If you have a gluten intolerance or coeliac disease, travel might seem almost impossible. But it can offer surprising benefits too. Jasmine Irving tells fellow gluten-free travellers: don’t let it prevent you from seeing the world
A year ago, I packed my rucksack, set off into the world and hoped for the best. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition that requires a strict gluten-free diet for life to manage, so being coeliac and vegetarian it isn’t always easy for me to be spontaneous when it comes to organising travel. But for me that’s no reason to hold back.
I joined three different sites where members stay with host families or communities and work for them in return for food and board. There are many inspiring projects on all three of the sites, WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), Helpx and Workaway.
At first I sent endless pleading emails to potential hosts, practically begging people to take me and apologising profusely for being a difficult guest when it came to food. But when I stopped viewing myself as a pain that would have to persuade people into having me to stay, I found myself naturally drawn towards places that were either already gluten-free and vegetarian or happy to adjust. I realised that I’d be a valuable addition to the team and felt confident about asking for my needs to be met.
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Gluten isn’t the easiest thing to avoid when travelling, but sufferers needn’t let that put them off. It’s not as restricting as it sounds, and it’s led me to some interesting places. In fact, travelling with coeliac has become something of a joy. Here’s why:
1) It acts as a good filter when finding hosts. When someone agrees to live with you and your coeliac disease (or vegetarianism), they are either already aligned with similar values and follow a similar lifestyle or are happy to be flexible in order to fit you in. This is a win-win because people who are willing to adapt to welcome you are inevitably going to be good hosts, and people who are already gluten-free or vegetarian will understand your needs.
2) You get the opportunity to cook and/or learn gluten-free recipes, sharing food with people from around the world and feeling positive about eating without gluten. I worked at a bed and breakfast and made gluten-free vegan muffins for the guests. They went down a treat.
3) The excitement felt when finding gluten-free food on the road simply can’t be matched by anything. Seriously, who gets to be that ecstatic about food? When I found gluten-free cookies to pack with me on a hike in the mountains, I was smiling for hours. Before being gluten-free I would never have reacted like that to a biscuit.
4) You get a lot of practice in being assertive and looking after your needs. This is a good way to learn a new language. I discovered that I find it much easier to say something as simple as “please be careful about crumbs in the kitchen, I could get sick” in French than in English. I lost that stereotypical British politeness and adopted a new directness.
5) Being a coeliac guest can feel like you’re the odd one out, or being ‘difficult’, but I’ve stayed with so many different people now and been welcomed into all kinds of different households, and I’ve always felt valued and looked-after. In fact, you get to see the kindest sides of people as everyone chips in to make sure you’re safe and healthy. I have been deeply touched by the efforts people go to make me feel included and taken care of.
Of course, it’s not always plain sailing. There have been times where I’ve found it exhausting having to explain over and over again why a crumb can be dangerous and how no, I really can’t have just a little slice of pie.
But overall, it’s been a really positive experience, and I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much if I wasn’t travelling as a coeliac. In fact, I’m so grateful to be here at all. There was a time before diagnosis that I thought I wouldn’t feel well enough to be able to globe-trot solo.
Travelling as a coeliac doesn’t have to be a burden, in fact it’s a pleasure. Here are my top tips for gluten-free travel:
- Research where you’re going. Coeliac UK has some great free country guides available with important phrases in different languages. You can print these off and use them to communicate your needs when abroad. See www.coeliac.org.uk
- Pack plenty of light snacks as you never know when you might need a bite to eat on the go. Buying fresh fruit from local markets has always kept me going in between meals when travelling.
- If you’re not sure, don’t eat it. There have been a couple of times when I’ve eaten out or with a host where I’ve had a long conversation about the food and have still ended up getting glutened. Each time I knew deep down there had been a bit of a breakdown in communication but I ate the food anyway because I didn’t want to ‘cause a fuss’. Now I wouldn’t even risk it if I can’t be sure, it’s just not worth it!
You can follow Jasmine’s gluten-free travels at Coeliac On The Road.
Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar. He writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.