Friday, August 12, 2011

Staying vegetarian in the Peace Corps

Former volunteers told me before I went that it would be impossible to stay vegetarian in Guatemala. I had also heard there would be an enormity of fresh vegetables available. Coming from the school of “eat what works for you”, I wasn't put off by the idea of meat-eating culture, but I was definitely wondering how I would get along as an omnivore.

It turns out Guatemala does offer a beautiful variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as legumes and ground nuts and grains. You can thrive here on a vegetarian and even vegan diet for a fraction of what it would cost in the US. Imagine buying a weeks' worth of fresh fruits and veggies - a head of broccoli, 2 lbs of tomatoes, 2 lbs of onion, garlic, two avocadoes, two bunches of fresh greens, a lb. of potatoes, squash, a half dozen carrots, a half dozen bananas and a pineapple - for less than $7. Yup. That happens to me pretty much every week.

At the same time, I’ve eaten more meat in the past 16 months than I had in the 12 years preceding Peace Corps. Hmm. So, why the curious contradiction?

The first months were easiest. I was living in a training town near the capital with a family that had hosted vegetarians before. The first visit to my permanent placement also seemed to portend great things when we stopped on the road with my counterpart at a restaurant that had black-bean burgers. Black-bean burgers, I tell you! That seemed the perfect moment to frontload to my counterpart I didn’t eat meat, before he could offer me any. Phew, good to get that one out of the way.

OK. Right. Fast forward two weeks, Good Friday, my counterpart invites me up to the park with him and a friend for a little picnic. It’s our first bonding opportunity, and let’s just say they didn’t bring black-bean burgers. Some people might not understand this, but at that moment, preserving my counterpart’s ego was way way way more important than preserving my vegetarian diet.

That was the gateway meal. After that, I quickly learned that avoiding meat was not worth the social discomfort for me. First of all, it is very rude here to refuse food without a culturally-appropriate rationale. Another thing is that most people (like my counterpart) just don’t understand the phrase “I don’t eat meat” the way I do. Most families consume meat infrequently – at most twice a week. It’s the special food to break up dietary monotony and celebrate occasions. It’s also expensive. A pound of chicken costs about the same in my town as it does in the US, while unadjusted average family income here is roughly 1/27 of what it is in the US.

So, it sort of makes sense vegetarians are scant here. Why would you avoid eating something that is rarely eaten and only to celebrate special occasions? There's a cultural divide there that can be tough to cross, and when I don’t know the person well, I definitely accept the meat. If no one’s watching and my body feels like meat is just not preferable at the moment, I sometimes squirrel it away for Oliver and my favorite street dogs. Fundamentally what it comes down to is that my desire to maintain social harmony is stronger than my belief in strict vegetarianism.

Objectively speaking I think accepting meat has helped me build confidence with people here, but it was really a personal choice. No one absolutely forced me, and I'll admit I am quite a push-over sometimes. My advice to vegetarian future PCVs is not to stress out about it. Peace Corps is unlikely to put you in one of the few countries where you’ve got to eat lots of meat to survive, and if you’re like me it will be a time when you have more fresh, cheap vegetables than you know what to do with. And if a little chicken has to slip in there occasionally, well, at least it’s probably free range!


  1. What a great attitude to have. I was really inspired by this post :)

  2. Thanks for this post!!! This is something I have been stressing out about big time.

  3. I adore your perspective on this issue- being aware of the comfort of your hosts and valuing their cultural priorities is so uplifting :)