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Vegetable vendor inBenin. Photo by Netiva Caftori
Soy Vey: Traveling the World as a Vegetarian And Not Going Hungry

So you're off to see the world, but your vegetarian status has you scared you'll die of starvation before your trip is over. True, it's hard to be one of those "I simply must experience everything authentically"-type travelers if you're not a carcass consumer, but it's not impossible.

In fact, finger-lickin'-good vegetarian fare can be found in some unusual and unexpected places.

Veg-heads in the know will tell you some of the best meat-free meals are served up in countries as far-flung as Ethiopia, El Salvador, Bali, even Germany--a country known almost as much for its sausage intake as for its beer swilling.

And we're not just talking about the old bread-and-cheese standby, or the fries at the Burger King near L'Arc de Triomphe; we're talking virtual taste explosions here ladies. You've just gotta know where to look, and how to ask for what you want.

No Meat Nor Meat Flavoring

"If you have trouble communicating, [the locals] may not understand that it's not just actual chunks of meat you don't want, it's the meat flavoring as well," says Suzanne Havala-Hobbs, Ph.D., the well-traveled author of "Being Vegetarian for Dummies" and adjunct assistant professor at UNC Chapel Hill's School of Public Health. "But I've found that if you can get across to your waiter what it is you want, a talented chef will rise to the occasion. Overseas, some of the best vegetarian meals I've had have not been in vegetarian restaurants."

But it ain't always as simple as that. Depending on your destination, finding a vegetarian meal is like finding a Prada purse at the Salvation Army--it could happen, but the odds are not in your favor. However, there are a few ways to help ensure that you roam the world without wasting away:

1. Take the Tempeh-rature

A wise old broad once said: "Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?" Sound advice in most cases, but if you're hopping a plane in the morning and still haven't checked out the food options that will await you in Botswana, Yemen, or wherever you may be going, I'm sorry, but you'll just have to get off your ass and look into it … stat. Planning ahead is an essential element of any successful vegetarian adventure.

"Whenever I'm going somewhere I've never been, I research what the traditional food is and whether it's going to provide me with enough options," says Eleni Livitsanos, 29, a longtime vegetarian who traveled extensively through her work with the Landmine Survivors Network. "If I know beforehand that it's going to be tough, I can try to figure out in advance what the alternatives may be."

Do Your Research

So get online (the Vegetarian Resource Group, www.vrg.org, has loads of info), dive into a guidebook, hell, dust off those Encyclopedia Brittanicas your parents got you in high school and read up on the standard fare offered in your destination. It could save you big problems later (not the least of which is the possibility of some serious Montezuma's Revenge-ish condition should you experience accidental meat intake).

2. Talk Tofurky

How many times has your significant other or therapist (probably both) told you that you're going to have to learn to communicate if this is every going to work? Well, it's true, and the same can be said for the matter at hand: If you want to see the world without a belly full of beef, you're gonna have to speak up and tell it like it is.

"It's so important to at least know those few key phrases--'no meat or fish,' and 'no milk' if you're vegan," says vegetarian travel agent Donna Zeigfinger of Cabin John, Md., who's planning an all-women's, all-veg trip to Kenya this summer. "Thailand, for example, is notorious for their use of fish stock in almost everything. So you have to be careful; you may think you're getting rice, but it's not always just rice." Quelle horreur.

In addition to guidebooks and foreign phrasebooks, Zeigfinger recommends visiting veg-friendly websites. A good starting point is the International Vegetarian Union, which lists a slew of vegetarian and vegan phrases in more languages than you can shake a stick at. There are also sites such as www.vegtravel.com and www.veggiedreams.com that sell phrase cards you can simply present to waiters or shopkeepers and stop stressing over bungled pronunciations.

3. Think Outside the Jack-in-the-Box

Remember back when McDonald's didn't even have salads? Before you knew In-N-Out made grilled cheese sandwiches even though they're not on the menu? When most restaurants' idea of a vegetarian meal was the French fry/onion ring combo platter?

Those days may be dead here in the U.S., but that's still the case in many countries around the world. Of course there's always a time and a place for greasy food (read: hangover cure), but when you're trying to keep your travels healthy, fear not--a little creativity will get you a long way.

If restaurants are lacking in options, visit local marketplaces and stores on your quest to find food. And just to be on the safe side--in case you find yourself in some meat-packed purgatory in between destinations--it doesn't hurt to bring a few things from home. If you're heading somewhere you know or suspect will be difficult on your diet, Livitsanos recommends bringing a few back-up supplies from home, such as nuts, dried fruits and protein bars.

Delectable Destinations:

Cool Locales for Veggie Variety For those of you lazy-er, less-research inclined-travelers, here's a heads-up on some veg-friendly countries:

Ethiopia

The curried lentils and injera (traditional flatbread) alone are enough to fill you, but various veg delights typically abound here. Just remember, absolutely DO NOT visit on their Easter or anytime the next two weeks, when the country goes into a spiritually-inspired celebratory phase marked in part by mass meat consumption.

India

This one's a no-brainer and hands-down favorite of many veg travelers. The veggie curries, the masala sauce, the rice, the naan--fuhgettabout it.

Uganda

Staple foods here include a banana-based, mashed potato-thick thing called motooke, various rice dishes and grains. As with most places, you'll have an easier time of it in the capital city (in this case, Kampala).

Indonesia

Tofu, rice, fresh veggies and other options aplenty are found throughout this East Asian island chain. Some traditional dishes include pecal, a spicy vegetable salad with peanut sauce, and tahu goreng, another fiery dish of fried tofu, green beans and spices. Yum.

El Salvador

Strict vegans may have a little trouble here, since cheese is served with almost everything, but as long as you're down with dairy, you're good to go. Tip: visit veggie restaurant Kalpataru in San Salvador; sources say it's the bomb.

No-Meat Cheat Sheet:

Key Veggie Phrases in 10 Languages

German: ch bin vegetarierin. I'm a vegetarian.

Greek: Ime chortofagos. I'm a vegetarian.

Italian: Sono vegetariana. I'm a vegetarian.

Indonesian: Saya tidak makan daging. I don't eat meat.

Japanese: Saishoku-shugi ryori wa arimasuka? Do you have any vegetarian meals?

Thai: Chan thaan mangsawirat thawnan. I only eat vegetarian food.

Afrikaans: Ek eet nie vleis, hoender of vis nie. I don't eat meat, poultry or fish.

Polish: Jestem wegetarianka. I'm a vegetarian.

Hebrew: Ani tsimchonit. I'm a vegetarian.

Turkish: Hic et yiyemem. I can't eat any meat.

(Source: International Vegetarian Union)

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