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!

    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.

    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?