On the Need for a Huaorani A.L.F.

I’ve often wondered whether people who live their entire lives in places with really fantastic National-Geographic-esque animals still get excited when they see them.  Are elephants still cool if you live in Kenya?  And are squirrel monkeys equally entertaining for Amazonians as they are for me, or are they just like, well, squirrels?

For their part, the Huaoranis still seem pretty excited about the Amazon’s animal life, to the extent that their monkey-related-enthusiasm rivals my own.  There were times during my trip that it seemed as if we talked about little except for animals: our entire day’s journey was filled with observations of animals, mimicry of their calls, discussion of their ways of living.  When Bartolo’s father offered to tell me some “Huaorani stories,” every single one was a tale of the forest’s animal denizens.  For the Huaorani—just as for me—the wildlife of the Amazon seemed to be inexhaustible sources of entertainment, wonder, and interest.

This appreciation for animals, though, is a bit hard to reconcile with some of the incidences of incredibly wanton animal cruelty I witnessed during my time in Huaorani territory.  One evening one of the wives of the guides was fishing with chilapa eggs, and chucked her catches onto the beach.  Not content to let the fish asphyxiate in peace, though, her kids came up and started playing with them; chucking them around, knocking them against each other, poking them with sticks.  When Mom finally finished, she started flaying the fish, still wriggling.  I wanted to say something—“Just cut it’s head off, please”—but instead I retired to my tent.  We researchers can’t be culturally insensitive, right?  (Even when we’re studying social justice—oh the irony!)

The next day, we were motoring along when Bartolo announced that he had seen a sting ray, and insisted that I take a photo with it.  When I saw him grab a spear, I knew that this interaction was going to end poorly, but I once again failed to stop him.  A few seconds later, he had skewered the ray and lifted it into the air, a huge smile on his face.  I snapped the obligatory photo and sank back into the boat, feeling read to vomit.  Bartolo threw the ray back in, but with a laugh, said that it would die because it couldn’t swim anymore.  Coming from the culture that invented factory farms, I realize I am in little place to judge.  Nonetheless, I’m almost glad that we westerners at least hide our cruelty behind slaughterhouse walls; otherwise, I’m not sure I could get out of bed in the morning.

For those of you who don’t believe that fish can feel pain, I should throw out there that the mammals of the forest don’t fare much better with the Huaorani.  Somewhat to my surprise, the Huaorani villages we visited are teeming with dogs.  Always looking to make friends, I approached a few, only to have them shy away.  I quickly saw why: they are the constant objects of kicks, and targets for rocks and trash thrown by everyone, from children to adults.  For the best, I suppose, that I couldn’t touch them; I would have only felt their ribs, and realized that they are not only abused, they are starving.  Dogs are only one of a huge number of pets the Huaorani keep around.  Among those that I saw around Bartolo’s house was a juvenile squirrel monkey, which was tethered to a pole by a string, wrapped around its stomach, no more than two or three inches long.  For the entire time I watched it, it was spinning crazily around, struggling to free itself: the result was a bloody belly stripped of its hair.

And there is the contradiction: the Huaoranis—who spend all day talking about animals, smile the second they spot a bird flying above, and keep monkeys around just for the company—are also the authors of this unmitigated cruelty.  For the Huaorani, there is a huge gulf between appreciating animals and actually respecting them, just as with the “animal lovers” of my own country who donate to the Humane Society and eat battery cage eggs.  This leads me to think that the dominant strategy of the animal rights movement—that by rendering animal suffering visible, we will convince people to change their behaviors—is a bit silly.  In the Third World, animals suffer in full view, and people are entirely indifferent.  Creating an animal ethic is a project that is much, much more complex than simply generating sympathy and awareness.

Of course, there is no better place than the Amazon to be reminded that animals eat other animals, and that even bothering to write this post—my third about animal ethics while here in Ecuador—confirms me as one of those “crazy animal people.”  There is nothing more natural, I suppose, than humans contributing to a grisly end of other sentient beings.

But that still doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Africa Beards, Expat Guilt, and Mac’n’Cheese

Last summer, it was a beard.  This summer, it’s Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Almost exactly one year ago, I arrived in Uganda, expecting to see some elephants, learn a bit of Luganda, raft down the Nile, and maybe, in between visits to national parks, do a bit of economic research on agricultural cooperatives.  It didn’t quite work out as expected.  I spent the next seven weeks working eighteen hours seven days a week, all the while battling against the implausibility of our research design, the madness of my coworkers, and all manner of comical medical problems.  I left fifteen pounds lighter, even counting the quite hideous beard I had managed to grow.

Mock me.

There were a handful of reasons why I went razor-free for the summer.  For one, the truly hideous fuzz was a source of humor for me and my fellow RAs even in the darkest of times.  The guest house where I stayed had neither hot water nor a mirror, so looking sharp seemed like an overly daunting challenge (Never mind that my Ugandan co-workers were inevitably dressed to the nines and squeaky-clean every day).  More than anything, though, growing a beard was a bit symbolic of the mentality I took with me to Africa.  It’s a mindset of relaxed personal standards that I think many Westerners carry, packed in alongside their guidebooks and bug repellant, when the travel to the developing world.  The third world is, we tell ourselves, a bit freer and a tad less disciplined—which is part of our justification for making drunken asses of ourselves in Cancun or visiting hookers in Bangkok.

This summer, though, there will be no prolonged facial-hair-growth.  I have interviews with government ministers and NGO presidents, and as a result, I’m taking a page out of my Ugandan friends’ grooming book.  In fact, I think I’ve worn a button up shirt for more consecutive days then any time previously in my life, an experience I’m—rather surprisingly—enjoying.  Who could have possibly guessed that not looking like hell would provide a jolt of confidence?

Instead, my weakening of personal standards has come in a different form, which is, I am afraid to say, a bit direr: for the past two weeks, I have been a lacto-ovo-vegetarian.  I decided I would be loosening up my usual veganism before I even arrived, having been warned by nearly everyone I talked to that survival as a vegetarian in Ecuador was going to be hard enough, without added restrictions.  I suppose there’s an element of truth to their cautioning: I’ve already received several lectures from my host mother about how I’m going to become feeble and fragile if I don’t start eating meat, and most waiters just seem puzzled when I ask if there’s a vegetarian dish.  Still, though, I’m surviving, and, for the most part, content with the moral compromise I have made in the name of minimizing my already nearly unmanageable stress levels.

This weekend, though, I think I took “compromise”to a new level.  I needed change for a $20 bill, a massively large denomination that is almost impossible to break in Ecuador.* Feeling the need to compensate the local corner store for cleaning out all of their small bills, I bought a seriously overpriced box of authentic, fantastically overprocessed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Consuming an entire family sized box in one sitting—replete with a cup of milk and a few ounces of butter—was, I think, a culmination of the animal-product binge I’ve been on since I got here.  If I’m breaking the rules a bit, I suppose, I might as well break them a lot: hence, an endless stream of pizza, cake, cookies, omelettes, and yogurt.

I’ve written before about how being vegan anchors my sense that, yes, I am in fact a moral being, and yes, I do occasionally live those morals.  Here, though, I’ve been thinking more about how my decision to go from vegan to vegetarian appears to other people.  I’ve explained to a handful of Ecuadorians that “Yes, I’m usually vegan—but while I’m here, I’m just vegetarian.” From the relativist perspective of anthropology, temporarily suspending my veganism is a Good Thing, because it indicates that I am not trying to impose my Western idiosyncracies on a foreign culture.  It strikes me as a bit awkward, though, because here I am, offering that same expat mentality: “Hi, I have morals in my country, but they don’t really apply when I’m here.”  It is, in a sense, no less diresprespectful than growing a really, really ugly beard.

In the name of my own sanity, I think I’m going to postpone my return to level-seven veganism until I get back to a country where tofu is a household word.  In the meantime, though, I’m trying to sort out the right way to live in a foreign country—to balance the openness of anthropology with my own ethical beliefs, and to find an equilibrium between high standards and the fact that I am, sort of, on vacation.

* Remember how one time the U.S. Government released a bunch of Sacagawea dollar coins… and then they were never seen again?  That’s because they’re all in Ecuador.

Promises I Can Keep

When I embarked on my thesis project on freeganism, I envisioned myself as following the model of some of my favourite professors—Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, David Graeber, and Peter Singer come to mind—in combining genuine academic inquiry with a strong commitment to social change.  Ít wasn’t enough to just be a neutral observer of a group confronting serious injustices; in my mind, even academics had to take a side, and find a way to give research political significance.  I envisioned myself using my study of the freegans to dispel popular myths, recruit new participants, and help the group itself develop.  As my thesis sits on my parent’s bookshelf gathering dust, though, I have to admit that I never quite figured out how exactly to spin qualitative interviews and ethnographic observation into environmental justice and economic transformation.

And, to be honest, despite the popularity of “action research” and “public sociology”, I don’t think most researchers know either.  Many in the social sciences are captivated by Foucaultian idea that “knowledge equals power”, and yet few, as far as I can tell, can actually explain what this power is good for.  All the “Green Revolution” tweets and blogs in the world couldn’t overthrow Iran’s government when the tanks and riot police rolled out, and, as far as I can tell, all the peer-reviewed articles about destruction of the Amazon have done little to stop it.  Indeed, if global warming was being reversed in proportion to the volume of academic publications about it, we’d be heading for a new ice age.

What I’m getting at, in a roundabout way, is that I think a lot of researchers make promises they can’t keep.  In our quest for data, we all too often confuse researching helping people with actually doing it.  And, worse, we use our nebulous good intentions to convince people to participate in studies, without the slightest clue of how we will ever actually follow through on these intentions.  In reality, most research is self-interested: it’s about getting titles and degrees and tenure, and the social benefits are an externality.

By no means do I think that the idea of “research-activism” should be abandoned.  That said, this summer I am being careful about the promises I make.  While it kills me to say it, I am open with myself and others about how little a master’s student can do in the face of corrupt nation-states and big-oil.  What I can offer, though, is a chance for people to tell their stories—to give them a voice, if not to guarantee an audience.

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Today I had an interview with the founder of a rather legendary environmental movement in Ecuador.  It wasn’t the most successful interview in the world—I’ll blame language barriers, and my own awkwardness—but I snagged some useful data and came that much closer to believing that yes, really, I will have a thesis.  As usual, though, the most informative experience I had was an unexpected one.

I flagged a cab outside the office.  I started chatting with the driver, and eventually managed to steer the conversation from an incredibly important topic—whether Holland or Spain is going to win on Sunday—to a somewhat more trivial one—whether Ecuador should rape and pillage the world’s most biodiverse rainforest in pursuit of oil.  While usually when I ask about Yasuní, I get a short and equivocal answer, in this case I scored a life story.

My driver was born in the highlands, but his family moved into the Amazon—a few miles from Puyo—in the 1940s, when he was six years old.  Like so many of the colonos, they went east to find land; what my driver found, he said, was a place of spectacular biodiversity.  He passed a few minutes describing monkeys, birds, trees, and all sorts of flora and fauna of which I’ve never heard.  A few years ago, though, he returned, only to discover that the area was, in his words, a “desert.”  Not only have the environment been wiped out, but his community had disintegrated.  Once proud, if poor, farmers had lost their self-sufficiency and grown dependent on trinkets offered by the oil companies.  Things were getting worse, though: the wells were drying up, and so too was the meager stream of resources on which his community depended.

I asked him if it all this was because of oil, and he said “No, it’s not oil.  It’s people.”  Oil to him was just a proxy, a medium through which callous disregard for the natural environment and greed manifested itself.  He added that the people of the Amazon had never seen any of the benefits of oil money, but even if they had, it wouldn’t matter: “Oil doesn’t belong to anyone; it’s part of the earth, and it ought to be left in the ground.” He reflected a bit longer, “I would rather the government grow drugs than drill for oil.  Things grow back when you grow coca.”

I paid him $3 for the ride, including an absurd tip in gratitude for his wisdom and openness.  As I stepped out, he called me back: “Wait, write my name down.  I’m Guillermo Escobar, and I’m sixty-eight years old.  Tell everyone at your university what I said.”  I promised him I would.

As I read this, I know how completely cheesy what I have written sounds, and how many people would snigger at my naivety and essentialization and valorization of the “other” and all sorts of other terms of cynicism that I don’t quite understand.  But, for whatever reason, Guillermo wanted me to share what he said, and I appreciate that, for once, I can follow through.

Un-civilized, Un-democratic, Un-relativist

Have you heard the news?  Uganda is no longer a civilized nation!

At least, that’s the take of the Washington Post, which (rightly) denounced a bill in front of Uganda’s parliament that would give a life sentence to “serial” homosexuals, imprison people who “aid and abet” homosexuality, and require citizens to report homosexual activity to the police as putting the country “beyond the pale of civilized nations.”

There are many easy points to make about this bill, all of which I considered including in an earlier, much longer, rant-tastic version of this post.  I could, for example, poke fun at the Ugandan pastor playing gay porn to his congregation, or join The Post in attacking Uganda’s backward and un-enlightened ways.  I might also point out the degree of hypocrisy in our collective outrage, given both the treatment of gays in our country and that the U.S. gives $23 billion in foreign aid and trade concessions to 24 countries that ban homosexuality each year (according to some quick research on the US Statistics Bureau website).  The easiest way to score lefty outrage points is to blame this bill on a group of American evangelicals, who last year delivered seminars on the threat of homosexuality to Uganda.  (Now, these same individuals are feigning surprise that some Ugandans actually took them seriously and followed their bigotry to its logical conclusion.)

While blaming this situation on American right-wing nut-jobs is convenient, though, it’s probably dishonest.  A poll taken in 2007 suggested that 95% of Ugandans support criminalization and see homosexuality as a serious threat to their society—a statistic with jibes with my own experience talking to Ugandans while I was there.  Sadly, history suggests people are fully able to come to homophobia and discrimination on their own.  I think we Westerners are giving ourselves too much credit by claiming that the entire situation is caused by a few outsiders giving seminars, and not from deep-seated human tendencies to exclusion and scapegoating that plague literally any society.

All of this has me thinking about the role of democracy and participation in development.  Self-determination and relativism are widely celebrated in the development community as the remedy to the cultural imperialism of past interventions by the West in Africa.  Ugandan leaders have tapped into this same discourse of democracy as they have defended themselves against Western pressure to shelve the anti-homosexuality bill.  Uganda is far from a democratic nation, but there are still plenty of reasons to think that this bill is, in some perverted sense, the will of the people.

I guess, for me, this is an unpleasant reminder that, as much as I like the idea of letting people set their own priorities, sometimes people set priorities for themselves that are really stupid.  As problematic as it is for me to say this, I simply can’t bring myself to be relativistic on an issue like this, all my training aside.  I am unabashed in condemning homophobia in my own country and even in some others (like the U.K.), so why should I be scared to do so in Uganda?  If I do so, am I just another imperialist imposing my Western version of morality?  And if I lack the moral clarity to pass judgment on something as basic as this, should I really be in the business of trying to ‘develop’ places anyway?

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Jukebox: Tiger Army – Sea of Fire

The Face of Terrorism (Oxford and elsewhere)

Be afraid.

Long before I came to Oxford, I had heard about Oxford’s notorious animal rights activists.  They epitomized the absolute extreme to which the movement had come: “they” broke into labs, harassed professors, and even committed acts of bombing and arson.  While there were many reason why my interviews for the Rhodes and Marshall were disasters, I certainly knew things were heading downhill when I was asked whether I planned to become one of “them”.  The same question dogged me in the months before I came here: “You’re not going to be part of ‘those’ groups, are you?”

Students at Oxford are, somewhat unsurprisingly, even more hostile towards “them.”  Numerous people have told me how much they hate it that they have to walk past protesters on the way to work, or how inappropriate they think it is that “they” show up to events like Oxford’s graduation, calling for a boycott of the university so long as it continues its massive support for animal testing.  This term, I’ve been working to help found a student vegan society, but “they” are still a problem.  At our meetings, newcomers always want to know: “You’re not like ‘them’ are you?  You’re not going to use ‘those’ tactics?”

Protect and serve.

This Thursday, I finally saw “them” – or perhaps I should say, “her.”  I was bicycling through the science section of campus and there they were – banners put up by SPEAK, the anti-vivisection group generally thought to be behind actions like the burning-down of University College’s boathouse.  I have to admit, I was a little underwhelmed.  Next to large banners condemning Oxford and mourning the death of a monkey named Felix, there were a few late-middle aged women, standing silently in the rain, holding signs.  There were at least twice as many police there, I can only assume preventing them from breaking into those violent, dangerous actions that we all know they engage in after dark.

Sometime during the Bush Administration, animal rights protesters like these were labeled the United States’ “number one” domestic terror threat.  The Obama administration has continued the trend, pandering to the right wing by promising to vigorously prosecute animal rights “terrorists,” like four people in Austin who had the audacity to chalk a sidewalk.  The United Kingdom, too, has jumped on the bandwagon: after Britain declared it had become the “Afghanistan of Animal Rights terrorism,” the government began a major campaign of infiltrating and monitoring activist groups.  All this policing effort seems to suggest that animal rights radicals – like those at Oxford – are a real threat.

There’s just one problem with this narrative, though: animal activists have never managed to kill anyone (although a few animal activists have been killed.)  Yes, pro-AR radicals have caused some (relatively minimal) property damage, and even a few injuries.  The principles of the Animal Liberation Front – the group most often associated with animal rights terrorism – are telling: point four of five is “To take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human.”  As far as I can tell, they’ve done a reasonably good job of adhering to these principles: in 1500 animal rights actions monitored by the British police, only seven resulted in injuries.  Whatever your views on property destruction, I am struck by what a distant departure these actions are from what I classically envision “terrorism” to be: the use of violence against non-combatant persons to intimidate a civilian population for political reasons.

It’s impossible for me not to draw a comparison to the recent “incident” in Austin, Texas, where an anti-government crazy named Joe Stack flew a plane into an Internal Revenue Service building, killing himself and one employee while injuring a dozen others.  A few friends have forwarded me his manifesto, and expressed to me how much ‘sense’ it seems to make.  Indeed, while the Tea Party is celebrating Stack as an American hero, even some allies on the left seem to be convinced that Stack must not be all that bad of a guy because he denounced Congress’ failure to pass health care reform. I find this completely infuriating.  Make no mistake – the only difference between Joe Stack and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who killed 168 at a similar federal building, is that Stack didn’t succeed.  And yet, the consensus seems to be that what Stack did wasn’t terrorism.

I am left wondering: what does it say when breaking into a lab to save rabbits is terrorism, but flying a plane in a building in order to kill people trying to make an living (albeit off of a system you oppose) is not?  When I wake up to a New York Times front page reporting murdered abortion doctors, massacred Afghani civilians, a mass movement calling for revolutionary violence against the Obama administration, and a political class that seems concerned about none of these things, I find myself thinking: what the world could use is a few more little old ladies, standing in the pouring rain, choosing to make a statement while most would rather be inside making money or caring for their own affairs, simply because they are worried about some mice in a lab.

If “they” are terrorists, then I can only hope someday I will be labeled a terrorist too.

The face of terrorism at Oxford.

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Jukebox: Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name

Giving Well

The ideas in this post were mostly bouncing around in my head at Christmastime, but with today being the one month anniversary of the quake in Haiti—and having just attended a panel on the international community’s response to said disaster—these things seemed suddenly relevant again.

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The first proper summer job I had was working for the Defense Department (yes, really) on an Air Force base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I emerged from seven weeks in a windowless basement office watching home-star runner cartoons with over $1,000 in my bank account.  At the time, this seemed like an inexhaustible quantity of money.  I spent it on such stupid things as Rayban Sunglasses.  Naturally, I emptied my account by November (and managed to step on and break my sunglasses).

A few summers later, I once again found myself with some extra dollars (the intervening summer didn’t count, since I worked for minimum wage and spent most of my money on driving to work).  This time, though, I decided to do something more useful with my (semi)hard-earned cash: give it away.  My parents are incredibly inspiring philanthropists, and have set a really powerful example for me with their generosity.  Alongside that, though, they taught me to be aware that giving is a privilege that we were lucky to have.  Although I didn’t have much, by student standards I knew I was hugely privileged, so I fired off a few checks, and all around felt good about myself.

Fast forward to this Christmas.  2009 was a lucky year for me, thanks to my scholarships, putting me in a more comfortable position than I will be at any time in the foreseeable future.  Some combination of moral obligation and the looming specter of the taxman turned my thoughts back to philanthropy.  The problem is, now I know things.  I know, for example, that that check I sent to PETA a few years ago probably funded a mildly sexist and hugely ineffective publicity stunt, or that a huge portion of the money I gave to Amnesty International was eaten up by administrative costs.  I resolve that, this time, I would make myself better informed.

Studying development, I figured I would donate to some group working in the Third World.  Figuring out to whom to give, though, is an absolute nightmare.  The range of advice and charity rating sites out there is practically infinite.  Should I follow the advice of Give Well, which promises charity-rating based on rigorous, objective criteria–or should I ignore them because their raters are economists with no development experience who seem to care more about ‘cost-effectiveness’ than the rights of poor people?  Or should I pay attention to the dozens of different features Good Intentions Are Not Enough insist I identify before I give?  Perhaps better I just listen to the blogs that suggest that – all in all – giving probably does more harm than good, so we probably shouldn’t do it.

I eventually settled on Partners in Health, a Boston-based charity that sets up free health clinics in developing countries and couples physical healing with social empowerment and political advocacy.  I could, of course, still think of a load of problems with it (thank you developing studies): health NGOs make national governments think they don’t need to provide health care (distinctly a bad outcome), and Partners in Health’s guiding philosophy is one that is in some cases utopian and, therefore, not maximally effective.  In the end, I gave–but I didn’t feel good about it.

The recent earthquake in Haiti, which (as I learned today) killed 2.5% of the country’s population (imagine 9 million Americans dead), has put giving back in the news.  A lot of the aid to Haiti has been kind of stupid, which seems to confirm the cynicism of the blogs I cited above (while Partners in Health had 5,000 staff on the ground in Haiti before the earthquake, Red Cross had three – but Red Cross has received $160 million more in donations.)  I went to today’s panel on the International response to the quake expecting to hear a lot of Western self-flagellation about uncoordinated, unproductive, and ultimately, harmful aid.  I was surprised when they said that, despite problems, international largess had helped make things a lot better than they would have been otherwise.  It was a huge relief – a confirmation that I didn’t just give because I felt I had to, but because it actually might make something better.

This has been a long and circuitous post, so I will just offer some closing thoughts.  The new buzzwords of philanthropy are accountability and obligation.  This is a good thing: people do have a moral obligation to do more for the underprivileged than they currently do, and also have a responsibility to do so in a manner that is well-informed.  This has to be balanced, though.  We have to be careful about ignoring basic human emotions: that is to say, people want to do good and feel good about doing it.  Otherwise they just buy sunglasses.

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Jukebox: Ani Difranco – In and Out

Chiang Mai –> Phuket –> Ao Phang Nga –> Ko Phi Phi

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Back on the road today.  I started with a brief run around the perimeter of the city moat (I’m hoping to return in some semblance of fitness for rowing tryouts), which we followed with one last trip to get mango sticky-rice.  Afterward, we took a Tuk-Tuk to the airport and caught a flight to Phuket.

Phuket is an overdeveloped peninsula in the south of Thailand, where billboards advertise elephant trapeze shows and hotel brochures only sort-of attempt to mask the real meaning of their offers of Thai women for “companionship.”  Fortunately, Jackie, a master trip planner, had us on a bus away from the crowds within the hour.

Ao Phang Na is apparently on the tourist trail, but evidently not a frequent stop.  All the signs are in Thai, and after having all the standard modern conveniences in Chiang Mai, our hotel here is a bit closer to roughing it: there are quite literally holes in the wall (we paid for, and got, air conditioning, but apparently that doesn’t mean that you’ll be in a room where air conditioning will do any good).

At dinnertime, we walked down the main drag of town, which seemed completely deserted until we reached a New Years carnival.  There were games, all sorts of crappy prizes, and, of course, a large stage… on which people were singing karoke.  For her own amusement, Jackie sent me off to try to find food, but since I can’t say “I’m vegetarian” in Thai and can’t tell which mass of fried noodles is pork-free, she eventually had to take charge.  Naturally, we got sticky rice.

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I think I’ve figured out the key to authentic Thai cuisine.  Surprisingly, my favorite Thai restaurants in the U.S. aren’t too far off: they just need to add a lot more sugar.

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Well, that was the best $40 I’ve ever spent.  Today we booked a longtail boat to take us out into Phang Nga Bay.

The trip started with weaving through narrow corridors of water between impenetrable walls of mangroves.  When we emerged, we were in the shadows of huge limestone cliffs that felt like something out of Lord of the Rings.

We stopped to go canoeing.  I was initially a bit disappointed that “canoeing” meant “a Thai guy will paddle you around.”  I finally got a chance to grab the paddle, though, impressing everyone with my seafaring skills… that is, the guy immediately took my paddle back when we almost ran into a cliff.

Mid-day, we stopped at “Jame [sic] Bond Island,” a protruding formation featured in The Man With The Golden Gun. Given how far it seemed like we were from, well, everything, it was a bit of a surprise how many people were there.  It’s hard for me to be resentful of tourists since I am, in fact, a tourist.  This is genuinely one of the most beautiful places in the world, so I can’t blame others for wanting to see it.

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If there were an award for capitalist ingenuity, I know who I’d give it to.  During our little canoeing trip, we slipped under a low-lying cliff and came out into a gorgeous stone depression.  And there, waiting for us, miles from anything, was a guy in a boat selling coconuts filled with juice.

Second place goes to the guys who managed to get ice cream to James Bond Island, where there is no electricity or permanent settlement.

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Evening brought us to a Muslim fishing village, built on stilts on the rim of a tiny island.  Packed during the day with visitors—as the miles of stands selling t-shirts and fake pearls attest—it was almost completely silent and dark at night.  We were staying in a tiny wooden bungalow, and could watch the tide coming in and out through the gaps in the slats of our floor.

Practically the only other English speakers on the island were some British tourists, who invited us to play scattegories.  I’ve always loved backpacking because of the way having a limited amount of stuff forces you to interact with people, and I loved our isolation for the same reason.

The night concluded with a yellow moon rising over the cliffs.  Having no electricity is awesome because you get to go to bed early.

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It’s days like these that make me sad to think that—in an actually sustainable world—these kind of experiences would have to become much rarer.  Travel is so physically destructive in terms of the resources it uses, but also mentally broadening.  Maybe jet-setting around the world will have to be curtailed, but I do hope that in eco-topia, we get rid of our houses and cars before our travels.

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We woke up at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sunrise.  While Jackie assures me that she’s seen more beautiful ones in her time in Thailand, I was duly awed.

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It always takes me some time to adjust to the way blatant animal cruelty is so visible and open in the developing world (not that it’s not awful in the West, just that it’s hidden).

Two nights ago, my heart sank when I saw some sort of sea crustacean wriggling—alive—over an open flame at the market.  This morning, I went down to the pier and saw, in the belly of a longtail, a mass of fish and other critters—some sort of bycatch—gasping out their last.  After sunrise, a pair of fishermen came down and started sorting through them.  Some they put into buckets, while most they threw back into the water.  By this point, of course, most of them were dead, and their carcasses just floated off.

Our tactics as animal rights activists in the west often center around trying to force people to acknowledge that the meat on their plate was once a living, breathing animal.  We assume that, once they see this, they will think twice about eating it.  This strategy flies completely in the face of what you can see in practically any place other than the U.S., where it is completely obvious that meat was once an animal because people buy and cook it in a form not that different from the one it took while alive.  Thai’s see their future meat all the time and often kill it themselves, yet seem completely undeterred in their carnivory, Buddhism be damned.

Humans have such a great capacity to be indifferent to cruelty, one that definitely cannot just be overcome by presenting people with gruesome images or “the facts.”

- – - – -

Our tour brought us back to Ao Phang Nga.  Our plan was to next take a bus to Krabi, from where we could get a boat to Ko Phi Phi.  Upon entering the bus station, though, we were told that the 10:30 bus—the only one that would get us to our boat on time—was full.

But wait… the British couple we had been travelling with said there was another bus—a second class bus—that we hadn’t been told about, and they had just bought tickets.  We went back and asked, but were told there were no tickets.  The British couple told us they had been told the same; we just had to ask for standing tickets.  We finally convinced her to sell us tickets, at which time a bus started pulling out of the coach park, saying it was bound for Krabi, even though it was 10:05.  The cashier told us to get on it, but the attendant said our tickets weren’t valid, so we went and exchanged them.

All in all, we must have bought and exchanged our tickets about four times.  The bus itself was quite fancy, at least in that it had very cute lacy curtains and a substantial stuffed animal collection in the windshield.  Next to a driver, there was an employee whose sole job was to manage the in-drive entertainment, which, of course, was karaoke.

By comparison to the tiny bus terminal, the boat station felt like a modern airport.  But, there were still a number of completely senseless steps in boarding, which culminated in us and about 200 other confused farang mobbing two attendants who were exchanging our tickets for nearly identical tickets, which we needed for some un-apparent reason.  This makes sense to someone.

- – - – -

We arrived at Ko Phi Phi and were immediately surrounded by vendors trying to convince us to buy hotels/water taxis/underwater cameras/tattoos/scuba tours.  Fortunately, Jackie had found us a place on the opposite side of the island, away from Ko Phi Phi town, which seems pretty crappy.

I was a little disappointed when I saw the state of our bungalow.  I guess after Uganda—where 5,000 shillings ($2) gets you a top notch room with electricity and a lock—I was banking on $20 getting us regular power and maybe even a functional bathroom.

You don’t go to Ko Phi Phi for luxury, though.  The fact that we found a quiet place thirty feet from the ocean during high season on a notoriously crazy island is pretty fantastic, and it has a with a hammock at that.

Indulgences

“We could live off of dumpsters if we have to
Sell our blood by the pint to make rent
This kind of dignity doesn’t come easy
But you’ll never find it for sale”
- Against Me!

One of the things that surprised me in Uganda was that there were no beggars. I expected Kampala, the capitol city of the seventeenth poorest country in the world, to have exponentially more panhandlers than New York, but it didn’t. In fact, I think I only ran into one during my entire time in Uganda, but the experience has stuck with me.

I was rushing around the busy downtown district, trying to patch one of the many leaks in the perpetually sinking ship that was our project. I practically stepped on him: a kid, no older than three or four, draped in a dirty oversized t-shirt, sitting square in the middle of the sidewalk. His hands were cupped and arms outstretched. It was such a clichéd image, except it was real: it could have been part of an appeal from a Christian Children’s Fund television commercial, except the backdrop was so incongruous. Businessmen and women wearing crisp suits and yammering into cell-phones were charging past on either side, washing around him by just enough to avoid stepping on him. The setting was Kampala at its most modern, but the kid was practically an archetype of the sort of African poverty that Western bleeding-hearts find so gut-wrenching.

Frantic and sleep-deprived as I was, I still felt like I had to do something. I reached into my wallet, pulled out a thousand shillings, plopped it into his hands, and hustled off. An hour later, I was coming back. The kid was still there. The bill was crumpled in his hands, and he was just staring at it. There were many things I could have done at that moment—taking my money back and using it to buy him some food would have been a good start—but I was in a hurry. I put him behind me and settled into the throng walking by. To this day, I can’t imagine why I thought one thousand shillings would be enough to buy myself a clear conscience.

That is not to say, though, that money cannot assuage guilt. I knew my twin flights home and to Thailand over this break were bad from an ecological point of view, but I didn’t realize how bad until I actually calculated it. With disconcerting precision—factoring in the type of ticket, layovers, and type of jet—I was able to determine the precise footprint of my trips: ten-thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide.  In forty hours of flight time, I am responsible for four times the amount reduced by an entire year of my being vegan, five times the sustainable yearly output for each person on the planet, and one-hundred times the average emissions of a sub-Sahran African.

I can do more than just quantify my guilt: I can put a price on it. I really hate the idea of carbon offsets. There is something painfully cavalier about it, the arrogance of believing we can continue to drive SUVs and build huge houses and think that, at the end, we can make our sins invisible with a credit-card transfer. But, acknowledging that I can’t undo my trips—and don’t really want to—sending some money towards reforestation in Brazil and clean energy in India seemed like the least-bad option left.  Indeed, for a few extra dollars, I could go above and beyond simply offsetting my flights, towards actually reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. I guess sometimes dignity can be bought.

I still feel bad about that kid, though.

On “Happy Meat”

There are a few questions that seem to get asked at every single animal rights event I’ve ever been to, in spite of their complete inanity.  At the end of any lecture by a vegan philosopher, it’s inevitably that some carnivore with raise their hand and smugly—as if they had come up with an idea so original it would be totally debilitating to the vegan argument—ask, “How do you know plants don’t have feelings too?”  Another inevitable question that makes me feel like throttling someone is “What if we bred animals that want to be eaten?”

Image from "suicidefood.blogspot.com", which you should totally check out.

I am forced to concede, however, that apparently these idiots might actually be on to something, at least with one common query.  According to the Telegraph, Dutch scientists have managed to grow something vaguely resembling meat in a laboratory. At least some animal rights supporters are excited about this development: PETA, in fact, is offering one million dollars to anyone who can get this petri-dish pork onto shelves by 2012.

There are, of course, some obvious reasons to stay skeptical.  The meat in question was cultured using in a solution made out of, well, meat, which rather defeats the entire purpose (they are hoping to come up with a synthetic alternative).  Moreover, the erstwhile pork chop was a bit soggy: there’s a lot of development that will need to take place before it is edible, much less marketable.  Still, in principle, I like the idea: as someone who very much enjoyed the taste of meat in my sixteen years of pre-vegetarian darkness, I suppose I would be willing to eat meat that involved no animal suffering and avoided the environmental externalities of livestock production.

All that said, though, the real reason I am writing this post is, ironically, to state why I think animal rights groups talking about “test-tube” meats is, ultimately, a useless distraction.  Imagine, for a moment, that by some miracle of engineering they managed to produce laboratory meat that was no more expensive than factory farmed meat (unlikely) and tasted the same (double unlikely).  Would this change the present state of animal exploitation in the world?

I submit that it would not.  As it is, eating animal products involves humans putting their most trivial interests—taste, convenience, and habit—over the most fundamental interests of animals—life and the avoidance of suffering.  Purchasers of so-called “humane” animal products only reinforce this calculus, making purchases that, essentially, assert that even when we attempt to consider animal interests, they only merit tiny alterations, like a slight improvement in the method of slaughter, a slightly larger cage (Anyone interested in learning about such “happy meat” should check out Gary Francione’s blog).

My point is, so long as the most inconsequential of human interests are accepted as invalidating any interest of an animal (if we even accept that they have them), then no one is going to bother buying laboratory meat.  There are already a whole host of meat substitutes, but their proliferation has not managed to make the population go vegetarian.  Why would anyone risk eating a genetically engineered steak that might taste a bit funny, when they are able to purchase the real thing guilt-free?

These issues have been on my mind on multiple fronts this week.  In advance of Copenhagen, a few animal rights supporters released a report claiming that a whopping 51% of greenhouse gas equivalents come from livestock (the previous guess, from the U.N., was that animal production accounted for a still-disturbing 18%).  The study’s flaws (there are many which I may write about later) aside, I can’t imagine it will do much good.  The issue of eating meat remains an “exception” issue.  What other human practice—so grossly destructive of our planet and the things that live on it—is considered “off the table” for legislative action?

There are many ways to dance around the issue, to try to create alternatives to meat or put forth environmental or health arguments for vegetarianism.  Ultimately, though, change will only come when we—as individuals, as societies, and as a species—come to grips with the fundamental question: is it right or wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on lesser—but nonetheless sentient—beings?

Everything else is a distraction.

A Moral Quandary – Audience Participation (?)

Before I arrived in Uganda, I expected that people in Africa would ask me for money or sponsorship all the time. I had heard my father’s stories from the Peace Corps in Peru, where people would simultaneously tell him “America kills babies!” and ask him to bring them back to the U.S. While I expected a similar experience, I didn’t get it. Aside from the occasional person who would walk up to me on the street and say “Mzungu! Give me money” (in a totally non-threatening manner), I was panhandled or asked for assistance practically never.

Why they thought all white people are rich was beyond me.

Why they thought all white people are rich is beyond me.

All this taken into consideration, I still wasn’t particularly surprised or taken aback this week when an acquaintance from Uganda – with whom I shared a house for a few weeks – wrote from out of the blue asking me for a few hundred dollars to help him pay university fees. I was, however, a bit thrown for a loop. You would think that, studying development, I would have some logical plan of action for confronting a real-world situation of third world poverty. The irony is that, while I might have had a ready answer a year ago, my experiences since then have made this sort of thing seem much more complex.

I like to think of myself as someone who is aware of his privilege and the obligations to others that privilege creates. The utilitarian in me knows that in the grand scheme of the universe, I am unlikely to gain more benefit from a few hundred bucks than this guy will, and the determinist in me knows that I have money and he does not by pure chance. It doesn’t particularly bother me that he is asking me, who he knew for only a few weeks, rather than any of the numerous other similarly positioned white graduate students who also live in the house (he didn’t ask either of the other research assistants, who were there at the same time I was). To some extent, it’s frustrating that he—like so many in Uganda—assumed that because I am from the U.S., my funds are limitless, but from his perspective, they might as well be. I do have the resources to help, if I really want to, and the things I would sacrifice to do so would be significant but not overwhelmingly so.

Peter Singer talks about the example of a drowning child; just because others could pull out the child, and do not, does not lessen your own obligation to help. Neither should it matter if the child is far away, nor if helping him or her requires you to be late for work or ruin a nice suit. It’s an argument that I find persuasive, and I remind myself of it anytime I am reluctant to open up my purse strings. I suppose that, a year ago, my bleeding heart and liberal guilt-complex would have led me to stretch my funds and wire him some money.

What I have realized in the last year, though, is that our moral obligation to give is not necessarily the same as someone else’s moral entitlement to get. In Uganda, I tried arduously to shut my eyes to the signs of dependence around me, but they were there. It was impossible to ignore the way people turned to white intervention as a panacea for their problems. In a sense, people in Africa may very well deserve assistance from Europeans; we have and continue to extract billions of dollars in natural resource wealth from the continent. At the same time, though, a knee-jerk assumption that white people will come on high and solve problems does create a sort of complacency and powerlessness that ensures that no assistance will actually work.

When I’ve mentioned my quandary to some of my friends, many of them commented, “You also have no idea if he’s actually going to spend the money to go to college.” I suppose I’m naïve enough that this concern never occurred to me, and it still doesn’t particularly bug me. I do, however, wonder about whether giving him money for an education will actually help him avoid having to come back to me again. A sad truth of Uganda is that there are far more degrees than jobs; this summer, I paid people with MBAs and masters degrees $10 a day to read surveys all day. This is not a matter of “teaching someone to fish,” as per the parable; it’s giving a fish.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of writing about this publicly; perhaps a private request for aid should be kept private (though I am keeping this anonymous). But I am genuinely curious if anyone has any insights as to how to deal with this sort of a situation.