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Vegetarian Travelers Still Experience Culture
"You can't travel if you don't eat meat," says a person who likes to both travel and eat meat.
But that's not true – of course you can travel if you don't eat meat. Contrary to what many travelers and even travel writers believe, you can genuinely learn about and experience another culture without eating meat or any other food your diet restricts. I've traveled as a meat-eater, a pescetarian, a vegetarian and a vegan. I've watched as others have shaken their heads in disbelief, unsure of why I'd ever travel in the first place if I didn't want to taste what steak is like in another country. I've heard some people claim that travel and meat eating are so inseparable that culture simply cannot be experienced while practicing a plant-based diet. This is misleading and unnecessarily dissuasive.
Culture is a term we use to describe myriad facets of any given society. Merriam-Webster defines the word as:
a : the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, speech, action, and artifacts and depends upon the human capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group
Food is just one part of culture. Food is important because we need food to survive. We eat several times a day. We eat socially. We eat emotionally. We love to eat. So let's get something out of the way: those who do not consume meat (or nuts, soy, gluten, alcohol or caffeine, for example) do still consume. I've visited countries around the world and sometimes I've eaten animals or animal products in those countries and sometimes I have not. But no matter what I eat, I'm eating unfamiliar food that is prepared in a way that is new to me when I travel. I've tried fruits and vegetables that I never knew existed but are simultaneously staples of the diet in other cultures. In that way, I've experienced the food of a different culture and all of the excitement that it brings without having to eat meat.
Because we spend so much time eating and because eating is often communal, having a restrictive diet can make it more difficult to eat with others, especially while traveling. If you don't eat meat, you may have to disclose that to restaurants or hosts in advance. You may have to work extra hard to seek out places that serve what you want to eat. You may have to go grocery shopping while traveling (which is one of my favorite things to do and a good way to gain cultural insight, anyway). You may get lucky enough to have a host who is willing to prepare animal-free food for you. Some cuisines of the world are laden with meat while others are based in vegetables. The difficulty you'll have eating as a vegetarian will depend on where you are. No matter the case, you will eat and what you eat will likely be different from what you normally eat when you're at home.
What's important to recognize though is that food is not the only part of culture. Similarly, an anything-goes diet is not necessary for experiencing culture. If you have dietary restrictions, that's fine. I think we should treat food as medicine and think carefully about what we put into our bodies as regularly as possible, even when we're on vacation. If you're visiting a place wherein locals eat a cow tongue and lard custard, you don't have to feel guilty when you choose not to try it. You can learn about this specific food, if you care to, by asking questions and by learning about the history behind the dish. Nothing compares to trying a dish for yourself, but you don't have to try everything to be a good traveler. You can enjoy other aspects of the culture at hand. You can explore the arts community, listen to live local music and dance the traditional dances of the region all night long. You can listen to and share stories with locals. You can go swimming where locals go swimming. You can shop where they shop. You can visit their churches and schools and you can drink their wine.
This idea that culture cannot be experienced without throwing caution to the wind and eating whatever is set before you while traveling is misguided. I've traveled and eaten in the places I've traveled to with meat and without meat and the difference between the two is hardly memorable at all for me. Travel might be a more difficult if you have diet restrictions, but travel might also be more difficult if you have other restrictions – like being too scared to go free-diving with the locals, insisting on speaking English in a non-English speaking country or not going out dancing because you don't like to dance. Lest we continue even further down the wrong path when discussing travel with others, let's remember that learning about and experiencing another culture is not contingent solely on what you do or don't eat.