Category Archives: Travel

Embracing Swedish Culture: The Art of Fika

by Jayna Valen

How Sweden Got Me Hooked On Fika

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I’m a person who’s constantly evolving. I tend to adopt snippets of culture from around the world easily, embracing ways of life and practices that move and inspire me. This is especially true of places and societies that I’ve had the privilege of immersing myself in and experiencing the native culture first-hand, as a local.

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Sweden changed me in more ways than I can coherently describe. I became so Swedish that I underwent a permanent personality overhaul. I lived in Stockholm for a number of months and experienced life in the Scandinavian capital from the standpoint of a local Swede. From picnics in Skansen to buying acrylics from Clas Ohlson, from butter-frying kantarell to my ready acceptance of unyielding laundry schedules (tvättstuga stories for another day), I dove in with enthusiasm. One day, someone asked me what was the thing about Swedish culture that fascinated me the most. My answer? Fika. Hands down!

Those unfamiliar with Swedish culture may mistakenly consider fika to be just another regular coffee or tea break. Undeniably, that’s what it involves – a spread of coffee, pastries, jams and other snacks that’s shared with family or guests.

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However, the best part of fika is that it’s an excellent way to hone your skills in (and experience) the art of conversation – something which is all but dead in today’s smartphone-obsessed society. It’s almost a subculture in itself, made up of those who truly know how to indulge in and embrace the art of fika.

The authentic fika experience is a concept as sophisticated as the Swedes themselves, and reflective of their discerning palates. Am I exaggerating? Hell no. Just ask any self-respecting Swede. Better still, go to Sweden and observe this interesting phenomenon for yourself. Heck, you can even do it at your local IKEA.

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Funny thing is, I’ve been practicing fika all my life without realizing it. I love long, deep conversations about anything. I’ve always invited friends over for coffee (green tea for me) and snacks – I just didn’t call it fika back then. Sweden just taught me how to fine-tune the art of hosting, attending and enjoying fika. Has it been a life-changing experience? You bet. Then again, everything is for me.

So, What’s Fika?

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Fika is basically a break that involves quality food and the good-company-good-conversation combo. The real art of fika lies in the ability of the host (and often, the guests) to successfully merge food, drink, company and conversation to create unforgettable experiences. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to fika, the best sessions I’ve had are when everyone is feeling warm and relaxed, respected and included. Then, the conversations begin to flow like magic.

There’s no fixed time to have fika in Sweden, though they generally have it twice a day – late in the morning and sometime in the evening. If someone invites you over for fika in Sweden, here’s what you can expect:

1. Good-quality coffee, tea or other beverages (usually more than one type).

2. A spread of food that usually includes pastries, jams, butter, fruit, cakes and more. If your host is non-vegetarian, you may also see food like gravad lax (cured salmon) or cured meats.

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What always surprised me about fika with various people in Stockholm was the variety and quality of the food served. Swedes take their fika seriously, especially if they’re hosting it at their homes. Hosts who invited me over were of the opinion that having instant coffee for fika was borderline sacrilegious (that probably doesn’t apply to everyone in Sweden).

My Fika Experiences In Stockholm

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I’ve had the privilege to have fika with some really amazing people. What’s great is that the experience of fika differs significantly, depending on the people involved.

For instance, fika with my good friend Tony Särkkä, a black metal musician, was always an experience that reflected his fine tastes and artistic inclination. Like me, he was a gourmet tea enthusiast, so fika at his place meant anything from Japanese sencha to white Darjeeling. He had an exquisite dining table made of reflective black glass, which showed off the fika spread wonderfully – vegan butters, almond and oat milk, fruits, nuts, pastries and an assortment of traditional Swedish breads.

We often spoke about books, art and music. Leisurely, sometimes pausing to watch the snowfall through the window. There were times when we wrote poetry together. We delved into topic after topic deeply, unhurriedly. Fika was our way of spurring the creativity of our minds and exploring novel ideas or concepts. Tony has since passed on, but I will always remember him fondly as the first person who introduced me to fika, and forever cherish the conversations we had.

How To Host Fika At Your Place

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I personally think everyone should embrace the art of fika. At least, try it out – it’s fun. And you know what? It’s so easy to do. All you need is the following as a base, but remember, the more variety of food and drinks, the more interesting your fika will be. Fika can even be done like a potluck, where everyone brings a dish.

Fika essentials:

A good-quality drink of your choice, like coffee or tea (I don’t recommend alcohol for fika)
Some good food. A diverse variety of things to eat makes for pleasant sense indulgence, besides encouraging interesting conversation.
A comfortable place to have your food and drinks with your fika guests. A couch, a café or even a nice shady spot under a tree are perfect.

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Candles are optional but make a great addition. Then, invite some people over! This is where the art part comes in – the art of choosing / combining various food and drinks plus keeping good conversation going.

If your fika guests aren’t the talkative type or are just plain shy, gently get them to open up. Introduce interesting topics to discuss or bring something to the fika, like a good book or a poem. Encourage everyone to share their ideas, thoughts and opinions. Keep things pleasant and light-hearted – fika is not the time to bring up sensitive topics or start heated debates. If the conversation takes a negative turn, gently steer it back to something more conducive.

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Want to incorporate the art of Swedish living into your current lifestyle? Fika is where you start. It’s easy to organise, fun, sophisticated and a great way to bring people together.

Hiking Equipment Review: Deuter AirContact 40+10 SL

by Jayna Valen

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My Experience

I’ve been hiking and backpacking since forever. The funny thing is, I never bothered to ‘invest’ in a proper backpack. I just bought whatever was on sale in the market, would fit on my back and had sufficient space for a bunch of stuff.

That worked well enough for a while, until I ran into some annoying issues. My Lonsdale backpack held up surprisingly well over  years of travel abuse, but the PVC interior lining turned to dust one fine day for no apparent reason. As a person with allergy issues, this was a complete disaster.

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I’ve seen friends and travel partners who had it worse while on the road with me: bags falling apart at the seams, zips and buckles getting damaged, rats chewing through canvas, monkeys learning how to unzip compartments on unattended bags, back problems due to uneven distribution of carrying weight, etc.

Space was also an issue with smaller backpacks, as you’d eventually need a bigger piece of luggage for check-in, which can be a hassle when you need to travel quickly with minimal fuss. Also, wheeled luggage bags can be a nightmare when it comes to rural places. I’ve had to drag a 30-kilo bag through village sand paths (the wheels won’t work), broken cement, damaged roads, mud, potholes, up lengthy flights of stairs, cow dung and worse.

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Needless to say, I’d had enough of that. I can’t believe I didn’t get a proper backpack sooner. I HATE my stuff falling apart mid-travel. So, when I came across a random Deuter backpack sale at Sunway Pyramid, I got myself not one, but two bags (50 and 70 litres). Malaysians will know why I did this; Deuter bags are notoriously expensive here. At 50% off the regular price, it was a steal.

I was also curious with regards to quality and performance. I’m always sceptical when it comes to hyped-up mainstream things. Was Deuter really the gold standard for hiking bags, or was it all just meaningless marketing and branding fluff?

Here’s my review of the Deuter AirContact 40 + 10 SL model (for women).

Test Trip Details

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I backpacked alone to the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia for 4 days and 3 nights. While this doesn’t count as a challenging outdoor hike, it wasn’t a walk in the park either. My bag weighed a total of 13 kgs – I packed it to maximum capacity for testing purposes.

What the travel involved (per way) was a 10-minute Uber trip to the train station, a two-transit train ride totalling 2 hours of travel to the central bus terminal (TBS), an 8-hour bus ride to the island jetty, a 40-minute speedboat ride to the island, then walking by foot along the beach for another 20 minutes to the chalet. It was a lot of getting to, then on and off various modes of transportation – more tiring than it sounds.

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Comfort and Design

Amazingly comfortable as the hip and shoulder straps are well-padded, highly adjustable and can be customized for length and fit perfectly. The AirContact models are also designed for optimum air circulation to prevent excessive sweating during wear – this would be great for long hikes in hot weather.

Aesthetic-wise, I loved the blue color. All the female-model bags come with a cute yellow flower that’s actually a hair tie – how ingenious! There’s a contoured steel spine structure that fits your back curvature and gives the pack some structure. Most bags come with a handy water-proof rain cover, which is great for repelling mud too.

 

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Capacity and Weight

I was surprised that there was less space than I expected for 50 litres. However, when packed to full capacity, 13kgs was about as much as I could carry comfortably on my back (I weigh 45kgs, am slight in build with fairly good core strength). The bag itself isn’t the lightest model either, as it weighs almost 2.3kgs by itself – consider another model for long hikes.

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What’s really great about Deuter designs is that they have tons of mini compartments, loops, clips and spaces which you can literally stow, fasten or hang ANYTHING imaginable. The only limit would be your ability to carry the weight.

Durability

The material doesn’t look very long-wearing, but then again I know from experience that the nylon is light but extremely wear-resistant. The seams and stitching are pretty sturdy.

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Summary

I was pretty spent after my trip back, but it was a good kind of tired. I felt like my core got a really good workout. I could actually notice the difference in my abs! More muscle tone and flatter. Overall, no regrets, though I’d recommend a lighter model for longer hikes.

If you see one on discount, buy it! Absolutely worth the money. In the words of a good friend, the proud owner of a Deuter that has survived over 15 years of hardcore outdoor life:

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“These bags? They last forever”.

 

Related Links:

10 Tips for Women Travelling Alone in India

Ashram Vacations: An Introduction

Deuter (Official Page)

Travel Review: Boracay, Philippines

by Jayna Valen

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Boracay! The jewel of the Philippines, some say. Cerulean-turquoise waters, tropical sun, over seven thousand islands, fresh seafood, succulent mangoes and all the great things Southeast Asia has to offer. The place has always been a mystery to me, and I’m glad I finally set foot there.

Scenery, view and island vibe

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The best thing about the combination of tropical sunlight, lush volcanic-soil vegetation and clear seawater is the way the colors come alive. Emerald-chartreuse greens punctuated by lazy seabirds, sparkling sapphire waters fading into the golden-white sand. A literal feast for the eyes. It’s the kind of island where you can sit around all day, eating dragonfruits and letting the purple juice run down your chin, taking in the dazzling brilliance of your surroundings and just do absolutely nothing. Yes, it’s that beautiful.

Vibe-wise, it’s laid back. Quiet and relaxed. Not overly crowded with touristy types. Most people on the island appear to be simple village folk. They live fuss-free lives, plying their trade, usually selling local produce and seafood. It’s a far cry from the booze-and-drug-fuelled-party-hype of Balinese and Thai beach nightlife; nothing like the backpacker islands on the Malaysian East Coast either. Boracay is like a legendary island princess – exotic, mysterious and modest, whose real beauty is to be seen and appreciated by the chosen few. Don’t come here for crazy drunken nights and full moon parties.

Food

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Seafood is cheap, fresh and plentiful. Prices are reasonable at tourist-standard spots. The main area in town where most restaurants are based is called D’Mall – not quite a mall, more like an open-air area of eateries, souvenier shops, clothing stalls and the usual stuff catering to tourists.

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If you’re from Malaysia or Indonesia, be prepared for the ‘unusual’ taste of some dishes. I’m adventurous and adaptable enough, but I’ve heard many complaints along the lines of ‘Filipino food tastes very weird”. There’s a mini supermarket in town where you can buy stuff like toiletries, milk, cookies, instant coffee, bread and crackers. I found that prices at this place were quite high.

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I’ll be honest; I didn’t quite like the fish and chips fried in coconut oil (yes, coconut oil of all things – The Hobbit Tavern) and the bland soup featuring a sad chunk of chicken with the life boiled out of it (Jeepney). On the other hand, the grilled squid was great, with just the right amount of flavor and tangy zest (Jeepney), as was the seafood pasta (The Hobbit Tavern). Stay away from the soupy stuff and you should be fine. Food in general is not overly spicy.

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Local tip: A wonderful Filipino girl at Jeepney did this for me and my friend when we said we were Malaysian. She chopped up some bird’s eye chillies, put the pieces into a saucer and poured some salty soy sauce over it. Then, she squeezed lime juice into the mix and gave it a good stir, before telling us to use it as a dip for seafood. It was literally AMAZING. I would’ve never thought something so simple could bring out the subtle flavours of seafood so well, and it had just the right amount of zing. Perfect!

Places to stay

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Accommodation is easily available, from budget to more high-end places. I stayed at Shangri-La Boracay because my friends work there, and we got the rooms for free (lucky me). And Shang being Shang, there’s nothing much to say about it except everything was literally perfect. The resort is gorgeous, the architecture and landscaping stunning. You’re waited on hand and foot by extremely attentive staff. In other words, Shangri-La = an impeccable experience in all ways. The only downside was that the resort was on the other end of the island, and getting ‘out’ was impossible by foot. However, they had regular shuttles to town for that purpose.

Shopping

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Forget it. If you already have experience travelling in Southeast Asia, there’s literally nothing new to buy here. It’s all the same stuff again and again. Beach dresses, shell jewellery, keychains, wife-beaters, mugs, tote bags and Rasta-themed red-yellow-green stuff (I never figured out Boracay’s obsession with reggae culture, but I bought a Bob Marley pareo anyway because I’m a huge fan). Virgin coconut oil is sold everywhere, as are local dried mangoes. And oh, they have purses made of real, whole bullfrogs, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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Weather

Tropical mostly with occasional rain. Plan carefully around the island’s monsoon seasons as the weather can change drastically. We went out sightseeing one night and were suddenly caught in a full-blown typhoon that came out of nowhere. Best to carry a light raincoat or foldable umbrealla when you’re out and about.

Currency

Filipino pesos. It appears that exchange rates are far better in your own country, unless you carry US Dollars with you. Money changers are easy to find.

Nightlife

I didn’t go to any clubs, but the island seemed to generally lack good nightlife. Nobody tried to sell me drugs or sex either.

Beach activities

There’s the usual like snorkeling, diving, paraw sailing, catamaran, yacht, jetski and more. PADI courses are offered on Boracay, but I decided to do mine in the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.

Verdict?

Great place to go for a couple, a bunch of friends or with family. Expect slightly higher prices and be wary of the monsoon season (the typhoons in the Philippines are not to be taken lightly). I wouldn’t recommend single travellers to go here as there isn’t all that much to do alone.

 

Ashram Vacations: An Introduction

by Shrishthi Brahmarupa

Note: All images below were taken at my various ashram visits and stays from 2013 to 2017. The following pictures were taken at Yoga Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh), Dhanwanthari Ashram (Kerala), Meenakshi Ashram (Madurai), Parmarth Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh) and ISKCON Delhi (East of Kailash, Delhi).

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Is stress killing you? Do you experience inexplicable aches and pains, depression, migraines, digestion issues and fatigue on a regular basis? If your regular vacations aren’t cutting it anymore, an ashram vacation may be just the thing you need. It can be a hardcore experience for the uninitiated, but I can assure you it’ll be well worth the effort.

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First Things First: What’s an Ashram?

I’m just going to quote Wikipedia’s description here, because it’s so complete:

“Traditionally, an ashram (sometimes also ashrama or ashramam) is a spiritual hermitage or a monastery in Indian religions. The word ashram comes from the Sanskrit root śram which means “to toil”. An ashram would traditionally, but not necessarily in contemporary times, be located far from human habitation, in forests or mountainous regions, amidst refreshing natural surroundings conducive to spiritual instruction and meditation. The residents of an ashram regularly performed spiritual and physical exercises, such as the various forms of yoga.

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Sometimes, the goal of a pilgrimage to the ashram was not tranquility, but instruction in some art, especially warfare. In the Ramayana, the protagonist princes of ancient Ayodhya, Rama and Lakshmana, go to Vishvamitra’s ashram to protect his yajnas from being defiled by emissary-demons of Ravana. After they prove their mettle, the princes receive martial instruction from the sage, especially in the use of divine weapons. In the Mahabharata, Krishna, in his youth, goes to the ashram of Sandipani to gain knowledge of both intellectual and spiritual matters.”

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My Experience

To me, there’s nothing quite as magical as the ashram experience. Meditating in the Himalayas as the starless, obsidian sky bursts into the blazing pink ribbons of dawn. The chanting of mantras in the dark, amidst clouds of rose-sandalwood frankincense. Exotic birds in the mist. Sun-ripened fruits. Losing yourself in the transcendental bliss of meditation.

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I’m the kind of person who burns out easily with the demands of modern-day city living, so I need my ashram breaks. Every ashram is like a temporary second home to me. Over the last 5 years, I’ve stayed at various ashrams across India (the longest stays were in Sivananda ashrams, to complete my yoga certification).

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I’m so used to ashram life that I tend to incorporate parts of it into day-to-day modern living, often without realising it. No hot water in the mornings? Improvise with a bucket of cold water. Too tired for proper dinner after work? I make do with plain rice, yoghurt and fresh curry leaves. It’s a 360 degree turn-around for a woman like me who was raised with the comforts of big-city living for most of my life.

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What’s Ashram Life Like?

It’s austere. Very basic, ascetic-style living. No luxuries or city comforts to speak of – no air-conditioning, hot water, comfy spring mattresses, washing machines, hair dryers. Ashrams in India serve only vegetarian food, often without onions and garlic (depending on the ashram, salt and spices may be omitted completely). Some ashrams provide more comfort at extra charge, but that’s usually limited to air-conditioning and hot water.

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Despite the obvious challenges of ashram life, thousands continue to throng ashrams across India for various reasons – personal spiritual retreats, study of Vedic scriptures, structured yoga vacations and more. Why are regular people who are used to a cushy life willing to rough it out? Simple – the benefits, despite the hardship, are immense.

A temporary ashram stay isn’t a vacation the way you know it. It gives your material-life overloaded, burnt-out systems a break (mind, body, soul) so you can begin self-healing on all levels.

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Generally, ashram dwellers:

1) Wake up during the auspicious brahma muhurta timing (between 4.30am and 5.00am)
2) Sleep on woven mats or thin, natural-fibre mattresses in same-sex dormitories
3) Eat sattvic food (vegetarian fare minus onions and garlic)
4) Hand-wash and line-dry their own laundry
5) Follow a daily ashram schedule, which includes satsang (singing spiritual hymns), yoga classes, spiritual talks or discourses, Bhagavadgita classes, meditation sessions and so on
6) Wear simple, modest clothing on ashram grounds
7) Perform karma yoga (selfless service) daily, usually cleaning duties within the ashram

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What’s the Reason for such Basic, Austere Conditions?

The goal of ashram living is to increase one’s self-awareness and enhance spirituality. Sensual pleasures including rich food, entertainment, sexual activity and indulgence in modern luxuries cause distraction within the human mind and subsequently, a lack of focus.

By intentionally withdrawing worldly pleasures and sense gratification, ashram life effectively tunes one ‘inwards’ and enables one to focus and channel their mental energy effectively. Additional ashram activities such as pranayama (breath control), yoga asanas (physical exercise) condition and meditation prepare the body and mind for transcendental experiences.

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Ashram life is good practise for those wanting to pursue the path of self-realisation on a deeper, more serious level. Consider it a physical, mental and spiritual ‘detox’ from the filth and imbalances of modern living.

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What are the Benefits of Ashram Living? What Changes Will I See?

I recommend that you stay in an ashram for a minimum of 2 weeks to see significant improvement. For best results, a 4-to-6 week stay will do wonders – it’ll literally transform you. However, if you can only manage a few days, it’s still better than nothing.

The first few days will be difficult as your body adjusts to the discipline and unfamiliar routine, but you’ll notice major changes on all levels (physically, mentally and spiritually) within the first 1 to 2 weeks. Most people feel lighter and more energetic. Your energy levels will increase, and you may be as surprised as I was to realize you only need 4 to 5 hours of sleep to wake up fully refreshed.

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The yoga asanas and healthy, meat-free sattvic diet will kick-start healing and rejuvenation processes within your body. Ailments, old injuries, digestive disorders, aches and pains will progressively improve. Stress melts away completely within the first few days.

Some people may experience certain ‘negative’ reactions including skin breakouts, temper flares, digestion issues and headaches in the first few days of ashram living. This is normal as the body is purging itself of various toxins and bad energies accumulated over the years. Skin will begin to take on a healthy glow within a few days, and bodily systems will usually harmonize once your energies sync with the routine and activities.

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I’d Like to Try an Ashram Vacation. Where Do I Start?

Most modern ashrams have an online presence these days. I suggest that you pick an ashram based on your needs. Are you interested in the teachings of a particular spiritual master? Do you want to visit a certain place and couple it with a short ashram stay? Do some searching online to see which one appeals to you the most. You’ll be spoilt for choice.

Remember that most ashrams are located in rural areas with limited internet access and phone facilities. Travel can be a challenge, and transportation is not as straightforward in lesser-developed areas such as the Himalayas. As such, plan ahead and give sufficient time (ideally between 4 to 8 weeks in advance) for ashram stay booking and confirmation.

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Here are some of my personal recommendations:

Sivananda Ashrams (Kerala, Madurai and Rishikesh)
Omkarananda Ganga Sadan (Rishikesh)
Parmarth Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh)
Yoga Niketan Trust Ashram (Rishikesh)
ISKCON Delhi Temple (East of Kailash, Delhi)

Related Posts:

10 Tips for Women Traveling Alone in India

Everything You Need to Know about Rudraksha

Five Main Benefits of Traditional Hatha Yoga

Bhakti Yoga Through the Art of Puja

 

10 Tips For Women Traveling Alone In India

by Jayna Valen

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Dhanvanthari Ashram, Kerala – January 2013

India is an amazing country. I’ve traveled extensively through it and I absolutely love it. I don’t know of any other place with such contrasts and extremes that blend so seamlessly, forming a pandemonium of sights, sounds and flavors that assail the senses in ways you don’t expect. The vermillion and gold, spices and incense, poverty and palaces. The Himalayas. Ashrams. The glitz of Bollywood. Really, there isn’t any place quite like it.

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Unfortunately, India has earned a reputation of being unsafe for solo female travelers. That’s a pity, because some of the most amazing people I know are from India. My male Indian friends are real gentlemen, with great charm and impeccable manners.

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Meenakshi Ashram, Madurai – February 2017

My Experience as a Solo Female Traveler in India

I’ve traveled around India quite a bit on my own and faced no major issues. With some precautions, you can too. I’m all for women’s rights, empowering women and everything along those lines. However, it’s just wiser to take precautions as a lone female. Some of my tips may irk hardcore feminists out there, but the way I look at it, better safe than sorry.

Here are some tips for staying safe as a solo female traveler in India.

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Yoga Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh – September 2016

1: Plan all your transportation and transits seamlessly. This applies to all modes of transportation you intend to use in India, including flights, trains, busses and hired vehicles. Ensure that you won’t be waiting alone in places that could be dangerous. Take extra precautions to ensure you won’t be waiting ANYWHERE alone after sundown. It’s a lot safer to book hotel pick-up services instead of attempting to flag down local rickshaws and taxis after evening hours, although these cost a little more.

When booking flights that require transit, bear in mind that many Indian airports will not allow you into the airport premises until 2 or 3 hours before your actual flight. I have spent long hours waiting outside airports because they just wouldn’t let me in. They’re especially strict at the Delhi and Chennai international airports. Thankfully, I travel with a yoga mat, so I just roll that out on the floor and read a book until it’s time to go in.

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2. Book transportation and accommodation in advance. This applies to the major stuff in your plans, such as flights and hotels. You really don’t want to risk ending up somewhere and finding out that all the ‘decent’ hotels are fully booked and you have nowhere to stay for the night. There are just too many dodgy characters waiting around to take advantage of desperate, clueless foreigners.

The same applies to transportation; it’s just much safer and better for your peace of mind when you know you have a driver waiting to pick you up. As with most third-world countries, there are touts everywhere who will harass and try to rip you off, especially if it’s obvious that you’re not local. Most reputable travel agencies have websites and are very responsive to online enquiries. Do some research and see which one has the best reviews – TripAdvisor is a great place to start. I have always booked everything online, from transportation to hotels and even ashram stays, even for less-touristy places like Rishikesh.

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3. Carry credit cards and make sure they work. Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere in India these days, which is wonderful. Often, they’re lifesavers during an emergency.

Before you travel, inform your credit card company so that your card doesn’t get blocked (they may assume it was stolen if you try to use it at a new location). Check that your cards aren’t maxed out, and settle your minimal monthly payments before you travel.

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ISKCON Temple, Delhi – September 2016

4. Dress modestly. Many modern Indian men are well-educated, decent and have a global mindset when it comes female attire. However, as with anywhere in the world, people have differing mentalities. I would suggest that you carry a few large, lightweight cotton shawls that you can use to cover your chest and shoulders when you need to (for example, if you’re taking a public bus – this will prevent perverts staring down your cleavage).

Dressing like a local Indian woman will also get you much respect and appreciation everywhere. I noticed that I received exceptionally good treatment when I was dressed in a saree or other ethnic Indian attire – Indians love it when you embrace their culture, and will be more inclined to help you and treat you well.

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Ashram Schedule, Rishikesh – September 2016

5. Carry adequate medication and sort out your vaccinations before traveling. Imagine getting a bad case of food poisoning when you’re travelling alone, in a country known for bad toilets and overcrowded hospitals. Absolutely not worth it, especially if you pass out somewhere and end up at the mercy of strangers. Ask your doctor for emergency medication for diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, flu and allergies. Get your vaccinations in advance to ensure they’ll be effective by the time you travel.

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Women’s Dorm at Meenakshi Ashram, Madurai – February 2017

6. Have addresses and contact numbers handy. It really helps to carry full addresses and phone numbers with you in India, especially those of friends, relatives, hotels, ashrams, your country’s embassy and places you want to visit on your own.

Note down landmarks and nearby streets when possible, as this can help the local drivers locate your address easier. Many street names are similar in India, and this will save you time. Don’t rely solely on your phone – even the best technology can fail. I strongly recommend that you print these out.

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Unpacking at Hare Krishna Hills, Delhi – September 2016

7. Don’t underestimate the heat. This is especially true if you’re pale-skinned and not used to scorching sun, especially the burning South Indian heat. Stay hydrated, pack enough sunscreen, carry protective eyewear and something to cover your head.

8. Carry ‘special needs’ items with you. Some things are notoriously hard to find in India, especially in more remote areas. This includes tampons, tweezers, contact lens solution, specific types of skin care and certain OTC medication.

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Waiting Outside Chennai International Airport – February 2017

9. Don’t take unnecessary risks. I definitely believe one shouldn’t be too careful when traveling. However, if you ask me, India is not the place to be reckless, especially not when you’re a woman traveling alone. Your safety is priority at all times. Eat at clean places. Drink only boiled water or hygienically-packaged drinks. When you go out alone, tell your hotel where you’re going and what time to expect you back. Don’t accept rides, food or drinks from strangers (you can decline politely with a made-up excuse if you don’t want to hurt their feelings).

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Lakshman Jhula Bridge, Rishikesh – September 2016

10. Notify your country’s embassy before you travel. This may seem like an extreme measure, but I do this if I’m travelling to remote places alone. I email copies of my passport, travel documentation and a brief travel itinerary to my country’s embassy. In case of an emergency such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, it’ll make things a lot easier for the authorities to locate you and send help.