Five months ago I was a strict vegetarian. Five minutes ago I ate two hot dogs. From a can. “What happened to me?” I find myself wondering, as you may be also. Well, South America happened. Here’s where I try to explain, not because I feel guilty, ‘cause I don’t really, but because some might find it interesting.
I have called myself a vegetarian for almost six years now, since my sophomore year of college. This is not my first lapse in my no-meat years, but it is my biggest. All of my exception-making has, however, involved travel and different cultures.
In 2007 when I went to Kenya I don’t think I ever had to actually eat a piece of meat, although I was served many dishes from which I carefully picked around the meat chunks and then hid them under other food so no one would notice. Most of the time, though, my group cooked our own meals and thankfully, the others were fine with cooking vegetarian.
When I went back to East Africa (Tanzania) in 2009 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was expecting to have to eat some meat in social settings. That prediction proved correct on my first night at my training home stay when my host family welcomed me, their honored guest, with a slaughtered chicken. The un-affordability of meat there, plus a clever white lie once I moved to my own village (“I’m allergic to meat!”) kept the times I had to eat chicken to only a few, and it was only ever chicken. Rice and beans were available at every cafe and I mostly cooked for myself anyway.
I was kind of expecting the same deal down here. To meat in order not to offend my hosts but avoid it in other situations. That proved more difficult than I expected. Meat is much more affordable in South America, evidently, because it is everywhere. In our first WWOOF adventure, I got over my qualms about red meat fast as bony, fatty chunks of beef accompanied many of the meals generously provided by our hosts. The bigger problem, though, is that very few restaurants offer cheap vegetarian options. The “almuerzo”, or “set lunch” is our savior down here, and it’s usually a cheap (under $2) two-course lunch restaurants offer which includes zero-few choices. Usually the only choice is between chicken or beef. You pay significantly more at these places for vegetarian meals, and even then, you usually have the choice of some kind of eggs or some other kind of eggs. Where are where are the rice and beans so abundant in Africa? The truth is, down here, if you want a vegetarian diet with nutrition and variety, you have to go to expensive gringo restaurants. We honestly just can’t afford it.
So I eat meat now. At first I would give Zach my meat and eat his side dishes, but that’s not balanced for either of us. I got so tired of eggs, eggs, eggs that I gradually found myself saying “Oh, what the heck…” more and more often and digging into animal flesh.
How do I feel about this? I don’t feel evil or good or destructive. I feel it’s a necessary compromise I’m making for this trip. A lot of the reasons I’m vegetarian aren’t reasons down here, and I’m thankful that most of what I eat was raised and killed locally and and hopefully somewhat more humanely than how it would have been in our U.S. factory farms. I also am kind of glad for this chance to satisfy my curiosity, which had been growing. Six years is a long time and I was prettyy young when I made the commitment. I recently had a lot of long-time vegetarian friends start eating meat again for various reasons, and some of them told me “Oh, I have so much more energy now!” and stuff like that. So with them in mind I was kind of interested in seeing if I would feel differently. And guess what? Nope, I don’t. I will fully admit that I do still enjoy the taste of chicken, especially fried in that deliciously-unhealthy way. But eating meat again doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been missing out. It doesn’t make me feel healthier. I feel like it’s necessary right now, mostly for our budget, and that it’ll be easy to give up all over again back in the U.S.
In fact, Zach and I talk all the time about how we miss cooking our own meals and when I look at cooking blogs I still bookmark new vegetarian recipes to try once we’re home. I still feel that meat-eating the way most people in the U.S. do it is wrong. So am I lying if I still call myself vegetarian? I’m off the wagon for now but I can’t wait to jump back on.