Thursday, April 13, 2006

Waxing nostalgic

Although I have yet to travel as a vegan, I thought I would share a little about my experiences traveling as a vegetarian.

My trip to Thailand was part of a summer course through my university. We had a travel agent in the US, and 3 amazing hosts within Thailand. The US travel agent was useless. I asked her to request a vegetarian meal for all the flights, and of course she didn't. Since it was the first time I'd ever even been on a plane, I didn't know that I should have double and triple checked on this. So I found out that no veg meal was available when I was on the flight from Chicago to Tokyo. Luckily, there was an extra vegan meal from someone who didn't show up, so I was able to eat. When we got to Tokyo I made sure to let the United people know that I wanted vegetarian meals for the rest of the flights.

In Thailand, Professor John Butt (yeah, his last name is really Butt. He's pretty cool about it though, he even calls his truck the "Butt Mobile.), Patcharee, and Nee, all from the Crystal Spring House (through Payap University) were amazing to work with. My professor let them know before we left that I was a vegetarian, and they made sure that I ate well. Since we were such a large group, the restaurants knew we were coming ahead of time and had a veggie selection available for me. I ate so many different kinds of foods, nearly all vegan (except for some egg). But seriously, at every meal they would bring out a bunch of large dishes for everyone to share from, and I would get enough veggie food to feed at least 5 people. The other omni students tried some of the stuff I was eating, but it was mostly for me, and me alone. It was delicious, and healthy. None of the processed shit you get over here in the US, but fresh veggies, tofu, noodles... yum.

Australia was a different story. Although there was no language barrier like there was in Thailand, I didn't have people arranging all the details for me. And, of course, it was a much longer trip. I lived in one of the dorms at James Cook University, and had to buy the meal plan.
It wasn't a bad deal, I got three meals a day for the entire semester, and it was included in the tuition that I normally paid to my home university. But, the dining hall was awful. Literally some of the worst food I've ever seen. I know it's not the fault of the kitchen staff. They tried hard, but with the minimal budget they got, they didn't have too many options. This meant that the few vegetarians (probably less than 10) got the short end of the stick. When they were cooking for 200 meat-eaters, why would they waste their time worrying about the few vegos? There was always a vegetarian entree, but the majority of the time it left something to be desired. At least 4 times a week I would get veggie burgers, most times more often than that. They were these deep fried patties made of mashed potatoes with peas and carrots mixed in. Not very good for you. The other most popular dish that I was served was spinach and ricotta pastries. Once in a while I would luck out and get spring rolls, or a veggie satay, but the good meals were few and far between. My semester in Australia was the only time in my life I've ever felt like I had to take a multi-vitamin to stay healthy.

When I was there, I was a poor college student, and I didn't get to eat off-campus very often. But when I did, I ate well. There were so many ethnic restaurants--Thai, Indian, and any other kind of Asian you can imagine, Italian, and heaps of others. We went to this noodle bar on the Strand called Chili Jams a few times. It seemed like every time I went out to eat, there was a vegetarian section of the menu. Even if it was small, one or two dishes, it clearly listed the ingredients so I knew what I was eating. For spring break, I did a little boat tour of the Whitsunday Islands. I let them know ahead of time that I would need veggie food (since it was a 2-night trip) and the cook was very accommodating. There was so much fresh fruit and produce, as well, so outside of the dorms Australia was pretty amazing as a vegetarian.

Ethiopia made me the most nervous before I went. I was vegan at the time, as was my fellow traveler, Brigette. We decided to be vegetarian while we were traveling. I wasn't going to go out of my way to check ingredients, but I would try to avoid overt animal ingredients. It didn't work out quite like that when I got to Ethiopia; I ended up eating cheese on pizza every now and then, because I'm a big fat loser. But anyways, it seemed like everyone we met would tell us how much Ethiopians love meat, and how hard being a vegetarian would be in that country. Luckily we were traveling with a professor who grew up in Ethiopia, and we spent a lot of time with his mother over there. When she cooked for us, we had no worries about ingredients. And even when we went out to eat, we had so many people who were fluent in Amharic ordering for us that we were all set. As meaty as Ethiopian culture may seem, there was actually quite a lot of vegan food.

The most common religion in Ethiopia is Orthodox Christianity. Every Wednesday and Friday, for a good part of the year, Orthodox Christians "fast", or eat a basically macrobiotic diet (vegan + fish). During Lent, they follow that diet every single day. There is one period, for 2 or 3 months right after Lent, that they don't fast at all, even on Wednesday's and Fridays. Of course, we were there during that period, but most restaurants didn't change their menus. We ate tons of bean dishes, grains, vegetables, and lots and lots of beer. Okay, so beer isn't really food, but it was probably my largest source of calories while I was over there.

Wow, that was long and ramble-y. I have tons more to say, but I think that about sums it up. I've lucked out with my travel experiences, since I haven't had to do much work or preparation, but I think I could handle it on my own, too. I guess we'll see soon enough....

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