as King.

Today is not only Pukh but also a Sunday. Everybody has taken out the time to make pranams (salutations) to Raja Ram.

And so, I have the overwhelming sensation of having dropped by a distant relative’s home unannounced. It is mayhem. We see rickshaws overstuffed with people like a potato-laden inter-state truck. Many overtake us raising dust in the afternoon sun We cross speeding bikers with passengers clinging for dear life, a police van blaring jingles for safe driving, and a few private cars packed for never-ending journeys. And we are under attack from screechy honks like arrows shot at us from all directions. My friend takes in the scene with her mouth open. But on catching my eye, she grins, shaking her head.

When we enter the town, the houses are blue, yellow, pink, green and white. Within Orchha, it seems as though hardly anyone is home. Cows and dogs are sunning themselves. Young children peep from behind mud walls. A few old women sit on the thresholds staring intently into space.

Colourful blue house in Orchha
Beautiful blue house in the central part of town

Further on, as the rickshaw wobbles its way to the outskirts, we see men in white shirts and dark glasses yell to each other over the drone of a steamroller. Major parts of the road are under construction. The driver tells us, “Yahan highway banega. Seedhe Khajuraho tak jayega.” (They are building a highway here. It will go straight to Khajuraho). The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh has pledged funds for Orchha’s development. I wonder why this has not occurred to the government earlier given the history and architectural splendour of Orchha and Khajuraho.

Occasionally, emerging like a spectre between the mud houses, we see an example of ancient architecture – brown with age, overrun by weeds, and speckled with bird droppings. It reminds me of why I am here in the first place. To bask in the past grandeur of the Bundelas.

The Bundelas matter because, as per my mother’s WhatsApp reply to my frantic questions, I am a Bundela Rajput. The story is that in 2019 I went on a solo trip to Rajasthan where everyone, from cab drivers to airport security to tour guides, had the same response on hearing my name “What caste of Rajput are you?” I was lost. The question had never occurred to me. And even after I became conscious of the Bundelas, their existence seemed entirely disconnected from mine.

Like Ram, legend claims, they came from the solar dynasty. One of the younger sons of the clan, having been turned away from the throne of Varanasi, travelled to the shrine of the Goddess Vindhyavasini. After a long penance he decided to sacrifice himself to the goddess. At the first drop of blood – the deity appeared. She blessed the king that his heir would be born from this drop (bund). And so, sprang forth the first true Bundela.  

And, like most heroes, he didn’t much need a mother. The Bundelas, were also drops on the medieval Indian landscape. They left light stains and disappeared. Neither did their rule last for many centuries or nor did it extend over large regions. Their legacies were stories, not stone.

When the rickshaw off-roads into a field – I am jolted out of my reveries. The field is barbed into plots, with stunted brick foundations , and barely legible signages. As of now, the earth is either bare or grass green. The landscape looks like a first draft of an architect’s plan.

At the AirBnB, the kindly staff member that checks us in tells us that we need to give a few hours advance notice for meals. Because they have to go into town to purchase the vegetables and other necessities. The kitchen is not stocked.

“What about chicken?” “Only after sunset, as they do not sell it in the village during daytime.” However, they make us some gobi (cauliflower) parathas with chutney made from guavas in the garden. On the side, the buttermilk is thick & cooling. Farm-fresh food that is not aspiring to be on trend is a novelty for a city-dweller like me.

In the evening, my friend and I decide to take a walk towards the town.

It is not an exaggeration to say I feel like a celebrity. This is why: old goat herds eye us beadily, little children yell hello – groups of little children, each about 5 times, women being sped away on motorbikes turn to look at us, and the moment we make eye contact, look away.

Young boys herding buffaloes
Barefoot young boys herding buffaloes

When we enter through one of the town’s gates, it is dusk. The cows have come home. Young calves are huddled in a pile for warmth. My friend and I stop to take pictures of the colourful pink and blue house with dried Ashoka leaves hanging outside the door. A grandfather is laughing as he balances his grandson on his knee. When I ask if we can take photos of his house and cows, he smiles (masking surprise), and nods. We walk on. An old flour grinding machine is whirring in the distance, stalls are selling the last remaining samosas and kachoris of the day, adolescent boys are hurrying home on adult bicycles. The place, which had gone about its own simple life in the day, is now winding down to a halt.

The next day we set out for the forts and palaces. In the fort complex, opposite the Ramraja temple & the Chaturbhuj temple, the main buildings are the Raja Mahal (King’s palace), Jahangir Mahal (Jahangir’s palace), and Rai Praveen Mahal (Rai Praveen palace).

Near the entrance we meet a gentleman wearing dark sunglasses, who asks matter-of-factly if we need guides. Gesturing towards a board I cannot see he says these are government rates. His mild manners decide me. As a solo traveller who has taken guided tours in the City Palaces of Jaipur and Udaipur, I understand that decibels can be incremental. Anyway, as our tour progresses, he attaches himself to my friend giving me space to pause and click.

Murals within the walls of Raja Mahal, Orchha
Murals within the Orchha palace walls. Clockwise from top: the coronation of Rama, the King riding an elephant made of 12 women, the Queen enjoying a swing surrounded by her maids, and the Churning of the Milk Ocean.

The Raja Mahal, as the guide points out, has three kinds of arches – Hindu, Persian and Mughal. It is an example, like many buildings from medieval India, of architectural syncretism. Within the rooms, so dark that you might need to turn on your torchlights, there are beautiful murals of Vishnu’s incarnations. In one room there is a painting of the king riding an elephant, and the queen enjoying a swing, surrounded by her maids.

Orchha temperatures can soar up to 50 degrees Celsius in the summers, so we see where the royals retreated to escape the heat. We also see how they made provision for hot water in the winter. But what fascinate us are the stairs. They are narrow, have considerable height, and don’t always have banisters. I can’t help but think of maids in ankle-length skirts, probably scarves over their heads, negotiating the stairs carrying plates and bowls and whatever their masters wished. How they managed, if they managed, without falling. How unsung their peril was. . .

Parts of the building are under re-construction. Parts of it have crumbled to dust in the fists of time. Here and there, P has doodled his love for S. A few walls are serving as communal notice boards.

Next, we move to Jahangir Mahal, which is in the same complex. It was built by Raja Bir Singh Deo for his friend Shahenshah Jehangir in 1605. Incredibly, Jehangir graced it with his presence for all of one night before moving on. I’m surprised he did not wish to stay longer. This is a beautiful 4-storey monument, with underground quarters for the soldiers, luxurious apartments, and much to marvel at. Thankfully, it is also under restoration.

My friend and I climb up a flight of the narrow stairs to the fourth-floor groping the walls in the darkness. The latticed windows give us a beautiful view of the grey-brown spires of the Chaturbhuj (Four-Armed) Temple built for Vishnu by Raja Madhukar Shah, husband of Ganesh Kunwar.

Chaturbhuj Temple seen from Jehangir Mahal
Chaturbhuj temple as seen from the fort

Chaturbhuj Temple was originally meant to house Raja Ram when he arrived in Ayodhya. But since the temple was still under construction when the queen returned with the deity, Raja Ram moved into the palace. On completion, the temple originally meant for him was dedicated to Vishnu. Daily worship is offered there to this day.

As we make our way through the complex, we meet 5-7 families and 2 langurs. Surprisingly, the complex is quiet.

Often, when visiting palaces and forts, I have found myself hearing different parts of the same narrative simultaneously because of the close proximity to other groups and guides. When I have stopped to take photographs, I have had to wait in queue for the Instagrammable corners, and then make way for others. It is an experience replicated across the world with Instagram squaring every nook and cranny. Orchha has not, I am relieved to say, keeled under the weight of the ‘Gram.

So, there are restaurants like Orchha Tarang, with plastic table covers, plastic chairs, steel utensils and a reasonably-priced fast food menu which covers everything from hash browns to veg manchurian. After exiting the fort, we take a window seat on this first-floor restaurant. The waiter doesn’t speak English. But he assures us, on being asked what’s good, “Ek baar aaoge toh dobara aaoge,” (If you eat here once, you’ll eat here twice). We order chholey bhature, poori bhaji and buttermilk. With the first bite we agree that his confidence is justified.

Across this street, which connects the fort complex with the Ramraja and Chaturbhuj temples, is a single-storey building with white walls – the local Municipal Office. While my friend and I are gushing about the architectural beauty, and how quiet the complex was, I remember the guide telling us about the Central Government’s grant to the State government for amping up tourism.

A sign.

As if on cue, a busload of tourists arrives with sunglasses and anti-pollution masks. My eyes chance on a tawny cow vivid against the white wall of the Office. Next to it is a painted sign in Hindi, “Orchha banega number 1” (Orchha will be number 1).

***

Next, for us, are the Royal Chhatris or Cenotaphs. They are to Orchha what the Opera House is to Sydney. A visual metonym. A defining landmark.

14 in number – these cenotaphs standing by the River Betwa are dedicated to the kings of the Bundela dynasty. As with the fort, the architecture on display here reflects a mix of the Rajput and Mughal elements. Each chhatri is dedicated to a king.

Sitting in the shade to escape the afternoon sun, my friend and I wonder – where are the queens? Why did no one think of building a cenotaph for the women who gave birth to the Orchha we know today?

Built as a reminder of death, the cenotaphs are now busy with life.

Parrots, mynas, and sparrows nest in the lattices, the arches, and the domes. We also spot vultures. A quick search on the internet tells us that these chhatris are home to an endangered vulture colony.

Vultures, in common culture, are a metaphor for the vulgar, the hypocritical, for those who might fly high but keep their sights on rotting flesh. In the Ramayana, however, the vulture brothers – Jatayu and Sampati offered a huge service to Ram. Jatayu heard Sita’s cries for help as she was being abducted by Ravana. In his rescue efforts, he received a fatal blow from the demon king. Later, Jatayu died in the arms of a compassionate Ram. Sampati showed Hanuman, who was leading a search party for Sita, the way Ravana had fled – pointing the way to Lanka. Perhaps it is owing to the service of their ancestors that these vultures now find shelter in Ram’s kingdom.

As the sun is setting, we hunt for a rickshaw that will take us back to where we are staying. There is no rickshaw rank in anticipation of tourists. So, we walk back to the main street and find one.

Monk in front of the Royal Chhatris of Orchha
Yellow-turbaned monk on the banks of the River Betwa

At the place where we’re staying the staff serve chicken curry on request. It is homely, delicious and just the thing on a cold winter night.

***

Orchha wasn’t expecting us just yet. But that will change.

I suspect that the number of shops selling pashmina, turquoise, Dokra handicrafts will rise. As will eateries with WiFi offering ventis, multigrain toasts, fruit bowls, and woodfired pizzas. There might, if the government is not cautious, come a time when the global tourism supply chain will choke this small town’s identity. As it has done to cities like Santorini, Angkor Vat, and Bali.

To avoid that fate, we will have to bring to Orchha an openness and an acceptance. A creed, like my friend’s, which can take in what this hidden gem has to offer, and know that this is what it is.

My friend and I visited Orchha in January 2020.

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Why you must absolutely take a vacation | What to do when you can’t | 5 ideas for a staycation

Zen quote; inspirational quote; three monks
Photo by Nishant Aneja from Pexels. Graphic by desipostcards

It’s summer and if you haven’t been on a holiday already, you’re probably planning one. You’re thinking beach, hills or countryside. You’re craving for punctuation to the relentless run and complicated syntax of life. And that’s what vacations are. They’re like commas. Maybe like full-stops. What I’m saying is, done right, they help us to make sense of our narratives.

It means that, for most of us, holidays mean a pause or a turn. It could be a reckless adventure where we’re rafting, rappelling, racing. It could be a retreat where we’re breathing alternately through each nostril, listening to the river, and chanting at twilight.

Whatever our holidays look like, they have a meaning in, and impact on, our lives outside the Insta stories we can tell. Taking off from the humming drum of our daily routine is not a luxury but a necessity. Why? Because they’re opportunities to halt the stress cycle.

When we’re chilling, and in our element, our bodies produce lower amounts of cortisol. What’s cortisol? It’s biochemical stress. Why is it public enemy number 1? For the following reasons: it counteracts insulin, reduces bone and collagen formation, and slows the healing process.

So what happens when we fail to get out of the zone of stress? And our bodies continue to make cortisol like China does electronics. What happens when we fail to jump off the hamster wheels? According to Psychology Today, “Your sleep will suffer, you won’t digest your food as well, and even the genetic material in the cells of your body may start to become altered in a bad way. Mentally, not only do you become more irritable, depressed, and anxious, but your memory will become worse and you’ll make poorer decisions. You’ll also be less fun to be with, causing you to become more isolated, lonely, and depressed.”

Rishikesh, 2018: Magical sunrise

In fact, taking time off, whether to go on a pilgrimage or a party destination, a road trip or a resort chill, is so important that British researcher Scott McCabe of the University of Nottingham “recommends that families be given some form of financial assistance if they are unable to afford vacations on their own.”  These are some reasons why we absolutely must take vacations!

But sometimes a hamster’s got to wheel right? There are times when no matter how much we might need a break, we can’t have one.

Don’t worry. In that case the solution is to just plan a vacation. Mark calendar dates on the phone, think about the places to visit during the season, google hotels or search Airbnb, and scan property galleries, check AccuWeather, browse recommendations on things to do, and imagine yourself doing them. Maybe, being extra, we can also think outfits and add them to our online carts. Possibly even create a what to pack list.

You might think it would make one feel worse. All that FOMO. Quite the contrary, Science argues, vacation planning can channel amazingly positive emotions. Robert Kwortnik (Cornell University) and William Ross (Penn State) found that human beings start to feel amazing when they just plan experiences. And experimental psychologists Leaf Van Boven, from University of Colorado Boulder, and Laurence Ashworth from the Smith School of Business, asked undergraduates to rate their emotions as they pictured a ski vacation. The students reported feeling more intensely about the imagined vacation than the remembered one.  It’s called the ‘pre-trip high’ or the ‘rosy view’.

Also, this planning is way more fun when our imagined vacation is closely aligned to how we see ourselves. If you fancy yourself an adventurer, plan that ski vacation. If you’re an amateur historian, set yourself up to explore Mohenjo-Daro. If you’re a zen monk in the making, consider that Shoganji Zen retreat. The mind will swoosh right off that wheel, and out that cage.

One more thing to do pre-vacation (which should accurately describe our lives, either on vacation or about to be) is talk about it. According to a happiness researcher Prof. Elizabeth Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, people bond more by talking about experiences than things. So, it is easier to connect with other people by talking about wanting to drive all the way to a shack in the hills for a sweet cup of milky tea than by flaunting the first-flush boxes bought from Darjeeling.

relaxation, chilling
( Experiences > Things – good rule for life)


Another option is to do a staycation. It might sound boring or pointless. But with staycations we can save money and travel time, and they’re easier to organise. That opens up the possibility of change. It works if we switch over from your daily routine and circadian rhythms, and do things we don’t get to do otherwise – like seeing a familiar city as a tourist or going swimming or marathon Netflix and chill (although moving about is recommended for that endorphin hum).

Here are 5 ideas for a staycation:

Staycation, 2018

  • Buy a slender volume of the history of your city. Go exploring major spots.
  • Take a picnic with friends and dog. (Dog attendance compulsory).
  • Spend time volunteering for a cause that delights you.
  • Check in to a hotel and spa your body, mind and soul.
  • Go for a heritage walk with a group of strangers. Arm yourself with snacks, shades, and camera.
  • So, yes get that vacation. Fire some new synapses in your brain, lower that cortisol, and breathe. If you can’t, don’t worry, plan a new trip. Or a staycation. And live the good life.

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    Solo female travel in India | Check out these 5 easy tips to travel safe and happy |

    Is it safe to travel alone in India as a woman? Yes, I would argue. Here are 5 tips I would like to share with solo female travelers in India. But they would work abroad as well.

    solo female traveler India, desi postcards
    Crazy hair don’t care

    I have often dreamed of a far-off place 
    Where a hero’s welcome would be waiting for me
     

    Solo travel feels like a real adventure. And it is. My first solo trip was in 2010. I went to Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh for a beginner’s yoga course, met people from all over the world, and had my first taste of independence. It was my first (pleasant) brush with adulthood, despite rigorous surya namaskars, simple breakfasts, and a hot trek up Neer Garh on a June day. I came back fit, confident, and so ready to see more of the world on my own.

    Many women feel the same way. According to the Princeton Survey Research Associates, 58% millennials are willing to travel alone, compared to 47% among the older generations. And while 26% millennial American women have already traveled solo, 27% want to! (Source) So if you worry whether traveling alone as a woman is a good idea, you know it must be, so many women can’t be wrong.

    Anyway, the main reason I love solo travel is because it gives me a chance to be me. A chance to escape from everyone’s notions of, and questions for, me. As a solo traveler, you’re just you – away from the people you spend your life with. You’re free to re-invent yourself, and live on your terms. Who doesn’t need that?

    Boats. Ganga, Varanasi, desi postcards, monochrome , India
    Boats on the Ganga, Varanasi 2016

    But, being a solo woman traveler can be challenging, especially in India. During a trip to Varanasi in 2016, standing at the entrance of a narrow lane leading to the famous Vishwanath temple, I was accosted by two young boys offering to act as guides. They asked me where I was from, and if I was a photographer. In this context photographer meant one of those fancy people with enough money to roam about doing absurd things, like clicking photos of boats on the river and sadhus on the ghats. For them, photographer was another word for foreigner. I then had to drive a hard bargain for the temple tour, politely decline requests for my phone number, and insist that I’d see the rest of the city myself.

    Or when, during the same trip, I was in my room at The Yoga House on Nagwa Ghat, and overheard a few men complaining about Indian parents these days. How they let their girls stay unmarried till 25, doing nonsense things like jobs, and running astray. I was so angry. Those men were articulating a mindset you might encounter often in India: in big cities and small. And the judgement will seem, at the very least, suffocating.

    That said, I do think India is an amazing country to explore. Even for women. In this story by the National Geographic, journalist Margot Bigg says, “In my experience, India’s one of the safest and most accommodating countries for solo women travelers.” And I agree with her.

    In my travels, I have found that people look out for you. Returning to Varanasi, on my first evening, I hired a cycle rickshaw. The driver didn’t know his way to Nagwa Ghat and wandered like a Tolkien hero. Soon we were away from the city: the concrete road had turned to a mud path, multi-storey apartments had been replaced by a few lantern-lit huts, and my phone had no hope of a signal. We were in the middle of nowhere on a dark December night.

    Along came an old man in a shawl. He snapped at the driver in the local dialect, “Why are you wandering in the dark with this young girl?” We explained where we needed to go. “This is not where she asked you to take her. Go that way.” He gave detailed instructions. “Hurry,” he urged us, “don’t loiter at night.”  

    This is not a standalone incident. When I get lost on my trips (don’t tell my parents) there will always be someone who goes out of his or her way to ensure that I’m safe. Often that person is a stranger.

    But as a female solo traveler there are tips you can use to make sure you stay safe and happy during your India journey. Here are 5 that have worked for me (with song lyrics):

    1. Do you know
    Where you’re going to?

    lake pichola, Udaipur, udaipur cafes, desipostcards
    Lake Pichola is love, Udaipur 2018

    Plan your travels wisely. You should think about what you’re looking for, and where you’re looking for it.

    You might want to chill by a lake but is it going to be Pangong Tso or Pichola? They offer two completely different experiences. Looking for a yoga retreat? Kerala has great options, but will you be able to tolerate the heat? Not keen on Indian food? A place like Panchmarhi is unlikely to have a McDonalds or a Dominos. Research, research, research.

    Your travel goals are your own. Figure them out and curate your experience. You can enjoy a raving night life, a spiritual odyssey, and a foodie’s fantasy in India, but usually not all in the same place. Definitely not at the same time. If you do, let me know.


    2. I wanna breathe without feelin’ so self-conscious
    But it’s hard when the world’s starin’ at you

    Jaipur cotton, cotton fabric, desipostcards
    Cotton fabric, Jaipur 2018

    Clothes are a big part of our personality – I get that. And if you want to share your travels with Instagram, like I do, you will want to make for a pretty picture. But if you wear chiffon minis in Agra, and stilettos in Chandni Chowk, life will get very complicated very fast.

    Blending in is useful. It shows respect for local customs and traditions, a keen awareness of them, and practicality. It also gives you the chance to experience the place more fully. You might feel more confident walking Udaipur’s old city in a blockprint kurta rather than a bodycon dress. (And really, who doesn’t love Rajasthan’s blockprint textiles).

    May just be because you feel comfortable, you will seem confident, and less of an innocent/arrogant outsider. (Sadly, those are two ready classifications you can fall into anywhere as a traveler, not just in India).

    When you buy local you support small businesses as well. So, your appearance can be meaningful economically, culturally, and aesthetically.
    Not saying you shop for a new wardrobe everywhere you go, just saying be aware of what you wear.


    3. You know that we are living in a material world

    Udaipur, Rajasthani jewellery, desipostcards, silver rings
    Beautiful peacock ring, Udaipur 2018 (Did not buy it!)

    And we are material girls. But we don’t need to rub the world’s nose in it. In non-lyrical terms that means, you should leave your best jewelry at home and not in your baggage. It should definitely not be on you. Keep baubles to a minimum.

    A useful habit I’ve got from my parents is to not keep all my cash in one place. I find it also checks the spending. You should also consider carrying money is different forms: cash, forex card, credit card etc. Always have back-up.

    4. Where do you come from
    Where do you go

    As a solo woman traveler you are a creature of mystery. You should not share details of your itinerary with chatty strangers. It’s common sense. You should also not trust anyone immediately, and strike exclusive deals, whether a cab or a restaurant. Take your time. That said, it’s good to have an open mind about people. There are good folk out there.

    Last year, when I went to Udaipur and stayed in an AirBnB, the caretaker was a genuinely kind man who offered to show me to a jewelery shop nearby and bring my lunch upstairs, even though the restaurant didn’t offer that service.

    Just as you should be cagey about sharing details with outsiders, you should be consistent in sharing them with family. Keep at least one close friend or family member updated about your plans. If you’re in a bad signal area, text updates will work. They can be simple as, “Going to Elefantastic today. Enjoy building the Sales Pipedrive. Byeeee!”

    5. From mixed drinks to techno beats its always
    Heavy into everything


    Solo travel is an exercise in independence. It is equally an exercise of responsibility. Outside your network of friends and family, you are the one taking care of yourself. For that you need to keep your wits about you. Drinking heavily or other indulgences do not go hand in hand with safety.

    So walk the middle path, as Buddha advised, then you can sip the wine and hold it too.


    I hope you will love India. It has so much to offer. And it waits for you with open arms.
    * * *

    I’ve already talked about why solo travel is a great idea. And you can think about Pushkar – it’s a lovely place. Do you have any absolutely essential tips that I might have missed? Tell me!

    Best of Pushkar: the small town and its tall tales | Offbeat Pushkar

    Pushkar is a small town but immensely popular with travelers. Is it the lake, Pushkar’s resorts, the Brahma temple, Pushkar’s famous holi or the camel fair? Let’s look at the true Pushkar experience.

    Pushkar Lake

    Shiva thunders the final syllables of the curse, and from Brahma’s trembling fingers, the blue lotus falls. Down it floats to a valley and rests where a lake forms. There Brahma follows, to live his remaining years among the forgetful.
    This is Pushkar.

    ***

    Pushkar Lake by day
    By daylight

    Once, there were mountains here. Tall and erect in the first flush of youth. Now, like old men, their spines weather-sawed, they squat and peer with dim eyes. They have seen.

    Temples and worship. Waves of destruction. One king raise what another had razed. Resilience they have seen and surrender too. But they hunch over the lake for one reason: to greet the gods and goddesses who gather every sunrise and sunset.

    ***

    Pushkar persists. Today it is a hipster’s paradise, a hippie’s den, an easy weekend-getaway, a speed-date with the desert, and Rajasthan’s very own rose-garden. It is also one of the very few places in the royal state not known for its forts.

    The lake, which is the centre of this circumstance, is rimmed by temples and restaurants. You can sit on the ghats, barefoot for an evening, and watch as sky and water change their colours in tandem; you can see the flock of ducks showboating; shirtless fire-eaters, girls with hula-hoops, waiters with call-centre accents, local women selling fish food, old couples with the faces of compromise, young ones smiling for their selfies, pandits who insist you cover your head before they give you prasad, families and friends chatting as they complete the parikramas.

    If you choose to have dinner at one of the lake side cafes, you will find dishes such as risotto, lasagna, and ratatouille vying for space with the predictable pizzas, pastas and parathas. It is all vegetarian. You will also have the Insta Yogi favourites: mango lassi, honey lemon ginger, and chai teas. The question is will you be adventurous enough to have a Rajasthani risotto? Or will you stick to the tested kachori? It will be a tough decision to make. However, if you journey all the way from Zaragoza to Pushkar only to order gazpachos, there is little justification other than a sense of humour. On the other hand, I tried something labelled coconut cream – it was grated coconut and water – inedible.

    Your success with dishes will vary from café to café. As will your success with understanding the waiter’s accent. And he will, naturally, attend to the diners who can reward him with a tip that’s bigger than the bill for your entire meal.

    Preferring foreign customers to locals is common across India but you cannot ignore it in Pushkar. The economics of it, I can easily understand, but the politics of it is harder to digest. Maybe Pushkar finds itself in the shadow of tourism hotspots like Jaipur and Udaipur and seeks to mirror them. Maybe it aspires to Varanasi. But is it a city of religion or resorts? Both, you might feel, without conviction.

    Local shopping in Pushkar
    An artisan making blocks for printing

    You see it in the shop selling Rajasthani staples: silver wares and jewellery, bound journals, leather bags and shoes, namkeens, pickles, marble statuettes, puppets, fabrics and so on. What is truly Pushkar’s is the desi gulaab. This rose is smaller and less sturdy than its English cousin. It has a lovely fragrance and is used in teas, jams, water and oils. But Pushkar, often lost in the shadows of its neighbours, sets little store by what is its own.

    What it touts instead are borrowings, and new age shops offering to kit you out for enlightenment. These are dingy little affairs, advertising crystal malas, rudraksha beads, chanting CDs, and chakra oils. If only monks would shop at Pushkar – enlightenment would cost them nothing more than a few thousand rupees and a couple of hours.

    ***

    However, there is Pushkar’s holi when the town transforms into a rave. There is, too, the camel fair – a calendar event for many a traveler. Pushkar knows to make way for plentiness, it knows how to yield inches of self for the other.

    ***

    Pushkar camel rides
    4 year old Rajesh, a sweet natured boy

    If you move away from its centre to the calm of resorts, you will find an Ananta, a Westin or a Taj Gateway. Experts in hospitality, they will offer you samplers with Udaipuri ghoomars and Jaisalmeri kalbeliyas, lal maans and camel cart rides.

    ***


    Still, Pushkar persists. Perhaps, as you thread its lanes, as you spend time on one of its spartan ghats, you will stumble across its ancient soul. Perhaps you will meet it disguised as an old man in white cotton, sitting by noon on a mile-marker, watching cars race by; or in the guise of a woman hurrying around the temples, urging the gods; perhaps, when the sun is setting and the lake is a blue-pink-gold shimmer, you will feel your heart bloom.

    That will be Pushkar.

    4 Essential oils you must carry on your travels | And how to use them

    Browsing essential oils and perfumes in Pushkar, Rajasthan
    Browsing essential oils and perfumes in Pushkar, Rajasthan

    While essential oils might seem to you very much a new-age experiment, a vegan passion, or a quirk of the flower-children, they have been around for a long time.

    The ancient Egyptians, for instance, used oils to mummify. That means Egyptian mummies were using the oils when they traveled from this world to the next. And if it works when you change this world for another, it’s worth a try when you’re merely changing cities, right?

    Closer to the present day, the gifts that the wise men bought sweet baby Jesus? They included myrrh and balsam. Great present for someone who was on the move a lot.

    Fragrances, whether they come from plants or resins, have therefore had a significant role in various cultures. They’re valued for their spiritual, physical, and emotional benefits. And today, one of the easiest ways to use fragrances for health is through essential oils.

    First though, you might want to know how essential oils work. They are said to effectively stimulate the limbic system. You can use them externally after carrying out a patch test for sensitivity. Please do not ingest them.

    Packing a few when you travel, along with medicines and other aid necessary, is a great idea. They can help you address everything from travel anxiety to motion sickness. And carrying 10 – 20 ml bottles adds no weight at all, they’re so easy to carry. After a few years, I feel that essential oils are must-haves for travel.

    So, here are 4 basic oils (with options) that make great travel companions.

    1. Lavender essential oil

    Earthy & floral, lavender is a staple ingredient in the majority of beauty & bath products. Bath salts, shampoos, teas, soaps, creams & mists – lavender’s a popular ingredient everywhere.
    With good reason. It is antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacterial.
    Stress of travel getting to you? Skin drying because of long flights and sudden change in weather? Unable to sleep in a bed other than your own? Lavender can help you ease out all these struggles. It’s a grounding and clearing oil.

    Suggested uses: Rub a few drops, with carrier oil, on scalps and soles before bedtime. You will enjoy wonderful sleep. Few drops in water for a relaxing bath. Use with cream or oil to massage face.

    Alternatives: Sandalwood, Clary Sage, Cedarwood

    2. Eucalyptus essential oil

    A useful weapon against headaches, seasonal allergies, and coughs, eucalyptus oil belongs in every backpack. It’s basically a great friend for your immune system and during those trips to the mountains (because mountains over beaches, right?). Your sinuses will clear like the skies after rains. And it gets the blood circulating.

    Suggested use: Apply a few drops to your chest and the back of your neck to decongest. Alternatively, put a few drops in hot water and inhale (with a towel over your head). For headaches, put a few drops on cotton balls and rub your temples.

    Alternatives: Thyme, Peppermint

    3. Tea tree essential oil

    God, the uses of this oil. Just ask the cosmetic companies which are making a huge profit from it. Tea tree is antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory.
    Stress, change in weather, and exposure to different micro-organisms during travel can affect the quality of your skin and hair tremendously, and tea tree is beautifully effective in those cases. If you have insect bites, or scratches, or wounds – you need tea tree oil. Research says it’s also useful to fight head lice. Well, I’ve never had to find out for myself. If you do, let me know.

    Suggested uses: A few drops in your bath water for keeping skin and scalp clean. You can also use it on a clean cotton pad to dab your post-wash face.
    Apply topically on insect bites, scratches and burns. Of course, be careful.

    Alternatives: Geranium, Camphor, Lavender (not on open bites/wounds)

    4. Lemon essential oil:

    I mean it could be any citrus oil. Mainly because they’re very uplifting.
    We don’t always travel for leisure, often it’s work, or other circumstances. Maybe we feel alone, overwhelmed or stifled in a foreign place or culture. In those situations, citrus oils are great mood lifters. The smell of oranges makes me feel . . . zesty (sorry). Also, if you’re feeling nauseous, whether on a flight or elsewhere – sniffing a whiff can help. It also helps relieve constipation if used consistently over a period of time. Used before sleep, it helps brighten skin. (Citrus oils are photosensitive so don’t use on exposed skin before stepping out in the sun).

    Suggested uses: Mix with coconut oil and rub on the back of your neck, wrists, stomach for improving mood. Inhale directly from the bottle for relieving symptoms of nausea. You can also add a few drops to your massage oil.

    Alternatives: Mentioned above.

    Now, as a proper person with functional grey cells, I expect that you will not drown yourself in these oils, drink them, or use them in place of medicines. Because, mate, you shouldn’t. Diffuse them in the room, squeeze a few drops in your bath water, massage them as advised.

    So, are you going to stay well away from this vegan voodoo, or, are you ready to pack your personal essential oil kit?

    Why solo travel is totally not weird | 5 reasons why you must travel solo

    Let’s talk about why solo travel is a historical tradition and the amazing benefits it offers.

    Rishikesh, August 2016

    India has a history of solo travellers. In the 8th century BCE, the first mention of sramanas pops up. These were mendicants, holy men, and wanderers outside the pale of society and its rituals. In the Rig Veda, they have a unique title which means both naked and girdled with the wind.

    Now, their fashion choices don’t concern me . But the metaphorical interpretation of being girdled with the wind does. It can be interpreted as being in constant motion. I feel that they were on to a good thing.

    Think also of the solo travelers who were doing with reed and papyrus what I’m doing with keyboard and Word docs – creating travel narratives. Faxian in the 4th century, for example. Dude walked from Ancient China to Ancient India to get a few copies of Buddhist texts. His travelogues are a great source of information about the time and place. Not entirely trustworthy (he wrote that the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka were dragons. I’m open to the idea but, mate, I don’t think so). And he lived to the age of 85 (walking is good for you. I’ll write about that another time). Faxian wasn’t alone. There were also Xuanzang a couple of centuries later, travelling to Nalanda to study, and Ibn Battuta on a pilgrimage in the 13th century. 

    We know a fair amount about our history and culture thanks to these adventurous folk who were willing to put in a huge amount of labour for knowledge. Faxian wanted books, Xuanzang wanted to go to university, and Ibn Battuta was on a pilgrimage of sorts. Isn’t that amazing! 

    What I realise, as I think about them, is that solo travelers rarely set out to terrorize and invade. To do that, you need to be in groups. Then you can take over a place and total it. Difficult if you’re solo.

    And isn’t solo traveling a good metaphor for life? (Excuse me, if it’s been done to death). But, you get a solo return ticket out of your mum. Even when you’re twins.

    Now that I’ve set up the historical context of it, and explained why it’s not weird at all, here’s why I think present day solo travel makes a huge amount of sense. Even if the world, like Melisandre’s night, “is dark and full of terrors.” It was more so back in the day when dragons inhabited Sri Lanka.

    Travel is great for anyone. It’s good to get out and see the world. And here’s why it is especially worthwhile as a solo endeavour.

    1. You fire new synapses in your brain

      Literally. Brain wiring is sensitive to change, as research has proved. And a change of surroundings, of company, of usual habits can help your brain work new cells. What makes it especially potent in the context of solo travel is you are in the midst of this new-ness (of place, people, food, weather, etc). 
      And as a solo traveler you’re more likely to make the following choices – book an Airbnb in the old city or a hostel rather than a resort, talk to locals, try out recommendations. This might read like an assumption but you are likely, when solo, to yolo. I mean prioritizing adventure over comfort.
      This is critical to rewiring the brain. Adam Galinsky, a Columbia professor who researches the connections between creativity and travel, argues that simply going abroad is not going to trigger creativity, but immersing yourself in the local culture will.

    2. You get confidence

      Speaking from experience here. As one of the more introverted and awkward people on the planet, traveling solo was a challenge. Just asking for second helpings during dinner at a host’s place, figuring out the train schedule, getting lost and then finding your way, all give you a sense that you can survive challenges, and that you are capable. On your own. As you are.
      Solo travel certainly has done that for me. And that quiet confidence is what you can take back to your everyday life and struggles. Life is all the better for it.

    3. You are the boss

      Daily life takes away a sense of control, doesn’t it? Just booking a cab and the driver cancelling because it’s not a cash trip, taking meetings or calls scheduled for odd hours, or being dragged to family functions you could not care less about. It reminds me of the Zen parable, ‘Ask the horse!’

      That changes when you travel solo. You have to appreciate the number of choices that become available to you: where you stay, when you wake up, whether to order soup for breakfast or scrambled eggs for dinner, which sight you see, whether to talk or stay silent all day, . . . everything is your decision! 

      Guaranteed to make you feel like you can breathe a free air.

    4. You are away from all the drama

      All the drama of arguments about where to go, what to do, when to do it, why were you snoring, go away. As does the hustle of everyday life.

      Like that time I was in Udaipur and went for lunch to a cafe that brightly advertised its Trip Advisor credentials only to be really put off by the lunch. But now I know. And I didn’t blame myself for it. So it was all chill.

      Solo, you don’t spend a lot of valuable vacay time arguing about the agenda for the day. There is often no agenda for the day.

    5. You find out who you are 

      While on a work trip to Philadelphia in 2016, I was steadfastly avoiding beef and pork, because of my Hindu upbringing. However, one breakfast had a nice bagel with scrambled eggs on offer. With the first bite, I realised that it was as advertised with something extra. Later, I found that extra flavour was bacon.
      Now, my brain busied itself. Part of me was like, “You weren’t supposed to eat bacon. That’s bad karma.” The other part pleaded, “But I didn’t know. . . “

      On the whole, what I found out was I keep away from certain things (alcohol, certain meats) because it’s not a big deal to me, and it makes my family happy. Also, that my religious beliefs are not built on fear. Most importantly, it made me realise that I don’t like bacon (count until 10 before you react, please).

      That was a lot of learning for the price of a breakfast. When you travel, if you’re open and let the light in, you’ll see the shape of yourself – that rare thing the sramanas were looking for. And that in itself makes it worth the whole experience. 


      What say you about solo travel? Do you always need a Samwise to your Frodo? Or are you happiest in your own company?