Life-lessons on Sustainability from ‘Just a Girl Who Travels’

Like we are conscious of what we put on our skins and bodies, we should also reconsider what we are putting into our stomachs. Do we have to put the flesh of animals, their milk, and secretions into our stomach? Or can we do better?
The travel-writer, Shivya NAth
Shivya Nath
Travel Blogger

Shivya Nath is a compelling writer, storyteller, photographer, vegan, and feminist; yet she prefers to call herself ‘just a girl who travels’. She has been leading a minimalistic nomadic lifestyle for over ten years now. The award-winning writer blogs regularly— on The Shooting Star— as she travels, educating her readers on ways to travel more ethically and responsibly. Alongside, she runs a couple of environment-led Passion Projects such as ‘I Love Spiti’— to prevent the use of single-use plastic in the Spiti Valley— and a reforestation project in the forests of Uttarakhand.

Shivya talks to Sucheta about slow and sustainable travel, how various traditional cultures around the world are essentially vegan, and why we need more ‘empathy’ while travelling.

Sucheta Chaurasia (SC): Could you throw some light on your idea of ‘slow travelling’?
Shivya Nath (SN): Typically, when we think of travelling, we think of a vacation, a holiday or an escape. We aim to get to a destination, spend some time sightseeing, and then move to the next place. Just hopping from one place to another.

But slow travelling to me is not so much about time. Even if you’re at a place for a couple of days, the idea is not having a fixed agenda, and really just slowing down, getting into the local pace of life, and trying to connect as much as possible with the people who live there, the communities who belong there, as well as the environment to support local initiatives— that is slow travelling.

SC: After quitting your corporate job at 23, you took to travelling sustainably. Thereafter, you took to veganism. So what was the larger motivation behind these changes in your lifestyle? 

SN: It’s all been a journey. None of these happened overnight. I was burnt out with my nine-to-five routine. I went volunteer travelling in Spiti. I think that experience completely transformed me. 

So it’s all been a process— aspiring towards minimalism, and just realising that I don’t need things to make me feel happy. I don’t need to own so much or constantly change my clothes or shoes. I can live a great life just with minimal things now, and instead invest my money, time and energy into experiences. So, that’s how the nomadic lifestyle and the switch to veganism came about. 

It was a  mix of experimenting with minimalism and concern for our environment. We travel to enjoy the view of the world, but we are actually destroying its beauty. What does that mean for our survival, and for the people who are more vulnerable than us? 

SC: Is maintaining a vegan lifestyle challenging while you’re travelling, especially when you are hitting off-the-road destinations? How do you deal with it?

SN: When I first turned vegan, I thought I would have to choose between travelling and veganism. But actually, by virtue of being vegan, I’ve learned so many things about food that I didn’t know before. For example, a lot of the traditional cultures around the world have largely been plant-based, simply because animals were not farmed on a scale that they are farmed now. Take Japan for example. Japan was largely a plant-based country with a little bit of fish in the cuisine of coastal areas. This was way back during the Edo period. It was only much later that there was an emperor who kind of started this notion that if you want to be really buff and blonde, like the Europeans, then you have to eat horse meat. It was then when they started eating meat. But before that, it was forbidden to eat meat in Japan for the longest time, because it was leading to the destruction of forests and other issues.

Then Myanmar sounds like a very meat-eating country, but they are followers of Buddhism. So they have this phrase called ‘ta-ta-lo’, which means food without killing. A lot of monks and worshipers still follow this practice. So you can actually go anywhere and ask for ‘ta-ta-lo’ food.

It’s been revelatory learning so much more about food cultures around the world.

Vegan homemade sushi in japan
Vegan home-made sushi. Photo: Shivya Nath
'Bedoone ghoost' (meatless) food in Iran. Photo: Shivya Nath

SC: Do you recall any specific travelling experience where it was particularly challenging and you had to go out of your way to find vegan food?

SN: It’s really not as easy as just showing up somewhere and expecting to get great vegan food. For a lot of people who are not familiar with veganism, the first thing they’ll offer you is salad leaves or something; and you don’t want to eat that for lunch! There’s the HappyCow app, which is like TripAdvisor, but for vegan and vegetarian food; so it will plot out all the vegan-friendly places near you. By virtue of that, I’ve also been able to meet some incredible people around the world who are also on the same vegan path. 

Just to give an example — Iran sounds like a country that eats only kebab, which is true when you eat out in a regular restaurant. But I ended up staying with this Iranian family that had three generations of vegans! The grandmother was vegan because she managed to reverse her diabetes through veganism. And her son and his wife are vegan because they follow a spiritual guru who advocates for compassionate living. Lastly, their daughter is vegan because she was against animal cruelty. I actually found them through the Iran Vegan Travel, who I connected with by just looking at a hashtag on Instagram — #VeganIran.

SC: We often use sustainable travelling as an expensive choice. Is it really so? Also, can we do all the ‘touristy things’ and still be sustainable?

SN: Yeah, absolutely! Like any other form of travelling, it can be accommodated into your budget. It also depends on what kind of traveller you are. So for example, just the simple act of choosing to take a train or a bus, instead of a flight or a car makes a lot of difference. It’s easy to find accommodation that’s within your budget, like an Airbnb or something small scale run by a local family that is eco-friendly. So, definitely, it can be worked into all budgets.

SC: You are involved in a lot of environment-led passion projects, like the reforestation in Uttarakhand with ‘Alaap’ and ‘I Love Spiti’. What’s the motivation behind them? How are they coming along?

SN: They’re coming along well. Just yesterday, I got an update from Alaap on how the forest is growing. It’s really interesting because they’ve been using this technique called the Miyawaki method, developed by a Japanese bio-scientist, where you basically study the soil and the native vegetation of the area, and then you plant a forest in such a way that the trees support each other. The technique has been studied and designed completely differently. I haven’t been able to go there because of the lockdown, but from the pictures, I see that in just a year and a half, the saplings are already so big. It is unimaginable.

With ‘I Love Spiti’, we had created an art installation from discarded plastic bottles gathered from all across the city. It’s kind of like a selfie point… Through this initiative, we are raising the point that ultimately even if you put the plastic bottle of your water or cold drink in the dustbin, it ultimately lands up in the river. That is the eventual dumping ground. We’ve also tied up with LifeStraw to install public water refilling sites. You have your water bottle, and you can fill it in these places.

InstaMeet aat the 'I love Spiti' installation attended by local politicians and folks of Spiti. Photo: Shivya Nath
InstaMeet at the 'I Love Spiti' installation attended by local politicians and folks of Spiti. Photo: Shivya Nath
Public water refilling point at Spiti Organic Kitchen, Komic. Photo: Shivya Nath
Public water refilling point at Spiti Organic Kitchen, Komic. Photo: Shivya Nath

SC: What changes can be implemented by tourism brands and hotels to make the visitor experience more sustainable?

SN: I think there’s a lot that can be done. Typically, a hotel would say, “We’ll send you a hotel taxi to pick you up.” But now, there are companies that help you experience public transport in the country, which gives you a better, more intimate sense of what that place is and what the people are like. Plus, you’re likely to meet local people on a train or a bus, as opposed to just being in your taxi.

In terms of the accommodation, if the place hasn’t been yet built, ask — “Are you building with local materials? Are you keeping the architecture in line with the architecture of the places?” I mean, there are these beautiful old golden Portuguese houses in Goa with slate roofs and everything. But now they have been destroyed and people are building European style buildings and it’s just not in tune with the land here.

Offer visitors activities that are eco-friendly and help them contribute back to the local community. For example, female guides are a rarity in the tourism industry. But in Uttarakhand (India) at high altitudes, some of the most well-known trekking and birding guides are women. They’re just amazing at what they do! Apart from being tour guides, they also climb the mountains every day to get wood for cooking. So they are some of the most experienced trekkers in that sense.

The tourism board is usually the bridge between the traveller and the destination. So the kind of things they recommend can completely transform a traveller’s experience and make it more sustainable.

SC: So lastly, as a takeaway, any thoughts you would like to leave our readers with?

SN: I think it’s really important that we don’t forget this pandemic and why it happened. If you look at the impact of climate change, there have been really devastating cyclones, cloudbursts, and extreme weather events this year alone. We all really need to take action in whatever form we can. It could be as small as replacing your plastic toothbrush with a bamboo one or segregating waste. It could even be investing in more sustainable brands that are ethical and eco-friendly. 

Like we are conscious of what we put on our skins and bodies, we should also reconsider what we are putting into our stomachs. Do we have to put the flesh of animals, their milk, and secretions into our stomach? Or can we do better?   What alternatives can we explore? I think that exploring the world with a bit of sensitivity and compassion can be transforming in many ways for ourselves as well. Right?

Photo credits are mentioned in every picture. Eco-Spotlight doesn’t own any image copyrights. You can follow Shivya Nath’s blog and read Eco-Spotlight’s other interviews on our website.

Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.

I am Sucheta Chaurasia, a student of Media and Cultural Studies, interning with Eco-Spotlight over the Summer. Climate change worries me, however, I am here to bring forth the exemplary stories of hope and positive change for a greener future from people across the globe.

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