How to Travel While Vegan [And Not Be an Asshole]
[Above: A totally delicious, totally non-vegan breakfast in Cuba.]
I don't eat meat. I haven't since age 13, when I told my parents I was giving up "eating dead things," as I bluntly (kind of asshole-y) put it. Kids at my school were fasciated, asking me how I lived without bacon and what my reasons were.
I hated their intrusiveness. I went vegetarian for personal reasons and it was something I didn't feel like talking about with Becky from science class.
In university, many of my friends were also vegetarian. We'd discuss it together, swapping recipes and sharing rebuttals for the Beckys of the world with their bacon questions.
In the past few years, I've broken up with milk, eggs and most other animal bi-products (I'm still working on cheese and ice cream) for similar reasons to why I gave up meat. Reasons that are pretty common, pretty boring, and only matter to me so I don't talk about them much.
[Above: My 'usual' order at a small, rural Belizean restaurant.]
Because of this almost-vegan diet, I take on the tidy label of "plant-based," and because I've been eating this way for years now, I rarely even think about it.
That is, until I'm in a different country.
in some parts of the world (for some economic brackets), there's enough food and food options that we have the luxury of dietary choices—like me being plant-based. We get to parlay our beliefs onto our plates.
Many people are so passionate about this that they start blogs, write books and launch other such crusades of the modern age. And that's really great for them. Stand up for what you believe in. The world needs more of that.
I'm fortunate enough to be from one such economic bracket in one such part of the world. My fridge is currently stocked with vegan-y things like chia seeds and hemp hearts. I love making beautiful foods from plants, and work hard on it.
But when I travel, I'm reminded not everyone gets that chance: While for some (myself included) eating this way comes from an ethical place, not all of us get to make such choices. And while a plane ride isn't needed to see this (food inequality happens at home, too!) interacting with other culture's cuisines has really opened my eyes to this.
In Cuba, where decades of food scarcity meant that people lived on modest meals built from staples like bread, beans and fruit, asking for a modified cocktail felt disrespectful to me. These people had lived through real hunger. Who was I to ask if that coconut milk had traces of dairy?
We'd go to mom-and-pop style places and I'd ask for vegetables and rice, simple things that (I hoped) respected their recent history as well as my food ideals.
Sometimes it worked, like in a cramped Havana bar where the rice was hot and sweet in some greasy, magical sauce and the veggies were crisped in a pan.
[Above: Cuban mojitos are, delightfully, vegan, but that's not 100% why we kept ordering them ;).]
Sometimes it didn't, like in the Cuban city Santa Clara: A server kindly nodded when I asked for "arroz sin carne, sin animale" (rice with no meat, no animal). She brought out plates of rotisserie chicken with rice on the side. We ate every last grain that hadn't touched meat, with no vocabulary to apologize for the confusion.
I asked for more rice every way I knew and finally it appeared without the lacquered, dripping wings on top.
Days later, when I saw people lining up at a bakery, food stamps in hand, my face burned. I shouldn't have wasted that goddamned chicken.
When travelling in Belize, it was slightly easier. The lack of language barrier meant that while a plate of vegetables still mystified some servers, they at least knew they heard me right.
While service in Belize can be sluggish at best (let's blame the oppressive heat), they'll usually accommodate as best they can. Once, a restaurant owner in a small fishing village asked me all of my favourite vegetables before sneaking out a side door. I watched him return, shopping bags in hand, to present me with a weird, fried plate of all that deliciousness. It became my standard order [see photo above].
I began tipping significantly more after my own trip to the store, seeing how much basic ingredients cost in such a remote output. (Serving me that mishmash probably didn't even give him a profit.)
See, I eat the way I do out of compassion and a hope for a more understanding world. And, when travelling, it often also means practising another compassion, another understanding, just as important as the first: It means learning about the culture of where I am and not just assuming my values should fit the whole world.
It means acknowledging the effort someone goes to to appreciate a value system as foreign to them as a Canadian accent. It means respecting that some don't get to make the choice about what's on their plate. It means accepting a sort of privilege that's tied in with food philosophy.
It means packing vegan granola bars in your carry-on in case of emergency. It means adjusting your restaurant expectations—this ain't a raw food bar, babe. It means learning how to say 'no animal products, please' in their language, and not getting frustrated when that doesn't always get understood (in some cultures, 'vegetarian' means you eat white meat).
It means being prepared and respectful.
And, when all else fails, it sometimes means you eat around the chicken wings, and don't say a word.