Traveling gluten-free the first time sucks

Kay and I are lucky enough to have both the funds and the holiday time to go on some amazing trips. Normally they are great, but this time things were different, if not difficult. (Yep, first world problem ahead…)

We knew for over a year that my brother would marry in April 2014 and we get a lot of Easter holidays then, so we decided to plan a big trip with two weeks somewhere warm and a week split between Columbus for the wedding and Miami to see Kay’s brother. I ended up finding some decent flights to Puerto Rico, so we booked Zurich – PR, PR – Columbus, Columbus – Miami, Miami Zurich. Three weeks off! I was really excited.

By the time I got my 100% real, confirmed celiac diagnosis, I only had two weeks at home to start adjusting to the gluten free diet. Kay was amazed at how quickly I wrapped my head around all the things I could no longer eat and how I stopped gluten cold turkey, but I was overwhelmed by cooking and baking. I stopped all baking for several months and in the first two weeks I kept things very simple and made  a lot of rice, stir fries and naturally (easy) gluten-free meals.

We figured that eating would be fairly easy in Puerto Rico with lots of rice and bean options, so we made our usual holiday plans; We buy plane tickets, we book accommodations and car rentals and we look up some activities and attractions to see. Sometimes we just buy a travel book and read it on the plane. Our activity plans have always been pretty loose.

If I could have chosen the timing, I would not have planned a huge trip right at the beginning of my celiac journey, but the wedding was happening so I tried to look forward to traveling. People kept asking if I was excited, but I was really anxious about the trip. I looked up a little bit about gluten-free eating before we left, but I procrastinated and ran out of time to plan places to eat. It took longer to plan all the accommodations for Miami too! I thought it would still be fine with WIFI at the B&B. We could look up places to eat like normal. I printed out some Spanish gluten-free restaurant cards to help ask about food and thought I was good to go.

I ordered my gluten-free meal with US Airways ahead of time, but as the stewardess came closer and closer with the meal trays, I almost had a panic attack. My heart was racing. What if they don’t have my GF meal??! I had lots snacks, but still. I might have cried!

My heart was pounding when she asked me whether I would like the pasta or the stir fry. “I ordered a special meal,” I said meekly. Seriously, almost crying. “Ah yes, what’s your name? Here it is!” Yep. So easy. Crisis averted. I was very happy with the food as well. It was better than the normal food! Very impressive US Airways! Whew.

It was clear that this was going to be a stressful trip.

As I would find out later, one of the hardest meals to find gluten-free is breakfast. It took us over an hour on the first day to decide to go to the cafe where I got this fruit salad.

All the bed and breakfast recommendations were unhelpful to me because they recommended things like the local bakery and cafes that didn’t serve fruit or non-bread items. It is surprisingly hard to find fresh fruit, even on an island like Puerto Rico, and most of the general breakfast offerings included or were limited to toast.

Eating became a nightmare.

I would wake up starving. Maybe it was gluten withdrawal, but I wanted food and I wanted it very soon. But first we needed to find a place to go. On the following days we had to eat at other breakfast places because the cafe with the fruit opened later.

Kay would look a bit on the guide the B&B gave us and a little bit on the internet on his phone and then he would say, “Well, I’ll leave it up to you.” I would then spend the next hour or two searching gluten-free eating, reading restaurant reviews on Tripadvisor or blogs and then looking up how far away the restaurant was, whether it was open and how much it would cost.

I would hum and ho and not know where to go or what to eat. I was blocked. Nothing was really “gluten free”  and I was really unsure where to go. Crosschecking each restaurant menu with user reviews online on my phone or iPad was much more tedious than I anticipated! I wanted my food to taste good too! Kay would be hungry by then and say, “Well, I can go anywhere!” with increasing exasperation, which yes, yes I know he can go anywhere. Sigh. I used to be able to as well. 🙁

By the time I was totally annoyed that I was wasting so much of my holiday researching food on my phone and we were both full-on hangry, I would finally decide on a place where we should go. Repeat this excruciating research-hangry process for the rest of the meals and you would have our holiday.

Several times we had only Spanish-speaking waiters and I was extremely nervous about ordering safe food to eat. Once I wasn’t sure what I ordered after explaining my situation and I sat in terror at the table while we waited for our food. Kay didn’t quite get it, but I couldn’t stop the anxiety from welling up. My stomach sank further and further and I was just stressed in the worst sense.

As soon as we would eat, I was happy again. I would remain happy and care free until I became hungry again. When I was hungry, I became scared about where I was going to find some safe food to eat again. I have never felt like this on holiday before and I didn’t like it.

I also felt embarrassed that I have to ask about my diet issues before each meal. I would apologize and feel bad for “being difficult” because I always ALWAYS ate whatever before. Kay would assure me it’s fine and I just have to get used to doing it every meal.

Sometimes I didn’t mention my disease and I would have problems. I ordered an omelet that didn’t say it came with any toast or anything and it came with toast and french fries, which I am also too scared to eat right now. So I had a mini-freakout when the food arrived and I pushed the bad items onto Kay’s plate and cleaned my plate off with a napkin so I could eat the egg part that didn’t touch the crumbs. Lesson learned: always, always mention my diet issue.

On Vieques we rented a flat with a kitchen, so we would be able to do breakfast ourselves. The problem was that we went there on Good Friday when everything was closing shop for Easter weekend, so we were worried about finding anything to eat for breakfast, let alone gluten-free food. We ended up shopping at a very small local gas station because the grocery was already closed.

Luckily, they had some options. Did you know Fruity Pebbles are gluten-free?

Not only were they gluten-free, they were the only gluten-free cereal in the store. I’m five again. Hell yeah!

I was happier on Vieques because we had breakfast in the morning and snacks at the beach, so I only had to worry about dinner and we found a restaurant that had GF clearly listed on the menu.

Above, the Arecibo Observatory and below, on the beach in San Juan.

Our terrace below was beautiful, but man alive this place below had dogs in the backyard that barked at each other until midnight and at 6am. With paper windows, I just couldn’t take it even with earplugs.

I did get sick a few times on the trip in each city. I was never quite sure what it was, but in Columbus I think I definitely had some gluten because I felt similarly sick as I did on our last trip there. It was really strange.

We also noticed that eating gluten-free means spending more money on nicer, higher-quality food. I don’t really have a choice about the gluten now, so this is just something I will have to get used to and plan for when thinking about holidays. I mean, we spend more on food at home now as well.

Puerto Rico was not all bad. It was a relaxing, easy-going holiday when I wasn’t stressed out and hungry. But I think for us, Hawaii still wins, hands-down.

7 thoughts on “Traveling gluten-free the first time sucks”

  1. Ugh, that sounds like a nightmare having to be so stressed during your vacation! Hopefully next time you’ll be able to look up available restaurants in advance so you don’t have to deal with that once you’re supposed to be relaxing!

    1. I will definitely prepare more for other trips and re-plan how we do things so I’m not caught with my pants down again!

  2. Oh, gosh, I remember that anxiety from the first trip we took after starting Low-FODMAPs (happened to be our honeymoon) and being scared that I was going to spend the week frustrated or sick. Sorry it wasn’t a better experience for you, but as you get more used to it you’ll get better at navigating.

    I also remember the ridiculous glee and discovering certain silly cereals were safe for me–they’re now my Saturday morning treat 🙂

    1. Ah Jenn my friend just started eating low-FODMAPs and she had an even harder time than me finding something to eat at the continental breakfast at a hotel. That is tough! Thankfully it will get better with time and experience. 🙂

  3. I can’t even imagine how frustrating that would be! I spent a summer dairy-free thanks to some health problems and restaurants sucked, grocery shopping made me want to cry, and nobody really understood why I was being ‘picky.’ Hopefully it gets better and easier for you as time goes on!

    1. Haha, yeah when I got back from this trip I started having problems with dairy and so I’m kind of lactose-free at the moment. It cuts the gluten-free options down even further! 🙁 I’m really hoping to work back up to lactose. I’m definitely supremely jealous of how easy it used to be to eat “anything”. Sigh. 😛

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