Enjoying an Ashram Stay

This is mainly for those folks signed up for and attending the upcoming Guru Purnima program here in the Shiva Sai Mandir Ashram in Penukonda — but it could certainly be applicable for other times.  Following are some of those things I’ve found a comfort to have.  Call it my "Ashram Survival Kit", and it consists of just those things most useful for someone staying a week or two or three.

In no particular order, first the essentials:

  • Insect repellent:  If you can handle the types with DEET or Picardin, bring a bottle.  Or non-DEET, if you have something that really works (thanks, Grant (from comments)).  I’ve seen people try to get by with the purely organic repellents, like with neem and citronella oils — but the mosquitoes around here drink that stuff for breakfast.
  • Calamine lotion & Benadryl tablets:  Despite the repellent, the mosquitoes will likely get you anyway.  An antihistamine topical lotion for the skin and some Benadryl tabs really help keep the itching down.
  • Sunscreen:  Few things can ruin an experience worse than getting a bad sunburn.  A good hat isn’t a bad idea either, especially for those like myself who can sunburn right through one’s hair.  Me, I often wear bandana kerchiefs or a large floppy hat.
  • Small First Aid Kit:  Just get a ziplock bag and put some Band-aids (adhesive bandages) in it, along with a small tube of topical antibiotic.  Aspirin, Tylenol, and/or Ibuprofen.  Sinus meds, if you’re prone to allergies.  Your regular vitamin supplements.  Imodium for the nigh inevitable intestinal troubles (trust me on this one).  Motion-sickness pills.
  • Hand fan:  Just one of those cheap Chinese-style folding hand-fans.  Often, I’ll be sitting in stifling heat, waiting for some talk or other to begin, and a simple $2 folding fan really makes it more bearable.  Battery-operated fans are too noisy for temple use.
  • Notebook or notepad and pens:  For taking notes during talks.  Bring some colored pens, too, because you might need to draw something (and black is not recommended for such).
  • Flashlight, with extra batteries:  A small 2-AA battery Mag-Light is good enough, or some other inexpensive model.  The kind with LED bulbs are best these days.  Reason?  Sometimes you gotta get around at night, and I have seen snakes…
  • Footwear:  A pair of comfortable but easy to put on & remove sandals or flip-flops.
  • Small day-pack, tote or shoulder bag:  For carrying the aforementioned items (the stuff, not snakes).  You can get cheap bags in Bangalore, on Brigade and MG Roads, or over on Commercial Street.  Get one big enough to carry a liter bottle of water, along with the other stuff.
  • Extra Rupees cash:  You’ll need cash to buy bottled water for drinking (count on a couple liters a day, minimum, at about 180Rs/12 bottles), and it can also come in handy to buy snacks, drinks, and other stuff from the ashram dhaba store.  (They even sell clothes, towels, cleaning supplies, toiletries, and more.)  Often, there are things happening, processes during a program, which can require donation payment.  During one program, for example, we had a thing involving dozens of lotus flowers per person, and those were 20Rs each.  Also, there are usually books, CDs, DVDs, pictures, posters and more available from the Student Bookstore, many available only here in Penukonda and nowhere else.  And there ain’t no ATM, save back in Bangalore…so you figure it out, eh?

(More after the break…)
Other things to consider if you have the space in your luggage and some spare money:

  • A "Backjack" or similar support for sitting on the ground.  Or a small foam sitting pad or meditation pillow.  Nothing huge, though.
  • Zip-lock bags.  Good for lots of things, but also including to store any foods that bugs (ants, roaches) might get at.
  • A mosquito net and some nylon cord for stringing it from the ceiling (recommend light-weight, but at least 10 yards, in case available attachment points aren’t near your sleeping spot).
  • If you’re bringing a computer, be sure to include a really good surge protector, one that’ll plug into Indian-style outlets.  The power here is definitely surge-y, spikey, and generally not very smooth.  If the protector uses fuses, bring spares.  Also, I recommend checking each and every AC adapter — make sure they can all handle 240v/50Hz.  (Note: You can get pretty decent ‘universal’ plug surge protectors at Computer Planet on Brigade Road (5th Avenue building) — but again remember there’s no voltage step-down or conversion going on.)
  • Even if you don’t bring a computer, do consider investing in a USB flash memory drive (sometimes called ‘memory stick’).  Handouts are often available in electronic form (sometimes only that way).  1GB drives can be had for less than $20 US these days, which is plenty big.
  • Planning on buying lots of photo prints, especially big ones?  A document protector tube small enough to fit in your luggage could keep them from getting damaged on the trip back home.
  • Oh, stick a roll of toilet paper in your luggage (can get some at Nilgiri’s in B’lore).  The room to which you’re assigned may not necessarily have any, and you’re responsible for buying your own in any case.

Things to get in Bangalore, and then perhaps donate upon leaving the ashram:

  • A small sturdy pillow, for sitting (sometimes the Backjack just ain’t practical).
  • A large towel or two (both for washing up, and for sitting upon).
  • A larger pillow for sleeping, a bedsheet (or two), light blanket if you tend to get cold at night.
  • Soap, shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, etc.  Also some laundry soap, for hand-washing your clothes.
  • A plate, bowl, and some utensils. 
  • A large mug is also a good idea (chai and Indian-style sweet coffee are served at breakfast).
  • When choosing punjabi wear or white gents’ clothes for the ashram, try to pick light — but not translucent — cotton fabrics, not fancy synthetics.  Short sleeves are often a good idea.  Good to have one nice outfit though, for Guru Purnima day itself.

Optional comfort items:

  • Small half or one liter electric hotpot for boiling water (remember this is Indian voltage — 240v, 50Hz — so you may want to wait to buy it in Bangalore; a standard 120v hotpot from the US will go up in smoke).
  • Ramen noodles (use hotpot to boil water, then make the noodles in the mug or a bowl with it).  These are available at Nilgiri’s supermarket on Brigade and other supermarkets in the vicinity.  They even have mug-sized packets (I like the red package ‘Mast Masala’ type.)  You can get other instant soups, too.
  • Good place that stocks western foods: 5th Avenue Supermarket, ground floor but inside and on the left, in the small mall building just a few doors up the street from Nilgiri’s.
  • Like coffee?  Get a gold-tone fine-mesh drop-in tea filter, mug-sized.  Until I got my french press, using this with a couple tablespoons of ground coffee and the large mug was how I made my morning brew.  If you’re into cream & sugar, there’s a stuff called "Tea Whitener", which is essentially powdered milk with sugar, and is really great in coffee or tea.  Anyway, with the filter I’d get a bit of sludge at the bottom of the cup, but the coffee was good enough to get by.  (They do usually serve coffee at breakfast-time here, but it’s very, very sweet and not all that good.)
  • If not coffee, then your favorite tea.
  • Bring salt & pepper, if you like such on your food.  Indian foods are often spicy, but they’re not big on salt or ground black pepper.  So they don’t put it out on the tables with meals — all condiments are "bring your own."
  • Energy bars — but don’t get ones that’ll melt in the heat.  Raisins and nuts are also a good idea.  While at the ashram, bananas and fresh coconut water are great for helping to keep your electrolytes balanced.
  • Walnut Oil.  My friend Alx swears by it, to help avoid intestinal troubles.  Still, for some (including myself) Imodium can be a travel essential.
  • iPod.  Sometimes music is the ultimate escape.  But headphones only, no external speaker pods.
  • Folding foam pad (often called "tri-fold cushion" here).  They’re large enough to sleep on, portable, and can be ordered from Foam Fashions, on Juma Masjiid Road, which is next to Commercial Street in B’lore, but be warned that it takes a few days to make them.  Tri-folds are bulky though, so getting these is really only practical for those arriving early and not coming to the ashram on a bus.
  • GSM unlocked "world phone."  Bring a couple passport-sized photos & a photocopy each of your driver’s license (or other ID) and passport, and you can get a pre-paid SIM card in Bangalore which’ll allow you to use your phone in India.  I generally prefer Airtel, but Vodaphone is also supported out this way, as is BSNL.  A phone enabled for international roaming might work…and I’ve seen people using iPhones — but they also report getting eaten alive by the calling rates.

Recommend against:

  • I’d recommend against getting cheeses, milk, cream, produce, or anything else that’ll go bad without refrigeration — unless you can confirm you’re staying with a friend who has a fridge, and that they have the space to spare.  Bread is okay, but does tend to spoil after about a week. Apples & oranges keep okay, but ripe melons, bananas, berries, and mangoes last only a few days.
  • Likewise for anything requiring cooking (other than boiling water).  Typically, only the long-term folks here have the means to cook meals (hot-plates, LPG burners, etc.).
  • Failing to keep your foods in well-sealed plastic bags & containers.  That is to say, DO seal up your foods, because during certain seasons, the ants go wild, and I’ve even seen them literally eat through plastic.  So double-up if that’s what it takes.  I think the ants especially like sugar and greasy stuff.  (A single Doritos chip fragment dropped on the floor will bring a swarm of tiny ants within hours.  Had that happen to us last week… my bad.)

Other notes:

  • I’ve seen a lot of people arrive, then panic within a day or two because they promised someone they’d send an email.  Or they forgot to pay an online bill.  Or some other urgent thing. 

    Please, for your own peace of mind, don’t assume you’ll be able to connect to the Internet within hours of arriving.  I mean, it’s possible you might, but my experience the last two years is that it’s likely not to be the case.  In the past, it has involved getting an account set up, paying for time — and supporting this is one of the last things the super-busy technical types around this place have the bandwidth for when a huge program is running.  Consider getting an account set up for your next visit, but don’t count on being able to get one during a program.

    Here’s a suggestion:  If you have a specific email address to which you really need to send an "I’ve arrived safely" message, find a longer-term ashram-residing friend (a good friend…) and ask if they’d be willing to send the note on your behalf.  (Not so cool to assume you can borrow people’s computers or their Internet lines, not unless they offer first.  Just sayin’.)  If you do have urgent online stuff to take care of, consider staying at a hotel offering wireless in Bangalore and do it there.  Or use one of the many Internet cafes — but stick to the better ones, where it’s more likely the computers aren’t compromised with key-loggers.

  • Do use bottled water only for drinking (both normal and for coffee, tea, or instant soups) and teeth-brushing.  Some filter the tap water with a ceramic reverse-osmosis device — and it works okay, too, plus can be a way to save some money, but I find it still tastes a little off.
  • Confirmed program attendees receive advisory emails from the ashram staff, including at least one email that gives all kinds of useful information about what you ought to bring — I strongly, strongly urge GP folks to read it carefully.  If by some chance you ended up here on this blog first, please consider my suggestions to be only that — my own suggestions, and merely supplementary.  What they say is the official word; mine is totally unofficial.

That’s all for now… I may update this post later on if I come up with more ideas.  If I do, I’ll mark the post as being updated.  (Like now:  Updated 4 June, 10am local time.  And again at 4:30 with Grant’s comment from below, plus some mentions about items available in the Student Bookstore.  Again on 5 June 2:30 to include mentioning Imodium & Walnut Oil.)

About Becca

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5 Responses to Enjoying an Ashram Stay

  1. GRANT LOMAX says:

    We travel a lot and use Deetfree natural insect repellent. It also has a suncream and aftersun with the same repellent. It’s the best. Check out deetfree.com
     
    Lots of friendly advice – thank you for your notes
    Cheers
    Grant

  2. Maya says:

    Hi Becca,
    This is very helpful!  A friend was just asking about these kinds of details. I know we have bits and pieces everywhere so it is good to have a concise list.  An additional piece is about where to get clothes.  The Public Utility Bldg. on MG Road is a good place to get clothes, statues, and gifts.  Also, women often need a red punjabi or red sari for special occasions. 
    Another detail that may be helpful is clothes pins and/or hangers for drying clothes.(Nilgiri’s Market again)   I know the NW Apt.building didn’t have a clothesline last time I was there.
    Also, since people have to cover their feet when sitting in the temple or with Swami, a lightweight cloth or sarong is helpful.  A towel under your body, a cloth over your feet, and you are ready to take on the high energy of the Sri Sai Mandir.
    Thanks again for the list.  Looking forward to seeing you very soon!
    In Her Love,
    Maya

  3. Becca says:

    The store is called "Kanchan" or "The Miss", and it’s #6, Ground Floor, Public Utility Building on MG Road.  The shop is in the SW corner, inside.

    We were just shopping there a couple days ago, and the owner, Mr. Sanjay Mehla, was very helpful.  One can get basic, non-embroidered punjabi outfits starting at 495Rs.  It’s 795 and up for the slightly fancier ones with better fabric.  For festival-grade punjabis, expect to pay 1200 or more, depending on how elaborate.  They have sizes up to "double extra large" — but these do cost a little more as they use more fabric (only fair).

    They also sell saris (and be sure to ask for the petticoat & blouse to go with it).  In recent years though, it’s been mentioned that a nice festive red punjabi is also acceptable — and can be more convenient for women unfamiliar with wearing saris.

    In fact, if you tell them you are shopping for clothing appropriate for the Penukonda ashram, they’ll help steer you toward the right colors (white or light pastels) and length (below knee for the top).

    As for covering the feet, yes — a spare scarf or sarong.  Me, I actually use pillowcases, as it’s easy to tuck my feet and ankles in and keep ’em from the gnawing mosquitoes.

    See ya soon, Maya!

  4. yogi says:

    I heard there is an atm at the ashram now, correct?

  5. Becca says:

    You must’ve heard wrong, friend.  No ATM at the ashram, no.  In fact, I said right in my post above here — bring plenty of rupees in cash for incidental needs, as there is no ATM at the ashram.