You know that common conception many omnivores have of vegans? Vegans are privileged, hipster, self-righteous. I’ve never felt more like this stereotype than I did on my Cuban vacation.
When my husband and I decided to go on an all-inclusive resort vacation to Varadero, Cuba, I anticipated I may have to make some compromises with my diet. I was firm in my commitment that I would not eat meat, but maybe indulge in some dairy. Having been to all-inclusive resort hotels before, I knew to expect very limited and very simplified Western eating. Though expecting my vegan diet would take some serious strategy to maintain, I didn’t fully appreciate how few vegetarian options there would be.
Meat was EVERYWHERE. They had chicken, beef, fish, pork product, miscellaneous animal product, etc. choices at pretty much every meal. Even the 24-hour snack bar offered exclusively meat options. I did my best to find the vegan options, then vegetarian options if no vegan. My choices pretty much stayed the same, but I knew I could always count on white rice! Still, that wasn’t always even the safest option. Much to my horror, even the veggie options were often contaminated with a meat-coated ladle.
I suspiciously avoided all raw fruit and veggies, fearing I would encounter some water contamination and then be sick, so my vegan options were even fewer. My breakfast usually consisted of a non-vegan pastry with potatoes of some kind. Lunch and dinner were often the same white rice, potatoes — and on lucky days — I would get some steamed broccoli and/or bean dish. You’d think there would be more bean options in a Cuban hotel, but there weren’t many, and often they would be mixed in a salad with raw veggies. So spoiled I am. *sigh*
When I got frustrated with my boring diet, I ventured further out of vegan territory and tried some cheese pizza (meanwhile apologizing to the cows). That night I willfully slept through intensely painful abdominal bloating and woke in the morning to rather unhappy guts. That’ll teach me!
Vegan Lifestyle in Cuba?
It wasn’t just the food that threatened my vegan lifestyle on vacation, though. If you’ve ever been to Varadero, you will know that dolphins are a large tourist attraction. Several tourist excursions promise dolphin shows and dolphin interactions. On our first visit to Cuba, years before and when I was a naive omnivore (not that omnivores are naive — but I certainly was), my husband and I took in one of these dolphin shows. I remember feeling very impressed with the talent of the dolphins, but also a bit concerned about their treatment. At that time, however, I hadn’t fully explored the ethics of animal captivity in zoos and aquariums. I didn’t really know how bad life is for so many of these animals. This time in Cuba, I didn’t want to be part of that scene at all.
Instead, we decided to bump around the marina on a jet-ski — still not the most ethical, I know. I thought, at least we wouldn’t be involved in the trapping and punishment of trained, captive animals. I was in correct.
After some very questionable zipping around on the jet-ski, our group docked in a small, contained and shallow area of the ocean. There, we were instructed to put on our borrowed (and oh so not clean) snorkelling gear and go for a swim in the 15’x20′ fenced off area, with the stingrays, fish, and starfish. My husband and I declined even before seeing the marine life based off of how dirty the water looked. The rest of the group dove in, and we stayed back, watching as three large and majestic stingrays swam back and forth (endlessly) along the perimeter of the fencing, trying to escape.
Then I noticed the cage beneath the water when one of the tour guides reached in and pulled out a small baby shark from inside. The group in the water was in awe, of course. They trepidatiously reached out to touch the shark with the guide’s encouragement. They passed the shark along to each tourist like this, with each laughing and flinching nervously. I felt my heart sink as they returned the shark to the very small cage and grabbed another life from the water to explore.
Of course, the group noticed my distaste for their activities and tried in confused defensiveness to get me to participate. My husband complied when the guide urged us to touch a live starfish. Then we went back to our jet-skis and completed the excursion.
Realizing I Was the Privileged, Trendy Vegan
So, where does the privilege and trendy self-righteousness come in? If you haven’t caught it already, that is. Cubans are not particularly wealthy. Cuba has one of the lowest poverty rates of the developing world, but they generally aren’t living in excess. The fact that tourism ranks highest in their foreign exchange sources means a fraught relationship between tourist and hospitality worker. That I can visit a foreign country and have most all of my concerns taken care of simply because I paid for it is a fairly privileged position. In regards to food, being able to find food I recognize as familiar in a foreign country, still knowing this is not the food of the locals is quite privileged indeed. Add to that expecting to be accommodated for my highly specific diet in a culture that is mostly totally unfamiliar with the concept… well I should just turn my chair around and sit in the corner!
At one of our fancy dinners at the resort, we got to order from a menu with a server, rather than scooping at the buffet. There was literally NO VEGAN OPTION on the menu, so I tried a cream of tomato soup, hoping it would be mostly tomato. A few spoonfuls in, I can feel the weight of the dairy in my stomach, and I’m acutely aware that if I eat any more soup, it will be coming up on me faster than I can prepare for. So I stop and leave my mostly full bowl for the server to clear. He sees it and asks me, with sad eyes, “No good?” I’m humiliated immediately and try to explain to him that it’s delicious, but has too much dairy for me — “see, I’m a vegan.” He has NO IDEA what I’m talking about, so I just shut right up.
Really, I know I should count myself lucky to be able to travel with complete ease to almost any country in the world — and I do. It did pose a bit of an ethical dilemma for me though, acknowledging my own unique fortune and privilege, while trying my best to not betray my own ethics AND not further exploit those already exploited for my behalf.
Have you had these same dilemmas travelling? I’d love your thoughts! Share below!