Veganism and Vegetarianism: Backpacker’s Survival Guide
Years ago when I was in Tel Aviv I ordered a vegetarian burger. The cashier looked at me really strangely and said, “So you want a bun?” Yes sir, I’d like a bun. “And you want salad?” Go on then, I’ll have a bit of salad. I paid the equivalent of $7 for a burger bun and some lettuce between. Being a vegetarian is easier than being a vegan – it is widely accepted and understood, and many backpacking hot spots that attract western millennial’s have many vegan options. However venture off of the beaten track and into the local areas (the exception being India) my choices have been extremely limited to probably 1 thing on the menu. Vegetarianism and veganism isn’t always hunky dory abroad (some backpackers will let you believe it is, but believe you me it is not). Some of the advice in other ‘Vegan Traveller’ advice isn’t suitable for backpackers in my opinion. Many blogs advocate bringing along vegan substitutes and whilst that is fine for a regular holiday, I personally don’t really fancy having a load of cupboard food crumpled and sweating in my rucksack whilst taking up unnecessary space. You can’t always guarantee what supermarkets will sell abroad, nor can you guarantee what customs will let through. I’ve tried my best to pull together some hints and tips to stop you crumbling and reaching for a bacon sandwich.
If you’re staying in a hostel, make sure there is a kitchen 👩🏻🍳
This is always my first strategy. Eating out can sometimes throw some non-vegetarian curve balls. I remember tucking into a delicious ‘vegetable’ Pad Thai only to discover halfway through my trip that Pad Thai (along with most f*cking dishes in South East Asia) contains fish sauce. To many people who don’t have vegetarianism in their culture – fish and sometimes even chicken is considered ‘meat free’ so be aware!
Foreign supermarkets are fascinating to visit and you can find fresh, locally grown ingredients and use those to prepare your own meals. Cultural differences and language barriers aside, a carrot is a carrot so you will always have an easier time identifying simple ingredients and cooking for yourself. Sure, it’s sometimes challenging to find all the ingredients your heart may desire, but the basics are usually readily available and cooking for yourself will save you some money. That way, you can enjoy your food in peace without someone making some hilarious comment about your stuffed pepper. I usually balance cooking for myself with visiting proper restaurants in order to appease my budget. If you’re eating out please see my subsequent tips.
Papa don’t preach!
If you’ve made the decision to follow a plant based diet, you’re doing so because you feel morally compelled, are concerned about your health and the environment (🙋🏻♀️) or you’re a huge Miley Cyrus/Beyonce/Will.I.Am fan. However most meat eaters are generally aware of the arguments regarding veganism and vegetarianism – those who continue to eat meat are simply choosing to ignore it. That being said I appreciate the arguments for veganism and vegetarianism are not as well known in less westernised countries, but beware of potentially offending other cultures with your views.
Be prepared to hear the same utterly hilarious comments 🙄
Every time I visit my grandparents for Friday night dinner, my Grandpa makes the same, “I picked that especially from the garden” joke at whatever I am eating. My uncle will tell me that, “Paul and Linda McCartney didn’t eat anything with a face!” every single time, and every single time this will be followed by a joke about how sh*t Linda McCartney sausages are. Oh how my family then laugh.
I’m also subject to meme after meme from all of my friends.
These are the types of joke you will hear again and again as you meet new locals and travellers from hostel to hostel. Someone will say something like, “Are you having beans with your beans?” and everybody will fall about in hysterics. Even beyond food choices I’ve heard all the hilarious quips people have for me on Jesus sandals and hemp clothing. In one of the countries I visited, being a vegetarian was synonymous with being a lesbian. I have no idea why.
Accept that you will be asked a lot of questions (especially from the locals)!
Vegetarianism is still unusual in many non-western cultures. For that reason, you’d do well just to accept that you’re going to be asked questions such as, “Why are you vegan? Don’t you miss bacon? What if you were on a desert island and you had to eat animals to survive? Can’t you try the meat here – you aren’t experiencing local food and culture properly! Go on try some, nobody back home will know?” Many vegetarians will throw up their arms and complain about being asked the same questions over and over again (which gets tiring, even at home when people know you and especially when you’re continually meeting new travelers on the road) but that only reinforces the stereotype that we are sanctimonious w*ankers. Instead just make your response brief and change subject quickly. Vegetarian and vegan food also has a bad rep for being less delicious worldwide:
Meat eaters are desperate to disprove that food without meat could possibly be delicious. If you’re dining with meat eaters and let them know that your food is tasty, every meat eater will ask to try it. They will agree that it is delicious but state, “It would be better with a bit of chicken.”
Vegans: accept that you are a difficult guest if you go Couchsurfing or to home stays
If you’re Couchsurfing or part of a homestay experience with a local family, accept that being a vegan is a pain in the backside. Especially when vegan or vegetarian food isn’t widely available in some countries and when many dishes that the host would usually cook comprises of meat. Even my own Grandma huffs and puffs when I come round for dinner – and being a vegetarian I can still join in with the buttered potatoes. When I attempted veganism I had to bring round my own microwave Tarka Dahl and endure the endless quips. Chris from Lessons Learned abroad is vegan and posted a story on his experience with a Mongolian host family for Nomadic Matt. This is probably what most vegetarians or vegans will experience and they took it politely on the chin and adapted. The Mongolian family had welcomed them into their home – they didn’t need a long story on the average life span of caged hens.
In restaurants – just say you’re allergic if they ask ‘why’ to save you the hassle of confusing some poor waiter/waitress!
In South East Asia and South America the locals sometimes don’t get the compassion towards animals or the arguments regarding the environment. Throughout Spain and Morocco I was told that eating animals was okay because ‘God put them here for us to eat’. Plus its easier to say “me hace sentir mal” (it makes me feel ill) than attempt to explain your thoughts on the dairy industry in broken Spanish to a waitress. If there is a chance the food will actually make you ill the restaurant are more likely to be accommodating. My Grandma and Grandpa speak the same language as me and no matter how often I regurgitate Cowspiricy at them they still don’t understand. And they’re related to me (ergo willing to listen to my long winded explanation as to why I won’t eat X, Y and Z). A waitress from Malaysia just wants to take my damn order.
Be prepared to eat the same sh*t for a while 🙃
I often stumble across the same problems whenever I go abroad. In Nicaragua I ate beans and rice almost exclusively for the first half of my trip. Years ago on a month long trip around Israel I only ate falafel or corn schnitzel for the entire month because they literally had no idea what to feed me. A decade later Tel Aviv now has more vegan restaurants per square mile than any other city – amazing progress! Sadly not all places are as progressive in the vegan space, even in Europe or North America. Even within the same country – Berlin is incredible for vegan/vegetarian food but Munich is poor (if you want to eat proper Bavarian food).
Google Translate or buy a Vegan Passport
A bit of an obvious one but I’d learn a few statements such as ‘I am a vegetarian’ and ‘I do not eat meat, chicken or fish’ before you head to somewhere new. If you want to go one step further you can actually order a Vegan Passport for £4.95 ($7). The Vegan Passport is essentially a phrase book with all the relevant vegan questions and phrases in 74 different languages, which will cover you for most languages. It might be worth a purchase if you are going to be traveling a lot/for a long time and are perpetually hounding restaurant staff about the contents of their menu (“hay carne en esto?” “hay leche en esto?”)
Be a Happy Cow! 🐮
Happy Cow is a great online resource to find vegan and vegetarian friendly restaurants in your area. You can even read the menu online (come on… it isn’t just me who studies the online PDF menu before going to a restaurant), look at their reviews and find out about their prices and hours open. I even use it back home in England!
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