By Anna Austin, VRG Intern
For three weeks of the summer of 2010 I stayed in Heredia, Costa Rica. Through a program called CPI (Centro Panamericano de Idiomas), I lived with a family and attended classes at a school for five hours a day. Before I started, I filled out a questionnaire with information about medications, allergies, living habits, etc. to determine which family to live with would be the best fit for me. There was also a section about food allergies and restrictions which included the option to select “vegetarian.” I called the school ahead of time to check to see if it was possible to put “vegan” on the sheet. I talked to the people in charge of the school. They said there had been other vegans who had come to the program before and that they would let the family know about my diet. They assured me that it would be more than possible to have them cook vegan meals for me. It seemed like it would all work out perfectly.
The first day I arrived, the family I was going to be living with presented me with lots of food as a way of welcoming me. Unfortunately, none of the food I was offered was vegan. I felt rude refusing their offers, but I was also nervous that the school had not actually informed them of my dietary restrictions. My Spanish skills at the time were not very strong and I had very little confidence in my abilities, so it was a bit of a challenge to communicate with them. Eventually, I was able to make clear that I did not eat anything that came from animals. They asked me if I was a vegetarian. I told them I was, but that I also did not eat dairy or eggs. They understood. They thought it was weird, but they respected it.
The grandmother was the one who made the meals for everyone in the house. She was very kind and always assured me that the dishes were vegetarian. The meals I had while I was there were always delicious. The food was simple. I had black beans and rice just about every day. I ate some type of fruit (usually mango, papaya or pineapple) with every meal. There were lots of vegetables, great coffee, and most of the bread in their house was vegan. There were almost always tortillas and pico de gallo to go with the black beans and rice, so I often just made myself mini burritos.
When I wanted a snack after school there were mini convenience stores nearby that had nuts, chips, dried fruits, or other snack-type foods to munch on. I never got too hungry and I liked to save my appetite for when I got home because there was always a nice meal waiting for me. Sometimes I went out to eat with the friends I made from the school. I could always find something to eat at restaurants. Most had French fries, beans, rice, vegetables, chips, salsa and soups that I could eat, but I still always checked and double-checked with the waiters about the ingredients. Usually I just said I was a vegetarian, but that I was also allergic to dairy and eggs which made things a lot easier.
I think that even if I hadn’t been in an organized program, I still would have been able to find and make myself a variety of meals in Costa Rica. The food seemed really simple to me. Of course, since I didn’t prepare my own food, there’s no way I can be completely sure that the food the family made for me was completely vegan or if they added anything extra for flavor. I don’t know for certain that they understood the extent of the strictness of my diet. I’ll never know. I can just be content in their efforts to make me feel comfortable in their home. That’s really all I care about. I’d like to believe and I DO believe that my diet remained completely vegan throughout that entire stay.
Tips on remaining vegan in a foreign country
- Be optimistic. You’ve probably heard countless stories about people who have been “unable” to remain vegan or vegetarian in certain situations abroad. Dont get discouraged before you even try. Go into it with an open mind. It may be difficult, but it is possible.
- Speak up! Ask about ingredients. Don’t be afraid to tell people what you can and can’t eat. If you are going somewhere English is not spoken, learn (or write down) the words for eggs, milk, butter, cheese, dairy, meat, animal fat, chicken, beef, pork, gelatin, etc. in the language of your destination.
- Bring along some of your own food. You probably want to pack foods that travel well, such as granola bars, crackers, or nuts. It’s always good to have extra snacks in case it becomes difficult to find food you want.
- Use the internet. Search for vegan/vegetarian friendly restaurants and grocery stores near the area in which you will be staying. Plan out ahead of time how you are going to get there and pay for your food.