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.

    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?