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One Year of Travelling Without a Home.

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. Read More

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Snapshots from Romania!

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

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Sikkim: The Lost Kingdom.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

***

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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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.

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Sunflower fields along the Karadeniz countryside.

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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.

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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.

uttarakhand india

What It’s Like to Travel Solo When You’re in a Relationship. 

I began thinking of this post while strolling by myself along the brightly coloured colonial houses in Havana, the vibrant capital city of Cuba. Over the last two blissful months in Guatemala, my partner and I spent most of our time together – chatting, drinking beer, hiking, occasionally working, cooking, reading, doing nothing. Then life demanded we go our separate ways for a while, so after crossing the border to Mexico, we boarded flights to different corners of the globe… and I landed in Cuba, a country whose culture and revolutionary history has intrigued me for many years.

When people read about my solo adventures, they often mistakenly assume that I travel alone because I don’t have a “special someone” in my life. That I’m single (I’m not), unmarried (I am), looking for love (I’m not).

And others often lament that their own relationships are a strong reason (excuse?) for not travelling solo. It’s almost inconceivable that we could choose to travel to a destination all by ourselves, without the presence of our significant other.

Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

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The picturesque streets of Havana, Cuba.

So I decided to pen this post – an honest reflection on what it’s like to travel solo when you’re in a relationship – hoping to offer compelling reasons to go it alone despite your relationship status, yet being brutally honest about what it entails:

At first, it sucks

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Figuring out life by myself… but growing to love it. (Cocodrilo, Cuba)

I won’t lie to you: the first few days are the hardest. You’re trying to figure out life by yourself, while at the same time, probably trying to figure out the new place you’re in. When you notice an oddity or feel the rush of excitement surging through your body, there is no familiar person to share that feeling with.

Take me for instance: So much happened even before I got into Havana – the flight captain announced that the weather condition over Havana wasn’t suitable so we might have to take a detour and land on the coast to refuel; while in the immigration queue, the electricity conked off (hello Cuba!); they took away my humble Indian passport for further inspection at immigration (that’s another story!).

And I couldn’t share those moments – of confusion and thrill and curiosity – with the one person I had shared many memorable moments in the last 2 months. I couldn’t share the surreal feeling of driving into Havana with Che Guevara murals staring defiantly back at me, or landing on a forgotten island where Fidel Castro was once sent to prison.

But time fixes that feeling of longing, and dispels the “why am I doing this to myself” thoughts. Time not only fixes it, but let’s you grow to love that you’re doing this by yourself.

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

You end up talking to more people, even as an introvert

cuba people, cuba culture, cuba solo travel

My host family on the countryside of Cuba.

Or should I say, more people end up talking to you? I guess in a way, it helps that solo travellers still stand out like an oddity in most parts of the world.

In Guatemala for instance, I’ve travelled both alone and with my partner. Although people are typically friendly, I ended up having many more conversations with locals while alone. Together, we often attempt to chat with people, but also end up receding into our own little world. And when people see you already have someone to talk to, they are not as likely to approach you or indulge in a deep conversation.

And needless to say, the more locals we talk to and hang out with on our travels, the more adventures we’re likely to get ourselves into.

Also read: Lessons on the Art of Living in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

The anonymity can be rewarding

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Sleeping on the roof of a Mauritian home!

Imagine if you could wake up one morning and transform yourself into whoever you want to be. No one around you knows your past, or how you normally dress, or where you belong. Travelling alone, despite being in a relationship with someone who knows you inside out, is a lot like that.

Often on my solo travels, I find myself in a world where no one knows a thing about my personality or fears. I can challenge myself, surprise myself and experiment with myself, if I choose to. At times like these, I’ve ended up hitch-hiking in the Indian Himalayas, hiking solo in the Ecuadorean Andes and sleeping on the roof of a Mauritian home.

Also read: Practical Ways I’ve Learnt to Stay Safe While Travelling Alone

You start valuing your partner more

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Hanging out together in Slovenia.

I think it’s only human to take someone you spend a lot of time with, for granted. You don’t hold back getting mad at someone you’re always with, or failing to acknowledge how important they are in your life. I know many relationships that have deteriorated over time that way. (And no, having a kid is never the solution, I think 😉)

But when you spend time apart, on your own, introspecting about your relationship and what makes the other person special to you, you are bound to gain perspective. You are likely to value, far more, the time you spend with your partner.

Besides, the road is a great teacher. And among other things, it keeps teaching me that life is too short and unpredictable to spend some of it fighting with someone you love.

Also read: Six Alternatives to Travelling Alone

You notice your weaknesses but gain some emotional independence in the process

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Plenty of perspective when you travel solo. (Northern Thailand)

Not reliant on my partner, or anyone else, when I travel alone, I’ve learnt so many surprising things about myself. Especially the things I don’t do so well. Like figuring out maps and directions, handling stressful situations without being able to control my tears, finding myself unexpectedly without connectivity and dealing with particularly bad travel days.

Learning to identify, accept and work through my weaknesses (although there’s no figuring out directions for me, I’ve realised) has helped me gain some amount of emotional independence. How? By no longer feeling overwhelmed by the things that I expect to feel overwhelmed by or rely on someone else to handle.

Also read: Meet the First Solo Female Traveller From the Maldives!

There are times when you inevitably crave company

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The weird one who wants to revel in her own company sometimes. (Kerala)

As much as I try to stay optimistic about my solo travels, there are days when I inevitably curse myself and my choices. Bad days, triumphant days, days when I’m unable to have a good chat with my partner, days when I realise the geographical distance between us, days when there is no one to challenge me to be more daring, days when I feel selfish about having humbling experiences all by myself… those days make me wonder why I’m choosing to live the way I do. Why I’m that weird person who wants to revel in her own company, who wants to travel alone halfway around the world and live among strangers.

These feelings surface every once in a while, leaving me conflicted. Yet I can’t quite explain why I still continue to push myself to travel solo…

Also read: Solo Travel Moments That Left Me Scared Shitless

Solo travel can change you in unexpected ways

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Learning about life from my solo travels. (Bavaria, Germany)

Travelling alone, especially for a long period of time, has certainly helped me gain confidence in myself, build my self-esteem and value my independence – especially as a young, unmarried girl from small town India.

In addition to expanding my comfort zone in unexpected ways, it has taught me a lot about my relationship too. That we can support each other’s dreams without sacrificing our own. That we can resolve any challenges as mature adults. That honesty is greater than any public certificate of commitment.

That I can be emotionally sufficient and dependent at the same time. That I can chase my dreams without guilt, and yet have a shoulder to cry on if I crash along the way.

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

The going is easier when you have someone to trust on the other end

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Someone to trust on the other end. (Caucasus Mountains, Georgia)

There are so many fears, hopes, expectations and disappointments on the road that I just can’t explain it to my family or friends. But having experienced some of them together, I can trust that there is someone I can call who will understand what I’m going through. That when I find myself disappointed or overwhelmed by a place, I will only hear words of encouragement, not worry or panic. That when I want to shorten a trip or walk away from an adventure because I just can’t convince myself to go through with it, I will only hear words of support, not judgement.

Also read: Easy Ways to Take Awesome Photos of Yourself When You Travel Solo

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Sunset in Havana <3

I watched my last sunset in Havana sitting alone on the Malecon, with the cool sea breeze in my hair and besame mucho (written by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez) playing on repeat in my head, reading a book written by Che Guevara’s wife. As the brilliant orange sun dipped into the ocean and I reflected on the last two weeks spent alone in Cuba, I desperately searched for words to describe how exactly it feels.

Luckily, these beautiful words penned by Che came to my rescue:

“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…”

Would you consider travelling solo while in a relationship? What are your hopes and fears?

Join me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook for solo travel experiences around the world.

Where to Find the Best Vegan and Vegetarian Food in Singapore.

About this post: In this foodie blog post, I look at the best vegan food in Singapore – including the best vegan restaurants in Singapore, options for vegetarian food in Singapore and usually hard to find stuff, like vegan chocolates, vegan dessert, vegan ice cream, vegan burgers and vegan brunches in Singapore. I hope to keep updating this list of the best vegan food in Singapore on my trips back to the city!

I remember my student days in Singapore. On a limited budget and palate, I mostly lived off Subway’s Veggie Delight (hint: not so delightful), grilled cheese sandwiches and an Indian food stall (hint: not so Indian). I was unaware of my nutritional needs and being vegetarian, afraid to experiment with new flavours. I was hardly a foodie.

Much has changed since.

I’ve travelled, turned vegan, tried all kinds of cuisines, grown to love unfamiliar flavours, even learnt to cook some of them.

Luckily, Singapore has changed too.

vegan food singapore, best vegetarian food singapore, vegan food blog singapore

Delicious greens (kankong) at Whole Earth in Singapore.

Since I last wrote about “must try vegetarian food places in Singapore”, some innovative vegetarian and vegan restaurants and cafes have sprung up across the city. I’ve slowly sampled some of them on multiple trips back to the city, and heard highly of others from friends who live there.

If you’re heading to the little red dot, take my list of must-try vegetarian and vegan food in Singapore and treat your taste buds:

Greendot:

Best for: Vegan Singaporean food, like vegan laksa and vegan noodles.

greendot singapore, vegan food singapore, vegan laksa singapore, vegetarian restaurants singapore

Bento dishes at GreenDot. Photo: GreenDot.

For a long time, laksa – synonymous with Singaporean cuisine – was only the prerogative of meat eaters. Enter Greendot, a vegetarian eatery, which offers a piping hot bowl of vegan laksa – rice noodles served in spicy soup, topped with shiitake mushroom, noodles and beansprout. A sort of passage into the local food scene!

If you’re feeling particularly ravenous, make a beeline for the customised bento meal which comes with a choice of rice (pick sesame rice!), a main dish (try the sweet and sour soya nuggets or the Gong Bao fresh mushrooms), two greens and a bowl of hot soup. Perfect for a quick, healthy, reasonably priced meal.

Tip: Vegan dishes at GreenDot are marked on the menu.
Location: Paya Lebar
Find Greendot on: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Also read: Vegan-Friendly Cafes and Restaurants I Love In Bangkok

HRVST

Best for: A hearty vegan brunch in Singapore.

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Vegan pancakes for Saturday brunch at Hrvst <3 Photo: Hrvst

A cool vegan cafe and bar meets urban rooftop farming and a boutique gym – a lifestyle concept space straight from a hipster’s ultimate dream. Whether or not you choose to work out, indulge your taste buds in a healthy yet delicious vegan Saturday brunch: think fluffy vegan pancakes, zucchini frittatas and Swiss rosti.

The menu gets even more creative on other days. Sample the BKT barley risotto with fresh daikon (white radish), garlic oil, pink radish, nuts and dough crisps – deliciously crunchy; the King Oyster “Scallops”, a truly delightful plate of king oyster mushrooms with baby corn, hazelnuts and lemon zest; and matcha ice cream with a burst of orange, plum and pistachio flavours. You’d never think of vegan food as a boring salad again!

Location: Shenton Way
Find HRVST on: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Also read: Secret Ways to Experience Singapore

Herbivore

Best for: Vegetarian Japanese food in Singapore.

vegan sushi singapore, best vegan food singapore, herbivore singapore

Vegetarian sushi at Herbivore! Photo: Herbivore.

While many Japanese restaurants in Singapore aren’t exactly vegetarian or vegan friendly, Herbivore, with its meatless bento and sushi promises to satisfy your Japanese cravings! Amid the warm ambiance, wooden furnishing and dimly-lit setting, try the shiitake sushi roll filled with mouth-watering flavours of avocado, shiitake mushroom, teriyaki sauce and sesame seeds (ask them to skip the mayonnaise when you order). The Tonkatsu Vegan Bento with the ubiquitous miso soup, rice paper spring rolls, fried “calamari” and Japanese rice also comes highly recommended.

Tip: Dishes that can be made vegan are marked on the menu.
Location: Fortune Centre, Middle Road
Find Herbivore on: Website | Facebook | Instagram

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

Original Sin

Best for: High quality Italian / Mediterranean vegetarian food in Singapore.

best vegetarian restaurants singapore, best vegetarian food singapore, original sin singapore

Hummus at Original Sin. Photo: Original Sin.

The sinfully delicious food and airy outdoor ambiance make Original Sin a worthwhile splurge when you’re in the mood for something Italian or Mediterranean. Whet your appetite with a mezze platter – hummus, beetroot and almond dip, crunchy falafel balls and homemade pita. Graduate to second course with the Broccolini Pesto Pasta – spaghetti tossed with broccolini (a hybrid of broccoli and kale), sun-dried tomato and walnut pesto! Or opt for the hearty, thin-crust Kashmir Pizza, topped with tofu, hummus, cherry tomato and tandoori sauce.

Tip: Dishes that can be made vegan, gluten-free and Jain are marked on the menu.
Location: Holland Village
Find Original Sin on: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Also read: All the Vegan Food I Loved in Salzburg, Austria

VeganBurg

Best for: Vegan burgers in Singapore.

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Delicious vegan burgers at VeganBurg. Photo: VeganBurg.

Despite its ulloo (the Singlish word for obscure) location in the basement of Jalan Eunos mall, VeganBurg – Singapore’s first all vegan joint and the world’s first 100% vegan burger joint – was completely packed when I wandered out there with a friend. Among the interesting variety of burgers, we settled for the satisfying Creamy Shrooms and Tangy Tartar burgers, along with a side of seaweed fries. The patties are soy or mushroom based, extra toppings include vegan “egg” and vegan “bacon”, and chi’kn nuggets are a popular side. I hope to make a trip back for their new Avocado Beetroot burger!

Tip: Get a guilt-free takeaway of vegan burgers – their packaging is bio-degradable!
Location: Jalan Eunos
Find VeganBurg on: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Also read: 5 Steps to Reduce Single-Use Plastic – On Our Travels and in Everyday Life

Afterglow

Best for: Innovative, hipster vegan food and vegan chocolates in Singapore.

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Avocado kimchi roll at Afterglow. Photo: Afterglow.

Hipster food (think avocados and açai) is all the rage around the world, and this is Singapore’s answer to it. In this cosy farm-to-table cafe, settle for the innovative Avocado Kimchi Roll, made with almond sushi “rice”, topped with avocado slices and 7 days aged kimchi. Or order an Açai Bowl for a hearty second breakfast – topped with bananas, berry compote, salted tahini caramel and coconut crackers. Make sure you save space for their dairy-free, guilt-free chocolates – a treat for all taste buds.

Tip: Vegan options are not clearly labelled. Ask the staff while ordering.
Location: Keong Saik Road
Find Afterglow on: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Also read: 10 Awesome Free things to do in Singapore

Whole Earth

Best for: Vegetarian Peranakan food and vegan noodles in Singapore.

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Set in a Peranakan shophouse. Photo: Whole Earth.

Singapore’s Peranakan cuisine was often off-bounds for plant-based eaters until Whole Earth came along – a vegetarian restaurant featuring fusion Peranakan-Thai dishes. Situated in a quaint Peranakan-style shophouse, come here to indulge in the spicy Penang Rendang, their signature dish of shiitake mushroom with marinated herbs and spices. Or order a bowl of hot and spicy Tom Yum soup on a rainy Singapore evening.

Tip: Reservation recommended; vegan dishes are not marked, let the staff know your dietary requirements.
Location: Peck Seah Street
Find WholeEarth on: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Follow my new food account @nomadicvegan on Instagram

Din Tai Fung

Best for: Steamed vegetarian dumplings in Singapore

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Vegetarian dumplings at Din Tai Fung. YUM.

One of the two repeats from my 2010 ‘must try vegetarian food in Singapore’ list, Din Tai Fung is a Taiwanese chain serving up sumptuous dumplings – so irresistible that I’ve eaten at DTF in Singapore, Bangkok and the original DTF shophouse in Taipei! I love their melt-in-your-mouth steamed vegetable dumplings, packed with mushrooms and greens, dipped into a side of soya sauce, vinegar and chilli. My record so far is 24 dumplings in one sitting!

Tip: The chilli dip on the table sometimes contains shrimp. Check with the staff, and if that’s the case, ask for cut chilli on the side to add to your soya sauce – vinegar mixture to dip the dumplings.
Location: Multiple locations, including Raffles City and Marina Bay Sands
Find Din Tai Fung on: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Also read: Not Your Typical Travel Guide to Taiwan

Murugan Idli Shop

Best for: Vegan Indian food in Singapore.

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Soft and fluffy idlis anytime. Photo: Deepikah Arora (CC)

It’s probably impossible to find fresher, softer idlis in Singapore, with tangy sambar and four kinds of chutney to dip them in – and the crowds at Murugan Idli often attest to that. This hole-in-the-wall joint near Mustafa Centre in Little India also offers crispy dosas and tasty uttapams – guaranteed to satisfy all your Southern Indian food cravings.

Tip: Combine a visit to Murugan Idli Shop with shopping at Mustafa
Location: Syed Alwi Road (near Mustafa)
Find Murugan idli on: Website | Facebook

Also read: Solo Travel: To Go or Not To Go

LingZhi Vegetarian

Best for: Vegetarian Chinese food and vegan buffet in Singapore.

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Vegetable dim sums. Photo: Ruocaled (CC)

If you dream of unlimited dim sums and a vegetarian steamboat (where ingredients are cooked on the table in a simmering hot pot), head to LingZhi for a vegetarian lunch buffet. Treat yourself to steamed ‘Siew Mai’ and mushroom dumplings, crispy yam croquettes, vegetarian ‘rojak’ and a steamboat featuring atleast five different kinds of mushrooms. An indulgent feast.

Tip: Vegan options are not labelled, so speak to the staff while making a reservation.
Location: Liat Towers; Velocity @ Novena Square
Find LingZhi Vegetarian on: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Also read: How I Quit My Job in Singapore to Travel 

Bollywood Veggies (Poison Ivy Bistro)

Best for: Fusion Singaporean and Indian farm-to-table food.

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Ivy Singh Lim at her farm. Photo: Bollywood Veggies.

The brainchild of Ivy Singh Lim – Singapore’s iconic rebel – Bollywood Veggies is a 10-acre farm in Kranji, a rare countryside experience in a city otherwise filled with concrete malls and manicured gardens. In the farm’s Poison Ivy Bistro, fresh, organic, farm-to-table cuisine fuses Indian and Singaporean flavours. Given the homegrown variety of edible plants – including tapioca, sweet potato, pumpkin and aloe vera – don’t miss the Vegetarian Platter featuring farm tempura (batter-fried veggies) and spring rolls. Along with the spicy kangkong or magic mushrooms, order the unique Blue Nasi Lemak Rice, made with blue pea flowers from the farm!

Tip: Vegan / vegetarian options are not marked on the menu, so check with the staff before ordering. And remember to buy some of the 20 different varieties of bananas grown on the farm!
Location: Kranji
Find Bollywood Veggies on: Website | Facebook

Also read: 5 Weekend Getaways from Singapore to Pamper You 

Bonus: Vegan desserts and vegan ice creams in Singapore

Smoocht

Best for: Vegan desserts in Singapore.

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Vegan ice cream at Smoocht <3 Photo: Smoocht.

This Italian plant-based ice cream joint is a guilt-free indulgence for anyone seeking a healthy treat. Their 16 ice cream flavours are made of brown rice milk and cane sugar, pack in 50% less calories than dairy ice cream and taste as decadent – try the “it’s getting dark” (dark chocolate), “mint mint mia” and “nutella, it’s really you” on crispy vegan waffles!

Tip: Smoocht also does kickass vegan pizzas and brownies.
Location: Jurong East
Find Smoocht on: Facebook

Cocowhip at Sarnies

Best for: Vegan soft serve ice cream in Singapore.

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Vegan soft serve dessert by CocoWhip! Photo: CocoWhip.

Conjured up in Australia, Cocowhip is an innovative coconut-based soft serve ice cream that I just can’t wait to try. Drop by at the otherwise not very vegetarian / vegan friendly Sarnies Cafe, only for a decadent helping of a Cacao Bliss Cocowhip, topped with macadamia nuts or sweet cacao nibs!

Location: Telok Ayer Street
Find CocoWhip on: Website | Facebook

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

What are your favorite vegan / vegetarian restaurants in Singapore? Which of the above would you most like to try?

Join me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook for more vegan travel ideas.

*Cover image: Afterglow Singapore.

 

digital nomad lifestyle, digital nomad blog, shivya nath, digital nomad india

How I’m Financially Sustaining My Digital Nomad Lifestyle.

About this post: Nearly 5 years ago, I gave up my home and most possessions to embrace a digital nomad lifestyle – making money to travel through travel blogging. In this digital nomad blog post, I candidly share how I make money travel blogging and what the digital nomad lifestyle entails. If you have questions about my digital nomad life or how being a digital nomad girl is different, ask away in the comments!

2018 Reader Survey: If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, please answer my 2018 Reader Survey to help me create more inspirational and valuable content for you. As a thank you, I’m giving away 2 Amazon Gift Vouchers worth 30$ each.

I’m writing this post from what is probably my favorite “office” in the world. The lake that stretches out below me looks exceptionally blue today; fluffy clouds have engulfed parts of the three volcanoes that dramatically rise up from the lake’s shores. There’s a nip in the air after the intense rain last night; a hummingbird is fluttering about the jacaranda tree outside the window. I don’t need to plug in my headphones because the gentle waves of the water and the sweet chirping of birds is more calming than any music.

For nearly two months, this spot, by the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, has been my home, office and the extent of my world.

Every morning, I rub my eyes in disbelief at the surreal vista before me. And as I analyse how I’ve been making money to travel over the years, I feel disbelief at my digital nomad lifestyle too.

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

What does it mean to be a digital nomad?

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Inspired to write under the cherry blossom in Japan!

The term “digital nomad” wasn’t as much in use back in 2013, when I gave up having a permanent address, sold most of my possessions and decided to travel indefinitely. Of late, as more people embrace a location independent lifestyle, the phrase digital nomad is used to describe anyone who works remotely, earns most of their money online (digitally), doesn’t have a home base to go back to and probably doesn’t own much except what’s in their luggage.

Besides travel blogging, digital nomads often run online businesses, have a remote work agreement with their workplace and freelance as writers, coders, photographers and anything else that can be done online, from anywhere in the world.

Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling

What is my digital nomad lifestyle like?

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Life of a digital nomad: Lots of goodbyes. This one in Georgia.

Personally, my lifestyle entails spending a couple of weeks to a month in one place, then moving on – working as a travel blogger wherever in the world I am. This includes travel assignments once in 2-3 months, and my own slower explorations while working on the go the rest of the time. I try to visit my parents for a week or so every few months or whenever I’m in India for a while. I also try to mix up new places with going back to places I love and feel familiar with – like Goa in the rains, Ladakh and Sarmoli to see friends, Thailand to wind down, and here, Guatemala, to find endless inspiration.

Deciding to commit to two months in Guatemala – the longest I’ve stayed in one place since 2013, when I stopped renting an apartment in Delhi – was an experiment to see if I was ready to transit out of my nomadic life. Turns out, even though I’ve loved my time here to bits, my feet are getting itchy again. At the end of the month, I’ll be off to Cuba and later, California!

Also read: Unexpected Ways Long Term Travel Has Changed Me

How I’ve been making money to travel (and live)

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Instagram – a growing source of income. Follow me @shivya

I know that’s a question on everyone’s mind – irrespective of whether you’ve been following me for a while or you’re a new reader (welcome!). Truth us, sometimes I can’t help asking myself too.

Since I last wrote about how I’m funding my adventures around the world through travel blogging in 2015, four things have changed:

  • Travel blogging has become my primary source of income.
  • Instagram is directly or indirectly helping fund my travels.
  • I’m being approached for lucrative freelance work!
  • I’ve paid off my massive student loan of 26,000$ so I can be more picky about what I work on.

Also read: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Quit My Job to Travel

My main sources of income as a digital nomad

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No connectivity, no electricity, but inspiration to write – in rural Uttarakhand.

You probably know that I started this blog merely as a space to write. At first, I wanted to rant about life. When I began travelling, I wanted to share stories of kindness and adventure from my travels with anyone who would read them – but mostly because I didn’t want to forget them myself.

Over the years, the opportunities have changed tremendously. As more people travel and more people invest in the tourism industry, travel blogs have emerged as a powerful way to influence decisions. While I continue to write for largely the same reasons, I’m now also able to make a decent living off this blog.

Here’s what has worked for me as a digital nomad in the last couple of years:

Travel blogging: In 2017, I made 65% of my total income through this travel blog. As my blog readership and reach has grown over the past years, I’ve received more paid projects and been able to negotiate better deals. As mentioned in my 2015 post, this has been a mix of long term / repeat partnerships with brands I love, destination-based travel campaigns and branded content.

Some projects I’ve loved working on recently include Say Yes To The World with Lufthansa, My First Ski Experience with Swiss Airlines, Undiscovered Japan with Japan Tourism and Offbeat Copenhagen with Wonderful Copenhagen. Besides the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed blogging about these, I also appreciate collaborating with professional industry folk who understand how to work with bloggers.

Social media, especially Instagram: As a digital nomad, with always a ton of stories to share from the road, it’s easy to get consumed by social media. So when I analysed my 2017 earnings, I was a bit shocked to see that I had earned only 4% of my total income through Twitter and Facebook. That made me decide to cut down my Twitter time massively – and invest it in writing more blog posts instead.

On the other hand, I earned a hearty 20% through Instagram – a channel I love for other reasons too. Despite being a visual platform, Instagram is where I’m having meaningful conversations with my followers as compared to other social media. I often use Instagram as a travel journal to refer back to in the future, and end up practicing my writing on it almost daily! My Instagram gallery also acts as a portfolio of sorts and I’ve received substantial blogging and freelancing projects through it.

Travel writing and other freelance work: In my 2015 post, I wrote that I’ve cut down my freelance work to a minimum. This means I seldom send out pitches to travel publications – and in 2017, I only earned 6% of my total income through freelance work. But in 2018, I’ve been receiving well-paying projects or those I’m passionate about – without pitching. I reckon the freelance percentage and range of work will climb up again this year.

Speaking at travel conferences and events: Last year, I fought my public speaking demons to speak on several occasions – as a keynote speaker at the SoDelhi Confluence in Delhi, as a panelist at the World Travel Writers Conference in the Maldives and as a moderator at a Responsible Travel Forum in Mumbai. Some of my speaking gigs were paid, others were not, but they gave me the confidence to get out of my shell and speak more – especially about topics close to my heart like sustainable tourism and storytelling. I ended up earning 4% of my total income through speaking gigs.

Affiliate marketing: This part sucks. I didn’t pay any real attention towards affiliate marketing, and ended up with a measly 1% in direct revenue. I didn’t even keep track of money earned in referral credit. One of my goals this year is to up this percentage.

Also read: Practical Tips to Break Into Freelance Travel Writing

Is my digital nomad lifestyle financially sustainable?

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Practicing Spanish at my abode in Guatemala!

Yes and no.

My income was more or less stable in 2016 and 2017, in that through a widely different range of projects, I was able to earn about the same amount annually. 2018 promises to be different, considering I’ve already crossed what I earned last year. Although things are looking up, I can’t help but get the nagging feeling that my current lifestyle isn’t yet financially sustainable. Maybe it’s to do with turning 30 earlier this year!

The thing that I’m lacking as a digital nomad is a source of passive income – income that keeps pouring in even if I don’t pour in the work. For many bloggers, this means affiliate marketing, selling e-books or offering blogging courses. I have none of these things going for me; truth is, I haven’t worked towards any of them. Passive income is a big topic of discussion among other bloggers too. We all need something to sustain us if we get sick and are unable to work, for instance.

Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home

Saving money and thinking about the future

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Thinking about the future, with hope 😉 Photo thanks to Siddhartha Joshi.

A lot of people ask me if I think or worry about the future.

For the past few years, my biggest financial burden was my humungous student debt of 26,000$ – which I thankfully managed to pay off in end 2017! With that out of the way, I’ve started saving more money with each project I score – I’m quite satisfied with the idea of growing my savings bit by bit, but have no intention of letting it consume me. That’s not how I want to live.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you probably also know that I never intend to have kids, so that’s not something I need to save for. I don’t dream of buying a house either.

In life so far, I’ve found that little good comes from dwelling on the future. It’s going to come anyway and it’s going to be nothing like what we imagine, so what’s the point?

So to everyone who asks, I think about the future sometimes, yes, but worry, rarely.

Also read: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Me

Earning money to travel vs. Passion projects

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Passion Projects – promoting veganism. I mean, look at that vegan sushi in Japan!

The reason I quit my corporate job, back in 2011, was because I didn’t want to chase money or promotions. I wanted to chase dreams, experiences, meaningful professional challenges and fulfilment of some sort. Of course I need money to chase all those things, but what I don’t want to do again, through this travel blogging career, is chase money as a goal in itself.

So these days, with the dark cloud of the student loan lifted from my head, I’m happy to earn enough to sustain my digital nomad lifestyle and save a bit – and direct the rest of my energy to passion projects. Currently these include promoting veganism and “I Love Spiti” – a campaign to fight plastic bottled water waste, for which we *almost* have a sponsor!

Also read: This World Environment Day, 5 Steps to Reduce Single Use Plastic – on Our Travels and Everyday Life

Goals as a digital nomad

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Primary goal as a digital nomad – always be working in my PJs 😉

One reason I really wanted to pen this post is to commit myself to some goals for the coming months:

  • Passive income: I’m seriously looking to build affiliate marketing on my blog, slowly, in a way that remains true to the way I explore places.
  • Guest posts: There’s so much I want to write about, but one me is just not enough. I’m looking at inviting guest contributors on the blog, especially to write about sustainable travel and vegan-friendly destinations. I’ll have a process in place soon, but if that’s you, feel free to send a pitch.
  • Another degree? Sounds crazy, I know. When I was done with my bachelor’s degree, I swore I’d never go to college again. But I’ve developed a keen interest in sustainability, and I wonder if besides soft skills like writing, a dedicated master’s degree or diploma could help. This is not a goal yet, just an idea floating in my head. If you have thoughts for and against, please share.

Also read: Why You Shouldn’t Put Off Your Travel Dreams in 2018

Understanding my readers better

In order to shape my vision for this blog, I want to hear more about what YOU want from it. What you love, what inspires you, what will add more value to your travels (or life). I invite you to answer my 2018 READER SURVEY. As a thank you, I’m giving away Amazon vouchers worth USD 30 (INR 2,000) each to two lucky respondents.

At the end of the survey, you’ll see details on how to enter the giveaway!

A note of gratitude

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Plunging into the cool waters of Lake Atitlan <3

As I plunged into the cool depths of Lake Atitlan this morning, I felt immense gratitude wash over me for being able to call this, “my life”. I’m grateful to the 23-year-old me who decided to stop chasing money and seek a different path in life. To the 25-year-old me who risked giving up her apartment and selling everything she owned, for an unpredictable life on the road. To everyone out there who believed in my work. But most of all, to you guys, my readers, for without you there’d be no blog and no digital nomad lifestyle! Thank you for being part of this roller coaster life that makes me spin around the world, sometimes broke, sometimes rolling in wealth, but always ready to embrace the next adventure.

Got questions about my digital nomad life? Ask me in the comments. I would love to hear your own experiences with long term travel and travel blogging too.

Join my digital nomad journey on InstagramTwitter and Facebook!

Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth It? A Practical Guide to Bullet Train Travel in Japan.

One of the biggest joys of travelling in Japan is the Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited access to the Shinkansen (bullet train) and other trains across Japan. In this Japan Rail Pass blog post, I’ve tried to analyse the Japan Rail Pass price, whether its worth it and where to buy the Japan Rail Pass online or in your country. I spent a month exploring Japan, armed with a 21-day Japan Rail Pass, figured out Japan Rail Pass travel routes, coverage and seat reservations – and fell totally in love with the Shinkansen! I hope this detailed Japan Rail Pass guide will help you plan your Japan trip.

In the 1960s, the Japanese piloted the shinkansen (bullet train) to facilitate their growing economy – an icon of wealth, technological innovation and efficiency. Surely the quickest way to travel across Japan’s scattered landmass. Brought up on India’s creaky railway system, I couldn’t contain my excitement as I watched my first shinkansen – the futuristic looking machine – glide into the train station.

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Oh how I miss Japan. Photo: Ray in Manila (CC)

Long travel days, which I usually dread on my travels, quickly became days to joyfully look forward to. I would show up early at the train station to hunt for a bento box or other vegan snacks; board the train, alongside local businessmen, to occupy a clean, wide, spacious seat; and gazing out at the scenery whizzing past, I felt like I was flying business class instead of rolling (levitating) on railway lines. Even on long train rides – Nara to Fukuoka, Kagoshima to Hiroshima, Hiroshima to Ayabe – I couldn’t help but think, sometimes the journey is indeed greater than the destination.

After a month of criss-crossing the country, mostly by train, I’ve put together this detailed Japan Rail Pass guide, along with tips for travelling by train across Japan:

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

What is the Japan Rail Pass and is it worth the price

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Armed with my Exchange Order for the 21-day Japan Rail Pass.

The Japan Rail Pass is a physical train pass, only available for tourists, that offers unlimited rides on (most) trains across Japan, including the shinkansen (bullet trains), for a fixed number of days. Unlike the Eurail pass – which allows you to choose a certain number of travel days during its validity period – the Japan Rail Pass works continuously while it’s valid.

Japan Rail Pass Validity: You can buy a Japan Rail Pass for 7 days, 14 days or 21 days – and can travel on trains from the day of activation till the day the pass expires.

Japan Rail Pass Cost – Ordinary Class (based on the current exchange rates):
7 days JR Pass: 29,110 Yen | 265 US$ | 18,000 INR
14 days JR Pass: 46,390 Yen | 420 US$ | 28,400 INR
21 days JR Pass: 59,350 Yen | 535 US$ | 36,300 INR

Japan Rail Pass Types: First Class / Green Car vs Ordinary Class
You can also consider buying a Green Car – aka first class – train pass to travel in Japan. I noticed that the Green Cars in the bullet trains are usually emptier and more spacious – but I personally don’t think they’re worth the extra money. See JR Pass prices for the Green Car here.

Japan Rail Pass vs individual train tickets in Japan
I spent a good deal of time before my trip looking up individual train and bus costs in Japan, because let’s face it – the cost of a Japan Rail Pass really pinches your travel wallet. Turns out, individual trains in Japan are priced super high: for instance, the one-way journey from Tokyo to Nara alone costs 14,000 Yen, and from Tokyo to Kyoto costs 13,000 Yen. So if you plan to travel to Japan for a week or less, and plan to do the return Tokyo-Kyoto-Tokyo train journey, the Japan Rail Pass for 7 days is already worth it.

Japan Rail Pass Calculator – is a JR Pass worth the cost?
Based on your potential travel itinerary, you can quickly compare individual train prices in Japan with the cost of the JR Pass for your entire trip duration – using the handy Japan Rail Pass Calculator. Keep adding your train rides and return journeys to figure out if your pass will pay off.

If you plan to explore only one specific region of Japan – for instance, Kyushu island – you could also consider buying a regional train pass. Read more about alternatives here.

What else should you consider about the Japan Rail Pass?
I ended up forking out the money to buy a 3 week Japan Rail Pass – and I’m really glad I did! Besides the fact that I recovered far more than the cost of individual trains, I loved the flexibility and convenience it offered. I was easily able to change plans on the go and take different routes than originally planned; I didn’t have to fret looking up the cheapest train routes every time I travelled; I also did a bunch of day trips to nearby towns – all included in the cost of my Japan Rail Pass.

Throughout Japan, I met locals who lamented not being able to explore much of their own country because of the steep  prices of  bullet trains – so in retrospect, I think us travellers are really lucky to have the option of a Japan Rail Pass while travelling in Japan.

Also read: Japan: Little Acts of Kindness in a Big World

Japan Rail Pass coverage – shinkansen and other trains

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So glad the Japan Rail pass covers shinkansen for foreigners. Photo: Doug Bowman (CC)

The Japan Rail Pass is valid on most trains across Japan, including:

  • All bullet trains (except Nozomi and Mizuho – the ultra fast ones)
  • Limited express trains, express trains and rapid or local trains
  • Some buses operated by JR Bus (we didn’t find any of these)
  • Narita Express – the airport train from Narita Airport to Tokyo city
  • Tokyo monorail (you’re only likely to take it to/from Haneda Airport)
  • The themed Joyful Trains across Japan and Design & Story Trains in Kyushu (we didn’t know about them but they sound ultra cool!)

The Japan Rail Pass coverage does not include:

  • Nizomi and Mizohu bullet trains
  • The Tokyo metro
  • Metros and local buses in most cities
  • The Yakushima ferry

Don’t worry too much about the bullet trains. The Nizomi and Mizohu trains, run by private operators, are slightly fancier, but you always have other bullet train options – covered by the Japan Rail Pass – on the same routes. Just make sure you don’t board any Nizomi or Mizohu trains by mistake or you could end up paying a hefty fine!

Also read: How to Score a Japan Visa on an Indian Passport

Where to buy a Japan Rail Pass – and activate it

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Sakura in Japan <3

The best time to buy a Japan Rail Pass is before you travel to Japan, either online or at an authorised JR Pass agent in your country (or any country outside of Japan). For a limited time, until March 2019, it is possible to buy a JR Pass when you arrive in Japan – at Tokyo or Osaka train stations, or at Narita or Haneda airports in Tokyo – but it is 10-20% more expensive than buying it outside of Japan.

Buy the Japan Rail Pass online
The most convenient way to buy the Japan Rail Pass is online, on the website of the official online reseller – JRailPass.com. Depending on your location, the delivery can take upto 3-5 working days, so order well in advance of your trip. It’s also worth keeping an eye out on the Yen exchange rate. You’ll receive an Exchange Order by post, which needs to be exchanged for the actual pass within Japan.

Buy at an authorised Japan Rail Pass agent in your country
You can browse through the official list of authorised Japan Rail Pass dealers in your country to find a reliable one. Since I was pretty last-minute about it, I ended up buying mine from a JTB agent in Bangkok. Upon payment (a bit more than what I would’ve paid online), I immediately received an Exchange Order which needed to be exchanged for the actual pass in Japan.

Use your Exchange Order for activation of your Japan Rail Pass in Japan
When you arrive in Japan, make your way to a JR Office at the Narita / Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Tokyo train station or any other major station in Japan. You need to carry your passport, submit your exchange order and indicate the start date for your Japan Rail Pass – once issued, the start date can’t be changed. Go with plenty of time at hand, as there can often be long queues at the “JR Pass Counter” at the JR Offices.

Think about whether you should activate your Japan Rail Pass at the airport
You can choose to activate your Japan Rail Pass at Narita or Haneda Airport in Tokyo, and use it on the Narita Express or Tokyo Monorail trains, but think about how long you’re spending in Japan, the validity of your JR Pass and whether you want to activate it within Tokyo. Chances are, you’ll spend atleast a couple of days exploring Tokyo, where you won’t be able to use the JR Pass (it doesn’t work on the Tokyo metro). For maximum mileage, I took the bus from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station (costs 1000 Yen; the Narita Express costs 3000 Yen) and activated my JR Pass on the day I left Tokyo and did my first long inter-city train journey to Nara.

Also read: Why You Shouldn’t Put Off Your Travel Dreams in 2018

First train ride in Japan with the JR Pass

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An experience in itself – the Japanese shinkansen. Photo: Hans-johnson (CC)

After you’ve exchanged your Exchange Order for a Japan Rail Pass, you still need to get it stamped before using it. At the ticket gates to enter any bullet or local train station, there is always a small JR Counter entry – and this is where all Japan Rail Pass holders need to pass through (since we don’t have a ticket to tap in).

Before your first ride, you’ll need to show the JR officer your JR Pass and passport, and get the former stamped. For any rides thereafter, you simply need to flash your JR Pass and move along – both while entering and exiting.

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

Do you need a seat reservation with the Japan Rail Pass

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Gazing out at the scenery on the Japanese countryside.

The short answer is mostly no. While seat reservations are possible on the shinkansen and some other rapid trains, they are not always needed – especially on popular tourist routes like Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka. However, getting a seat reservation is quick and free, the “reserved cars (bogies)” in the trains are more orderly, you can be sure to get a seat alongside your co-passengers and it’s more relaxing – so I recommend it if you get to the train station a little before time.

[Update: Based on a discussion in a Japan-centric Facebook group, it seems that some shinkansens are “reserved seats-only”, especially the long distance ones going north. It’s best to arrive a bit early and check at the JR office.]

Seat reservation on trains in Japan
As with anything related to the JR Pass, seat reservations can be made at the JR Office in any train station – either at the JR Pass counter or general tickets counter. At the train boarding area, the car numbers are marked out, so you can wait outside the car number on your seat reservation ticket.

Travelling without a train seat reservation (non-reserved) in Japan
All trains, including the shinkansen, have cars with non-reserved seating. You can see these non-reserved cars marked out for each kind of train at the station and on the outside of each train. There are also regular announcements (in Japanese and English) for the arriving trains, explaining which car numbers are for reserved and non-reserved seating. If you’re in a hurry to make your train, it’s a good idea to get into a non-reserved car; usually they don’t tend to be too crowded.

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

How to figure out train travel (or JR Pass) routes in Japan

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Shinkansen and Mount Fuji – quintessential Japan. Photo: Roger W (CC)

There are three sources I primarily relied upon, to work out my train travel routes in Japan:

The JR ticket counter: Along with activating your JR Pass and making a seat reservation, the JR Offices at train stations are super-convenient to work out the best train routes. The officials were always helpful and printed out the train itinerary – including travel times and where to change trains. This was immensely useful, especially since Japanese trains run dot on time and we often had only 2-5 minutes to switch trains.

The “Japan Official Travel” App: Developed by the Japan National Tourist Office, the Japan Official Travel App (see here for Android) has a lot of cool features, one of which is “Route”, which helps you determine the most convenient way to get to your destination – whether locally or cross-country. You have the option to prioritise Japan Rail Pass routes, sort by fewest changes or least walking, and opt to use only bullet or express trains.

Japan Rail Pass timetable on HyperDia: Recommended by a Japanese friend, HyperDia promises to have the most up-to-date Japan Rail Pass timetables and train schedules online.

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

Bento boxes and food on trains in Japan

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Score! A vegetable (vegan) bento box at Tokyo station!

Now that we’ve covered the technical details of travel travel in Japan, I can’t help but shed some light on bento boxes and food options – especially vegan – for fellow train travellers.

Bento boxes for train travel in Japan
Bento boxes are beautifully packed food boxes, prepared fresh daily for train travellers across Japan. You can pick up one at any train station before boarding. When you’re done eating, make sure you clean up after yourself and throw the trash either in the trash bin inside the train near the exit, or in the segregated trash bins (food waste, bottles etc) at the train station; trash bins are not very common in Japan and sometimes you might have to carry the trash with you till you get home.

Bento boxes and food options for vegan / vegetarian train travellers

Tokyo train station: I found a delightful “Vegetable Bento Box” – with a label indicating vegan – at a bento shop near platform 8. It is also available near platform 6. The varity of bento boxes can be mind-boggling, so try asking the attendant to help you, saying: “Watashi wa bejetarian des” (I am vegetarian) or showing her a picture of the above vegan Bento Box.

Kyoto train station: Although Kyoto itself is pretty vegan-friendly, I only found an average vegetable bento box at Isetan in Kyoto station.

Fukuoka (Hakata) train station: I was so wowed by the vegan bento box (and other vegan options) at Evah Macrobiotic Dining in the Amu Est Shopping Centre connected to the Fukuoka train station, that I re-routed my return journey with a short stopover at Fukuoka just so I could grab another meal there! All products on offer are vegan (try the burger!) and for quick takeaway.

Convenience stores: All train station also have convenience stores – usually 7 Eleven or Family Mart – where I could pick up vegan Meiji 72% (or above) cacao chocolates and nuts.

Buy on board: Bullet trains and some rapid trains are equipped with the ubiquitous vending machines to buy drinks on board.

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

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Contents of the vegan bento box at Tokyo station.

What to expect from train stations across Japan

  • Remember to use the separate JR pass entry and exit at train stations if you have a Japan Rail Pass – since you won’t have a ticket to tap in or out.
  • Most inter-city train stations have an escalator or elevator to carry your luggage – sometimes at the far-end of the platform.
  • [Update:] It seems that Japan has committed to make all Tokyo’s subway stations accessible to disabled passengers, so each station must have an elevator. Sometimes these elevators are super hard to find, but there are plans for them to be sign-posted soon.
  • When you need to change between Shinkansen (bullet) and local JR trains, you need to go to a different area of the train station. I got on the forbidden Nozomi train once, departing at exactly the same time as my local JR connection, because I didn’t realise this!

Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling

FAQs: Japan Rail Pass and Train Travel

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Japan Rail Pass for shinkansen – totally worth it! Photo: Hans-johnson (CC)

Japan rail pass map: You can download the Japan Rail map as well as local Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka metro maps here.

Japan rail pass official site: While searching online about the Japan Rail Pass, it can be pretty confusing figuring out what is official and what is not. JapanRailPass.net is the official JR Pass website and has the most updated train travel information.

Japan rail pass – buy online: The most convenient way to buy the Japan Rail Pass online is through the official reseller – JRailPass.com.

Japan rail pass India: See the list of authorised Japan Rail Pass agents in India; although I bought mine in Bangkok, my friend bought one at Travezee Tourism Service LLP in Mumbai.

Japan rail pass wifi: Contrary to general expectations, there is no wifi on Japanese trains, not even on bullet trains. You can usually find some free wifi network (including the JR east / JR west network) at most train stations though.

Japan rail pass for Tokyo / Tokyo metro: The Japan Rail Pass covers the Narita Express journey from Tokyo’s Narita airport to the city (which otherwise costs 3000 Yen) and the monorail journey, part of the way to Haneda Airport. It is also valid on lines on JR lines within Tokyo. However, the JR Pass is not valid on the Tokyo Metro, which you are most likely to use.

Japan rail pass in Kyoto: The Japan Rail Pass is valid on JR lines within Kyoto and inter-city trains from Kyoto to Tokyo and Osaka. Within Kyoto city, a bus pass is the most convenient option.

Have you used the Japan Rail Pass? Or do you have any other questions about it?

*Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you buy your Japan Rail Pass through these links, I’ll earn a little commission at no extra cost to you. This will help me create similarly useful and practical travel guides, based on my personal experiences.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Google+ to follow my travel adventures around the world!

Cover photo: Hans-johnson

This World Environment Day, 5 Steps to Reduce Single Use Plastic – On Our Travels and In Everyday Life.

About this post: The theme of World Environment Day 2018 is “Beat Plastic Pollution” – an urgent call to reduce single-use plastic in India and around the world. A good day for us to pledge to use more eco-friendly products in India, including bamboo straws, biodegradable pads, cloth bags, cloth pads and other zero-waste products. In this World Environment Day article, I have tried to create an easy resource of single use plastic alternatives and eco-friendly products in India – that can help each of us reduce our single-use plastic consumption.

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A hard-hitting campaign by National Geographic – Planet or Plastic? Photo: Nat Geo.

The more I travel, the more I realise how much power each individual has to shape the destiny of our beloved planet.

In Kerala, I met a humble auto rickshaw (tuk tuk) driver who has been taking bank loans to plant and nurture native trees, creating green spaces around his village. In Japan, I heard of a visionary local who literally saved the Japanese Macaques (snow monkeys) from extinction, by fighting an order permitting their hunting. In Mumbai, a well-off lawyer decided to personally clean his neighbouring Versova Beach, giving momentum to weekly clean-up drives for two years, resulting in the return of Olive Ridley turtles for their mating season after a 20-year hiatus!

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The humble tuk tuk driver who has taken loans to green his village.

This World Environment Day, as we celebrate such inspiring individuals, it’s also time for each of us to get off our lazy butts and commit to five simple things that can make a difference. Because if we don’t, all we’ll ever encounter on our future travels are mountains and oceans of plastic.

World Environment Day 2018 theme: This year’s World Environment Day theme is “Beat Plastic Pollution” – an effort to reduce single-use plastic waste around the world. And since India is the official host of this year’s World Environment Day, I’ve decided to highlight companies across the country that offer eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastic.

What is single-use plastic? Like the name suggests, single-use plastic consists of all plastic products that are only good for one-time use and must be discarded thereafter. Single-use plastic items include plastic shopping bags, plastic straws, plastic cutlery and plastic drinking water / beverage bottles. The plastic used in each of these products is low-grade plastic – not recommended to be reused, often leeches chemicals and hard to recycle. It lands up in dumping grounds around the world, and gradually in our oceans, where it threatens marine life.

Here are 5 simple steps we can follow to cut down our mindless consumption of single-use plastic – on our travels and in everyday life:

STEP 1: Say a firm NO to plastic shopping bags

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The foldable green Quechua bag I always carry.

Consider this: It is estimated that every year, the world uses 500 billion plastic bags! This is no surprise considering we’re offered a plastic bag each time we buy anything – at a fancy mall, at a kirana (neighborhood) store, at the vegetable shop, even when we’re piggy-backing food. Each of us could easily – and unconsciously – be accumulating 5-10 plastic bags in a day.

This habit of asking for, or accepting plastic bags, needs to go. And it’s really simple too: always carry a reusable bag with you. Keep it in your handbag or car at all times – and remember, cloth bags can easily be washed, so it doesn’t really matter if you put veggies in or something spills over.

Alternatives to plastic bags in India:

Cloth Bags: I bought a Small Steps bag,produced by Upasana Design Studio in Auroville, over four years ago, and I’m still using it. It folds up into a tiny pack for convenience, can be washed easily, lasts for years and has allowed me to say no to thousands of plastic bags! The initiative employs village women, so your purchase helps sustain their livelihood too.

Where to buy cloth bags in India: Small Steps || YellowBags

Biodegradable ‘plastic’ bags: If you’re looking for bags that are as handy as plastic bags, consider buying their eco-friendly version – they look like plastic, but are made of vegetable starch and natural extracts, and decompose in 3-4 months. These are easy alternatives for garbage bags, wrapping covers and shopping bags.

Where to buy biodegradable, eco-friendly plastic bags in India: Regeno Bio Bags || Envigreen

Upcycled plastic bags: If you really want to make a statement against plastic shopping bags, consider buying a bag made from upcycling discarded plastic bags – cleaning, shredding and manually weaving them on a handloom. The initiative also creates livelihoods for tribal women in Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Where to buy upcycled plastic bags in India: Aarohana online shop

Any bag or backpack you own: Chances are, you already own a small bag or backpack to carry your stuff while out of home, or when you travel – made of jute, denim, cloth or fabric. Use those bags to keep your purchases. Every time you say “no” to a plastic shopping bag, you are contributing towards a greener earth.

Also read: Simple Ways I’ve Changed to Travel More Responsibly

STEP 2: Stop buying plastic bottled water and accepting complimentary bottles

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Easy to carry and refill a durable water bottle.

If you’ve travelled anywhere in India, you’ve probably seen how our hill stations and tourist hubs are littered with discarded Bisleri and Aquafina bottles. Picking them up and throwing them into a trash can is not enough – only 2% of these bottles are recycled globally. The rest will take atleast 500 years to decompose. Doesn’t that suck for our earth?

Like every other traveller, I’m guilty of having purchased mineral water bottles in my earliest travel days; what alternative do I have for safe drinking water? I always wondered. Turns out, the alternatives are aplenty, only if we decided to commit to not buying plastic bottles.

Eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bottled water in India:

Durable water bottle + filtered water: I swear by this easy solution, not just in India but around the world, on public transport, even in hotels. It is easy to buy a good-looking, durable, BPA-free water bottle and keep it in your backpack at all times. Over years of travelling, I’ve almost never had trouble refilling my bottle with clean, filtered water – at homestays, guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, cafes or a local’s home – and it’s mostly free! That’s a lot of plastic bottles (and money) saved.

Where to buy a water bottle in India: Any supermarket, sports store or on Amazon

Water bottled fitted with a filter: A safer alternative to a regular water bottle is one fitted with an in-built filter. You can fill water anywhere, in a regular tap or even a waterfall, let the filter work its magic and suck out clean water. Many of my friends swear by the LifeStraw Go bottles – which pack in a powerful 2-stage filtration system to remove 99.99% of waterborne bacteria, parasites and microplastics.

Water bottle fitted with a filter in India: LifeStraw Go ||  Tata Swach 

A portable water filter: For a long time, I used the SteriPEN – a handheld water filter that I could stir around in any water to purify it using ultraviolet technology. It was easy to recharge and convenient to carry, until I lost it somewhere along the way. LifeStraw also offers a travel-friendly water filter, that you can stick into any water and suck pure water from – super convenient for long hikes and camping.

Portable travel-friendly water filters in India: SteriPEN || LifeStraw 

Water purifying tablets: I’ve met many travellers who swear by water purification tablets – drop a pill in and drink up! These are worth getting for a short trip and sensitive tummy.

Water purifying tablets in India: Amazon

Should you accept complimentary plastic bottled water on trains and flights, and in hotels?

My suggestion: No. I know everyone feels like they’ve paid for it and therefore should take it. But take a second to think of the greater cost to the environment. I always make sure I carry my own water on trains and flights, and say no to the complimentary ones I’m offered – I shudder to  imagine just how much plastic bottle waste is generated from a single train or flight journey.

For a long time, I hated hotels because it seemed like there was no alternative to those complimentary bottles of mineral water (since I hadn’t replaced my SteriPEN). But in recent times when I’ve stayed in a hotel – in India or elsewhere – I call in-room dining and ask them to send me a jug of filtered water everyday. It works beautifully – and considering that 10,00,000 plastic bottles are consumed in the world every minute, every little step counts.

Also read: I Love Spiti: How Travellers Must Help Save India’s Surreal Himalayan Desert

STEP 3: Consider if you really need a straw – and if yes, opt for a plastic alternative

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Bamboo straw with my Acai Berry Smoothie at Samsara Cafe in Guatemala <3

Isn’t it crazy how the whole world has taken to straws to suck liquids out of a bottle or glass? This isn’t about cleanliness – considering we already trust that the bottle or glass is clean enough to hold whatever we’re drinking. This isn’t about convenience either – I mean, how much easier is sipping a liquid through a straw than picking up the bottle or glass to drink directly?

It certainly feels pointless when you read how single-use plastic straws are landing up in the ocean and choking turtles and other marine creatures.

On my part, when I order a drink, I try to remember to say I don’t need a straw. And curse myself every time I forget. Luckily many restaurants and cafes around the world have begun offering alternative straws – including steel and bamboo straws. I recently picked up a pair of straws made with recycled paper, you know, for drinking coconut water 😉

Eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws in India:

Natural bamboo straws: I’ve tried these at some eco-conscious cafes, and I love them for their natural texture when you suck on them. They are washable (with a special brush), reusable and bio-degradable.

Where to buy bamboo straws in India: Bamboo India || Bare Necessities

Stainless steel straws: Another popular alternative to plastic straws are stainless steel straws – washable, durable and reusable.

Where to buy steel straws in India: Steel Straws || Suckin

Paper straws: I feel conflicted about using paper straws – since they tend to disintegrate while you’re still sipping your drink and can only be used once. I haven’t come across recycled paper straws in India yet.

Other natural straws: I just heard that someone in Mexico has come with straws made of avocado seeds! And it was recently reported that “doodly straws“, made of coconut leaves, will hit the Indian market soon.

Also read: Dreaming of Ladakh? It is Upon Us to Conserve This Incredible Place on Earth

STEP 4: Think before you buy: Plastic toothbrushes, sanitary pads and disposable cutlery

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My bamboo toothbrush – a reminder every morning of everything else I need to do.

It’s pretty horrifying to look around and realize how much of what we use in our daily lives is made of non-biodegradable plastic – right from toothbrushes and sanitary pads to pens and disposable take-away containers and cutlery. While it’s not easy to eliminate these and lead a more sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle, we need to start taking little steps towards re-evaluating what we buy.

Eco-friendly lifestyle products in India:

Toothbrushes: Even though we end up using a toothbrush for a few months before discarding it, it certainly adds up over a lifetime – and in the trash ground or ocean where it remains over the long decomposing period. After resisting for a long time, I finally switched to a bamboo toothbrush a couple of month ago – and I couldn’t be happier. Every morning, while brushing my teeth, I inadvertently think of other ways to reduce my plastic footprint.

Where to buy a bamboo toothbrush in India: Bamboo India || Bare Necessities

Sanitary pads / tampons: The dreaded monthly menstruation days can be just a little less dreadful if we switch away from non-biodegradable sanitary pads and tampons (imagine the monthly waste we create!), to more eco-friendly alternatives. Although I haven’t been able to get myself to use the menstrual cup yet (some of my friends love it), I’ve been using the biodegradable HeyDay and Drion pads and swear by them. I also intend to try the period-proof Thinx underwear when I visit the US this time.

Where to buy eco-friendly sanitary pads in India:

Food containers and cutlery: The thing that bothers me most about ordering in food or getting a takeaway is the plastic waste that comes with it – plastic spoons and fork, foil and plastic containers. I always indicate in my order that I don’t need plastic cutlery or a plastic bag, but there is more I hope to do – like buy reusable (collapsible) food containers and biodegradable cutlery.

Where to buy eco-friendly food containers, cutlery and tableware in India: 

Sustainable travel kit: Not sure where to begin? Buy a pre-made Sustainable travel kit on EcoTrunk, featuring a bamboo toothbrush, bamboo straws, natural soap and more.

Also read: How An Entire Village Transformed from Poaching Birds to Protecting Them

STEP 5: Reconsider your choices – where to eat and stay, and who to travel with

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Our travel choices can protect or ruin this beautiful world.

It is upon us, individuals, to convince accommodations, travel companies and restaurants that we care about their choices. That it bothers us when they offer complimentary bottled water or plastic straws. That their commitment to be a no-plastic zone makes us pick them over their competitors. That we are watching them.

How can we do that? Social media, of course. Many of us use Twitter to highlight cafes in India who say no to plastic straws, for instance.

Travel companies and accommodations that take a stand against single-use plastic:

What else can we do? Spread the word:

  • Use the above single-use plastic alternatives in everyday life and while travelling and inspire others to take action too.
  • Chat with the owners of our favorite cafes / restaurants / accommodations to replace plastic straws and packaging with eco-friendly alternatives.
  • Encourage our offices to go single-use plastic free.
  • Gift single use plastic alternatives to friends and family; we can all use a little push sometimes.

Let’s stop thinking of protecting the earth as someone else’s business, and make it our own.

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I Love Spiti – an initiative to create awareness against plastic bottled water in Spiti.

How have you pledged to reduce single-use plastic? What eco-friendly alternatives have you tried – in India or elsewhere? What are your challenges?

Big thank you to everyone who shared ideas for eco-friendly alternatives with me on Instagram and Twitter! Would you like to see more such posts on this blog?

Got interesting ideas around travel and environmental protection? Collaborate with me to initiate a new Passion Project.

*Note: The Amazon products mentioned in this post are affiliate links; if you choose to click through these and buy, I’ll earn a little bit at no extra cost to you. This allows me to spend more time and effort creating meaningful posts.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Google+ to follow my travel adventures around the world!

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Meet the Courageous Indian Woman Travelling the World Solo – On a Wheelchair!

In the second post of my Solo Traveller Series – which showcases the journey of solo travellers, especially solo female travellers, from India and other parts of Asia – I’m excited to introduce Parvinder Chawla, a Mumbai local and wheelchair traveller who isn’t afraid to travel the world solo. This post shares the challenges and joys of wheelchair travel, highlights destinations friendly towards wheelchair travellers and offers travel advice for disabled travellers and travel inspiration for all solo travellers. Read the first post of this Solo Traveller Series here.

It was pure serendipity that I landed up in Parvinder Chawla’s house on a rainy Mumbai night. When last minute plans took me to the city, I searched desperately for any available Airbnb in Bandra and booked the spare room in Parvinder’s house – not knowing that I was going to stumble upon her incredibly courageous story.

Her baby face, her infectious laugh and her warm welcome put me at ease immediately. She too, loves travelling, seeking out new cultures, putting herself out of her comfort zone, trusting in the kindness of strangers halfway across the world. There’s one difference though – she’s on a wheelchair and her body movement is restricted.

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Parvinder on the countryside of England.

Even around her own house, I noticed that she could only walk a few steps before having to sit or lie down – this acute sense of tiredness in her limbs makes her use a wheelchair most of the time. She had to muster up the energy to chat with me late into the night, and the bed and toilet seat were positioned unusually high to make it easier for her to get on and off easily. It’s hard enough for us, average travellers, to find the courage to travel alone. So as I sat there, hearing about her adventures – paragliding in Taiwan, travelling alone in China, zip-lining in Ecuador – I could only imagine the courage it must take her to board a flight, wheelchair in tow, to an unknown part of the world, confident of having a good time all by herself.

In her thirties and beyond, she’s explored 18 countries across 6 continents – many of them solo. And when I reached out to her for this story, she was setting off on her most challenging journey yet – a month-long solo backpacking trip across Europe, with no fixed plans and no pre-booked accommodations!

Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

A happy childhood – and an unfulfilled passion

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Photo: Muha.. (CC)

Parvinder (Pammu) recalls her childhood and early teen years as happy, bubbly, and exciting. She was an active kid and loved the outdoors – skating and swimming; playing hockey, cricket and badminton; going for picnics and hikes. At age fifteen though, she started to develop rheumatoid arthritis and experience pain in her arms and knees. By age twenty-one, the pain had worsened and she had to use a wheelchair to move around.

She recalls being very ill by the time she finished college; she couldn’t move her limbs at all. Perhaps it was sheer willpower that got her through this difficult time, perhaps the unfulfilled passion of travelling and living life on her own terms.

Also read: Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

Taking small steps to travel alone

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Her first solo trip – Bali! Photo: Devajyoti Sarkar (CC)

“At some point, I felt I could do it and then there was no stopping me. That’s when all my adventures began.” ~ Parvinder

In her late twenties, in a situation where most people would give up and surrender to living miserably, Parvinder began to dream of travelling the world – despite being confined to her (then manual) wheelchair.

Her friends invited her to join them on a trip to Jammu and Kashmir, and along with a helper, off she went – her second time away from Punjab and Mumbai, her two homes (the first time was to London, when she went to meet someone she had gotten to know on jeevansathi.com; he turned to be a fraud, but that’s a story you have to wait for her to blog about!). She was immediately bitten by the travel bug and impulsively decided to book a trip to Mauritius with a tour company – alone, yet part of a group with other travellers. She then travelled to Malaysia with a single friend, gradually building the confidence to travel by herself.

Her first solo trip happened on impulse – when she decided to fly to Bali from Malaysia, all alone! She recalls staying in a basic hotel, taking a one-day tour of Bali, then exploring alone on her wheelchair – asking kind strangers to help her off the chair or up steps.

Also read: Solo Travel – To Go or Not To Go

Why travel solo?

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The Forbidden City. Photo: Jim G (CC)

“I figured out I was happier when I was travelling alone. Because when I’m on my wheelchair, I have no limitations.” ~ Parvinder

Like many of us, Parvinder initially thought she’d love to travel with her family and friends. But with time, she got tired of waiting for someone else’s company – and figured out she was happier travelling on her own. Her (now automatic) wheelchair gives her the flexibility of “walking” long distances without feeling tired; it’s easier to make plans on her own time; she always finds kind people when she needs help; and ends up meeting and talking to more people when she’s alone. 

In China for instance, Parvinder says she was rather surprised to discover that much like India, trains, buses and metros were not geared towards wheelchair passengers. Often when she asked passers-by to help give her a push up a steep ramp, they declined – possibly because they didn’t understand what she was saying. That changed on a disappointing afternoon outside the metro station, when she was having no luck figuring out how to get to her train. A lady – headed hurriedly in the opposite direction – luckily understood some English and helped Parvinder, not only to the entrance on the other side of the street, but until they met the metro staff so she could explain where Parvinder needed to go!

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

Funding her travels and family support

Besides support from her family, Parvinder’s dabbled in several projects to fund her travels: from working in a call centre to fund her trip to Mauritius, to babysitting, to running a catering service. Her Airbnb in Mumbai is also a steady source of income – and travel inspiration!

Her family initially worried about her safety and expenses while undertaking trips by herself. But as time went by and they began to see how happy she was following her dreams, they set aside their worries and started to cheer her on. They also chipped in by contacting friends and distant relatives in places she travelled to, so she could feel at home right away. Her cousin aptly nicknamed her “globetrotter”.

Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling

The challenges of being a solo wheelchair traveller

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Parvinder exploring Seoul, Korea.

“There’s nothing you can prepare for, especially when you’re on the move. You have to have that confidence, that attitude of fearlessness.” ~ Parvinder

For an average traveller, it’s easy to stay in a hostel, hotel or Airbnb, run after a bus, squeeze into an elevator, make lunch plans with a fellow traveller or take a local tour. But she has so many other things to consider – the height of the bed, whether the washroom door is wide enough for a wheelchair, if an attraction can be accessed with a ramp, if a bus driver will help her on board, for instance. That doesn’t deter her though; she finds ways and tools for whatever she needs to make her day-to-day goals easier, and with time, she’s become better at travel planning. She says she also draws strength from chanting and spirituality.

Many countries around the world – like Australia, Dubai and the US – are wheelchair-friendly and that makes life easier. But in India – where travel infrastructure, public toilets, wheelchair access and safety are all major concerns for travellers with special needs – she prefers to travel with a friend, and usually contacts her accommodation in advance to find a local to help her along the way.

I receive messages every day from fellow dreamers who want to travel solo but are too afraid to take the plunge. Too scared, too unsure, too bogged down by what-ifs. When I shared that with Parvinder, she quickly dismissed these thoughts, as though fear didn’t exist in her dictionary.

Also read: Solo Travel Moments That Left Me Scared Shitless

Advice for people who dream of travelling

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Australia – one of the world’s most wheelchair-friendly countries. Photo: Chris Phutully (CC)

“Just keep the fear away. You need to have an open mind to feel free and have new experiences. Go out. Feel alive. You will die one day, so why take so much stress? There’s so much to see, so much to experience. Just go out there and do it.” ~ Parvinder

On the metro in Australia – which Parvinder has found to be one of the world’s most wheelchair-friendly countries – she met another woman on a wheelchair, a local who confessed she only ever did the route to her aunt’s house and back, and who was really surprised (and inspired) by Parvinder’s journey. The two have kept in touch, and who knows, might even meet again somewhere in the world one day.

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

How travelling has changed her

Parvinder chawla, wheelchair traveller, disabled traveller, disabled travel advice

Visiting her grandparents in Rajasthan.

“I no longer care what happens, I just take things as they come.” ~ Parvinder

Parvinder believes that travelling has made her a more confident person – transforming her from being so ill that she couldn’t move her limbs to mustering up the courage to go wheelchair-backpacking across Europe alone. She is content being single and appreciates the freedom to spend money on things that make her happy. Her mantra is to enjoy life, no matter the odds, and she feels lucky to have met warm, helpful and friendly people around the world.

We’ll all die one day, she says casually, so why take so much stress?

Also read: Unexpected Ways Long Term Travel Has Changed Me

Shoutout: Join Parvinder to help tell her stories on her new travel blog.

As you can tell, Parvinder has a wealth of stories from around the world that she’s keen to share through her new blog – Wheelchair and Eye. She is looking for a creative person to work with her, to help turn her travel experiences into inspiring travel stories. If you’re interested, please write to Parvinder with your motivation and ideas at dipsandmore.in@gmail.com.

Read more about Parvinder’s journey on The Huffington Post, Holiday IQ and The News Minute.

What’s your biggest solo travel challenge? How do you overcome it?

If you’ve met inspiring solo travellers from India / Asia who I could consider featuring in this series, please connect us!

Connect with me on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Google+ to follow my solo travel adventures around the world!

Other posts from this solo travel series:
Meet the First Solo Female Traveller from the Maldives
Coming soon: Career Break for a Cause – The Indian Solo Traveller on a Mission

Thanks to Parvinder Chawla and Remya Padmadas for their inputs.

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

Travelling to Denmark and looking for alternative things to do in Copenhagen? I tried to explore Copenhagen beyond the usual sightseeing and travel advice, and put together this list of the best things to do in Copenhagen. I hope my Copenhagen travel tips – featuring all the fun things to do in Copenhagen and how to explore the city like a local – will make you love the city too!

There are few cities in the world I’ve loved like I loved Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. The capital of all that is cool, eco-friendly and eclectic.

This is a city with more bicycles than cars on the streets; with streets that belong in the museum of modern art; with cute little bicycle traffic lights; with foot rails at bicycle traffic lights to rest your feet! This is a city where no one lives more than 8 minutes away from a green space; where cemeteries are as much for the living as for the dead; where the government has committed to all public transport vehicles being electric by 2020.

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Copenhagen – Alive and beautiful in spring!

Flying direct on Air India, from the mind-boggling chaos of Delhi, Copenhagen felt too quiet at first. Too empty. Too sanitised. But getting on a bicycle, like every other local, changed the way I experienced it.

There are plenty of popular things to do around here – visit the museum of modern art, hang out at Nyhavn (the new harbor), take a boat cruise along the canals, catch a panorama of the city from the Round Tower…

But if you really want to get off the tourist trail, take my list of alternative, offbeat things to do in the city and fall in love with it like I did:

Chill along the sand dunes and windmills of Amager Strandpark

Amager strandpark, best things to do in copenhagen, fun things to do in copenhagen

Cycling amid the stark dunes and wilderness of Amager Strandpark.

Cycling nearly an hour out of the city, towards the coast of Copenhagen, past colourful little settlements, watching planes landing at the airport nearby, we landed up most unexpectedly at Amager Strandpark (or Amager Beach Park). The low sandy dunes, with wild bushes swaying in the wind and windmills spinning hypnotically along the coast, made me feel like we had arrived in the Scandinavia of yore – where man was yet to settle.

That’s exactly what made me fall in love with Copenhagen – one minute, we were grabbing vegan food at a trendy cafe in town; the other, we were cycling along sandy dunes with nothing but the sound of the waves in our ears and the cool northern wind on our faces.

Tip: In early spring, we only shared Amager Strandpark with a couple of runners and dog-walkers, but rumour has it that it gets busier in the summer, and even plays host to eclectic music concerts!

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

Catch Japanese sakura across the city in spring!

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Under the cherry blossom canopy at Bispebjerg Cemetery.

I totally lucked out with catching the spectacular Japanese cherry trees in bloom a second time this year – across Copenhagen, in the third week of April (the first time was in Japan, where the sakura blossomed a few weeks earlier than predicted). At Bispebjerg Cemetery, a fifteen minute bicycle ride from the city centre, the cherry path, with cherry trees on either side, their flowers forming a canopy over the walking path, is truly a spectacle to behold – but also packed with people out to see this rare phenomenon. The good news is, many parks, gardens and walking paths throughout the city are planted with sakura trees, making the entire city feel alive in spring!

Tip: If you want to enjoy the most prominent sakura blossom sans the crowds, head to Bispebjerg Cemetery or the Little Mermaid Statue early morning. 

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

Ride the Cykelslangen, connecting the old and new harbors of Copenhagen

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The Bicycle Snake. Photo: Martin Heiberg, Copenhagen Media Center.

I’ve heard that half the world is jealous of Copenhagen’s cycling bridges, but I had no idea why – or even what a “cycling bridge” really was. Turns out, over 60% of Copenhagen locals cycle to work, and trendy cycling bridges have been designed to connect the harbors better and shorten work commutes! The Cykelslangen – also called the Bicycle Snake – is one such bridge, and I can’t quite express in words the joy of riding our bicycles over it one balmy afternoon, with the water flowing below us.

The Circle Bridge, designed in circles by a Danish-Icelandic artist, who is said to believe that the bridge shouldn’t just connect point A to B but also give the cyclist or pedestrian space to slow down and take in the gorgeous surroundings, like the Black Diamond (a public library in the glass facade of which the water shimmers) too. Well, mission accomplished. I rode across the bridge twice, totally enamoured by the design.

Tip: If you’re short on time, curious to find local spots or not confident cycling by yourself, consider taking a bicycle tour with Copenhagen Cool, set up by a cool Copenhagen local!

Also read: The Blank Spaces on Our Maps

Sample local (and vegan) food at Torvehallerne Food Hall

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Strolling around in Torvehallerne food hall.

Tivoli Food Hall is pretty popular among visitors to Copenhagen, but from what I hear, also pretty overpriced. On the suggestion of a local, we ended up for lunch (twice) at Torvehallerne Food Hall – split into two glass-walled halls, with an eclectic city ambiance, all kinds of cooked and raw food for sale, and packed with locals, expats and travellers.

While one of the halls focusses mostly on fish, I loved the food options in the other one – where I got an incredible avocado-hummus-pesto sandwich at Vita Boost and a skinny vegan raw cacao mousse at Fresh Market. Other vegan options included falafel and hummus sandwiches, salads and healthy vegan desserts.

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Skinny (vegan) chocolate mousse at Torvehallerne food hall!

Tip: Pack your food at Torvehallerne, cross the street behind and enjoy it at the urban picnic spot (with stairs and benches to lounge on) in the warm sun.

Also read: All the Vegan (and Vegetarian) Food I Loved in Salzburg, Austria

Hang out by the Baltic Sea at Bellevue Beach

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Hanging out at the lighthouse at Bellevue Beach.

Of all things I expected to be doing in Copenhagen, I hardly expected to be cycling on a nearly empty cycling track along the cobalt blue coast and idyllic countryside of northern Copenhagen, just forty minutes from downtown. Bellevue Beach is a long white sand beach, flanked by an old lighthouse and at the time of our visit, dramatic clouds in the vast skies above. At nearly 5 degrees celcius, the water was too cold for a dip, but come summer (and for the more hardcore ones, come winter), I hear locals plunge in, then warm up at a temporary sauna set up within a container! Copenhagen’s quirky like that.

Also read: Culturally Intriguing Ways to Discover Europe

Loose yourself in the night sky at the Tycho Brahe Planetarium

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Another world – 3D movies at the Copenhagen Planetarium.

You can probably tell by the name of this blog how much I love the night sky! So on a rainy evening, we made our way to Tycho Brahe Planetarium, to catch some astronomy exhibits, a short but stunning 3D film about our galaxy and a Nat Geo documentary about the invisible things that happen around us. For those few hours, I felt transported into a different world – a world we’re surrounded by but often forget to notice. If you want to renew your love for our planet, or inspire yourself or your kids to think of the future differently, spare a few hours for the Copenhagen planetarium – I promise it’ll be a day well spent.

Tip: Entry to the Tycho Brahe Planetarium is free with the Copenhagen Card. Movies cost extra, but are totally worth it. The movies are in Danish but English translation is offered through headphone; carry your own or you’ll have to buy a pair. See the movie schedule here.

Also read: My Most Memorable Sunrises, Sunsets and Night Skies of 2016

Check out the “modern art” street at Superkilen

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The contours of the street at Superkilen.

When I saw a photo of Superkilen on Instagram, in the hep Nørrebro district of Copenhagen, I was really intrigued. This is an open urban space – its most striking feature a “modern art” street for pedestrians and cyclists – dotted with paraphernalia from around the world, signifying the cultural diversity of Nørrebro. Think Swiss drains, Iraqi benches, a Moroccan fountain and a Tanzanian manhole cover!

Tip: Cool or quirky, you decide, with the handy Superkilen App which has an interactive guided map to showcase its diversity of landmarks.

Also read: Quirky Ways to Discover Madrid

Introspect about life at Assistens Cemetery, the resting place of HC Andersen

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Strolling under the sakura at Assistens Cemetery.

The famous Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen, gave us childhood classics like The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and Thumbelina. And it is at Assistens Cemetery, in the heart of Copenhagen, that he was laid to rest.

As we strolled through the cemetery, under the warm spring sun, amid gorgeous cherry blossoms, alongside locals walking or cycling through, past barren trees slowly turning green, it struck me that the cemeteries of Copenhagen are not just for those who’ve passed away but also for those who live. At one of the graves, I noticed a small group of friends – there were tears in their eyes but also laughter on their faces, like they had come to see an old friend, to celebrate a life, not to mourn it.

I guess it’s quite apt that one of Andersen’s fairytales said: “Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”

Tip: Assistens Cemetery is still used for funerals and burials; please be mindful of any in progress at the time of your visit.

Assistens Cemetery: Website | Google Maps

Also read: On Life and Detachment: A Conversation with Buddhist Monks in Thailand

Cycle to the quirky Hermitage Palace in Dyrehaven

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Cycling to the Hermitage Palace in Dyrehaven.

Without a map, we set out past Bellevue Beach towards Dyrehaven – once a private forest reserve with hunting trails and wild deer – and got quite lost on the quaint countryside. The only locals we spotted were two women, seemingly foraging for mushrooms, who set us on the trail to the Hermitage Palace amid the wilderness of Dyrehaven, with no other signs along the way. Built in the 18th century as a hunting retreat for the royal family, the palace is best known for having a dinner table that could be lifted on the click of a button, from the kitchen to the dining room upstairs, so the diners could eat in solitude… inspiring the name “Hermitage Palace”!

Tip: Guided tours of the palace are available on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from June to August, and tickets must be purchased online in advance. Keep some extra time at hand to cycle amid the wilderness and old trees of Dyrehaven. 

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

Feel like you’re in the Caribbean at the freetown of Christiania

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Colorful houses in Christiania.

Copenhagen’s alternative neighborhood – with no cars, women blacksmiths, a street where hash is sold (illegal though it is in Denmark), organic eateries, urban kitchen gardens, houses with quirky designs, vibrant graffiti and a laid-back Caribbean-esque vibe – is certainly an interesting place to while away a few hours. Set up by a group of hippies in the early 1970s, it has evolved into an eclectic self-governing township, where decisions are made democratically and freetown shares are sold to generate revenue! I sure hope to go back to Copenhagen someday and learn more about the free-thinking residents of Christiania.

Tip: Consider taking a guided tour of Christiania with a local resident, to learn more about their governance and life philosophy. Note that photography is not allowed at Pusher Street.

Also read: Secret Places to Experience the Real Caribbean Spirit

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The charming countryside of northern Copenhagen.

Copenhagen travel tips:

When to visit Copenhagen: I absolutely loved spring in Copenhagen. The weather was cool, the wind chilly, the cherry trees in bloom, wildflowers in the forests, parties on the street, the day long with sunset post 8 pm; it felt like the city had just come back to life after a cold winter!

Schengen visa for Indian citizens: I applied at the Danish embassy for my Schengen visa this time – and while the process was short (4 working days) and seamless, I was surprised by the requirement to submit a colour photocopy of my ENTIRE passport; what a waste of paper and money. Read all my tips to score a Schengen visa.

Direct flights from India to Copenhagen: Air India now offers direct flights between Delhi and Copenhagen every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Where to stay in Copenhagen: I stayed close to the Copenhagen lakes and liked the location for being pretty central to everything. Next time, I would love to stay in the hep neighborhood of Nørrebro. I mostly use booking.com to find good deals for city stays; if you haven’t signed up yet, use my referral to get 10$ off your first stay!

Where to rent a bicycle in Copenhagen: We got a good deal for bicycles at Baisikeli – 80 DKK for 24 hours + 35 DKK for each additional day. It’s a bit of a walk out of town though.

Simple words to know in Danish: Hej = hello (pronounced like hi); tak = thanks; hej hej = bye bye!

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At the famous Nyhavn (new harbor) of Copenhagen.

Have you been to Copenhagen? What are your favorite things to do in the city – or what would you most like to do when you visit?

*Note: I travelled to Copenhagen in collaboration with Visit Copenhagen. Opinions on this blog are always mine.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Google+ to follow my travel adventures around the world!

Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable – These Travel Companies are Changing the Way You Experience India.

Sustainable tourism – which includes eco-tourism and community-based tourism – is the need of the hour in India. Sustainable tourism in India is being driven by social enterprises and offbeat travel companies, which not only offer sustainable holidays in India, but also meaningful travel experiences that can elevate your “Incredible India” experience. This post looks at responsible tourism in India, based on my travels over the past five years. 

There are many ways to experience India. You can stay in a generic hotel or backpacker hostel, hire a car for sightseeing, have casual interactions with people working in the hospitality industry, take some colourful photos and call it a trip.

The real India though – the India that inspires and humbles, the India that is artistic yet genuine, the India that is simultaneously incredible and heartbreaking – takes a little effort to find.

Uttarakhand ecotourism, ecotourism India, sustainable tourism India

Inspiring and humbling – the lower Himalayas of Uttarakhand.

Although I grew up in this country, it’s only in the last five years of travelling that I’ve discovered a more unique way to experience it. Away from the chaotic tourist towns and pages of the usual guidebooks, I’ve interacted intimately with an India that has put everything I know about life in perspective.

And much of this India, I’ve found by travelling with – or seeking suggestions from – sustainable tourism companies across the country, run by inspiring individuals, in fair partnership with local communities and conscious of their impact on the local environment.

If you seek to experience India (and give back to it) meaningfully, consider travelling with these responsible travel companies:

Green People

Locations: Nag Tibba (near Mussoorie), Kanatal and Raithal (near Uttarkashi) in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand

Who knew that tiny obscure mountain villages in Uttarakhand, cradled by the snow-capped Garhwal Himalayas, are home to some of the world’s most expensive and wanted superfoods? Think amaranth, goji berries and foxtail millet, among others.

And yet mountain dwellers are abandoning their farmlands for basic jobs in cities – unaware of the value of these superfoods. Out of this tragic situation was born Green People, an organisation that aims to encourage the reverse migration of farmers – by creating supply chains for the superfoods they can grow, and more importantly, by instilling pride in them for their unique culture and way of life. To facilitate the latter, Green People has set up “Goat Villages” – rustic ecolodges – near Nag Tibba, Kanatal and Uttarkashi in the Uttarakhand Himalayas. They’ve hired locals, trained them in hospitality at luxury resorts and entrusted them with independently hosting travellers from around the world, in aesthetically built Garhwali-style houses.

I’ve spent a week each at the Goat Villages near Nag Tibba and Uttarkashi – blissfully away from civilisation, electricity and technology – for some of my most rejuvenating and inspiring escapes amid the wild beauty of these mountains. The locations are spectacular, the local interactions heartwarming and the food – amaranth porridge, mandava-tofu sandwiches, Hersil rajma, barnyard millet to name a few – will make you rethink your organic and local choices.

The superfoods grown in the Garhwal Himalayas are being sold by Green People under the brand name “Bakri Chaap” in supermarkets in big cities across India. Isn’t it ironic that while we’ve taken to consuming quinoa and couscous – which travel from halfway across the world – we’re mostly unaware of the delicious, nutritional food that grows in our own backyard?

Green People / Goat Village: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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

Evolve Back

Locations: Kabini, Coorg and Hampi – Karnataka

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Blown away by the eco-luxury at Evolve Back, Kabini.

I learnt early on in my travels that it is possible for an accommodation to be incredibly luxurious and environmentally responsible at the same time. But I didn’t realise to what extent, until I spent time at Evolve Back – a chain of eco-luxury resorts across Karnataka.

Evolve Back Coorg (previously called Orange County) was perhaps the first of its kind in India – a sprawling 300-acre coffee plantation, interspersed with grand silver oak trees and plantation-style bungalows – built in local red brick and thatched or tiled roofs – to pamper travellers yet immerse them in the wild ways of nature. Each bungalow is fitted with RO water filters, eliminating the need for plastic bottled water; in other ways too, the plantation (and other Evolve Back properties) are pretty much plastic-free zones.

Rainwater is harvested and its consumption in each cottage digitally monitored; wind electricity is generated at another site and fed into the state’s electricity grid; all waste is either composted or recycled; education in local schools is supported and monitored. And it is perhaps India’s only hotel chain to have an entire team dedicated to responsible travel.

Yet, these sustainability initiatives are not the only reason to indulge in an Evolve Back experience. In Kabini, I was enchanted by majestic sunsets and high tea under an old fig tree; river and forest safaris with passionate naturalists who made me fall in love with India’s fascinating forests; a meal selection dedicated to sumptuous organic and locally grown food; and night skies that shimmered endlessly with stars.

And although I haven’t personally travelled to Evolve Back Hampi yet, I hear it is styled after the royal extravagance of the ancient Vijayanagar Empire…

Evolve Back: Website | FacebookInstagram

Also read: 6 Offbeat Experiences Near Hampi

Himalayan Ark

Locations: Kumaon, Uttarakhand

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The locals of Munsiyari attend a yoga workshop during the Himal Kalasutra festival.

When I finally decided to travel to the remote Himalayan region of Munsiyari, eleven hours by road from the nearest train station and flanked by the spectacular snow-capped Panchachuli range, I had no idea how much it was going to change my perceptions of Indian women and the patriarchal culture that plagues our society.

Across the small mountain villages of Munsiyari tehsil, the social enterprise Himalayan Ark has aided local women to set up homestays, some in old and charming Kumaoni houses, others in aspirational homes with large glass windows overlooking the mountains. The warmth of the experience remains the same across the homestays though. Although most women in rural India seldom have land ownership rights or independent incomes to run their households, Himalayan Ark’s approach has enabled the women of Munsiyari to directly earn revenues from their homestays, and to step out of the kitchen to train as trekking and birdwatching guides.

Himalayan Ark also offers mountain treks and expeditions, employing local guides, sourcing local produce and offering eco-conscious insights into this relatively undiscovered region. In May every year, the unique Himal Kalasutra festival brings out a different side of this region – featuring high altitude marathons, yoga workshops, photography workshops, birdwatching, celebration of the indigenous cuisine and a traditional carnival. Unlike most fusion mountain festivals, it is organised by locals and attended by locals, but discerning travellers are welcome to join!

Himalayan Ark: Website | Community-run Instagram

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

Kipepeo

Locations: Across Northeast India

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Celebrating Mopin with the Galo tribe of Arunachal Pradesh.

The northeastern states of India are full of fascinating, unexplored, uncharted territory, and while tourism is still in its nascent stage, it is incumbent upon us travellers to ensure that it isn’t spoiled the same way as India’s scenic but garbage-filled hill stations. Consider Kipepeo, an organisation that partners with local homestays to offer trips (and custom tours) in the most natural way possible.

On my first trip with them, our group wandered off the usual Arunachal Pradesh map and landed up in a village of the Galo tribe to celebrate their indigenous Mopin festival. Amid Shamanic chanting, hypnotic local dances and being offered rats for dinner at a village gathering (gulp), I felt like I had skipped a few decades and gone back to the India of yore – a most intriguing world!

Kipepeo: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Also read: In Photos: Majuli Island, Assam

Desia Ecotourism

Locations: Koraput, Odisha

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A new friend in a tribal village in Odisha’s Koraput region.

The fascinating tribal world of Odisha is threatened by many challenges: interference by local authorities, pressure on the youth to ‘modernise’, decreasing forest cover, and most of all, insensitive tourists wanting to photograph local tribes without learning a thing about their culture or way of life.

I was happy to resolve my internal conflict – between discovering a fascinating culture and irresponsible travel – when I stumbled upon Desia Ecotourism, a company founded by a local of eastern Odisha with a keen interest in the tribal culture of the southern Koraput region. Our modes of exploration included cycling through mango orchards to nearby tribal villages and riding pillion on motorbikes to further ones; our interactions with local tribes at their weekly haats (tribal markets) felt genuine and unobtrusive; and living at Desia Ecolodge, run largely by a mix of local tribes, made me feel at home in such a different part of the world.

As a New York Times story recently expounded, sustainable travel is as much about environmental impact as it is about being inclusive and respectful of local communities.

Desia Ecotourism: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Also read: Mangalajodi, Odisha: How an Entire Village Transformed from Poaching Birds to Protecting Them

Grassroutes Journeys

Locations: Purushwadi, Dehna and Walvanda – Maharashtra

I remember wandering about the quiet streets of Purushwadi, a village in rural Maharashtra, on a dark moonless night, watching millions of fireflies communicate with potential partners through light beams, magically lighting up the earth in perfect symphony with thousands of stars in the skies above.

There was a time when locals, unaware of this beautiful phenomenon, didn’t hesitate to kill (or at best, ignore) fireflies that came to their village to mate every monsoon.

But using a unique business model where the local community is an equal partner in tourism, Grassroute Journeys has co-created the “Million Fireflies Festival” and other humbling travel experiences across rural Maharashtra. Besides playing an active role in protecting their luminescent visitors, the locals are now able to supplement their erratic agricultural incomes by hosting travellers in their homes (or in tents), and keep their traditional way of farming and life alive.

And travellers like you and me, wandering in search of unique customs, exotic natural phenomena and joyful countryside living, can rejoice in both, finding such experiences not far from chaotic Mumbai and supporting rural village communities in the process.

Grassroutes Journey: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Also read: Offbeat Getaway from Mumbai That’ll Inspire You to Rethink Life

Spiti Ecosphere

Locations: Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh

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The awe-inspiring cold mountain desert of Spiti.

Volunteer-travelling for a month with Spiti Ecosphere in the high altitude Spiti Valley, back in 2011, was my earliest introduction to responsible travel. It was the first time I learnt about community-run homestays and how tourism can supplement meagre farming incomes, how the money we spend on travel could be used to light up someone’s home with solar energy, and how different our travel experiences can be when we stay with locals and interact closely with their culture, food and way of life.

Spiti Ecosphere believes in an equal emphasis on the planet, people and profits – and after all these years, I’ve realised that this is the only way for a tourism organisation to be truly sustainable.

As for my experience – volunteering with them, exploring those stark barren mountains, lying under millions of stars at night, spending time with monks and nuns, it changed everything I thought I wanted from my own life. It made me quit my job at the Singapore Tourism Board, and gradually paved the way to this blog where I try to write about the joy of travelling meaningfully.

Spiti Ecosphere: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Also read: I Love Spiti: How Travellers Must Help Save India’s Surreal Himalayan Desert

The Blue Yonder

Locations: Kerala, Pondicherry

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A solo Nangiar Koothu performance in central Kerala.

I thought I had already explored  pretty ‘offbeat’ parts of Kerala independently – until I went on a journey with The Blue Yonder, a social enterprise started by a Kerala local, to learn about how the River Nila has inspired life along its shores. We met local musicians and artisans – some of who are the last in a lost generation of artists keeping a dying tradition or craft alive; we ended up watching a soul-stirring, solo Nangiar Koothu performance alongside village locals; and even felt entranced by an Oracle, supposedly possessed by the local deity.

During my travels with The Blue Yonder, I began to perceive our impact on local communities differently. Many organisations only compensate the locals we meet along the way for the services they offer – mainly homestays and guides. But TBY professes a different philosophy – valuing (and hence compensating) the time that local artisans spend interacting with us as travellers, answering our many questions and being photographed by us. And if we really think about it, that is exactly how us urban creative people (aka freelancers) want to be treated too.

The Blue Yonder: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Also read: Offbeat Kerala: 11 Travel Experiences to Inspire the Artist in You

India Untravelled

Locations: Across India

India Untravelled, responsible tourism in India, ecotourism destinations India

“High tea” in the lower Himalayas of Uttarakhand.

I co-founded India Untravelled back in 2012, hoping to bridge the digital marketing gap between small-scale sustainable homestays and discerning travellers looking for authentic experiences within India. The two-year long journey taught me a lot about running a business (we sold in 2014), but also helped me appreciate a different way of exploring India – one that I have never  stopped swearing by.

The current owners of India Untravelled have strived to keep our original dream alive – and now offer curated homestay experiences across India, including Uttarakhand, Ladakh, Kerala and other states.

India Untravelled: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Also read: Simple Ways to Travel More Responsibly in Ladakh

Responsible tourism companies in India I’m eager to travel with:

Roots Ladakh (Kargil): In the valleys and mountains around Kargil, where tourism infrastructure is still pretty underdeveloped, Roots Ladakh – set up by locals – promises respectful interaction and understanding of local communities.

Health Nut (across India): As the vegan movement catches on in India, Health Nut, run by a health coach from my hometown Dehradun, offers eco-conscious retreats that focus on health, nutrition, reversing diseases and reconnecting with the great outdoors.

Native Folks (Goa): We’re all familiar with the tourist-infested beaches of Goa, but Native Folks promises a different experience, living with locals on the laidback Divar Island.

Rural Pleasure (Gujarat): While exploring Gujarat, I fell short of days to join Rural Pleasure to learn about the way of life of the fascinating Dang tribe.

Kabani (Kerala): Amid the scenic rice paddies and backwaters of southern Kerala, Kabani – run by Kerala locals – works with local communities to offer homestays, travel programs run entirely by women for women and a chance to delve deeper into the offbeat side of this popular state.

Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company(Ladakh): In the Indian Himalayas, where its still taboo for local women to train as mountain guides, the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company – started and run entirely by local Ladakhi women – is challenging cultural stereotypes. I’ve heard  great things about their trips in this spectacular region, which is being ruined by irresponsible tour operators.

Green people, goat village raithal, community tourism India, sustainable tourism

Life in the Garhwal Himalayas.

And you, have you travelled with responsible travel companies within India – or elsewhere?

I’d love to grow this list and my own understanding of sustainable tourism.

Join me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook for more responsible travel ideas.

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How I Managed to Pay Off 26000$ of Student Loan: Candid Tips for Freelancers and Travel Bloggers!

About this post: As a travel blogger, freelance writer and digital nomad, making a living is not easy. After 6 years of trial and error, I’ve put together this candid post with freelance advice, blogging tips, travel blog writing tips and how to make it as a digital nomad. Hope these freelance writing tips and travel blogging advice will help ferry you through difficult times!

Over six years ago, when I quit my 9-to-5 corporate job in Singapore, I tried not to dwell upon the 26,000$ student debt hanging above my head. In order to finance my college education in Singapore, I had taken a massive loan, and had until 2030 to pay it off.

Yet there I was, quitting a well-paying steady job to experiment with a life of travel, freelancing and blogging. The day I sent in my resignation, I promised myself two things:

One, that I would do what it takes to earn enough money to pay my loan instalments – a minimum of 200$ per month. I wouldn’t borrow money or dig into my backup savings as far as I could help it.

Two, that if by age 35, I still hadn’t paid it off, I would swallow my dreams, head back into the corporate world and work my butt off to repay the loan.

Although I broke my first promise a couple of times by digging into my savings, I didn’t have to wait till 35 to reconsider the second one (phew). In 2017, over six years after quitting my full time job, I managed to pay off the entire goddamn loan – while freelancing, blogging and travelling around the world.

Here are some lessons I learnt along the way; candid tips that I hope will give perspective to fellow freelancers and travel bloggers in similarly challenging times:

1) Believe in yourself and stop working for peanuts

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Learning along the way in my outdoor offices – this one in Coorg.

When I first began freelancing, I was writing travel stories for as little as 500 rupees (less than 10$). I had no contacts in the industry, no idea of freelancing rates and no confidence in myself to deliver a decent travel piece. But with time, I built each of these.

Once my travel writing portfolio expanded to include BBC Travel and National Geographic Traveller, I decided to walk away from work that neither excites me nor compensates me enough to be worth my time and effort. Unfortunately there are no standard industry rates for freelancers / travel bloggers, so my formula is simple: for how long can a piece of work fund my travels? My goal is to earn a month’s worth of expenses for a week’s worth of work. It’s a personal thing and must evolve with the quality of work.

Many freelancers complain about poor rates, but end up accepting the same gigs anyway. We’re certain to lose some opportunities when we hold our ground in a negotiation, but it’s the only way to seek out better paying opportunities, deliver higher quality work and strike a satisfying work-travel / life balance.

Also read: Practical Tips to Break Into Freelance Travel Writing

2) We only get a few chances: Professionalism matters more than we think

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Life of a digital nomad – in the Bavarian Alps.

I remember the months I could barely scrape up enough money to pay my monthly loan instalments. I remember sleepless nights of pitching and sending proposals, not knowing where my next assignment might come from.

So when I scored a 3-month social media and writing gig, I knew I had to do everything to keep it. Working virtually, I learnt early on the importance of being professional and timely in my communication, deliverables and deadlines. So what if I was a one-woman show with my own blog and social media to manage, simultaneous work deadlines and an insatiable wanderlust? I gradually managed to turn two short gigs into year-long projects that steadily enabled me to increase my monthly loan repayments.

I’ve heard companies lament how they’ve burnt their hands with freelancers, and tourism boards disappointed by bloggers who don’t deliver on their promises. Remember that it’s a small industry and word gets around fast. Right from the first email and deadline, we’re being judged on our professionalism. And cliched though it sounds, under-promising and over-delivering is always a good mantra to hold yourself to.

Also read: So You Want to Start a Travel Blog?

3) Freelancers need a forced savings plan too

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Spending on experiences that matter… but saving too.

Like every freelancer and travel blogger, I hate late payments from clients, but I secretly think of them as forced savings. I’m pretty casual about spending what I earn on travelling, so it takes no time for my account to go from six digits to three – and the only way I survive is through forced savings.

In my corporate days in Singapore, a portion of my salary was deducted and transferred into a provident fund account. After I quit, I tried to keep that habit – transferring 30-40% of what I earned on a big project into a fixed deposit or second savings account. Ultimately, all that saved money helped me pay off the last big chunk of my loan at one go – phew.

Also read: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Quit My Job to Travel

4) Stop feeling insecure about losing a free trip to another blogger/freelancer

Shivya Nath, Indian travel bloggers, digital nomad

Inspiration to create inspiring travel content.

I came face to face with a dilemma that every travel blogger (and these days, Instagrammer) faces at some point: to accept a free press trip to somewhere exotic, or not. Back in 2011, at my first travel blogging conference outside India, I was surprised to learn that some prominent travel bloggers were charging a fee to join press trips. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Besides the fact that creating truly inspiring travel content online is a time and effort intensive job, it also leads to direct revenue for the brand or tourism board involved – and I know because many of my readers write to me to say my stories from a destination made them travel there.

I’ve been part of multiple blogging trips now where it’s turned out that I’m one of the only ones getting paid – and not necessarily because my content is better or my reach greater, but because I’m willing to walk away. I’ve also been dropped from many campaigns because I’ve walked away in a negotiation – and I think that’s okay.

Truth is, if we are confident we create innovative content and influence our readers’ decisions, we need to realise and monetise the value of our work.

Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling

5) Sell your work, but not your soul

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Contemplating dilemmas in northern Copenhagen.

I started travel blogging for two reasons: One, I didn’t want to forget the incredible stories and small acts of kindness I came across on the road. And two, I wanted to encourage my readers to think differently about life and travel. The only way I can continue doing both is by staying true to myself – and there are plenty of dilemmas every day.

I struggle to stuff my blogposts with keywords that google wants; I struggle to write posts that people search for (like how to do Europe in 5 days – sorry, no one can “do” Europe in 5 days); I struggle to promote things that I don’t genuinely believe in (no thank you L’Oréal, I can’t support animal testing).

And so be it. I tell myself that the offers will come and go, the money will come and go, but my writing will stay. This blog will stay. And (hopefully) you guys, my readers, will stay… and that’s what matters. Because without my audience, my blog is nothing.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

6) Let’s not try to be superheroes: Learn to delegate

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Doing the digital nomad thing in Chiang Mai.

The biggest lesson I learnt from running my travel startup India Untravelled, was to delegate to the right people. It’s something I still struggle with, but I’ve been learning – to split my work (and pay) with other freelancers when my plate is too full, and to gradually grow my team at The Shooting Star. By delegating things that need fresh eyes, are time-consuming and just don’t interest me (hello, google analytics), I’ve been able to free space and time for things I care about and to work on passion projects.

By investing in talented individuals, I’m not only looking at my own work with a fresh lens, but also learning more about running a business, diversifying my income sources and gaining plenty of “me-time” along the way.

Also read: Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End

7) Naysayers be damned: Turn off the negativity

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Turning off the negativity in Guatemala <3

Ignore the naysayers – that’s the best advice I got when I first took the plunge to quit my job. Maybe I’d make it somewhere in life, maybe I wouldn’t; maybe I’d be able to pay off my loan before 35, maybe I wouldn’t. But the worst thing I could do is fill my mind with all the doubts people had about my choices.

I’ve come to believe that our lives are often a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more positively we think of the future, the better it tends to be. And even if the future isn’t going to be that great, why ruin our present with negative thoughts?

All those years ago, the idea of paying a huge loan through an unsteady freelancing and travel blogging income seemed rather impractical, but I convinced myself that I’ll find a way. After all, what fun is a practical life with no big dreams and no impossible challenges to overcome?

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

What are your biggest challenges as a freelancer or travel blogger?

Connect with me on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Google+ to follow my travel adventures around the world!

ALSO READ:
Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram
Advice for the Young and Penniless Who Want to Travel
Confessions of an Indian Travel Blogger

Japan: Little Acts of Kindness in a Big World.

About this post: Looking for reasons to go to Japan, and say yes to the world in general? In this Japan travel blog post, I share my experiences with Japanese people and Japan culture across a month of exploring Japan – giving you plenty of answers to: “why visit Japan?” I hope my Japan experiences will give you plenty of reasons to go to Japan, for Japan really is worth visiting! 

Here’s a confession: Before I set out for Japan, I carried a lot of preconceived notions about the country. Based on the movie Lost in Translation, I wondered if Tokyo would be too chaotic and overwhelming; if I would struggle to adjust to the unique culture and connect with the seemingly rigid locals. Based on blogs I had read, I anticipated spending a fortune on food and mainly eating out of supermarkets. Based on conversations in Facebook groups, I imagined I might starve as a vegan. Based on quirky stories I read online, I foresaw waiting at the airport luggage belt to see that my bags had been thoroughly cleaned by the airport staff!

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Quirky Japan – where people carry their teddy friends to see sakura!

In this digital world, our minds are flooded with impressions created by others. Some of them turn out to be true, many of them don’t – and that was the case with Japan too.

Personally, I think that’s the beauty of travelling – it helps us break stereotypes, challenge popular perspectives and form our own impressions. And that’s exactly why to me, Lufthansa’s campaign – “Say yes to the world” – is so meaningful.

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

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Learning about Shintoism in Japan.

Time and again, little acts of kindness during my four weeks in Japan made me see the country in a totally different light than I initially expected:

The night before I set out for Japan, I serendipitously ran into Katsuyama san – the owner of Bonita Cafe and Social Club in Bangkok. He had moved to Thailand from Japan several years ago, and is a passionate vegan himself! When I shared my apprehension of travelling as a vegan in Japan, he immediately opened his laptop and spent a good fifteen minutes typing out a personal (and polite) note in Kanji (the complex Japanese script), explaining what I could and couldn’t eat. His note gave me confidence, but more than that, his instinct to help without a second thought assured me that I’d be just fine in his country.

Also read: Vegan (and Vegetarian) Friendly Cafes and Restaurants to Indulge in Bangkok

Tokyo subway, Tokyo rush hour

The Tokyo metro at rush hour. Photo: Tim Adams (CC)

The orderly chaos of Tokyo’s subway intimidated me at first; will I like this country? I wondered as I dragged my bag among multitudes of people rushing to their stations. At the obscure metro station closest to my ryokan, there was no elevator or escalator going up… so I slowly began lugging my bag up, when an elderly businessman, dressed in the ubiquitous navy blue suit and in a rush, stopped and gave me a hand. How could I not like that country?

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

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A Japanese friend contemplates Ume, the plum blossom.

While on assignment for Japan Tourism, as I visited my first few Shinto Shrines, my mind was filled with questions about Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous faith. These days, Shintoism and Buddhism co-exist in Japan more as a way of life than deep teachings to contemplate. But observing my curiosity and unable to answer my numerous questions, my guide called a friend who still holds Shinto purification rituals and patiently translated our conversation – just so my curiosity could be quelled.

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

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No one does sunsets like Japan.

On the train from Osaka to Kyoto, I was tired after a long day out and quite annoyed to find no empty seats. So I just stood there blankly, when a random conversation broke out with Chizu san, a young public health student who was standing next to me. We spoke of Japan and her studies, and when she heard my name, she immediately made a connection to Shiva – the angry blue god she had seen in her mother’s book of gods from around the world! Oh, and her name Chizu means a thousand presents from god.

Also read: My Million Reasons to Love Turkey

Asora guesthouse, Aso where to stay, Japanese people

With Tamo san in her guest house / home.

In the small town of Aso on Kyushu island, where we spent nearly a week exploring its stark volcanic landscapes, our hostess Tamo san (of Guest House Asora) invited and drove us to a local festival at the neighborhood Shinto shrine. To the sound of hypnotic drum beats, the priests rather fearlessly swung fire-lit haystacks around their heads, then invited the public to do the same. It looked pretty intimidating, so I stood in a corner watching the show from a safe distance… when Tamo san got me a stack of hay, led me by hand to where it was to be lit, and left me no option but to start swinging it. And I’m so glad she did, because it was incredibly fun and totally had my adrenaline racing!

Also read: An Unfinished Affair: Places I’d Love to go Back to Someday

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Teruyuki san, in a secret forest with yellow wildflowers.

I landed up in an obscure little village of 30 people on the Kansai countryside, hoping to visit a village where three local women, each over 90 years, still ride motorbikes! Unfortunately the road to their village is under repair and I didn’t get permission to visit. Sensing my disappointment, my host Teruyuki san (of Satoyama Guest House Couture) asked me to hop into his car and drove me to his favourite, secret spots on the countryside – a 7th century wooden Buddhist temple, a 1000-year-old horse chestnut tree, a cedar forest where wild yellow flowers bloom like fire at the onset of spring. Thanks to him, I got to experience far more of the Kansai countryside than I could have hoped.

Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home

japan vegan, vegan food japan, japan vegan guide

Feasting on a vegan tofu platter.

At a guesthouse in Tokyo, our local host was amused when I explained my vegan lifestyle… but when I woke up, he had experimented with a vegan breakfast feast just for me: tofu steak and miso soup with seaweed dashi! Yum. And he was so impressed with his experiment that he decided to officially include a vegan option in his breakfast menu.

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

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In love with the Japanese countryside.

While cycling alone on the Kansai countryside, I needed to use a washroom desperately but there were no public loos in sight. When I spotted a post office, I figured I might have some luck and rolled my bike into the compound. A man was hanging around at the back, and I asked if I could use a washroom – and he thankfully let me in. I later realised it was Sunday and the post office was shut; the kind gentleman had let this stranger use the washroom in his house. Just like that.

Also read: 17 Incredible Travel (and Life) Moments of 2017

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Cooked up this vegan feast with Naoko san and Noriko san!

I serendipitously landed up in the home of Naoko san and Noriko san in Osaka to learn about macrobiotic vegan-friendly Japanese cooking. Although they weren’t offering a cooking class on my only available date, Naoko san made an exception and invited me to join their family for a meal, despite our brief communication online. I’m not much of a cook, but I learnt the secrets to some of my favourite Japanese dishes – including vegan sushi, creamy tofu and the most incredible avocado seaweed salad. Amid the warmth of our conversation in their traditional tatami room, I couldn’t help thinking how different Japan had turned out from anything I had imagined. For there I was, relishing home-cooked vegan food, with a local family, talking about our lives like long-lost friends…

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A local cycles past Matsumoto Castle.

Has travelling changed your perception of any places around the world?

Note: I wrote this post as part of Lufthansa India’s ‘say yes to the world’ campaign. Opinions on this blog are always mine.

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