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Shivya Nath, digital nomads india, solo travellers india

One Year of Travelling Without a Home.

Update 2018: After 7 years of travelling the world – 5 of those without a home or permanent address – I’ve written a book about my journey! “The Shooting Star” charts my journey from the cubicle to the road and from small-town India to remote corners of the globe. Published by Penguin, the book is now available on Amazon and Flipkart.

What’s life without a little adventure? I asked myself a little over a year ago. I had been living a semi-nomadic life since I quit my corporate job in 2011, with a base in Delhi and an insatiable wanderlust. On the twenty-fifth day of August 2013, as I sat on the roof of my shabby Delhi apartment, staring at the dark starless sky, my heart filled with an unknown melancholy and my spirit craved more adventure. And just like that, I let go off my apartment, sold most of my belongings, stored some for a winter’s day (thank god!), and set out with my backpack.

For one year, I have moved, uninhibitedly, as much within as with my feet, like a bird without a nest, flapping my wings in the vast skies, swooping down on parts of the world that beckoned me. A soul without a compass on some days, a spirit that couldn’t be contained on others. Much has been learnt, more has been loved – and the one thing that has remained constant is my desire to keep moving.

On acceptance

When people ask me about studying beyond a bachelor’s degree, I want to tell them that the road is my teacher. And what it teaches best is acceptance, life’s most underrated lesson. Like anyone who wants to see the world, I’ve dreamt of seeing all of it. But lingering on a little longer in places like South Australia, Northern Thailand, Auroville, Kumaon and the interiors of Goa has allowed me to observe the little whimsies of life beyond just a shallow peek. I have come to accept that I can’t experience everything in this lifetime, but what I can, I will experience deeply.

Aldona fort

Introspective in Goa.

On relationships

I have never been a fan of obligatory or legalized relationships. And this year on the road has taught me that there is no better remedy for a tired, worn-out, misunderstood soul than swapping your deepest, darkest secrets with someone who was a mere stranger days ago. Truth is, sometimes it’s easier to bare your heart to a stranger.

Romania culture, Romanian people

Unexpected friends.

On money 

The one that never gets old – how do I afford this life? I won’t give you a vague answer this time. I currently handle two regular blogging and social media projects for Indian and Singaporean companies, write for atleast two Indian or international publications in a month, run India Untravelled which is gradually sprouting its own wings, and work with travel companies on ad-hoc campaigns and contests. I love most of the work I do, and what I don’t pays for exorbitant flights and my student loan. And knowing the wealth of experiences money has bought me in this year of being nomadic, I rarely think twice about spending what I earn.

Adelaide cycling

Accumulating money or experiencing the world?

On work-life balance

This has been my biggest struggle on the road. Unwilling to delegate, let go or do a half-hearted job, I have spent long, grueling hours staring at my laptop screen while being location independent. I’ve promised myself that this is going to change. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to delegate, working with diligent and committed freelancers, prioritizing work that pays well, and dreaming of a four hour work week!

Novotel Goa

Work-life balance?

On happiness

Despite the wild, unforeseen, unforgettable adventures a year of being nomadic has placed on my lap, I have merely continued to drift along in the bigger picture, not tipping any closer on the happiness scale. Truth be told, I’ve come closer to knowing that I never will, for it’s a mere illusion, much like the higher powers we try to believe in, because life feels more meaningful with something to aspire towards. Mono no aware; a Japanese saying describes it as a longer, deeper, gentle sadness about the transience of things being the reality of life. Life isn’t always about doing something, finding something, being something. Sometimes you just have to drift along and see where it takes you.

New York parks, Sakura park NYC

Summer turning to autumn in New York – transience in nature.

The Next Chapter…

One year on, on a sunny summer afternoon, I find myself sitting above the Hudson River in New York as I write this. Over an unplanned 5-6 months, I am here to explore parts of North, Central and South America, continuing to trade the stability of a regular paycheck and the comfort zone of a familiar bed with watching the sun set halfway across the globe. Because, what’s life without a little adventure, right?

Hudson river sunset, New York sunset

Sunset over the Hudson River.

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I’m figuring out my travels to Central and South America. If you have recommendations for offbeat experiences, or are a travel company interested in hosting me, please get in touch.

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Join The Shooting Star on FacebookTwitter and Instagram for more travel inspiration.

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Snapshots from Romania!

It all began one night, when a friend and I sat staring at the world map. I had landed a fat assignment and finally reached my savings goal for a long overdue trip out of India. After turning down many drab international 3-4 day FAM trips that offered nothing immersive or even remotely exciting, I craved a mix of the east and the west, interesting food and the chance to experience a culture I knew little about. Romania seemed to tick all the boxes. Flights were booked, visa hurdles painfully crossed, and off we went. Into a world that continues to delight and surprise me.

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Sikkim blogs, west Sikkim, Sikkim himalayas

Sikkim: The Lost Kingdom.

On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga. Read More

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In Photos: The Garhwal Himalayas a Year After The Uttarakhand Floods.

I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories. Read More

World war 2 stories, World war 2 survivors, India in world war 2

What a WWII Polish Refugee Taught me About “Hindustan”.

It’s a lazy summer afternoon in Fleurieu Peninsula’s wine country of South Australia. Cycling along the trail of an old railway track, we are surrounded by lush vineyards stretching into the horizon. Every few kilometres, a family-owned winery lures us in, to taste some of the finest Shiraz in the world. We chat with the friendly wine makers, satisfy our hunger pangs at organic cafes, and make our way past signboards that ask us to watch out for kangaroos and koalas!

For our tired feet and drowsy minds, a cosy abode at Linger Longer Vineyard awaits us. We’ve whiled away our evenings here sipping wine on the patio, watching the sun set upon the vineyards at our doorstep. Just as we’re settling in that evening, our hosts invite us for a glass of wine in the main house. They have just returned from a 3-week vacation in India, and in all honesty, I feel a little guilty thinking of the extent of touting and chaos my land must’ve offered them while pristine beauty welcomed me to theirs.

Linger Longer vineyard, Willunga, Mclaren Vale

Sipping wine at Linger Longer Vineyard.

Rosemary pours us a glass of their in-house 2006 Shiraz, while Karol, her husband interrogates us about India, with a tough demeanour I can’t put my finger on. When I ask him, a little shyly, about his own trip, he describes the places he visited, mentioning names like Jamnagar and Kolhapur. I’m unable to fathom why anyone would travel there; the only reason I know of Jamnagar is because it lies enroute to Diu from Ahmedabad.

Before I get a chance to question him, he says everyone in India thought he was a foreigner in the country, and we must too. But, hum hain Hindustani, with a wistful longing he confesses, Jamnagar ka maharaja hamara bapu (I am Indian, the king of Jamnagar is my father). By the time we’re finishing our first glass, he has told us the most incredible story I might ever hear.

The year was 1940, the world was at war. Karol, then a child of six, was one among many Polish kids to be sent to a gulag (labor camp) in Siberia, in the southern Artic in Russia. Karol and his family managed to escape, but he got separated from his mother and siblings. Going back to Poland wasn’t an option, so he journeyed alone, walking and riding on trains and trucks, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Persia, all the way to Gujarat in India. Jam Saheb, the then king of Nawanagar (now called Jamnagar), who later became the Indian ambassador to the UN, took him in, together with 500 other impoverished Polish children. He gave them shelter, food,  education in a fine school (St Mary’s in Mount Abu, complete with a Polish-speaking teacher), and a place to call home.

polish refugees India, Jam Saheb, Jamnagar Maharaja, Nawanagar Maharaja, World war 2 India

The Polish kids with Jam Saheb. Photo courtesy: Sainik School, Balachadi, Jamnagar.

I can hear Karol’s voice soften, as he tells us what Jam Saheb had told the kids when they arrived. Do not consider yourself orphans, he had said. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu,  father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.

For four years, from 1942 to 1946, 500 Polish kids lived in Balachadi in Jamnagar, under the personal protection of the Maharaja, when no other country was ready to take them. When the war ended, they were sent on a train to England, to start new lives. Karol remembers being on the train the night Gandhi was assassinated. It was in England that he would meet his wife Rosemary, and together they would move to Australia.

The Poles in India have been meeting every year since, swapping life stories and reminiscing about the time they spent in Jamnagar. Rosemary tells us they have all gone on to lead successful lives. She laments though, that the Polish kids are growing old, and this incredible story will soon be lost in time.

I often feel that there are many things we haven’t done right as a country. But in one magnanimous act of kindness, at a time when the rest of the world was on a killing spree, “Hindustan” gave 500 innocent kids a second chance at life.

And what are the odds that of all the vineyards in South Australia, we would find shelter at Karol’s and Rosemary’s?

World war 2 stories, World war 2 survivors, India in world war 2, Polish refugees in India

With Karol and Rosemary, in their house in Willunga.

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I googled Karol’s story later and found a documentary called A Little Poland in India, that has documented the lives of some of the Poles in India. Also this story written on New York Times.

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Thar desert, Rajasthan India, sand dunes india

My 13 “Incredible India” Moments in 2013.

It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to an end. This is the year I truly, madly fell in love with the sheer beauty of India, despite the challenges that travelling here is laced with (Read: 120 Days on The Road). I experienced the “other” side of the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, ventured deep in the interiors of Assam and Rajasthan, and developed an unexpected fascination for life in the wild. In search of an India Untravelled, I met incredible people dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty, ecology, heritage and traditions.

These are 13 moments from 2013 that make me all mushy about how much I love this crazy country. Read More

Safranbolu turkey, shivya nath

My Million Reasons to Visit Turkey.

Dear Turkey,

I left you with a heavy heart, etched with the magnanimity of your people.

A kind lady in the small town of Safranbolu opened her doors to me on a late rainy afternoon, to feed my vegetarian self a special meal of Peruhi (Turkish pasta) and Pasta (cake in Turkish) prepared for a family gathering.

An old man from a bakery in Ordu gave me a ride in his truck to the town’s chocolate factory, after I walked five kilometers and stumbled into his shop for directions for the remaining three.

A family living in an isolated hut on Boztepe Hill invited me in for a meal of home grown aubergine.

Turkey black sea, turkey countryside, turkey, turkey country, turkey small towns, Amasra

Sunflower fields along the Karadeniz countryside.

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Ordu Turkey, turkish customs, turkish food

Inviting entrance to a family home on Boztepe Hill, near Ordu in Turkey.

A blacksmith who found me admiring his creations invited me in for çay and proclaimed his eternal love for Hindistan even though he had never been there.

A young otel (hotel) owner in Cide went out of her way to ensure that I boarded the right connecting buses to my next destination without losing money or time.

A cafe owner in the small town of Ordu, where I impulsively got off the bus on my way to Trabzone without a hotel booking or so much as a google search, treated me to delicious Turkish coffee made with a secret family recipe, then ferried me and my backpack in his car to a lovely boutique hotel which I couldn’t have located myself without speaking Turkish, let aside get the negotiated price he got me.

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Ordu Turkey, turkish customs, turkish food

With my Turkish friends in Ordu, a small coastal town in Turkey.

The airport guy at Istanbul airport who ferries goods gave me a chocolate seeing me struggling to find small change to make a phone call.

A restaurant manager offered me a whirlwind tour of Guzelyurt after I decided his restaurant was too pricey for me to eat there.

An English teacher in a small village in Kapadokya confided in me on how much she misses her mother and told me everything I know about the Turkish education system.

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Turkish women, turkish customs

With my Turkish teacher friend in a small village in Kapadokya (Cappadocia).

So many people offered me rides to my destinations along the Black Sea, indulged me in conversations without much of a common language (after first trying to converse in Arabic), and treated me to Turkish tea at the drop of a hat.

You were good to me, Turkey, and I want to come back. Your people are one of my million reasons.

Read more about my adventures in Turkey.

For more travel stories and photos from around the world, join The Shooting Star on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

What I Learnt Volunteering on a Remote Island in Cuba.

About this post: In 2018, I spent a few days volunteering in Cuba, at Cocodrilo in Isla de la Juventud in Cuba, with IOI Adventures. This volunteer trip to Cuba not only gave me a chance to experience Cuba off the beaten track, but also learn about Cuban culture, experience the “real” Cuba and learn about the underwater world in the Caribbean Sea. If you’re looking for meaningful travel or volunteer opportunities in Cuba, Cocodrilo could be a great responsible travel alternative in Cuba! 

Cuban reggae music played on repeat as I rode on a bright yellow truck from the 1940s, along a bumpy, heavily forested road. While the driver – an engineer by education – and I chatted in Spanish, he casually pointed out iguana lizards chilling by the road, vultures flying low in search of food, deer at the edge of the forest, huge crabs running helter-skelter and an enormous snake that brought us to a screeching halt.

A world away from the photogenic streets and tourist traps of Havana, we were heading to Cocodrilo, a remote, forgotten fishing village on Isla de la Juventud (Isle of the Youth), a remote, forgotten island in Cuba. My plan was to volunteer at a coral reef restoration project set up by IOI Adventures in collaboration with the island community.

volunteering in cuba, cocodrilo cuba, cuba travel

My yellow vintage ride to Cocodrilo!

I had no idea then, that living in a time warp on Cocodrilo, home to only 320 inhabitants, cut off from the outside world by a dense forest and the Caribbean Sea, was going to change everything. Everything I thought I knew about travelling, our consumption patterns, our dietary choices and how climate change is impacting the underwater world.

Here’s what I learnt along the way:

Now is the best and worst time to travel

cocodrilo cuba, responsible travel cuba, cuba off the beaten track

Sunset, serenity and solitude in Cocodrilo.

During my recent travel meetup in Hyderabad, I met someone who had explored Ladakh and Kashmir in the late 80s – and said he would never go back because he treasured his vivid memories of their unspoilt beauty. Looking back on my own travels, I often feel the same way about places like Spiti, Georgia, Kumaon and Guatemala.

Unfortunately we can’t turn back time, but we can travel meaningfully and choose to explore places that aren’t yet plagued by mass tourism. Places that are yet to become Instagram hotspots.

Cocodrilo was one of those places in Cuba. Every evening at sunset, as the sky turned many shades of orange, locals poured out on the only street, drinking rum and playing music, heartily sharing both. Mama Yeni, the island’s second oldest resident, reminisced how she had journeyed across the Atlantic on a fishing boat, from Cayman Islands to Cocodrilo in search of a better life – and hers became one of the earliest families to settle here. She remembered the days when there were no roads, no cars, no doctor, no pharmacy, not even a grocery shop on the island. Her family would make a long list of things they needed, and do their grocery run to the nearest big town by boat, leaving early morning to reach the grocery store by evening!

cuba people, cuba culture, responsible travel cuba, cocodrilo cuba

Mama Yeni, the second oldest resident of Cocodrilo.

Getting into island mode on Cocodrilo assured me that these might not be the best years to travel, but they aren’t the worst either.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

No matter how far we live from the ocean, the plastic we consume ultimately lands up there

volunteering in cuba, cuba volunteer trip, cuba diving

Collecting cans from the sea bed off Cocodrilo. Photo: Anna Berestova

If you can close your eyes and picture yourself on a tiny idyllic island village, with nothing but dense forest, deep blue sea and clear blue skies stretching out around you, perhaps you can picture yourself on Cocodrilo. At a small sparse island shop, the only things one can buy are local rum in a glass bottle, shampoo sachets, basic groceries and the Cuban version of coca cola.

Yet when I snorkelled – with my host on the island and a long-term volunteer – into the deep blue sea that surrounds the island, I discovered a different story. The seabed was littered with plastic bags, beer cans of international brands, shampoo bottles, cigarette buts, plastic straws and menstrual pads. Diving freestyle, we retrieved this plastic trash – only to see more of it appear a couple of days later. You probably know that our planet is 70% water, and most of what we consume these days comes in plastic. Turns out, only 9% of all plastic is recycled. Where does the rest go? Unfortunately, into our oceans.

Aesthetics aside, the plastic trash often gets lodged in corals, spreading harmful bacteria and damaging coral tissue. Worse still, swallowing this plastic has caused the death of many dolphins, whales and other marine creatures; a sea turtle even choked to death when a plastic straw got stuck in its nostril.

Swimming in the deep blue sea off Cocodrilo was evidence that no matter where in the world we live, no matter how from the sea, the plastic we choose to consume in our everyday lives is directly responsible for destroying our oceans.

Also read: Cuba Tourist Visa for Indians: Requirements and Tips

Conservation-focused deep sea diving can help save corals

cuba diving, responsible travel cuba, cuba off the beaten track

The underwater world. Photo: NOAA’s National Ocean Service (CC)

Here’s a confession: The first time I went scuba diving was in the Philippines – and the experience left me feeling conflicted. Sure, the underwater life was incredible, but to carry an oxygen cylinder and deep dive while my ears protested, felt like an unnatural way to experience the ocean. It made me think of humans as an invasive species, who for their own entertainment, will go to depths (literally) that we obviously aren’t meant to.

But speaking to a long-term volunteer in Cocodrilo, who was doing a field report on the correlation between deep sea diving and island communities, changed some of my perspective. I learnt from her that there are two ways of diving. The first, regular scuba diving, is what I experienced in the Philippines; this is diving purely for entertainment, and depending on who you do it with, could end up not being so responsible (remember: touching the corals or feeding any marine creatures is a BIG no-no). The second, conservation-focused scuba diving, is where you dive for a purpose.

Outfits that offer this responsible form of deep sea diving don’t just teach you how to dive, but also talk about coral cleaning, fish count, invasive species, coral restoration and other conservation activities. You then scuba dive, not just to admire the underwater world, but to help conserve it by participating in a cleaning or counting drive. In Cocodrilo for instance, the broken coral reef is being restored through a tedious process: broken bits of coral are picked up from the sea floor, hung on an underwater stand and cleaned of excess algae and plastic every few days. When over a year old and strong enough, they are replanted between existing corals. And diving to support efforts like that can not only help save corals but also compel us to change our everyday choices.

Also read: Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable: These Travel Companies are Changing the Way You Experience India

We need to say no to single-use plastic on our travels and in daily life

responsible travel cuba, cuba travel blog, volunteering in cuba

Saying no to single-use plastic straws.

As I took off my snorkeling mask after a hot afternoon spent collecting plastic trash from a small section of the Caribbean seabed, I pledged to do more to cut down my single-use plastic consumption. I’ve long said no to plastic bottled water – choosing to carry and refill a steel bottle or use a Lifestraw filter – and already replaced plastic bags, toothbrush and straws with eco-friendly alternatives. And yet, when I got home to take a shower, I felt immense guilt at most of my toiletries – shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, hair serum, face wash, deodorant, toothpaste, sunscreen, razor, menstrual pads – which were still plastic. It was time to make some inconvenient choices.

After I left Cuba, I switched to:

  • Soap and shampoo bars: There are plenty of choices, but I prefer Lush, Hast Krafts, Veganology and other handmade vegan bars at local markets which don’t come wrapped in plastic. The idea of using a bar to wash my hair was strange at first, but I’ve totally grown into it.
  • Hair conditioner: Lush is the only brand I’ve found yet that does an amazing conditioner bar but it’s not available in India. Body Shop in India is soon switching to using recycled plastic bottles.
  • Menstrual cup: After months of procrastination, I’ve finally mastered the art of using a menstrual cup (coupled with cloth pads) – and it’s a life changer!
  • Bamboo razor: The Eco Trunk now stocks bamboo razors.
  • Body mist in a glass bottle: I love Body Shop’s body mist – and luckily it comes in a glass bottle which I hope to be able to recycle.
  • I’m still looking for eco-friendly alternatives to my toothpaste, face wash, hair serum and sunscreen.

In all honesty, choosing some of these alternatives requires extra work. I can’t walk into any supermarket and expect to replace a shampoo / conditioner bar when I run out, for instance. But each time I feel inconvenienced, I think of the majestic corals littered with plastic, dying a slow death. I think of the fish, turtles and dolphins choking to death because of our consumption. And I know that it’s worth going that extra mile to make more sustainable choices.

Also read: How I Fit All My Life Possessions in Two Bags as I Travel the World

What we choose to eat impacts the underwater world

“Here [in the seas], life is collapsing even faster than on land. The main cause, the UN biodiversity report makes clear, is not plastic. It is not pollution, not climate breakdown, not even the acidification of the ocean. It is fishing.”
~ The Guardian, May 2019

vegan Cuba, vegan travel blog cuba, volunteer trip cuba

A vegan feast in Cuba.

On a warm evening, we drove in a vintage car to a deserted beach along the Caribbean Sea, to join a night ranger to monitor turtle hatchings. Much to my surprise, the pristine beach was covered in mounds of brown algae, and the ranger lamented that each year, the algae has been growing and turtles declining. Though it was the peak of the egg-laying season, we spotted no turtles as we patrolled the beach under the moonlit sky.

It took me a long time to understand how this algae maybe the direct consequence of our choice to eat seafood. Turns out, the world’s oceans are plagued by overfishing. For every 1 pound of fish caught for food, nearly 5 pounds of marine life is killed accidentally. This imbalance in the marine food chain causes unchecked growth of algae, which tend to crowd out corals and spread disease-causing bacteria.

volunteering in cuba, ioi adventures cuba, cuba travel blog

Algae mounds on a deserted beach near Cocodrilo.

Although I turned vegan because I couldn’t bear to support animal abuse, I learnt early on that the incredibly high carbon footprint of meat and dairy is raising water temperatures and increasing CO2 in the air, which in turn causes the bleaching of corals. But patrolling the beach that night, surrounded by mounds of algae, made the link between our dietary choices and life in the ocean much stronger.

Also read: How to Travel as a Vegan and Find Delicious Food Anywhere in the World

Individual actions matter

IOI adventures cuba, cocodrilo cuba, volunteering in cuba, cuban people

Nene, the islander heading the coral restoration project with IOI Adventures.

I’ve met plenty of naysayers who think that one person’s choices don’t matter. They’ll tell you that we need government action, policy change, media attention, dedicated organisations or something bigger. And while we do need each of those, we’ll never demand or create them until we start caring on a deep personal level. We’ll never make environmental degradation an election issue and we’ll never raise our voice (or pen) against our consumption or food choices – until we take individual action.

In Cocodrilo for instance, the coral reef restoration and sea clean-up project came about because Nene, a Cuban islander, wanted to conserve the seas in his backyard. He’s been mesmerized by the underwater world since his first dive in 1988 (which he did with a friend but without any training), and many years later, started this one-of-a-kind project in Cuba with IOI Adventures.

Closer home in India, lawyer Afroz Shah’s disciplined efforts to work with the local community and clean up Versova beach in Mumbai every Sunday, brought back Olive Ridley turtles to the beach after just two years! I’ve met and heard of people who now live in climate resilient homes that don’t need air conditioning even in the hot Indian summer, who’ve embraced zero-waste living, and who choose to be vegan – not just for the animals and their own health but for the environment.

Ultimately, the choice is ours. We can wait around for the government or media to do something to save our oceans. Or we can take responsibility for the choices we make everyday.

volunteering in cuba, cocodrilo cuba, responsible travel cuba, cuba travel blog

Living in a time warp on Cocodrilo changed everything.

Have you learnt any interesting lessons on your travels lately? Have you chosen to make any inconvenient choices?

*Note: I’m really grateful to IOI Adventures for hosting me in Cocodrilo. Opinions on this blog, as you know, are always mine.

Cover photo by long-term volunteer Anna Berestova.

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nasir ol molk shiraz, why visit iran, iran travel blogs, iran travel 2019

Why You Should Drop Everything and Travel to Iran Now!

About this post: I had many questions on my mind before my trip to Iran. Why go to Iran? How is Iran as a country? Is it safe to visit Iran? What is Iranian culture like? A month in Iran later, I think it might be one of my favorite places in the world. This post is my humble attempt to show you why.

Most people think that now is a terrible time to visit Iran. The renewed US sanctions on the country mean that popular travel websites like Expedia, Airbnb and Booking.com don’t work in Iran. International debit and credit cards can’t be used to make payments or withdraw money from ATMs. Most travel insurance policies don’t cover Iran. And social networks like Twitter and Facebook are technically banned.

And yet, spending a month exploring Iran in Feb-March 2019 – thanks to the local all-women team of travel company Uppersia – filled me with immense wonder at its architecture and natural beauty. I fell in love with the country’s people, culture, poetry and language, and believe that NOW is the best time to visit Iran.

The renewed US sanctions have sent the Iranian Rial into a free fall, making it the most affordable time to explore the country – and contribute directly to ordinary citizens suffering the economic consequences. Tourism has been badly hit, which means you can have the exquisite Nasir-ol-Molk of Shiraz, the awe-inspiring Naqsh-e Jahan Square of Isfahan and the other-worldly Kaluts Desert, pretty much all to yourself. If you pick only one international travel destination this year, pick Iran, for this is a country where:

You’ll discover landscapes so unimaginable, you’d think you’ve landed on Mars

(like on Hormuz Island, with yellow rivers, white mineral peaks and red sand)

hormuz island iran, why go to iran, how is iran as a country, travel iran blog

Yet human creations will leave you in greater awe

(Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, said to be created by the gods of art)

sheikh lotfollah mosque, how is iran as a country, why visit Iran, Iran travel 2019

And compel you to reconnect with the poet in you

In an antique bookshop in Kerman, with works of great Persian poets S’aadi, Hafez and Rumi

Kerman iran, why go to Iran, Iranian culture, travel Iran blog

As you walk amid 900-year-old Cypress trees

(at Bagh-e Eram in Shiraz)

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Take in the awe-inspiring sight of a 12th century shrine

If you see only one thing in Iran, let it be Shah Cheragh in Shiraz by night

Shah Cheragh Shiraz, why visit Iran, Iran travel tips, how is iran as a country

Hear a sufi mystic sing within a shrine’s ancient walls

(at Shah Nematollah Wali Shrine in Mahan)

Shah Nimatullah vali shrine, why go to Iran, travel Iran blog

And explore some of the world’s most incredible cities like Isfahan and Shiraz

Move over New York, London, Paris!

Naqshe jahan square, isfahan iran, why visit Iran, Iran travel tips

You’ll slowly forget everything the media told you about Iran…

iran travel blogs, how is iran as a country, travel iran 2019, why visit iran

Make an effort to speak a bit of Farsi

I highly recommend the Chai and Conversation podcast.

Iranian culture, learn farsi podcast, why visit iran

Because you’ll not only fall in love with the language

Persian calligraphy gift from a local friend <3

persian calligraphy, why go to iran, iran travel blogs, iran travel tips

But also with the locals you meet along the way

Iran people, iran culture, why go to iran

You’ll learn to picnic in the outdoors like Iranians

(at the Naqsh-e Jahan Square of Isfahan)

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Tuck into a “howzkhaneh” on a winter day

A sort of winter lounge in old Persian houses for cosy gatherings.

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And let “taarof” surprise, confuse and amuse you!

Taarof is Persian etiquette where you put others first; read more about it here.

(with Assad and his family at Assad’s B&B on Qeshm Island)

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On a rainy afternoon, you’ll slip in to a hipster cafe with a Persian twist

(at Balo Persian Cuisine in Shiraz)

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And warm up over “do pyaz alo” and dal adasi

Both accidentally vegan.

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If you’re lucky, you’ll even connect with passionate vegan Iranians

(at Khalvat House, a vegan guesthouse in Isfahan)

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And sample Persian food that will blow your mind

Vegan dizi, anyone?

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On a VIP bus, you’ll traverse the ancient Silk Route

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Sleep in a “Caravan Serai” to feel like a traveller of yore

Caravan Serais were inns built in the 16th century for travellers along the ancient Silk route.

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Take in the sights and smells at a historic bazaar

The one in Tabriz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

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Taste the most incredible dates and nuts

And wonder what you’ve been eating all along…

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Go back in time at an excavation site dating back to the second Iron Age

When women and men were buried with their pots and pans, and weapons. This one is in Tabriz.

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And land up in a desert oasis bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan

(at Shefiabad near the Lut Desert)

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To see the Kaluts, the most surreal desert formations

(and home to Gandom Beryan, the hottest place on earth)

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And gaze at a star-studded night sky <3

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The compulsory hijab might annoy or disturb you

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But you’ll meet badass, independent, free-spirited women across the country

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Come to empathize with your Iranian friends and their yearning for personal freedom

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And when time comes to say goodbye, you’ll be glad you picked Iran

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Because it’s only here that you’ll find Nesf-e Jahan – half the world!

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Also read:

Bahrain: Land of a Thousand Friends
Why You Shouldn’t Put Off Your Travel Dreams
Travelling Abroad First Time? 10 Questions on Your Mind

Is Iran among your dream travel destinations? What are you most looking forward to?

*Note: I travelled to Iran in collaboration with Uppersia. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always mine!

Join my adventures around the world virtually on InstagramFacebook and Twitter!

Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star.

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PIN this post for when you start planning your trip!

digital empowerment india

My Search for Stories of Digital Empowerment Across India.

Under the grey clouds and golden light of the setting sun, I found myself amid the lush rice paddies of Kerala, listening to enchanting folk tunes by India’s first “bamboo orchestra”. The young men – radio jockeys, carpenters and farmers in their everyday life – came together to revive their lost music traditions and handcrafted their own bamboo instruments by learning from DIY videos on YouTube (Also read: Offbeat Kerala: 11 Travel Experience to Inspire the Artist in You). They’ve gone on to perform with their innovative instruments at national and international shows, laying the foundations of fusion music based on sustainability principles.

Time and again, I’ve met people on my travels across India, who’re leveraging the power of their smartphones and the internet to transform their life. Recently, in Himachal Pradesh, I hiked for a couple of hours to reach a remote village perched on a hill and was surprised to see two elderly women huddled over a smartphone, browsing a Facebook page, exploring new designs for the clothes they planned to weave! In Uttarakhand, I came across a passionate conservationist building a network of conscious locals through a WhatsApp group, to monitor forest fires.

Also read: Awe-Inspiring Homestays in the Uttarakhand Himalayas to Tune Out of Life and Tune Into the Mountains

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For 400 rupees a day, they carry stones, mix cement and literally build the extension of the majestic Ki Monastery in Spiti. When we see a grand site like Ki, we’re wowed by the monks who call it home. But the real “wow” happens behind the scenes – by guys who work their asses off for 400 rupees a day. . . Quite aptly, I met them when I wandered down a little path behind the monastery, where they live in tiny makeshift homes and were washing up at the public tap after a long day’s work. They were shy at first, as was I, but when we got talking, they told me that Spiti isn’t like their home in Jharkhand. It’s nothing, they said, barren, brown, no trees. Unlike our Jharkhand, they said, with greenery, fields and pure water. . . Two years ago, when they began visiting Spiti over the summer to help build the new extension of Ki Monastery, their mistry (contractor) told them he was the one who had built the original monastery! How old is he, I asked amused. 40 or 50 years, they said. Well my friends, the monastery was built in the 14th century, then almost rebuilt in the 19th century, I doubt your mistry was alive at either of those times 😂 . . At that moment, surprised and then amused, they looked at each other and laughed heartily at their innocence and how they were going to call out the mistry’s bragging – and I clicked this 📷 . . Shot on #iphone8plus . #theshootingstar #incredibleindia #storiesofindia #voicesofruralindia #portraitphotography

A post shared by Shivya Nath (@shivya) on

Technology is at the core of my own digital nomad life too. So I’m delighted to partner with Airtel – the telecom network that has kept me connected all these years – to bring you inspiring stories of digital empowerment from around the country!

A personal connection with Airtel

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My digital nomad life.

Way back in 2007, I was at university in Singapore and travel blogging was nowhere on my radar. Airtel came to our campus to offer a lucrative internship, and the idea of working for a company set up by a visionary first-generation entrepreneur briefly drew me back to India. In retrospect, that experience exposed me to the many opportunities and challenges in the country, and paved the way for my eventual return to India, even as most of my friends settled into comfortable corporate lives in Singapore.

In 2011, I decided to quit my full-time job in Singapore and slowly began solo travelling across India. That was when Airtel became my network of choice. It offered far more widespread and reliable connectivity across India – especially the Himalayas – than any other operator, and empowered me to share many incredible encounters on the road.

Also read: What Solo Travel Has Taught Me About the World – and Myself

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The changing world of rural India.

Now, in 2019, life has come full circle as I partner with Airtel 4G in my capacity as a travel blogger, to highlight positive stories of how technology and network connectivity are fueling business, passion and everyday life in India, especially in non-urban areas.

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

Digital empowerment stories in India

I’ll be travelling across India to find inspiring stories of people, especially women in rural India, who are using Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Google, WhatsApp, text messages and other phone tools to solve everyday challenges, find a market for their products or connect directly with the outside world. I’ll be documenting these stories on Instagram with #ConnectedbyAirtel and on this blog – and hopefully going a step further by asking you to support these individuals in creative ways.

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Searching for digital empowerment stories across India.

Perhaps you’ve met an artist on your travels who recently learnt to use YouTube to innovate a traditional craft; perhaps a mother in a countryside village who is using google to help her children study; perhaps a rural family running their business through WhatsApp? I’d love to hear about these stories, find the people in them and document their lives – in the hope that the digital revolution in India will continue connecting people, bridging the urban-rural divide and creating new economic opportunities across the country.

Have you come across someone in non-urban India using technology in a positive, empowering away?

*Note: I wrote this post as part of my digital empowerment campaign with Airtel. Opinions on this blog, as you know, are always mine.

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inspiring travel books

If the World Was a Library, These Books Would be the Destinations I’d Pick.

Before I began to travel full time, the books I read based on the “best travel books” recommendations were mostly written by western travellers. You can probably guess some of them: Into the Wild by Jon Krakeur, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I found them inspiring back then and still admire the authors for their personal quests. But the more I travel, the more I realise that the perspectives in these travel memoirs often come from a place of privilege.

In my quest to discover lesser-visited regions around the world, I long to unravel their many layers through the words and perspectives of a local. To delve deeper into a country’s unique way of life, as shaped by its cultural and historical influences.

As a result, I’ve ended up discovering delightful books by local authors on my travels. And reading them while simultaneously exploring the country they’re set in, adds a dreaminess to my travels, like taking multiple journeys at once – physically, virtually and emotionally.

The “travel books” that fascinate me often transcend the travel writing genre, but I hope you’ll read them anyway:

Reading Lolita in Tehran

By Azar Nafisi | Iran

“It takes courage to die for a cause, but also to live for one.”

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Halfway through reading ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’, I decided that no matter what, I was going to explore Iran someday (I finally did, last month!). Set in Tehran after the 1979 revolution, this is the bold and inspiring memoir of Azar Nafisi, an English Literature professor who dared to start a book club among her best students – all women, reading classics like Lolita and The Great Gatsby, officially censored by the authorities in Iran.

Set amidst the backdrop of Tehran’s Alborz mountains and the Iraq war, the journey of Nafisi’s characters (her students) is interwoven beautifully with the characters they read about. The book left me simultaneously melancholic, hopeful and inspired – and was featured on the New York Times bestseller list for over a hundred weeks.

Read The Guardian’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: Why You Should Drop Everything and Travel to Iran Now!

From the Land of Green Ghosts

By Pascal Kho Thwe | Myanmar (Burma)

“I also felt like an exile, or a traveller lost between two unfamiliar shores.”

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As I was preparing for my epic land journey from Thailand to India through the length and breadth of Myanmar, I stumbled upon the incredible story of Pascal Kho Thwe in his debut book, From the Land of Green Ghosts. Raised as the chieftain’s son in the traditional Padaung hill tribe in Myanmar, the book charts his journey from a fascinating tribal upbringing, through the heartbreaking civil war in Myanmar, to his unlikely quest to study English Literature at Cambridge!

By the time I made it to the end of this awe-inspiring memoir, I could feel my eyes well up and my heart shudder at everything he’s experienced in one lifetime. And perhaps that explains the kinship I felt with the tribal folk I met in the remote Chin state.

Read The Guardian’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: The Epic Land Journey from Thailand to India via Myanmar

Ali and Nino

By Kurban Said | Azerbaijan, Georgia (the Caucasus)

“Close your eyes, cover your ears with your hands and open your soul.”

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Ali and Nino was one of the few books I found under ‘the Caucasus’ section at a bookstore in Georgia, and decided to buy it on impulse. I had no idea then that its author continues to be shrouded in mystery, for it was first published in the 1930s under the pen name Kurban Said, and once attributed to an Austrian baroness! Evidence has come to light since, that the book may have been written by Lev Nussimbaum who spent his childhood in Baku.

Set in the early 1900s, the book is inspired by the heartwarming love story of Ali, a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and Nino, a Christian Georgian girl – and the many obstacles that stand between them: Muslim and Christian, Oriental and European, and the Soviet invasion of Azerbaijan. Set across Dagestan, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the book offers an intimate glimpse into life in the Caucasus region, and left me with the overwhelming feeling that history keeps repeating itself.

Read Washington Independent’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: If You’re Looking for the “Shire”, Come to Georgia

Remembering Che: My Life With Che Guevara

By Aleida March | Cuba

“Farewell, my only one,
do not tremble before the hungry wolves
nor in the cold steppes of absence;
I take you with me in my heart
and we will continue together until the road vanishes…”

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On my first day in Havana, I walked into a small bookstore to seek respite from the sweltering heat of the city, and walked out with a copy of My Life with Che – written by Aleida March, Che Guevara’s wife, and translated from Spanish by Pilar Aguilera.

I had read Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara a long time ago, for it typically makes it to most “inspiring travel books” recommendations. I loved it at the time, but as a more mature traveller aching to better understand how Che’s travels shaped both him and his adopted country, “Remembering Che” became my companion on my travels across Cuba. March’s words are raw and simple, yet sometimes too honest to digest. As I travelled across Cuba, I saw the Cuban revolution through her eyes and came to appreciate Che’s altruistic yet flawed personality. At the same time, I felt like I was journeying through time to see how Cuba has changed over the years.

I remember sitting on the Malecon (sea face) in Havana, on my last evening in the country, reading the last few pages of the book, with the salty wind blowing through my hair. A strange nostalgia washed over me, as I wondered if Che and Aleida had ever sat there, in the same spot, watching the horizon, feeling what I was feeling. Only a handful of books are capable of inducing that.

Read an excerpt on Sydney Morning Herald | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: Unusual Solo Travel Destinations to Feed Your Adventurous Spirit

The King’s Harvest

By Chetan Raj Sreshtha | Sikkim (Northeast India)

“In the place of timber houses with leaky roofs were gigantic boxes of cement with harsh windows. The road was wider and topped with the same tasteless black cake…”

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When the “bookman” of Sikkim (the owner of the indie Rachna bookstore in Gangtok) highly recommends a book by a Sikkimese author, you’d better buy it. That’s how The King’s Harvest landed in my arms. Of the two novellas the book is split into, the first, An Open and Shut Case is the story of a woman who kills her husband and turns herself in. It weaves through a layered world of love, music and shared taxis – to reveal that a case like this isn’t exactly open and shut.

But it’s the second of the two novellas, The King’s Harvest, that lives within me even after all these years. The story takes you to a remote land in Sikkim where one man lives in solitude, toils on the land and joyfully gives a share of his harvest to his beloved king every year. When the harvest collector stops showing up, the man decides, after 32 long years of isolation, to personally visit the king, oblivious to how the kingdom has changed. Sprinkled with magical realism, I found this book just as enchanting as my first glimpse of Mount Kanchenjunga!

Read The Hindu’s Review | Order on Amazon India – or better still, buy it at Rachna Books in Gangtok.

Also read: Sikkim: The Lost Kingdom

Norwegian Wood | A Wild Sheep Chase

By Haruki Murakami | Japan

“Time really is one big continuous cloth, no? We habitually cut out pieces of time to fit us, so we tend to fool ourselves into thinking that time is our size, but it really goes on and on.”

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Ever since I read Norwegian Wood on a train ride along Canada’s Rocky Mountains, I’ve been hooked onto Murakami, his imaginative words, his mysterious characters, his bizarre plots and his surreal depiction of life in Japan. And when I finally travelled to Japan last year, I ended up meeting a local who indeed belonged in a Murakami novel!

Norwegian Wood, set mostly in Tokyo, explores love, relationships, sex and life through the lens of a young Japanese college student and the women he meets along the way. I remember, quite vividly, the riot of emotions that stormed through me as I became engrossed in his characters; emotions I never imagined a book could be capable of making me feel.

Since then, I’ve read many works by Murakami, and one of his earliest books, A Wild Sheep Chase, is one I keep thinking about. The bizarre plot is set in a stunning, remote village in Hokkaido, and is fascinating, mysterious and absurd, with all the charms of magical realism yet realistic characters. After reading it, I can’t wait to make it to Hokkaido.

Read The New York Time’s Review | Order on Amazon India | Amazon Worldwide

Also read: In Search of Murakami’s Japan

Neither Night Nor Day

Short stories, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil | Pakistan

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My Indian passport makes it very difficult to explore Pakistan. So to satiate my longing to explore the other side of the Indian subcontinent, I delved into Neither Night Nor Day, an anthology of short stories written by 13 Pakistani women. Spanning themes like familial expectations, immigrant life in London, partition and female infanticide, these stories explore the everyday lives of ordinary Pakistanis – and as an Indian, you quickly realise that despite the border between us, the battles and triumphs are the same. The stories are heartfelt, vivid and often soul-stirring.

Read DNA’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: Unexpected Ways Long Term Travel Has Changed Me

The Forty Rules of Love

By Elif Shafak | Turkey, Central Asia and Iran

“No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey, a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.”

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I first read about and fell in love with Shams-e Tabrizi – the mystic Sufi and whirling dervish who became the muse of the beloved Persian poet Rumi – while reading The Forty Rules of Love. This brilliantly crafted work takes you simultaneously into the intriguing (non-fiction) world of Shams and Rumi, and a contemporary (fiction) world where a woman embarks on a journey to meet the mysterious author of a fascinating manuscript. The latter story somehow elevates the philosophy, poetry and mysticism of the relationship between Shams and Rumi.

The book impacted me deeply enough to land up in Tabriz, the home of Shams, all these years later on my recent trip to Iran!

Read The Independent’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

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PIN this post to add to your reading list.

Your turn, which unusual “travel books” have you stumbled upon on your travels?

*Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you decide to make a purchase through these, I’ll make a little bit of money at no extra cost to you.

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How to Travel as a Vegan and Find Delicious Food Anywhere in the World.

About this post: Travelling as a vegan sounds incredibly difficult, but after 3.5 years and over 30 countries, I can assure you that being a vegan traveller is more a matter of being prepared. In this vegan travel blog post, I share all my vegan travel tips and try to prove that travelling as a vegan in meat-obsessed countries is not impossible.

I’ve travelled to over thirty countries since I turned vegan 3.5 years ago, including seafood-obsessed Japan, kebab-loving Iran and tribal regions of Myanmar, where every kind of animal is relished.

Sticking with my commitment to not consume any animal products, I’ve learnt along the way that surviving – nay thriving – as a vegan on the road is an acquired art. The more well-researched, adventurous and creative I am, the more likely I am to find incredible vegan food, sample the local cuisine and build lasting friendships through the common love of good food.

Behold, all my tips for fellow vegan travellers who want to travel the world, keep their taste buds (and nutrition levels) satiated and immerse deeply in the local culture:

Keep an open mind but a rigid determination

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My fav vegan tee and a sumptuous vegan cake – in London, UK.

While planning my trip to Japan, I was certain I wanted to spend the majority of my time in small villages, explore remote islands and experience countryside living. While bigger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto have become vegan-friendly over the years, a Facebook group of local foodies in Japan warned me that travelling as a vegan on the Japanese countryside was going to be “mission frickin impossible!” I took their concern seriously, but I was neither willing to compromise my style of offbeat travelling, nor my commitment to veganism.

I think half the battle of travelling as a vegan is in the mind. If we set our minds to finding vegan food no matter what, we’ll find ways to make it happen. On the other hand, if we tell ourselves that it’s okay to compromise on our vegan beliefs once in a while on the road, we’ll be less prepared, less creative and less adventurous.

Once I set my mind to surviving as a vegan on the Japanese countryside for a month, I got down to work. I thoroughly researched the cuisine, got a Japanese friend to write a long note explaining my food preferences, learnt which dishes could be customized, raided supermarkets for avocados and fresh veggies, carried back-up food, surrendered myself to the kindness of local chefs and indulged in many bento boxes. Believe it or not, I ended up having incredible vegan food through most of my Japan trip!

Also read: Why Travelling in Japan is Like Nowhere Else in the World

Research the local cuisine

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An Ethiopian Beyayenetu – always vegan and available everywhere in the country.

We’re lucky to be living in a world where we can learn everything about local cuisines from around the world with a simple google search. That means before I set out for Georgia in the Caucasus region, I already knew that local dishes like lobia (kidney beans stew), lobiani (bread stuffed with mashed kidney beans) and badrajani nigswitz (eggplant with walnut paste) are accidentally vegan, thanks to the orthodox Christianity beliefs of locals. Before I set out for Ethiopia, I knew that I could be anywhere in the country and still feast on beyayenetu – a delightful vegan platter with injera, chickpeas, lentils and veggies.

When I’ve zeroed in on a new destination, I read about the local cuisine on wikitravel or other general websites, and try to analyse which dishes are free from animal products and which can be customized to be vegan. I pour over vegan blogs (of which Mostly Amelie, Vegan Food Quest and The Nomadic Vegan are some of my favorites) and forums to draw on the experiences of past vegan travellers.

Having an idea of what I can and can’t eat when I arrive in a country makes it easier to scan menus, order food, speak to local chefs and start treating my tastebuds right away.

Also read: Awesome Places in Mumbai to Chill, Work from Home and Enjoy Vegan Food

Get the HappyCow app

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Found a charming abode with a Swiss vegan family, thanks to HappyCow.

HappyCow is one app that every vegan / vegetarian traveller must have on their phone, for it maps out all the vegan / vegan-friendly spots (restaurants, cafes, accommodations, stores) near you, along with reviews from past travellers.

It was thanks to  HappyCow that I landed up at GustaV, the first and only entirely vegan restaurant in Salzburg (Austria) and feasted on vegan Tyrolian dumplings that I otherwise could’ve never tried. In Switzerland, the accommodation listing on HappyCow led me to stay with a vegan Swiss family in a dreamy little village, where I feasted on carob brownies and vegan rosti.

Looking for vegan spots recommended on HappyCow, I’ve found myself in neighbourhoods I wouldn’t otherwise have explored and met passionate vegan owners I wouldn’t otherwise have met. Who knew the search for great vegan food can begin right in your palm!

Also read: Sometimes We Choose Life, Sometimes Life Chooses Us

Learn how to ask for vegan food in the local language

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Mastering how to ask for vegan food in Iran – bedoone ghoost (without meat).

This is almost a no-brainer, yet it took me a while to master it. The trick is often not to directly ask for plant-based food, nor to explain what you can’t eat. Because many people who haven’t entertained vegans / vegetarians before tend to think that all we can eat is grass salad!

After cringing upon being offered a boring salad too many times, I’ve learnt that I have to lay out all possible options of what I can eat . So when I travel to a country where English is not the primary language, I try to learn the names of several ingredients in the local language, based on what’s available locally, including what I can’t eat but also what I CAN eat. When I arrive, I also find a kind local to help me write it accurately in the local script on my phone.

In Japan for instance, a newfound local friend helped me write in polite Kanji, that while I can’t meat, seafood (including fish dashi – very common in Japanese food), eggs and dairy products, I can have rice, tofu, yam, soya sauce, soya milk, cold soba noodles, miso, vegetables and legumes – all of them staples in Japanese cuisine. In most restaurants, the staff initially got very worried when I asked for vegan food, but upon seeing my note, whipped up some delicious vegan feasts!

In Iran, I was able to get a friend to write that while I can’t eat animal products, I can eat lentils, beans, potato, eggplant, rice and vegetables – all part of Persian cuisine. And in Myanmar, a local friend taught me to say t-t-lo (pronounced त त लो like in Hindi), which indicates Buddhist vegan food in Burmese!

Also read: The Epic Land Journey from Thailand to India via Myanmar

Connect with vegans in the country

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Connecting with vegans in Chiang Mai for my first “Cube of truth”.

Harnessing the power of social media has led me to some truly unforgettable vegan experiences around the world. Most recently, in Iran, I stumbled upon the Instagram profile of Khalvat House – a guesthouse being set up by a team of passionate Iranian vegans – and ended up being their first vegan guest! After three weeks of sustaining mostly on local dishes like do pyaz alo (stir-fried potatoes and onions) and dal adasi (yellow lentils), I was treated to elements of  Persian cuisine that no one else had been willing to veganise. Think vegan dizi (mashed beans with broth), vegan kebabs (made with sprouted wheat and unbelievably delicious) and vegan chocolate desserts inspired by Instagram! On their recommendation, I went on to live with a beautiful vegan Iranian family in Tabriz, where even HappyCow doesn’t have a single listing.

In Japan, using Airbnb Experiences, I landed up in the home of a vegan Japanese family to learn macrobiotic cooking that balances yin and yang – and left with a tummy satiated by incredible food and a heart filled with the warmth of a new friendship. And in Chiang Mai, I ended up joining my first “Cube of truth” after connecting with the local chapter of Anonymous for the Voiceless – a powerful outreach experience.

As the vegan movement grows around the world, it opens up a world of experiences for vegan travellers. Experiences that are rooted in the common love for animals, conscious living and good food.

Also read: What Solo Travel Has Taught Me About the World – and Myself

Stock up on vegan snacks and energy bars

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An Instagram-inspired vegan dessert at Khalvat House, Iran!

I used to judge others for carrying their own food on a train or flight. Now, I am that person, and I don’t give two hoots about anyone who judges me 😉

Since I turned vegan – and a bigger foodie than I’ve ever been before – I never leave it up to chance to be fed well. In the tribal Chin state of Myanmar, where locals eat everything from monkeys to mithuns (cross between a buffalo and yak), I sustained myself over 3 days with bread and avocados (there was an avocado tree in the backyard of my guesthouse!), as I said no to rice mixed with mithun blood and dried mithun meat.

In both Japan and Iran, where I spent a month each, I stocked up on protein-packed energy bars made on order by my friends from Health Nut and Down 2 Hearth. On long bus journeys and flights, I always pack a vegan meal to keep me satiated, for vegan food on board (always indicate vegan food preferences online beforehand) is often bland and boring. And in my bags, there’s always some vegan chocolate, chia seeds to whip up a quick treat and snacks to munch on.

Also read: Where to Find Droolworthy Vegan Food in Chiang Mai

Stay with local hosts and inform them of your food choices

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Staying with a vegan Iranian family in Tabriz.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I try to seek out local accommodations wherever I go. If it’s a place that offers meals, I make it a point to inform my hosts well in advance that I’m vegan, including what I can and can’t eat. Some lead time always helps!

In the Lake District in the UK, I was the first vegan to stay at a newly established B&B. At the time of booking, the hosts seemed unsure of what vegan breakfast they could offer – but between the time I booked and showed up, they had come up with an entire vegan breakfast menu that they planned to offer other guests too!

In Tokyo, when I checked in to a guesthouse, my Japanese host told me, quite amused, that he couldn’t think of anything vegan he could offer me for breakfast. The next morning, as I was getting ready to head out, he stopped me and said he had done some research online, and whipped up a vegan breakfast of miso soup and tofu steak! And he was so satisfied with his creation that he planned to add “vegan-friendly” to all his online listings.

As more vegans travel, more hosts and accommodations will become familiar with veganism, and the world in turn will become more vegan-friendly!

Also read: How to Find the Perfect Airbnb and Make the Most of Your Travel Experience

Be conscious of your nutrition

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Yummy and healthy – vegan breakfast at The Secret Garden, Goa.

If you’ve been vegan for a while, you probably already know that there are plenty of plant-based sources to get protein, calcium and other essential nutrients. (If you’re unsure, read this). But while on the road, I’m often dependent on other people to feed me. When I’m travelling to countries that don’t seem familiar with veganism, I try to figure out what kind of nutrition I’ll able to get from the vegan version of the local cuisine. Will I be able to get lentils, kidney beans, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and plenty of vegetables and fruits along the way?

While preparing to travel to Iran for instance, many vegan and vegetarian travellers wrote that they survived entirely on deep-fried falafels! I had no desire to eat that, so I carried plenty of protein bars and planned to get the rest of my nutrition at supermarkets. Much to my surprise though, I was able to find lentils in many places, and the old Persian bazaars were teeming with all kinds of affordable dates, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices.

I also always carry supplements of Vitamin B12 and D3 – something most people, vegan or not, are deficient in – as well as lysine supplements for when my diet has too much soy and too little lentils / kidney beans, which can cause an imbalance of essential amino acids (read here).

Also read: How I’m Financially Sustaining My Digital Nomad Lifestyle

Get a travel blender

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My portable travel blender that charges with a USB!

The best gadget I’ve acquired in recent times is a Vitamer travel blender (available only on Amazon US), which is light, easy to carry, battery-operated, charges with USB and allows me to have smoothies / smoothie bowls wherever in the world I am.

When invited to a conference in Belfast last year, I couldn’t bear to have the drab hotel breakfast with only jam and bread as vegan options. So I went to the nearby supermarket, picked up a bunch of fruits, got some raw cacao, pumpkin and sunflower seeds from my bag and made myself some hearty smoothie bowls!

Also read: How I Fit All My Possessions in Two Bags as I Travel the World

Get creative with menus

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Vegan hot chocolate, anyone?

As vegan travellers, we can’t rely only on restaurant menus with vegan options marked – for the vegan movement hasn’t yet reached many cities around the world, and certainly not the rural countryside of most countries. Over the years, I’ve learnt to study menus, mix and match ingredients, get creative and explain to chefs what I’d love to eat. It works 80% of the time!

While staying at a guesthouse run by an Italian guy in Zanzibar, I really wanted to eat a pesto pasta. After great restraint, I convinced him to try making pesto without parmesan cheese – almost blasphemous for an Italian! At the end of the endeavour, he was rather surprised that it tasted almost the same – delicious.

Similarly while eating cafe-style food in a non vegan friendly place, I scan the menu to swap dairy products like cheese and mayo with vegan dressings like hummus, tahini, pesto (if made fresh without cheese), balsamic vinegar and chilli oil.

Also read: Shh… the Most Beautiful Beach I’ve Set Foot on is Zanzibar’s Best Kept Secret

Stay in an independent Airbnb and get access to a kitchen

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Vegan strawberry smoothie bowl, made by yours truly 😉

I’m writing this post from a sweet Stalin-era abode in Yerevan, Armenia, which will be home for the next month – and I can’t quite explain the delight of having access to a kitchen after many weeks on the road in Iran. No matter where in the world I am, I love to begin my day with smoothies, chia seed puddings, sauteed mushrooms with broccoli, chickpea pancake (besan chila), hummus and avocados on toast, open-face sandwiches and whatever else that is quick and easy to make!

Having an independent space with a kitchen – even if for a few days – is a refreshing change from eating all meals out, and a chance to treat myself to some comfort food and get better nutrition. Besides, as I figure out farmers markets, vegan-friendly stores, local bakeries and organic groceries, I really end up experiencing a place like a local.

Also read: Why You Should Stay on a “Local Island” to Truly Experience the Maldives

Talk about your choices in a respectful way

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Contemplating my food choices over herbal tea in Shiraz, Iran.

We’ve all seen the jokes about vegans who try to shove their lifestyle choices down the throats of others. I don’t know who they are, for on my part, the vegans that I’ve met are rather aware that this is a very personal choice.

Anyway, no matter where I travel, I’ve seldom shared a meal with someone – friend or stranger – without being asked why I don’t consume animal products. I try to talk about my personal journey, as well as the cruelty, health and environmental aspects of veganism. I recommend powerful films like Cowspiracy, Earthlings, What the Health and Okja. I talk about all the amazing food I’ve eaten while being vegan, but also some of the challenges. I try to plant the seed of veganism by encouraging people to decide for themselves, rather than forcing my choices on them.

A few months ago, I heard from a host I had stayed with a couple of years ago, a host who had initially been wary of offering me vegan meals. She told me that she had finally transitioned from eating meat to a plant-based diet.

I’ve begun to believe that wherever in the world we travel, we need to keep planting these seeds. For we never know who’ll be lucky enough to taste the fruit.

Update: Between now and mid-April, I’m offering a one-hour “pay what you like” consultation session for vegan entrepreneurs. Read more about it here.

Have you considered travelling as a vegan? What are your biggest challenges and how do you overcome them?

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The Epic Land Journey from Thailand to India via Myanmar.

grAbout this post: In January 2019, I embarked on a journey from Thailand to India by road, crossing Myanmar over land. This road trip took me from Chiang Mai via Myanmar to Manipur, without boarding any flights. The India to Thailand road route is marked by stunning scenery, misty sunrises, old temples and rice paddies. In this detailed post, I talk about why doing India to Thailand by road should be on your bucket list.

When I got asked to conduct a digital marketing workshop for responsible tourism businesses in India in January 2019, I felt like an imposter. Despite being vegan, choosing eco-friendly accommodations and cutting out most single-use plastic from my lifestyle, I’m extremely guilty of the carbon footprint of the many international flights I take every year. So I began 2019 with a pledge – to cut down flying as much as possible. The only challenge was that I was living as a digital nomad in Chiang Mai and needed to travel to India to conduct the workshop.

So to keep my pledge, I set out on an epic land journey – using public transport – from northern Thailand, through the length and breath of Myanmar, to Manipur in the remote northeast of India. Over a fortnight, I took many buses, drove an electric bike, kayaked on rice paddies, went on a crazy motorbike adventure along narrow winding mountain roads, took a canoe and hiked.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

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Kayaking on the rice paddies of Hpa An, Myanmar.

Even as I crossed the land border from Thailand to Myanmar and changed my greetings from sawadeekha to minglaba, I had no idea what Myanmar would offer me. Much to my surprise and delight, my land route was filled with karst mountains, misty sunrises, ancient temples, rhododendron forests and the tribal wonders of Chin State. I’m now convinced that long land journeys are infinitely more adventurous than hopping on a plane – and better for the planet too.

Also read: Myanmar Visa on an Indian Passport: A Quick and Easy Guide

The road route I took from Thailand to India

My road route from Thailand to India: Chiang Mai – Mae Sot – (Thailand-Myanmar border crossing) – Myawaddy – Hpa An – Yangon – Bagan – Mindat – Chin State countryside – Kale – Tamu – (Myanmar-India border crossing) – Moreh – Imphal

I travelled by a mix of VIP and regular buses, mini vans and shared taxis. The VIP buses from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot and Yangon to Bagan (overnight) can be booked online. It’s best to book the rest atleast a day or two in advance, through your guest house. Except for the Myawaddy – Hpa An and Moreh – Imphal stretches, the roads were excellent.

Also read: An Open Letter to Indian Parents: Let Your “Kids” Travel

Myanmar E-visa for Indians

Scoring an e-visa for Myanmar was a breeze, even on an Indian passport. I applied online, and received it within 24 hours. The visa is valid for 90 days, and allows you to stay in Myanmar for 30 days.

Also read: How I Manage Visas on My Indian Passport as I Travel Around the Globe

Border crossing: Thailand to Myanmar

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The border crossing from Mae Sot (Thailand) to Myawaddy (Myanmar).

Even though Thailand has many borders with Myanmar, the one I chose to cross was the Mae Sot – Myawaddy border. If you cross any further north, in the Shan State, you can’t journey into the rest of Myanmar by land because of military restrictions.

The green bus from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot dropped the handful of passengers going to the border at an intersection before heading into Mae Sot town, from where we all shared a big tuk-tuk to the Thai border, got stamped out, walked with our luggage across the Thailand-Myanmar friendship bridge and entered Myanmar. At the immigration office in Myanmar, I got stamped in easily, no questions asked.

While most travellers then haggled with a shared taxi to continue on to Hpa An, I opted to stay at an Airbnb in the border town of Myawaddy, hoping to break the journey. In retrospect, I’d rather have endured the long ride and missed out on the scenery, for Myawaddy is dusty, busy, un-walkable and doesn’t really offer anything.

Also read: 6 Months, 6 Countries: Epic Memories from Central America

Border crossing: Myanmar to India

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Entering India from Myanmar!

There are two options to cross into India from Myanmar. The first is the Tamu – Moreh border, which I crossed from Chin State in Myanmar to Manipur in India. Moreh is a 3 hour drive from Imphal. The second option is the Rikhawdar – Zokhawthar border, from Chin State to Mizoram. I heard that this one features winding roads and welcoming tribal folk on both sides, but I didn’t end up taking it because given my time constraints and the poor connectivity in this part of northeast India, the journey further would become much longer.

The crossing from Myanmar to India takes longer because you’re entering army territory. After getting stamped out from Myanmar and walking across the Indo-Myanmar friendship bridge, I had to walk about 500m to reach Indian immigration. My passport was stamped and my luggage checked manually at customs. Ordinarily, I would’ve had to catch an auto to Moreh town and wait on the road for a shared taxi, but I lucked out and got a ride with an Indian-Burmese family heading to Assam.

While in the taxi, we stopped thrice again – at an army checkpoint to enter our passport details, at a second checkpoint to deposit a passport photocopy (carry one with you) and at a third checkpoint to have our bags checked again. Phew. The army personnel were really friendly and fun to chat with though!

Also read: Meet the Courageous Indian Woman Travelling the World Solo – on a Wheelchair

India to Thailand Road Route: Things to know before you go

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A VIP bus in Myanmar, with charging points and gorgeous scenery.

  • While crossing the border from Myanmar to India, I learnt that this border can be used by anyone with a valid visa or residence for India. Visa on arrival is not available here though.
  • Being an army border, I heard that it is closed at sensitive times, like 3-4 days around India’s Republic Day. There’s no way to find out until you get there though!
  • The roads in Myanmar are fabulous, but unfortunately potholed and under construction on the Indian side. Ironic, because India built the roads on the other side of the border! With the many checkpoints and broken roads on the Indian side, the journey to Imphal or even a restaurant to get food is a long one. Stock up on snacks and water. There’s a small shop in the Indian immigration complex to buy sweet lemon tea.
  • Crossing over from Myanmar to India is a bit of a culture shock – with cows and trash lining the streets, incessant honking and broken roads – but if you manage to keep your cool, you’ll end up meeting some amazing people!

Also read: Travelling Abroad First Time? 10 Questions on Your Mind

Highlights of Myanmar

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A surreal sunrise in Bagan.

Hiking in the karst mountains of Hpa An: Although I landed up in Hpa An to break the long journey from the border to Yangon, I was delighted to find a small town on the banks of the Irrawaddy, surrounded by dramatic karst hills, home to peaceful pagodas and friendly ethnic hill tribes. I can’t wait to go back there and slow travel as a digital nomad!

Exploring the lost treasures of Bagan: It was one thing to lose myself among the centuries’ old temples of Bagan on my e-bike, quite another to discover them with a passionate female local guide from Three Treasures – hanging out at a permaculture farm, visiting a library made with recycled plastic and talking candidly about our lives over a misty sunset.

A motorbike adventure in Chin State: I went on a 3-day motorbiking adventure with Uncharted Horizons through some truly uncharted territory in Chin State. We rode on narrow winding mountain tracks, through blooming rhododendron forests, to Chin villages where elderly women still have facial tattoos and smoke cheroots (pipes), having some truly unforgettable encounters.

I had originally planned to travel to southern Rakhine State – undisturbed by the conflict in northern Rakhine State – to spend time at Arakan Eco Lodge. But the detour was too long and my time too short, but it’s good to have this among many reasons to go back!

Also read:
Myanmar Tourist Visa on an Indian Passport: A Quick and Easy Guide

Coming soon:
Is it ethical and safe to travel to Myanmar in 2019?
A daring motorbike adventure through Chin State in Myanmar
A responsible travel guide to Myanmar
The secret to finding vegan food in Myanmar

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Myanmar Tourist Visa on an Indian Passport: A Quick and Easy Guide.

About this post: The Indian passport is not the most travel-friendly, but we’re lucky to have exceptions – and the Myanmar tourist visa is one of them. The Myanmar evisa is easy to apply for, quick to score, and allows hassle-free entry into Myanmar. Behold, a quick and easy guide on how to get a Myanmar tourist visa on an Indian passport.

In January 2019, when I travelled overland from Thailand to India via Myanmar, I was relieved to learn that Myanmar offers Indian citizens both, eVisa and visa on arrival. Not wanting to risk showing up at a land border to get a Myanmar visa on arrival on my Indian passport, I decided to apply online for a Myanmar eVisa – and was delighted to receive a confirmed visa by email within 24 hours!

If you plan to travel to Myanmar soon, here’s what you need to know to score a Myanmar tourist visa on an Indian passport:

Myanmar eVisa for Indians

Myanmar tourist eVisa application form

Start with filling the online Myanmar tourist visa application form on the official Ministry of Immigration website. Apart from general information, you’ll need to provide details of your occupation and address in Myanmar, and upload a passport photo.

You also have to choose your port of entry depending on whether you’re flying into the country or crossing over land. If you’re flying in, choose the airport where you plan to land (Yangon, Mandalay or Nai Phi Taw international airport). If travelling by land, pick one of the 5 land border checkpoints you can cross in from. I selected the Myawaddy land border checkpoint, for I was crossing the Mae Sot – Myawaddy border from Thailand to Myanmar.

Tip: As per official guidelines, you’re allowed to enter Myanmar from any port of entry, irrespective of what you’ve chosen on your Myanmar eVisa application. However, given the poor standing of the Indian passport, this might slow you down at immigration.

Myanmar visa fee for Indians

The processing fee for the Myanmar eVisa for Indian passport holders is 50$ (~INR 3500). The Myanmar tourist visa I received was a single entry visa that allowed me to stay in the country for 28 days.

Once you make the payment online, you will receive an acknowledgment email with an application number, which you can use to track the status of your application.

Processing time for Myanmar eVisa for Indians

The official processing time to receive your Myanmar eVisa via email is 1 to 3 days. I got mine within 12 hours of applying!

If you’re short on time, you could apply for the Myanmar tourist visa express service, which will ensure you receive it within 24 hours. The processing fee for the Myanmar tourist visa express service is $56 (~INR 3900).

Myanmar visa requirements: Documents, validity and extension

You need to print out your Myanmar eVisa to show it before you board your flight, and at the port of entry in Myanmar. The eVisa remains valid for 90 days from the date of issue, of which you can stay for 28 days in Myanmar. At the time of writing this, there were no provisions to extend this eVisa for a longer stay.

Myanmar visa on arrival for Indian citizens

According to the Embassy of Myanmar in India, the Myanmar visa on arrival is available for Indian passport holders landing at international airports – before November 2019. The fee and duration of stay is the same as that for the eVisa.

I haven’t tried availing this yet. If you do, let me know how it goes?

Myanmar visa at the Myanmar embassy in India

If you want to get a longer tourist visa, or save a little bit of money, you could apply for the Myanmar tourist visa at the Embassy of Myanmar in New Delhi. The processing fee is INR 2800, and the processing time is usually 2 days. Besides the visa application form and two recent photos, you also need to show confirmed hotel and flight bookings.

The Myanmar visa is among the easiest we can get on the Indian passport. Reason enough to plan a trip to this incredible country? I think so.

This post is co-written with Remya Padmadas – a journalist by day and dreamer the rest of the time. She aspires to travel the world and become a teller of stories.

Have you been to Myanmar? How was your eVisa / visa on arrival experience?

ALSO READ:
How I Manage Visas on My Indian Passport As I Travel Around the Globe
How to Score a Schengen Visa on an Indian Passport
American Tourist Visa for Indians: Tips and Requirements

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Inspiring Places to Live, Work and Explore as a Digital Nomad in 2019.

About this post: Ever since I embraced a digital nomad lifestyle, I’ve been on the lookout for digital nomad destinations around the world. From Guatemala to India, these are my unusual picks for the best digital nomad cities and offbeat digital nomad locations in 2019.

I often lament being born a few decades too late. Of missing out on a time when most places around the world were still pristine, the original hippie movement was still taking shape, overtourism wasn’t a thing, plastic wasn’t a menace and the impact of climate change wasn’t so evident. But then I have to remind myself that my digital nomad lifestyle, one that allows me to spend long stretches of time working online from different parts of the globe – probably wouldn’t have existed either.

Over the past 5 years, since I gave up one place to call home, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a month or two slow travelling in quaint Himalayan hamlets, hip European cities, the stunning Caucasus region, Latin American villages steeped in the Mayan tradition and tropical Southeast Asian valleys with rice paddies.

Behold, my pick of somewhat unusual digital nomad destinations that should be on your radar in 2019:

Tbilisi, Georgia

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My neighborhood in old Tbilisi.

Back in 2014, well before Georgia found its way to the tourist map, my partner landed an internship in its gorgeous capital city Tbilisi – and I was sold at the idea of basing myself there for a while. It was love at first sight, not only with the warmhearted locals, but also with the hills and canyons that surround the city, the delightful vegan-friendly Georgian cuisine, the local music scene and the shire-like way of life. The best part was the incredible Georgian countryside – the snow-capped Caucasus mountains, the rolling vineyards, the stark Black Sea coast – just a short and affordable mashrutka (mini bus) ride out of the city.

When I revisited in 2017, I was amazed to see that creative cafes, co-working spaces, and international restaurants have sprouted up across Tbilisi, without taking away from its unique heritage. Go while it’s still on the verge of being “discovered” by digital nomads.

Also read: If You’re Looking for the Shire, Come to Georgia!

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

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My incredible abode by Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan appeared quite unexpectedly on my “digital nomad” radar during a solo trip across Guatemala. Immersing myself in its stellar beauty, I found a little paradise that has drawn me back every other year. Unlike the rest of the “modern” world, this is a place where you can still live away from the chaos of traffic and cars, go grocery shopping on a boat, wake up to a pristine lake in your backyard, immerse in what remains of the ancient Mayan culture and watch a volcano erupting in the far distance – yet have access to decent internet, vegan-friendly cafes, yoga classes, live music and a community of people who embrace mindful living.

Also read: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: The Feeling That I’ve Found My Place on Earth

Hpa An, Myanmar

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Everything I loved about Hpa An in one frame!

Much like Lake Atitlan and Tbilisi, I fell instantly in love with Hpa An (pronouced pa aan), a small town typically used as a jumping point between Myanmar and northern Thailand – but really a perfect place for digital nomads seeking to get away from other digital nomads!

Hpa An charmed me with its rugged karst mountain scenery, spectacular sunrises, old Buddhist temples, ethnic traditions, riverside beauty and the ease of discovering it all on a scooter. It bust the myth that internet in Myanmar is bad; instead I found that data is very cheap and 4G works well in most places. Charging points in outdoor cafes are still a bit hard to come by, but now that I’m travelling with my newly acquired MSI PS42 laptop which has ultra-long battery life, I’m not restricted by that anymore. And unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, I found it easier to connect with locals, many of who speak English, having once been colonized by the British.

Also read: Confessions of an Indian Digital Nomad

Auroville, India

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Greenery, music and peace in Auroville.

Now that I look back at my past travels, Auroville – a somewhat utopic township near Pondicherry in Southern India – was one of my earliest digital nomad discoveries in India. In the bubble of Auroville, I spent my days on a bike or bicycle, exploring the forested terrain, organic farms, healthy eateries, movie screenings and permaculture workshops. The Matri Mandir – the spaceship-like structure at the heart of the township and a most peaceful space for meditation – left me in complete awe.

What I loved most was crossing paths with many passionate people of all ages and nationalities who came to Auroville seeking an alternative way of life. Doctors turned organic farmers, policemen turned artists – for this is a place that allows you to rediscover your purpose in life, and perhaps subconsciously led to my embracing a digital nomad lifestyle. Circa 2013, wifi was only available in Auroville until 6 pm, which meant I had to fight the usual distractions and wrap up my work by the evening; I’ve heard internet is more readily available now – for better or for worse!

Also read: A Guide to Auroville: Things to Know Before You Go

Chiang Mai countryside, Thailand

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Digital nomad-ing with my new MSI PS42 in Chiang Mai.

I know, I know, a digital nomad in Chiang Mai sounds so 2014. There’s no doubt that I’m many years late to the awesomeness that is Chiang Mai, but the good news is, the magic hasn’t faded away entirely yet – especially if you live away from the city and popular neighborhoods like Nimman.

Over 2017 and 2018, we spent 2.5 months in Chiang Mai, living in a beautiful self-catering abode next to hills and rice paddies. There’s superfast wifi, of course, but also evening runs under the pink sunset sky, bike drives under the stars, hikes up to peaceful monasteries, incredible vegan food, hipster cafes, local organic farmer markets, foreign language movie screenings, cultural events, co-working spaces and some totally under the radar escapes deep in the mountains and forests of northern Thailand. All this without having to break the bank!

Also read: Where to Find Droolworthy Vegan Food in Chiang Mai

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2019 dream: To live and work in the Slovenian Alps!

I’d go back to each of the above spots in a heartbeat, but in 2019, I’m hoping to expand my digital nomad comfort zone by spending a month or two in Yerevan (Armenia), Cape Town (South Africa) and somewhere in the Slovenian Alps. And who knows what unexpected surprises the road will throw up along the way?

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What are your favorite digital nomad spots, and where do you hope to make it in 2019?

*Note: I wrote this post as part of a campaign with MSI. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always mine.

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Copenhagen cycling

What Indian Cities Can Learn About Green Tourism from Copenhagen.

On a recent visit to my hometown Dehradun, I decided to take a rickety bicycle for a spin around the neighborhood. The plan was to retrace the cycling routes of my childhood. I pedalled along potholes and pools of water from a broken pipe, ignoring the incessant honking of cars and bikes, trying to reach the river and forests that once used to be our backyard. Much to my disappointment, the river was just a dismal trickle amid a rocky, plundered river bed, and I couldn’t trace the forests at all until I reached a gate with a sign announcing I was entering a private property – I looked wistfully at the old oak trees, now the only green lung in the neighborhood.

Dejected, I abandoned the bicycle ride. As I sat lamenting the lost beauty of the once charming Doon Valley, a local newspaper article caught my eye. The most livable cities in India are not Delhi or Mumbai, it proudly proclaimed; Dehradun is among the top 3 most liveable cities in India. The same city that has lost its rivers and forests to rampant construction. The same city where the streets have become choc-o-bloc with chaotic traffic and the hills have been blocked from view by hideously designed high-rise apartments. Water shortages are common, the air is often dusty and polluted, and the once dark skies glow dejectedly with only a handful of stars. And yet, compared to many other cities in India, Dehradun is probably among the more liveable ones!

Many people I speak to, think this is the price we have to pay for economic development. That high-rises, malls, fancy cars – even on congested streets – and light pollution are a sign of progress. The question is, can economic progress co-exist with green living?

I turn to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, one of the world’s most eco-friendly and developed cities, for inspiration and policies, which if seriously implemented in Indian cities, could transform them into truly smart, green, liveable cities:

No resident lives more than an 8-minute walk away from a green space

While green lungs in Indian cities (think the Aarey forest in Mumbai) are fighting to survive, Copenhagen proudly ensures that no city-dweller lives further than 8 minutes on foot from a green zone. These green spaces include urban parks, gardens with cherry blossom trees, cemeteries with walking and cycling trails, historical monuments planted with seasonal trees, lakes surrounded by green trails, even a theme park with plenty of greenery. Notice what they cleverly did there? In the process of creating green spaces for Copenhagen residents, they also created a vast set of outdoor attractions for travellers. I, for one, fell in love with the seasonal cherry trees in the urban parks, cycling along the Copenhagen lakes and hanging out amid the striking poplar trees of Assistens Cemetery.

A concentrated effort to foster aesthetic green spaces in Indian cities would not only help protect the environment and lower air pollution, but also afford working adults an outdoor space to rejuvenate, leading to a more productive workforce, and boost leisure tourism in cities – both closely linked to economic growth. Oh, and kids with faces buried in their iPads all day could forge a much-needed connection with the outdoors.

Also read: Fun and Alternative Things to do in Copenhagen – Perhaps Europe’s Coolest Capital City

Infrastructure investment and incentives to ensure more bicycles than cars on the streets

On my recent trip to Himachal Pradesh, I heard a local politician proudly share his plan to build a highway to connect remote mountain villages by cutting a pristine primary forest – and in order to protect the environment, he would put a lane for cycling and electric cars.

On a short transit through Lucknow, I drove beside a cycling path that literally broke off in parts with no space to continue the ride.

Cycling infrastructure in India is a bit of a joke. Especially when you compare it to a city like Copenhagen – and let’s not get into how rich they are compared to us, because we have a ton of money to waste invest in statues and other pointless things. I was stunned to see just how far Copenhagen has taken its commitment to supporting cyclists: dedicated cycling lanes as wide as bus lanes, well-laid rules giving priority to cyclists, dedicated traffic lights to regulate cycling traffic, incentives to discourage private cars by making them extremely costly, futuristic cycling bridges that make the commuting time shorter than driving a car, and dedicated parking spaces for bicycles.

Even though solar-powered public buses ply the streets, I was so enamoured by the cycling culture and infrastructure, that I spent a beautiful week – rain or shine – cycling everywhere, including the airport. Believe it or not, even local politicians cycle to parliament everyday!

In Indian cities, where many people suffer from obesity due to lack of exercise as a by-product of endless traffic, health outcomes could be significantly improved by investments in solid cycling infrastructure. I remember reading Ruskin Bond’s autobiography, where he talks about Delhi in the 1950s. In those days, everyone got around on bicycles, even in Connaught Place, and wild animals roamed the forests and fields around South Delhi. Wouldn’t it be amazing to retrieve that Delhi (and other Indian cities) through strategic investment and incentives to transition residents away from cars / uber / ola to bicycles… rather than unsustainable odd-even car schemes or banning private cars altogether with no feasible alternatives?

Also read: Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable: These Travel Companies Are Changing the Way You Experience India

Modernise old heritage from within to preserve it

India’s crumbling heritage never fails to dishearten me. Beautiful old houses and buildings, built in traditional architecture and ancient wisdom, are being torn down and replaced with ugly concrete construction throughout the country – and especially so in Indian cities. For that reason, standing at Nyhavn, the old waterfront of Copenhagen and one of the city’s most iconic tourism sites, I was moved to see beautiful old townhouses from the 17th century line the harbor – their exteriors carefully preserved, their interiors refurbished for urban living. Indeed, these are not monuments for sightseeing alone, they are comfortably inhabited and fetch high rents.

My guide proudly explained that Copenhagen owes their preservation to a policy implemented by the municipal government only a few decades ago, forbidding these charming houses from being torn down or modified from the outside. Over the years, this has given residents a chance to live in these aspirational homes, and made them a major attraction that draws thousands of visitors every week.

Luckily Indian cities haven’t lost all their heritage yet. I’m thinking of the crumbling Portuguese houses of Goa and the old townhouses of Bandra in Mumbai – these buildings, hundreds of years old, have survived the brutal test of time. Many of them are abandoned, in dispute or simply in a state of disrepair, and it’s still not too late to institute a strict policy that incentivises their preservation. Economically, it could lead to jobs in traditional architecture, construction, interior design, real estate and tourism – all at once.

I’ve met architects travelling to India from around the world to study the traditional construction in the mountains, for despite being “kaccha” mud, stone and wooden houses, they’ve survived the worst of earthquakes. It’s high time we start appreciating our old wisdom too.

Also read: My Alternative Travel Guide to Goa

People’s movement for organic, vegan food

I know what you’re thinking by now: Copenhagen is lucky to have a government with a vision for economic growth driven by sustainability. But a wise man once said, people get the government they deserve.

Even knowing nothing about the sustainable policies of the government, it’s easy to get a sense of the how the locals are driving Copenhagen’s movement towards organic and sustainable produce, and cruelty-free food and lifestyle products. Hanging out at local food courts, cafes frequented by locals and farmers’ markets, I fell in love with the conscious living embraced and driven by the city’s residents. Some of my favorites were SoulsKaf Cafe and the Torvehallerne Food Hall.

While organic farmers’ markets and the vegan lifestyle are slowly catching up in bigger Indian cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, the movement is restricted to small ‘hipster’ pockets. In reality, consuming superfoods and organic vegetables has long been part of our traditional way of life, so it surprises me when many pass it off as an expensive new trend. These movements – conscious of the planet, compassionate towards animals and good for our health – need to be driven by locals, but can ultimately transform our healthcare and agriculture sectors.

Also read: 15 Awesome Hangouts in Mumbai to Chill, ‘Work from Home’ and Enjoy Vegan Food

Forward-thinking sustainable hotels

On the outset, Scandic in Copenhagen felt like any other fancy hotel in a big city. Although I prefer small homestays when I travel, I was on assignment and accepted a stay in a luxury hotel, with perhaps a tinge of guilt. That guilt soon faded away when I learnt of Scandic’s commitment to go entirely carbon neutral by 2025! The hotel already measures its water and energy consumption to analyse and implement ways to reduce it. Infact, it was at Scandic that the idea of “hang up your towel if you want to use it again” came about; an idea that has been replicated by the hotel industry around the world.

And Scandic is not alone. Sustainable architecture is a key component of Copenhagen’s city policy, and applies to hotels, apartments and traditional buildings across the city. Green rooftops, urban farming and carbon-neutral buildings are becoming the norm.

As high rise hotels and residential complexes mushroom across India, a policy incentivising green-construction could curb water, energy and waste problems that plague our cities – and of course elevate India as a green tourism hub.

So far, India’s commitment towards economic growth, tourism development and environment sustainability (especially our climate change goals) seem to be crawling forward in silos. Copenhagen’s strategy to integrate them as three pillars of the same foundation has made it one of the world’s most developed, green and aspirational cities. It’s not too late to adopt a similar approach and transform the future of Indian cities too.

What innovative green tourism initiatives have you seen around the world that could be replicated in India?

Featured image: Kristoffer Trolle (CC); check out his amazing work here.

*Note: I travelled to Copenhagen on assignment for Visit Copenhagen. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always mine.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter to follow my travel adventures around the world!

Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star, on Amazon or Flipkart.

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What I’ve Learnt on the Way to 60,000+ Organic Followers on Instagram – Tips for Travel Instagrammers.

About this post: I feel like I’ve come a long way as a travel blogger on Instagram, keeping my focus on authentic content, organic Instagram followers and organic Instagram growth. Whether you’re looking at Instagram as an extension of your travel blog, or to join the ranks of the best Instagram travel pages, I hope these lessons and tips will help you craft your organic Instagram strategy in 2019.

There’s no doubt I was late to the Instagram party. I resisted it for a long time, thinking it was a channel that made sense only for photographers – and I don’t consider myself a photographer in the conventional sense. I’ve never owned an SLR camera, haven’t quite grasped the nuances of aperture and exposure, and remain conflicted about the ethics of editing photos.

In my early blogging days, I travelled without a camera, choosing to experience the world as fully as I could. My first camera, a gift from my brother, was a talking Sanyo point and shoot. Yes, it told you to smile when it took a photo – and yes, I remember being playfully ragged for it on my first blogging trip!

Then, things changed.

I started taking my blog more seriously and realised the value of visual content. Instagram exploded, and as much as I wanted to stay off it, I had to join to stay professionally relevant in the ever-changing world of travel blogging.

I chose to approach it differently though. Instead of using it only as a visual platform, I started building my voice in words. Slowly, I attracted followers who care as much about what I write as about the photos – a community that indeed reads my lengthy captions and engages meaningfully with them.

Also read: How I’m Funding My Adventures Around the World Through Travel Blogging

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I miss the days we didn’t stare at our smartphone screens just after waking up or just before sleeping. When we stopped to ask people – not Google Maps – directions. When we walked into a cafe and saw people chatting with each other, not buried in their smartphones. When we read instead of scrolling mindlessly. When we tried to learn a bit of the local language instead of relying entirely on google translate. . . Exploring little mountain villages in Thailand is making me so nostalgic of some of my earliest adventures in Southeast Asia. The time a friend and I picked a little blue spot on the map and went with no idea of where we were heading. Asked our way to a local ferry packed with people and animals and landed up on an island where one man seemed to be everyone’s adopted papa! He adopted us too, putting us up at his little abode on the beach, taking us snorkeling for the first time on his rickety fishing boat, teaching us the tricks in sign language and laughing adorably when I got confused and gulped a whole lot of seawater. I had no camera on that trip so all I have are mental shots of the stunning beauty of those waters, beaches and sunsets. I remember trying to understand the dish I was going to try from the ones they offered, going to their kitchen and being pointed to a dead bat hanging on the wall. It was bat fried rice 😲😂 . . I don’t know if Southeast Asia has changed or I have. Technology certainly has. Making us lazy. Making it so much easier to book online, translate online, snap photos, never get lost, post on the go. So starting last week, I’ve limited my social media screen time to 2 hours a day when I’m working, and 1 hour a day when I’m not. Time to reclaim the original joy of travel. . . And you, ever feel like technology is taking away from travel? . . Shot on #iphonexsmax . #theshootingstar #thailandtravel #southeastasia #digitalnomad #lifeisajourney

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I chose not to try to game the system. Not to play the follow-unfollow game. Not to compromise my travel style for likes or collaborations. Not to dilute my focus on sustainable and meaningful travel. Not to shy away from the reality of long term travel.

And I’m excited to share that despite that, my Instagram community has grown to over 67,000 followers, who often engage in meaningful conversations on my posts. I secretly think I have the best Instagram followers – and if you’re one of those who care to read and share your thoughts uninhibitedly on my posts and stories, I thank you from the bottom of my heart! You make all the time and effort  I spend on Instagram worthwhile for me.

As I write this post, I want to reach out to fellow travel bloggers and travel Instagrammers – the ones who similarly choose not to compromise their voice and authenticity – and say that you CAN grow on Instagram organically, without gaming the system, plastering your gallery with perfect bikini shots and editing the hell out of your photos.

Here’s what worked for me, and what I’ve learnt on the way to 60,000+ organic followers on Instagram:

Building a community is more powerful than gaming the system

You’ve probably heard people wax eloquent about the merits of organic engagement, yet been bombarded with DMs and emails promising thousands of followers. You’ve probably been followed and unfollowed yourself a bunch of times. I have to confess that like many others late to the Instagram party, I hit quite a low when I realised how easy it was to buy and lure followers. And how difficult it could be to grow if you weren’t one of the early adopters lucky enough to be featured by Instagram.

When I made up my mind to seek only organic growth on Instagram, I decided to stop obsessing over who follows – or unfollows – me, and started obsessing over engagement. Were enough people compelled to comment on my posts? Did the comments go beyond “Nice pic” and “amazing capture”, to something more meaningful? Those were the rewards I began to seek, and without quite realising it, began to build an engaged community as opposed to a shallow following. When you really begin to scan the big accounts, only a small percentage of them seem to offer real engagement – some of them have 5-10 times my followers yet less than half my engagement.

If you ask me, a real, engaged community is what can set you apart in the competitive world of travel Instagrammers – and slowly but certainly lead to greater reach too. It’s how I crawled my way to 67k over 3 years.

Also read: Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram

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On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. But as I hiked up, the distinct smell of weed (cannabis) invaded my nostrils. Mountain women walked past me carrying big bags of dried weed tied to their foreheads. Up in their fields, some harvested the crop, some sat in the warm winter sun and rubbed it relentlessly to make hash. Men who looked like goons, suited up, came to negotiate rates. It sells upto 25k a kilo, fetching a much better price than apples or potatoes or other crops they could grow. It’s illegal though, so their fields could be seized anytime, yet the money is worth the risk. A missed opportunity to draw legal revenue from a plant that is now legal in many parts of the world – and proven to be far less harmful than alcohol. . . On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. Corn drying on their rooftops, massive pumpkins in their balcony. But as I spoke to women basking in the sun outside their doorstep, I learnt that they own smartphones and are savvy enough to run Facebook. Yet rumour has it that the internet is evil, it gets women into trouble, even picked up by goons. We spoke about how YouTube could be used to learn new recipes, get creative with stitching, even solve everyday problems at home. . . On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. Surrounded by pristine forests, protected by the mighty mountains, close to nature. But speaking to locals, I learnt that in the name of development, the plan is to cut much of the primary forest to build a road right through it (instead of an alternative route with less forest cover). The elders lament that since their childhood, the forest has shrunken – so snowfall is less, water is drying up, wildlife is disappearing – and what good will be a road if you don’t have the means to live? . . On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. But turned out, there is nothing ordinary about the way they think, make a living, embrace solitude, battle hardships and bond with nature. . . Shot on #iphonexsmax . #theshootingstar #himachalpradesh #storiesofindia #himalayangeographic #incredibleindia

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We can’t do what everyone else is doing and expect to stand out

There was a time when merely having decent content on Instagram was enough to stand out – and Instagram rewarded you as a featured account that would get huge following. Some of those early adopters (smart folks) are making their entire living with Instagram now! The rest of us, though, need to innovate. Travelling is not novel. Great photos are not enough. Introspective quotes have become cliche.

Thinking about this made me realise that I have to offer my audience something different to stand out. And that’s when I started to put all my energy into writing – the one thing I genuinely enjoy too. My captions are way too lengthy, so much that sometimes I have to trim them to Instagram’s word limit. And yet, on a visual platform, my captions are what my readers repeatedly tell me they follow me for.

Some of my friends and fellow bloggers have unleashed their creativity in different ways on Instagram. Siddhartha Joshi (@siddharthajoshi) ran a portrait photography series for 365 days, featuring the dreams of ordinary Indians. Lola Akinmade (@lolaakinmade) started by posting a six post puzzle to tell a story through her incredible photographs. And Abhinav Chandel (@abhiandnow) keeps his followers coming back by mixing travel with stories of a fictional (or not) lover.

What I mean to say is, the possibilities are endless. Taking the time to find your voice and create a niche is the only way to stand out on Instagram.

Also read: Advice for the Young and Penniless Who Want to Travel

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Excited to share that on World Tourism Day today, I’ll be taking over the @wwf Instagram account to talk about sustainable tourism and the impact of our travel choices 👣 . . The idea of travelling responsibly often sounds boring, like a sacrifice. But over the past 5 years, as I’ve travelled without a home, in search of meaningful experiences, I’ve realised that making more mindful choices has led me to some of my best adventures yet! . . In India, this has included discovering the remote mountain villages of Uttarakhand with @greenpeopleind ; indulging in eco-friendly and close to nature luxury with @evolvebackresorts ; getting a sneak peek at the fascinating old traditions and art of Kerala with @the.blue.yonder ; and interacting respectfully with the intriguing tribes of Arunachal Pradesh with @kipepeoindia 🌎 . . After all, travelling is not just about pretty photos. It is also about an opportunity to broaden our perspectives and learn about other ways of life. It’s also about taking a journey within ourselves. . . And you, how do you ensure your travels are more meaningful and mindful? . . #theshootingstar #worldtourismday #sustainabletourism #zanzibar #digitalnomad

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Content still makes all the difference

As with most things online and some things in real life, we only have one chance to make a good impression. When someone visits your profile, are they inspired enough – by your bio and gallery – to hit follow? The rare time they see a post by you, for Instagram algorithm makes it pretty rare, are they inspired to stop, like and comment, so they are shown posts from you more often?

There are thousands, maybe millions, of us competing for the attention of the same audience. And I say competing because the Instagram algorithm makes it so.

I often try to put myself in the shoes of someone leisurely scrolling through Instagram. Will my photo make them sit up, will my caption spring them to some sort of response?

Over the years, I’ve realised that it’s only when I put out really meaningful content that I’m growing my followers and my engagement. There’s no easy way around it, despite what those spammy “get more followers” apps promise.

Also read: 6 Tips to Break Into Freelance Travel Writing

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My favorite “home” and “office” on the Cuban countryside, found on @airbnb 💚 . . This August will mark 7 years of quitting my full time job in Singapore and rebuilding life as a freelancer, entrepreneur and travel blogger! For the longest time, this digital nomad life didn’t allow me to go out of connectivity for longer than a couple of days without having a near panic attack – thinking about emails that needed my attention, projects I could be missing out on, deadlines that needed to be met and staying active on social media. I knew I had to be working from everywhere, latching on to wifi everywhere, if I wanted to make this life work. . . But in Cuba, I realised things have finally changed. That I didn’t hesitate to book flight tickets knowing that it meant 2 weeks of no connectivity. That when I realised wifi works pretty fast in public parks, I wasn’t tempted to use it everyday. That I was ready for a digital detox without any panic attacks. That I’m no longer a complete slave to the internet 😉 . . And in Cuba, I took to writing furiously. The vibrant streets, the gorgeous countryside, conversations with locals, I found inspiration everywhere. And writing for the sake of writing – not for Instagram, not for the blog, not for an assignment – sure felt therapeutic. Now I feel strangely nostalgic about the good old days of little technology – even though I never quite experienced them in my adult life. And now I must pledge to not become a slave to the online world again 🤥 . . And you, how do you balance your online-real life time? . . #theshootingstar #digitalnomad #vinales #cubatravel #writersofig #livethere #shotoniphone

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It’s not worth selling ourselves for brand collaborations we don’t truly believe in

There was a week when my entire Instagram timeline was filled with people going nuts over their free watch from one particular company! Surely many people noticed that. And surely, it left me wondering how many people actually wear those kinds of watches while hiking, or in the wilderness, or on the beach, where many of those photos were shot.

Don’t get me wrong. I do my fair share of paid collaborations – but sometimes you just have to get yourself to say no because the product doesn’t go with your personal brand. Or because your morals don’t allow it. Or because some promotions outright feel like selling out.

On my part, I like to think that no matter how desperate I am for the money, I’ll never promote products that use cruelly-derived animal ingredients or test on animals, or travel attractions that abuse animals. That you’ll never see leather bags, animal riding or milk products on my gallery.

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan – and What it Means For My Travel Lifestyle

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Hello from LONDON 🤗 . . My first time here and I already feel like I belong! So full of character. People spilling out of pubs onto the streets. Cafes with menus on which everything is vegan unless otherwise specified. So much greenery even in the heart of London. All kinds of accents and languages floating around. If only the rupee didn’t make me feel so poor 🙈 . . Oh btw, I think I found my favorite tee ever – at Goa’s first organic, fair trade, vegan clothing store (no animal-tested dyes, innovations such as coconut shell buttons) called No Nasties! Opens officially on 30th September in Assagao. . . PS: Thanks to so many of you for sharing your excitement on having my book delivered today! Check out my Insta Stories 💚 . . #theshootingstar #londonfoodie #vegansoflondon #vegantravel #shotoniphone

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Interacting and collaborating with fellow Instagrammers can help grow engagement and reach

Posting on Instagram is just not enough. I’ve found that in order to grow my following and engagement, interacting with the active community on Instagram is essential. Answering comments on your own posts is a no-brainer, but starting conversations on posts by others is important too.

When I was a small fish in the big Instagram sea, nothing delighted me more than seeing personal comments from Instagrammers I looked upto. Now that I’m a slightly bigger fish, I try to give back – by complementing photos and accounts that I see high potential in, and by occasionally featuring Instagrammers who use my hashtag #theshootingstar. I’ve also done a couple of cross-promotional collaborations with fellow Instagrammers, for example with Turkish solo travellers Tugce (@bilinmeyenrota) and Melke (@melkeontheroad), which helped me reach out to a new audience.

I think the good thing about Instagram is that virtually, we are all on a level platform. We need to keep supporting and encouraging each other to do better, to create more inspiring content, to have more impactful conversations.

Also read: A Himalayan Village Where Locals Runs Marathons and Their Own Instagram Channel!

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“The Shooting Star by Shivya Nath is a travel book of rare insight and depth… Her travels and her writings are filled with a deeply felt humanism, driven by her own “hero’s quest,” and her thirst for adventure, knowledge, and self-awareness.” ~ Travel blogger Mariellen Ward @breathedreamgo (you’re following all her India adventures, aren’t you?) . . I haven’t had a breakthrough with the international publishing of my book yet, but excited to share that this month, it has been featured on @lonelyplanetmagazineindia (thanks @ra_ra_raasta for the heads up); in the inflight magazine of @spicejetairlines (a 5 page spread!) ; and in an exclusive interview on @livemintlounge ☺️ Swipe right to see the features 👉🏼 . . But truth be told, what got me really excited was to come back after my little end of the year digital detox to an inbox full of stories and DMs from you guys about reading my book, travelling with it around the world, identifying with it and gifting it to your friends/siblings! . . These photos really made my day: 👆🏼by @sumathi_s while hiking in Coorg; 👉🏼 by @atoolfoo at -13 degrees in Arunachal Pradesh; by @shrutibookfairysharma in Lakshadweep; and by @lets.capture.the.world in Rajasthan 👣 . . I know I’ve said it before, but I’m really so grateful to the universe for helping my book find its way to the right readers, to fellow bloggers and friends for their support, and to all you guys for your love and encouragement ☺️ . . If you’re yet to get a copy, Amazon has a special offer today! Link in my profile @shivya . . #theshootingstar

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Don’t forget to have fun, especially while instagramming your travels

I can’t speak for other industries like fashion and food, but I’ve hung out with travel Instagrammers who’ve spent sleepless nights and mornings looking for the perfect Instagram shot – and even gone to the extent of photoshopping stars in their skies when they couldn’t get a really wide angle shot. I appreciate the perseverance to create exceptional content and understand the need to do what it takes to stay competitive… but hey, don’t forget to take some moments away from your lens and take in the surreal beauty of the places you Instagram.

When you look back at life, only your actual experiences will matter, not the photoshopped perfection of your Instagram shots.

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

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For 400 rupees a day, they carry stones, mix cement and literally build the extension of the majestic Ki Monastery in Spiti. When we see a grand site like Ki, we’re wowed by the monks who call it home. But the real “wow” happens behind the scenes – by guys who work their asses off for 400 rupees a day. . . Quite aptly, I met them when I wandered down a little path behind the monastery, where they live in tiny makeshift homes and were washing up at the public tap after a long day’s work. They were shy at first, as was I, but when we got talking, they told me that Spiti isn’t like their home in Jharkhand. It’s nothing, they said, barren, brown, no trees. Unlike our Jharkhand, they said, with greenery, fields and pure water. . . Two years ago, when they began visiting Spiti over the summer to help build the new extension of Ki Monastery, their mistry (contractor) told them he was the one who had built the original monastery! How old is he, I asked amused. 40 or 50 years, they said. Well my friends, the monastery was built in the 14th century, then almost rebuilt in the 19th century, I doubt your mistry was alive at either of those times 😂 . . At that moment, surprised and then amused, they looked at each other and laughed heartily at their innocence and how they were going to call out the mistry’s bragging – and I clicked this 📷 . . Shot on #iphone8plus . #theshootingstar #incredibleindia #storiesofindia #voicesofruralindia #portraitphotography

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We need to think beyond money – what else can we use our influence for?

Many of us are hell bent on proving our Instagram influence for paid brand collaborations – but as we do that, we also need to remind ourselves that money can’t be the only thing we use our influence for. Can we use it to challenge societal conventions? To promote responsible tourism? To spread the word about ethical photography? To encourage more people to travel solo and seek meaningful experiences? To promote compassion towards animals? To raise awareness against plastic consumption?

Whatever the causes close to your heart, make them your mission. After all, life is too short to create perfect Instagram posts just for the followers, money or likes.

Also read: Simple Steps to Reduce Single-Use Plastic – On Our Travels and in Everyday Life

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It’s one thing to know that the plastic trash we generate lands up in our oceans, kills marine life and destroys the underwater ecosystem. Quite another to go snorkelling over a virgin coral reef off the coast of a remote island in Cuba, see the sea bed littered with plastic bags and soda cans and shampoo bottles, and tediously help collect that trash through free-style diving… . . It’s one thing to snorkel to lose yourself in the surreal beauty of the underwater world, spot lobsters and angler fish and see purple-hued corals swaying beneath you. Quite another to see broken corals collected from the seabed and hung on crafted wooden pillars to increase their likelihood of survival so they can be planted among living corals… so this virgin coral reef doesn’t end up dying like others around the world 😌 . . It is one thing to pledge, as you take off your snorkel mask, to be one less person to add to that endless plastic trash in the sea. Quite another to get home to take a shower, and realise that everything from your shower gel to hair serum is plastic… . . The days I spent at the @ioiadventures coral reef conservation project in Cocodrilo have convinced me that I need to do so much more than saying no to plastic bags and bottles. I need to reassess all my belongings and buys. . . Because even though it’s one thing to fill our bags, houses and trash cans with all kinds of single-use plastic… it’s NOT quite another to fill our oceans with them too; it’s one and the same 🐬 . . If you’re keen to start your anti-plastic commitment too, I have a handy post with alternatives (and where to get them) – link in my profile. And if you have ideas for other alternatives, please share! . . Photo shot on @gopro by fellow traveller Anna Berestova, who spent 5 weeks volunteering there! . . #theshootingstar #cubatravel #saveouroceans #planetorplastic #ioiadventures

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PIN it to review these organic Instagram growth ideas later.

Do you love or hate Instagram? What creative ways have you found to use it and grow organically?

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Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star, on Amazon or Flipkart.