Eating Green in Amsterdam: where to find the best vegan food

What comes to mind when you think of Amsterdam? For most of us, probably coffee shops, canals, and the infamous red light district. But as a city that is a centre of culture and progressive values, Amsterdam is also a hub for vegan foodies. It wasn’t just easy to find options, but the food was of a really high standard everywhere we went.

It’s worth noting that it’s not very budget-friendly as a city: I way overshot mine and the main reason was the cost of food. So  if you’re on a tight one it may be worth loading up on bread and snacks before heading out to eek out the cost.

If you are able, though, here were more options for eating out than I could work my way through in one weekend, but here were my favourites:

For breakfast: Rainbowls

For a healthy start to the day in a city where detox is often very necessary, head to Rainbowls for a scrummy smoothie bowl served in a coconut. A bit on the pricey side, but they’re made fresh in front of you and there are so many delicious combinations. I went for a chocolatey one (because even when being healthy who can resist) and my friend went for the zingy mango passion fruit number.

Two smoothie bowls: one filled with chocolate and the other a mango and passionfruit smoothie
Perfect breakfast from Rainbowls

For the munchies: Vegan Junk Food Bar

If you’re ravenous from your flight or need to cure your munchies, Vegan Junk Food Bar will surpass your wildest dreams. There are several locations around the city and even so there were queues spilling out of the doors to get in. Thankfully it moved quite quickly and we were soon sat in an ultra-hipster restaurant overlooking the highstreet.

A giant pink vegan hotdog slathered in onions and sauce.
The Pink Bratwurst XXL

I went for the ‘Pink Bratwurst XXXL’ which really WAS XXXL. I don’t usually go for hotdogs but this was great, loaded up with sauce and fried onions and served in a terrifyingly pink bun. My friend went for the Kapsalon – fries loaded up with vegan doner, chillies, onions, and slathered in sauce.

Loaded fries.
The Capsalon

To recharge: H.eart/h

Probably my favourite place, H.eart/h is a great chilled out place to hang out and recharge after dashing about trying to see as much as possible. It’s bright, clean and subtly bohemian, with a selection of alternative and ethical fashion for sale as well as a menu to die for. Ever had a falafel waffle? If not you NEED to try it.

Vegan sushi
Pretty vegan sushi

I’d been craving vegan sushi and had some of the prettiest I’ve ever seen, as well as raw beetroot ravioli. Everything is very artfully prepared and fresh, but it’s worth noting that the options are all quite light so I needed a couple to get full; the choices aren’t cheap, so you might have to splash the cash a bit. However, the food was tasty and the atmosphere lovely enough to make it worth it if you want somewhere to hang out for a few hours, or it would be the perfect spot for a date night.

Beetroot ravioli
Beetroot ravioli

On a budget: Maoz

You’ll see Maoz all over the city, and while it might seem like just another falafel shop, there’s a twist: it’s ALL vegan. No worrying about your wrap being slathered in sauce – and the sauces are really good. It’s not mind blowing but it’s a great cheap option when you’re on the go or on the way back from a night out.

For a healthy option: Deshima

Deshima is a cosy spot where the food is all natural, organic, and macrobiotic. There’s a Japanese influence to their changing ‘plate of the day’; I opted this and got sweet potato rice, tofu and veg stew, pumpkin tempura, cucumber, wakame and radish salad, pickles, and veg in a peanut sauce. Yum! They also have fresh vegan sushi rolls and raw cakes and a huge selection of teas. Just the place to nourish yourself before your flight home.

Plate loaded with rice, vegetables and tempura.
The plate of the day from Deshima

There are a plethora of other places I didn’t get time to try; the Dutch Weed Burger I’ve heard consistently good reviews for, as well as Alchemist Garden and a branch of the ubiquitous chain Loving Hut. Time to book another trip? I think so.

My top ten tips for vegan travel

It will surprise no one who reads this blog that travel and food are two of my favourite things. But when others find out I’m a vegan, they get wide-eyed. But what do you eat?

The concern isn’t misplaced. Travelling as a vegan is certainly a challenge. All the more so if you’re really into your food and don’t want to end up just eating rice. But it is possible.

When I first started out I had no clue – which is why I ended up slipping back to vegetarian a lot of the time in the year I spent travelling through South and Central America. But two years in and after many more adventures, I’ve become somewhat of an expert in how to find vegan food in the most unlikely seeming places.

I was surprised to find Peru to be one of the most vegan-friendly places I have ever travelled. Pictured is a vegan version of it’s most popular dish, ceviche.

Friends that are vegetarian and vegan often bemoan how poor the food is that they’ve eaten on their travels. Others have avoided travel all together because they fear how difficult it is. But while it can be challenging and there are odd days where you may only eat bread and bananas, I’ve also eaten the best food of my life since I started travelling and went vegan. So here are my top tips for finding vegan food on the road:

  • Download the Happy Cow app. You have to pay but it’s the best £3 I’ve ever spent. If you’ve never heard of it, Happy Cow is a website that keeps a record of where to find vegan and vegetarian food around the world. While there’s an online version, the app is much better. You simply load it wherever you are and it comes up with a list of restaurants/cafes/shops that sell vegan food within a nearby radius. It marks whether they are vegan, vegetarian, or omni with vegan options, and users can upload photos and review of food they’ve eaten there. Happy Cow is the single biggest reason that I’ve eaten phenomenal vegan food in little Latin American pueblos where others have only been able to get rice. It often is hard in mainstream restaurants, but if you know where to go, there’s a vegan community around the world just waiting to be found. I even use it in the UK whenever I go somewhere new!
  • Get on instagram. Yes I know it’s not for everyone and can be very artificial, but it’s also a mine of information about food. More specifically, food porn from the places that you  want to travel to. Just type in the place you’re going with the vegan hashtag e.g. #vegancusco or #veganamsterdam and you’ll be flooded with inspiration from places other travellers have eaten. Following other foodies on insta has also inspired me to go on my own travels specifically because the vegan food there looks so good!
A great account to follow
  • Read and subscribe to vegan travel blogs. Yes, like mine, which you can subscribe to in the sidebar of this page or the footer. I know I’m biased, but a huge amount of my travel research comes from reading other people’s blogs. There’s a whole world of us out here on WordPress and beyond. My favourites include (probably the longest running and most comprehensive) The Nomadic Vegan, Cook the Beans and Veggie Vagabonds.
  • Cook your own food: apart from being good for your budget, staying in hostels or Airbnbs with kitchen facilities gives you much more power over what you eat. While you still have to shop for ingredients, you can buy rice, vegetables and pulses pretty much anywhere in the world. Better yet, you can learn to veganise local recipes. Which brings me on to my next point:
Sometimes making your own food isn’t so bad: I started this day in Iceland with homemade vegan banana and blueberry pancakes. Best served drowned in maple syrup and eaten with a view from the hot tub.
  • Try to find a vegan cooking class. Learning about places through their food is one of my favourite ways to discover the culture of somewhere new, as well as try new vegetables, fruits, spices, and herbs. Most destinations with some level of tourism will run cooking classes in the bigger cities, and many will offer a veggie or vegan option or be willing to adapt to you if you ask. I recently took great specialised vegan classes in both Thailand and Bali. In this way you also learn what goes into the options in the local menus and know what to ask to remove or substitute if need be.
Apron on and ready to go at a vegan cooking class at Pembulan Bali Farm Cooking School
  • Try to learn a bit of the local language. We all know it’s often hard enough to explain veganism even in your own tongue, but it’s even worse if you’re expecting the waitress or cook to understand you when you don’t speak the local language. Learning some key phrases might not convince someone of why you don’t want to eat things that come from animals, but it often helps to explain how to adapt food for you.
  • Not good with languages or moving around too much to get them down? Download the Vegan Passport from the Vegan Society. This handy app can be downloaded to your phone and includes phrases to explain your food preferences in 79 languages!
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for something not on the menu if it’s a simple dish. While I try to find the excellent veggie restaurants on Happy Cow, sometimes there’s no other option than somewhere with a local menu that is exclusively meat based. But if you ask nicely, again while they might not understand why, most places can make you plain rice and veg, pasta, or something with potatoes. It’s awkward but better than going hungry.
An Amazonian feast served up by a Hare Krishna community in the heart of Ecuador.
  • While veganism is not a universally understood word, many people understand that Buddhists and people of the Jain faith do not eat food that comes from animals. Sometimes it’s worth claiming it as a last resort. Or if you’re in Asia, often finding local eateries around temples is a good way to ensure your food is animal-free. It’s also worth knowing that Hare Krishna communities have restaurants around the world – even, I was surprised to find, all over Latin America – and with their peace-driven and minimalist ethos, you can be sure anything that you eat in a Hare Krishna place will be both vegan and very affordable.
  • If all else fails, just load yourself up with snacks. It’s always a good idea especially on long travel days where you’re unsure whether you’ll get a rest stop or be able to find anywhere to cater to you if you’re going off the beaten track. Bananas and nuts are the best bet and you can find them in most parts of the world.

So don’t be afraid to travel as a vegan, and whatever you do don’t resort to eating rubbish food unless you really have to. Do your research and follow the steps above and you’ll find that it’s much easier than you think. Better yet, share where you’ve found good food and become a part of the vegan travel community. Whether it’s through blogging, instagram, or becoming a Happy Cow Ambassador, it’s a great way to give back and to make vegan travel more accessible to everyone.

Bali, baby! What to do with two weeks on Indonesia’s most popular island

A sprawling green landscape of dramatic shelves staircased into the hills as far as the eye can see – Indonesia’s rice terraces are the first picture that comes to mind for many people when thinking about Bali. Or Ketut – the wise old medicine man in the blockbuster sellout Eat Pray Love that drew travellers to flock to Bali in their thousands. So is it as idyllic as the paradise painted in Gilbert’s much loved adventure, or has the attention it’s received since damaged the serenity of the atmosphere and cultural authenticity?

Tegallalang Rice Terraces

Eat, Pray, Love

I’ve wanted to travel to Bali ever since, as clichéd as it is, I read that book all those years ago.  It spoke to me at a time when I’d been through a heavy break up and decided that travel was the answer to heal my broken heart.

 But in the time that passed before I booked my flights, its popularity boomed, and inevitably so did the idea that it was now overrun by tourists. However, that is also said about Thailand, where I did manage a trip a few months earlier and found it more authentic and peaceful than the lurid images of incapacitated teenagers and sordid sex industry you often see on television. There are two sides to every story.

Bali has also increasingly been known for a more gentle form of tourism – the ecotourism and associated yogis, vegan travellers, and peace-loving nomads. So after months of looking at pictures, flicking through Lonely Planet and idly dreaming, I booked my tickets.

On the beach in Bali

Ubud

Ubud is the obvious hub for most travellers and a beating heart of culture. It’s known for its artists, musicians, writers, and cool cafes. The climate is much cooler here than in the rest of the island, making it much more comfortable to stroll around. The culture is also much calmer. It’s not known as a partying destination, and although you can check out live music and chill vibes at spots like the Laughing Buddha or the shisha lounge at night, you’re unlikely to see white teenagers vomiting all over the streets in the early hours of the morning.  I’d also strongly recommend checking out a traditional Balinese dance show, which run most nights of the week.

If you want to do a spot of yoga, there are more shalas than you can wave a stick at. The Yoga Barn is the most popular, but there are also free classes run around the city, or are often included in many hostels or hotels. It’s a haven for vegan food, and you can see what I ate here.

In a traditional Balinese dance show the eyes are a large part of the performance.

Ubud is also the hub for all of the most popular activities in Bali. It’s a short cab ride from the Tegallalang rice terraces, where you can hike up and down through the paddies and breathe in the warm, wet, earthy tropical atmosphere and take note of exactly where you are.

The Monkey Forest is a very popular spot. I was unsure how I felt about the idea of animals being entertainment, but our day there turned out to be one of the most fun. While I disliked the way the keepers would taunt monkeys to get them to jump on tourists for better photos (they do this sometimes anyway), on the whole they ran – and jumped – and scrambled – freely around the forest without a care for anyone watching. If you’re a photographer it’s a great chance to get some shots.

A baby monkey snuggles up to his Dad.

The Bali Swing is also a fun trip and a chance to swing out over the jungle, albeit a bit pricey, but it does make for some good insta photos.

Swing time.

One of my favourite ways to connect to a culture is through its food. I would recommend taking cooking classes wherever you travel if you can. Not only does it help you to learn how the food you’re eating is cooked and try new ideas, it also connects you more to the natural habitat of a place when you are cooking with ingredients that are fresh and local – not like anything you’d find in Sainsburys. I really enjoyed my trip to Pembulan Cooking School where we harvested our food before cooking up a five course vegan feast.

Collecting fresh ingredients at Pembulan Farm Cooking School

Canggu

If you’re exhausted by the city and want to come to Bali for a chill beach hangout, Canggu is a little surf town where you can unwind and read a book all day without disturbance.  It’s also home to even more vegan hangouts than you can shake a stick at. And if you do want to party, this is the place to do it, particularly in the high season.

Craving more of a peaceful vibe, I spent a few days at Serenity Eco Guesthouse. A yoga hangout with an all vegan restaurant on site and a huge pool, this place is an idyll tucked away just a minute’s walk from the beach. The yoga schedule is impressive, but given the comparable heat in this part of the island, I stuck to the early morning classes, spending the rest of the day on the beach.

A shrine at Serenity Eco Guesthouse

Canggu might not appeal to everyone because it’s extremely westernised. For those who fancy some time by the sea but with less of that sea being made up of white faces, I’d recommend heading to one of the smaller islands off Bali.

Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida

You can easily get to Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida from the otherwise unexciting town of Sanur, a short ride from the airport. Boats run a few times a day and tickets can be bought at the dock. It’s notably less developed than the main island, but for that reason retains more charm and authenticity. Here you can catch the little bench bus taxis or just stroll about unencumbered to take in the dramatic cliff views or watch locals going about their work.

The Devil’s Tear, Nusa Lembongan

There are lots of beautiful beaches and if you can hack the heat, I’d recommend hiking about to see them, or if you can ride a scooter you can zip through the hills. It’s a great spot for photographers, with the dramatic landscapes of the Devil’s Tear and the Blue Lagoon.

It’s also known as a spot for divers. Although it can be a little rough, manta ray are very common in the area. For those (like me) that are a bit nervous of the deep-sea stuff, it’s also possible to book a very affordable snorkel tour around the island. Sadly we didn’t see mantas, but the array of brightly coloured fish and healthy coral, as well as a better view of the coastline made this a must-do on my trip and one of my favourite memories.

So is Bali spoiled by tourism?

There were certainly times when I became frustrated by the gaggles of tourists blocking the roads. Ubud in particular is overrun and as charming as it is, the ratio of tourists to local people is uncomfortable. Similarly in Canggu, while it was a  peaceful spot and most of the tourists were the kindly yogi kinds, you did get a sense of an uncomfortable picture of white people being served by Indonesians and few Indonesians themselves on holiday. That said this did change during the Ramadam festival when people from other islands came to rest out on Bali. The smaller islands were certainly much quieter, and if this isn’t your vibe, I’d suggest going there instead.

Hanging out in Bali

Travel mindfully and favour ethical choices

There is a hypocrisy  in describing places as unpleasant because they’re overrun with tourists when you yourself are contributing to the problem and part of that stat. I think the most important thing is to travel with respect, to enjoy a place for it’s scenery, cuisine, and people, and try to leave as minimal a footprint as possible.

On the whole, I’d say it’s still very worth visiting Bali. The landscapes are phenomenal, the food is to die for and less commonly known about, particularly for vegans. More than anything though, the people are amongst the kindest and most gentle you could imagine.

Indonesia is a country that has been through numerous natural disasters and many of its people live in extreme poverty. The tourism in Bali has made it one of the more affluent islands, but people still live a humble existence. Go to Bali, and be mindful of where you put your money. Favour local, family run hotels like Raka House over international complexes. Try to eat at local warungs as well as the cool hippie hangouts. And talk to people. Taxi drivers in particular are always up for a chat.

Would I go back? Sure. But next time I might visit one of the quieter islands or opt for a boat trip between a few of them. Indonesia has a culture and ethos I really enjoyed, and as conflicted I feel about it, I’d love to view more of it without the heavy haze of intense tourism.

I’m vegan, babe – Bali’s thriving vegan scene

I had been drooling over pictures tagged #veganbali for several months before I booked my flights. Say what you like about intstagram– it’s superficial, artificially constructed reality, etc. etc. BUT it is an incredibly useful resource to me in terms of a. Finding delicious vegan restaurants or recipes and b. Getting travelinspa and fuelling my wanderlust. One of my top tips for new vegan travellers would be to get on ‘the gram’ – because it’s now one of the easiest ways to do research into vegan travel- literally just follow the #vegantravel hashtag and you’ll be flooded with pics to make your tummy rumble of interesting food from all around the world.

As such I had made a huge list in my iphone notes of places I had to eat at before my plane even landed in Indonesia. Even eating three meals a day I didn’t manage to make everywhere-  and I certainly didn’t have time to make it round the whole island. A lot of places I went to were so small they didn’t seem to have names or weren’t somewhere you’d find on google maps- such as the place I had this traditional curry, below. But here are my highlights of vegan eating in Bali.

Sanur

I ate my favourite meal of the whole holiday at Genius Cafe. This Indonesian take on tacos blew my tastebuds and I gobbled them up way too quickly. Made with tempeh with crunchy corn, onions, and pineapple, slathered in a mix of creamy and spicy sauces, and a zing of lime, I could eat these every day.

I usually stay in hostels when I travel so I’m used to a breakfast buffet that is uninspiring to say the least, often with no options for vegans apart from plain toast. However, Abian Harmony hotel was a budget hotel stay with friends where on top of the included breakfast buffet you could order anything you liked off the breakfast menu, included in the price of your stay! (Which was only around £25 a room). The vegan option was a tofu scramble with peppers, mushroom, radish, and tomato, served on a roasted pumpkin with toast. This wayyy exceeded my expectations and kept me full til lunch (rare).

Nusa Lembongon

Being a smaller island off the coast of Bali, the options were a bit more limited here as there weren’t really any all vegan restaurants in the area that we were in. However, a lot of places had vegan options or would make something vegan for you if you asked. Any cafe would do you a smoothie bowl (see the dragonfruit bowl below) but do make sure to ask that it doesn’t contain milk, yoghurt, or honey.

‘The bar’ may not have had an inspiring name but they did have this delicious healthy yogi bowl- some much needed lightness after trying a delicious but heavy local tempeh curry.

Ubud

Often mistaken for the capital, which is actually Denpasar, Ubud is nevertheless the tourist capital and therefore overrun not just with foreigners but with enough vegan restaurants and yoga centres to fulfil all your wildest snowflake fantasies.

Earth Cafe was probably my favourite- their menu was so huge I was literally in agony trying to decide between the array of options. I really enjoyed their sushi rolls, rice paper rolls, and Arabic salad, as well as all the smoothies. Their service was fast and they also had a cute wholefoods and fair-trade ethical shop below the restaurant.

Falafel Warung made the best falafel I’ve ever eaten- you know globalisation is real when an English person can be saying that about a Middle Eastern food while in Southeast Asia. ‘Warung’ is the local word meaning eatery, and we did go to many little local eateries during the trip, though annoyingly since they’re not tagged in google maps I can’t remember all their names. ‘Falafel warung’ therefore sounds like a contradiction in terms, but this little street joint was so friendly and I’d have gone back if we had more time.

Pissari Bali Cafe had lots of local food with vegan versions, as well as Mexican and European. I really loved the satay tempeh plate and nasi goreng (an Indonesian stir fry).

If you fancy an ice cream (and in that heat, you will) you’ll be pleased to know that the premium gelato place- which has stalls on Monkey Forest road and in the craft market- has several vegan options. I tried the bounty and my friend went for the snickers.

The restaurant called ‘Garden Cafe’ that is a part of the Taksu Spa/yoga hotel complex was a bit more of an upmarket one and had a feel to it that was too western to my liking. That said they had various delicious vegan options including a jackfruit rendang curry, raw tacos, and an interesting take on a vegan cheesecake.

In the heat of the city, and with travel burn out I was really craving a cold iced latte, but was trying very  hard to resist the omnipresent Starbucks. Atman Cafe turned out to be a gorgeous spread of a cafe/restaurant that did a really lovely almond latte with natural syrup sweetener, and they also had a yogi and hippie sort of jewellery shop to the side.

If you’re heading out to the Tegallalang Rice Terraces (and why wouldn’t you be?) and need a spot of refreshment after hiking up and down the iconically steep slopes, By Cafe is your bet for an array of vegan drinks, smoothie bowls, and plant-based cakes with a view.

Another thing I’d really recommend doing while travelling is taking cooking classes. If, like me, you like to connect to local cultures through your tastebuds, it’s a really good way to understand different ingredients and ways of cooking. While cooking classes are not hard to find, it’s sometimes to as easy to find places that do recipes that are either naturally vegan or can be veganised.

Pembulan Farm Cooking School was everything you’d dream of and easily the best travel-cooking-class-experience I’ve had. About an hour outside of Ubud, you can be picked up from your hostel and taken to a beautiful farm in the rolling countryside. We were guided around the gardens in which fruit, vegetables, spices and herbs grew naturally and organically, and collected all our ingredients for the class in a straw basket, while the teacher explained what the new things were.

We then spent a wonderful day cooking up a whole feast of a five-course meal, that included: sweet and sour tempeh, sweetcorn fritters, mushroom parcels wrapped in banana leaf, a vegetable and tempeh curry, and black rice pudding. It was one of the highlights of my trip and I’d urge anyone with foodie bones to make sure you book a day in your Bali travels to visit this place.

Canggu

Canggu was not really my scene. While I like the hippie vibe, overall it felt too Western, too fashionable, and too expensive for my liking. That said I enjoyed the beach time and I really loved Serenity Eco Guesthouse. A natural complex built around a big pool, this little guest house is built on sustainable principles, is all vegan, and runs multiple yoga classes a day. Yes I’ve become that sort of person. Their restaurant was a little too healthy for my liking to eat at every day, but it did provide delicious and natural included breakfasts and a huge menu.

To satisfy my junk food cravings I went to Plant Cartel. This cartel is my sort of [v]gang and I really enjoyed the loaded nachos, while my friend went for the Mexican salad. They also had mouth watering giant burgers, tacos and more.

At Avocado Factory you can live out all your millenial snowflake inclinations by munching ethical avo on sourdough, with a plant-based latte through a plastic-free straw, while looking over the ubiquitous rice fields.

You cannot go to Canggu without visiting Mad Pops, an iconic plant based ice cream shop where I was literally spoiled for choice. I’d been craving mint choc chip but not found any vegan options for months, so I opted for a cone stacked with mint, salted caramel and peanut butter ice cream. Balance, right?

In the heat of the day I did find that my appetite tended to wane until evening and then come back in full force. The Shady Shack’s portions are ideal for when you want to roll two meals into one. Don’t be too green for my giant burrito that was absolutely packed. I also really loved the creamy sauces here.

One aspect of veganism I hadn’t considered- apart from cosmetics, initially- was ink. A lot of vegans are, being slightly alternative folk, also tattoo lovers, but I had no idea that a lot of inks aren’t vegan. Bali turned out to be a rather expensive place to get a new tat (even more so than London), but a lot of their shops are certified vegan. I’d really recommend BabaYaga tattoo studio, where I got this beautiful and elegant leg piece, cruelty free, to round up my trip and serve as a lifelong memory of Indonesia.

Even eating my heart out I didn’t manage to get round everywhere on my list, and new places are popping up all the time. If anyone went anywhere I didn’t get the time to get to, please let me know about it!

Fight the stigma: my abortion story

Pregnant, 3+ weeks.

It was one of those moments where time seemed to stand still, the walls of the toilet cubicle sliding away as the world distorted around me, my panic a boa constrictor wrapping around my chest, my heart in my throat and I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t breathe. A weak hand on the cubicle walls to steady myself, I pressed my head against the door and closed my eyes. Opened them. I read it again. I read it again. I must have read it wrong. I read it again. I shook it. It still kept saying those words. Pregnant 3+ weeks.

I never thought it would happen to me. I’ve been pro-choice, in a very active sense, all my adult life and yet I never thought it would happen to me. Having made it to be a 27 year old woman born in a time and place where we are generally able to control our own fertility, I never thought I would get unlucky. But it happened. And it could happen to anyone.

On the day that my child would have been born, I’ve decided to share the story of my abortion. This isn’t a flippant decision, and it’s not a happy one. This post is not a celebration. It’s something that I feel indescribable sadness about, in spite of all my assumptions otherwise of what I would do and be like in these circumstances. But it is important to talk about. Abortion is something that 1 in 3 women need in their lifetimes, and yet the stigma about it continues to the extent that we just don’t know which of the women in our lives have had to go through it, how they may be affected by it, and the day to day inescapable reminders. So this is my story.

If it’s not already obvious, this wasn’t a wanted pregnancy. The timing was particularly bad. I was functioning on about 200% stress, and already felt that my life was falling apart. I was at the end of a work contract and due to be unemployed in two weeks. My boss at the time had a particular way of making you feel like less than something you’d scrape off the bottom of your shoe.  I felt like a failure after interviewing for two jobs, either of which would have been my absolute dream, and not getting them. I was going to have to move out of my house-share in London because I couldn’t afford the rent, and back to my parents, which as someone who takes a huge amount of pride in being independent, filled me with a sense of dread and uselessness.

I was also feeling heartbroken. The person who- it felt weird even thinking about it in my head- was the father of this would-be baby, had hurt me, big-time. Having pushed their way into my life when I was unsure it would work and dismissing my concerns at the outset, I had let myself be convinced by their promises, the grand gestures, the big talk about a future I so desperately wanted- and I felt tricked after I had got way more involved than I intended and they did a 180 on me, seemingly wanting nothing to do with me now, and worse, literally only a couple of weeks after we had been on holiday together, was now on holiday with the ex-girlfriend they had told me they weren’t even really friends with. I was still gasping from the kick in the feelings from knowing how many times they had told me a lie, even while trying to convince me that I was crazy for suspecting that wasn’t the case.

It was too much to process. Unemployed. Broke. Unwanted. Alone. Pregnant.

There is no saying truer than that when in times of crisis, you find out who your real friends are. I was shaking too much to type words, but within a minute of texting just the picture of the test, my best friend from uni was calling me, talking me through the hysterical sobbing, understanding why I could barely speak through hyperventilation. You are going to be okay. You’re going to get through this. We are all here for you. There are so many people who care about you. You have a circle of friends to support you. You don’t have to make a decision right away. And crucially, you are not alone. Within a moment of putting the phone down from her, another, relatively new friend from work, who already knew I was worried about my late period, was calling. She was particularly amazing as she was well connected in the reproductive rights world. You’re going to be okay. In the morning, call BPAS [The British Pregnancy Advisory Service], you’ll be able to be seen quicker than going through a doctor.

I realised I had to talk to the father, who was of course busy at the time on his holiday. He did call eventually  but it ended up making me feel considerably worse. ‘Oh, this sucks’. Was all he seemed to be able to say. And when he was angry and confused about why I felt so emotional, I had to put the phone down.

I barely slept that night, panicking about the (obvious now I understood what they were) changes in my body. I woke up and the test was still there, on the bedside table. Pregnant 3+ weeks. It was not a bad dream.  I was devastated. I felt invaded, confused, alien to myself. As much as an unwanted pregnancy is frightening to anyone, I’ve always had a pretty serious phobia about even the idea of being pregnant, and now it was true, and even worse, I was single. I wished I had a partner there to hold me, and make me feel safe. So that we were in this together, as hard as it was. But I was alone.

My imagination went haywire. What if we’re overtaken by a right-wing Handmaid’s Tale-style patriarchal regime before I can get help? What if I’m forced to give birth? What if THE APOCOLYPSE COMES before I can get help?! Oh my god, I’m going to be pregnant through the apocalypse, fuck, fuck.   

Calling BPAS first was some of the best advice I’ve ever had. A very calm and kind lady talked to me and, incredibly, booked me in for an appointment the following morning. Amazingly, they said that if I wanted to go through with an abortion then and there, I could. Or if I just wanted to have a chat about my options and talk to a counsellor, that was also fine. Whatever works for you, we’ll be there.

Those words are invaluable.  I went to work. I have no idea how I went through the motions of the day with the screaming in my ears, the buzzing. People were talking to me and I wasn’t really hearing what they were saying, all I could think about was the soreness in my breasts, the nausea, the stretching feeling in my body, the dryness that I could now not just attribute to anxiety. I was so preoccupied I fell flat on my face on the bus, hitting my head pretty hard, and had to scramble back up while the Londoners around me just tutted, assuming I was drunk.

The morning of my appointment I got ready shakily. I had messages of support from my closest friends, but from the father, nothing. In spite of everything between us, having told him I was having the appointment the next morning, I did think he might say something in acknowledgement of the fact that he wasn’t able to be there with me. They had made time to post on social media, but to me?

Silence. I got on a bus alone, feeling like a shell, and when I got in and registered, I noticed the feeling of dirtiness that overcame me as I sank into the cushions in the waiting room. This is how deep the stigma about abortion runs in our society, even in a country where it is thankfully free, safe, and legal. I am an ardent feminist and have even helped to coordinate pro-choice events (ironically I had chaired a panel on the subject just a couple of weeks before, not knowing that I was pregnant). And yet while 100% being behind other women who face this difficult situation, when it came to me, I felt overwhelmed with shame and guilt. I had become one of those girls even when everything I thought logically refuted everything in the judgement of the idea of one of those girls, which in fact could be any woman.

BPAS were the most supportive, professional, and kind service providers you could ever hope for, and I am fortunate that they exist. And yet, in spite of this, the next couple of hours were some of the most difficult of my life. The counsellor was amazing. Patient, understanding, respectful of my feelings and choice. But still, the questions shook me much more deeply than I’d ever expected.  How does the idea of being a parent making you feel? I had a blood test. I went into a room where an ultrasound probe is put inside you to confirm the pregnancy. As early in the pregnancy as it was, I wish I hadn’t seen the blip on the screen.

I realised I wasn’t ready to make my choice. I never thought that if this happened I would consider keeping it, but when I went away that day I faced the hardest decision of my life. Outwardly I was sure I couldn’t, and didn’t want a child. That’s what I kept saying to my friends, and even to the father, who I knew had no interest in giving up so much of his life right now either. But the doubt I cycled through in the next 24 hours was very real. It feels different when the potential for a person is inside you.

 I instinctively had become defensive of my belly, going to protect it when a random kid threw a firework at me in the street. It seemed ironic in the circumstances. I pictured what it would be like to have a child, to grow someone inside of you, to be able to pour all of your love into somebody. To fill that emptiness, the person-shaped space for love that kept changing and vanishing as the people I loved never worked out. And I was really thrown to realise there was a part of me that did want that, given that I had never been interested in motherhood before. The power of hormones is quite frightening.

I started talking to the blip. I wish I hadn’t but it was hard to undo once I’d started. Weirdly it was easier to talk out loud about what I was thinking and in talking to the blip I was trying to justify myself, to work out what I was thinking as I was saying it. But as I was talking and imagining a life with them I realised that what I said would be promises I couldn’t keep.

I didn’t know if I could love them and protect them. I honestly still don’t. I struggle enough with mental health and getting myself through each day as it is. What if the anger, hurt, and self-loathing I felt seeped into them, poisoning them even while they were in my own belly, and afterwards?

Inevitably the fact they weren’t wanted would end up impacting on the way I brought them up even if I fought to not let that come across. I would have to give up my independence, my love of travel, it would affect my career, and as much as I might idealise this new fantasy motherhood, in that moment I knew I would end up resenting them on some level.

 And how could I protect a child when I didn’t even have a job? When I was soon to be unemployed, when I lived in one bedroom in a shared council house that I wasn’t even sure I could keep paying for, when I had nowhere near enough savings to have my own house any time in the future. I had no idea if they’d have a father around either but realistically it seemed unlikely. The harsh reality of the situation hit me. I’m sorry, I sobbed to the blip I don’t think I can look after you. I can’t give you a life you deserve. I don’t want to make you as unhappy as I am.

I knew I had to make the appointment happen fast, or I might not be able to go through with it.

For a medical abortion, which is what I opted for, the ideal situation is to take the first pill a couple of days before the second one. It works to soften the lining of your uterus in advance of the second, which pushes the pregnancy out.  But, but. I had an interview the next day, and I had to drive to it. I had no choice but to go given my circumstances. There was a small chance that the miscarriage would start either on the motorway or mid-interview. Part of me still considered it, but thankfully the counsellor ruled it out. But if I wanted it to happen before the weekend, I’d have to take both pills at the same time, which gives worse side-effects.

I gritted my teeth and decided I had no other choice. I had already had to take time out of work, and I couldn’t let that drag into the next week. I also couldn’t spend all weekend thinking about it. If it happened Friday, at least I’d have two days to recover.

A day of hysteria. I can’t even remember the interview, have no idea how I drove back to central London, went through work. I’d become a robot. Saying the right words when people spoke to me. Smiling in the right places.

It was only by being a robot on the day that I went through the motions to make sure it got underway before any feelings started. That moment of looking at the pills in the two paper cups. Knowing that moment was make or break, it was irreversible. And it was done.

I got an uber back, too afraid it would start on the tube. I got a hot water bottle and crawled into bed, waiting for it to start. I put Friends on in the background to distract myself. The painkillers made me feel spaced out.

It took too long. I don’t want to scare anyone away from doing it because it’s undoubtedly one of the safest ways, but my god, they didn’t get across how painful it is. I hope I never again experience that much pain. And it didn’t stop, for hours and hours of the worst agony of my life. But the bleeding didn’t start. It’s meant to start in a few hours, but nothing, just pain. I called BPAS in a panic who said it can take different times for different people. I spent the longest hours huddled round a hot water bottle waiting until all the painkillers finally made me pass out. It was one of those ‘dark nights of the soul’.

I woke up suddenly, soaking wet in sweat and blood, somehow the pain had amplified by tenfold. I reached down and finally the blood had come but so much – it had soaked through two sets of knickers, nightpads, and my pyjamas. 

I struggled to slide out of bed, pushing through the agony. If I could clean myself up I’d be on top of this. I managed to stand. Is this normal? I thought. Am I dying? So much blood.

I made my way to the door. The feeling next is hard to describe, but there was a woosh of pain that seemed to charge through my whole body, making it contract violently, and then darkness. I woke up on the floor of my room. I must have knocked the mirror off the wall as I fell because it had landed hard on my head. Pain. My heart was racing against the cold floorboards. Pain.

I tried to get up, sliding the mirror off my back, stepping to my bedroom door again. Black. I hit my head again on the way down.

I came round. I lay for a long time, belly down, panting. It was the most scared I have ever been. I am actually dying. Something has gone very wrong. I thought. I breathed, and breathed, trying to control it, to steady my heart. I dragged myself on my belly to my phone to text for support in case I actually needed help. Thankfully this time the father did respond. My housemates didn’t seem to have been woken by the crash.

After a long time I decided to try again to reach the bathroom. It was on another floor. I crawled on my belly to the stairs, and then gradually slid down them backwards, too afraid to stand again. So much blood. I knew it had happened in that moment. I did my best to wash it away and then crawled back up to bed, where the painkillers took me away again to sleep.

The next morning seemed to dawn as though it was any old day. There was pain, but it had, at last, eased off. I touched my belly. Then looked at the covers to assess the damage. I realised all of a sudden there was pain in my finger- I couldn’t move it. I tried again. I had landed on it when I fell, and somehow hadn’t noticed in the shock. It was broken. Fuck, I didn’t know if I could handle A and E right now. Thank god my beloved friend Emily came to take me to the hospital and away from that house, that room.

The first day back to work I’d put on my clothes and make up and decided this was a new week. That was behind me now. I’d get a haircut, I’d start over. I hadn’t really processed anything yet.

The woman I’d been providing maternity cover for brought her baby into the office. It was obviously just really unlucky timing. I tried to keep it together, I smiled, hugged her, kissed the baby. Baby head smell. Bad idea.

I breathed while everyone fussed around them both. And I couldn’t stop my brain. What about my baby? What about me? Don’t we matter? We don’t matter because it’s gone and I’m too young and broke and stupid to be allowed my baby. And then. There is no baby. All that’s left of it is the blood in your pants. And it’s all. Your. Fault. You. Useless. Fucking. Cunt.

I wanted nothing more than to hold my baby like she was holding hers. And I wouldn’t. I never would. There was nothing there now. And I fell apart, head down, running through the corridor to the loos, hoping no one would see the tears under my hair. I broke down. I was sent home from work, a haunted face looking back at me through the tube window, mascara to my chin. I got off, bought a cheap bottle of wine and staggered back home, into that bed. And then the force of everything I had been blocking out since making my decision hit me at once.

The feelings didn’t go away, even in  the next weeks, as I learned I had got the job I’d interviewed for (how the hell I have no idea), picked myself up again, went to leaving dos and drinks and smiled at the right times as everyone gushed about how everything was alright now, even without knowing the half of everything in my head.

I was obsessed with babies for a long time. I seemed to see them everywhere, there were many more of them than I had ever noticed. I wanted to touch them, I wanted to hold them, I wanted one like I had never – ever – done before. I fantasised about the life I would have with my baby girl, us together against everything. I shouldn’t have indulged in it.

It took a long time for that to wear off, I guess because of the sheer volume of hormones involved in both pregnancy and abortion as my body and brain tried to adjust to the change and everything that had happened. Even by Christmas, a couple of months later, I was struggling when I went home to not think about it now I didn’t have the distraction of work. Put on the makeup. Smile in the right places. Wait until the door is closed.

As the months have passed since I was gradually able to go a day, maybe two, without thinking about it. Occasionally I’d look up how big the foetus would be by now. 15 weeks. Your baby is the size of a pear.  Your baby is a sweet potato. I’d have periods of being fine and then be hit by nowhere with a wall of sadness.

Time went on and I began to realise what I had known before I got unhealthily wrapped up in dark thoughts – that I had made the right choice. I might still feel sad about it, but I was glad I wasn’t pregnant. I am glad I haven’t had a baby.

The memory of what happened is always going to be a bit of a dark shadow in my heart. But as much as it was difficult, it was by far the better alternative. If I was having a baby today, it would not have been wanted or planned for. I couldn’t have afforded it. It would have robbed me of my life, my career, and we certainly couldn’t have afforded our own home. I would have resented it and I know that. And the world is too full of problems already, too full of children who have suffered, to bring any more of them into it. Let alone not knowing if the world I brought them would be a safe one as we seem to be hurtling ever faster towards nuclear or environmental apocalypse.

I want to stress this part because the large part of my abortion story is quite traumatic. It is not my intention to dissuade anyone from having an abortion who needs one. If you do, it’s the best option, and it’s your right, the right thing to do, and as much as it’s unpleasant you will get through it. I remain a staunch supporter of the pro-choice movement and women’s reproductive rights.

I shared my story more because I hadn’t really known anyone’s before this happened. But one in three of the women in my life will have had one. One in three women in your life. Because I felt ashamed about it in spite of myself and shouldn’t. 

I shared it because as much as I support and am a part of it, there are elements of the pro-choice movement that don’t acknowledge how hard it is. For some people it’s not as difficult a decision as it was for me, and that’s absolutely fine. But for a lot of women it is, and it’s hard to talk about when no one knows, no one seems to understand.

Even more so I shared it because of the bullshit anti-choice propaganda that wants people to think that women who get abortions are just sluts who get them willy nilly without a care in the world because they hate babies.

No one gets an abortion because they want one. Women get abortions because they need them, and because they don’t have another choice when they can’t or don’t want a baby. Whether abortion is legal or not will not affect this – it will only affect whether they can have one in a safe, legal, and supportive environment.

Right now in the UK, Northern Irish women are not able to exercise their right to abortion. And serious contenders for our next prime minister have expressed the desire to limit abortion access laws. The law change in Alabama will result in thousands of women like me not getting the help that they need and being put in dangerous situations. And in El Salvador, women are spending their lives in prison on the basis of the most draconian and evil laws controlling women’s bodies in the world.

I wrote this so that people would be more aware of what one in three women in their lives will go through, to try to combat the stigma, and also because the support and advice I had is not available to millions of women. Some of them are as close as Northern Ireland. There are British women who cannot get the help that they need when they are in a situation like mine. They are forced onto planes. Or they are forced into motherhood.

My next blog will be about the importance of securing abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland. Thank you for reading my story.

Die another day: One day in Zambia

It was a day that started quite unlike any other. I woke stuck to the tent in sweat, opened my eyes and remembered: I’m in Africa. It was the first day of a three week  camping adventure overlanding through Southern Africa starting in Zambia. We only had one day here so I had to make the most of it. I had no idea what that would really mean.

Victoria Falls through the trees.


Whitewater rafting in the Zambezi

The Zambezi is one of the best places on earth to go whitewater rafting. That’s what I was told. I didn’t realise that ‘the best’ meant one of the roughest and most dangerous.

After a brief safety demo we took an open truck to the river, close to the famous Victoria Falls. A local gathered us round to tell us the story of Nyami Nyami, the Zambezi River God of Tonga folklore that is said to live in the Zambezi.  Inevitably we are tricked into buying a Nyami Nyami pendant to protect us that day, a piece of jewellery that has a significance similar to the St Christopher of Christianity. I didn’t know how much I’d need it.

We clambered down the steep banks to the boats. Even before we left I was nearly hurled off my perch by the force of the tide. Under orders we paddled hard to reach the first rapid, only to be buffeted back. We tried again. And again. Our inexperience showed.

The scale of Victoria falls is hard to describe.

Finally we reached it- and the boat flipped, hurling us deep under water. I was disorientated, it was dark, I couldn’t work out which way was up,  I couldn’t breathe- and then I bobbed to the surface, my lifejacket pulling me back to the world above water when I couldn’t work out where that was.

It scared me more than I expected- I knew I’d fall in but I didn’t anticipate the water being so violent, or how deep you’d get thrown down in the force. As we approached the next rapid I gripped on for dear life and just about made it, only to be thrown headlong again at the third.

This time as I bobbed up I hit a rubber wall. I’d become trapped under the boat and couldn’t feel my way out. My lungs screamed as I panicked, groping my way along it to try to find the way out. The water changed direction again and I was finally free. Now I understood that Nyami Nyami wasn’t to be messed with.

Made another. Fell in another. This time the following rapid was too close- I couldn’t make it to the boat in time and had to go over freestyle before being dragged back to safety by a rescue kayak. My heart thudded out of my chest. Extreme sports? Never again.

When we finally made it to the end we were told we could float for awhile to rest before clambering up the sheer face to land again. With Zambia on one side and Zimbabwe on the other, I blinked, shellshocked at the sun, and thanked God we had got through.

‘I’m going to do the bungee jump over Victoria falls’, my tent-mate told us. ‘Will anyone come with me?’

Well if I didn’t die this morning, I thought…

Celebratory survival pose

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls itself is hard to describe in words. I don’t think I’ve ever been so struck by the sheer power of nature. The noise of such a volume of water thudding with such power over the rock face, that stretches for nearly two kilometres. I stared, stunned for a long time before getting my camera out, trying to take it all in.

Then we saw the bridge over the river where people bungee. And the drop.

I had intended to just go along with my tent-mate for moral support. And yet.

I’m terrified of heights. I get the heebie jeebies just looking down from escalators or steep theatre steps. But I would never be here again. I didn’t want to be the person who went to the bungee at Victoria Falls and just watched. As I was trying to decide whether to fork out the £90 to do the jump, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought. If I can do this, nothing will ever seem scary again.

The bridge over the Zambezi

The jump

Standing on the metal grill at the edge of the bridge an hour later, I regretted the decision. My feet were bound in towels- towels?! Is that really enough?! And I’d been alarmed at the lack of safety videos or instruction. A video camera zoomed in on my face, ready to catch the jump.

Even seeing the water so far below through the grills of the platform made my stomach flip. Locals were standing on the bridge as spectators, were chanting my name. The man pulled out my arms to be wide and made me shuffle to the edge. Stop, I might fall off! I started, before remembering that was the point. The chanting continued. I’m going to have to die because of peer pressure.

They counted down, they counted down, oh god help what am I going to do?! And then I was falling, falling, falling, how didn’t it stop?! I stupidly clung to the harness as though that would stop me down or slow the impact, until the rope reached the end and I bounced back up- the rushing river pulling away again. And then the falling was happening again- and again- until I finally slowed to a stop, swaying upside down looking at the river.

Mid-jump

I realised no one had told me what to do at this bit. I stayed hanging there stupidly until a man appeared, lowering himself on a rope and swinging towards me. He grabbed me and clipped me too him and then pulled us back up to the bridge, where I grabbed onto the metal and decided never to leave land again.

‘How was it?’ our guide asked when we got back to the campsite bar, desperate for a strong drink to celebrate surviving the day. ‘There was this time’, he said ‘when we took a girl and her rope snapped, and she fell into the water and broke both legs and her collarbone’.

I put down my gin and tonic and looked at him. ‘She survived though’ he said quickly, ‘She managed to swim with one arm to the side. Thankfully the crocodiles weren’t out.’

We were disbelieving, but the story was true. Apparently the Zimbabwean president had a go once the bungee was reopened just to prove it was safe.

‘Why didn’t you tell us before?!’ I asked.

‘Because you wouldn’t have done it. But it does make a funny story.’

I downed my drink. One day in Zambia. At least twice I had thought it might be my last, but I’ve never again had a day quite like it.

Too close for comfort: how to not get crushed by a hippo in Botswana

Cause of death: flying hippo. I could see the coroner’s report as I finally gasped a breath on the hull of the mokoro canoe, sure that it could hear my heart thudding as the beast passed beneath us, inches below my belly, and the boat rocked. In the part of my brain that wasn’t processing whether I was still alive, I vaguely wondered how my mum would convey the news in her Christmas round-robin email.

It had come from nowhere. We had been laughing, reclined comfortably in the dugout canoe as we returned to the mainland of Botswana after a night camping out in the wild of the Okovango delta, where elephants and big cats patrolled through the night and could pass by your tent at any time.

When locals panic, you know there is something seriously wrong. ‘That was too close. Far too close’. Our guide was shaken. ‘Keep staying down’. Then after several achingly long minutes we crawled back into our seats and wove in silence back through the rivulets we had traversed at sunrise. ‘We have to go another way’.

 We had started the previous day with a much more peaceful ride through the delta. We saw the snouts of a whole family of hippos in the distance and gawped with delight as we glided by, snapping shots of the ears and eyes poking out of the water that glinted in the late afternoon sun. Enough of a threat to be aware of, but far away enough that they didn’t seem bothered with us. ‘Keep your distance, and be quiet. Hippos just don’t like to be startled’. We were told. ‘And they don’t like it when you get between them and the water.’

On land, we pitched our tents. The trees offered protection from the sun, but also a showering in mopane worms, the caterpillars that are iconic in Botswana, featuring both on the currency, pula, and in local dishes. They dripped from every tree, and I squirmed with the constant unnerving feeling they had dropped into my hair and clothes. We dug a hole to shit in, sticking a loo roll on a spiked branch. Home for the night.

‘Don’t pee if you can help it. If you do, pee right by the tent. If you see eyes, get straight back in. If you see green eyes, it’s not a predator, but an elephant could still panic and stampede. If you see red eyes, it’s a predator, and they’ll be the last you’ll ever see.’ The warning was enough. I chose dehydration over death with my pants down.

As it neared evening, the sun bled red into the sky and made the earth a glowing furnace against which we became no more than silhouettes imprinted on the horizon.

That night, we lit a fire to keep the animals away, over which our guide cooked potjiekos, a southern African stew and brewed fresh roobios tea.Local people sang songs in the Setswana language and encouraged us to join them in swaying hips and clapping hands. All the while I kept an eye on the horizon for eyes of green and red.

Come dawn, it seemed the danger had passed. A quick breakfast and back in the mokoros. We had been travelling for nearly an hour when there was a crash in the bushes and we stopped suddenly. ‘Ssshhhh!’ the hand of our driver waved for us to be quiet.

If I had reached out an arm I could have touched the hippo we were faced with on the bank. Its head alone was as long as my body, its yellowed fangs as long as my hand, and sharp. And we were between it and the water. It snorted, kicked its back legs.

‘Get down’. The guide muttered under his breath and I slid under the seat, not taking my eyes off it. We stayed that way for several minutes, us watching it watching us. I didn’t dare breathe in case it could hear us.  I wondered how much it weighed. If it charged, would it crush us immediately? Would we die from the impact, or drown if it brought us under the water?

Then it leapt. Just in front of the nose of the boat where I had been sitting, sending a wave over us, and the boat rocked with the weight of it pushing by.

I didn’t feel like an intrepid explorer. I felt very, very small.

Monk chat: a day at Buddhist University

‘Can monks have iPhones?’ Phra KK smiled at the question and pulled one out of his orange robes, joking about how he was using it for ‘sexy selfies’.

I’d never met a monk before Phra KK, and I was happily surprised by how chilled out, relatable, and sometimes downright silly he was.

While I didn’t want to be one of those ‘ya I went to Thailand and now I’m a Buddhist bla bla’ people, it seemed to me to me that to go to Thailand and not try to learn anything about the prevailing belief system (note, not religion) would be pretty ignorant and disrespectful to the culture. What’s the point in going to fabulous temples if you only take the pics for instagram and don’t really engage with the history, stories, and the importance of them in the lives of the people whose home you are fortunate enough to be able to visit?

I’ve always liked the ‘idea’ I had of what Buddhism was, but I didn’t know much about it apart from the fact that it was generally a peaceful thought system with an emphasis on meditation, kindness, and self understanding.  So I signed up for a day’s ‘Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation’ course at Wat Suan Dok, part of the Buddhist University in Chiang Mai.

A row of Buddhas at Wat Pho in Bangkok

The day started with an ‘Introduction to Buddhism’; the story of the life of Buddha, the finding of a ‘middle way’ between over indulgence in sensual pleasure and living in suffering, and an explanation of the ‘precepts’ (rules).

As expected, much of the philosophy appealed to me: the emphasis on peace and non-violence, including not causing suffering to others, not killing or eating animals, rejection of capitalism, treating everyone as equals, humility, and living in accordance with the eco-system.

Some of it would be more challenging: no music, no dancing, intoxicants, sexual relationships, and worst of all, no snacks.

The next part of the day was an introduction to meditation. Having come to Thailand as a ‘recovery holiday’ after a period of emotional crisis, I was very attracted to the idea of being freed from thoughts and finding stillness. It’s something I’d found impossible in the hubbub of London life, but maybe here in the peace of the temple, I thought I could find it.

A monk giving a blessing at Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Phra KK talked us through various techniques, and we practiced; sitting meditation, using beads, and a walking meditation in which you walk extremely slowly, with concentration of every moment of every gentle step. It was interesting to learn about how it worked for him and I can definitely see the value in it, but I found it too hard to detach. I was distracted and eventually bored, wondering what was for lunch and if he’d noticed if I stopped to scratch an itch. The focus on breathing definitely helps with calming and reconnecting with your body, and it’s something I’ve found useful as I’ve been learning to practice yoga. But as much as he promised it was normal to struggle especially to start with, I’m not sure it’s something I’ll ever be able to manage.

The day ended with a question and answer session, in which Phra KK fielded all manner of questions about the belief system itself and the feasibility of practicing it in life in 2019. He was very honest about the issues and scandals that had been in the papers- with monks using brothels or dropping out of the monastery after falling for some of the other delights of modern life.

He also shared more with us about his life; being orphaned, and how he was taken in by monks, and the monastery became his family. Monks can’t have money, and live only from the donations of others, but he worked for the temple every day for free to raise donations to give back to the orphanage that fed and looked after him. It seems that it’s common for homeless boys to be taken into monkhood in this way.

While I could see that it had given KK shelter and another chance at life, it was moving to witness his sadness and loneliness. It seemed a shame that having lost his family, he was forbidden from entering a loving and intimate relationship with another human and the chance to create a family of his own.  While he claimed to enjoy his life and came across as a peaceful and understanding person, I wondered at the loss of the love he clearly had to give to someone, and feeling of receiving in return.

Monk Phra KK explains Buddhism.

One of my greater scepticisms was brought up during the Q&A: the fact that, for a thought system based on ‘equality’, the vast majority of the Buddhist church does not accept female monks. I had bought a book about Buddhism to learn more and noted that, for all the talk of humans being treated the same, it referred throughout only to male pronouns, because of course the presumed default human is male.

It was clearly a question he was asked a lot, and while he noted and seemed to believe that something should change, did admit that in the vast majority of the monkhood it was not possible for women to be ordained. It is possible for Buddhist women to become nuns, but they do not share the same status in Thai society as monks. Go figure. While there is much I have taken from learning about Buddhist teaching, it’s my biggest bugbear and barrier from taking it truly seriously as a thought system.

That said, the day and experience was one of the most valuable things I did during my trip, because it helped me to understand the history, culture, and the nature of the people I had met during my time there. I’m sure that because I’ve been blessed with meeting so many warm and hospitable people in my travels that I’ve been guilty of saying many a time ‘the PEOPLE from X place are the best thing about it, they’re the best people in the WORLD’ about a few places. However, in Thailand, the Buddhist influence really is noticeable in your reception and day-to-day interactions.

Sure, if you only hang out on Khao San Road or go to full moon parties you might get harassed and badgered at the seedier end of the spectrum. But if you take the time to get to talk to people you will experience their genuine warmth of feeling, patience, kindness, and most of all humility, to an extent that I’ve never known anywhere else. It’s a culture where people are in the habit of putting others before themselves not just for show, but because they genuinely mean it. I was promised a ‘land of smiles’ and it did not disappoint. With all the wankiness of ‘wellbeing’  aside, it really is a place that had a great healing power for me, but that came from learning from the people as much as from the cheap massages and fresh, healthy food. Buddhism seemed to me to be above all about empathy and being a better person, and while I’m not ready to give up snacks, I tried to learn to be a better person from them.

While I work hard in my career to redress the privilege I never earned in life, am a loving person and loyal friend to those around me, and live day-to-day in a way that I hope causes the least suffering possible, I’m flawed and there are many thoughts I have that I’m ashamed of. A little jaded from life, I can be guilty of being sarcastic, bitter, angry, bitchy, resentful, jealous, and selfish at times. When I’ve been hurt, I’ve taken a lot of relish in fantasising about that person being hit by a truck. None of these things I’m proud of.

The thing I took away most from what Phra KK said about living a life of kindness was about the need to let go of anger and trauma from the past. That if a person has hurt you, doesn’t care about you, that dwelling on that pain only serves to hurt you further. The person who hurt you isn’t thinking about it anymore. You can choose to let the ugliness grow inside you, or not, but if you live with ugliness, you will become ugly, by which he meant more unkind. Everyone, no matter where they have come from, has experienced suffering.  People will hurt you, bad things will happen. But that everything is impermanent. By moving forward it doesn’t mean that thing hasn’t happened, or that it won’t continue to make you sad. But it’s the choice to give another chance to yourself: to not be defined by your suffering, to surround yourself with love, and by doing so learn to channel the negative energy into positive, and suffering into peace.

With thanks to the Buddhist University and Phra KK for the experience. If you want to donate to the orphanage, or if you are going to Chiang Mai and want to learn more, you can book through the Monk Chat website or turn up at Wat Suan Dok on Mondays and Fridays.

Finding peace by the river in Chiang Mai.

A vegan’s guide to East London

London has recently overtaken Berlin to be named the ‘Vegan Capital of the World’. Take a tour round the streets of East London in particular and it’s easy to see why. Moving here after a year of struggling to find animal-free food in Latin America, I was inundated with signs for vegan food and plant-based fare on every street.

From Shoreditch’s hipster central to the resplendent junk fare in Hackney, it’s a haven for every hungry vegan, and also home to Vegan Nights, the UK’s only monthly vegan event that turns into a dance night later on. The list of venues is endless, but here are a few of the top places to visit if you’re in the area:

Boxpark

Boxpark is stereotypical millennial central, but this means a plethora of interesting eats, many of which are vegan. Once home to the (sometimes in-)famous CookDaily, which has now moved to Hackney, it maintains a surprising number of vegan options under one roof.

EatChay, known for it’s bao buns and Bánh mìs (below) sits alongside Biff’s Jack Shack, a ‘filthy vegan junk food’ place where you can get realistic chicken wings in multiple fiery sauce options, as well as some seriously stacked burgers.

Bao buns from Eat Chay Club

If you’re nursing a hangover, there’s none better than What the Pitta to serve you up a feast of mock-donor wrap stuffed with fake donor meat, salad, and tahini. It’s a beast but it’s so worth it.

If you fancy something on the sweeter side, Nosteagia also offers several vegan options of its iconic bubble cones. This is a really intense treat if you’re feeling pudding for lunch, or otherwise a seriously scrummy snack to share with a friend.

Amazing bubble cone from Nosteagia

Brick Lane

Brick Lane is generally known for its curry mile, but the area is waking up to the surrounding vegalution. While many of the curry houses now explicitly advertise vegan options, it’s also home to multiple all-vegan places including VeganYes, a curious Italian/Korean fusion. Mooshie’s burger bar is definitely worth a visit, with a big selection to suit your vurger tastes. Canvas Cafe is a wonderful vegan cafe-cum-social project that offers mental health support groups, creative sessions, and the chance to gift a meal to someone who can’t afford one.

Seriously gooey risotto balls from Arancini Brothers

On the sweeter side of life, Vida Bakery sells VEGAN RAINBOW CAKE, (hallo, snowflake heart attack)! Also worth knowing is the fact that Crosstown doughnuts does multiple vegan options.

 On a non-food note, Fifth Dimension is also a friendly vegan tattoo place. It’s also home to the Boiler House weekend market, which usually has multiple vegan options, and of course, Vegan Nights.

Vegan Nights

Is an event that usually takes place once a month, on the first Thursday of the month, though this can vary. The first time I walked into vegan nights, my mind was blown. It was the biggest vegan market I’d ever seen, with the most incredible spread of stalls offering food from around the world, and I knew I didn’t have to ingredient-check any of it.

Getting my glam on at Vegan Nights

Apart from fresh, hot food and cakes there are also stalls like KindaCo that sell artisan cheese you can take home to enjoy the next day, and ethical products like soy wrap (to substitute for cling film) and vegan fashion.

As the night warms up and the drinks are flowing, it turns into a dance-night with inevitable dance offs, and if you’re very lucky, the chance to meet another tasty vegan.

Mac n Cheez with vibes at vegan nights

Also in the area

…and worth noting are Essential Vegan Cafe, which has a really nice vibe if you just want to sit and work for a while with an oat latte and delicious cake. Vurger is, IMHO, the best vegan burger in London.

Stacked Caribbean-inspired burger from The Vurger Co.

Lollipop in Spitalfields is great, and there are also various options in the Spitalfields Market itself- including Merkamo Ethiopian, a favourite lunchtime treat. If you fancy something healthy, Redemption offer the most beautiful and filling Buddha bowls, non-alcoholic beverages and desserts.

Beautiful Buddha Bowl from Redemption. They change every day!

Newer haunts include the expensive but TOTALLY SICK Genesis, which serves milkshakes that are pure chocolate fudge, deep-fried avocado tacos as well as healthier options like turmeric-roasted cauliflower. Unity Diner was set up as a non-profit by vegan god Earthling Ed. While I’ve only been for a coffee, the menu looks amazing, and given the amount of hate it has got from anti-vegan protesters, we should all totally be supporting this business.

This gorgeous roasted cauliflower is one of the healthier options at Genesis

Hackney

The Black Cat Cafe was the first all vegan cafe I went to in London and I’m so glad I did. Another social project  run by volunteers (damn these vegans are all good humans), it also has affordable prices and a super chill and friendly atmosphere.

Temple of Seitan is where London’s vegan junk scene started. With it’s mock wings, stacked burgers, and seriously fatty mac n cheez, it’s the perfect place for when you’re feeling wicked. Another bit of home comfort can be found at Sutton and Sons, which made headlines as the first all-vegan fish and chip shop.

CookDaily (mentioned earlier) has re-homed to Hackney where you can still get all the old favourites, including noodles, curries, and a good old English breakfast. I have a bit of a weakness for this place and can’t stop going back.

Epic Pad Thai from Cook Daily

The Spread Eagle is an all vegan pub and another headline-grabber. Home to former street-food vendor Club Mexicana, their popularity is not surprising. I love their light but tasty tacos, washed down with a vegan cider, and the staff are as ever for this sort of place, cool, friendly, and alternative.

No doubt, if you have landed in East London you’ve landed on your feet as far as finding vegan grub is concerned. So what do you think? Which are your favourites? Did I miss anywhere? Do get in touch and let me know- I’m always looking to try new things.

Organised tours or solo slow-travel?

There is so much debate in the travel community about organised tours vs. the ‘real experience’ of plotting your own trip and going it solo. Is one really better than the other? I’ve done both, so here are my thoughts.

There are positives and negatives to either approach. What is best really depends on what’s best for you- given your own preferences, your travel experience, your budget, and the time that you have.

Getting into travel

The first time I travelled outside of Europe I was (for our generation) relatively older to be doing so, at 22 (shock horror, I know).  I desperately wanted to go to India, I was travelling on my own, I have anxiety issues anyway,  was a bit nervous about safety, making friends, being able to cope logistically in a very different culture, and I also only had three weeks of annual leave to do it. So I booked a tour with the very popular travel company G Adventures.

Travelling with a group ‘yolo’ tour in India (2015) turned out to be really fun.

It was the one of the choices I’ve ever made. I didn’t have to do any time-consuming planning or booking (which can be hard when you have a demanding full-time job), I arrived in Delhi and landed with a really fun group of people around my age. We travelled on local transport (tuk-tuks, busses, and the dreaded long sleeper trains) but with a local guide to shepherd us about, point us in the right direction, and most importantly, show us what the best local thali dishes were to try (in places where we wouldn’t get food poisoning).

It was a great gateway into travel for me. I’ve since gone back to India without needing a tour. While it is true that you end up treading exactly the same path as so many others before you, you’re able to see all the highlights of a region (and they’re usually highlights for a reason), in a short space of time, in a way that would probably be impossible to achieve on your own. Best of all, you easily make travel companions to share your experiences with, and can form friendships that last years.

We still travelled like locals while on a tour with G Adventures.

Making logistically challenging trips easier

Another great reason to choose a tour is when it is logistically otherwise going to be difficult or beyond your budget as a solo traveller to experience a region you really want to see. For that reason, the following year, when I really wanted to go on safari in southern Africa, I booked a tour again. While it was expensive for my budget at that time, it was relatively far cheaper than if you have to rent a private 4×4, guides at the national parks, and pay to stay in lodges etc. We travelled in a giant ‘overlander’ (a big bus truck) for three weeks, camped, cooked our own food and washed our own dishes and, because there are such vast expanses of wildness in the places I went (Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa) it didn’t feel touristy and you really did feel connected to nature.

Gaining valuable knowledge

We were also blessed with the most amazing guide who knew EVERYTHING about the animals and plants, culture, history, politics of the places, and his passionate explanations of everything we saw really made the experience. I saw all the ‘Big 5’, and was able to do some flexible ‘extras’ such as bungee jumping over Victoria Falls and skydiving over the Namibian desert. Again, I fitted so many mind-blowing, life changing experiences into three weeks of leave, it was well worth the just over £3k it cost me (including flights, extras, booze and souvenirs bought there- the tour price was about half of that total). So actually not bad for what you got.

Having to push-start the truck for a 6am start in Namibia, 2016.

The cost difference is extraordinary

So, the downsides of tours? It is GENERALLY relatively pretty expensive compared to doing it for yourself (though there are differing options from basic to luxury depending on your budget). For comparison’s sake, while backpacking solo I spent closer to £7k in seven months, as opposed to £3k in three weeks on a tour! You are tied to a very tight schedule and there is no possibility of straying off the path. If anyone in the group annoys you, you’re stuck with them for three weeks on your holiday (thankfully I’ve been pretty lucky with the two I’ve been on in having great people).  It’s so full on, and with so many early starts to make the itinerary,  that I felt so exhausted after getting back from both that I felt like I needed another holiday to recover from the holiday.

Finding your own way

I have to admit that, having developed the confidence from those trips enough to go backpacking on my own, proper-styley, I am way less likely to book a tour again. Now that I have done so on a seven month solo backpacking trip through South and Central America,  I’ve realised just how much cheaper it can be, how much more real your experience feels, and I also love the flexibility. You can just go to the bus station and decide where you want to go that day. If you like a place, you can stay there a few days and get to know it better. You can go ‘off the beaten path’ and have some more unusual experiences. You can still easily make friends in hostels if you feel like it, but when you need your own space, you can just go do your own thing too. There is literally nothing like the freedom of deciding what you want to do each day, and just going with that.

Heading off for my first solo adventure in Latin America, 2017.

Challenges can be worth it

It’s not all easy. While some do none at all, I did end up spending a lot of time each day doing research on places and logistics for the days coming up, which felt almost like a part-time job but was the best way to make sure I didn’t miss anything because I hadn’t known the only bus leaves at 6am, or that you have to pre-book to get into X. It can also get lonely at times. Even though you make friends you’re unlikely to spend the whole route together, and making connections with people only to never see them again after the two days you spend together, on repeat, can be exhausting. Occasionally you get into sticky situations, get lost, or end up on a bus going in the opposite direction because your grasp of the language is so bad.. But you also gain so much from the adventure, from forcing yourself to be independent, from talking to locals rather than just your travelling peers- and that in itself I think is invaluable.

I doubt I’d have stayed with a Hare Krishna community in the Amazon on a group tour. Ecuador, 2017.

There is a lot of judgement from people who are experienced travellers of people who pick tours. I don’t think it’s fair or realistic to act all high-and-mighty about it. Sadly, unless you are literally Levison Wood, it’s pretty unlikely you are going to be having 100% authentic, un-touristy experiences these days even if you are plotting your own backpacking trip. Also, for a lot of people, the prospect of travelling is pretty daunting and can seem inaccessible. For people feeling anxious about travelling alone, I do really think tours are often the best way in. I’d also still consider booking one if I try again to fit in seeing as much as possible into a short time of annual leave. It IS really hard when you only have so much time- and depending on your situation the extra money might be worth not being lost in a Chinese train station and messing up your whole trip.

It’s all down to personal preference

So- pick what’s right for you, and don’t judge others. The most important thing is to travel as sustainably as possible, and to act with total respect for the culture and wildlife you are having the privilege to experience. G-Adventures and other companies give a percentage of their profits to local NGOs. If you’re going on your own, pick eco-hostels, locally run tours, and don’t get involved in the aspects of tourism that tear communities and people apart (drugs and sex trafficking being high on that list). Make friends with locals, make the effort to learn a bit of the language, and be mindful of what has put you in the position to be able to have these experiences in the first place.

So I’ll conclude with a summary of pros and cons. Just have a think about what from this list is most important to you.

Pros and cons of travelling in a group tour

ProsCons
ConvenienceLack of flexibility
SecurityIntense schedules
Ease of making friendsNo choice in companions
Knowledgeable guidesStuck on tourist trail
Fitting in a lot in a short timeExpensive
Making challenging travel destinations accessibleLess able to give directly to local businesses
Little planning time requiredLimited interactions with local people

Self guided travel pros and cons

ProsCons
More unique experiencesLoneliness
FlexibilityChallenging logistically
IndependenceRequires a lot of time for planning
Making friends with localsProblems WILL arise
Taking time for yourselfLess security (no one knows where you are)
Enjoying slow travelSometimes miss booking places for activities

What do you think? Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts below.

‘Who wants to ride an elephant?’ How to see elephants ethically in Thailand

Elephant-riding has been high on traveller’s bucketlists for a long time. Awareness of the abject cruelty involved in forcing animals to perform for and serve humans is growing, and yet I was still horrified to hear travellers talking about this in groups, and signs advertising it around Thailand. Were they completely oblivious? Or did they just not care as long as it makes a good insta photo?

Elephants  are one of my favourite animals. I was overwhelmed to see African elephants living in the wild during my travels in Botswana and Namibia. However, I have felt extremely sad that I had only seen Asian elephants in India that were facepainted and forced to lug overweight tourists up and down steep slopes to visit forts as entertainment. It can be hard to avoid seeing animal cruelty as a vegan traveller.

A wild African elephant I saw grazing happily in Botswana

But a new trend is growing, and one which on the face of it seems to improve conditions for elephants: ethical sanctuaries.  While it didn’t seem I’d be able to see any elephants in the wild on my trip to Thailand, I was keen to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary. There are many that seem to have cropped up, particularly around Chiang Mai, advertised on boards and in hostels around the city.

But how ethical are ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuaries?

Inevitably, where there has been an increase in interest and tourist money, an increase in less than ethical businesses has followed to meet demand. While many sanctuaries market themselves as being a ‘home for happy elephants’, many still keep them in a situation of unnatural captivity. Some are still forced to play football or other activities with tourists that wouldn’t be possible if the elephants hadn’t been cruelly trained to do so.

Looking at reviews online helped me to find the right one: a review showed me an option I had been considering still shuts the elephants in tiny boxes as soon as the tourists leave.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai

Happily, my experience at Ethical Elephant Sanctuary was wonderful and remains my most cherished memory from Thailand. Elephants here have been rescued from the tourism and logging industries.  Here was how the day unfolded:

Selfies with elephants

Breakfast with elephants

I opted for a full day and was picked up at my hostel early in the morning. After a two hour drive out of Chiang Mai, we pulled up in a giant open field where elephants were grazing. I wasn’t hopping any less than the children to get out and say hello.

First we were dressed in the cloth of the hill tribe who cared for them so that they wouldn’t be startled by us. Then we were able to feed them, holding out sugar cane and bananas that they would pluck from your palm with their ever-reaching trunks.

Going for a stroll

After a break, we went for a walk through the jungle. The elephants roamed freely and we walked alongside or behind them. Seeing them interacting with each other, pausing at will to scratch an itchy bum on the nearest tree (the elephant!), we really came to see how each elephant was a personality in their own right.

An elephant stops to scratch an itch

The importance of breaks

We had a two-hour break for lunch during which time the elephants had a break from us. This is really important for their wellbeing, as it’s not natural for them to be around humans all day. During this time they rested in the shade of an open field while we had a basic but tasty meal of veg, rice, and fruit.

Bath time for elephants

As it broke into the hottest time of the day we went down to the river to bathe and help the elephants to cool off. I was nervous as they all clambered in the same space to make sure I wasn’t going to get crushed between them.

Really seeing them up close like that makes you appreciate just how vast they are, and yet how gentle. We scooped water up to cool their bodies and helped them to rub mud against their flanks.  They retaliated by squirting water at us through their trunks!

Again, seeing them play together was really special. When they were tired of us, they got up and left the water of their own volition to return to the field, and it was when the elephant, rather than the keeper said so, that bath time was over.

Afternoon snack

Natural vegetarians, elephants generally graze all day in the wild, so by the afternoon they were ready for more snacks. It was impressive to see them munch through whole bunches of bananas in one go.

Saying goodbye

We left by late afternoon, leaving them to spend the rest of the day and evening alone. The little kid in me welled up and I felt a bit emotional leaving them, even though I know that for them this was the norm. I asked how much it was to rescue an elephant from logging: 2 million Baht (about £50k). So my dreams there were shot, but if anyone rich reads my blog, please save an elephant on my behalf.

If you can’t afford to save an elephant but would like to visit them during your travels in Asia, here are some tips for finding genuinely ethical sanctuaries.

Key things to look for:

  • Elephants should not be bound to posts by rope or chains;
  • They should not be performing for tourists or partaking in any activities they wouldn’t naturally do in the wild. Normal activities such as bathing are not okay if they are forced to do them more than they would naturally e.g. multiple times or constantly throughout the day;
  • They should not be made to interact with humans for too long without breaks;
  • You should not touch an elephant too much or climb onto their bodies;
  • They should always have access to food and water;
  • There should not be large numbers of tourists each day. Look for a sanctuary that takes restricted numbers;
  • Carers should respect the way the elephants express themselves and not force them to continue any activity.

The problem with counting countries

‘Globetrotter. 28 countries’ ‘Travelling the world. 36 countries’.

It’s the Instagram age and more and more people are showing off how well-travelled they are not just by sharing experiences, but listing the numbers of countries they have been to on their social profiles.

I get the temptation. Travelling is such a perspective-changing experience it can be hard to not show off sometimes. I’ve definitely been guilty of dropping in conversations ‘Oh this time in Botswana’… or ‘exactly the same thing happened to me in Peru!’

But in my view counting countries is a really flawed approach to sharing your travel experience.

Listing the number of countries you have been to on your instagram profile is the new norm.

It’s superficial

It emphasises the quantity of countries you have been to rather than the quality of your experiences there. To add another notch on the list all you have to have done is been in that country. Technically I’ve been to Dubai, but since I’ve never left the airport, I don’t feel I can claim I have travelled there. But a lot of people who ‘count countries’ would do so and use that growing number to assert some sort of superiority about how well-travelled they are.

I have been to Zambia for a day. I spent three months in Nicaragua. The depth of my understanding of Nicaragua is therefore much greater than that of Zambia, but in the country counting model, they equate to the same difference.

Can you ever really have ‘done’ a country?

Another phrase I find frustrating is ‘oh yeah I’ve done [Mexico, for example]’. Most people who say this have been there max two weeks. What does it mean to have ‘done’ a place? Is that even possible? It comes across extremely arrogant.

On a different angle, I have friends who may not have been to as many different countries as I have, but have moved their lives full time to living in a different country, continent, or culture. The richness of their experience of those places is far superior to the two weeks I might spend somewhere. It means having friends, relationships, neighbours there, and forcing yourself to integrate somewhere completely new. I have a much greater respect of that sort of effort to change your life experience of the world.

It discourages returning to somewhere you’ve been

This approach also discourages going back to places that you have been before and loved. When this competitiveness takes over and the goal is to just keep adding to your list, you might miss out on developing a long term love of one place because it’s already ‘done’. It may be less of a priority than the plan to reach ’30 by 30′.

India was the first place I travelled to outside of Europe. It blew my mind, but in the three weeks I spent there I knew I barely scratched the surface. Travelling in a tour, I hadn’t got to know many local people. And while I saw more amazing sights than I thought possible in that time, in Rajasthan I’d only seen one corner of a vast and extremely varied country.

 I went back a few years later to Kerala- the opposite side- and had a completely different experience of culture, food, religion, environment. Better yet, through an invite to a friend’s wedding it was possible to make friends there, go shopping in local places I’d never otherwise have known about, eat home-made cooking, and be treated as one of the family- and the connection I have with India has become more special because of that. And yet still with five weeks down, I know there is much, much more to see in India that’s probably ever possible in a lifetime, and I’ll keep going back.


Returning to India to see a different part of the country with local friends gave me a different perspective and different understanding of it as a place.

It encourages an unsustainable approach to travel

Country-hopping as much as possible means more flights, less engagement with local communities, and less authentic connections with what makes that place different to anywhere you have been before.

In my view slow travel is the ultimate form of travel, if you have the time to be able to do so. Spending longer in each destination means that you really get to know a place. Travelling with locals on busses, boats, and trains, gives you a real sense of what it’s like to live there. And it’s considerably less damaging to the environment.

I get that for shorter trips and when you’re tied into a work contract, sometimes this isn’t possible, but if you’re doing lots of shorter trips for the numbers you’re just not going to have the same depth of experience, and you’ll leave a hefty carbon footprint to boot.

Slow travelling with locals helps to reduce your carbon footprint

It contributes to elitism

Travellers are generally great: interesting (and interested), open minded, adventurous types that I love to meet, make friends, and explore with. However, there’s definitely an elitism that arises when you get into conversations in groups of travellers. ‘You haven’t travelled until you’ve been to [X place]!’, or ‘Aww, this is your first time out of Europe/the States?’

Who really cares how many places you have been? It’s the stories that matter. It’s how you engaged.

While budget travel is definitely possible, and the reality for most travellers, there’s no doubt that the majority of those who have clocked up 30+ countries have had to be pretty privileged to be able to do so. Whether it’s being able to take that amount of time off work or just being wealthy enough to afford to take multiple holidays a year, this is not normal and not the reality for the vast majority of people.

Travel should be inclusive.

 I am passionate about travel because of the degree to which it can open up your world and give you new perspectives. But for many travel is only going to be possible in their own backyard, or neighbouring country. That does not mean that those travellers are less valid. Travel should not just be a rich kid’s game.

Unfortunately Instagram makes it seem that way. By making it seem that you are not a real traveller unless you’re constantly able to be on the go, with 37 countries under your belt, staying in luxury pads and snapping shots with equipment worth thousands of dollars, it may discourage people who have been less able to travel from even trying.

There’s a better way to inspire others

I can understand the desire to run a tally in your own head, (for all I’ve said I know how many countries I’ve been to and have been pleased to know it’s grown in the last few years). It might be exciting to make a personal goal to visit 30 countries before you’re 30. But what I don’t get is why anyone else needs to know.

Obviously people who share their travels for a living want to show they know their stuff. But will knowing your ‘numbers’ make your followers want to travel more? Or just feel inexperienced? Or inadequate if they are never going to be able to manage that?

The travel community is a wonderful space full of [wanderful] people. If as travellers, bloggers, instagrammers, or whatever we might be, want to inspire more people to go over borders and expand their horizons, there’s a better way. It should be about the stories we can tell, the photographs, the sharing of how it is possible for those who don’t have a huge wad of cash to fall back on. We need to stop counting and go back to basics, focus on why we started travelling in the first place. And share the joy, not the smugness.