We met Justin Gilbertson in 2009 in Santiago de Chile. Justin Gilbertson is a vegan who is originally from Vancouver Island, Canada, and who has, for the last eight years, been traveling, as a vegan, all over the world. He has traveled throughout Asia, Europe, the Americas and Australia, promoting veganism, cooking vegan and exploring.
1) Since when have you been vegan and why did you become vegan?
I adopted a vegan diet in 2003 and over the next few years adopted a strict vegan lifestyle. (To me there is a huge difference between the two.) My road to veganism was very different from most. I was born and raised on a very large 10.000-acre cattle and hog farm on the prairies of Central Canada. I grew up close to these animals, loving these animals, but at the end of the day killing these same animals without ever giving it a second thought. I mean, when you grow up in those conditions in rural farmland, you think this is the norm right? It never really clicked until a few years later. Well, when I went away to University my eyes started to open a bit, but it was not until I started traveling the World where I became more educated on the topic. My first World-Wide trip through Austral-Asia had me meeting quite a few animal rights activists with whom I talked a lot about veganism and animal rights. From then on, the more information I learned, the easier it was to make the change for good. I firmly believe that once anyone starts to learn the truths of the animal and agricultural industry, they have to be an ignorant fool not to become vegan.
2) In 2008/2009 you hitch-hiked from Alaska to Santiago de Chile. On this one year long journey did you find it very difficult to find vegan food while always being on the road?
Well. It actually took eighteen months from start to finish! Never once did I find it difficult to be vegan on this trip, or any other trip I have been on in all honesty. I will get into why this is in the following questions I have been asked.
3) When you are traveling do you usually stay in places where you can cook for yourself and prepare your own meals? Or do you usually buy ready to eat food?
I almost never eat out, unless I am in developing Countries. I just got home this week from another seven-month trip through Europe and I ate out one time. Only once, and this was because someone else treated me to it. I also almost never buy ready to eat food as I find it to be lacking nutrition and above all lacking taste. I also find he cost of eating out to be just plain silly. Most meals my friends treat themselves to at a vegan restaurant have a price tag that could buy me a week of groceries or more. I love to cook. I love to dumpster dive and scavenge. I can almost always find a way to scavenge food, or if not, I go to markets and buy some fresh produce and cook for myself. I travel with camping gear and a small cooking stove for when I am outdoors. If not, I cook at my host’s house or just eat raw. If I am in developing Countries such as India, Laos, or Bolivia just to name a few, I am happy to eat out because it supports the locals and their local economy, not to mention it is usually very cheap.
4) In some countries like the United States, Canada or the UK vegan convenience foods are more widely available than in many other countries. Did you find it more difficult to find vegan food, once you had left the wealthier North America and crossed from the US into Mexico and then all the way South to Chile and Argentina? Did you find yourself eating drastically different foods comparing Canada and the US on the one hand and Latin America on the other hand?
People always have this false misconception that it is so difficult to be a healthy vegan outside of the wealthier developed Countries but it is simply not the case. It may be the case with processed convenience foods such as vegan deli meats, vegan cheese, tofurkey, and so on but in all honesty I try not to eat much of these products anyways as they are just processed crap with spices. When it comes to food, real food, North America is far behind anything I found in Latin America. When it came time for me to cross into Mexico, and then Central and South America the food got so much better than the U.S and Canada. All the fresh and exotic fruits and vegetables which we can’t even get up North. The countless varieties of legumes which are a staple from Mexico down are amazing. It felt so nice to be eating so well from the source of where these foods are grown. I could live completely off the corn and bean taco’s in Mexico and be happy. Every Country I have traveled has easy to find vegan foods. When you look at the staple foods of almost every region in the World it is always vegan. Huge varieties of rice, seaweeds, and vegetables in Asia. Root vegetables, exotic fruits, and a huge variety of legumes in Latin America. A wide variety of vegan staples in India. Even when you look at North America and Europe each area has various sorts of vegetables, grains, or legumes as their staple diets. Just leave out the meat and dairy which we all know we don’t need anyways. So to answer the question, yes I did find myself eating drastically different foods. That is to say, I was eating better and much more healthy than I can here in North America!
5) Could you tell us where else you have been traveling in the world?
I started traveling in 2002 with a trip to Austral-Asia. I went to five Asian Countries as well as Australia and New Zealand. This was supposed to be a one year trip to enjoy before going back to join the rat race of life but I was hooked to the road. I have been traveling ever since and just one month ago I celebrated eight years on the road when I was in Malta. After my first trip I spent three years all over Europe with a ‘home’ base in Northern Scotland. I have been to South-East Asia four times, my favorite Country there being Laos. I spent six months in Northern India. I worked with a few animal rights groups in Hawaii and California for six months. I spent eighteen months on my hitchhiking trip from Alaska to Argentina. I have also traveled extensively round my native land of Canada. Just this week I came home from another seven months in Europe where I spent most of my time hitchhiking through Iceland, Scandinavia, Malta, and Spain. In one month I will be heading back to Mexico for six weeks to tour with my close friend and his vegan straight-edge band XTRUENATUREX as my partner and I have set up a month of tour dates there. I also plan on finally going to the Middle-East and Africa in the middle of 2011 for an undetermined amount of time. (On a side note I just want to let it be known that I am indeed not wealthy. I am in fact quite the opposite as I am a low (or no) budget traveler. I add this only because most people who hear about my traveling assume it can only be done by the very rich. I am here to assure you it is not so. Chances are, if you have monthly car payments, or even monthly cell phone payments I am living and traveling on less money than you are spending on either of those. It all comes down to how you want to live.)
6) Are there any foods in particular that you would recommend as great travel foods? Maybe you typically stock up on certain foods and always keep a supply of these in your backpack in case you arrive somewhere and you can’t find any vegan food.
Peanut butter!! Hands down the best food to have with you at all times and you will never find me without it. It is high in calories, protein, essential fats, as well as other nutrients, not to mention it just tastes so damn good! I always try to travel with a durable fruit or dried fruit for when my energy may be coming down and I need some sugar. I am also a chocolate freak so the chances are there will always be various bars of dark chocolate in my bag. If I am on the road for a while without knowing when my next destination will be reached I take rice or couscous as well as some dried legumes (lentils are best as they take so few minutes to cook) to cook on my stove. I will also usually have some bread with me for my peanut butter.
7) Do you ever find it difficult to explain to people why you don’t eat animal products, especially when people do not know what veganism is or might not understand the concept of veganism?
Of course! Just think how difficult it is in North America or Western Europe where veganism is quite common. Imagine trying to explain this to people or cultures who do not even have a word for vegetarian, let alone vegan. You try explaining to a poor village farmer without a common language why they should be not eating their chicken. To tell you the truth, food politics is a seriously complicated and layered matter. I have been studying food politics intensely for some years now and I have had to change many of my opinions about animal rights and veganism due to this learning. Many places I will not even explain why as it will just bring too many variables to the table. If I get into a serious bind I just tell them it is against my principles which I compare to their religion. This usually does the trick. I recommend traveling with the Vegan Passport or at least learning a few phrases about your eating habits before you go. It can make your life so much easier.
8) You stayed in Ecuador for a while working on a farm making your own chocolate. Could you tell us about this experience? What did you do on the farm and how did you make the chocolate?
The farm was called ‘Sueños’, which is Spanish for ‘Dreams’ and let me tell you, that place was named properly. Not only did I get to grow and prepare cocoa to make chocolate, but we also grew our own peanuts to make peanut butter, which I often combined to make peanut butter chocolate. I came to this farm to learn about cacao as I am an avid farmer as well as an avid chocolate consumer. I got to learn and do everything with the production of cocoa. We planted some seeds, we cared for the already mature trees learning about what they need and don’t need for survival, we picked the cocoa pods and went through the long process of fermenting, drying, and preparing the seeds inside. We then roasted the seeds and ran them through the old grinding machine where the natural oils turned them into a paste which we then had to quickly form into bars of pure organic cocoa. It is a very long process but it was so wonderful to be here for those months, not to mention fattening as I could use as much of the coca as I wished. I was quite often found in the kitchen combining this cocoa with the peanut butter we also made, coconuts from the trees, citrus fruits from the citrus trees, and much more. We also grew dozens of other foods in the 14-acre plot of rainforest and it was one of the most magical places I ever spent time and learned about organic farming at.
9) What’s your favorite (or one of them) vegan-related story from your travels around the world?
It is not a very happy story, but the longest I have ever been without food is about 45 hours in the North-East part of Laos. I was not very well prepared with extra food and I was going to a small part of the Country where tourists rarely went. I ate before I left and jumped on one of trucks which worked as taxis and the first ride was twelve hours winding through the forest and mountains. When we got to a small village there was only one kitchen serving prepared food and it all had butter or chicken in it. They did not even have rice they could prepare for me and the chips and cookies for sale in the little shop were not vegan. I went to sleep outside and hungry. We left the next morning with more people in the truck and as they were all woman (and chickens) the men had to hang off the back of the truck, but considering my energy level was so low this was not very fun to do for ten to twelve hours. We kept climbing slowly into the mountains still and the temperatures were getting cold which took its toll on me. Our next two stops provided the same meals of chicken and butter rice or fish soup and either I could no communicate properly, or there was nothing else available for me. For the second night I went to sleep with no food, but with about eight cups of herbal tea in my stomach. The next morning I felt terrible but we only had six hours to our final destination and I once again had to hang on for dear life on the back of the truck. We finally arrived and the first thing I did was head to one restaurant that had some English on their sign and I did nothing but eat and sleep that day. The meals may have been simple rise dishes with local root vegetables and fruit, but they have been the best meals I have ever eaten. The morale of the story is be prepared a hell of a lot better than I was those days. I learned a valuable lesson then and have always been sure to be prepared since then.
10) As you’re a very good cook: What is your favorite dish to prepare for friends and strangers?
I love to make pancakes and smoothies in the morning or pizza for any other time during the day. Pizzas are so cheap and easy to make from scratch and they can feed many people. Pancakes are very Canadian so I always like to make them for people as they only require three ingredients for the basic batter and taste so good with the various toppings, (peanut butter for me of course or maple syrup if I am at home in Canada!) Lastly, considering I dumpster dive so often I love to prepare various soups or curries with the veggies I find. I suppose a thick roasted red pepper soup is my favorite. My best advice is to keep it simple; a dish does not have to have twelve ingredients and exotic spices to taste good. Let the simple ingredients taste like they are supposed to and enjoy.
this interview as a PDF