Category Archives: travel

Armchair conservationists

On the first day we saw dolphins.
About ten of them breaching behind the swell,
some way out from the surfers,
swimming across the bay at Port Elizabeth.

The hotel dog barked when we got to the gate,
then sat with us while we waited for the room
and scratched her tummy. The big dog of silence,
hulking moves, who ate grass and looked so sick
palpitating her whole body to make herself vomit.
She silently padded up to our verandah.
I was reading Oliver Sacks, up to the part where he says
he feels like ‘a single leather animal’
riding tandem on his motorcycle.

On the second day we saw a lone wilderbeest
left behind by, or staying behind, her group.
Alarmed by the sound of the engine and the five of us
in the vehicle, she pushed herself up
off the ground and limped a few paces away.
When the engine was turned off and she saw
we were still, she settled herself down again.
‘She won’t make the night’; ‘food for the lions,’
we concurred, all believers in a pecking order.
‘We do not intervene,’ our guide said, ‘because
there are too many of them.’

We saw impalas, zebras, two hippopotamuses and giraffes,
two lions, young brothers, lying about,
their bellies round. ‘They have fed,’ we were told.
One had a collar round its neck, ‘to track him
because he is injured – see his eye.
That will hinder his hunting.’

At dinner, kudu was on the menu
(‘not from the reserve, of course’)
and other bovines that you can eat in South Africa
but not where we’re from.
Trophy cow skins were laid on the floors of our lodge
and the restaurant.

On the morning of the third day, we drove
up to the top of the valley into
clouds of mist. Our heavy ponchos saturated
with the moisture in the air.
Looking for elephants, anything –
all we’d seen was a lone impala, twice,
who did not appear injured, just preferred his solitude.
I looked at you with a massive smile on your face,
excited at what we were seeing, alert to any movement,
eyes out for spotting animals we’d never seen
without a cage around them.

‘There, there!’ A group of white animals in the valley.
‘Sheep,’ said our guide, reminding us
of the electrified gates we drove through
separating the farms from the reserve.
Running away from us, we saw impalas,
a jackal, bushpigs and warthogs, monkeys
and an elephant, through binoculars, who looked
like a tree one shade of grey lighter
than the ones it was eating, from the distance.

The engine in low gear and the jeep juddering over rocks,
it felt like we were in the film Ettrick, where the camera crew
drive through the Scottish countryside, concretising
their tracks as they go. The digital image is formed
of pixels that the human eye cannot see on the screen;
Perconte magnifies this so we perceive
the landscape’s dissemblance into pixellation.
Sheep graze through a field that is knitted into wool,
eating their way through the hair off their backs:
the animal consuming itself.

ettrick-sheep

From Jacques Perconte’s Ettrick

A thread comes loose, is pulled across the screen.
The overlay on the image is continuously changing, perceptibly,
from top to bottom, side to side,
a scatter of pixels at a time.
From the sheep grazing on the hills,
industrial looms in a textile mill
punch and weave texture on the screen.
The final act: a bulldozer tearing down trees.
Tree-lopping for timber? Or tree-clearing for animal grazing?

It was time to see enclosed lions and a leopard
at the reserve’s conservation centre.
They had been rescued from circuses and cages around the world,
brought here, to this bigger enclosure, their ability to live
independently having been stolen from them,
along with everything else, when they were enslaved.
In the afternoon we saw a group of elephants,
a group of rhinoceroses, a cheetah, all up close,
ticking off the appropriate box in the species checklist.

On the fourth day we stopped the jeep in the road.
All around us was the crackle of elephants,
pulling branches off trees. One mother walking
across the road changed her direction
and came towards us, eyeing us out of her
right eye, lifting her trunk up to smell us
as she passed. We also saw:
a group of buffalo, a group of zebra,
lots of impalas, ostriches, a hippopotamus,
and other animals that choose not to be near us.

As we drove out of the game reserve in our Datsun
we did not see the lions on the road that had been there
on the way back from our last safari drive.
We saw baboons on the Garden Route
(‘baboons are dangerous animals’).
At your aunty’s house we met many dogs and saw
guineafowl and ibises going about the suburbs.
On the beach, jellyfish
had been washed up on the shore,
a giant specimen looking like
a brain encased in jelly. We peered at it up close.

On the fifth day we saw owls, birds of prey,
peacocks with their feathers out, bright orange ibises,
cockatoos that had formerly been pets
and had plucked all their feathers out.
Monkeys, guinea pigs, chickens, pigeons, macaus
and a bat-eared fox (‘all the better to hear you with’).
Any indignance at seeing the honey badger
running round and round and round
in the stereotypical behaviour of caged animals
is quelled by the sign criticising armchair conservationists.
We thought of taking a photo to send
to our safari guide, who had not yet seen
a honey badger in the wild; but this
was no valediction.

On the sixth day we saw a dead rat
by the kerb of the road along the beach,
near a drain, its body mostly intact
but with blood on its face.

On the second-last day we saw a snake,
probably a mole, being pestered
by little birds in the botanic gardens.
It snaked over to the other side of the path
and we gaped at it a safe distance away.
On our way back along the coast
you were driving but managed to discern
out of the choppy waters the tail flop
of whales, many of them.
Without binoculars it was hard to see
but we stayed a long time, while the Israeli
tourists came and went (‘haval a ha zman’);
we almost left twice but then saw the whales
rise out of the water again.

At lunch we sat next to the table of a white man
who’d had his black maid walk his dog
to the restaurant for him. We asked the waiter
to get the dog some water, struggling in the heat
or struggling with an owner who was not listening.
Once back at the hotel we heard the howls,
pained cries of a dog hit by a car on the beach road.
She was curled into the curb but got herself up,
limping, and lunged at the approach of another dog.
A passerby and the driver of the car
lifted the dog in the car and drove away.
Our hotel concierge said she would have been
taken to a vet; ‘people love dogs here’.

Back home, I sprinkle cayenne pepper around the ant mounds.
They are excavating our limestone steps
to make their homes. Next, mint leaves, lemon juice,
then vinegar. Last resort: cinnamon tea
but all that does is stain the stone.
I put the harness and leash on our dog
and we go for a walk.

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Indj-yah! Or, wouldn’t you rather be a free roamer?

Cows, cows, more cows and lots and lots of dogs. And rubbish on the streets. And people. And more men pissing on the side of the road than in Soho on a Saturday night. And car horns and noise, noise, noise. But on coming back to sleepy Perth the quiet and lack of humans and other animals is maddening.

There appear to be few rules that are followed in Delhi. Cows walk in the road into oncoming traffic, flouting the law and daring the cops to book them for being an illegal on the street. Drivers pre-empt green lights or ignore red ones. The markings on the road are simply suggestions. A three-lane road can hold much more than three cars. The crazy thing is that there seem to be so few accidents despite the roads taking more cars, rickshaws, bicycles and animals than they’re designed to. In Perth there are lots of rules and lots of road accidents, particularly with cyclists. We are so risk averse that we don’t know how to share space with other beings. Who knows what would happen if a herd of cows and pack of stray dogs were let loose? Road rage, that’s for sure. But in India, everyone works with it. A cow crosses a dual-lane main road at night and drivers slow to let her reach the other side without injury.

It is not just the awareness that other beings are in your space but that killing an animal is widely met with great misgiving. Other animals have their own lives and it is no trifle to take this from them. This is so different to Australia where other animals are generally regarded as ours to do with as we wish, and if they pose a ‘problem’ the first option laid on the table is to kill them. Is India what zoopolis looks like? Humans living among cows, pigs, donkeys, dogs, cats, monkeys, rats and crows, their populations all proportional to the human population. Coexistence.

Her first time seeing cows on the road Mrs Lomez was awestruck. How incredible for cows to truly be living among humans, even sharing the roads. Then at the Minding Animals conference, her reason for travelling to India, she heard what life is like for a cow grazing on garbage in the street: eating plastic that cannot be excreted until there’s 50 kilos or more accumulated in a stomach. The cow was a central figure of the conference and while westerners in particular may like to believe that the cow is held sacred, many Indian presenters revealed the reality is far grimmer and that ahimsa does not seem to apply beyond individual action. The striking thing about the cows of India is the size of their udders. Some cows Mrs Lomez really had to get a good look at to be sure they were cows and not bulls. This is so far away from the dairy cows of the West, whose udders are bulging out from under their stomachs and who are riddled with mastitis. In Australia you might also expect to occasionally see cows grazing on green grass (though where they eat the rest of the time is hidden from view). Not so for the cows of India, despite dairy advertisements depicting a romanticised rural idyll with friesian calves frolicking in green fields. The cows of India frolick on concrete or, at best, a patch of dirt.

In Jodhpur two cows led a calf into the market by the clock tower. The calf could not walk on its hind right leg; its foot looked broken. One of the cows mooed for assistance. She walked up and down the market crying for help for the calf. The calf buckled onto its knees and lay down in front of the tower. Everyone Mrs Lomez asked knew where the animal doctor was based though no one seemed concerned at the calf’s predicament. They headed over to visit Rekha at Spice Paradise for breakfast poha rice and chai. She told us the cow is sacred in India and someone would call the doctor for the calf. When we emerged half an hour later the calf was gone, who knows whether taken to treatment or to slaughter. All states in India, bar two, prohibit cow slaughter. But there reportedly is a large underground trade in cow flesh. For every one registered slaughterhouse there are five unregistered.

Rekha and Anil were the only vegetarian Indians that Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez met (outside of the conference) not to pour scorn on veganism. They said it was good karma and respected the strength of will and discipline to abstain from dairy products, even though Rekha’s cooking class was filled with dairy! They said because the cow is sacred we should use the products of her body. Mrs Lomez found the easiest way to explain veganism was as a belief in no harm. Their vegetarian hosts at various homestays found this difficult to understand. The difference in scale between the Australian and the Indian dairy industries may be wide at the moment, with smallholders making up the bulk of the sector in India. But there are many things going on unnoticed beneath the surface, veiled partly by the view of the sacred. At the conference Kelsi Nagy spoke of how native cow species are being eradicated as they are being bred with European species engineered to produce more milk. These hybrid cows aren’t adapted to the climate and only the first generation carries increased milk production, so the burgeoning dairy industry is actually creating ‘surplus’ cows deemed non-productive that are destined for slaughter (as all dairy cows everywhere in the world ultimately are).

Veganism does not follow from vegetarianism. It is vegetarians as much as omnivores, if not more so, that are holding up the dairy industry. When Mrs Lomez became vegetarian she ate so much dairy and eggs. A Brahmin in Khichan told her a paratha should be smothered in ghee, not eaten with pickle. Mrs Lomez has since realised that parathas are generally cooked with ghee in the dough so they are not vegan anyway (#veganmistakes). Thousands of Siberian cranes migrate to Khichan over the winter. Thanks to the efforts of one man in the village, they are protected from uninsulated electricity lines and pesticides. Now there is a resort and a little tourist industry built up around seeing the birds.

Siberian cranes in Khichan

Siberian cranes in Khichan

In Delhi and Rajasthan there are more animals living on the streets than in Mumbai. Consuming dairy products also seems to be more common in North India. In Mumbai, there are no cows on the street except on Saturdays when people from villages bring their cows in on trucks. They are milked and the fresh milk is paid for on the spot. The cows are tied up by the side of the road until it’s time to go back home. In Mumbai, you’ll see more pet dogs being taken for a walk than free roamers. And much less garbage in the streets. Well there is garbage but it is picked up by government trucks. In Dharavi the Sin-Lomezes saw recycling industries, no piece of plastic too small to be recycled, and aluminium being smeltered by hand. In Mumbai they saw their first garbage truck. In Delhi they saw a man cycling a wooden ‘ute’ with a load of garbage piled high. Garbage seems to be integral to the terms of coexistence. Chandrima Home’s talk at the conference was about dogs attacking cows in rural villages. The dog population increases during the tourist season because there is more waste for them to eat from. Perhaps the best thing that tourists can do for the animals of India is simply not travel there? In Lisa Warden’s talk about India’s free-roaming dogs, the audience described how tourists cultivate dependency in dogs by showing them affection and giving food. When the tourists leave, what happens to these dogs?

As a tourist it is very difficult to see what goes on beneath the surface. Mrs Lomez learned these things about India’s cows and dogs only because of the talks at the conference. How can you know what’s really going on if you visit only for a few weeks? People tell you what they think you want to hear. Rickshaw drivers will tell you that what you see with your own eyes does not exist! But her heart had been captured by India.

Listening to Will Kymlicka talk about citizenship for domesticated animals, Mrs Lomez’s thoughts turned to Pixie, an old girl in Dr Sin’s family who had recently been euthanised after an acute kidney infection. She loved being outside and going for walks. She recognised the word ‘walk’ so you had to spell it out if you wanted only another human to understand without the dog in the vicinity getting all excited. In her eyes was the desperation to get outside. She had a dog flap to walk out around the back and sides of the house at her volition but she could not go out into the world on her own, supposedly for her own safety, as for the safety of all dogs that are owned. Whenever Mrs Lomez passed Pixie apparently sleeping on her pillow in the hall she would raise her eyebrows to see if she would be taken outside. She was loved dearly and well looked after but she did not have one of the basic freedoms that humans prize as citizens: freedom of movement (refugees and stateless people do not have this freedom). If she had had her way she would have been outside at all hours bar meal times and sleeping at night. A non-human animal citizen cannot be owned and in order not to infringe her rights she cannot be allowed to live in, say, a high-density apartment block. Mrs Lomez and Dr Sin have since adopted a dog even though they live in such a dwelling. A dog living in a flat has more space than a dog living in a shelter. It does not meet the conditions of citizenship but until there are no more dogs bred to be pets, is it the better option?

The fattest and oldest dog they saw in India was at the homestay in Jodhpur. Saber was about seven years old and very much a domesticated dog. He had a big garden to run in but other than that, could only go out into the street on a leash. He was evidently very well looked after and very well fed. Not so the street dogs that lay by the roadside just in front of the homestay, who looked much younger, were more timid of humans, much skinnier and had sores on their skin. The average life expectancy of a sterilised street dog is just under four years. For unsterilised dogs, it is even shorter. In Colaba, near where they stayed in Mumbai, more than 90% of dogs have been sterilised and most of them can be seen on a leash.

Just about all the meals were cheap and excellent, bar a couple of wasted opportunities. Mrs Lomez revelled in the vegetarian delights available everywhere while Dr Sin ate vegetarian the whole two weeks bar two incidents involving chickens. Living in Birmingham had been an excellent preparation. Street food was vegetarian, cheap and tasty. Chole kulcha is a spicy lentil soup poured over broken up deep-fried potato patty. Samosas of course. Fresh channa masala, with green pepper and red onion. They ate the Best. Thali. Ever. on their last day, in Mumbai, at a place called Samrat not far from the hotel in Churchgate, recommended by their driver for the day. A little pricier than the 75 rupees (less than A$1.50) for a fantastic thali at Majestic Restaurant round the corner, this one was closer to $6 – in Perth you can get only a bottle of water for that price. Why was it so good? Well, I’m glad you asked! As an aperitif, Mrs Lomez had a jal jeera drink while Dr Sin had a lassi. As each dish is served as you eat, you can avoid dairy before it even gets onto your plate. They were given steel thali plates adorned with spiced bean crisps, two mini samosas and a tray of chutneys. Tamarind, coriander, onion and mango chutneys plus mango pickle, all made on the premises, plus a red onion salad. Then the waiters bring the curries, four in their hot serving trays, and spoon them into your bowls. You are given a couple of chapatis and a pappadum, and more curry if your bowl is empty. A mung bean masala, okra and cauliflower curry, sweet dahl, fry dahl and a tomatoey, aubergine sweet curry. The amazing thing about this thali was all the different flavours, with an overriding sweetness – this is Gujarati style. Then out comes fried breads (like mini bhaturas) and four types of rice: plain rice, rice mixed with dahl, a sweet spicy biryani, and another one Mrs Lomez has forgotten. There are names for the different types of rice but she does not know them.

Best. Thali. Ever.

Best. Thali. Ever.

(Re)Reading list:

Animal Machines, Ruth Harrison
The War Against Animals, Dinesh Wadiwel
Livestock’s Long Shadow, FAO
Green is the New Red, Will Potter
Animal Death, edited by Johnston and Probyn-Rapsey
‘Vegan killjoys at the table’, Richard Twine
Sheep, Kenzaburo Oe
Trash Animals, edited by Nagy and Johnson
‘Birth of the kennel’, Donna Haraway
Silence at Ramscliffe, Chris Chapman and James Crowden
‘Practising nature and culture’, ‘Disaster in agriculture: foot and mouth mobilities’, John Law
Merle’s Door, Ted Kerasote
Reading Zoos, Randy Malamud
The Outermost House, Henry Beston
‘Death as a social harm’, Lori Gruen
Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Thom van Dooren
Elephants on the Edge, Bradshaw
Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en
Wild Dog Dreaming, Deborah Bird Rose
Feminism and the Mastery of Nature & Environmental Culture, Val Plumwood
Suicide Food blog
Against Equality website
Animal Minds, Donald Griffin
Animal Studies Journal, Australian Animal Studies Group

For other accounts of the conference, see Siobhan O’Sullivan’s write-up on Knowing Animals Past and Present and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey’s on Human Animal Research Network. For tweets tweeted as it happened! look up #mac3.

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Vegans Anonymous International

(Whereupon our heroes, having stumbled into San José and enduring a sleepless night at the campsite thanks to drunk and disagreeable neighbours, pack the tent quickly and head up the east coast of Spain.)

The chairs are hiding under pastel green coverlets. The yellow paint on the walls is curdling into a sour (non-dairy) cream. The interior is dim because the curtains are closed, even though it is a bright sunny day outside in Madrid. Welcome to vegans anonymous international.

If a building can show emotion, this one would have blushed an embarrassed shade of crimson. This particular type of vegan restaurant (on the other end of the spectrum to the ‘look, it’s organic and o so funky!’ variety) does not want to draw attention to itself. Like the hermit crab, it shuffles along with the moral burden of veganism on its back like a giant house and retracts back into its shell when prodded, lights off and shutters down. It will take you hours to find, as all you have to go on is the local typewritten expat community newsletter of 1995 listing two establishments where veggies can go without fear or shame. The other one has closed down and this one is in hiding. You will pass it once, backtrack and pass it three more times before stopping in front and saying to yourself, ‘this has got to be it’, prising open the door and, as first impressions sink in, reminding yourself of the time you have invested in finding the place. This is the only reason you stay.

Vegaviana serves traditional dishes, a more interesting offering than international vegan fusion, albeit on the gloopy side and, as described, in surroundings that are almost too insecure to show themselves in public. After this experience, Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez decide not to seek out the other veggie places in Madrid, especially as they find delicious tapas on the well-trodden tourist trail, pimientos del padron and tomato salad two favourite dishes. Big Sur gives them a taste of the southern delights yet to come: salmorejo (a chunkier gazpacho padded with bread, sometimes served with jamon and manchego) and a dish of chickpeas and spinach with cumin, two dishes they would encounter many times in Andalucía. They concern themselves with hunting down craft beer instead. El Pedal sundowners were had in Madrid (the sun still reasonably high at this time), take-away bottles were bought at Lupulópolis in Seville after sampling in-house (lúpulo seems to have something to do with hops), The Market Craft Beer in Valencia was returned to for more of their Tyris brews, and Kaelderkold in Barcelona welcomed them back many times to try the rotating drops on tap.

Heading south into Cordoba, they seek out Amaltea, an organic restaurant with separate veg and meat menus, so that Mrs Lomez could have a decent meal. The options for veg are, again, inoffensive international along the lines of stir fry, seitan and salad. Mrs Lomez is feeling fairly desperate for a grain by this time, not realising they are encroaching upon a vast swathe of Moorish-influenced cous cous territory, but is ultimately disappointed by a standard couscous with roasted veg. Dr Sin, meanwhile, has an organic leg of lamb with some kind of chutney and vegetables, which purportedly is the best meal up to this point of the journey. In Seville, chickpeas and spinach is the order of the day at a restaurant near their shitty pension which serves great tapas and superb house wine, and which they return to. In Granada, the best food is served complimentary with a glass of wine, and here the hunt for craft beer morphs into a wine bar crawl. Don’t be tempted by the supposedly north African flavours at dry restaurants and shisha bars; Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez are sucked in by an ‘all vegetarian’ restaurant serving fish, only to find it a tourist trap of the least appetising kind.

They drive on into paella territory, which at its furthest reaches is found at the seafront restaurants of San José. Through dry desert landscapes of red rock formations and into the white-canvassed, alien expanse of greenhouses growing tomatoes for Europe, they eventually come to the sea. Vegan-friendly salads with asparagus and other vegetable delights are easy to find in ostensibly fish restaurants. Salmorejo gives way to gazpacho and vegetarian paella appears on most menus. The difficulty is that most paellas are made for two but as it is still off-peak season, the last restaurant on the beach-side strip is willing to accommodate the Sin-Lomez’s divergent requirements.
greenhouses of southern Spain

Their adventures at vegetarian restaurants had so far brought more joy to Dr Sin than Mrs Lomez and had not strayed far from ‘international vegan’. Mrs Lomez’s appetite for ‘traditional’ Spanish fare is far from quelled. Then they arrive at La Nova Ermita in Valencia after a long day’s drive, exhausted and famished. The menú del día consists of a very generous three starters (!creamy soup! mussels! fried whitefish!), a main and fruit, coffee and beer. The options for main include a mushroom risotto, of the enoki variety and with a hint of saffron. The search for traditional Spanish vegan has come to a satisfying conclusion. And they return two days later to an even greater feast, having given advance vegan warning. To start, Mrs Lomez has lightly fried eggplant ‘chips’, arranged in a Yahtzee tower, and for main a vegan paella, at a very generous serving to boot. This is humbly presented, loving and delicious food, with focused yet subtle flavour and without gastro pretension.

They cannot surpass this menú del día in any of the multitude of hip spots, veg or otherwise, in Barcelona, though they are staying right in the middle of the veg zone: Veg Garden, super cheap seitan/tofu/veg burgers, salads and juices, which has queues of omnivores lining up outside on a Saturday night; and Juicy Jones for more of the same though not as cheap and housed in a colourful yet somehow sour socialist painted cooperative cafe. This is another common variant of the international vegetarian strain: anarchist lite with distrusting, standoffish staff. It is not always easy to identify with such a place. But it is nice to see two young boys here of their own volition, choosing vegetarian over multinational and factory farmed. Next door is a newly opened ‘ball’ place, Atubola, akin to a gourmet Maoz, which offers a couple of veg options more than the usual chickpea (not falafel) ball, and serves biodynamic/organic/eco/preservative-free wines, poured with a touch of disdain for customers who think eating this way will make any difference to anything. This is another common variant of the international vegetarian, though the bio/eco veneer was evidently just a marketing strategy.

But at least these unremarkable restaurants give the diner the peace of mind that they are consuming non animal-derived meals. Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez were drawn in by the bright kitsch decor of Vietnamese Bun Bo Raval and Mexican Rosa del Raval on Carrer dels Angels, similarly kitted in hot pinks, ice blues and evidently owned by the same people. To the dismay of vegetarian diners, on Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez’s second visit to the Mexican the informative waiter informs that all the rice is cooked in chicken stock and so the dishes marked vegetarian on the menu that contain rice (most of them) are in fact not vegetarian at all. Veggies be warned and say something to the kitchen about this deception, which is so wrong as to be malicious. It reminds Mrs Lomez of The Cous Cous Club in Amsterdam where she expressly asked if the meal was vegan, which the chef affirmed, and then told her after the meal that butter had been forked all the way through. This was the difficulty Mrs Lomez had been warned about before coming to Spain, of seemingly veg dishes being cooked in meat stock, though a place that presents itself as hip and hep to the times, with V symbols scattered across the menu, was the last place she expected to find it. And Australia too is turning out to be a veggie minefield: back in Perth post-le grand tour, trendy new dumpling house Darlings Supper Club marks dishes vegetarian that contain oyster sauce. Deception, thy name is hipster.

And you, dear reader, have you been fooled by restaurateurs that you’re eating vegetarian when it turns out you are not?

On the next stage of le grand tour, with Bessie the blue Nissan Micra still intact after traversing Spain, Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez catch the ferry to Civitavecchia destined for adventure in Italy …

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