2021 Holiday Gift Guide: 12 Favorite Books

Following an Icelandic tradition, I decided to give books as gifts this holiday season. Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood” in English, is the tradition of gathering with family, giving/unwrapping books on Christmas Eve, and reading into the night. I also wanted to support a BIPOC-owned small business, so I am giving gift cards to Bliss, Books & Wine, based in Kansas City, Missouri. No matter what holiday you are celebrating this season, I hope you can get cozied up with a good book and find some bliss, especially after the year we’ve all had.

Feel free to browse the new and used book collections as well as children’s books on the Bliss books website. If you need some inspiration, see below for some of my favorite books from the past few years. My collection runs the gamut of women’s fiction and memoirs to anti-racism books. Reading makes me a better person, and I hope you too can find something worth investing your time in.

Click the cover image to go directly to the Bliss books website.

6 Ways I’ve Traveled Without Leaving My Home

As a travel writer for more than 10 years, I loved and cherished my jet-setting lifestyle. Last March, all that brought me joy was stripped away in a matter of weeks. Trips to Australia, Switzerland, Canada, and other destinations I was eager to visit were cancelled. I had to pivot to writing about other topics (outdoors and pets, which I love), but that deep desire to experience this wonderful world of ours burned inside me. I had written for Forbes about ways to virtually travel via live feeds and binge-worthy TV shows that transport viewers to beautiful locales. But I needed more. I needed something to keep that wanderlust alive for my sanity. So, in the course of this past year, I decided that if I can’t go places, I can bring them to me. I made a few changes to my everyday life that quenched a bit of that travel thirst and brought me moments of happiness. 

The CDC still does not recommend unnecessary travel for the time being, unless you are vaccinated. Yes, folks are getting vaccinated at an accelerated pace (Thank you, President Biden!), but it might be months before we can all freely travel internationally without worrying about infecting others.  

Here, I share some tips on how you, too, can travel without leaving your couch. 

1) Download a New Tab extension for Google Chrome that showcases beautiful pictures from around the globe. I use the Nature – Ocean Beach & Space Galaxy New Tab extension (naturally!), but there are other extensions you can download and be delighted each time you open a new tab.  

2) Change your ringtone from some boring bundled noise to something exciting like an ABBA song, especially those featured in Mamma Mia! (or its sequel). These songs automatically transport me to Greece. I sometimes use a celtic ringtone from an app that takes me to Ireland and Scotland every time the phone rings.

3) Listen to the Calm app’s meditation or sleep stories. My favorite is Blue Gold by Stephen Fry about meandering through the lavender fields and sleepy villages of Provence, France. Calm also has sleep stories from Iceland, Africa, Belize and more.

4) Order jewelry from other countries on Etsy or through the UNICEF Market. This has three benefits — First, I get trinkets from places like India, Thailand, Scotland, and Greece delivered to my door and getting packages from these places boosts my mood momentarily when I open the mailbox. Second, it benefits artists who make beautiful pieces of art. Lastly, by purchasing from the UNICEF market, you are helping children in need.

5) Escape to another location via Window Swap, a website that literally gives you a glimpse from the window of someone else’s world. Simply click the “Open a new window somewhere in the world” bar on the screen and get randomly transported to Cornwall (UK), New Zealand, or Israel (to name a few). There’s no limit to how many times you can change the view, so click away to see and hear the sounds of places you’ve dreamed about. Who needs Doctor Who’s Tardis, right?

6) Watch a Bollywood movie on a streaming service. Hindi-language, Indian films with upbeat song and dance sequences set in magical destinations like Turkey, Corsica, and Australia are perfect for escaping the quarantine doldrums. I stream these films with subtitles on Netflix and Amazon Prime every once in a while when I need an escape. Some of my favorites are listed below: 

  • Bachna Ae Haseeno – Europe and Australia (Amazon Prime)
  • Chalte Chalte – Greece (Netflix)
  • Chennai Express – South India (Netflix)  
  • Dhoom 2 – Namibia, Durban, and Rio de Janeiro (Netflix) 
  • Dil Chahta Hai – Australia (Netflix)  
  • Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – Switzerland (Amazon Prime) 
  • Dostana Florida – (Amazon Prime) 
  • Ek Tha Tiger – Ireland, Turkey, Cuba, and Thailand (Amazon Prime) 
  • Jab Harry Met Sejal – Various European Cities (Netflix) 
  • Jab We Met – Himachal Pradesh, India (Amazon Prime)
  • Kites – Nevada and New Mexico (Amazon Prime) 
  • pK – Belgium (Netflix) 
  • Tamasha – Corsica (Netflix) 
  • Queen – Paris and Amsterdam (Netflix) 
  • Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara – Spain (Netflix) 

Life Lessons from Indu and Andy

I am lucky to have two amazing rescue dogs to spend my life with and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Indu, a mixed-breed pup rescued from a puppy mill, is a blue-eyed, blond-haired beauty with a mind of her own. I adopted her when she was just eight weeks old from the North Shore Animal League. She has grown up to be an independent, smart pooch who knows exactly how to get what she wants, whether it be being fed promptly at 8AM/6PM or walked at a certain time in the afternoon. She loves to hike, take long naps, spend a considerable amount of time in her backyard, and keep a watchful eye on the neighborhood. Even at the age of 12, she bounces over above ground roots/logs and keeps a steady pace on the trails in all seasons. She is drawn to men and especially loves her grand dad and her papa, cozying up to them for belly rubs and initiating playtime. Indu’s reputation precedes her: she has a recipe “Indu’s Chicken” by The Dog Chef, a drink named “Indu on the Beach” concocted specifically with her eyes in mind, and a hybrid SUV that bears her name. She’s one special pooch and she knows it.

Andy, on the other hand, is the opposite of Indu in so many ways. This cocker-spaniel mix (lovingly called spanx) joined our family later in his life, having been a stray in Georgia. We don’t know how old he is, but we know he survived heartworm disease and led a rough life before becoming a cherished member of our family. He now enjoys the finer things in life, like plush blankets, gourmet homemade food, and comfy beds in all the rooms of the house. He is mama’s dog to the core, always following me like a shadow or curled up next to me while I work. It was love at first sight when I found him at the Best Friends Animal Society‘s Super Adoption event in New York City in 2016.

While Indu loves playing with toys, Andy prefers the company of humans. We call him the Mayor and Indu a diva. Together, they are the yin and the yang of our family that brighten each day of our lives and bring endless joy to everyone who crosses their paths.

Here are some life lessons from our precious pooches…

Easy Vegan Recipes: A Collection

Updated: August 2020

Hi everyone! 

Welcome to the wonderful and rewarding lifestyle of veganism. Whether you are here because you have just decided to switch to a vegan diet or looking for more recipes to add to your repertoire, you’ve come to the right place. I am all about making easy and healthy dishes that don’t take up too much effort or time. So, check out these links to some of my favorite vegan recipes. I’ve made almost all of these dishes over the years and can tell you that they are super easy and fun to make. Of course, you can change up items to fit your taste (and spice level).

And if you like this blog post, share it and spread the word about these amazing bloggers and authors. I will keep updating this post as I find more delicious recipes.

Let me know if you have any questions and feel free to add your favorite recipes in the comments. 

INDIAN

Cabbage Moong Dal from Indian Healthy Recipes 

Eggplant Curry from Show Me The Curry 

Yellow Dal from Vegetarian Times (Note: Feel free to add tomatoes, squash, spinach, kale or carrots to dal for a healthier meal.) 

ITALIAN 

Avocado Pasta from Damn Delicious 

Easy Soy Milk Alfredo Pasta from Cheap Food Here 

Sheet-Pan Spicy Roasted Broccoli Pasta from the New York Times

Spinach Pesto from Food.com 

Vegan Alfredo Sauce from Minimalist Baker 

Vegan Roasted Red Bell Pepper Pasta from Minimalist Baker 

MEXICAN 

Squash Quesadillas from Smitten Kitchen 

Tempeh Tacos from Well Plated 

THAI

Pad Thai from Taste of Home 

Pineapple Basil Thai Fried Rice from Archana’s Kitchen 

TOFU DISHES

Crispy Oven Baked Honey Garlic Tofu Bites from I am a Food Blog 

Pan Fried Tofu with Spicy Sauce from Maangchi 

Stir-Fried Cabbage, Tofu and Red Pepper from the New York Times 

Tandoori Tofu from My Spicy Kitchen 

MISCELLANEOUS

Chickpea Flour Eggless Vegan Frittata from Vegan Richa 

Classic Tabbouleh Salad from The Spruce Eats 

Easy Authentic Falafel Recipe: Step-by-Step from the Mediterranean Dish 

Easy Vegan Quiche from Nora Cooks 

Mac and Cheeze from Mayim Bialik’s vegan cookbook shared by The Beet

Stuffed Bell Peppers from Simply Recipes  

SALAD

Pearled Couscous Salad with Kale from Forks Over Knives 

Potato Salad from Peta  

Quinoa Salad from Cookie and Kate 

SOUP

Costa Rican Black Bean Soup from DoTerra 

DESSERT 

3-Ingredient Banana Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies (I use raisins instead) from Clean and Delicious 

Banana Bread from Martha Stewart 

Banana Blueberry Muffins from Two Peas And Their Pod 

Banana Walnut Cake from Vegan Baking 

Carrot Cake from Ceara’s Kitchen 

Chocolate Chip Cookies from Chocolate Covered Katie 

VEGAN COOKBOOKS

Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy, Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week by Isa Chandra Moskowitz 

Oh She Glows Cookbook Over 100 Vegan Recipes to Glow from the Inside Out by Angela Liddon 

Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul: A Cookbook by Jenne Claiborne. You can also follow her on Instagram here

VEGAN RECIPE ARTICLES 

Here are some more links for recipes if you want to browse more: 

7-Day Vegetarian Meal Plan: 1,500 Calories from Eating Well

30 Quick Vegan Dinners That Will Actually Fill You Up from Buzzfeed  

These 10 Freezer-Friendly Plant-Based Meals Taste Even Better the Next Day (and the Next) from Well and Good 

Here’s a fun video to help you get started: 

What A Beginner, Intermediate, And Experienced Vegan Eat In A Day from Goodful

11 Simple Ways To Make Life At Home Better

As the world hits the pause button, we are all relegated to spending time indoors — working, hanging out with loved ones, bonding with kids and pets — and simply trying to get through this without contributing to the spread of COVID-19. 

For those of you who haven’t worked from home before, this could be a time for adjustment. I am a writer who travels often for work, but I also spend quite a bit of time at home, sometimes for a month or more. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about making my home a peaceful and work-friendly environment and adapted some tricks to stay motivated. I thought I would share a few tips and links to help us all get through these uncertain times.  

1) If your work from home routine involves spending hours in Gmail, change your background in the settings to a calming landscape. Choose scenes that feature soothing colors like blue and green. The same goes for your desktop or phone wallpaper that you look at constantly. 

My laptop wallpaper from Jasper, Alberta, Canada

2) Open your shades and windows. Let in fresh air and sunlight. Being stuck inside for weeks could feel claustrophobic, so allowing the outdoors in on a daily basis is a good way to keep your spirits up. 

3) If you’ve got pets, pet them and play with them. They’ll love the attention and the interaction will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. (This one isn’t a quick fix, but if you don’t have pets, but want companionship to weather this storm, there are plenty of shelter pets looking for a foster home.) 

Photo by Anton Darius on Unsplash

4) Nature is the best healer. Check out live nature feeds from around the globe on Explore.org to feel invigorated. The website also has an app you can download on your device. 

5) Take a few minutes during the day to meditate. Meditation doesn’t mean completely clearing your mind. Instead, it’s about mindfulness. Think about things you are grateful for and go down the list. Or remember a place that brought you peace and revisit it in your mind (mine is my recent trip to Tofino, specifically Pacific Sands Beach Resort).

Pacific Sands Beach Resort

6) Indulge in a bubble bath. Add your favorite essential oils and magnesium flakes, play some tunes, grab a glass of wine and a good book, and you are sure to feel more relaxed. You can get pure magnesium flakes from Clarity Apothecary. Magnesium helps to reduce pain and swelling, soothe muscles and release tension.

7) Dance, dance, dance. Even if you don’t want to do a full workout, put on some upbeat music when you need a break and just dance in your living room. The movement alone will make you feel better instantly and fight away any stress and anxiety.

8) It’s so easy to order in food, but cooking brings people together and it’s good for your health. Come up with a schedule for the week and get cooking

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

9) If you’ve been hoarding those magazines, now is the time to crack them open. Better yet, use them to create a vision board for the future by cutting out phrases and pictures that speak to you. Manifesting helps you work towards your goals. If travel gets you going, here’s a thoughtful piece by my friend, Fiona Tapp, entitled, Social Distancing Is A Perfect Time To Create A Travel Vision Board

10) Let television transport you to stunning locations. Here’s a list I wrote about some good binge-worthy shows to keep you entertained and dreaming about your next vacation (when we can all get back to traveling). 

11) Light candles, diffuse essential oils, boil some water with lemon or cinnamon, or find some other way to naturally freshen your space. Baking cookies helps, too! My favorite essential oils for my home are Sweet Orange and Black Spruce from Revive. I use Threshold Rose + Cedar soy crackling candle for my kitchen.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Just remember, when all of this is done, the things we normally take for granted will feel so much better.

Hang in there and stay safe!

Lavanya

Featured photo from unsplash.com

To Iceland With Love

Dear Iceland,

I know you are loved by many, and rightfully so. You are beyond beautiful, with all your natural splendor and opportunities for mere mortals to experience your otherworldly wonders. It has been two weeks since I returned, and I cannot stop thinking about you.

I close my eyes and envision driving along the two lane highway hugging the southern coast. I see the landscape changing dramatically from snow-capped mountains in the distance to moss covered lava fields, imposing cliffs, glaciers making their way to the sea, smoke from geothermal pools dancing in the wind and the little chapels that sit atop hills. The geysers gush, the luxurious manes of horses gently sway in the wind, their icy blue eyes imprinting on your soul, and sheep gingerly munch on grass in wide open spaces. Blocks of ice millions of years old wash up on a picture perfect black sand beach, reflecting the last rays of the setting sun as curious seals float nearby, oblivious to the warm-blooded humans freezing their behinds to experience Iceland in the winter. You are a nature lover’s dream.

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Reynisfjara beach, near Vik

I remember the 20 degree chill in the air, the 100 mile per hour winds that would knock you off your feet if you weren’t careful, the icy, precarious paths to soaring waterfalls, and the shiver I felt when I first laid eyes on the glorious northern lights. They were faint and the busload of tourists that arrived at our hotel were sprawled on the wet grass with coats over their pajamas, screaming with glee every time they saw a sliver of swimming green light across the clear sky. You may have gotten a little too popular, but I still loved every second of my time with you.

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On the way to Jökulsárlón glacier

You are not my first travel love (Galapagos still has a special place in my heart), but you happen to be one that I can get to easily, thanks to IcelandAir. You are not the cheapest either, the rental car from Blue was expensive (but wonderfully reliable in the harsh weather), and your food was pricey for budget conscious travelers. But I did have one of the best vegan meals ever (thank you Kaffi Vinyl, the paprika was a nice touch). Oh, I forgot how much I enjoyed those vegetarian sandwiches from your adorable supermarkets that filled my belly on those long drives across your vast land.

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Skógafoss waterfall

You are one of the best places I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, and I am so glad I got to share you with my lovely husband, who like you, makes my world beautiful and magical.

Until next time, I dream of our next adventure together…

Diamond Beach with Scott
Diamond Beach near Jokulsarlon glacier

Smart Luxury: Tuscany Road Trip + Castellina for 75 Euro a Day (ShermansTravel.com)

Long before Anushka and Virat (Bollywood leading lady and India’s cricket team captain) tied the knot in a luxury ceremony in Tuscany, my husband and I went on a road trip to explore the wine region of Chianti. We started our trip in Castellina, and drove to nearby hill top medieval villages and wineries in our fancy Benz rental (which was booked with ease through AutoEurope). We stayed in a quintessential farm house villa at Tregole, voted no. 1 on TripAdvisor, dined in some unique restaurants, and made a ton of memories– all on a budget. For ShermansTravel.com, I share my tips on visiting Tuscany for less. Luxury doesn’t have to cost a lot!

Smart Luxury: An Affordable Tuscany Road Trip

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Tuscany on 75 Euro a Day

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Scenic Tuscany landscape with rolling hills and valleys in golden morning light, Val d’Orcia, Italy

 

Protecting Whales & Dolphins in Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica (Green Global Travel)

It was truly a dream come true for me to visit Golfo Dulce in Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. I had envisioned it for nearly a decade before I was approached by Earthwatch to be their Communications Fellow on their volunteer expedition to one of the three tropical fjords in the world- Golfo Dulce. Read about my trip and the threats that the dolphins and whales are facing, and the commitment of the locals and scientists to protecting these marine mammals.

Protecting Whales & Dolphins in Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica (Green Global Travel)

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A Kangaroo’s Road to Refuge (Misadventures)

In early 2014, I set upon a long journey to the other side of the world to volunteer with orphaned kangaroo and wallaby joeys. Little did I know that I’d be participating in a rescue while I was there. Here’s a nail-biting rescue of a baby hit by a car in rural Queensland. (PS- It has a happy ending).

A Kangaroo’s Road to Refuge (Misadventures)

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15 Inspirational Animal Rights Activists Who Happen to be Women (Green Global Travel)

Women have been at the forefront of wildlife conservation for decades, and their stories are inspiring those of us who want to help animals. Here, you will rind 10 incredible women who have dedicated their lives to the welfare of animals.

15 INSPIRATIONAL ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS WHO HAPPEN TO BE WOMEN (Green Global Travel)

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Dr. Lek Chailert of Elephant Nature Park, Thailand