This is a guest post from Oberlin student Evelyn Wagaman, who traveled to Cuba with CGEE as part of an Oberlin College class. She writes about being a vegan traveling to Cuba, but many of these tips can be helpful for vegans traveling anywhere!
Are you a devoted vegan thinking of traveling to Cuba on a trip with the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College? Never fear! I was in your shoes once, and I’m here to give you ten tips on how it can be done.
- Stock up on vegan encouragement before you leave. Talk with supportive friends and family while you’re still on U.S. soil, because once you’re in Cuba, there will be no calling or emailing them. I was the only vegan on my trip, so it helped to know that I had supporters back in the States to whom I could triumphantly declare upon my return, “I did it! I was a vegan in Cuba for two weeks!”
Don’t have any vegan friends to boost your pre-departure morale? No problem! I find that just browsing the vegan side of the Internet can work wonders. Read some like-minded bloggers to remind yourself why you became a vegan in the first place. For the animal rights vegans especially, I recommend this article for motivation. If this guy could do it in jail, you can do it in Cuba.
- Know your essential vocabulary. Just as every traveler to Cuba needs to know how to ask where the bathroom is in Spanish, so every vegan traveler needs to be able to ask whether their food contains meat, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, or lard. Your trip leaders can help with communication, but in a pinch when they’re not around, you will want to be self-sufficient.
- Take snacks, especially protein-filled snacks. Once you get to the island, snacks, especially of the vegan variety, will be harder to acquire. Many of the stores are government-run with most of the food behind the counter, so you will not be able to simply grab a package off the shelf to check the ingredients without asking. I recommend taking granola or energy bars to keep in your backpack for trips away from the MLK Center. Protein sources like nuts are also good to have on hand, since protein helps keep you full. The good news: You will likely have plenty of opportunities to eat beans that haven’t been cooked in lard, and you will be able to restock your protein reserves with the white paper cones of peanuts that vendors sell in the streets. Nevertheless, it is better to bring more than enough snacks and be full rather than not enough and be hungry. You can always take the extra snacks back home with you and eat them later.
- Take dessert. This one only really applies if you have an insatiable sweet tooth like me. Cubans like really sweet and really delicious-looking desserts, so if that will tempt you, be prepared. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and the dessert will be vegan—the fruit pieces candied in sugary syrup and the mermelada, a smooth fruit syrup, are generally acceptable (unless you avoid bone-char-filtered sugar, in which case I’m not sure).
- Ask your trip leaders to help. They will make arrangements in advance with the chef and communicate your dietary needs, but there will still probably be times that you will want to check on ingredients in particular dishes. Especially if you are not fluent in Spanish, your trip leaders can help you ask questions and explain your diet so that communication goes smoothly.
- Don’t be shy asking your chef about ingredients. Mistakes happen, so if you are in doubt about whether a particular dish is vegan, you may not be imagining things. Not only will you feel better knowing what is in your food, but you will also help future vegans in your position. The more the kitchen staff are politely reminded that vegans don’t eat eggs, the less likely they will be to give an egg-containing meal to the next vegan.
- Ask if the place uses lard or vegetable oil in their cooking. In spite of what you may hear about “all” Cuban food being cooked in lard, you will find that many places use exclusively vegetable oil. Since many Cuban dishes are comprised of only a few, easily discernible ingredients, the fat used for cooking is at times the only additional piece of information you will need to determine whether several of the dishes on the table are vegan.
- Be ready to skip a meal here or there. Mistakes will happen, but that’s why you brought snacks!
- Don’t believe the myth that a vegan diet “just doesn’t work with the Cuban brain.” Not only is this an insult to the intelligence of the Cuban people as a whole, but it also is an incorrect distribution of responsibility, suggesting that you are somehow at fault for trying to make Cubans do something they are incapable of doing. Cubans are unused to veganism, but they can understand it, and it is reasonable to expect them to try. (That said, be understanding if mistakes happen.)
- Be prepared for pressure to break your diet, even implicit pressure. Other people on your trip are going to wonder why you can’t just go with the flow and accept a non-vegan diet for few weeks. But stay strong! You know why, and that’s what matters. With a little extra work and willpower on your end, you can maintain a diet that matches your convictions, even in Cuba.