Vegan Travel Adventures: Part 1

February 10, 2016

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It all started years ago, when as a little girl I’d ask my mom to tell me about all her travels, instead of proper bedtime stories.  She had ridden camels in the Egyptian desert.  She had been chased by a man in Naples only to be given a rose.  And so through the years I paid homage to the wide-eyed little girl I was back then by saving what little money I made as a student in order to travel. Thankfully traveling is easier now.  And it’s a love that has spanned a lifetime for me: so far I have been to 29 countries and counting.

Travel for me is many things: I learn about myself while learning about other cultures.  One of the big parts of new cultures is the food.  It is a cultural tradition, storied heritage, and a crucial part of daily living.  If you want to know how people live you have to break bread with them.

And then, after years of flirting with vegetarianism, I went vegan over 3 years ago for both ethical and health reasons.  It wasn’t a decision that I struggled with or regretted.  Until my very first trip to Germany a few months later, that is, when I went out with coworkers, stared at the menu and visualized how I was going to slowly die of hunger over the next week.  I learned a lot on that trip.

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So, here are my 3 main rules that I have for vegan travel these days:

ADJUST EXPECTATIONS

You may not find vegan food.  You may not find vegetarian food.  You may find that “no meat” does not mean “no seafood” or “no chicken”.  You may find that “no meat” does not mean that it wasn’t cooked with meat.  You may not find protein bars at the grocery store.  And even: you may not find the grocery store.

www.happycow.com has been a terrific resource for finding vegan options in some unexpected places.  And most travel guidebooks now include a section on veg travel.  Study it, try to understand what you’re in for and adjust your expectations accordingly.  Think of it as an exciting new adventure: you just may end up coming back with your new favorite dish.  And the more prepared you are, the less likely you are to end up in the same situation that I did on my first trip as a vegan.

KEEP AN OPEN MIND

Sometimes keeping an open mind has meant trying a food I wasn’t particularly thrilled about: candied tomatoes in Taiwan, stinky tofu in Shanghai (both turned out to be absolutely fantastic).  And sometimes this has meant being open to having a little bit of dairy or eggs, if there were no other meat-free alternatives.  Not everyone will want to consider this, but this is something you should think about before you get on the plane.  What are you willing to compromise on?  And what’s off the table completely?  This is a very individual decision.

And remember, you are a guest in a different culture, and your hosts really do want you to get the best their country has to offer.  But sometimes, try as they may, food choices and restrictions may not translate.  I was once offered very beefy looking Chow Mein in Guatemala: it looked like the food that was served to the rest of our group, just with the meat taken out of it.  This was our host’s attempt to accommodate me.  I was grateful for the gesture, but had to decline as politely as I could.  Thankfully I had some backup food stashed away in my hotel room.

If all else fails, have a back up.  Yes, it’s absolutely delightful to have onion soup for lunch in Paris or a pizza with fresh mozzarella in Florence.  But if you have decided that you will travel fully plant-based, what will you do? I have a list of travel essentials that I double check before every trip.  The list includes my passport, emergency phone numbers, and quite a few food items:

  • Instant oatmeal – there are now protein-packed varieties if this is something that’s important to you;
  • PROBAR Meal bars – when I need to replace a whole meal instead of just supplement it;
  • PROBAR BASE bars – I have been lifting lately to complement my running, and my body absolutely craves these;
  • Almonds and cashews – these are my favorite nuts, and they make for a good quick snack and hold me over when I’m trying to find a place to eat;
    Single use packets of almond or peanut butter – chances are you will find bread or apples to put these one, and they will balance out a small meal or a snack with protein and healthy fats if needed;
  • Hemp hearts – sometimes the best you can do is a salad (and that’s definitely something to be grateful for, because sometimes they can be hard to come by) but more often than not, you may not have a veg source of protein available to you, so consider bringing your own.

Hope you find my tips helpful.  Happy travels, veg friends!

-Nari Makhalsyan