Before I decided to travel Colombia, I was very particular about what I did and didn’t eat.
At one point I was a raw vegan and happily filled my plates with carefully created meals from my pantry stocked with cold-pressed coconut oil, chia seeds, bean sprouts, Indian spices and dried kale chips.
I wandered through green grocers and farmer markets on weekends, where I hand-picked produce from the source. I avoided eggs, dairy products and cuts of meat wrapped in plastic, stocked high in fluro-lit isles at the supermarket.
A happy meal for me was a colourful dish of spinach, a mix of my favourite greens and sprouted legumes, and perhaps even some tofu on the side.
As my eagerly-planned trip to South America grew nearer, I was convinced that my diet would remain as close to how it was in the familiarity and comforts of home.
On my first night living in Colombia I stayed with a local family. I opened the door of their fourth-floor city apartment to the sound of live music being played by a man with a guitar at the kitchen table.
An older woman next to him clapped her hands and sang what I thought was a kind of traditional folk song. Her voice was gentle and sweet and her hands were light as she clapped them together in time with the music.
As I swung open the door, with a heavy backpack in tow and even heavier bags under my eyes proving a long and sleepless flight, the room cheered and said their hellos before going back to their singing and dancing.
The man returned to his guitar, gently plucking at the strings like they were rose petals being picked in unrequited love.
I sat at the kitchen table and despite my eyes begging for rest, my heart wanted to join in. It felt like it was late but after the song had finished and everyone was done with the festivities, it was time to sit down for a meal.
With travelling in South America as a vegan or a vegetarian, there comes some explaining.
En serio? Are you serious? They might say with their blank looks of surprise, waiting for you to tell them you’re just kidding.
Are you trying to lose weight?! They might gasp looking down at your waist, politely adding that you don’t have anything to lose.
It takes some time to explain that you don’t eat meat, or eggs or, god forbid, CHEESE for health reasons, ethical reasons.
I remained vegan on that first night in Colombia, and many nights that followed; I said no to home-cooked meals from people who were willing to share their homes, hearts and their food with me.
But soon enough, I discovered that by offering me their food, they were offering me friendship, love and a piece of their culture, and I had turned it down. I had turned them down.
While my feelings towards the industry of killing for food – the corporate greed, the factory farming and the manner in which animals are killed and treated – remain, I found I was opening myself and my beliefs up to the people around me.
I continued with a vegetarian lifestyle, but accepted anything and everything that was given to me as a gift. I couldn’t turn down these people’s offerings anymore.
I couldn’t look the woman who offered me a spot at her table with her four children in the eye and refuse to eat the food she had prepared especially for me, her guest.
I couldn’t say no to a bowl of Sancocho offered to me by a humble family – a home-cooked recipe that had been passed down from grandmother to grandmother until it reached my friend’s mum.
Over meat stews and fish and a pork steak which was cut right from the pig in front of me, I made friends, earned trust and learned that little bit more about the culture, and the country, I had chosen to adopt.
I had to drawn the line somewhere though:
While I am no longer vegan, I still prepare vegetarian food for myself but I see any dish I am given as an offering and who am I to refuse something as beautiful as that?
What about you? Do your eating habits change while you travel abroad? Let me know.