In a world increasingly shifting towards travelling sustainably, globetrotter Lola Méndez leads by example. After having embraced the plant-based lifestyle at 17, the queer writer now explores the world advocating ethical tourism and sustainability. She talks to Travel + Leisure India & South Asia about her journey, challenges, and bucket-lists. By Bayar Jain
T+L India: What sparked your interest in writing?
When I attended school in Los Angeles, I wrote for my school’s publication. My first internships were writing for the LA Metromix in the LA Times office and later writing for a virtual magazine launched on the soap opera The Young and the Restless. I fell into PR, moved to New York City, and was a publicist until I was 25. My work in PR helped me form media relationships, learn how to pitch, how to find a unique angle, and many more skills that set me up to find success as a freelance writer. When I was 25, I quit my job of a sr. manager at a strategic branding agency in order to travel the world. I’m now 32 and have never stopped exploring the globe.
Along the way, I began to write hostel reviews for USD10/a piece (roughly INR 760) and got my first writing gig to write packing guides for cities around the world for 0.5/word. When I was 26, I left Europe to spend over four years in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Then I wrote about my experiences along the way for major publications and also for my responsible travel journal, Miss Filatelista. Nearly six years later, I’ve established myself as a journalist in the travel, sustainability, wellness, and social justice space.
T+L India: What’s your creative process?
Lola Méndez: I’m an idea machine which is why I had taken a role at a strategic branding agency. A key part of my daily job was to come up with over-the-top PR stunts and ideas for stories. This prepared me for becoming a freelance writer, where I ideate and crystallise story ideas and send them out to my editors daily. Now that I’m more established, a significant part of my workload is editors contacting me and asking me to write stories within my main beats of travel, wellness, sustainability, and social justice. 65 of the 125 articles I wrote in 2021 were assignments. But, I still love the creative process of coming up with an idea, sending out the pitch, getting it commissioned, writing the story, editing the story with the editor, and finally seeing my idea published.
T+L India: A lot of your work revolves around ethical tourism. What motivated you to choose this niche?
Lola Méndez:I wasn’t aware of ethical tourism until I made some majorly unethical tourism decisions when I was traveling in Thailand in 2015. At the time I was living in Spain and was going to Thailand for a few weeks over the winter holidays. I didn’t research much—I made a list of things I wanted to do without thinking twice about whether or not they were harmful activities, such as riding an elephant. I had already been following a pescatarian diet for eight years, but although I wasn’t consuming animals, I hadn’t given much thought to their wellbeing. I was 26, naïve, and unaware.
Near Chiang Mai, Thailand, I had booked a bareback elephant riding experience at a Chai Lai Orchid that helps rescue women from sex trade and provides them work opportunities so they can rebuild their lives. I’ve always been passionate about women’s rights and gender equality so my desire to find an establishment that uplifted women motivated me to book the experience there. On the organisation’s website, they explained how riding an elephant bareback was better than riding on a saddle. I didn’t look into it further. On the day of the experience, the pain and sorrow of the elephants were palpable. I felt awful for being there.
One of the women who was working there asked me what else I planned to do while I was in Chiang Mai. I told her I was eager to see baby tigers. The woman was several months pregnant and began to cry. I asked her what was wrong and between sobs, she explained to me how the tiger zoos drugged and abused their animals. I was so embarrassed that I had considered going and cancelled my ticket on the spot.
That day opened my mind, eyes, and heart to ethical tourism and I’ve been on a journey ever since to help other travellers consider the harm of their desired activities. Fortunately, Chai Lai Orchid no longer offers elephant rides. I share the elephant riding story often to show other travellers that we all make mistakes and what matters is that we learn from them.
T+L India: Tell us about your visit to India. Where did you visit and what were some of your most memorable experiences?
Lola Méndez: I spent six months in India and adored every moment. I have a 10-year tourist visa and can’t wait to return once the pandemic ends. I spent the majority of my time in Rajasthan working with non-profits and social enterprises, helping them develop financially beneficial activities that they could sell to tourists.
In Jodhpur, where I spent three months, I loved climbing up to a vista and watching the sunset. The rays hit the old Blue City and give it a purple hue as the Mehrangarh Fort basked in the light. It’s breathtaking.
My favourite place was Udaipur. From the palaces to the many social enterprises, to the cuisine, it stole my heart. I hope to spend extended time there in the future. I loved transiting through New Delhi to other regions of the country, as each time I’d spend a day or two seeking out ancient sites.
T+L India: What motivated you to embrace the plant-based lifestyle? Does it become a challenge while travelling?
Lola Méndez: When I was 17, I officially went plant-based when I moved for college to Los Angeles, California. I grew up eating meat at most meals with one parent from Uruguay, the country that consumes the most meat per capita, and another from Kansas City, famed for its BBQ. When I switched, I didn’t have any honourable reasons. I was responsible for feeding myself for the first time in my life and meat was expensive. I didn’t know how to prepare it and I didn’t want to touch animal flesh. I was a pescatarian for 11 years before going full vegan four years ago. I’m vegan for the animals, environment, and my health.
Traveling while vegan can be challenging—but that’s part of the fun. I read articles and blog posts about vegan food in the destination and add all the vegan and vegetarian restaurants to my Google Maps. I always try to do a food tour or a cooking class within the first few days of being in a destination. I go to the market with a local and learn about what dishes are inherently vegan-friendly and what simple changes can be made to make something vegan. I ask the guide to teach me how to say vegan, no meat, no cheese, no eggs, no butter in the local language and record them saying it in case I butcher the pronunciation.
I’ve been to many places where vegan food is simply unheard of—from middle America to the highlands of Malaysia. Sometimes I just have to settle for a side salad and french fries, steamed vegetables and rice, or pasta with garlic and olive oil. It’s a small sacrifice to make to do my part to protect the planet and all living beings.
T+L India: What have been some of the most LGBTQIA+ friendly places you’ve been to?
Lola Méndez: I came out in my fatherland of Uruguay in 2020. A big part of what motivated me to finally live my truth was being in a country that has been a pioneer in LGBTQ+ rights. Homosexuality has been legal for nearly a century and Uruguay became the first country in South America to pass a same-sex civil union law in 2008, followed by becoming the first in the region to allow same-sex couples to adopt children in 2009, the first in the region and in 2013 the 12th country to legalize same-sex marriage.
I’m now based in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I chose to live here because of how queer-friendly it is, the proximity to nature, and the abundance of vegan food. Like many LGBTQIA+ friendly places, the coastal city caters to gay men but I feel safe here as a queer woman. There’s always fun to be had in the gayborhood Colonia Emiliano Zapata (known as the Romantic Zone).
Since coming out I’ve been able to experience PRIDE festivals in Uruguay, Mexico, and also back in the States. I was in Palm Springs, CA, USA, during the PRIDE festivities in November (June is too hot to hold events in the desert) and had a wonderful time dancing in the streets that were pulsating with the celebration of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For me, that felt like the true American dream—citizens who’ve been made to hide because of their differences, being able to publicly express their joy.
T+L India: What are you reading currently?
Lola Méndez: I’m currently reading Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. It was a hand-me-down from my dear aunt. The coming-of-age novel tells the story of a young Latinx boy in New Mexico and his relationship with the healer Ultima.
T+L India: Are there any places that you desperately want to visit?
Lola Méndez: I desperately want to visit Japan. I have a dream of renting a van and driving across the country to save on train and accommodation expenses. I can’t wait to experience the national parks, onsens, islands, fascinating cities, and of course devour all the Japanese vegan food.