Explaining the Relationship Between Long Term Travel and Vegetarianism
In preparation for our trip around the world, I read many travel blogs. I was struck by how many long-term travelers were vegetarian. I wondered, do vegetarians travel more? Or was there something about global travel that made people become vegetarian? I can't speak for everyone, but I can tell you that after half a year of travel, I am now among the community of long-term explorers who goes out of her way to avoid meat. The reasons are varied: some practical, some preferential, and some ethical.
The first reason is the price. Like many long term travelers, we set a daily spending limit for ourselves that we try hard to stay beneath. Meat dishes typically cost at least 50% more than meatless options. Vegetables and tofu are comparatively cheap. Since I have never been much of a meat eater anyway, it's easier to choose the lower priced veggie plates.
The second is for sanitary reasons. Grocery stores with refrigeration units are the luxury of developed countries. In poorer countries, fresh produce and meat are sold at outdoor farmer markets or street side stands. Slabs of meat hang uncovered in hot, dusty, polluted air for hours, with flies landing on it. Sellers cut the meat on soiled wood cutting boards, wiping their knives with dirty cloths. The list of bacteria and viruses that may have invaded those hunks of dead flesh parade through my mind (not that industrialized meat practices in the west are any more sanitary; it's just that it's not visible at the point of purchase). The alternative to buying pre-cut slices is to choose a live animal that will be slaughtered just for me. There’s something about looking a chicken (or goat) in the eye that kills my appetite for meat.
Another reason I forgo meat dishes is because what I get is often not what I expected. The cuts in other parts of the world are very different (the term "hacked" comes to mind). For example, if I ordered a pasta dish with chicken in America, I would expect skinless, boneless chicken pieces. In other parts of the world, my noodles would most likely include chunks of chicken wing (skin and cartilage intact), gizzards, the liver, a neck bone, chicken feet... You never know what you'll get. In most areas of the world, the whole animal is eaten in some way, shape or form. Your beef noodle soup may contain thin strips of lean flank steak OR it might consist of a hodge podge of parts - intestines, tongue, tendons. Fish is rarely filleted; it usually includes bones and head and requires a lot of work to eat. Rather than be "surprised", I choose the safer veggie path. By the way, I think it's sickening to waste parts of an animal that could otherwise be eaten. I admire that other cultures waste so little. I have an institutionalized view of what a piece of meat "should" be and it's hard to overcome that mental barrier before my gag reflex kicks in.
Now for the health and ethical reasons. If you've ever watched any documentary* about the meat industry, you know how awful the mass production of meat has become. Animals are force fed, fattened in crowded pens, lead short, miserable lives before finally being slaughtered. Butcher lines are unsanitary and the fatty meat products that are so nicely presented in plastic shrink-wrapped styrofoam packages are likely contributing to the rise in cancer and obesity in developed countries everywhere. Meat used to be a once-a-week Sunday-family-gathering luxury; now it's seen as a staple three times a day. As I said before, I've never really been a big meat eater. But on the occasions when I did opt for meat, it was easy to ignore the ugliness of the industry because it is hidden from view in America.
In developing countries, there is no meat "industry". Farmers raise animals wherever there is a food source for their free-roaming herd of ducks, chickens, sheep, goats, cattle, piggies, etc. Traveling around the world has given me a new perspective on what free range really means...and how impractical it is for a society that craves its protein three times a day. Free range means you are awakened before the crack of dawn by roosters every morning. It means you side-step goat poo on the sidewalk and wait in a line of traffic for a herder to cross the road with his sheep. It means you inhale the smell of hogs and cow dung as you drink your coffee on the front stoop. It means you might be chased by a honking goose during your morning run. Free range works in a village that consumes very little meat; it would be a disaster in communities where citizens have a voracious appetite for animal flesh.
Consider that Americans slaughtered over NINE BILLION cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, etc. in 2016. Most of these animals were raised in confined production facilities far from town. Can you imagine the smell, mess and inconvenience that 9 billion free-ranging animals would make across America if we all suddenly demanded free-range meat? I see only a trade-off for anyone who cares about animal cruelty or societal health and well-being: eat less (or zero!) meat in favor of the humane treatment of a small stock of free-ranging animals OR continue to eat a carnivorous diet, ignoring the plight of billions of abused animals and the well-documented health risks of a meat-based diet.
The choice has become much easier for me since I started traveling. I adopted a plant-based diet on the road because: meat is relatively more expensive, the disgusting mess of butchers is on full display at the point of purchase, what is considered "edible" meat varies by culture, and I see (and pet and interact with) "food" walking around the cities we visit every day. And the less I eat meat, the more revolting the idea of eating meat becomes. Perhaps the evolution of my eating habits on the road parallels those of other long term travelers, explaining a broader tendency for long term travelers to become vegetarians.