It’s Not Going to be Vegan Though
Our journey in the Americas began in Seattle and wound its way down the West Coast of the US, hitting all major cities on the way and enjoying the slightly different emphasis veganism in the US offers when compared with the UK. There is, for example, a greater emphasis on meat and dairy alternatives; in my experience the UK tends toward a veganism built on whole foods and vegetables, though rapid growth during the past five years has seen a shift toward more US style animal product analogues.
We crossed the Mexican border in California and spent several months crossing the length of this country before entering Guatemala. An accident here meant we spent six weeks in Guatemala before flying to Colombia. The remainder of our trip was spent in South America, visiting the Pacific coast countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile as well as heading inland from Chile so that we could spend a few weeks in Bolivia. With the exception of the flight from Guatemala to Colombia, we travelled by hitchhiking and busses. Our accommodation was a mixture of couch surfing, hostels, and extremely basic but cheap hotels known as "hospedajes" or "alojamientos", which often lacked kitchen facilities.
The Right Reason
We had already been in Mexico for two months, sliding our way slowly down the Panamericana that ran along the coastline of the Sea of Cortez and, eventually, the Pacific Ocean. The cuisine of northern Mexico is meat-heavy, influenced by a desert climate that makes it difficult for plants to grow. Agricultural technology means crops are grown in this environment today but often at the expense of resources such as water being drawn from other regions of the country. Traditionally, however, meat has formed the basis of cuisine in the area and been embraced as a strong cultural identifier - in stark contrast, as we would later discover, to the southern states of Mexico whose temperate climate manifests a verdant landscape. There, a local cuisine offers a much wider range of corn, bean, and vegetable based dishes. Eating out in states such as Sinaloa and Sonora as a vegan with a tight budget can be difficult, with options usually limited to fresh coconut or the fruit cocktail known as pico de gallo.
One of the most important aspects of our travels was the opportunity to meet and talk to people, to share (if only briefly) in their culture, and to learn what people considered good and bad about their own communities. There are few places in the world where food is absent from shared identity; cuisine forms one of the strongest foundations for people to connect with or share their culture. If it hadn't been noticeable previously, this fact became increasingly obvious the longer our choices separated us from sharing in the food of our friends and guides through the such as Puerto Peñasco, Hermosillo, and Los Mochis.
By week eight or nine we had arrived in Mazatlan, a hot and humid city with an extensive tourist industry based primarily on its beautiful beaches. We’d booked ourselves into a local hostel, the cheapest we could find in the area, but it was intended for Mexican families rather than travellers or tourists and therefore lacked any kitchen facilities. The next morning we found a place via Google billed as vegetarian and vegan friendly and made our way through the already sweat-inducing humidity to this small restaurant. We sat down. Menus were brought over, English on one side and Spanish on the other. I stuck with English because at that point my Spanish extended no further than a few basic words. At first I was delighted. There was a huge number of options and they clearly had no meat in them. My delight faded, though, as I realised that almost every dish and even a majority of the drinks contained some sort of dairy product. Cheese. Yoghurt. Milk.
I sighed. It had been two months of this and it wasn’t becoming any easier. There were a number of obstacles that made this situation and those which had come before it particularly difficult. First, my Spanish was inexistent at that point and trying to say that "no puedo comer productos de animales como leche, queso, huevo, o miel" would have been frustratingly impossible. Second, in this restaurant as in many before it the vegetarian options were almost built on animal products; taking the cheese or egg away from a salad left usually just some leaves and tomatoes, and I was pretty tired of eating the same basic salad over and over again. Third, planning the day around finding something to eat only to find there were no vegan options anyway sucked all the fun out of traveling. Fourth, as mentioned earlier, part of our intention was to connect with local culture and opting out of cuisine can be a major barrier to that.
Looking up from our menus with a mixture of sadness and frustration, my partner and I had similar thoughts. Meat would never be on the cards for us but yes, "let's be vegetarian". I never believed that anything other than veganism would be my lot for the rest of my life but it turns out that even something so staunch as this can be made flexible when surrounded the right convergence of reasons. I learned something about myself that day. Nothing is sacred and even something I held so closely could be cast in a different light.
It is one thing to eat animal products in a one-off situation, by accident or even circumstance, but to do it frequently. The latter is, by any measure, not veganism at all. The original intention of our Mazatlan pact was for my partner and I to accept we would eat cheese or eggs when eating out but to remain vegan as far as possible otherwise. We'd spent a month in Chiapas, Mexico, at a Spanish school so our ability to communicate had improved dramatically whilst our growing familiarity with the broad generalities of Latin American culture meant we were gaining a keener understanding of the ins and outs of local cuisine.
That's not what happened though. It wasn't long before omelettes and fried eggs became a staple of my breakfasts while snacks containing milk and cheese became regular go to items for quick feeds. The slide from vegan to vegetarian started out slowly but within just a few weeks became the norm for my daily diet, each mouthful at first justified by the line that I was only being vegetarian for cultural interaction reasons and that it was only for a little while anyway. Eventually even that faded away. The appeal of huevos rancheros and Chokis biscuits overcame any sense of solidarity I had with farmed animals.
I remember thinking in the past how incomprehensible it was that a person could drop their veganism after making the shift. That would never happen to me. Yet there I was, just a few years later, scarfing blue cheese pizza and telling myself that I was still being mostly vegan even if what I was consuming contained the products of tortured creatures. I began seeking out vegetarian foods I'd never tried or hadn't eaten in years under the pretence that at least I wasn't eating meat. How easy the change occurs when you are armed with the right reason, and how easy old beliefs can fall away when you don't keep yourself in check. Just four months later and none of what I ate resembled anything vegan.
Approximately six months after our pact had been made, my partner and I were volunteering in the seaside village of Santa Marianita, Ecuador. We’d picked a guest house that doubled as a home for rescued animals because, despite our changing diet, our compassion for animals had not diminished. Latin America is filled with street dogs: they are lovely but many are in very bad health. The opportunity to help these animals appealed to us greatly because, due to the nature of our travels, we’d not had many opportunities to help those on the streets that needed it most.
The place itself was home to six former street dogs, between 12 and 15 former stray cats (there were so many I was never sure), and varying numbers of humans depending on who was volunteering and staying at the time. Though the primary focus of work was to help the establishment run as a guest house, my primary interest was in hanging out with the animals.
Some of the dogs and cats warmed to me as I warmed to them, others less so. One scrappy blonde mongrel name Muya became a particular favourite of mine, her manic antics and refusal to follow instruction embodying a spirit that I believe could only have developed in a dog raised outside of domesticity. I was surrounded by animals and it felt good.
Yet I was still eating animal products. We received free breakfasts as volunteers but what was available meant that remaining vegan would have left little more than toast and jam, although this didn’t matter anyway as by then I had fully emerged myself in the egg-and-dairy consuming lifestyle. I was wrapped in a haze of laziness and, though in earlier years it would have been the first thing to come through, the conflict between my diet and my warmth for the animals around me didn’t make itself apparent.
Until, that is, my partner and I sat down to watch a documentary I’d heard about. We were house sitting for an American family that lived in the village but had left to go on holiday and their large TV included Netflix. Cowspiracy had just been released onto the platform. It has been a while since I’ve watched a veganism related documentary due in large part because I believed it had become a concrete fixture within my ethics. Perhaps it was the subtle undercurrent of ethical dissonance I had been experiencing at the guest house-cum-animal sanctuary that made me decide to watch Cowspiracy? Perhaps it was all the talk I’d seen of it on vegan Internet forums? Perhaps it was simply because I was bored and had tired out the interesting social justice documentaries available on Netflix? Perhaps all and more? Whatever the reason, my partner and I sat down one evening at the very end of September to watch something that would snap me back to reality.
I am sure many of you have already watched Cowspiracy so I won’t explain too much, and if you haven’t then I would suggest checking it out even if you are a committed vegan. The baseline is that it focuses on the environmental impact of veganism without ignoring the lives of animals themselves.
It took just 20 minutes before I hit pause and turned to my partner. "I need to be vegan again." Something moved me. An outpouring of guilt for my actions over the past six months, maybe, or the greater empathy I felt with environmental reasons for veganism having seen some unspeakably beautiful locations during my travels. I could feel the resolution in my mind and in my body that veganism was the right way forward even if it meant a struggle to find food. "Not from when we get home, but starting right now." My partner understood, felt the same way, and agreed. We made another pact, this one dissolving our Mazatlan agreement, that we would strive to recover our veganism from that moment onward. Her agreement was important because it confirmed that we both were making the right decision, and her courage was important because it meant we could support one another in what could possibly be difficult times.
The next morning we returned to the guest house for our volunteer breakfast and, yes, we had toast and jam.