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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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Romania photos, Brasov photos, Brasov Romania

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.

Read More

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

villages India, Garhwal village, Uttarakhand villages

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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Join The Shooting Star on FacebookTwitter and Instagram for more incredible stories from around the world.

Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!

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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.

Travelling to Iran? Things to Know Before You Go.

I harboured a dream of travelling to Iran for a long time, but when it came down to finally planning a month-long trip in the country earlier this year, I had no clue where to begin. Iran recently started offering e-visa for Indian passport holders – but ours got rejected. I typically look at websites like Expedia, Skyscanner, Kayak and Goibibo to book flights – but none of these aggregate flights to/from Iran. I use Airbnb and Booking.com to find experiential accommodations around the world – but none of these work in Iran. I use Visa or Mastercard to pay or withdraw money from ATMs abroad – but neither of them work in Iran; to complicate matters, there are two exchange rates and two currencies in Iran. I buy travel insurance from World Nomads or Indian companies – but none of these cover travel in Iran. Hell, even Facebook, Twitter and BBC don’t work in Iran!

Slowly, we made our way through these challenges, discovering new sites and travel hacks, with a lingering concern over whether Iran was worth the trouble. Turns out, if there’s one country in the world that’s worth the pre-trip hassle, it’s Iran.

So I decided to write this detailed Iran travel blog, with all my tips on how to plan your first independent trip to Iran:

iran travel safety

A glorious view while landing in Iran.

Why you should visit Iran in 2019

While many popular cities around the world are suffering from too many tourists, Iran is the polar opposite. Tourism is so low that you can have mind-blowing experiences across the country – from the exquisite Nasir-ol-molk in Shiraz to the Kaluts Desert near Kerman – pretty much all to yourself. On offer are bazaars dating back a thousand years, architectural marvels from ancient empires, geographically unique (and often bizarre) islands and deserts, unexpectedly well-developed infrastructure, stunning gardens and cypress groves that inspired generations of poets, and above all, local friendships that’ll help you find a lost part of your soul.

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

Is Iran safe to visit

I remember sitting in a basement resto in Shiraz, watching the local news on television. The screen was split in two: on one side, Trump was raving about how Iranians were going through complete hell because of his sanctions on the country. On the other side, streamed a live feed from Esfahan’s tree-lined boulevards, with locals casually walking and eating roasted chestnuts – just a regular day in the country.

I’ve repeatedly been asked: Is Iran safe to travel? The country’s political regime is oppressive, and its relations with the US have been deteriorating, yet life in Iran isn’t what it’s often depicted to be in Western media. I actually felt safer there than many popular tourist destinations. As with anywhere else, stay aware of the on-going political situation and speak to a local tour operator in Iran to gauge how things really are.

Also read: We Travel to Realise Everyone is Wrong About Other Countries

iran people, iran culture, how is iran as a county

Iran travel tip: Connect with locals. Exploring Isfahan with a local artist.

Iran tourist visa on an Indian passport

Indian passport holders visiting Iran can now avail of a 30-day Iran e-visa – but like many others, ours got rejected without an explanation. We took the long-winded route of applying for an Iran tourist visa at the Iran consulate in Mumbai. The process is as follows:

  • Get in touch with an Iranian travel company and ask them to apply for a visa code on your behalf. Send them your passport copy, tentative trip itinerary and a form. We applied through Uppersia; they process visa codes if you book a trip through them.
  • Once you receive a visa code (takes upto 10 days), submit your documents at the embassy. The submission rules are still archaic; in addition to our travel documents, we had to submit medical tests for TB and HIV! To know the latest list of documents, call the Iranian consulate in the city you plan to apply, since they differed between Mumbai and Delhi.
  • We paid extra to expedite our Iran tourist visa, which then took 2-3 days since submission.

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

Entering the US after travelling to Iran

The good news is that the Iran tourist visa is not stamped on your passport. It is a separate physical document, and even at immigration in Iran, only the document is stamped at entry and exit. So in theory, there’s no proof on your passport that you’ve been to Iran. I haven’t travelled to the US after Iran, but I still expect to be interrogated if and when I do.

If you plan to travel to the US in the near future, I highly recommend that you apply for a US tourist visa before visiting Iran – since in the US visa application, you need to disclose all countries you’ve ever set foot in. Chances are, in a post-Trump US, this won’t be an issue.

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

Booking flights to Iran from India

International websites like Expedia, Skyscanner, Goibibo etc don’t aggregate flights to / from Iran. So we individually looked at airline websites like Emirates, Mahan Air (an Iranian carrier), Iranian Airlines – and found a sweet deal from Mumbai to Shiraz! To get the best deal, check not only flights to Tehran but also Shiraz and other cities.

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

qeshm island iran, why visit iran, iran travel blog

Iran travel tip: Go beyond the cities. An evening at Chakooh Canyon on Qeshm Island, Iran.

The best time to visit Iran

All locals unanimously agreed that spring (late March – early May) and autumn (late September – early November) are the best times to visit most parts of Iran, except the mountainous northern regions. We factored the weather into our travel plans in Feb/March, and ended up exploring the southern islands of Qeshm and Hormuz, and the Kaluts desert – too hot to visit at other times of the year.

Also read: Why You Shouldn’t Put Off Your Travel Dreams

The official and unofficial exchange rates in Iran

Since Mastercard and Visa debit / credit cards don’t work in Iran, not even in ATMs, carrying cash (US$) into Iran is the only option. Upon landing in Iran, we exchanged 50 USD at the airport’s money exchange counter, and were surprised to receive a HUGE wad of local currency – 3 times the exchange rate. That’s when we learnt that there are two exchange rates in Iran.

The unofficial exchange rate is 3 times the official one; it currently ranges from 11000-14000 rial to a dollar. This made our trip to Iran 3 times cheaper than we had originally budgeted for! It’s possible to exchange USD pretty much anywhere in Iran – at a hotel, money exchange, a random shop on the street, even with a taxi driver. Just make sure you get the unofficial rate.

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

Iran’s two currencies

Currency in Iran is super confusing, for there are two legal currencies – Toman and Rial; 1 toman=10 rial. Most prices are quoted in toman, but it’s always good to ask. We gradually found our bearings and also felt grateful that except for one unsuspecting encounter, no one tried to rip us off.

Also read: Creative Ways I’ve Learnt to Manage Money on My Travels Abroad

Finding unique accommodations in Iran

Since Airbnb and booking.com don’t work in Iran, we relied largely on TripAdvisor and Instagram to figure out our accommodations. Homestays, guesthouses and hotels all need to be emailed individually and paid either through bank transfer (a complicated process from India) or in cash. Thanks to a collaboration with Uppersia – a local travel company managed by an Iranian, all-women team – almost all our accommodations were arranged through them. They recommended some local guesthouses that only Farsi speakers can find, and also conveyed my vegan dietary requirements to all accommodations.

Also read: Dreamy Airbnbs to Experience Europe Like a Local

qeshm island, travel iran blogs, iran travel tips

Iran travel tip: Plan your trip based on the season. The stunning salt caves of Qeshm Island are only worth visiting in winter.

Travel insurance for Iran

Most travel insurance companies -World Nomads, HDFC Ergo, Bajaj Allianz etc, don’t cover travel in Iran. We ultimately found IATI, a Spanish company that offers travel insurance in Iran. Luckily, we didn’t need to use our travel insurance, but it’s always reassuring to have one no matter where you go.

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

Learning conversational Farsi to travel in Iran

Although it’s possible to get by with English in the cities, most people on the countryside only speak Farsi. We ended up learning a bit of conversational Farsi through the brilliant podcast Chai and Conversation – and practicing it with locals throughout Iran. Some basic phrases you should know:

  • Salam: Hello
  • Sobh bekher: Good morning
  • Chitori: How are you?
  • Befarmah: Welcome (you’ll hear it very often)
  • Merci: Thank you (like in French)
  • Nushe jahan: roughly translates to ‘my pleasure’

Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling

Accessing social networks in Iran

While Instagram and Gmail can be legally accessed in Iran, you need VPN for everything else.

We ended up using Express VPN all month – safe, fast and allowed us to access everything we would in our lives outside of Iran. Make sure you download the Express VPN app and pay for a subscription before you enter Iran. One subscription allows upto 3 devices to be connected.

I also tried Nord VPN and some free VPNs, but Express VPN was by far the fastest and most reliable. Wifi is readily available at homestays, and a local SIM card is cheap and useful.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

What to pack for Iran / What to wear in Iran

Unfortunately it’s true that women need to wear a hijab (headscarf), and cover their arms, butts and legs while in public spaces in Iran. Within your accommodation, it’s usually okay to let your hair loose. It’s rather fascinating to see how Iranian women transition from their often footloose, fashionable lifestyle at home to being fully covered while stepping out.

My relationship with the hijab quickly changed from nonchalance to annoyance to resentment, and finally to empathy for the women who don’t have a choice. Having said that, I must emphasize that we cannot judge Iranian women by the hijab. I met so many free-spirited, independent, badass, inspiring women across the country.

I didn’t buy any new clothes for Iran, except for a light long sleeve cardigan that covered both my arms and butt. I paired that with t-shirts, tops, even dresses while wearing leggings below. Note that Iran has a dress code for men too – shirts with sleeves (no sleeveless) and long pants. If only they’d cover their head in solidarity!

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

iran travel tips, travel iran blog, why visit iran

Iran travel tip: Learn a bit of Farsi to make the most of your trip. Umbrella art in Shiraz.

Vegan and vegetarian food in Iran

I was quite worried about being vegan in a meat-loving country like Iran, but relieved to stumbled upon Iran Vegan Travel – a small company that aggregates vegan hosts across Iran. We ended up staying at an all vegan guesthouse in Isfahan (which has changed hands since, sigh) and with a lovely vegan Iranian family in Tabriz. That meant incredible vegan Iranian food (including vegan kebabs) and veganised traditional Iranian dishes like kuku sabzi and ghormet sabzi.

During the rest of our trip across Iran, I relied heavily on the HappyCow App to find vegan-friendly restaurants and cafes. Many of our homestay hosts were accommodating enough to customise local dishes without animal products.

Also read: The Ultimate Vegan (and Vegetarian) Survival Guide for Japan

“Tarof” and how to accept Iranian hospitality

Tarof is Persian etiquette that puts the guest first: taxi drivers refuse to accept money for a ride, homestay owners refuse to let you pay for your stay, hosts stuff you with food, strangers offer to pay for your meals or entrance to an attraction, even fresh juice shops refuse to take your money. This kindness towards strangers is deeply rooted in Persian culture (much like in Indian hospitality) – but please, don’t take advantage of it to score a free meal or stay.

The rule of thumb is that if someone refuses your money or offers to pay for you 3 times, they genuinely mean it. Otherwise it’s tarof – it’s in their culture to offer, and we should reciprocate the gesture with gratitude but insist on paying our fair share. I’ve read accounts of travellers who ended up getting their accommodation, food, even transport free – which sucks, because the Iranian economy is doing terribly, tourism is one of the few avenues to make money, and as travellers, we should really know better than to take advantage of a local’s warm-hearted hospitality. Almost everything that you would pay for abroad, insist on paying for in Iran.

Also read: Inspiring Places to Live, Work and Explore as a Digital Nomad in 2019

vegan food iran, vegan iran, vegetarian food iran

Iran travel tip: Connect with Iran Vegan Travel to find vegan Iranian hosts around the country.

Solo travel in Iran

Although I didn’t travel solo on this trip, I can totally imagine doing it. The locals are hospitable and always up for a conversation, hardly anyone will try to tout you, there is much to keep you occupied, it feels safe enough and it’s one of the most affordable countries to solo travel in.

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

Where to go in Iran

Even as someone who doesn’t like spending too long in cities, I absolutely fell in love with Shiraz and Isfahan. The old gardens, stunning architecture, small-town vibe, tree-lined streets, old bazaars, nearby villages, there’s so much to love. Among other highlights of our trip were the islands of Qeshm and Hormuz, the Kaluts Desert and the cities of Kerman and Tabriz. Look out for my travel recommendations for Iran, coming soon.

Also read: A Guide to Exploring the High Tatras of Slovakia

Travelling around Iran by public transport

VIP buses are surprisingly amazing in Iran, and can comfortably ferry you across long distances. Infact, ours turned into a land journey from the Persian Gulf, via the south of Iran, to Yerevan in Armenia! It’s best to ask your host to book your bus ticket online, since websites are only in Farsi. Trains only ply a few routes in Iran.

Within cities and for short excursions nearby, we used local taxis – either booked through our accommodation or hailed directly on the street. In smaller places, many people will stop their cars to give you a taxi ride for a quick buck – which is totally safe. A little bit of haggling is common, but don’t go overboard considering the state of the economy.

Also read: What Indian Cities Can Learn from Copenhagan about Green Tourism

Getting over Iran!

For a couple of months after I left Iran, my world felt bland, soulless. I threw myself into Iranian films, Persian music, books by Saadi and other Persian poets, and began learning the Urdu script so I could slowly make my way to Farsi. Yeah, withdrawal symptoms of Iran seem to be common among travellers. The only solution is to go back, again and again 😉

Also read: How Travelling is Breaking My Heart

iran photos, iran travel tips, iran travel blog

Until next time… Qeshm island, Iran.

Helpful Iran travel blogs

Travestyle: An awesome travel blog run by an Iranian couple based in Iran. Their posts on offbeat Iran and what to wear in Iran were particularly helpful.

Against the compass: Offers a wealth of information about independent travel in Iran – and other countries under the tourist radar.

Books, music and movies about Iran

A small selection of Iranian books, music and movies I love:

Music: Blue Flowers (album) by Marjan Farsad.

Books: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi; The 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak (based on the lives of Rumi and Tabriz).

Movies: Taxi by Jafar Panahi; A Separation and About Elly by Asghar Farhadi.

Got questions about your trip to Iran? Have experiences you’d like to share from Iran? Ask / share away in the comments.

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

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The Ultimate Vegan (and Vegetarian) Survival Guide for Japan.

About this post: The idea of travelling as a vegan in Japan sounds incredibly difficult. Before my trip, I wondered if I'd be able to find any vegan food in Japan, especially vegan Japanese food, vegan bento, vegan chocolates and vegan Japanese snacks. Turns out, cities across Japan are becoming increasingly vegan and vegetarian friendly, and with some preparation, there is plenty of vegan and vegetarian Japanese food to be tried on the countryside too. Behold, my guide to vegan food in Japan, based on a month of exploring the country!  

Mission frickin impossible. That’s how a fellow traveller described my quest to spend a month in Japan, exploring the country beyond Tokyo, Kyoto and the regular tourist trail – as a vegan.

I took that warning seriously and got to work: A Japanese cafe owner in Bangkok helped me write in the Kanji script how to politely ask for vegan food, a friend whipped up homemade energy bars, I packed a ton of healthy vegan snacks and spent days researching the local cuisine. I was determined to make my mission possible – and I’m thrilled to share that I not only survived as a vegan in Japan, but the journey also led to some incredible local food, beautiful friendships and unexpected culinary secrets across the country!

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

Does Japan have any vegan roots?

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Vegan Japanese bento from Evah Macrobiotic Dining in Fukuoka.

On my second night in Japan, I braved the cold of Matsumoto (in Nagano prefecture) and landed up at Itoya Izakaya, thanks to the HappyCow App. The cosy traditional wooden bar turned out to be the home of 60+ year old Itoya San, who spoke a bit of English and had handwritten several cards explaining what local Japanese dishes she could make vegan or vegetarian. Over an immensely satisfying meal of oshoyu-no-mi (black soybeans with rice mould), jaza chizimi (potatoes with wild leeks), soba gaki (kneaded buckwheat with soya sauce) and warm homemade sake, we chatted about Japan, the mountains and her love for cooking.

When I asked why she offers vegan options unlike most other restaurants in Matsumoto, she said that during the Edo period, before Japan succumbed to western influence, their traditional diet was largely plant-based and meat-free! It was only in the late 1800s that people started consuming beef, horse meat and all kinds of marine animals in huge quantities. Both Buddhism and Shintoism, practiced for centuries in Japan, promote compassionate eating.

In fact, many Japanese rulers had banned the rearing of cattle and consumption of meat, because they couldn’t afford to lose more forest areas to practice animal agriculture. I later read that in January 1872, an emperor called Meiji ate meat publicly for the first time, encouraging the rest of the country to follow his lead. Rumor had it that eating meat would let the Japanese become big, buff and blonde like the Europeans! Thus began the Meiji era.

Although plant-based eating has now become an alien concept in most of Japan, the Japanese still say “ita daki mas” before every meal – an expression of gratitude towards the animals and plants whose lives were sacrificed to fill one’s plate.

Also read: Why Visit Japan? Because Everyone Who’s a Friend Was Once a Stranger

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Mochitsuki – the traditional way of making mochi in Japan.

Vegan Japanese food to try

Bento box

If I could go back to Japan and eat only one thing the whole trip, it’ll be the delicious, wholesome, colorful bento boxes, packed fresh for train travellers every morning. I ate them even if I wasn’t getting on a train! My favorite, hands down, was the vegan bento box at Evah Macrobiotic Dining at Hakata Station in Fukuoka. The bento shop near platform 8 at Tokyo Station has a vegetable bento box too. Show them the note, just to be sure.

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A vegan Japanese bento box at Tokyo train station.

Sushi

In Japan, I learnt that it is a misconception that sushi means fish. It simply means rice with vinegar, topped with various ingredients, one of which happens to be fish. I loved standing sushi bars (you literally stand around the table eating sushi) and revolving sushi restaurants, and each of them had vegan sushi with ingredients like cucumber, pickled radish, wild mountain vegetables, natto (fermented soybean) and seaweed. Turns out though, that even though avocado grows in Japan, avocado sushi is a California creation.

I was also surprised to learn that it is absolutely acceptable to eat sushid by hand in Japan (you need to be able to use chopsticks for everything else though!)

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Homemade vegan sushi in Osaka.

Inarizushi

Inarizushi is a kind of sushi made of sweetish deep-fried tofu, filled with Japanese sticky rice and sometimes other ingredients like sesame or sakura. Often available in supermarkets, and almost always vegan. Just check to be sure, one version contains shrimp.

Update: A member of the Vegan Japan Facebook group wrote to all the big supermarkets to ask if their inarizushi was vegan. All of them said it contained fish powder 🙁 Unless made on order from scratch, avoid it.

Miso soup

Made from grains and soybeans fermented with salt and koji (a fungus), miso is a big part of traditional Japanese cuisine, especially as a soup. It took me a while to get used to the fermented flavor; while I found the flavor in some soups too strong for my liking, I had some delicious ones, especially in local homes in Osaka and near Kyoto. The broth of miso soups typically contains fish, but I found many people willing to make a version from scratch using vegetables only.

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Vegan miso soup.

Shojin ryori

A traditional Japanese meal inspired by Zen Buddhism is entirely vegetarian and largely vegan (it sometimes comes with egg and even fish powder, so please order in advance, specifying you want it vegan). I had a Shojin Ryori meal in Nikko, which specializes in making dishes with yuba (tofu skin) – and what a treat it was. Expensive, but so worth the indulgence.

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A shojin ryori meal (feast).

Zaru Soba, Udon noodles

Soba (buckwheat) and udon (wheat) noodles establishments across Japan serve only that, and luckily, it is possible to customise a vegan version of both, without fish dashi. Zaru soba (cold soba) noodles come without broth, typically with a garnish of spring onions and soya sauce – and although it doesn’t sound like much, it can be quite a tasty meal depending on where you eat it. Some udon places will offer a vegan version made with seaweed dashi (either off a specific vegetarian menu or on special request), mushrooms, veggies, tofu and garnish – such a treat!

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Zaru soba – cold soba noodles.

Oyaki

The cold weather and mountain terrain in the Nagano prefecture wasn’t conducive to growing rice so oyaki – soba flour dumplings – became a specialty. They are typically stuffed with veggies, fruits and/or bean paste, and mostly vegan.

Yuba (tofu skin)

Sounds strange to have a dish or meal made largely with tofu skin, but boy oh boy, are the Japanese creative!

Japanese curry

Pretty sure it’s inspired by the flavors of the Indian curry minus the spice. CoCo Ichibanya Curry House is a chain restaurant across Japan – and some locations locations have vegetarian menus offering curries with vegetables, eggplants, mushrooms, spinach etc. Please note that vegetable curries outside of the vegetarian menu tend to contain meat.

Shabushabu

My friend and famous Canadian vlogger Micaela, who’s been living in Japan for a long time now, invited us to try a shabushabu restaurant located in the basement of an obscure building – and as with all things quirky in Japan, it turned out to be quite an experience! We sat on cushions in a tatami cabin, and ordered spicy, seaweed and soya milk broths, with glass noodles, yuba, tofu and veggies. Such a feast – though you definitely need a friend who speaks fluent Japanese to be able to order it vegan.

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A vegan shabushabu meal in Fukuoka.

Tempura

The Japanese version of pakoras, basically. The batter is sometimes made with eggs, sometimes without, so ask before you order.

Ramen

Noodles in a spicy broth! I only found vegan options in Tokyo and Kyoto, worth a try.

Gyoza

These half-steamed, half-fried Chinese dumplings are quite popular in Japan; if you see a veggie version, go for it.

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Vegan gyoza in Tokyo.

Okonomiyaki

A popular Japanese pancake – a bit like a Swiss rosti – made with flour, oil, veggies and typically eggs and mayonnaise. My host on the Kansai countryside was sweet enough to make me a vegan version; a couple of restos in Hiroshima offer one too.

Onigiri

Japanese rice balls, wrapped in a nori sheet, typically with a tiny filling inside, like red beans, a pickled plum (that one is called an umeboshi). It was a favorite picnic snack for one of my Japanese hosts, and readily available

Natto

Fermented soy beans, available as natto sushi or as beans with rice. Super nutritious though an acquired taste, one that I never did acquire!

Koyadofu

Tofu is available in several forms in Japan, but my favorite was the koyadofu, a dried version which soaks up the ingredients it is cooked in like a sponge! Even if you don’t like tofu in your daily life, I urge you to give it a try (with an open mind) while in Japan. It’s nothing like you’ve tasted before!

Vegan Japanese snacks

  • Snacks sold on Buddhist temple / Shinto shrine premises: Since both Buddhism and Shintoism promote compassionate eating, many street snacks sold on the premises of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines tend to be vegan. Show the note to find out. I loved munching on rice cakes with soya sauce and seaweed on a stick, soft soyabean sweets and crispy rice crackers with spicy seasoning.
  • Soy milk and “Soy Joy Crispy” bars (white chocolate, macademia, strawberry flavors) – Vegan Japanese snacks available in most supermarkets.
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Crispy rice cake, one of a few vegan Japanese snacks!

Vegan Japanese sweets

  • Mochi: A traditional Japanese rice cake, pounded with great strength in an act called Mochitsuki, available in many subtle flavors like sakura (cherry), ume (plum), horse chestnut and more. It’s a work of art – and a perfectly light vegan Japanese sweet.
  • Vegan chocolates in Japan: The Meiji 72% and 86% dark chocolates are accidentally vegan chocolates made in Japan, available in most supermarkets!
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Mochi – a work of art and one of few vegan Japanese sweets.

Drinks

  • Matcha green tea: Though a hipster trend now, the consumption of matcha green tea began with traditional tea ceremonies in Japan, and attending one with a Japanese tea master was quite an experience.
  • Sochu: Alcohol made with fermented rice, barley and potato. Pretty potent.
  • Sake: Fermented rice alcohol; I liked hakuba nishi but mostly just went with the izakaya’s recommendations.
  • Whisky: Well, whisky hasn’t been the same for me since Japan. Nikka has me addicted, yet it’s so rare to find outside of Japan. And Hibitchi was out of stock in Japan too! Who knew Japanese whisky could give the Scots a run for their money?!

Also read: What I Learnt Volunteering on a Remote Island in Cuba

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Matcha green tea with mochi – often served to welcome someone!

How to ask for vegan food in Japan

STEP 1: Begin with telling the staff, watashi wa begetarian des (I’m vegetarian) even if you’re vegan. The point is to convey that you can’t eat most of what they’re going to offer. This will likely leave them very perplexed.

STEP 2: Use a written note explaining what you can’t and CAN eat. The Japanese language and Kanji script are complex, and Japanese culture demands that any requests be made with utmost politeness. With the help of a couple of friends, I came up with a note (photo below) that had nearly a 90% success rate for me – for it politely explains that I can’t eat meat, seafood, dashi made with bonito / katsuo (fish), milk products, eggs or honey, but that I CAN eat vegetables, mushrooms, soy beans, seaweed, cereals like buckwheat, wheat, rice, tofu, soya sauce and fruits. At this point, the staff member will usually call other service staff to understand the note, maybe even the chef if it’s a small restaurant, and give you an idea of what they could make. Accept it with a smile!

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My note requesting for vegan food in japan.

STEP 3: Whip out some basic Japanese phrases to express gratitude for the meal. Arigatou gozaimas (thank you very much) and oishikatta des (that was delicious) went a long way. I listened to the Japanese – Survival Phrases podcast to learn some conversational Japanese before my trip, and found it super helpful.

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

My favorite places for vegan / vegetarian food across Japan

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A vegan Japanese meal based on fermented foods, at Hakko, Nagano.

I spent my first week in Japan exploring the island of Honshu on assignment for Japan Tourism; we had a fixed group itinerary, and my guide and translator went out of their way to make sure my vegan diet was catered for. However a couple of restaurants – a small izakaya and a soba restaurant – had nothing for me when we arrived, apologizing they could do no vegan food. Through my translator, I explained that I could eat anything with tofu, veggies, soya sauce etc, and within minutes arrived a small feast of dishes at the izakaya, and zaru soba at the soba resto. Lesson learnt: I had to modify my note asking for vegan food in Japan to include what I CAN eat.

Over the other 3 weeks in Japan, I travelled independently – partly with my partner and partly solo – spending most of my time on the islands of Kyushu and Yakushima, and exploring the Kansai countryside. Here are some of my favorite food experiences around Japan:

Osaka

  • Macrobiotic food in the home of Naoko and Noriko San, through Airbnb Experiences – easily one of the best meals I had in Japan! Macrobiotic Japanese cooking aims to balance yin and yang. The idea is that everything has opposing energies (black-white, male-female for example) and what we eat should be a balance of the two. Vegetables and fruits are in the middle of the spectrum, while meats, seafood, dairy and soy are pretty extreme and need balancing. Over a couple of hours, we cooked together a sumptuous meal of vegan sushi, spring shiroae (traditional creamy tofu salad), daikon radish salad, seaweed avocado salad, miso soup, and khoya dofu (freeze dried tofu) and fuki (a spring vegetable) – and ate (devoured) it together in their traditional tatami room, chatting about life, food, India, Japan, veganism and Bollywood. A most memorable and highly recommended experience!

Fukuoka

  • Evah Macrobiotic Dining: Incredible vegan food at this all-vegan establishment, located in the Amu-Est shopping area of Hakata Station. Their vegan bento box, burgers and sandwiches were absolutely delightful. I would readily travel back to Japan just to eat here!

Nagano

  • Hakko: Not far from the Jikokudai Park with semi-wild snow monkeys, Hakko is a local resto that specializes in fermented foods and mushrooms. A fantastic meal – though it’s better to inform them of your dietary preferences in advance, over email with a reservation.

Nara

  • Totingo sushi go round: Revolving sushi with marked vegetarian options on the menu, including inarizushi, cucumber, pickled radish and natto.
  • Hanata go: Like an izakaya but fancier. Has an English menu with some veg options. I tried the mushrooms in soya sauce (ask for it without butter), cold tofu in bamboo sieve and edamame, and liked it all.
  • Nakatanidou: Known for its Yomogi mochi, made of a Japanese wild plant called yomogi. One of the few places in Japan that still pound mochi by hand; watch it happen a couple of times every hour!

Aso

  • Train station cafeteria: What appeared to be a meagre meal of fried rice in sesame oil with pickles (an Aso specialty) and tofu turned out to be a quite a treat.
  • East: A small restaurant that was befuddled by my request for vegan food, but whipped up a strangely satisfying meal with steamed rice, tofu, pickles and garnishing.

Kurakawa

  • The Tofu restaurant: Tofu steak with sauce without meat and tofu ice cream!
  • Ryokan Wakaba (No 10 on the map): A delightful meal of zaru soba with soya sauce, vegan tempura, some veggies and garnishing.

Yakushima

  • 2F, Miyanoura: An obscure restaurant on the second floor of a souvenir shop, walking distance from the ferry terminal, served up a rather creative vegan meal made mostly with yam and tofu!
  • Jiijiya, Anbo: A charming old house, run as a resto by the grandson of the family. He speaks a bit of English and was sweet enough to mark the few side dishes on the menu that could be made vegan. I opted for the chilli oil tofu and mushroom dish, both yummy.

Kyoto

  • Ain Soph: After nearly 4 weeks in Japan, I really needed some comfort food and splurged at the all-vegan Ain Soph, on the softest, fluffiest pancakes, with a side of fresh fruits, homemade jams, soy whipped cream and 2 delicious ice cream scoops!
  • I didn’t make a note of the other places I ate at in Kyoto, but HappyCow has 34 listings of all vegan spots in the city, so there’s plenty to try!

Tokyo

  • Vegan bento box: The Bento shop near platform 8 at Tokyo Station has a vegetable (vegan) bento box; make sure you get one for your train ride!
  • We’re spoilt for choice in Tokyo; start with HappyCow’s highest rated vegan-friendly spots in the city.

Also read: Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth it? A Practical Guide to Bullet Train Travel in Japan

Challenges of being vegan in Japan – and how to overcome them

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The charming exterior of an izakaya.

It’s not mission frickin impossible to survive as a vegan in Japan, though it helps to be well-researched and well-prepared. In popular tourist cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Fukuoka, there are plenty of restaurants offering vegan / vegetarian options of local dishes. Get the HappyCow App to map what’s near you.

In smaller, less-visited villages on the Japanese countryside, most restaurants and izakayas only have Japanese menus and hardly anyone speaks English. During this time, I found it really helpful to have a written note explaining what I can’t and can eat.

  • Reading labels: If you’re vegan, your eyes probably hurt from all the labels you’ve been reading in supermarkets too – and Japan gives you a break from that 😉 99% of labels and ingredients are written in Kanji – and Google translate often fails to translate them accurately. Luckily, the supermarket staff often obliged in helping me translate the ingredients in freshly packed food, especially when I showed them my note. I also found the Vegan Japan Facebook group to be super helpful in identifying which products I could buy – browse through the group, especially photos, to see the range of products identified vegan in supermarkets.
  • Dashi, the bane of my existence in Japan: I often came so close to getting a promising vegan meal, only to learn that the goddamn dashi (broth) was made of bonito / katsuo (fish). Why oh why? The key is to keep cool and ask if making a seaweed dashi is possible.
  • Small restaurants not always willing / able to customise dishes: Although people everywhere tried to help, small food stalls and establishments were often unable to tweak a dish slightly because of pre-mixed ingredients – or weirdly enough, because there weren’t sure how much to charge for a customization! Oh Japan.
  • An alien idea: Even though Japan might have some vegan roots, veganism / vegetarianism is still an alien concept in most of the country. My note explaining what I could eat sure helped!

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

Joys of being vegan in Japan

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With my hosts Naoko san and Noriko san, after a really satisfying macrobiotic vegan meal!

  • Despite all the challenges, I have to confess that even as a vegan, I had some amazing meals in Japan!
  • On average, 8 out of 10 people spent time trying to understand what I can and can’t eat – and that says a lot about the Japanese culture.
  • Since Japanese cuisine is mostly raw, I happened to eat mostly raw vegan food for an entire month and could feel the effect on my mind and body. In retrospect, I’ve never felt more energetic and creative as I did in Japan.
  • There’s no joy like asking about a broth-based dish in Japan and hearing that the dashi is / can be made with seaweed. A joy you’ll relate to only after travelling in Japan as a vegan / vegetarian.
  • It’s worth engaging in conversations around veganism when locals get curious. When I checked in to my ryokan-style guesthouse in Tokyo, the host told me he wasn’t familiar with vegan food and lamented that he couldn’t offer me any breakfast. But the next morning, as I was stepping out for breakfast, he said he googled for ideas and had whipped up a vegan tofu steak and miso soup made with seaweed dashi (broth) for me! He was so stoked by his little experiment that he decided to add a vegan option to his breakfast menu.

Also read: Secrets Behind Some of Japan’s Most Intriguing Traditions

Tips for travelling as a vegan in Japan

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Comfort food – vegan pancakes at Ain Soph in Kyoto.

  • Get the HappyCow App: Especially in cities frequented by tourists, like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, you’re sure to find some amazing food based on the recommendations of past vegan / vegetarian travellers.
  • Don’t lose hope if you find no vegan listings on HappyCow / TripAdvisor / Google: I was extremely skeptical of survival, but had some amazing food in / around Aso and Yakushima, even though Google returned no search results for vegan food in these places.
  • Keep the note handy: I can’t emphasize enough what a savior the note asking for vegan food was for me. Don’t be afraid to show it all the time and ask for help!
  • Join the Vegan Japan Facebook group and browse through old posts for a wealth of information on vegan food in Japan. They’re also pushing a petition for products in Japan to be labelled vegan / vegetarian, which would make life so much easier. Sign it here.
  • Refer to the “Is it vegan” Japan website: I came across this excellent resource only after writing this blog post; it lists information on a wide range of food and non-food products available in Japan – and will definitely make life easier on my next trip to Japan!
  • Carry some back-up food, especially if you plan to spend a lot of time on the countryside. I carried a ton of energy bars and quinoa flakes that could cook quickly in hot water, and often made my own avocado toasts with local avocados and bread from the supermarket.
  • Vegan-friendly places you can always find in Japan: Sushi bars, soba restaurants (order zaru soba – cold soba noodles without broth), MOS burger (order a soy patty burger without cheese or mayonnaise), supermarket food (get soy joy bars, soy milk, onigiri, chocolates).
  • Ingredients you can always find in Japan: Rice, tofu, spring onions to garnish, soya sauce, chilli seasoning. It doesn’t sound like much, but sometimes the most meagre meals turned out to be surprisingly delightful.
  • Learn from the experiences of past travellers: Some blog posts really helped me build my confidence to travel as a vegan in Japan:
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Vegan Japanese food for breakfast at a ryokan!

To tell you the truth, even though I had a few challenging experiences in Japan during my search for vegan food, most of my food memories from the country are incredibly positive. I still yearn for the creative bento boxes, the aesthetically presented meals, the delicate flavors and the energetic, creative feeling born out of a mostly raw vegan Japanese diet.

I hope you won’t forego travelling in Japan or worse, compromise your commitment to a plant-based diet or seeking out local experiences. With some research, creativity and determination, it is absolutely possible to relish Japan as a vegan (or vegetarian). Ita daki mas!

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How Travelling Changed My Perspective on Getting Married and Having Kids.

In India, our personal choice to get married and have kids is everyone’s business. I’ve been inundated by these questions hundreds of times, but rarely has anyone asked me if I’m happy, content and excited about the way my life is shaping up. For the record, I am, on most days.

While many of my peers have chosen the well-trodden path of “settling down”, I prefer my seemingly unsettled ways. In 2019 alone, I’ve spent a month losing myself amid the awe-inspiring wonders of Iran and another, digital nomad-ing in Armenia. I’m typing this post sitting in a handwoven swing, hearing the chatter of birds, on the balcony of my current abode – a stone hut, surrounded by a gorgeous old oak forest in the Uttarakhand Himalayas.

Despite being financially independent, in a mature relationship and passionate about what I do, I’m constantly told that I need to settle down. That I’m somehow shirking my responsibilities and being selfish.

This stems from a deep societal conditioning that, sometimes even unknown to myself, I’ve been unlearning on my travels. After putting it off for many years, I finally decided to write this post for fellow dreamers, adventurers and rebels, who dream of doing life differently.

There’s already a lot said and written in favor of marriage and kids, so all I seek to do is share an alternative perspective I’ve learnt on the road, one that I hope will convince you to think, question and consciously make your choices:

Contrary to what Indian society will have you believe, these are intensely personal choices.

The concept of marriage came about some 4,000 years ago in ancient Greece, when humans began settling down and practicing agriculture. The idea was to make a woman a man’s property, and ensure that the kids she gave birth to really belonged to him. Over time, religion became part of the equation, making marriage a pious affair, one that signified stability. However, it was only in the Middle Ages, that thanks to the French, “romantic love” became associated with marriage.

See where I’m going with this? The concept of marriage came about as a practical (albeit patriarchal) transaction to arrange society. 4,000 years ago. And I dare say times have changed. Many women, especially in urban India, are financially independent, command equal rights and choose their own romantic partners. Binding a relationship with a legal contract or having it blessed by a religious authority is no longer a practical need. It’s a very personal choice, and unlike what our family, friends, relatives and the nosy world out there would have us believe, we have every right to choose.

These thoughts first occurred to me while living with tribal communities in Maharashtra and Odisha, where live-in relationships are the norm. Isolated from technology and the evolution of marriage in the rest of the country, their traditional wisdom recognizes the practicality of a partnership based on mutual trust, rather than legal or religious binding. But more than that, women are free to pursue their own path and not judged for their choices, just like men.

I mean no offence to people who choose to walk down the well-trodden path. That’s exactly what it means to have a choice.

Also read: Unexpected Ways Long Term Travel Has Changed Me

As much as you think otherwise, your life may never be the same again.

I often receive emails from individuals who lament that they chose to get married or have children without fully comprehending its impact on the rest of their lives. When we make such an irreversible decision in our twenties or early thirties, we need to contemplate alternate viewpoints rather than accepting the only one offered to us.

Think about it: raising a kid is a full-time job that’ll take atleast 15 full years of one’s life. No individual should take it on unless they really, truly, deeply feel a maternal/paternal instinct, and are financially and emotionally capable of raising an entire human. These parameters are important to ponder upon before deciding to do what everyone else seems to be doing. It’s a taboo topic to talk about, but some of my friends who’re mothers (and love their kids, needless to say) have candidly confessed that if they could turn back time and choose differently, they would. Not so long ago, the BBC anonymously featured mothers who regret having children.

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

Most people do it at the expense of finding or following a passion.

I’m 31 and have no desire whatsoever to be married or to procreate. Yet I’m constantly reminded that “the clock is ticking”. If you ask me, that’s probably one of the worst reasons to change the entire course of your life. Worse still, is when people tell me they’re thinking of having children because they need something more in life, they’re bored of their regular schedules or they need to stir up their relationship.

The more I travel, the more I realise that there are a thousand ways to live your life, but most people only choose one. The work – home – sleep schedule tends to breed boredom and an absence of purpose or meaning in life. And the only recourse society seems to suggest is to have a kid. But think deeper about it and you’ll find so many ways to get more out of life – work for the environment, fight for animal rights, teach someone a skill, learn a language, use your privileges to help create alternative livelihoods, travel with purpose, start a company to solve a pressing challenge, chase a forgotten dream, take some risks!

Also read: How Travelling Inspired an Indian Street Kid to Chase an Impossible Dream

People will criticise your choices no matter what.

If you’ve grown up in an Indian family, you’re all too familiar with the “log kya kahenge?” (what will people say?) line of thinking. It’s incredulous – and mildly funny – how so many of our life choices are made to appease what our friends and society at large think of us.

But perhaps you’ve heard the story of the farmer, his son and a donkey? No matter what the farmer did, people ridiculed him. And that’s true for everything we do in life. If you don’t get married, people will wonder what’s wrong with you. If you do, they’ll come to your wedding and criticize the food and the skin color of the bride and how much the groom earns. If you don’t have a kid soon enough, they’ll wonder what’s wrong with you. If you have three kids, they’ll laugh at you for procreating so much.

I’ve met many interesting people on my travels. Social entrepreneurs, naturalists, activists, poets, nuns, writers, musicians – and the one trait that’s common across all of them is that they don’t fear criticism. They don’t try to fit in.

Ultimately, we are the only ones who have to live with our choices. That could be a life with or without a legal partner, with or without kids. And it’ll be criticized by others anyway.

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

The carbon footprint of having a kid is high but there’s an alternative.

It’s 2019 and we know that climate change is real. But the impact of our consumption choices never hit me as hard as when I went to volunteer on a remote island in Cuba. Once stunning corals looked dismal, uninhabited beaches were covered in algae and the seabed lay littered with plastic. According to the WWF Living Planet Report, wildlife and marine life populations on earth have declined significantly, over just two generations.

Luckily, there are some things we can still do as individuals: Choose not to create more humans on this overpopulated earth, eliminate meat and dairy from our diet (or atleast reduce them significantly) and reassess our transport, water and energy needs.

If you feel strong maternal instincts and the need for a kid in your life, consider that there are millions of little humans and animals who’ve already been born, who are looking to be adopted, who need a home and a whole lot of love. You could fulfill your desires, change someone’s life and help the planet. That would be truly selfless.

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

Why do we follow society’s version of a “normal life” so seriously?

It’s almost like we’re a bag of potatoes destined for the same fate. Well, we are destined for the same fate ultimately, but that doesn’t mean our life journey needs to be a replica of everyone else’s. We don’t need to follow all the rules of adulthood. We don’t need to silence the child, dreamer, adventurer, rebel and freethinker within each of us. We don’t need to give up on our dreams. And we certainly don’t need to be told how to live.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re 16 or 60. Now is a good time to ask why you’re doing what you’re doing, and if this is what you want to keep doing. Get your finances and skills in order, revive those dormant dreams, tell that ticking clock to f*ck off and set yourself up for some adventure, whatever that means to you.

After all, we only have one life and we are all destined for the same fate, ultimately.

Inviting you to join my new Facebook group (women only):

Over the years, I have received messages and emails from many, many women struggling with their life choices and having no exclusive, safe, confidential space to discuss such dilemmas. I’ve just created what I hope will be such a space online, where adventurers, dreamers and rebels can connect with like-minded souls and form a support system. If that’s you, join the group here.

Has travelling shaped any of your major life choices?

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A Guide to Exploring the High Tatras of Slovakia.

On a cool spring day, under the warm blue sky, I set out hiking along jagged peaks, through forests of tall spruce and Scots pine trees. Along gushing rivers I walked, past waterfalls so intense that I couldn’t hear my own jumbled thoughts. A wild fox ran past me on the trail, stopped just a few feet away and turned to face me before darting off; my heart skipped a few beats as I thought: damn, I’m hiking alone in the High Tatras of Slovakia!

I’ve been lucky enough to hike through some incredible landscapes in Europe. The alpine Berchtesgaden National Park of Germany, the Tyrol region of Austria and the stunning Julian Alps of Slovenia. But the High Tatras of Slovakia felt different. Think rugged beauty, solitude on the trails with only wild creatures to keep me company, locals who speak not a word of English, the lingering traces of a communist past, the surreal feeling of being somewhere far off the beaten path.

Also read: First Time to Europe? 10 Travel Tips to Get You Started

Why visit the High Tatras of Slovakia?

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High Tatras panorama in Nova Lesna, Slovakia.

Dramatic mountain landscapes, wildflower-filled meadows, fields of blooming yellow rapeseed flowers, jagged peaks often clad in mist, pristine rivers and waterfalls, wooded hiking trails – need I say more? I fell in love with the High Tatras – designated the “Tatra National Park” – not just for their surreal beauty, but also because they’re perfect to hike solo and independently.

Truth be told, writing this post makes me feel pretty conflicted. On the one hand, I worry that its pristine beauty might no longer remain if word got around. But on the other, I think the only way to combat overtourism is to spread out, travel in search of our own paradise (for believe me, it exists) and in the quest, realise what we’ve got to lose if we don’t travel responsibly.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

Tatra Mountains hiking: Best short hiking trails in Slovakia

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A wild fox on my hiking path!

Although hiking trails in the Tatra Mountains are well-marked, I recommend getting a hiking map in Poprad, the main town, and figuring out which hikes you plan to do. The folks at the tourist information office in the central area of Poprad speak great English and are very helpful!

Hriebienok to Zamkovskeho Chata / Teryho Chata

While Stary Smokovec is probably the most popular tourist settlement in the High Tatras, the real beauty of the mountains begins after Hriebienok – accessible through a one-hour uphill hike on a paved road or by the Tatry Motion Train, which costs 11 Euros for a return journey, runs every half hour, has a glass roof and climbs up the steep track in a few minutes.

The one-hour hiking trail from Hriebienok to Zamkovskeho Chata follows a wooded trail with stunning views, wooden bridges, a crystal clear river and a couple of gushing waterfalls. A wild fox crossed me on this hiking path, and I loved taking a little detour to chill at by the river. Chata is the Slovakian word for hut, and at Zamkovskeho Chata, I was delighted to find warm vegan lentil soup on a chilly afternoon. Two hours further, the trail leads up to the beautiful Teryho Chata with more rugged Tatra scenery on the way.

Hriebienok to Slavkovska vhyliadka

My Airbnb host recommended the longer and steeper trail from Hriebienok to Slavkovska Vhyliadka, which takes about 3 hours, and leads to what he believes is one of the most beautiful parts of the valley.

Strbske Pleso to Pleso Hincovo

While the walk around the glacial lake Strbske Pleso feels more urban than alpine, there are some spectacular hiking trails up to other glacial lakes like the biggest in the Slovakian High Tatras – Pleso Hincovo. This one takes about 3 hours one way and climbs up along beautiful forests and rugged mountain terrain; stop for snacks / drinks at the mountain hut Pri Popradskom Plese.

Slovak Paradise National Park

The gorgeous Slovak Paradise National Park – with alpine forests, waterfalls and rivers – is just half an hour from Poprad Tatry, though poorly connected by public transport. According to the tourist information office in the city centre, only one bus plies there at 10:30 am and back at 4:23 pm, which is how I got there. Taxis cost 12-15€ one way.

Sucha Bela is the most popular hike, but on a rainy day, I didn’t think doing it on my own was a good idea, considering it has a vertical gorge to be climbed with ladders,  sheer drops into rivers / waterfalls and a one-way path so there’s no turning back. I would have loved some company to attempt this adventurous trail. Instead I picked the less adventurous blue trail through a quiet old forest.

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

Where to stay in the High Tatras of Slovakia

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On the shores of Strbske Pleso.

Given how little is written online about good accommodation in the High Tatras in Slovakia, I had a tough time deciding whether I should stay in Poprad, pick a mountain accommodation in the Tatras, splurge on a High Tatras hotel or find a Tatra mountain hut when I got there. I finally ended up staying at a family-run cabin on the outskirts of Poprad, in a small village with rapeseed fields and a stunning panorama of the High Tatras.

Poprad Tatry

Poprad is a mountain city with a small green centre and stellar views of the High Tatras, but also has modern malls, fashion stores, two vegan-friendly cafes and even a co-working space! Poprad train station offers easy access to the mountain trails, with electric trains departing every hour from morning to night.

Where to stay in Poprad Tatry:

  • Pension Barborka: This was my first pick in Poprad, but sadly sold out for my last-minute trip. Set in a historical building, this charming pension (the European equivalent of a guesthouse) is built primarily with wood and stone, and offers a traditional Slovakian experience; 30€ per night.
  • “Lost in view” Airbnb: I ended up staying in this independent rustic cabin, hosted by a friendly Slovakian family, in a little village in the suburbs of Poprad. I had access to a kitchenette, fireplace, radio, old bicycle and stunning mountain vistas. But the bus connectivity was quite awful, Google Maps didn’t work well and the whole experience was quite DIY. I’d recommend it for seasoned travellers who’re happy to be on their own; 50€ per night.
  • Hotel AquaCity Seasons: The only eco-luxury accommodation I came across in the High Tatras, part of the city’s famous AquaCity complex, powered entirely by geothermal water and solar energy. I met locals who said they travel all the way to Poprad from around Slovenia just to pamper themselves with a stay here, which also allows access to the geothermal pools and other wellness zones; 108€ per night.
  • Apartment centrum n8: A gorgeous self-catering accommodation; quite a steal at 55€ for the entire apartment.
  • Hotel 63: A cool, small, hip boutique hotel just off the city centre of Poprad; 40€ per night.

Nova Lesna

Nova Lesna is a small village, just 2 stops from Poprad Tatry on the way to Stary Smokovec – where many of the popular hikes in the High Tatras begin. Unlike Stary Smokovec and other mountain settlements which were specifically set up for tourists, Nova Lesna is a real village with a local population, a village centre, an old church, meadows with wildflowers in spring and majestic views on the High Tatras mountains.

I only spent my last afternoon exploring Nova Lesna, and left feeling like this is the village I’d stay in if I ever came back. It feels well off the beaten path, and although there are few options to stay and eat, it is only a short ride to Poprad and further up into the mountains.

Where to stay in Nova Lesna:

  • Penzion Tri Klasy: I walked past this charming wood and stone family-run guesthouse and was quite smitten; 56€ per night.
  • Villa Tatranit: A self-catering accommodation with friendly hosts, a well-equipped kitchnette and bicycles for hire; 100€ per night.
  • Vila Zvonika: An ultra modern, luxurious, design villa if you’re in the mood to splurge on a mountain hideout; 130€ per night.

Strbske Pleso

The furthest stop (and one of the most popular) on the Tatra Electric Railway line is Strbske Pleso – a glacial lake surrounded by a paved, wooded walking path, with a view of the mountains beyond. This is a good starting point for hikes to further glacial lakes.

Where to stay in Strbske Pleso:

  • Apartment House Oliver: A beautifully designed and well-equipped self-catering apartment, rented as part of a small family-run setup; 99€ per night.
  • Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras: A hot favorite among locals and visitors, Kempinski at Strbske Pleso is among the most luxurious Tatra Mountains accommodations, set in traditional buildings with stunning views over the glacial lake and High Tatras; 235€ per night.

Not on booking.com yet? Use my sign up link and get 10€ off your first stay.

Other High Tatras accommodations

  • Bluebell: A cosy, budget homestay located in the stunning village of Mengusovce, with panoramic views of the High Tatras; 27€ per night.
  • Mountain Hotel Bilikova Chata: If you want to be away from it all yet have creature comfort on a budget in the Slovakian mountains, this High Tatras hotel maybe for you. It’s located near Hriebienok, the starting point for some amazing hikes near Stary Smokovec – accessible only by hiking or the Tatry Motion train; 30€ per night.
  • Villa Pod Gerlachom: This unique Tatra hut accommodation is a standalone wooden chalet, surrounded by the mountains and forests. Ideal if you’re travelling in a bigger group; 141€ per night.

Not on Airbnb yet? Use my sign up link and get 25€ off your first stay.

Bratislava to the High Tatras by public transport

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Wooden bridges on the High Tatras hiking trails in Slovakia.

The High Tatra mountains extend from Slovakia to Poland. From what I’ve heard, the Slovakian side is less developed and relative less visited- and that’s where I spent all my time.

While it’s possible to rent a car and drive, I prefer public transport for its convenience, value for money and eco-friendliness. The small mountain city of Poprad Tatry (casually called Poprad) is the gateway from Bratislava to the Tatra mountains – and it takes about 4 hours to get there by train.

I was quite surprised to notice that the train prices from Bratislava to Poprad in the High Tatras varied significantly on different websites; I found the best price on Slovakrail (14-17€ one way). The bus is slightly cheaper, but takes 9-11 hours for the same distance! The train journey from Bratislava to the High Tatras (Poprad) is quite spectacular, crossing rivers, mountains and meadows along the length of Slovakia.

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

Public transport in the High Tatras

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Exploring Slovakia’s High Tatras by train.

From Poprad, the mountain settlements and hiking trails are accessible by the Tatra Electric Railways – single track, narrow gauge electric trains that run every hour. Of these settlements, Stary Smokovec and Strbske Pleso are the most popular; the one-way journey upto Stary Smokovec costs 1.5€ and further to Strbske Pleso 2€; an all day pass is available for 4€.

Tickets can be bought at the train stations in Poprad, Stary Smokovec and Strbske Pleso, and must be validated in the machine on the train. No one ever checked mine, but the fine for not having one if there’s a surprise check is 50€!

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

Solo travel in the High Tatras of Slovakia: Is it safe?

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A small High Tatras village between Poprad and Nova Lesna.

Even though few people speak English, I felt very safe living, hiking, eating and chilling alone in the High Tatras. The hiking trails are well-marked and easy to follow; the locals don’t smile often but do go out of their way to help (hello Balkans!); and I felt no threat cycling and hanging out all by myself, by gurgling streams and yellow fields, with no one around for miles, in the little villages between Poprad and Nova Lesna.

A smartass taxi driver did overcharge me by a couple of Euros in Poprad, when I missed the rare bus, but I learnt my lesson to be more careful with the starting rate on the meter.

A wild fox crossed me a few feet away while hiking, but seemed pretty harmless! This is also wild bear territory, so it’s best to be indoors after dark (which is post 8:30 pm on summer days); consult with local hosts on staying safe in the season you visit.

Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

Vegan food in the High Tatras, Slovakia

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A vegan superfood cacao smoothie at Lahodnesti, Poprad.

One of the reasons I decided to stay on the outskirts of Poprad was to have access to atleast some vegan food amid the meat-obsessed Slovaks. In retrospect, this isn’t necessary for two reasons: One, the train connectivity from the mountain settlements in the High Tatras to Poprad is much more frequent than buses to the city’s suburbs. And two, the food in Poprad isn’t too great so I ended up whipping basic quick meals with produce from the supermarket at home anyway.

Vegan food in Poprad

  • Lahodnesti: A cool space with plenty of vegan options like smoothies, burgers, paninis, couscous etc. The smoothies were yum, but the rest a bit bland; my favorite was the Lahodnesti burger.
  • VEG: Despite the unappetizing name, the space is quite cosy, with a bunch of vegan options like wraps, curry, kombucha, etc. I tried the quinoa tofu wrap which was decent, though could do with more flavor.

Vegan food in Stary Smokovec

  • Zamkovskeho Chata: A 2 hours hike / Tatra Motion train + 1 hour hike from Stary Smokovec, this mountain hut offers one vegan option on their limited menu – a lentil soup with potato cubes, perfect after a hike on a chilly day.
  • Soul: Located in Stary Smokovec close to the train station, I saw this restaurant advertising vegetarian meals, though I didn’t have the chance to check out whether they were vegan or what they entailed.

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

Other travel tips for the High Tatras

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Hiking in the High Tatras of Slovakia.

When to visit the High Tatras of Slovakia?

The shorter hikes in the High Tatras are accessible all year round. The longer trails further up into the mountains open only after the snow melts, typically from July to October. I was there in end May 2019, which felt like spring in Slovakia, with wildflowers in bloom. The weather forecast wasn’t accurate, so I had to stay prepared for both rain and strong sun on all days.

How long should you stay?

I spent five days exploring the Tatra mountains and could have easily stayed longer. I would recommend a minimum of three days.

How to travel responsibly in the High Tatras?

  • Don’t buy plastic bottles. Carry a refillable bottle, drink tap water (safe to drink across Slovakia) and fill real glacial water from streams along the way.
  • Use public transport. The electric trains run frequently, are very affordable and make for a unique experience on their own.
  • Avoid popular hiking trails on weekends if you can. They are far more enjoyable with fewer people.
  • Stick to the hiking trails. Don’t go crazy trying to get the perfect selfie!
  • Fight the FOMO (fear of missing out) and slow down; take the time to really experience this incredible part of the world.

Further reading:
Our Escape Clause: 5 reasons to go hiking in the High Tatras of Slovakia
Adventurous Miriam: High Tatras: The place you’re overlooking but shouldn’t
Earth Trekkers: Hiking the High Tatras of Slovakia

Have you explored the High Tatras of Slovakia?

*Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to book your accommodation through this post, I’ll earn a little bit at no extra cost to you – and it’ll enable me to keep creating practical guides to offbeat destinations around the world.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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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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)

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Yet human creations will leave you in greater awe

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

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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

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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

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

(at Shah Nematollah Wali Shrine in Mahan)

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

Move over New York, London, Paris!

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

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Make an effort to speak a bit of Farsi

I highly recommend the Chai and Conversation podcast.

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

Persian calligraphy gift from a local friend <3

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But also with the locals you meet along the way

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

In September 2018, my first book, The Shooting Star, was published by Penguin Random House India. It’s a travel memoir that charts my journey from the cubicle to the road and from small town India to remote corners of the globe. In just over a month of release, it sold 10,000+ copies and acquired the status of a national bestseller. Order a copy on Amazon / Flipkart.

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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