I admit it. When I was young and impressionable, seeking the easiest route, I gave up vegetarianism to see the world. It was a very naïve, pitiful decision. The very first country I traveled to was Mexico. Aside from that one weekend of debauchery in Tijuana while at UCLA, this experience took place in Zihuatanejo and Monterrey, Mexico. Overwhelmed by a sudden onslaught of beans (undoubtedly cooked with lard), rice, and unpasteurized dairy product (read: CHEESE), not to mention unpleasantly frequent trips to the bathroom, I opted for the easiest alternative.
The next time I went to Latin America, which was my move to Argentina, I made the abominable decision that I would eat poultry and fish. Granted, it could have been much more extreme, since Argentina is world-renowned for its beef, but still, this just wasn’t right for me, and I knew it. Although this immeasurably opened up my menu options in such a carnivorous land, something was off. Not only did I feel less healthy, I was perpetually faced with the fact that I was going against my own principles.
Why am I vegetarian? The question is posed quite often. There are many, many responses. However, the basics are as follows: If it had a mother and two eyeballs, I shouldn’t eat it. If I could not kill it myself, I also shouldn’t eat it. Animal rights play a huge part of my life and belief systems. Are chickens treated better in Latin America than the U.S.? Well, that’s quite a tricky debate that I won’t go into right now. Let’s just suffice it to say that most animals eaten for consumption around the world are mistreated in such horrible ways that the most stoic of men will run seeking solace from their mommies.
It wasn’t until I met a Paulista friend in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who had been vegetarian for years, that my eyes were forced open to my own hypocrisy. I had already traveled for months, even years, in countless Latin American countries, eating poultry because I felt I had no other choice- but I did. As my new friend and I toured Sao Paulo and Rio Janeiro together, sharing many meals, I became utterly ashamed. This whole time, I was simply making excuses for myself. Perhaps I had listened to others (albeit non-vegetarians) too much. Maybe it was that I hadn’t tried hard enough. No- the truth was that I really hadn’t tried at all. This is a grave confession to acknowledge.
If you are a vegetarian traveling the world, or a traveler wanting to become a vegetarian, below is my humble opinion on how to stay sane and satiated while on the road. It may not be the most convenient or facile way to travel, but- at least for me- it allows me to stay true to my principles while exploring this vast, enigmatic world. So, here goes:
1. Do your research.
Some destinations are undoubtedly more carnivorous than others. If you are looking to visit, say, Peru and Taiwan, the difficulty of traveling to, and especially living in, the countries is vastly different. (The latter is quite possibly the most vegetarian-friendly place I’ve been to.) This doesn’t mean that you should skip any location because of the national diet. However, it’s good to know if you’ll end up banging your head against the wall in hungry frustration or sleeping happily with a stomach full of veggies and fruits. Ask around. Browse through WordPress blogs. Other helpful sites are Happy Cow, The Vegetarian Resource Group, Gogobot, and Travel Dudes.
2. Be prepared.
Just because certain locations will have fruits and vegetables, it doesn’t mean that they will be in season or readily available. If you’re on a short trip, bringing your own protein bars, nuts, legumes, and multi-vitamins will greatly help.
3. Cook your own meals.
Try to get a hostel or hotel room with its own kitchen. Even though night markets and daily specials abound in most cities, having a means to cook your own food allows you to choose exactly what you consume and when. (This will also limit your spending.) For example, many countries in Asia will serve you mixed vegetables, but it’s not uncommon for the dish to be laced with oyster sauce.
4. Be flexible.
Unlike large, eclectic cities like San Francisco, New York, and Seattle, many places in the world still haven’t gotten the hint that some people simply don’t enjoy eating animal carcasses for dinner. Sometimes we need to make sacrifices to explore this world while staying true to our beliefs. This could mean that carbs become your new best friends, and, in terms of weight, your worst enemies. On long bus rides, I usually carry bread, water, and peanuts with me. While overnight buses often stop at restaurants, most of them time the options are limited and meat-centric.
When you do get the chance, overload on vegetables and fruits. (Just make sure they are ripe and washed.) Not only will your body be in need of the essential vitamins only plant food can provide, this will also help keep you regular. As some of us know too well, constipation on the road is no fun.
In my past travels, I have found that the most veggie-friendly countries have been Taiwan, Brazil, Ecuador, the US, Canada, and (sometimes) Thailand. Of course, I have only been to 22 countries, so there are many places out there I know nothing about. Which countries would you add to this list? What is your advice on maintaining a healthy, vegetarian diet while on the road?