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.

The worst zoo I ever saw

I feel sorry for my Harari friends.

During my stay in Harar, Ethiopia, they were so hospitable, so eager to ensure I had a 100% positive impression of their city and country. For the most part I did, and I left for the capital Addis Ababa with lots of great things to say about Ethiopia.

They should have warned me not to visit the Lion Zoo in Addis Ababa.

It’s billed as a natural wonder, where you can see rare Ethiopian black-maned lions descended from the pride that was kept in Haile Selassie’s palace. In reality, it’s a sad display of animal cruelty and neglect.

The lions, primates, and other animals are kept in undersized cages with bare concrete floors. They look bored, flabby, resigned. Several of them look sick. Visitors shout at the listless animals or even throw pebbles to get them to move. Some toss packets of chocolate or potato chips to the monkeys and laugh as they tear the packages apart to get to the food inside.

The worst are the lions, proud carnivores, kings of the wilderness, reduced to trapped objects of amusement for bored city dwellers who don’t give a shit about nature. The lions lie around most of the time, doing nothing. Occasionally one will get its feet, shake its dirty mane, take a few steps before realizing there’s nowhere to go, and then sit down with an air of defeat.

The whole place made me feel ill, yet I can’t feel morally superior. I come from a country where people freak out if someone beats a dog but cheer when a Third World country gets carpet bombed. Where a zoo like this would be a national scandal but people eat meat raised on factory farms that make Ethiopia’s Lion Zoo look like a nature reserve. Only vegans can talk about animal cruelty from any moral high ground, and I’m not a vegan. Meat tastes too good.


But a travesty like this zoo is totally unnecessary. Ethiopia is anxious to promote itself as a tourist destination, a friendly, civilized country where Westerners can feel at home. Well, if it wants to do that, it better do something about the Lion Zoo.

Like shut it down.

So to my Harari friends, I’m sorry. You came close to getting a 100% positive series (well, except for my bumbling around Ethiopia’s Somali region) but it was not to be. I understand Ethiopia has bigger priorities than a few animals in a zoo in Addis Ababa, but if you want to make a positive impression on Western visitors, this place has got to go.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints.

Coming up next: Tomoca: the best little coffeehouse in Africa!

Vegetarians in a foreign country (or, How not to eat meat in Thailand)

“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans…are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.” — Anthony Bourdain

The Traveler’s Code of Conduct — a body of oral law etched indelibly into the collective nomadic consciousness — is very clear on matters of food: However unfamiliar, unappetizing and/or squirmy, nothing a host serves may be turned down. Especially when you’re a stranger in a strange land. To violate this rule is to violate one of the most ancient and sacred precepts of hospitality — and to reveal simultaneous provincialism and schmuckiness of the highest order.

Here, then, is one schmuck’s tale.

I became a vegetarian 25 years ago, during a 10th-grade biology lab, when my designated dissectee turned out to be the pigeon that broke the camel’s back. Deceased animals placed before me, whether as meals or science projects, had long since induced guilt and a gag reflex. And for some reason, with this one squab au jus de formaldehyde, I was done.

But alas, some 20 years later, my hosts on Yao Yai didn’t get the memo.No, really. There was a memo. Or at least a Special Dietary Requirements section of the paperwork I’d filled out for my trip to this southern Thai island. I was heading there to write about a nascent homestay program. And my friend Lon — always up for a dose of the different — was joining me.

Thus did we find ourselves the newest residents of an isolated wooden shack. It was surrounded by rice paddies and water buffaloes, propped up on stilts, and filled — in our honor — with freshly prepared fish.

Yes, our appointed island home — where two men on motorbikes had just deposited us after a dock-to-door off-road derby — harbored the ichthyological mother lode. Name the Andaman Sea subspecies, however obscure, and it was represented in our welcome buffet. Highly identifiably, in fact: Whatever had happened to these fish between their last swim and their appearance on the day’s menu, nary a scale, fin, tooth or eyeball was out of place.

So I knew Lon wouldn’t be the one to get us out of this mess. Normally, she’d act as my omnivorous wingman, making at least a respectable dent in any non-veg offerings. But anatomically correct entrées were her deal-breakers — grounds for a poker-faced declaration of vegetarianism. And I could feel one coming on any second.

I panicked. And the heat and humidity — augmented by a thousand steaming fish dishes, all enclosed in the house’s tiny central room — didn’t help. Within seconds, I felt woozy. But apparently, no one was the wiser. Our host parents — each a good decade our junior — beamed expectantly, gesturing toward what had clearly taken them hours (him, on the fishing end; her, on the cooking end) to produce. Just for us. The esteemed guests. Oy gevalt.

So as much as I hated being that tourist — the philistine who rejects such generously, lovingly, painstakingly prepared food — I saw no alternative. Especially as Lon was giving me the “can’t help you, dude” shrug.

“I’m SO sorry,” I began, looking back and forth between our new parents, who spoke next-to-no English.

“So, so, so, so sorry,” I continued. “I really can’t tell you how sorry I am. But there seems to have been a misunderstanding.”

The Traveler’s Code of Conduct is clear on matters of food: However unfamiliar, unappetizing and/or squirmy, nothing a host serves may be turned down. Especially when you’re a stranger in a strange land.

Their brows — until now eagerly raised — suddenly descended to the mildly concerned elevations. But still, not a glimmer of comprehension.

So I tried again.

“You’ve prepared SUCH a beautiful meal. So, so, so, so beautiful. Wow. Really, wow. The only problem is, sadly — very, very, very sadly — we can’t eat it.”

Still, nada.

Between the fish haze and the fear of offending — both intense to begin with, and rising at equal rates — I wasn’t sure how much lucidity I had left.

My mind raced several years back to another such episode, when Lon and I were in Frankfurt, and I was struggling to order a meat-free meal. After attempting every possible pronunciation of the word vegetarisch — only to be met with the waitress’s blank stares — I finally blurted out, kein fleisch.

No meat.

Plain and simple. Crude and desperate. The fumbling vegetarian’s version of the Hail Mary pass. But it worked.

So I thought I’d try it again.

Not knowing the Thai words for no meat, however, I resorted to pointing and mime. And in a show of solidarity, Lon soon did the same. By the time anyone got what we were saying, we had performed a veritable Macarena of we-no-eat-fish gestures.

Perhaps it was our virtuoso air swim. Or the way Lon so poignantly pursed her lips and shook her head at once. But something finally clicked — and our hosts nodded accordingly.

Even better than the hard-won understanding, however, was the hysterical laughter. Some things — the unbridled joy of watching two grown women make total asses of themselves, for example — are indeed universal.

And with this single plunge into idiocy, the group dynamic changed radically. No longer were we a collection of strangers, smiling and nodding at a polite distance. There was something familiar (and familial) about the way we were cracking each other up now — a good thing, if ever you find yourself in the otherwise awkward position of awaiting the meal that’s replacing the ridiculously elaborate one that was already cooked for you.

We had tried to convey to our hosts — in our best Pidgin ‘n mime — that there was absolutely no need to come up with a new spread. We truly would’ve been happy with plain rice. But they would hear nothing of it, or simply had no idea what we were saying.

Either way, about an hour later, meal number two showed up. The motor-bikers had been sent back to “town” (a relative term on a one-road island), where some mystery chef had devised a vegetarian bacchanalia: innumerable curries, stir-fries-and every conceivable combination of banana leaf, sticky rice, and fruit.

So we interrupted the activity in progress — a mostly failed, highly comical attempt at teaching each other a few words of Thai and English — to eat. Absent a table and chairs, which don’t come standard with Yao Yai stilt houses, we stayed exactly where we’d been: in a circle on the linoleum floor.

The food was placed in the center, along with the local version of a napkin tray: a red plastic toilet paper dispenser, the starter square already peeking out.

By now, we were famished — as were, apparently, all the neighborhood ants. They showed up as soon as we were served, and without ever breaking formation, marched fanatically over our ankles, calves and thighs to get to the goods.

Lon and I once again began exchanging glances. But to our surprise, no one else did. There was evidently nothing out of the ordinary about, oh, 100,000 ants showing up for lunch.

Failure to eat was not an option. Was it?

“No,” we silently confirmed to each other; it wasn’t.

Pretending not to notice our ant-covered bodies and plates, we’d wait for breaks in the foot traffic. Then — our chopsticks pre-cocked — we’d go in with laser-like speed and precision, hoping to minimize their insect protein content. And really, what was a little syncopated stick work given our already strange-seeming eating habits?

Soon enough, we all started chatting again — and rarely stopped during the three days we spent on top of each other in this tiny home. Of course, no one had the faintest idea what anyone else was saying, but that seemed a minor detail. And a shared joke.

A language barrier is a funny thing. Sometimes, however illogically, you decide to ignore it and say whatever you want to say to a person. Then you search his face for any trace of recognition, only to get a shrug and a smile — the international sign for “Nope, didn’t catch a goddamned syllable.” At which point both parties have to laugh. Or at least we did.

Of course, sometimes understanding what’s being said to you makes it no less funny. Take the Thai word krap. The masculine form of “yes” — and a polite if meaningless sentence ender — it’s also how you kill in front of a 35-year-old American crowd that has a 12-year-old’s sense of humor. Our host father, who clearly enjoyed having become some sort of comedic genius in our presence, obliged with the most liberal sprinkling of krap he could muster. Got us every time.

So taken were we with these absurdly warm, open, lovely people, that even activities we normally wouldn’t sign up for — the admiring of doomed and departed fish, for example — now seemed a perfectly acceptable form of bonding. When our host father and his fishing buddies took us by long-tail boat to behold the waterborne holding pens and walkways they’d set up in the middle of Phang Nga Bay, the excitement was palpable. Never mind the surreal limestone formations that protruded from blue-green waters, or the secluded, powdered sugar beaches — or any of the other greatest hits of the bay area. Though we were dutifully escorted to all of them, nothing lit the boys up the way a mackerel in a net did. So we smiled and nodded appreciatively at every last specimen.

We repeated the exercise (or a variation on it, any way) later that day, as our host mother expertly handled a succession of carcasses in the kitchen. She was so solicitous — always looking up from her work to smile at us and make sure we were having a good time — that we dared not disappoint. If we were going to commit the cardinal traveler’s sin of not eating the things, we could at least ham up our audience participation. And judging from our oohs and ahhs, you’d think fish-gutting was our favorite spectator sport.

That night, our last night on the island, Lon and I gave her a pair of earrings we knew she’d love. (They were the same enameled bohemian jobbies we had loved at her age.) And the following morning, they kept catching the sun as she waved goodbye to us from the dock. But as we waved back — our ferry slowly maneuvering out of its slip — we noticed a much subtler glimmer: There were tears running down her cheeks. Our host father’s, too.

Within seconds, Lon and I were crying ourselves. At which point we realized how quickly we’d all formed this funny little family. The process wasn’t graceful — or by Bourdainian standards, even civil — but God, was it delicious.

Abbie Kozolchyk has written for numerous publications, including National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Forbes Traveler,, World Hum, Real Simple and Cosmopolitan. Her website is

[Photos: Flickr | morrissey; jon hanson; René Erhardt; sashapo]