In today’s post, Nina from Lemons & Luggage graciously agreed to be interviewed as part of my Diversity in Travel series. Her insights and intelligence has been invaluable to me, and I hope you enjoy her words and wisdom as much as I did.
Read on for Nina’s thoughts on vegan, solo and Muslim travel, the privilege of being a travel blogger, cultural appropriation and much much more…
Hi Nina. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview as part of the Diversity in Travel series. Could you please start by telling us about you and your travel blog?
Thank you so much for this opportunity, Cassie! I’m really glad you are doing this series highlighting diversity in travel. My name is Nina, and I was born and raised in Germany but have been living in Greece for the past seven years. My travel blog, Lemons and Luggage, is dedicated to vegan travel, but always in a way that looks beneath the surface.
You have a wealth of blogs on travelling as a vegan. What was your reason for going vegan?
I initially went vegetarian back when I was still in school and never thought I could go vegan. Like many vegans, I first thought I wouldn’t be able to give up dairy. But when I found out more about the dairy industry and how animals are treated as well as the environmental impact I finally went vegan and am so glad I did.
What is your favourite destination (so far) for vegan food… and the destination you found it hardest (if there is one)?
There have been some surprisingly vegan-friendly cities on my travels. Veganism is definitely gaining momentum, so in many big European cities it’s not all that difficult to be vegan. But perhaps the best destination so far has been Madrid. I didn’t even expect it to be that vegan-friendly because Spanish cuisine is so meat-heavy, but Madrid is of course a very modern city, and has an array of vegan food options. My favorite restaurant there was a fully vegan Peruvian restaurant specializing in pre-colonial food! You can read my vegan Madrid guide for more vegan spots in Spain’s capital.
The Balkans can be quite tricky as a vegan. Like Spain, the traditional cuisine is very meat-based, but unlike Spain, these countries haven’t been exposed to international influences for that long. I found Albania particularly difficult and had to resort to eating pasta with tomato sauce. However, I think the vegan scene is growing there as well, and I hope to try some of the vegan places in Tirana on a future trip.
And what’s your favourite destination for solo female travel?
I think this is a tricky question because it depends so much on how people perceive you. I would say that usually, the more you can blend in the safer you’re going to feel which will probably have an impact on how much you enjoy your time. For me, personally, Bratislava has been particularly great as a solo traveler. It’s not a huge city and not too popular with tourists so you get more of a feel for the local lifestyle. Also, the men aren’t as flirtatious as in other places meaning you can peacefully wander around the streets.
Do you have any tips for travellers who have recently gone vegan?
My main advice would be to connect with local vegans. There are so many misconceptions on what food is or isn’t vegan, and sadly, we can’t always trust non-vegans. Sometimes they don’t actually know if a dish is vegan or not, other times profit is more important than honesty. I find that the best advice usually comes from long-term vegans who know the local cuisine, for example vegan shop or restaurant owners.
How did going vegan fit in with your Muslim background?
There are some cultural differences among Muslim communities. Growing up in Germany where the Muslim population is made up mainly of Turks and Kurds, being vegetarian was never an issue. When I studied in Canada, I encountered some negativity from South Asian Muslims which I believe stemmed from them associating vegetarianism with Hinduism.
When I went vegan there were already social media groups for Muslim vegans which can be extremely helpful. It’s all a bit tricky because as much as I love veganism there’s a certain amount of Islamophobia, racism, misogyny and other problems in the vegan scene. Finding a balance between people who embrace veganism as a concept but also don’t harbor hostility towards Muslims or other marginalized groups can be a bit difficult.
What is your advice to Muslims considering making more sustainable changes, such as going vegan, or tips for travelling more sustainably?
I think it’s important to be prepared for some level of animosity from different groups. Islamophobia is very widespread even in seemingly progressive circles like the vegan scene. Likewise you might encounter fellow Muslims who will tell you that being vegan is un-Islamic. The most important thing to keep in mind is that there is nobody who can judge you except Allah, and if you’re trying to be more sustainable and more compassionate as a way to embody Allah’s characteristics then that matters more than what other people have to say.
According to Islam, we have a responsibility to take care of this planet because we have certain abilities that set us apart from the rest of creation. This is often understood by people to mean that we are above all other beings and they serve us, but if we really look into it we see that it actually means that we have a responsibility to treat this planet and its inhabitants with kindness and love.
If bloggers are going to promote travel, did you think we have a responsibility to promote travel that is sustainable and responsible?
I think there are two things to consider. On the one hand, I feel we sometimes look too much into things. Travel is a leisure activity, and if people want to participate in it and they can afford it then who’s to say how they should promote it. We can’t expect everyone to have the same approach to life as we do.
On the other hand, I hope that more and more travelers, including bloggers, realize that our actions always have consequences. On ourselves, on others, on the planet. I think once you reach that level of awareness it’s best to share it with others if you have a platform.
What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation in the travel space? In Japan and Bali, I didn’t partake in spiritual activities within temples, but I have previously taken photos in front of buildings which are still used for worship. Clearly this is an important conversation to have… are there any questions travellers should ask themselves before visiting places of worship or dressing in traditional clothing?
This is definitely an important conversation to have, and I have a whole blog post looking into it. I think it’s an issue that constantly evolves, and something that may have been fine 20 years ago might be considered cultural appropriation now. But there’s also a lot of Americentrism in that conversation, as in whatever Americans deem appropriation is bad but without necessarily always asking local communities.
There is a continuing form of colonialism where sometimes those of us growing up in the diaspora in Western countries impose our views on our cultures of heritage. The truth is that our experiences as marginalized minorities make us particularly sensitive to issues like appropriation, but that doesn’t mean we’re always right. It’s not only up to us to decide what is and isn’t acceptable.
As for places of worship, I mention them in my blog post because I feel like they’re often overlooked for more superficial things like clothing. Everyone gets upset if people wear clothes from a culture they don’t belong to, but then all of a sudden it’s fine to get blessings from priests without actually belonging to that religion. It’s not necessarily surprising given our materialistic way of looking at things in the West, but I think if we start criticizing things we need to scratch beneath the surface.
My suggestion would be to look at appropriation from different angles. Don’t only ask people whose parents are from a culture, ask people who have actually lived there their entire lives. But don’t simply accept the one answer that suits you best. Ask yourself if there are certain reasons outside of people’s control that might make them answer in a certain way. If people weren’t dependent on your money, on your promotion of their culture, would they still be okay with you participating? And how much of what you participate in should you then document or share with others.
If you invited someone you’ve never met to dinner how would you feel if they started to take photos of every dish, if they told all their friends about your home, if they presented themselves as an expert on your grandmother’s recipe that you cooked for them? If you had a guest at your place, how would you feel if they went through your personal items? Now, if that guest paid a lot of money to stay at your place would you react differently? And if so would you really feel differently about your guest’s behavior or would you simply accept it as part of a transaction.
Do you think there are many opportunities for Muslim travel bloggers? Have you had a positive experience working within the online travel space?
I think Muslims are often pushed into the halal travel niche. If that’s what they do then they can definitely find some success because it’s not as overly saturated as the Western travel blogging space. Aside from that, I feel that Muslim travel bloggers are mainly active in their home countries. If they grew up in the diaspora they’re usually not represented in the travel blogging space. That’s why I’m so glad you are also highlighting Muslim travel bloggers in your series.
What did you wish people understood about the Muslim travel experience?
That it can be just as diverse as anybody’s travel experience. There are definitely people who stick to halal travel, meaning travel that excludes venues where pork or alcohol are served and where there is gender mixing or other activities that are not permissible according to traditional Islam. But Muslims are not a monolith, and just as there are people who identify as Christian but don’t live very religious lives, there are Muslims who may abstain from pork and alcohol but who otherwise live the same lives as other people you know.
At the same time, no matter how religious or not we may be many of us face additional problems when traveling. For some women it can be because they wear hijab, but for many people our names can be enough to lead to long interrogations at the airport. There are some countries that I might have to think twice about visiting despite my passport privilege because I could experience difficulties based solely on my family name.
Do you have any thoughts on how White travel bloggers can use their privilege to ensure there are more opportunities for minorities?
There needs to be more honesty and less performativity, and people have to go beyond the obvious. Even when people try to showcase diversity there is often very little actual diversity. That’s why I was so thrilled about your travel diversity series because it’s one of the few I’ve seen that are actually DIVERSE. You’ve highlighted people of different sexual identities, racial backgrounds, nationalities, abilities, etc.
Contrary to that, most other lists seem to be reactions to current “trends” – a post on Black travel bloggers during Black History Month, one on Asian travel bloggers after Asian communities faced particular discrimination, and so on. But I rarely see people really making space for all kinds of minorities.
I think it’s important for people to educate themselves first before trying to “help.” Once you honestly educate yourself and make an effort to follow a diverse group of travel bloggers you will automatically think of them when there is a time where you can amplify their work.
Calling out behaviour which supports systemic racism (such as influencers working with brands with a history of racism, or perpetuating stereotypes within a certain culture) as a small travel blogger can be scary for fear of getting ostracised. Do you think there is a ‘right way’ to call out or start important conversations with influencers or bloggers?
I think it’s important to take a stand one way or another. I confronted a popular white travel blogger for racist statements she made about Roma people in Europe. She made it abundantly clear that she doesn’t care, although I’ve seen her mentioned as an “ally” by POC bloggers. Sadly, I can’t do more than make sure never to share her work.
But I understand that for some people it can be scary to confront people. In that situation, I would say the least everyone can do is to make sure to unfollow problematic people, never share their content, or otherwise give them any engagement.
Do you think it’s important for people hoping to make a career as a travel blogger to not forfeit their values along the way?
Absolutely yes! The only way to have long-term success is by standing out from the crowd, and you do that by being yourself, as cliché as it sounds. If there are certain values you stand for it might make it more difficult to get collaborations with brands initially because you will have to reject a lot of offers. But I think in the long run your ideal audience will find you and will appreciate that you are true to yourself.
I’ve seen white travel bloggers say ‘the world would be better if everyone travelled’. This idea that they are more enlightened because of this privilege seems to unironically hark back to colonialism… Do you think white travel bloggers have a responsibility to learn about their colonial history before writing about travel?
I think that’s a very superficial statement. There are people who simply don’t enjoy travel, who are not interested in it, but they don’t harm anyone. Then there are people who have traveled half the world and exploited cultures on the way. Travel doesn’t automatically make you a better person.
I also believe that travel is no longer the enormous privilege it used to be. It’s now something that even people with a smaller income can afford every once in a while, and that’s great, because it really used to be only for wealthy people. However, it’s still something that disproportionately fewer people from exploited countries can participate in.
I think even people who don’t travel need to educate themselves on how wealth in rich countries is generated and how much has to do with people in other countries being exploited. But travel bloggers, in particular, should have a global approach to things. I find it shocking how many people don’t connect the dots.
What are you most proud of, as a traveller or a travel blogger?
I’m proud of going beneath the surface of things. I also don’t sugarcoat things even if that means I don’t get the large audience other people with a more lighthearted approach do.
What do YOU think it means to be a female traveller in 2021?
I think we will still not see pre-COVID numbers of travel. I, for one, will most likely not be traveling much if at all in 2021. But I think travel is a mindset, and one of the greatest advantages we have of experiencing this pandemic in the 2020s is that we have the internet and social media to connect with like-minded individuals.
How amazing would it be if we could all travel virtually not only by cooking amazing food, signing up to virtual museum tours, and watching travel documentaries (which I think are all great ways to keep travel alive), but by connecting with female travelers from across the world and exchange thoughts and ideas. Let’s find out from women in our favorite destinations what life over there is like.
Finally, are there any amazing bloggers or creators you’d like to shout out today?
There are several people whose work and online presence constantly bring joy to my life. They’re all really powerful women whose words add value to this world. There’s Julie from Frame Ambition, Lily from Imperfect Idealist, Qali from The Qonnect podcast, and Shivya from The Shooting Star, among several others.