I've been a vegetarian for more than half my life. This realization hit me last week when a new coworker asked me when I started. I responded with "12" and became acutely aware of how long ago that was.
At twelve, when many kids my age were worried about things like fitting in and math tests and their crushes, I suddenly gave up meat cold turkey (ha! pun not intended but enjoyed). This meant 100% no meat. Now this seems normal, but at the time it wasn't common at all. While I was content with my decision and only had problems at first not eating chicken fingers, my parents were dumbfounded. My mother resorted to confused looks and cooking me pasta. My father, luckily, was a chef and took it in stride; he began to ease me into a varied diet and introduced me to cauliflower, tofu, and things I had never heard of. Friend's parents were never knew what to feed me.
When I began to travel in my late teens, I didn't really take into consideration how hard it would be to be a vegetarian. This is probably because at that age, you don't really think outside your bubble. Additionally my lack of international experience and growing up in very white, very rural Vermont meant limited exposure to other cultures. I became aware of the complexities when I turned 16.
I traveled to Ecuador with my Spanish class from high school in 2007. The group of juniors and seniors visited Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil led by our Ecuadorian teacher and her husband. They took us to natural spring water spas, to Otavalo's market, and placed us in the homes of friends and relatives for home stays. I was thrilled to get exposure to the language and practiced my grammar daily before the trip. Haya, vaya, sepa, sea, de, este, cha cha cha...
Our homestays were in Cuenca. I fell in love with the city that is modern and ancient simultaneously. Our arrival on the bus raised high above the sidewalks showed cobbled streets that twisted and turned into winding alleys and car clogged "highways." Streets were filled with people yelling "pan de yuca!" and dust, a reddish brown that speaks of clay and creativity. Long skirts twirled along the ankles of women descended from ancient bloodlines while teens wore jeans and US band t-shirts. My host family's house was two stories with a brick roof and a sturdy black iron fence that kept lurkers at bay.
Inside that fence I promptly realized that my host mother didn't speak a lick of English. In fact I'm fairly confident in the fact that she probably still doesn't. She was round and strict, did laundry during the day, laughed lovingly with her sons. You could hear her lilting voice as she sang from the backyard. She lectured me on never going anywhere alone and made sure I had a curfew. And while she was very different from my parents, she was also extremely caring and patient while I stumbled through Spanish words I had only read and never pronounced. So when I tried to explain in broken Spanish that I didn't eat meat, she responded in horror and confusion.
"Gracias señora pero no como carne." Thank you, but I don't eat meat.
"Por que no? Que horor! Pues, voy a cocinar el pollo." Why not?! How horrible! Well, I will just cook some chicken.
"Pero señora, no como pollo tampoco." But ma'am, I don't eat chicken either.
"Como te vivas?! Entonces, necesito ir a la super para comprar pescado..." How do you live?! Then I need to go to the supermarket to buy fish..
"Perdón, pero no como pescado tampoco!" I'm sorry, but I don't eat fish either!
"AY! Entonces, que comes?" Ay! Then what DO you eat?
After explaining (more than once), she fumbled through feeding me. I lived off tortillas and eggs. My study abroad experience in Nicaragua was no different - gallo pinto was a staple like in most Nicaraguan diets, but the slice of cucumber and iceberg lettuce left much to be desired.
Ever since, as a traveler I've often come upon the choice of sticking to my diet or forgoing it in exchange for fully experiencing the culture. There is something to be said about learning about a culture through their food, and a lot of times (OK, the majority of the time) this involves eating animals. However the idea of giving up my diet is extremely unappealing. Many vegetarians talk of getting sick after reintroducing animal protein - I have no experience with this but the wive's tales echo through the internet. What's a traveler to do?
I've known many vegetarians who grapple with the question. I've met a woman who refuses to cater to the pressure and swears that she is living by her ideals and therefore completely happy, even if she is missing out on certain parts of a culture. I also know many who drop their diets and get involved in the culture both feet in. After many experiences of not getting enough protein, I've made the personal decision to play it by ear and eat fish when necessary. But your diet, like your choice of what to wear, what to do, and where to travel to, is personal. In my travels, being a vegetarian doesn't limit your cultural exchanges - it can be a catalyst for discussions about privilege, food systems, and climate change. And in the end, travel is all about sharing experiences. And those experiences can be with or without meat.