“You can’t be vegetarian in Peru,” said the doctor, as he stabbed me in the arm with six needles. He had a kindly, condescending look on his face. Well, why not. I was paying him to stab me, and he had large plastic bag of medications to give the poor, silly, innocent tourist-to-be.
Stuff to stop diarrhoea, stuff to stop vomiting, stuff to rehydrate the body, iodine to sterilise water. A machete to cut through the jungle. Insect repellent that would possibly kill llamas as well. Another machete. A flame-thrower. A big stick with a sort of lump on the end.
I tell a lie. Because of a pre-existing medical condition, I couldn’t use the iodine.
I would have no room in my suitcase for clothing. I was turning into one of those old ladies who travelled with nothing but medications and a small, ugly dog. All I needed was the dog. Perhaps I’d find a vicuna that would suffice.
“You will have to eat meat,” said the doctor, cheerfully, as though my last twenty years’ vegetarianism meant nothing to him. It didn’t. He was a big strong, healthy meat-eater who could vaccinate himself, and had the strength to hold down and subdue others with tetanus shots.
“Oh, there are ways,” I said, being sage and wise and stupid.
A month later, another doctor looked at test results showing my iron levels.
“Eat meat or die,” he said, ruddy from his last meal of dead animal and running blood. “You simply aren’t getting enough iron any other way.”
“I am serious, here. You have to get your iron levels up, and red meat is the easiest way to do that and have it stay in the body.”
I pouted. I argued that iron tablets….no, not absorbable enough. That spinach and broccoli….no, not unless I could eat a bucket of each three times a day.
I went away and wept. How dare my female body betray me like this. How dare it not cope with three physical jobs, and a bunch of stress.
I went to the butcher’s and bought the smallest piece of steak I could find.
“What are you doing, weaning yourself off it?” joked the butcher.
“No, weaning myself onto it,” I said, looking as depressed, white and wan as I could.
His hearty red hand slapped the counter and he laughed. The first doctor’s prognosis echoed. Get used to eating meat. I was going to Peru, land of ‘no eatie the salads, no drinkie the water, no eatie raw vegetables, peel all fruit, and bathe in hand sanitiser’.
I skulked home with my palm-sized sliver of steak. I cooked it. It shrank to the size of fifty-cent piece. I smothered it with salad. Lots of lovely crunchy lettuce, raw carrot and beetroot, wilted spinach, some snow peas. No disguising it. I ate down through the rabbit food and discovered the grey piece of dead cow. I ate it. It tasted of nothing.
I cannot remember a time I’ve enjoyed eating meat, except for the occasional burnt sausage at a backyard barbecue when I was a kid.
When I announced I was no longer a vegetarian friends rejoiced. I was no longer the difficult pain-in-the-butt dinner guest. I could be given hunks of lamb, cow, horse, camel and kangaroo, with one pea as a nod towards fibre.
I was thus ready to go to Peru.
My meals on the planes were not vegetarian. This was a new experience. In the past I ventured far into the land of lentil and green soggy thing on 4am flights. Now I was treated to roast thing with gravy and peas, to be followed, hours later, by cold croissant and ham with cheese. I got to have ice cream. Vegetarians on many flights did not. They had lentil and green soggy thing, to be followed by water.
I was suddenly a bon vivant who ate ice cream and I can be offered tea, coffee, wine, beer and other things with which to pollute my body. Now that I wasn’t vegetarian, life, as such, opened up to me.
The party ended in Lima. I staggered down to breakfast, where there was no vegetarian choice. Either the cheese and ham on a very white bread roll that bounced when it hit my plate, or I could exist on papaya juice for an identified amount of time.
As I toured Peru, I was presented with many forms of the same mystery soup that tasted of chicken stock. I ate many vegetarian pizzas. Some came with goat, llama, alpaca or guinea pig on them (don’t eat the guinea pig, it’s oily and greasy).
When I brought this to the notice of the Spanish-speaking waiter, I was told: “They vegetarian.”
Yes, I understood that guinea pigs are vegetarian. Me eating them is not. The same pizza went away and came back three times, the guinea pig still on board, but covered with more cheese. I gave up and ate up. This is how I know that guinea pig will sit in your guts for days at a time, making ‘cuy cuy cuy’ noises, and making you make ‘gurgle cuy cuy rumble’ noises.
Goat was heavy and sat in my stomach, making me sleepy for long bus trips. Alpaca needed to be highly seasoned and the only reason I knew I was eating it was that I scraped the dried herbs off it to take a look at the rubbery meat. Ditto llama.
Each meal came with a luscious salad that I could not eat.
“We don’t necessarily know how the vegetables were irrigated and fertilised,” said our tour guide cheerfully. Fine for him. He was tucking into goat at the time and not missing the crunch of vegetables at all.
We toured Arequipa market. Our guide spoke: “Leave your purses in the bus. There will be no time for shopping.”
I was surrounded by fresh vegetables and fruits, a bright myriad of colour. The veggies were right next to the raw meat counter, where there were large haunches of pink and red things. Whole pigs’ heads looked down on me. Across the aisle, fish were piled up neatly, with no ice in sight. I saw the wire where the dried frogs hung.
I thought of Moses looking back over the desert(the meat counter), and then forward to the Promised Land (fruit and veggies) and not being allowed to enter. How come he didn’t throw a great big tantrum, the way I wanted to?
Our guide’s words echoed and I had to leave the crunchies behind. Lunch is pizza with a slight alpaca topping along with the mushrooms.
I staggered through Peru, a desperate vegetarian supposedly off the wagon. “Cuy cuy cuy” said the guinea pigs in an artisan’s village. They were cute and fluffy and I held one. I prayed this is not the equivalent of me selecting my dinner.
Later I worried as I patted some kittens. Surely not….
I drank orange juice to stave off scurvy.
I came home to salad I could eat, water I could drink, vegetables that could be consumed raw. Yet, third night home, I craved pizza. I was desperate for a vegetarian pizza that wouldn’t contain wild life. A friend ordered a meat lover’s pizza. I cannot help myself.
“Cuy cuy cuy,” I said softly.
I was back on the wagon. Bring on the iron tablets.
Editor’s note: If your doctor is okay with it, staying vegetarian in South America is not impossible if you have a strategy planned out.
Pizza photo by ksbuehler on Flickr