As I sit in a Chicago McDonalds sipping on tea waiting for Maciej to finish his panel, it dawned on me to respond to a question I often get asked. That is, how do I manage to travel frequently on a limited budget when I am allergic to everything.
A little bit of background: In 2010 I did not know what was wrong with me, but I knew something was wrong. I had a shitty doctor at this time. I usually try to be nice, but this GP was absolute trash. First, she never worked an evening and would do anything she could to get people in multiple times like not address more than one concern per visit (which is a farce as often multiple issues are connected). Also, she called and personally lost her shit on my sister during her first pregnancy when she chose to go with a midwife, mainly because this doctor was so inaccessible in comparison to the midwife clinic across the street from her with flexible hours. I digress.
Anyway, this was when the gluten-free everything movement was surging. I thought “hmm maybe I need to remove gluten?” So I did until I could finally squeeze in an appointment with this shit doctor. It turns out my iron levels were so anemic it was a joke I was even able to stand without passing out (which admittedly almost happened when I tried to climb stairs multiple times). So after supplementing my iron, I figured the gluten thing was not an issue and continued on, bagels and all – except that after said bagel, I would often have a tingling in my throat.
In 2015 during my Masters, I lost my ability to write. Seriously, my proposal was TRASH. I could not think. Something was desperately wrong. Upon further inspection, brain fog is associated with gluten-intolerance which is associated with type 1 juvenile diabetes (something I have had since 1998 but I don’t chat about much). I figured it was time to give the gluten-free lifestyle a more serious try. So May 2015, I quit. Within a couple of months, I started to be able to write again. I wrote an excellent proposal and got everything I needed to be approved that autumn. Alright, I guess gluten is out.
My idiot doctor along with other specialists I see insisted I get the blood test done; however, it costs money, and you have to eat gluten again – a feat I was not interested in disrupting given my academic stage. In September 2015, Maciej and I went out for dinner, and sure enough, I got gluten poisoned by accident. Seriously, I was sick. I thought I was going to pass out. My ears started ringing, I broke out into a cold sweat and it wrought havoc on my digestive system. So I figured I would forgo the gluten from now on because no loaf of bread is worth these physical symptoms.
Following my reaction to gluten, I did a lot of meat-forward eating. December 2015 rolls around, and after salmon and red wine, I end up on my bathroom floor in gut-wrenching pain. I remember that being the first time in my professional history I called into work sick. “What now!?” I thought. I spent the day at home drinking bone broth then went to my job ready to teach in an upright position the following few days. That Friday I was not booked for work and thanked God because again I ended up on my bathroom floor in pain at 3:00 AM. It was time to go to the hospital. One ulcer later, I went home with proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) and a bunch of other pills. After researching the effects of PPIs, I was not convinced. As a type 1 diabetic, I was not interested in yet another prescription to make pharmaceutical companies rich and bring on adverse effects within my body. I read that a plant-based diet could help. So I tried it with the understanding that if it did not work, I would return to my pills. Please be advised that I am not a doctor; I am simply telling the story of what worked for me. For a year, I was entirely plant-based. This diet helped my symptoms; however, I lacked energy and gained a bunch of weight due to a variety of stressors. After the year was over, I decided to eat vegetarian. About 85% of my diet is plant-based, but I occasionally eat cheese, yogurt and eggs for protein. Personally, I find that while coconut yogurt is a great flavour replacement, the protein punch that Greek yogurt gives me in incomparable. For me, this dietary lifestyle works. I am at the healthiest weight and highest energy I have had for years.
In terms of travelling, 2014 was the year the bug started and since then, I have been to more than 10 countries (not counting shortstops in Amsterdam, Istanbul and the works). From travelling approximately 2-3 times per year, I have learned the most cost-effective tricks to accommodate your diet, especially if, like me, you have a bunch of restrictions.
- Make friends with Air BnB: Hands down, Air BnB, is not only more competitively priced than a hotel but you usually can get a place with a kitchen. Having a kitchen means you can prepare most of your meals. I know some people feel “I’m on vacation, I am not cooking” but hear me out. First of all, I love shopping in local grocery stores. I have done this in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malta, Europe etc. Each place has its niche shopping environment. During our honeymoon in Malta, I would wake up each morning and walk to the shop around the corner to grab fresh local oranges. Second of all, when you eat out all the time, something has to give. I’m going to tell you what that something is: it’s your budget. You underestimate the cost of meals so that by the end, you are limited. Ultimately, most people end up sacrificing quality of food in the restaurants they are eating at three times a day.
- Follow the “four meal” rule: Being on vacation, I, of course, do not want to cook everything! Part of experiencing a culture is experiencing their food. Maciej and I came up with this rule to ensure we experience high-quality local cuisine: one 5-star local meal (usually dinner – we check Yelp or 4Square for recommendations), one cafe, one night cocktail (ideally with live local music) and sometimes one light fare (lunch) or snack.
- Research local allergy-friendly cuisine: Going for dinner at a regionally-based restaurant is usually cheaper as locally available ingredients influence the dishes (unless the place is a clear tourist destination). Besides, I find people who travel abroad so they can get food that is “familiar” to be culturally inept. Europe has done an excellent job at labelling their menus; however, make sure you do your research ahead of time for what local cuisine works for your diet. This way, when you request an item, you can be explicit about your expectations. Awareness is especially important if the country has a limited understanding of English. You will be surprised though! In Ethiopia, I lived on injera and shiro, a local teff-based bread that is naturally gluten-free with a thick stew that is naturally vegan.
- Experience the travel by way of a picnic: When travelling, you are expected to, well, experience a new place. As a result, it is not smart to be confined to your Air BnB. Maciej and I always look for a place around water, or a cool local park while travelling and use this space to picnic for free. While we are there, we look around and take in the people passing by. I keenly remember sitting by the Triton Fountain in Malta with fresh coconut water, an orange and a sandwich watching people as the walk busily from one place to another. Here in Chicago, I sat on the stone fence around the Art Institute of Chicago to eat lunch and watched the L between tall buildings.
- If all else fails, make sure you have snacks: Seriously, trail mix, fresh fruit and vegetables, diet-friendly granola bars – have them. Sometimes you go into a restaurant thinking that the item will be gluten-free only to find out that they decided to add wheat flour, for no good reason (cue the falafels I wanted in Dearborn, MI). If the local restaurant is not able to accommodate your dietary needs well – as in, you end up with a hunk of lettuce on a plate – then at least you have something in your bag to not ruin the experience for others. Bonus: if you are flying, you can bring snacks on the flight with you. Claim everything, check the rules but in my experience, most airline food does not agree with my restrictions unless I’m willing to pay $12 for a yogurt. You can always call the airline 48 hours in advanced but I literally never remember to do this nor do I have the time to be placed on hold.
And there you have it! A few tips and tricks for travelling with dietary restrictions. Have I missed anything? Do you have any other tips and tricks for travelling frugally with dietary restrictions? Comment below as I would love to hear them!
P.S. Feel free to enjoy the goofball shots we took on the Game of Thrones Iron Throne: