An Herbivore Abroad

It’s not just me: I believe I belong to a broad coalition of vegetarians, vegans, gluten-avoiders, lactose-intolerants, medically-inhibited-dieters, and a whole realm of picky eaters. That’s without listing all of the various food restrictions that are part of the intricate faith of various world religions. We are a fairly large group, especially once combined. And at least a handful of us like to travel to unusual places, where our diet justifications are met with variations of appreciation, shock, and dismay.

An example of both the highs and lows of vegetarian travel was my most recent jaunt to Colombia. On the one hand, it was a tough explanation with my minimal Spanish that the sandwich was to be queso without jambon, without pollo – truly and only unico queso; fortunately, they got it right, but that was all they had. On the delightful other extreme was the farm-to-table experience started at the only Colombian organic farm to be managed by a vegetarian couple. The son-in-law, who moved to coffee country after leaving a key role in Mexico’s agriculture department of government, appreciated my picky vegetarianism almost as much as I appreciated the rows of various chilies he’d planted in the garden (Colombians like fruit and sweets more than spicy).

Zimbabwe presented another surprise.  Before we embarked on a journey there, my pescetarian cohort and I packed days’ worth of protein bars and shake mixes. At the end, we had never touched a single one because all the food was outstanding and there was always a meat-free option for us in camp.

Packing protein bars, or whatever snack suits your fancy, is the traveling herbivore’s first line of defense. When you work with a company like GeoEx, we build these types of preferences into your booking so that your dietary restrictions are a known factor wherever you go. (And when I book my flight through our air department, I also know that I’ll get my standard Asian vegetarian -- spicy! -- meal.) It can be a danger, though, to be exposed to such preferential treatment: The chef at Amanwella, who was experimenting with different recipes for a gluten-free member of the group, soon had to create the same coconut-flour-based breads for the entire table.

While in transit, I’ve found that wifi has made it easier to locate good options. Sites like Happycow.net give ratings on many places, even in somewhat obscure destinations. However, it’s always best to be prepared and try to learn the words of the food items you want to avoid the most. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. When I couldn’t master how to say “beef” when I visited Japan, a very kind co-worker wrote me a note to share with any chef – it detailed in Japanese all the meats that I don’t eat, and also informed them that I’m a fan of mayonnaise (which is not part of the traditional Japanese vegan diet). It’s also useful to know that in some countries, such as Bhutan, there are holidays in the year like Saka Dawa when the entire country goes vegetarian and meat is hard to find!

Packing snacks is as necessary as having the right expectations. When planning your trip, find out a bit about the local palate. While most big cities will have some flexibility, there may be areas of town with more options available. In rural areas, it’s always best to ask and plan ahead. If you travel for food as much as some of us, it’s worth looking into custom travel options that are entirely food-based or where food can be a strong theme.

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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at don@geoex.com.

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