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!

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.

    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!