Traveling the world as a vegan

I haven’t eaten meat in six years and haven’t consumed eggs or dairy or things like that in five, and that’s been pretty easy to do in a place like Washington, DC. Biking around the world will be a very different story.

In some places (like India, Turkey, or Germany), eating vegan isn't just possible; it's easy and delicious. Elsewhere it's a bit of a struggle—whether for lack of plant-based options (Namibia, Iceland), plant-based options being smothered in dairy (France, Italy), or just a language barrier making it difficult to actually order food without meat or dairy (China, Bulgaria). One of the questions I’ve gotten a bit recently, and really, almost any time I’ve traveled internationally, is if I’ll remain a vegan (or vegetarian) once we’re on our very, very long bike trip through very, very dry and not necessarily arable lands. And that’s a really good question and one I’ve thought a lot about.

In Namibia, home to the world's oldest desert, gemsbok like this one are a common source of food. Eating vegan was possible, but limited to big plates of french fries, tomato sandwiches, and pots of rice.

In Namibia, home to the world's oldest desert, gemsbok like this one are a common source of food. Eating vegan was possible, but limited to big plates of french fries, tomato sandwiches, and pots of rice.

For starters, I’m a vegan for a few different reasons, and it’s important to list those reasons not as judgment against those who don't share the same values or eat the same way, but because they’re crucial in the reasoning to follow, and may be helpful to other vegans or vegetarians struggling with the same question:

  1. Environmental: Raising, slaughtering, refrigerating, transporting, cooking, and disposing of livestock pollutes our air and waterways. Some of this pollution is mitigated by smaller-scale, local operations, but cows will produce tons of methane no matter how they’re handled and methane is twenty-five times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide. Altogether, livestock is responsible for 51% of all manmade global warming. EDIT: A commenter kindly pointed out that there's some debate on the veracity of these emissions numbers. The scientific community agrees animal husbandry is responsible for over 14% of all greenhouse gases, but there's disagreement about how much more depending on what's being counted. 
     
  2. Moral: Especially on factory farms, livestock suffers a whole lot physically and mentally. Even with so-called “humane slaughter,” sentient beings are still being killed against their will. On a more human level, meatpacking is a dirty, messy business, and the people who butcher, process, and pack our animals are often undocumented migrants with few protections. Many are exposed to harmful chemicals and others to animal-borne pathogens, most are severely overworked, and in some cases, workers have been coerced into wearing diapers on the factory floor to cut down on lost time due to bathroom breaks.
     
  3. Health: Most new diseases (HIV, for instance) enter the human biome through meat consumption. Undercooked or spoiled meat is far more dangerous than undercooked or spoiled vegetables, and a plant-based diet greatly extends the quality and quantity of life by lowering cholesterol, reducing obesity, improving heart health, lowering blood pressure, and thus lessening the risk of cancer, stroke, heart attack, or gout.
     
  4. Philosophical: On the most basic level, I don’t believe other animals are ours to use. Carnivores and omnivores elsewhere in the animal kingdom eat meat because they need to in order to survive; by contrast, there are alternatives available to me (at the moment) that are healthy, nutritional, filling, and flavorful.

Now, some of these issues are universal. No matter where I am in the world, cows are still going to produce methane, and animals are still going to get killed, and meat is still going to clog arteries and present a risk of transmitting animal-borne illness. But in simpler, more sustainable corners of the planet—where factory farms give way to small-scale farmers and local butchers—things can be a bit better. Communities raising livestock for themselves have a greater incentive to protect their waterways from livestock pollution and are more likely to eat meat or dairy with a lower carbon footprint: less refrigeration, less transport, less waste.

India, where cows are revered and over forty percent of the population eats a plant-based diet, is a vegetarian and vegan's paradise. Food is also amazingly good and incredibly inexpensive.

India, where cows are revered and over forty percent of the population eats a plant-based diet, is a vegetarian and vegan's paradise. Food is also amazingly good and incredibly inexpensive.

It's true that labor conditions aren't always better, but oftentimes they are. Cycling through Morocco or backpacking through India, I was able to see livestock in a way Americans aren’t legally allowed to see livestock (indeed, it’s illegal in the States to even photograph a factory farm from a public road), and that transparency ensures humans are treated with a bit more dignity than their American counterparts. And because smaller-scale, local operations work at the individual level, pathogen-based health risks aren’t entirely eliminated, but still greatly reduced. A clump of ground beef in the States might contain the meat (and diseases) of a thousand cows; in Namibia, that same clump might be sourced from just one cow. And surely, while the fat and cholesterol of a hamburger or glass of milk aren't exactly good (or even necessary) for a sedentary life of office work in DC, they're unlikely to do a whole lot of harm in the active pursuit of biking and hiking and camping around the world. 

The tiny Italian towns built into the cliffs of Cinque Terre are one of the most difficult places I've ever been to get by on a vegan diet (eating vegetarian would be much easier).

The tiny Italian towns built into the cliffs of Cinque Terre are one of the most difficult places I've ever been to get by on a vegan diet (eating vegetarian would be much easier).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I'm a vegan because I have the ability and the fortune to be a vegan. I have supermarkets stocked with healthy alternatives to a meat- and dairy-based diet, and live in a city where it simply isn't that difficult to survive on plants, greens, and grains. I don't expect this to be true in the mountains of Tajikistan or the deserts of Sudan.

So, what's the plan? The plan (at least for me; Lauren is a vegetarian and she may certainly weigh in at some point) is to try as hard as possible to remain vegan as much as possible, and to make dairy and egg exceptions when I'm really, really hungry and there are really, really no alternatives, or—as is likely to happen—the kind souls the world over offer us pitiful travelers a chai tea, a plate of eggs, or a buttery piece of bread with the expectation and the hope that we'll want them. The plan is to get by on rice if there's rice and beans if there are beans and vegetarian food if vegan food is nowhere to be found, and only in the direst circumstances to eat meat if meat really needs to be eaten. It's not as absolute as I'd like, but it feels a practical and inevitable compromise.

Of course, once we get going we'll be writing about our country-by-country experiences a whole lot, and we'll be sure to add a few sentences about how easy it is to go vegetarian or vegan here or there—and probably revisit this post six or twelve months in to provide an update on how this diet fares against the landscapes and kitchens of east Africa and central Asia [UPDATE: Alee over at cyclingabout.com has a great write-up on biking the world as a vegan]. 'Til then, thoughts? Places where you found it particularly difficult (or particularly easy) to go vegan or vegetarian? Let us know with a comment below.

In China, the Mandarin word for vegetarian doesn't mean "without meat," but simply "with vegetables." As such—even if you can pronounce it correctly—you may be told that a dish with beef or poultry is vegetarian as long as it has a little broccoli in it too. But if you manage to find a way to communicate that you don't want meat or dairy, the vegetarian and vegan food is fresh and delicious.

In China, the Mandarin word for vegetarian doesn't mean "without meat," but simply "with vegetables." As such—even if you can pronounce it correctly—you may be told that a dish with beef or poultry is vegetarian as long as it has a little broccoli in it too. But if you manage to find a way to communicate that you don't want meat or dairy, the vegetarian and vegan food is fresh and delicious.