Staying Alive: A Vegetarian’s Travel Manifesto

I guess you could call me the original hipster. I was a vegetarian before it was even cool – in fact, I’ve never eaten a bite of meat in my life (and yes, that includes fish. Those who eat fish are known as pescatarians). But that dietary restriction has not stopped me from a lifetime of travel, racking up more than 15 countries in 21 years and anticipating at least 20 new ones in my post-graduation trip volunteering around the world.

Since I intend on staying true to my meatless ways, I’ve concocted countless methods of avoiding what is often the basis of entire country’s cuisines. Take it from me, a bonafide vegetarian expert: Traveling doesn’t have to mean abandoning your eating habits. Though it might be hard, with these seven tips, you can continue to embrace the vegetarian lifestyle without sacrificing your culture experience.

1.  Buy locally, think globally.

Even if the stench of fish and meat smother the air, farmer’s markets are often the best places to find fresh produce at reasonable and equitable prices. Often there will be a decent selection of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and the country’s particular type of bread – the perfect vegetarian food staple that still showcases that region’s unique tastes. In every country I visit, for any length of time, I always make sure to visit a local market – it provides a cultural snapshot of daily life and highlights that nation’s handicrafts all while offering hundreds of opportunities to practice your language skills. When studying abroad in Cambridge last summer, I often skipped the quick and easy supermarket, Sainsbury’s, in favor of the adorable semi-permanent town market – I not only found a variety of vegetables and breads, but also fudges, candies, flowers, phone chargers, Rastafarian paraphernalia, and a staggering number of Banksy-inspired clothing.

2. “Gotta keep them separated.”

Though it may not always be immediately recognizable to someone who has never eaten meat, learning to identify foreign meat dishes helps to avoid unclear situations and gives time to think up alternative options without offending the cook by (politely) rejecting their work. If the way to a country’s heart is through its stomach, understanding the average cuisine gives a glimpse into the surrounding agriculture, the typical industries, and the way of life. In practice, this often entails looking up the country’s cuisine and recognizing the words for different meats in foreign languages. Before traveling to Russia, a land where animal fat is almost a necessity to survive the cold winters, I learned how to read and write in Cyrillic, and was able to use that knowledge to steer clear of the ever-present beef stews – and entertain my Russian friends by ordering my own meals (particularly those featuring “kartoshka” or potato) and responding to catcalls.

3. If at first you don’t succeed, lie.

While I’m generally an advocate for honesty, there are always exceptions. Having to explain a hundred times to admittedly well-intentioned mothers that I choose not to eat meat (and yes, I know, I’ve been told that it is delicious, and yes, maybe I do need some “meat” on these bones) is surprisingly harder and more exhausting than one would think. And that’s in English; try that in another language, and it’s nearly impossible. To cultures that center their diets on meat, the thought that someone would deprive herself of it – optionally, no less – is a concept that for some reason is constantly questioned. In these circumstances, I suddenly develop a “religious reason” or an “allergic reaction” – universally, faith and health seem two free passes to getting away with unthinkable things.

4. Lost in translation? Find a guide.

Cozying up to the locals reaps three immediate benefits: an inside look into a culture through the eyes of a contemporary, a translator well versed with the colloquial speak, and an answer to every “what are friends for?” situation. Unless they’re trying to trick you, your new friends will know vegetarian-friendly meals and restaurants and can warn you if anything you’re about to eat is traditionally made with unmarked and unseen bits of meat or fish sauces. Had I not spoken Spanish, I might have made the mistake in Madrid of eating ham-covered mushrooms – luckily, I had befriended the wait-staff at the café near my hostel, and they recommended alternatives that weren’t on the menu. In most countries outside of the United States, meals are times for lengthy conversations and relaxation – there’s literally no better time to “break the bread” with someone new!

5. Location, location, location.

Generally, metropolitan areas can accommodate the vegetarian diet better than their rural counterparts, simply because there’s a higher likeliness of vegetarians in the midst. Though this might be regarded cheating, urban areas will invariably have more diversity in foreign cuisine as well, giving your taste buds a break when culture shock sets in. Something else to think about: generally, the higher in elevation, the sparser the vegetation. Though it’s possible, it’s more difficult to find suitable meals while you’re volunteering at the peak of the Andean mountains than it is in the foothills.

6. In case of emergencies…

This is possibly the most valuable advice anyone will ever tell you: always carry snacks. Unlike those extra socks or that GPS compass, food will be used, and you will always be glad when you find that pack of saltine crackers to satiate your stomach’s angry protests on a seven-hour bus ride through the countryside (see reason #5 for why this might be a problem). Being prepared never hurts, and having food often helps in the case that you get sea-sick, car-sick, or just sick, and need to take medication that requires you to have something in your system. Plus, self-reliance is a key skill of the vagabond lifestyle!

7. Just say no.

At the end of the day, your diet is up to you. Being a vegetarian is about more than just abstaining from meat for health purposes; for many, vegetarianism is an ideology that embodies how that person sees him or herself in the universal community. Though this might be a legitimate fear for some, in reality, no one is going to force-feed you something you don’t want to eat. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your beliefs to be able to experience a culture, even though meat is a significant part of many. As every traveler knows, where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Vidya Kaipa is a soon-to-be UC Berkeley graduate who will be departing her native California (and her beloved team at Go Overseas!) to embark upon a solo year-long RTW trip. She’s been told that this is crazy, which only makes her more eager to go. With a lifetime of travel, this adventure is the next step – read her blog, Pocket Gypsy, to see how she plans to do it!

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