Sitting in the middle of an expansive table in a remote town in Rajasthan, India, my 12 year old daughter to my right, my partner to my left, and a table stacked full of more delicious North Indian vegan food than we could possibly work our way through in one sitting….and I feel like crying. It’s been ten wonderful days so far that have completely exceeded our expectations, but right now at this moment it’s all unravelling and I’m sad and angry and confused and contemplating a very uncool outburst in the direction of certain members of our tour group. The word heartless comes to mind.
To explain my descent into emotional turmoil, I need to backtrack a little. The words ‘tour group’ are not the first words that spring to mind when I think of how I’d like to travel. Frankly, they scare me. Visions of bus loads of loud Americans managing to both complain about everything and share intimate details of their surgical histories at inappropriate moments (is there ever an appropriate moment?) spring to mind. My prejudices are not based on hypothetical stereotypes but on my previous experiences of travel. I vividly recall sitting in a mountain hut high in the Himalayas in Nepal, chilling out on crisp mountain air and some fine hash shared by a friendly Dane, only to be assaulted by waves of ‘twang’ as a group of Americans began discussing hysterectomies and the lack of hot water at our humble accommodations. All in the one sentence you understand. So you’ll have to excuse my fear of large, loud groups of travellers. They bother me.
My usual choice of travel overseas involves a beat up backpack, decent walking sandals and my own free will. This trip had to be different though. Along with our luggage, we were introducing my 12 year old daughter to India and it needed to be as painless as possible. Thus the search for a tour group that didn’t feel like a tour group. Added to this was the fact that we were vegan and although India is a delight for vegetarians, it can be a challenge for vegans. After a bit of searching around on the Internet, I found Veg Voyages, a small group tour company for vegetarians and vegans. I dug a little deeper and began to hear great things about the sort of tour experience that they offered. The key words here were ‘small group’ and ‘vegan’. This might work for us.
And it did. Nine people (including the three of us) joined up in Delhi and began a 14 day adventure around Rajasthan that focused on getting off the usual tour route, meeting the locals and EATING. I have NEVER been served such amazing, fresh, abundant vegan food before. They must have been very used to vegans feeling the need to be assured (over and over) that what was on our plates was indeed 100% vegan, because they explained in detail exactly what we were eating, where it came from and how it had been prepared. We felt so reassured and dived in to the task of putting on weight while travelling in India.
So why the sadness? It came as a result of a trip the tour makes to an organisation in Udaipur called ‘Animal Aid’. Began by an inspiring North American couple (see, I said something positive about Americans!), the organisation rescues street animals, restores them to health and returns them to their ‘homes’. It runs on a shoestring, receives no government funding as yet, but enjoys the support of the locals who often turn up with injured animals in their arms. On the day we visited, Animal Aid had many street dogs, puppies, donkeys, a turtle and cows. For anyone who knows even a little about India, you will know that the cow in India is sacred. This however does not alter the fact that cows have a pretty horrid life wandering the streets of India, albeit often garlanded.
In fact, India’s relationship with its animals, like a lot of things in India, is a contradiction. According to Erika, the founder of Animal Aid, India proudly enshrines animal rights in its constitution and the country boasts many vegetarians, however this does not necessarily translate to providing animals with love and care on a daily basis. On the contrary, many cows and donkeys spend a lifetime in hard labour, tethered to a rope in the few hours a day that they do not work. In our travels, we saw this time and time again. Animal Aid hopes to begin to change the relationship between people and animals in India and for this reason, they have consciously chosen not to focus their limited funds on neutering street animals (although they also do this in small numbers), in the belief that doing so may reduce the population of street animals but will do little to reduce people’s relationship with those same animals. Instead, they hope to show love and care for the animals and to work with local grass roots animal rights people to enhance positive relationships between animals and people.
Erika is vegan. She is also incredibly gifted at imparting the vegan message to the groups that visit Animal Aid…in small manageable doses. Our group was made up of roughly half vegans and half vegetarians (although a few of the ‘vegetarian’ group made reference to eating meat on occasion). When she began busting the myth of the ‘happy milk cow’, roaming free in its paddock, joyously providing us with our daily milk, I was hopeful that the vegetarians in the group were listening. She explained the cow’s reality as one of constant distress, kept just within earshot of its calf so that she could continue to produce milk. Her descriptions were fairly vivid and I thought, behaviour changing.
As an ex-vegetarian myself, I know that continuing to consume dairy and eggs involves two things – the first is simply not yet coming across the information that informs you about the realities of the dairy industry and the second is the ability to disconnect with this reality should you stumble across it. I know that when the truth does hit you, it’s often because you were ready, the timing was right, the universe was aligned and/or you just couldn’t live with the hypocrisy of your choices any longer. So here we were in India, a group of self-professed animal lovers, face to face with a woman who had set up an organisation devoted to the care of animals, confronted with the full force of the truth about dairy (shared rather sensitively without a heavy dose of ‘preaching’ or guilt throwing….she really was masterful!).
Surely, surely this is the moment that the universe will align for the vegetarians in the group? You say you love animals. You won’t eat them. You care enough to choose to travel with an organisation specifically for vegans and vegetarians. You’ve just heard the reality of the dairy industry in India which you will notice runs contradictory to your snuggly held believe in happy cows delighted to serve you happy milk. What do you do with this information?
Lunch. Can you see where this is headed? You’ll remember the sadness I described at the start. Here it comes. Most meals served to us were purely vegan. At times, there were also vegetarian options available, which were kept separate from the vegan food. This involved the individual choosing either from the centre of the table or from waiters serving the food, what they wanted to eat. It was EASY to choose the vegan option, the only difference generally being that your roti had no butter and you left behind the yoghurt dip and paneer item. It’s about one hour tops after our trip to Animal Aid and I’m sitting next to vegetarians delightedly spooning yoghurt over their curry and tearing into butter roti that smell to me distinctly like suffering. And my mood is sinking.
I want to be anywhere else but surrounded by whatever particular condition allows these people to disconnect so abruptly from the truth. It’s not that I was naïve enough to believe that one trip to Animal Aid would forever change their eating habits, but I did think that it might alter them for a couple of meals at least. Delicious vegan food is right in front of them, it’s never been easier and may never again be so easy to reject the dairy options….and yet they eagerly reach into the centre of the table and choose it. I don’t understand. I just don’t. I’m trying to be forgiving and accommodating and respectful and it’s not working at all. I think less of them with every ignorant mouthful. Strong words and I know I’m supposed to be non-judgemental and to recognise that I was vegetarian once and that people move at their own pace etc etc. Only none of that is working at this particular moment and if I don’t leave the table now, I might either burst into tears or fling my plate in their direction. So I leave the table. And fantasise about plate flinging.
It took some time for my sorrowful mood to lift after that particular lunch and I will admit that the distance that grew between my fellow vegetarian travelling companions and me was never forged, however I did manage to enjoy the rest of the trip. We ended up hanging out with the other vegans on the trip, snug (smug?) in the bond that united us. Despite the difficulties of that meal, the experience of travelling to India as a vegan with Veg Voyages was wonderful and I’m busy planning the next adventure. It’s just that along with my new understanding of Indian culture and history, the weight that I’ve gained from the excellent food and the fading henna on my hands, I’ve also brought back a new level of disappointment and confusion in my fellow humans. This has fuelled a curiosity in me regarding how we manage to disconnect from information that doesn’t suit us and a determination to explore this phenomena wherever I may find it.
Maybe the visit to Animal Aid that day planted a seed in my fellow travellers that won’t bear fruit until another day. I have to hope. Hypocrisy is not comfortable, I know from experience, and it is my heartfelt hope that the universe will align for my fellow vegetarian travellers at some point in the future, allowing them to bring their action in line with their beliefs.
For more information about either Veg Voyages Tour Company or Animal Aid, please check out: