Being A Vegetarian Abroad

Plenty of people have diet restrictions these days, whether it’s a no-meat diet, gluten free, or no carbs not-now-not-ever.  I have been a vegetarian on and off again for 11 years.  The brief times times that I added meat back into my diet were because A) I eat really poorly at first and it was a contributing factor to a hospital stay I had in 2008 and B) I studied abroad in a non-veggie friendly country.  Now that said, when I was studying in Botswana one of my fellow American classmates was a vegetarian and stayed that way.  There are a lot of factors that go into the why of why people restrict their diet and I don’t want to go into all that here.  I am lucky enough to be able to eat freely if I choose and I have no major allergies, so I was able to add meat back into my diet with minimal fuss.  When I left Africa and landed in Germany I immediately- and with great relief- left off eating animals again.  Now I have reached a comfortable point where I occasionally eat fish (that’s called being a pescatarian) but eat healthy and well all the time.

That’s me at home in Colorado.  But abroad?  How feasible is it to be a vegetarian abroad?  When I was 18 I travelled around China with a group of students from my high school.  We had been invited on the whirlwind trip by two nearly-retired teachers who liked to bring students of fabulous trips around the world every summer.  I was able to stipulate ahead of time that I was a veggie person and so I didn’t have too much trouble eating whenever we went to a restaurant as a group.  My friend and I ventured to a grocery store across the street from our hotel in Beijing and did some exploratory shopping.  I think we came away with a bag of Hawaiian rolls, brightly colored candy, and a strangely shaped fruit that we later learned was dragon fruit.  However, if we were left to our own devices for a meal or if we were at some kind of cultural touristy type event there was inevitably some awkward situations.  Like the time we were in Shangai and a restaurant proudly served up a traditional city favorite: steamed chicken feet.  Or the Peking Duck (complete with it’s head, just like in A Christmas Story) we had in Beijing.  I ate a lot of fried eggplant in sauce on that trip.

In Ireland I had a little more trouble finding satisfying meat-free meals, but perhaps that’s because I just wasn’t very good at knowing what to order, or because I was still relatively unwilling to eat cooked vegetables.  Irish breakfasts feature sausage, black pudding, bacon- all that salty, fatty goodness, but they also serve eggs, potatoes, and fruit.  Lunch and dinner were a different story.

People always want to say, “But sometimes it would be rude not to try the food!” That is true to a certain extent.  I attended a funeral in Botswana with my host family and understood almost nothing of what was going on (my Setswana was basic at best). I spent the five hours I was there sitting in a plastic chair in the shade, watching a group of men skin, quarter, and hang cow meat in a tree to dry in the sun.  At some point some of the liver, which had been prepared inside, was passed around and each funeral-goer put some on their plate.  I had never had liver, and certainly never liver from animal I had see whole recently.  There was not a question though: when the large serving bowl was passed to me, I took a piece from it.  I found the taste bland, the texture terrible, and the sight disconcerting, but I still ate it.  That was probably the only I time I risked actually offending someone by refusing a meat dish.  People, as it turns out, generally want to be friendly towards their guests and with their friends, no matter how foreign the person is.  If you say, “No thank you, I do not eat meat,” they respect that.  World War Three is not going to start because you don’t want  a steak, so get over yourself.

I choose to eat meat in Botswana, but not elsewhere.  It made sense for me.  It made sense for the time, the place, and the circumstances.  I think that’s all you can do in any situation.