“¿¡No comes carne?!” exclaims the wide-eyed Guatemalan, mouth open in disbelief after you´ve just told them that you don´t eat meat. Then, for a moment, it all seems to click and everything falls into place in their mind: “¿Ah, pero pollo si comes?” they ask. It all makes sense now: you just don´t like the taste of beef (commonly just called carne in Guatemala), which is perfectly reasonable. But it must mean that you eat lots of chicken instead, right?
When you reply that no, in fact, you don´t eat chicken either there is audible gasp of shock. It is soon replaced by a look of pity, as the next logical explanation for this strange behaviour springs to mind: “¿Es por razones médicas, entonces?”, because the only reason any sane human being would give up delicious, juicy meat would be because their doctor told them to. Perhaps you have high blood pressure and you need to keep your cholesterol down. Poor you.
You are forced to reply that no, your doctor did not tell you that you have to stop eating meat; you gave it up voluntarily. The look of confusion mixed with disbelief returns to their face, as if you just told them your favourite hobbies are cycling, travelling & killing puppies.
Next up starts the long list of questions as to which foods you do actually eat. “¿Y tortillas comes?” is usually first, causing you to explain that, yes, tortillas are fine since the last time you checked they were made from maiz not chicken (although certainly, not many Guatemalans would complain if they were in fact made from the latter). The same goes for arroz, papas, helado, and a whole list of other foods that they would like to know whether or not this strange individual eats.
This is actually a pretty common conversation you are bound to have numerous times if you are a vegetarian living or travelling in Guatemala, particularly in the more rural parts of the country where vegetarians are about as rare as people who don´t like football.
Guatemalans find vegetarian cuisine rather perplexing. For most, a dish without meat looks as naked as the model on the front cover of a Playboy magazine. This can make asking for vegetarian dishes in Guatemalan restaurants a somewhat interesting experience. Mostly, it involves you receiving (a rather huge) salad of tomato, lettuce, cucumber, lime and salt; as this is one of the only dishes they can think of that doesn´t contain meat. It´s no wonder that so many Guatemalans are sceptical of vegetarian diets, when the only vegetarian dishes that come to mind for them consist of food only a little more diversified than that of a caterpillar.
On other occasions, they will try to think up something different and fail rather miserably. One interesting vegetarian dish that I´ve been given here consisted of spaghetti in tomato sauce with rice and tortillas. Mmmm, carby goodness.
Other kitchens are so confused by the concept of vegetarian food they find themselves completely stumped as to what they can and can´t serve you. After asking one particular restaurant for a plato sin carne (which, yes, did mean sin pollo as well) I received a plate consisting of two boiled potatoes and half an ayote pequeño. What was most puzzling about this particular dish was that the rest of the meat eaters at the table also received rice, carrots and griddled spring onions with their meals. Perhaps they thought that the carrots were taken from the corpse of a real-live snowman. Who knows what their thought process was regarding the rice and onions. This dish was so amusing that I just had to take a picture of it, which has now become this month´s front cover for XelaWho.
Still, one can´t complain too much. With such an incredible variety of cheap, locally grown fruits and vegetables, Guatemala has to also be one of the best places in the world to be a vegetarian. And there is a growing number of places in Xela at least that serve decent veggie food. But still, we recommend finding yourself a place where you can cook your own food if you plan on staying here for an extended period of time and you don´t eat meat. Otherwise you could be faced with the prospect of a caterpillar diet for the rest of your stay.