If there is one thing that I have learned, since becoming a vegan, that has helped me the most in my travels, it is to set my mind right. I used to set myself with high expectations and demand that my expectations be met. I would get so wrapped up in MY demands as a vegan, I overlooked the simple fact that most people have absolutely no clue what a vegan is. Think about it. How many times has a non-vegan family member or friend tried to cook for you, only to find that they didn't realize that cheese is really an animal product and that, just because it doesn't have a face, a clam is still an animal? Do you get visibly upset with them? Do you stomp away mad? You know that their intentions were in the right place, they simply had no clue. You end up munching on whatever vegetables they have or throw together a salad and you smile. It has taken me a while to learn, but I mentally prepare myself and set my expectations low in virtually every new situation. There are several reasons for this: 1. I nearly can't be disappointed. 2. I do not offend or hurt a well-meaning person's feelings. 3. I demonstrate to others that being vegan is not that difficult.
You see, with high expectations comes a great deal of disappointment. Maybe this won't work for you, but it serves me well in all aspects of travel. If you fly a lot and you always expect the plane to take off on time, you are setting yourself up for ulcers. If you can't roll with the punches when your hotel room isn't ready or plan to hit traffic on your way to the airport, give it up. Get a desk job somewhere or expect a nervous breakdown in your near future. We live in a meat and dairy centric world and I don't see mass enlightenment coming any time soon, so set your expectations accordingly. Yes, over the past 12 years, since I have become vegan, thanks to the hard work of people like the Nelson's, the Robbins', Jeff Novick, Dr. McDougall and thousands of us vegan evangelists, awareness and options have increased dramatically, but it still has been at a snail's pace. I know what you are thinking, "You have got to be kidding? This is this idiot's advice for being a vegan traveler, take your lumps and smile?" LOL. That is kind of funny. But, no, that is not my advice. I am just suggesting that you examine your expectations and ground them closer to reality, if needed. Aside from setting my expectations low, as a form of avoiding disappointment, I do this because I see myself as a vegan ambassador and, in the past, when I would throw a fit or make a big deal that there was nothing for ME to eat, I would deeply offend and turn off those people around me that, I might not have realized, spent a great deal of time seeing to it that there was something for me to eat. The assistant that set up the lunch and called the restaurant and was proudly awaiting my approval for a job well done. The marketing person that went to great lengths working with the convention center or hotel to ensure that I was taken care of and was looking forward to seeing my needs satisfied. Even a client that might have been excited to take me to his favorite restaurant and treat me to a good meal. Just like a family member or friend, they are all well-meaning. Throwing a fit, pushing your food away like a child that doesn't want to eat his peas, can deeply offend and turn people off to ever considering a vegan diet.
Now, if you knew me like my family and friends do, you would know that I have an edge to me and I am hardly the type of person that walks around on egg shells worrying about offending people. I also have a "don't let the b@stards win" attitude about eating out. I pride myself on being able to eat in any restaurant. One of my clients, when I first started in this job, learned that I was a vegan. This guy had an opinion about vegans, that I find rather typical, but this guy is an avid hunter, or "Sportsman," as he calls himself. He wanted to get in my face with his diet and "make the vegan squirm." So, he made reservations for dinner at a very high-end steak house. This was his regular haunt and he knew the management very well, so he made a special request in advance for a "special" prime rib. I ordered a basic salad and smiled when it arrived. When his "special" prime rib showed, it was brought out on a platter the size of a trash can lid and the meat was hanging over the sides! There was also a bone on it that had to be over two feet long. I laughed and told him that I hoped that they had a portable defibrillator, because their was no way I was doing CPR on "that ugly face." He was disappointed that he didn't upset the vegan, but was pleasantly surprised that not all vegans are the way he perceived them. Now, when I come to town, he makes reservations at this same place, but he has arranged for the restaurant to make me special vegan meals with seitan and soy products that they literally keep on hand just for me. It is my favorite restaurant in Iowa. They tell me that they have had other veg*ns come in over the years and these veg*ns were stunned to find out that this steak house can make them a vegan mock duck dish with roasted vegetables or some other vegan creation. That's right, if you ever find yourself in 801 Steak House in Des Moines, IA, and you get a great vegan meal, you can thank me. I am taking 100% credit for this. Maybe we can look at this as a form of pay-it-forward for vegan travelers? As we travel the globe, and patiently educate the meat-eating world, we will be setting the stage for future vegan travelers to have their expectations exceeded? I wonder how many great surprises I have had because one of you had visited that restaurant before me? I was stunned to learn that one of my favorite restaurants in the Denver area was serving "vegan" dishes that weren't really vegan! It turns out that the owner and the cooks in the kitchen had gotten their wires crossed and many of the items had dairy in them. A friend of mine had discovered this (long story) and, rather than throw a screaming fit, he literally spent hours with the cooks talking with them about what is vegan and what is not vegan. The result is that this restaurant now has printed up a completely separate vegan menu. When in Denver, you can count on going to Yak and Yeti for very tasty authentic Nepalese and Indian food and be rest assured that it is 100% vegan. You can thank Dave for that one.
Lastly, I try not to make a big deal, because I never want to send the message to others that being vegan is a big deal. How many of you have had people tell you that they would like to become vegetarian or vegan, but it is "just too hard?" They have probably learned this by watching other vegans and vegetarians struggle to find something to eat and, possibly, making a big deal out of it. If you set your mind with very high expectations, life as a vegan traveler will be a living hell and everyone will see this. If you set your expectations within reason, you will do very well and people will see that being a vegan is actually very doable. Yes, there are times that I may actually get nothing to eat because the special meal that they made me is fetuccini alfredo and the salad has cheese in it, but, according to my loving wife, I can *always* stand to miss a meal, so this is not a tragedy. I just don't make a big deal out of it, because it really isn't that big of a deal. Besides, if I end up with nothing to eat, it is really because I dropped the ball, so who should I be mad at? Here's what I do so that I am almost always guaranteed to get a good meal and not make my friends, clients, and/or coworkers uncomfortable or show them that being vegan is too difficult: When I know that I am going to be eating at a certain hotel or convention center for an event, I call the catering manager myself before the event and I discuss the menu. I don't just dump this on someone else to handle for me and expect it to be done right. If I know where reservations have been made for a restaurant meeting with a client, I call in advance and speak with the manager or chef. I make arrangments in advance. If I don't know in advance, I wing it. After we are seated at the table, I excuse myself, like I am going to the restroom, and then I go find the manager and place my order away from the table so that I can get very specific about what my dietary restrictions are, but without making everyone else at the table uncomfortable. I have eaten at some of the most anti-vegan establishments you can think of, from Ruth's Chris, to Smith and Wollensky's, to McCormick and Schmick's, and I have had good meals by following this simple trick.