You’re a vegetarian and find yourself sitting at the dinner table, in a home of a family you just met who invited you in to stay, who speak no English, who cooked you dinner and excitedly sit back and wait for you to try their traditional dish, while you look down and see meat floating all through it. What do you do?
I found myself in this situation on multiple occasions. Two of my strongest values conflicting between my animal activist opinion of not eating meat and my common decency of being a nice guest in a complete stranger’s home.
I had already tried to explain the fact that I was a vegetarian, that no, I didn’t eat meat, to their blank expressionless faces staring back in response.
Looking down at my meat-ridden soup laid out in front of me it was clear that my numerous attempts at explaining why I didn’t eat meat hadn’t come across. Or, more likely, they simply thought it was just something I did for fun now and again. Stuck in this first situation I felt extreme discomfort. I looked sideways at my boyfriend for help, only to realize he wouldn’t meet my gaze, instead was tucking into the soup and moaning about how good it was. Looking back at my hosts their eyes were wide with excitement, waiting for me to have the same reaction as him.
So, I picked up my spoon and I ate it. I ate the whole damn thing. I remember as a child watching as my vegetarian mother eat a meat lasagna at a friends house who didn’t realize she had been a vegetarian for the past 20 or so years, watching in amazement and astonishment. As a child, I thought this was the craziest thing I had ever witnessed and was scared it would make her extremely sick. Turns out, it did make her really sick as her stomach wasn’t used to it. Lucky for me, a few floaties wasn’t enough to turn my year old vegetarian stomach.
This was the first time being a vegetarian had been an ‘issue’ for me.
Google traveling as a vegetarian and blog post after blog post will tell you that people have done it, that it’s easy. Probably most famous of travel bloggers, NomadicMatt is a vegetarian and has his own blog post full of tips eating vegetarian while traveling. I’m here to share my experience, purely my experience and tell you that it is NOT as easy as I first thought. I’m here to say that the people who say it’s easy haven’t been to small remote villages in Belarus with a local family that spoke no English and enjoy meat for breakfast lunch and dinner watching you eat their home cooking.
Because sure, in any capital city in the world you will find restaurants devoted to vegetarian and vegan food. There are even apps like Happycow that help you find vegan and vegetarian resultants all around the world, and sure, they are helpful in major cities.
In larger cities, people speak better English, and you have so many more food options at your fingertips. But backpacking, traveling to smaller towns, where the ground is covered for half of the year in a thick blanket of white fluffy snow and hard as rock to grow veggies, through countries that have never met Australians before, who speak no English, who grew up on meat and believe it’s the basis for a happy and healthy life, it is difficult.
Back home in Australia I was in the transition into veganism and ate almost no animal products. When I moved to Europe I went back to vegetarian but ate very little dairy, and found it really easy while living in Denmark. Even through the harsh Scandinavian winter there was an amazing array of fresh fruit and vegetables.
When we made it to the Lapland of Finland, our couch surfing host offered to cook all his surfers a traditional dish of reindeer, which I politely refused and cooked my own eggplant dish on the side without a fuss. Moving down towards Eastern Europe it became harder and harder. Our first night in Belarus when eating at a local restaurant where no one spoke English, I sat and ate my boring salad while Tyral had a huge choice of local, cheap traditional meals. Still, I didn’t mind and I knew it was my choice. As long as I was presented with a choice, I could slip under the radar and enjoy my meal guilt and animal free. Only various occasions did I find the menu jam-packed with animal laden products, but the chiefs could usually find me an alternative. Keep in mind this is just being a vegetarian; I couldn’t even fathom how hard it would have been for me if I had tried to continue on my veganism. Explaining to people from small country villages what a vegetarian even was, was difficult enough, and usually was met with confused eyes and a look of pity.
I want to tell you that I was always the proud, boastful vegetarian who proudly declared they didn’t eat meat and refused meals. I want to tell you that I spread the message and educated some greedy carnivores on a more sustainable eco-friendly animal loving option. But I know my boyfriend will catch me out and never let me live it down. Also, I guess I want to share the truth and my experience. In the beginning, I put Tyral in some sticky situations, looking at him for help when I was panic stricken and found myself in an awkward situation with meat. I looked to him on multiple situations to help me explain I didn’t eat meat, which he reluctantly did. He did the polite boyfriend thing and bit his lip and held his tongue as I wagged mine on about how eating meat was vile and I wouldn’t reform to this absurd outdated barbaric custom. When I finally picked up the spoon and ate that first dish, I could see a wave of relief rush over him. He wasn’t happy for the fact I was eating meat, he was happy I wasn’t making a scene and putting him in another uncomfortable situation.
Vegetarianism and Veganism is a huge movement in Australia, and although there isn’t any recent statistical data, Australians do Google the word Vegan more than any other country in the world. YEAH! Take that world!
Vegetarianism, let alone veganism, I found to be far less common in Eastern Europe. The first time in Belarus I felt uncomfortable, threatened and vulnerable like I had to disregard my morals, turn my back on what I believed in and disgusted in myself. Slowly, the more we travelled through Eastern Europe, the more locals we met and the more locals we ate with, I realized I had to be a bit more flexible. Another time I was put in a similar situation with some local Ukrainians who took us out to a local brewery where they ordered two large sharing platters full of various meats. I ordered a small side dish of grilled vegetables. The next time this happened in Greece I was more relaxed with my eating habits and I joined in on the large spread of dishes in front of me, occasionally picking out the large chunks of meat when possible. In Greece, I even bought my own Gyros because I wanted to try some traditional Greek food, and you know what? I enjoyed it. I felt guilt and to be honest, every time I ate meat on my trip I felt immediately guilty, but I grew to understand how much more options I was opening for myself.
Food is such a huge part of traveling. It’s a huge part of a culture, a traditional and sharing. When people offered me their home cooked traditional meals they had prepared especially for us, how could I turn them down? Now you hard-core vegans might be screaming into the screen ‘THIS IS WHEN YOU EDUCATE THEM!’ but I don’t believe that is my right. How do you sit at someone’s dinner table with a meal in front of you and begin to try and explain through Google translate how you don’t believe in the slaughter of animals for the consumption of humans. For me, that just doesn’t feel right. As much as I believe in treating all animals with love and respect, I also believe in treating humans the same.
I returned home to Adelaide, Australia, in July and I was actually really looking forward to returning back to my veganism. I missed the delicious, amazing and plentiful vegan options I have at my fingertips. I missed having a kitchen to cook my own meals; I missed my mum’s vegetables and vegan curries. I missed my blender and my middle-class white girl breakfast juices. I missed soymilk! Do you know how difficult it is to find soymilk in some parts of Europe? Mostly they don’t even know what you are talking about. I’ve been home for almost three months now and happily picked up my old vegan ways. I find being a vegan in Adelaide incredibly easy, and now make sure I don’t take for granted the local produce at my fingertips.
I started my year trip with so much enthusiasm and optimism that I could stick to vegetarianism the whole time way, and slowly it wore me down until I finally gave in. When I had the options I ate vegetarian foods, on a few occasions when I felt like I was missing out on the true authenticity of traditional meals I gave in, and I ate meat. My decision to break my vegetarianism at first wasn’t necessarily my choice, but it made me realize something about travel. When someone who has less than you, is offering you something out of the kindness of their heart, you take it with a smile.