I've just returned from a holiday in Fiji, which sounds utterly delightful. However, a pleasant blog about a pleasant holiday would be a direct violation of Murphy's law, so I'll tell you about what actually happened in Fiji.
The trip was taken a bit at last minute, I was needed to fill a gap on a group trip due to cancellation. Rather than have everyone on the trip miss out, I arranged leave from work, organised my travel insurance and packed a suitcase full of books and swimsuits for a tropical adventure. I pictured myself strolling to a little village, buying fresh mangoes from little pop-up roadside markets, and eating all manner of lovely fresh vegetables with plenty of rice. Yes, you guessed it faithful reader, time for the record scratch.
The group trip ended up actually being at a villa, about a three hour drive from Nadi, which for the astute geographers amongst you will realise is pretty much the opposite side of the island. I was in fact, almost completely isolated. Never fear, the group stopped at the supermarket near the airport to stock up on supplies to group-cook at the villa. I was told to relax, there would be plenty of vegetarian options.
The experienced vegans reading this may share a knowing nod with me now. There is a difference between vegan and vegetarian, and sometimes that difference requires vegans to be seasoned and experienced label readers, picking up all manner of trace ingredients that sneakly put animal products into your food.
I manage to during the group shop grab myself a liter of soy milk and a large box of Oreos. Little did I know how much I would be needing these two rather average food items in the days to come.
The morning of day 2 of my Fiji adventure dawned. I breakfasted on white bread toast, with marjarine (probably not vegan, but the toast came kindly 'buttered' before I could inspect the container) and a glass of soy milk. About three hours after this breakfast I manged to accidentally take a header off a 3 meter sheer cliff. I hit my head on a rock and lost consciousness. I came to back at the holiday villa with my partner holding me and talking to me. "Just let me go to sleep" I say. She kept me awake, kept talking to me and by doing so most likely saved my life. My concussion was quite severe, and I'm in fact still recovering from it now. Having an accident or injury while on holiday is never fun, especially when you're in a non-first world country where medical resources are fairly limited. While I'm confident the Fijian doctor I saw (Dr Raam) was really friendly and knowledgeable, his proscription of panadine forte and Fiji bitter was probably not what I'd be getting in an Australian hospital.
The unfortunate side effect of falling off the cliff is that I spent most of the holiday bed-ridden. My partner stayed by my side after the injury to care for me. Sadly, this meant that we couldn't access the group food, or participate in shopping trips to make sure that food we could eat was purchased. While not vegan, there are some foods my partner can't eat. Finding meals that satisfy us both at home is generally easy, but is a bit more of a challenge while travelling. The three days after my injury involved some pretty serious starvation. My partner and I shared the box of oreo cookies, with no real meals for about seventy two hours.
Imagine our delight when we are informed the locals would be cooking a Fijian feast for us at the villa, after nothing but Oreos for a few days. I was told that there would be a vegetable curry. The night of the feast rolled around, our stomachs gurgled in hunger and anticipation. I must say that never before has the word feast been so badly used. The table was laden with fish curries, roasted chicken and pork dishes wrapped in taro leaves. The vegan options included dry baked potatoes with the unmistakable odour of keroene, an iceberg lettuce salad, a pumpkin curry (so popular and delicious that I managed to scrape one mouthful for myself after the bowl had made it's way down to my end of the table) and cold baked taro. The smell of fish permeated everything and I struggled to eat a few mouthfuls of potato as nausea struggled against hunger. My partner and I held hands and walked off to our bed, united in our disappointment.
The next morning, day 4 of our 9 day trip a nearby resort opened it's doors to us, after being closed for a wedding function. We stroll in at 8am, eager for breakfast. My partner orders herself a cooked breakfast with all the trimmings, absolutely delighted to be having a full meal again. I read through the menu carefully, sighing. There's nothing on the menu that's vegan, or can be made vegan with a modification. The closest thing is a serving of banana and coconut pancakes. At home, I'd make the dish with coconut milk and mashed banana, using a little chick-pea flour to replace the egg. I can only realistically expect that this resturant has used eggs in their pancakes, and probably not ethical free-range eggs.
I make a difficult decision, one that most vegans have had to make at some point; the choice between going hungry or eating something that doesn't sit well with your ethics. I ordered the pancakes. I hadn't had a propper meal in about four days, and my body was screaming out for some nourishment so it could start healing from the injury I had suffered. I discussed it with my partner at the table, she understood how seriously I felt about the situation, and how much it matters to me to be vegan, to live my ethics. She very rightly pointed out though that skipping a meal at this point would be very bad for my health, I was still struggling through the concussion from my head injury and wasn't fully sure how much of my light headedness at the time was due to the injury, or purely due to hunger.
The choice I made is commonly referred to in vegan circles as 'the Paris excuse'. The idea is that, while travelling, or in a situation where vegan food is not available, a vegan can make a decision to eat something not vegan, but return to full veganism as soon as they are back in their normal environment, without losing the title of being a vegan. I feel that this scenario already comes in under the definition of a vegan; namely a person who does all they can to minimise all forms of animal exploitation through rejection of animal products in all consumable items. In the luxury of Australia's national capital, 'all that I can' is quite a lot; there's a vegan cupcake shop a 2 minute walk from my office. In a remote town in Fiji, 'all that I can' isn't quite so much.
The final days of the holiday were made quite lovely by the wonderful resort staff, who did introduce me to one local delicacy, fried coconut. The recipe is quite simple; you take a fresh coconut, open it (generally with a sharp knife and strong hand... be careful don't cut yourself!). Take the solid flesh of the coconut and cut it into chip shaped wedges, remove most of the furry bit of the outer brown skin. Fry the coconut in hot oil, then baste generously with sweet chilli sauce when done. These are a common 'bar snack' over in Fiji.
The holiday eventually wraps up, and we make our homeward journey. I buy myself a packet of pringles to munch on the journey home. The trip home involves a 3 hour bus ride, followed by a five hour flight, followed by another 3 hour drive. I wasn't sure of finding food at the airport or on the plane.
My partner and I breathe a sigh of releif as we touch down at Sydney Airport and clear our way through customs. I stand at the baggage carousel clutching the half full box of pringles. One of the people from the group I was travelling with makes their way up to me. They begin to question the ingredients on the box of pringles, going on ot suggest that it contains traces of dairy product. The woman squeaks at me "As a vegan I thought you wouldn't eat something like that?" I'll confess, My response wasn't as diplomatic as it could have been. I snapped back "Do you really want to have a debate on this with me right now?" She harumphed and stalked away to the other end of the baggage carousel.
Perhaps, I should have wipped out my copy of "but you kill ants don't you?" and explained to her that veganism is never really a perfect black and white activity, but a constant aspiration. Perhaps I could have explained to her that hunger was the most common sensation I felt during the trip, behind pain from my injuries. But really, I just couldn't be bothered justifying myself to someone who was a meat eater.
This kind of harsh assessement happens to vegans and vegetarians quite regularly.... the number of times I've been asked "are those leather shoes?" "is that a wooly jumper?" I realised that this woman assiginging herself as the vegan purity police, Sydney Airport international baggage carousel region was essentially doing the same thing. One theory is that this is a bit of tall poppy syndrome. Vegans are trying to walk the talk. To really live their values. They should be applauded for it. Vegans are also people, trust me I'm a very regular normal person, I do the best I can, but sometimes that just isn't perfect.
The holiday wasn't all bad though, in fact in line with my theory that the universe is all about balance, something very wonderful happened to couteract all the nastiness of near-death experience and vegan haters. Despite the adversities we faced, my partner and I pulled together and made a great team, dealing with all the problems we encountered together. We agreed that regardless of what challenges life manages to throw at us, we want to face them as a couple. Shortly after our return to Australia (after a CT scan to confirm that I've suffered no brain damage) we ordered rings to celebrate the commitment.
Next blog, I promise you a propper recipe..... the much requested and rather popular chocolate avocado muffins with fudgy chocolate icing.