Travelling can be an opportunity of growth and discovery, but responsible travelers need to be aware of the impacts their actions have on the environment and local people, says eco-travel blogger Yara Coelho.
Travelling can be much more than a getaway weekend or expensive holiday. In fact, for some, travelling is a way of life, a mission. Yara Coelho left her home in Portugal when she turned 18, determined to see what the world had to offer – but being an environmentally conscious and vegan traveller, she decided to do it ethically.
On her blog, Heart of a Vagabond – A Vegan Travel guide, she shares her amazing experiences in Europe, America and Asia, as well as suggestions to travel in a sustainable way.
I can see that you basically made travelling your life, unlike most people who associate travelling with ‘going on holiday’. But travelling is not going on holiday, is it?
Travelling can be just going on holiday for the majority of people. For others, travelling is basically a lifestyle. For me travelling is all about the journey, not just the destination, whereas going on holiday is mostly being at a certain spot for a short amount of time.
I travel to meet the people, to experience the traditional vegetarian foods, to immerse in a new culture, learn the language. I usually blend in pretty well when I travel. Life is so short and the world has so many wonders to explore. My biggest regret would be dying without experiencing part of them.
Many environmentalists refuse to catch a plane or endorse long-distance journey. Is travelling incompatible with respecting the environment?
Travelling is absolutely not incompatible with being seriously environmentally conscious.
I actually hate flying and the majority of my trips were made by land, using recycled vegetable oil when using my van, or using public transport like trains or buses. I travelled across all the Indian subcontinent and Nepal by land for six months, for example. Same with Thailand and Malaysia, all by public transport.
I think people have to be consistent with their lifestyle. It makes no sense avoiding airplanes, but using the car on a daily basis, eating meat, consuming more than the necessary, or even importing organic products from the other side of the world.
I use my bike on a daily basis, eat local vegan foods only and live a very simple lifestyle, therefore my footprint is ridiculously low.
What is your opinion on the so-called and sometimes controversial voluntourism?
I’m totally against the voluntourism programmes out there. It surprises me nobody sees what they are all about. It’s a multi-million dollar business that brings nothing good to the communities or the environment.
I’m sceptical of all programmes asking the volunteers to pay. I personally don’t want to pay to work, usually it’s the other way around, right? Many of these young people volunteering abroad and paying fortunes for it, have a really good heart and mean good, but they’re just stealing jobs from local people.
The only positive type of voluntourism I see, is when someone goes abroad and teaches the locals a new skill that will improve their lives. We all know the old expression: “Don’t give them fish, teach them to fish”.
Why do you travel alone? Do you think people are generally afraid of doing it?
In many ways, travelling alone can be a very deep spiritual practice. For me, travelling is highly spiritual and it’s a way of challenging myself, find new aspects of my personality and find out I’m actually braver than I thought I was.
It’s all about getting out of my comfort zone and becoming a better person. One of the biggest lessons is learning the meaning of detachment, live with very few material things. We need very little to be happy. I wrote a famous article that focuses exactly on being a solo traveller.
What is the most amazing experience you had while travelling?
That’s a hard one, since every time I’m out there I go through amazing experiences. I’ll have to name two: One was visiting the Buddhai tree in Bodhgaya (India). For the ones who don’t know what that is, it’s the place and the tree where the Buddha got enlightened. Seeing that massive tree in front of my eyes, was really touching.
Another amazing experience was probably snorkeling with a massive wild turtle in the Andaman Islands. Wild animals are so majestic. Swimming side by side with fish who were as big as me and that turtle was something very special.
Can you give us and our readers some tips on how travel consciously?
Travelling can be an extraordinary way to grow as a person and become more open minded.
For me the best way to travel consciously is when we give back to the communities we visit. When we stay at local guest houses, support local restaurants instead of spending money in big international businesses.
Being very aware of our impact, especially when travelling in the nature, where eco-systems are fragile. Travelling by land as much as possible and avoiding buying too much plastic is very important. I always try to re-fill my water bottles instead of buying new ones. Plastic is a really serious problem in most developing nations.
Don’t engage in any tourist entertainment where animals are kept captive, like marine shows, swimming with dolphins, elephant rides and photos with wild animals. These animals are all kidnapped from their homes and families and turned into slaves, living miserable lives. If you love animals then support eco-projects that empower the environment.
Heart of a Vagabond is a mindful, sustainable, vegan-friendly travel and lifestyle design blog. As a long-time solo female traveler, Yara Coelho’s coverage is steeped with experience and a depth of knowledge few others can match.