"I have cramps."

PMS. I still can't remember first learning about Pre-Menstrual Symptoms as a child. I don't remember the specific event, but the understanding conveyed. I imagine it went something like this: "My Mom was really grouchy this morning." - "Oh, she probably has PMS." - "Is that a disease?" - "Nah, it's something that happens to Moms once a month. They get really grouchy and you should just leave them alone."
My teen years didn't do much to broaden my understanding. It was eventually apparent that menstruation affected all women  not just Moms  and that the process began just as my own pre-teen body was thrown into fits and starts of its own. I learned the basics of female anatomy from Health class and Sex Ed, but even as a young adult, I mentally associated menstruation with violent and seemingly illogical mood swings. I began to see it as a physiological phenomenon and the cause of complex mental/physical interactions not clearly understood by either those affected or the field of neuroscience. As with so many other subjects, I didn't really learn the true basics of menstruation and female anatomy until I observed them first-hand. Direct experience (or, in this case, as direct experience as is possible for males) always trumps even the deepest theoretical and intellectual understanding.
My first girlfriend in college suffered from menstrual cramps. The phrase "suffered from" has watered itself down over the ages to mean "influenced by". While my intention is not to exclude that interpretation, I must be explicit about the distinct imagery I hope to convey: When she had cramps, she suffered. This specific brand of suffering is an intense physical pain that leaves a person clenched in a ball, rolling on the floor, begging for deliverance.
The first time I saw this my childish ignorance about menstruation was obliterated. This process was genuine, visceral, horrible, and routine. My childish attitude toward the "problem" has taken the intervening decades to correct. As an 18-year-old, I thought my job was to be company and support during these painful episodes. While some women may desire this of their friends and spouses, I've found (in my limited anecdotal experience) that most just want to be left alone until the feeling passes. The experience is physically unpleasant, the discomfort can be embarrassing, and little can be done about the situation but wait for it to resolve itself.
Which brings us to the workday. If you are a man, or a woman who does not experience menstrual cramps, imagine fighting through a workday (or two) with a searing pain emanating from within the depths of your body. Now imagine that you are acutely aware of the source of pain but it's not a social norm to announce such sorts of things: if you want relief from this, your only option is a generic "sick day", which are doled out in finite number by your employer.
Now imagine you are presented with this day of torture and this lose-lose decision every month.
At nilenso (and everywhere, I hope), the solution is clear. First, destroy any childish taboo or squeamishness about menstruation and menstrual cramps: this is simply a fact of life we must all be comfortable with given the limitations of our human biology. Then, dedicate optional days to this event every month. If someone sends a note in the morning: "I have cramps." the team knows she's unreachable for that day. That's it. No sick days, no fighting through a day of pain at the office, and no unnecessarily burdensome decision.
We look forward to a day when this policy is so well understood and so commonplace it need not even be written down. But given that this hasn't even always been an explicit policy at nilenso (and we like to think of ourselves as relatively progressive), we realize there is still much work to be done.
Many thanks to the women on our team. Your openness is the only thing that makes this shared understanding possible.

Appendix: Q & A

There were a number of questions asked when we drafted this short article. We're presenting them outside the scope of the article in a Q&A format so that it might be updated later.

What is the status quo?

Some companies do have specific policies governing time off for menstrual pain, but most do not address it and it thus gets combined with standard sick leave.

How/why is nilenso's policy different?

The policy at nilenso is inherently to [attempt to] eliminate the taboo surrounding conversations about menstruation. Menstruation is a known quantity: it is common to all pre-menopausal adult women and it occurs 13 times a year. As such, it should be addressed in isolation. To separate menstruation from health issues (migraines, flu, food poisoning, or any of the other issues which cause someone to take leave from work) demands that one's environment avoid conflating the two, implicitly or explicitly. This requires an explicit acceptance of the terms governing the policy.

Our policy is this: When you have cramps, send an email (or equivalent) notifying the team that "I have cramps." and then take the day off.

Isn't this problem solved by unlimited sick leave?

No, for two reasons. The first reason is straightforward: menstruation is not an illness. As mentioned above, it is a natural and cyclical (therefore, predicable) process.

The second reason is somewhat nuanced but worth considering in its own right: policies on Sick Leave are not static. Nilenso's own policy on Sick Leave has changed drastically in recent years and our particular example is precisely why unlimited sick leave doesn't solve the problem in a satisfactory way. Last year, we eliminated unlimited sick leave. We still have unlimited sick leave for disability (say when someone is seriously injured or has Dengue Fever, which has happened) but for various reasons we now track sick days. If our menstruation policy and sick leave policy were conflated, eliminating unlimited sick leave would have had direct consequences on menstruation leave.

How do we get from "taboo" to "normal"?

We cheated. We wrote this blog post first, passed around a paper copy of the draft, had one-on-one conversations, had lunchtime conversations, and finally spoke about it collectively in a meeting. Your company can try each of those things but there's no recipe.

Perhaps start by pointing your colleagues to this article and then discuss it. If you feel like we can help, ask us questions on Twitter or send us an email.

What is the difference between a "policy" and a "guideline"?

One hopes that, given enough time, most companies will not require a policy to take leaves for menstrual cramps. Until then, however, we will lean on the #2 Rule in the Zen of Python:

"Explicit is better than implicit."

There are a number of reasons for this. We do not want the guideline or policy to fall into question and administration of our business changes (nilenso is structured as a representative democracy and the administration is meant to change). Every employee should understand the terms of the agreement, since both a guideline and a policy are an agreement between the organization and its constituent members. An explicit written policy, in plain English, is easier to understand than a guideline.

Perhaps most importantly (since it is future-facing), a written policy forces changes to the policy to also be made explicitly. For example, it would be a disappointing regression of the policy indeed if we were to begin demanding proof of someone's menstrual cramps... but this has occurred in other corporations in other countries, which means it isn't unheard of. A written policy ensures such regressions (or any other change) is identified as an event in the common legal understanding between the employees of the company. Events future to these changes can then retrospect on the change and how/why it came about.

What about similar policies which have failed?

There are a number of articles (we won't link any here) which attack menstrual leave, citing examples in particular countries and companies across the globe. These policies have not always been successful and the failed installations often seem to be a product of sexism. However, where they have failed, such articles do not propose alternatives. The implicit alternative is to return to the consumption of sick leaves. The argument that menstrual leave exacerbates existing sexism in the workplace is weak, at best. "Existing sexism" is not a baby to be coddled nor a concept to keep safely hidden. There is sexism in every work space and for the infection to be removed it must be dug out. If your workplace or office does not already have frank, open discussions about the state of sexism, bigotry, racism, and zealotry in society, you might use menstrual leave as a conversation piece to get started.

Nilenso is far from perfect and our preferences, fears, and prejudices guide us as much as anyone else. But we are willing to discuss them in an open forum in such a way that a menstrual leave policy does not engender a feeling of unfairness.

How and why does Menstrual Leave differ from chronic affectations, such as migraines?

It is entirely possible that corporations and governments should consider a policy segregating chronic illness from "regular" sick leave. Thankfully, that conversation can be had in isolation. (And it should be!) Migraines, diabetes, depression... there is a long list of physical and mental health issues which may affect your employees either periodically or repeatedly. However, none of these conditions is inherent to one's existence as a human being. Each of these illnesses is variously treatable, preventable, and/or curable. It cannot be said that the entirety of humanity is influenced by any particular one, routinely.

This can be said of menstruation. Though there are medical connotations to menstruation (we find tampons in pharmacies, Gynaecology is a medical profession, etc.) the event itself bears two notable characteristics:

  1. It is a routine (monthly) component of life
  2. It affects 50% of the population

Menstruation is not inherently a medical event any more than urination, nose-blowing, or sleep. These activities may require medical attention from time to time but they are all a normal and regular part of life.

What about cases of menstruation occurring twice a month?

This happens. For some women, it's even quite common. Everyone on staff should be aware of it so that multiple menstruation comes as no surprise. The policy remains the same, however: "I have cramps."

How do you verify that the second time is genuine?

You don't. If you need to, you have bigger problems. As an employer, it is not your responsibility to ask for doctor's notes or marriage certificates when your employees take days off due to illness or family functions. Your responsibility to the internal workings of your employees bodies? Even less so.

One of the repeated lessons of nilenso from the past three years has been "don't measure the beach by counting grains of sand." It applies to billable hours, the review cycle, procurement, signing contracts... pretty much everything you can think of when running a business.

Rather than applying effort into making the employer-employee relationship a science with laser focus on detail, apply that same effort to trust.

What if the policy is misused to someone's personal advantage?

We understand that this policy can be taken advantage of but this is true of every policy. Responding to abuse of any leave policy is orthogonal to the structure of the policy itself. For example, nilenso has a few other distinct leave policies:

  1. National holidays: When we are legally obligated to close the office, everyone should notify their teams and clients.
  2. Vacation: Leave for vacation is requested of the team and client, with enough lead time to plan around the person's absence.
  3. (Limited) Sick Leave: Illness is hard to anticipate, so this usually comes as an email to the team that same morning.
  4. (Unlimited) Very Sick Leave: Bangalore is subtropical, giving us both beautiful weather and exposure to very serious diseases. Dengue, for example, is very common and can put someone on extended leave for a month or more.

Obviously, each type of leave is subject to a different kind of abuse. We trust everyone not to take sudden vacation without notice. We trust everyone to take sick days only when they feel genuinely unwell.

When we have seen "abuse" of such policies at nilenso, it hasn't been a devious attempt to deceive the company for one's personal advantage. For those in managerial and administrative positions, conversations about abuse of the leave policy tend to be about excessive liberties taken. Some of these conversations can happen in a group, some are better one-on-one. In the case of a perceived abuse of menstrual leave, a female (for obvious reasons) senior staff member should approach the conversation with a curious and open mind. As before, if the environment is one of mutual trust this conversation shouldn't be difficult.

What if I want to come to work?

Of course! It's important that this policy remain optional. Not everyone experiences menstruation the same way. Some women we spoke to prefer to be at home during menstrual cramps. Others prefer to come to the office and work independently in a comfortable space. Some even have support groups who prepare food & tea for anyone who is menstruating and give them a comfortable space while allowing them to be with other people. It is important to figure out what works for your company and for you as an individual.

I work at a large corporation and I'm skeptical of introducing such a policy. How could we make it work?

We understand your skepticism. Every organization is different and will require a slightly different approach. Even two organizations of comparable size may face drastically different challenges when implementing a policy like this. We talked about what this policy might look like in a larger organization and came up with three broad points to consider:

  1. Openness: Not everyone needs to know about everyone else's leave. For something as personal as menstrual leave, every organization will need to consider the audience. Who needs to know? Your boss? Your team? HR? How comfortable are people in your organization with sharing such information, and how broadly?
  2. Abuse: We've covered this above but it's worth reiterating that we feel the only solution to preventing abuse is to grow trust within the hierarchy of your organization and between individuals.
  3. Taboo: Work continuously to dissolve the taboo. Only if everyone is well-informed and the conversation is open and honest can a group find the openness required for successful execution of the policy and the trust required to eliminate abuse.

In a large company, such a policy is likely to fall under the purview of Human Resources. It will probably contain more words. There may be multiple layers of communication required. None of these complications change the foundation of the policy, however: eliminate the taboo associated with menstruation by talking about it.

Must I announce "I have cramps." explicitly and publicly?

The short answer is no.

This is the token phrase at nilenso and (all) our leaves are usually announced globally, but it need not work this way. Every organisation (every individual within the organisation) can collectively agree on who the announcement needs to be made to, and with what level of specificity, as long as it's clear and unambiguous. Avoid euphemisms.

Suggestions: Conferences and festivals

I recently attended FOSSMeet 2016 at NIT Calicut. The organizers did a fantastic job of setting up the venue, making travel convenient, and putting visitors up in hostels and guest houses. I realize most of the work involved in setting up a successful conference goes on behind the scenes, so it's a testament to their efforts that it went off so smoothly. The gang asked me for feedback multiple times toward the end of the conference. Verbal feedback is always difficult to remember and digest, so I figured the old #openletter format made sense here.


If everything that goes into a good conference happens invisibly, it's hard to know how to run a conference of your own. In the free/open-source spirit, I hope the folks from FOSSMeet (and other conferences) start documenting their procedures, contact points, processes, and materials.

How did you find speakers? Who did you reach out to for content and sponsorship? How did you make the website? How did you coordinate organization? How did you arrange the conference with faculty? What were some of the pitfalls the next organizers should watch out for?

Even if this "document" is little more than a blog post with an appropriate title, it could really help someone in the future. Preferably, organizers could publish a living document under a free/open license so other people can iterate on it. I've had multiple conversation with the HasGeek folks about documenting and publishing their procedures.

Zero Waste

I always ask people why they are FOSS proponents and what their desired outcomes are. Answers vary wildly, but building a community (or maintaining one) is often high on everyone's list. Every Indian metropolis is facing a garbage crisis at the moment and events organized and attended by educated, privileged individuals should be setting the standard for city living. I was pleased to see chai served in paper cups at FOSSMeet but disappointed to see food served with styrofoam plates and plastic spoons.

Students at NIT Calicut (and other respected universities) may not even be aware that their privilege puts them in the spotlight. When they move to a city like Bangalore or Mumbai, they are the instantly the new educated middle-class of that city. Their behaviour influences others in profound ways and their preferences shape the economy. Demonstrating and advocating for Zero Waste in public spaces like University-hosted conferences is a fantastic way to raise awareness.

Zero Waste events are entirely possible and the resources exist to learn how to run one. Check out 2bin1bag.in, write to them with questions at 2bins1bag@gmail.com, and download their Zero Waste Event resources.

It's not necessary to go completely paperless -- I was happy to have my paper schedule crumpled in my pocket as I jumped from one workshop to the next talk. But a single A4 printed schedule is probably plenty.

Beautiful Things
"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." -William Morris
I would take this suggestion from Morris one step further: having nothing that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful. Dr. Sasi Kumar mentioned this in his opening keynote: why give a bouquet of flowers? Why not a single flower? Why not a book?

At FOSSMeet, we received plaques thanking us for our time and participation. This is a wonderful gesture and I do feel the plaque falls into the "beautiful" category. However, now that I'm back in Bangalore, it will do little but engage its own beauty on the bookshelf of the nilenso library. If I had been given a book, I would have ample opportunity to think back to my weekend at FOSSMeet and to share that with others. I can hardly imagine a gift I would rather receive than a book, for any occasion.

Reach Out to Reach Out

Most of FOSSMeet was orchestrated through the NIT Calicut alumni network, which I think is fantastic. This approach could be taken one step further: Have the network reach out to their networks, as much as possible. A conference on Free and Open Source Software is bound to have a wide appeal, since there is likely to be little or no marketing for joining such-and-such company or buying into such-and-such product.

Free and Open Source Software (as far as this conference was concerned, at least) is in use in every corporation, in every office, and in almost every role. Often the network of FOSS, open data, open networks, and free documentation is non-obvious. This means that a conference focused on FOSS is likely to succeed by reaching out to more companies, non-profits, and user groups. At worst, you'll be ignored. But it's very likely you will find a whole new branch of free and open society you didn't even know existed.

The networks in the post-university world are vast... but surprisingly tight. Make a point of using social media to engage with potential speakers and attendees months in advance. Not everyone will make it to FOSSMeet 2017 but hopefully we will all know about it.

Centralize Communication

For FOSSMeet, it would have been nice to see heavier use of the @fossmeet twitter handle. Usually events like this have photos and quotes coming out of such a handle left-right-and-centre. That Twitter account can also be a triage for other communication, as it's easy for people to reach out with a quick tweet before they are pointed toward the correct IRC channel, mailing list, email address, or phone number. The 8 contact points at the bottom of the fossmeet.in website are a bit daunting. If I weren't sure how to travel to NIT Calicut (or any other university) or what my residential arrangements would be, my first preference would be to tweet or email a central contact point.

These are all minor feedback points, but I hope that everyone running conferences at least takes a serious look at the first three (Document, Zero Waste, and Beautiful Things) as these could quickly create a feedback loop fostering increasingly positive events, year on year.

HOWTO: Bicycle Commute in Bangalore

Riding a bicycle in Bangalore is surprisingly easy. Bicycles are nimble and the traffic is slow. The roads are... good enough. The weather is perfect. The pollution is an issue but not riding a bicycle only exacerbates that situation. Here are my recommendations for making riding a bike in Bangalore something between tolerable and enjoyable.

Required #1: Good Brakes

Traffic in Bangalore isn't just slow -- it's choppy. Millions of people driving cars on roads that can't support them mean traffic is as stop-and-go as a choked suburban freeway parking lot in America. Be prepared to brake. A lot. At best it will waste a lot of energy but at worst, you can get into a serious accident because sometimes you will need to stop quickly at the bottom of a hill.

Get two brakes, even if you ride a fixie. Keep the rubber fresh and keep the cables tight.

Required #2: Helmet

Surprisingly, a helmet comes in at #2. It will save you if you ever have a crash but brakes ensure you won't crash. Traffic in Bangalore is shockingly attentive. In 3 years of riding here I have never once felt at risk of a collision that wasn't my fault (because I had cheap brakes). This obviously isn't universally true, but make sure you're not hitting the ground before you worry about what will happen if you do.

Keep a beanie or hat under your helmet so you can wash it. You will sweat sometimes, especially in the summer.

Required #3: Lights

Believe it or not, we are still in non-negotiable territory. Lights are for your own safety and the safety of pedestrians. Even if you don't plan to ride at night, you will. Someone will convince you to stay for just one more chai and the next thing you know, it's dark out.

Only buy USB-rechargeable lights.
Only buy ridiculously bright lights.
Only buy rubber lights.

Invest money here. The USB recharging means you're never stuck running out for batteries and you can charge them with your phone at home/work. Many streets in Bangalore are poorly-lit; a bright front light will save you from crashing in potholes. I've had lights stolen... even by children who just think they're neat. Rubber lights mean you can take them off at every stop. You probably need to order from Amazon (local bike shops still don't carry decent lights for some reason) but it's worth it.

Pictured are the Serfas Thunderbolt USB Taillight (Rs. 2200) and the Light and Motion Urban 800FC Headlight (Rs. 8400). I couldn't be happier with either of these. The Light and Motion Urban 500 (Rs. 4800) would also work at about half the price, but 500 lumens is about as low as I'd recommend.

Required #4: Noise Pollution Cancellation

About 25% of drivers have no idea what the hell they are doing and just honk their way through the entire street. If you've spent much time commuting by motorcycle, you might be accustomed to this. I am not. My road noise interpretation was baked into my brain growing up in Southwest Saskatchewan. A loud-ass "HOOOONNNNKKKK!!!!" still means "Danger! Risk of Death!" so I impulsively turn my head to see. Any experience two-wheel rider knows that jerking your head around means jerking your vehicle around. At high speeds, this isn't safe.

So, in the interest of safety (oddly enough), I always ride with headphones. I never turn them all the way up -- a minimal amount of road noise is valuable, since some honks (from large trucks and buses, in particular) actually do mean "Danger! Risk of Death!" and not just "Get the fuck out of my way, bicycle man." Sometimes I even just ride with them in and no music on; they dampen the noise pollution and provide a believable excuse for not responding to angry motorists obnoxious horn usage.

Every time I ignore a horn, I like to believe I've contributed one input worth of behavioural training toward a single Bangalore motorist that their horn is utterly ineffective toward cyclists. Like puppies learning not to shit in the house, enough bicycles on the road might eventually train them all that horns are completely unnecessary outside of emergencies.

Handy #1: Gas Mask

This is a more recent addition to my kit, but I'm increasingly convinced it's worth it. This one isn't about immediate safety so much as it's about long-term health. It's uncomfortable, but it beats breathing a lungful of carcinogenic smoke from a garbage fire. Segregate your garbage, Bangalore. It's (finally) the law.

I like to imagine that every time someone sees me wearing a gas mask they feel instant shame for not segregating their garbage. I know this isn't true at all but it's a little more encouragement to keep this weird wetsuit rubber thing smooshed onto my face.

Handy #2:  Portable Lock

This isn't about your safety at all. Even if you think you'll never park your bike anywhere but your house or your workplace, always keep a good lock with you. We had a bicycle stolen outside a popular brunch place -- busy streets don't deter thieves. Whatever lock you buy, make sure you can always carry it with you. It should fit in your bag, around your waist, or on the bicycle frame.

Handy #3: Kevlar Tires

Bangalore's roads aren't the worst I've ridden. Some streets in Chicago were actually much worse, where the city had decided to rip up a full mile of asphalt in anticipation of repairing it... eventually. They're bad enough that you will suffer flats, though. Unless! Unless you get kevlar.

The best option are kevlar-lined tires like Continental Gatorskins or  Specialized Armadillos. I rode one one of each for all of 2015 with zero flats. High-quality tires also endure higher pressure, which helps prevent pinch flats for those times you do hit a pothole or a sharp speed breaker.

If you can't find pre-lined tires, most shops in the city now carry tire liners. If you want to be truly paranoid, you can even line kevlar tires with... more kevlar. 

Handy #4: Full Fenders

Monsoon shouldn't be an excuse for switching back to commuting in a car but drainage in Bangalore isn't ideal, so you'll need to protect yourself. Install the closest-fitting permanent fenders you can get for your bike.

Handy #5: Fixies

Fixed-gear bicycles are usually the choice of trendy kids who are looking for a difficult ride. Truthfully, if you plan on going fast, they might not be your best option. Particularly going downhill they can be quite dangerous. That said, Bangalore traffic is slow. as. hell. You will be the fastest thing on the road 90% of the time because you will rarely (if ever) reach top speed. A fixie affords you some really nice control at traffic signals and unplanned traffic jams when some doofus decides his Volkswagen's U-turn is more important than the flow of traffic for dozens of vehicles.

I still can't track stand properly but a fixie still lets me control the bicycle at very low speeds with a lot of precision. As often as I'm left waiting for lumbering cars and SUVs to waddle around each other, I'll never commute on anything else.

Do not rely on your ability to pedal brake. "Required #1: Good Brakes" still applies to fixies. Get good brakes. Two of them. Even if you're an expert fixie rider, you never know who might end up borrowing your bike.

Bonus: A Badass Office

Your office should support your cycling habit. Harass your boss. Better yet, work at an employee-owned company like nilenso to make your own rules.

Small, growing companies in Bangalore (such as Uncommon and HasGeek) are often already pro-bicycle since they have the good sense to listen to their employees even if they aren't employee-owned.

Your office should have:
  • parking
  • pump (presta and schrader)
  • showers
  • bicycle tools
  • spare tubes
  • lube

...and maybe a bicycle work mount and bicycle trainers... if they're extra-friendly. Forgive the bubblegum pink garage... we're not sure how that happened.

I hope this helps someone get on the road. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to shout at me on twitter (@deobald) or leave a comment.


Vipassana Centres: Feedback

I've now attended courses at four Vipassana Centres in India. I have some recommendations for these centres which are in line with the Bangalore 2030 vision. They are fairly straight-forward recommendations for maintaining a clean, hygienic, sustainable space from which students can gain additional inspiration.

Do not burn garbage

I was shocked to see this in more than one location. Both in Jaipur and in Bangalore, garbage was burnt (either by administration or by construction workers). It is very important that every volunteer understand how burning garbage is unsanitary and to pass this message on to construction workers and other temporary visitors.

Segregate garbage

Cities like Bangalore do not have effective waste management solutions in place. The best option is to strive for Zero Waste by segregating wet (organic), dry, and sanitary waste. Mark organic waste containers in green, dry (recyclable) waste containers in blue, and sanitary waste containers in red.

Compostable items should not be used for bio fuel, but composted. Since Vipassana centres are inherently vegetarian, there is no concern with disease spreading from meat in compost. Food scraps and leftover food can be composted directly. Leaves and grass can be composted separately. Dry waste can be taken to a nearby collection centre or kabaadi waala. Sanitary waste should be given to the local waste pickers.

Instructions can be given to students to strive to bring only recyclable and reusable containers for their soap, toothpaste, and other essentials. The simplicity of life at a Vipassana centre means it should be easy to avoid producing garbage entirely.

If Zero Waste is too much of a burden for Centre Administration, 2bin1bag is the bare minimum for waste segregation in Indian cities. This approach is now law in Karnataka.

Provide soap

While I realize a surprising number of men are not in the habit of washing their hands after touching their genitals, it would be best if a shared space at least afforded soap for this occasion to encourage those who aren't in the habit. This applies to both sexes, as I have heard there is no soap available in the shared toilet in the women's side of camp, either.

Water plants efficiently

Vipassana centres are all very concerned with water usage. In Dhamma Nagajjuna, I was surprised to see new plants watered around noon. This is, without a doubt, the worst time of day to water plants. The sun is achieving its full force and the majority of the water will be evaporated before reaching plant roots. The best times of day (to my knowledge) to water plants are either first thing in the morning, before the sun is up at all... or last thing at night, after the sun has gone down. I am not a gardener or an ecologist, but I can guarantee every centre has one in attendance -- for further gardening tips, one could be consulted.

Install solar panels + batteries

This is a longer-term recommendation but comes on the heels of avoiding bio fuels and burning wood in favour of compost. While there is something romantic about a fire, it is very well understood that no act of burning is good for the health of animals or humans. Solar panels are continuously decreasing in price and when paired with large battery installations, can supply a Vipassana centre with more than enough power to heat water, light pathways, and run audio/video systems.

It would be great to see Vipassana Centres embrace sustainable energy and encouraging students to do the same.

How do Vipassana centres in India differ?

A friend of mine recently asked for some advice on which Vipassana centre I would recommend for his first course, if he tries it during a visit to India. My explanations ended up being rather verbose, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to publicize them. If you are considering taking a Vipassana course in India, I hope this information is helpful to you!

My response:

Crazytown! Ha ha! That's awesome. Here's the rundown of the places I've tried so far:

Bangalore (Dhamma Paphulla): I did a 3-day course here, and it was okay. The 3-day course is available to anyone who has taken the 10-day introductory course. It was much less intense but I found it really valuable since my first 10-day kind of freaked me out. :P They don't have a pagoda (no meditation cells so you're always in the main hall). At the time they didn't have individual residences so you couldn't meditate there, either. They have a few now. It's directly adjacent to a village so there is sometimes more noise than one would like. There aren't a lot of trees and there aren't really any animals (cute animals provide welcome distraction on the hardest days). The paths are dirt... and sometimes mud. With all of that said, I think I find the teacher at the Bangalore centre (he lives nearby) to be one of the more approachable. The fellow who donated the farmland to create the centre is also a wonderful human being; he helped repair a flat on my mountain bike after the 3-day course then invited me to his house for tea. The centre is, of course, pretty convenient. It's about a Rs.500 Uber ride to get there and if you can't get an Uber/Ola on the way back, there's always rickshaws and buses. The metro almost reaches the village but isn't operational at the major junction points yet.

Dharamkot/Dharamshala (Dhamma Sikhara): I did my first 10-day course here. Dharamkot is a little village above McLeod Ganj, which is above Dharamshala. The space is wonderful. Weirdly, the centre is built right in the middle of a pine forest the British planted, so the whole place smells like the Canadian Rockies. The village doesn't add much noise -- the monkeys running across the tin roofs are the only intrusive sound. The centre is small and can't grow (despite receiving quite a lot of money in donations, I imagine, due to all the foreign tourists who take courses here) because there is a Tibetan meditation centre to the west and the village to the east. Hence, it has no pagoda and never will, but it does have individual residences for most meditators (shared bathrooms / showers, though) that you can meditate in when the teacher gives you the option. It was nice and cold, which meant no sweaty meditations and no mosquitoes. There are stone paths everywhere. Most of the course was attended by foreigners, which I'm guessing is generally the case because of the centre's proximity to the touristy land of McLeod Ganj. The teacher was some professor (or something) from Delhi. Sometimes he was really helpful and sometimes he felt almost dismissive but I don't think I would have made it through the course without my daily conversations with him.

Jaipur (Dhamma Thali):  I did my second 10-day here over last Christmas / New Years. This space is beautiful, if somewhat plain (it's in the desert, after all). There were langurs and peacocks and huge flocks of smaller birds. It was cool but not uncomfortably cold, which meant I avoided mosquitoes for one more year. ;) The centre is older and has stone footpaths between the residences, pagoda, and meditation hall(s) -- avoiding dust and mud made a surprising difference in my overall comfort, as I found out this year. It's a huge centre, which means the experience is more intense and the course grounds are busier. There wasn't much space to walk without seeing other dudes (or at least their feet, which meant adjusting my walking path mid-stream... this is surprisingly disrupting). The meditation hall is almost entirely underground, so it's quiet, huge, cold, and dark. That made the meditation more intense but also made the whole experience a lot creepier. The pagoda has very little light entering it so the meditations in the cells were even *more* intense. The courses in Jaipur are primarily conducted in Hindi -- there were only a handful of foreigners and the teacher was much more comfortable in Hindi than English, so I'm very glad this wasn't my first course. Despite its size, the Jaipur centre is kind of run down. The meditation hall, pagoda, mini-halls, and cafeteria are well taken care of but the residences leave something to be desired. However, most of the residences here are individual: you might have your own toilet and shower. Because this is a larger centre, some of the volunteers are Very Serious Meditators(TM), which means they can come off as kind of culty or creepy. FWIW, none of the 5 teachers I've met have given me this vibe.

Nagarjuna Sagar Dam (Dhamma Nagajjuna): I did my third 10-day course here this year and I would say this was my least-favourite centre. The government has allotted some 250 acres to Buddhist ...stuff... and the centre is on a 35 acre portion of this land. It's huge and kind of barren. The paths are dirt, which means you'll spend a lot of time knocking dust and sand out of your feet before entering the pagoda and meditation hall. The meditation hall is quite small and they fill it to capacity. So for tall people like you and I the knees-near-neighbours situation is rather uncomfortable. There is a pagoda, which is good. New students are allotted cells on the 6th day, I believe. However, the pagoda isn't shaded and the meditation cells can be surprisingly bright inside which sometimes makes meditation difficult. I was under regular assault from mosquitoes. Given a meditation technique that's all about "remaining equanimous with whatever bodily sensation is happening in the present moment", I don't think my beginner-grade equanimity is ready for 2 full meditation periods (dawn and dusk) of constant mosquito bites just yet. The meditation instructions on the 10-day course are already quite verbose and in Telangana (Andhra Pradesh) the instructions come in English, Hindi, and Telugu. The meditation centre is far removed from any city or village so it's extremely quiet save for some distant highway noise. It's right beside Nagarjuna Sagar, and there was apparently a beautiful spot where everyone would go to watch the sunset over the lake. I met a fellow on the 10th day who exclaimed, "I saw you weren't coming to see the sunsets! I wanted to tell you so badly to come and watch them... but I couldn't talk!" Quite cute. It's possible a better view of the lake might have made the course experience a bit more enjoyable so I might be underselling the centre in this blurb. The buildings are very pretty and the architecture has a lot more character than other centres -- you can see some photos on their website. Oddly, the cafeteria has allotted seating and utensils. Most of the cafeteria seating is on the ground... just in case 10 hours a day of cross-legged sitting wasn't enough. Despite having both a meditation hall(s) and a pagoda, the centre can only host about 40 men and 40 women. There was a lot of construction under way, though. The teacher seemed very approachable and though I didn't speak to him much, a Dutch girl we met after the course said he was very helpful. She spoke to the male teacher because this course had no female teacher, for some reason. Prior to this, I wasn't even aware that was allowed. After the course, we stayed in a nearly-empty hotel near the Dam... but the entire area feels like some sort of abandoned moon colony and I don't recommend sticking around for long. Most of the students on the course came from Hyderabad, which is a 2 or 3 hour drive. My one biggest issue with the centre was the administration's insistence on the "sacred" nature of the cushions. Leaving aside the introduction of religious or near-religious concepts into an otherwise largely secular practice, one of the administrators actually ruffled my cushion and told me to take my feet off of it because he didn't like the position I was sitting in. This sounds trivial, but this happened on the fourth day after a particularly painful and difficult meditation so the attention was particularly unwelcome. Between the sunlit meditation cells, the mosquitoes, and being spoken to by a staff member, this was the least intense 10-day course of the 3 I've attended. It felt like I was constantly distracted by something.

I'm not sure if that helps you pick or not. :) The most interesting / intense / terrifying / valuable course I've taken so far was definitely in Jaipur, but it's hard to say how much of that was due to the environment and how much was due to my mental state. If I had my first course to do all over again, I would probably still do it in Himachal Pradesh.

The Himachal centre is closed from December to March (it gets quite cold) so that won't be an option this Feburary. No matter which centre you pick, you should pick and apply sooner than later. Sometimes it takes them a couple weeks to respond to an application, which can make travel planning difficult.

Good luck!