Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Vegetarian Abroad

I’ll be honest, I don’t think about being a vegetarian that much. Though I live in a Midwestern town full of steak houses and fast food joints and am the only vegetarian most of my friends have met; it’s rarely a subject I think about (updating this blog notwithstanding.) I do, however, sometimes find myself in a conversation at a social gathering, a party or a bar, where the subject comes up. It’s usually when I’ve been offered some meaty dip or a plate of chicken wings that I’ve politely declined. The person will look at me with a mixture of surprise and suspicion and say, “Really? I try not to eat a lot of meat.” I’ll laugh and watch them discretely place whatever they've offered me back on the table. “Do you eat fish?”

I was out and about recently having one of these conversations and talking about travel. The person I was talking to asked if it was difficult to travel as a vegetarian. I said it wasn’t any harder than being one here at home. But that’s not really true. A long time ago, I found it very challenging to be a vegetarian on the road. If I were to venture well off the grid like many of the travelers I follow on the Web, I’d still be pretty hard pressed to eat as well as I do at home. 

So, here are some tips to traveling as a vegetarian or a vegan:
  • Make sure to get the vegetarian/vegan meal on your flight and eat it. You’ll get served first and it’s better than the meat alternative. Sometimes it’s a little gross, but hey, you’re on a plane and someone is giving you food. It could be the last meal you get for a while. Eat it.
  • If you’re going somewhere you don’t speak the language, besides ‘hello, good-bye and thank-you,’ be sure to learn the word for ‘vegetarian.’  We used ‘vegetarianus,’ over and over again when we visited Hungary. I’m not sure how much good it did us, but we tried. Keep in mind, even if the person you’re speaking to understands what a vegetarian is, ‘vegetarian’ might mean something entirely different to them. Vegan could just blow their minds. I got into an argument in London over a bowl of soup I was sure wasn’t veggie friendly. No matter how the waiter tried to reassure me the soup was vegetarian I was sure it wasn’t. I’ve worked in kitchens where vegetarian-vegetable was made with chicken broth and I was sure this one had been too. I never did eat that soup. Sorry Jaime!
  • Pack your snacks. We always load up on one bar or another, dried fruit, nuts, etc. I packed bento boxes full of snacks for a conference in Las Vegas when I knew I was going to be trapped on the Strip without a car for a week. You’ll get pretty tired of those Cliff bars or whatever you pack by the end of your trip, but they look mighty tasty if you’re on foot or stranded miles from nowhere. I’m looking at you Amtrak. Since we have kids we’re always dragging snacks around. I don’t think I could travel without them. And if you really hate that vegetarian meal on the flight, you're set.  
  • Research your destination. Many places have vegetarian societies or at least one or two vegetarian restaurants. Find them, check the reviews, give them a call or add them to your smartphone and itinerary. Before we had mobile technology Jenni and I would make printouts of where we thought we could eat. Happy Cow or the International Vegetarian Society can help you. If you’re still using Frommer’s or another guidebook, you can sometimes find information for vegetarians as well. We always check.
  • Cook your own. The older I get the more I simply prefer my own cooking. I cook every day. When we’re on the road we often get an apartment or a hotel room with a kitchen. After we settle in we go to the local shops and buy groceries. It's a nice way to meet people and see what the locals eat every day. If you don’t have a kitchen, you can always improvise. I’ve made my own coolers using whatever I could find and filled them with ice from the ice chest. And if I lack a stove I simply buy bread, peanut butter and jelly or whatever else I can cobble together. At the end of the day making your own meal is a lot cheaper than paying for one you don’t want in a restaurant. 
  • Speaking of restaurants. If you don’t see something you can eat on the menu, ask the waiter if the kitchen can make you something special. Being a stranger in a strange land can make even the most extroverted person a little sheepish. Don’t be rude, just tell your waiter you’re a vegetarian or a vegan and see what they can do for you. I’ve been amazed that many times the kitchen welcomes the challenge and are really accommodating. I’ve also had to walk out of restaurants where there wasn’t any other choice. (See above.) Nothing wrong with that either. 
  • Be social. There is no end to the number of apps at a traveler’s disposal: Yelp, Foursquare, VeganXpress, Urbanspoon. These link you to people and places. Put them on your mobile device. Any one of these can help you find something veg-friendly in an unfamiliar place. You might even be able tweet about it if you are part of the twitter community. When Jenni and I were driving the length of California years ago we felt like Lawrence crossing the Sinai. We arrived in San Jose exhausted and famished. I’ve never been more satisfied with a meal than I was with those IHOP pancakes. But we just got lucky. Looking back I can’t think why it had been so hard for us to find food. It was northern California for God’s sake.  But that was when we didn’t even have cell phones. 
Those are some things that have helped us. If you have suggestions feel free to share. I'm sure many of you are more adventurous than we are and have had to work a bit harder.