Saturday, August 29, 2009

The wrath of the carnivores

Different people have different notions about what it means to be a vegetarian. There are places where the concept is unheard of, while a fair number of people equate vegetariansm with 'malnourished hippies who only eat vegetables' or 'people who dont eat any milk, cheese or other animal products' (that's veganism). While traveling in South America I came across some other interesting misconceptions regarding this group of 'social radicals.' Here's an example:

An otherwise fantastic country, Peru, was fairly disappointing when it came to food for the vegetarian budget traveler (moi). The food seems to include a lot of meat (often fried, but I digress) and finding someting I could eat was a bit of a challenge. I generally resorted to "I'm vegetarian. Do you have something on the menu that does not contain meat?" I mostly subsided on rice and salad but there were times when joint after joint responded to my query with a negative and affirmative responses have been followed up with "we have chicken" or "how about fish?" While fish don't help me any, I can see where they might be coming from, but chicken?! How is that not meat?

My rant continues... I find myself seriously dreading the ordeal of airplane food. The vegetarian meal is generally labeled 'special', reminiscent of the euphemism for disabled people in nations like the United States. There have been times when I have forgotten to specify a vegetarian meal when booking my flight, but then I deserved what I got. However, it really disturbs me when there is a delicious-sounding non-meat option (like cheese ravioli) offered to ther passengers, but my tray is snatched away from me right before I can peel back the foil, as the stewardess remembers that I am consigned to a dessert-less vegetarian non-dairy version of boiled vegetables and rice. I get a bun of bread but no butter. Worse, someone goofed up on my flight from Lima to Sao Paolo and they had no meal for me. The flight was three hours late to start with and instead of giving us meal vouchers we were served ham and cheese sandwiches (for beverages, we had Coca Cola and Inca Cola- the South American version of radioactivically yellow cough syrup with gummy bears dissolved in it, but no water). I was understandably looking forward to the meal on the flight but after much waiting they offered me the 'chicken meal' with the pieces of meat picked out. (How is this not a perfect opportunity to sue the airline?) When I refuzed, not without the adamant tone of a martyr, the flight staff became apologetic and offered me extra salad, a bag of chips and a green puree of unidentifiable content that they called soup. Not the most fabulous meal I've ever had but at least I didn't have to go hungry. Something similar happened on my bus from Cuzco to Lima (the trip took 20 hours) but there I had to resort to pulling out the meat from the sandwich and trying to ignore the smell and taste.

In addition to being miffed about the inconvieniences my dietary choices often amount to, I'm sick and tired of having to explain why I'm a vegetarian as I eat rice around a piece of chicken or discover that the crouton in my soup is actually a chunk of bovine femur. I'd like to hear you bloodthirsty carnivores defned your hedonistic diet for a change! What pisses me off even more is when people knowingly nod their heads and say "aah, you're from India" (and thus vegetarian by default). My agency and the conscious (and admittedly somewhat self-righteous) decision are taken away from me, replaced by ill-founded prejudices about regional religious superstition. And those of you who find it funny to tell me to try a bit of your meal, that it's a type of shoot/exotic vegetable when in fact it's bovine intestinal lining, you may be my friend but you are throughly evil. I am right and you are wrong and you would be a vegetarian too, if only you knew better!

I'll end the rant here for today. Don't get me started again!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Adventures of Ali Baba and Vodka

Jamaica Kincaid points out that the tourist is an ugly thing: a squinting, camera-toting ball of dough who keeps bothering people who are trying to go on with their lives with silly questions barely framed in a bad mockery of the local language (if they try at all). While I'm all for traveling (a traveller is nobler than a tourist) I remember expressing disgust at people who sign up for slum tourism, for example. What do they expect out of it- to see people poorer than they had imagined possible so that they may feel happy about their own lot while also congratulating themselves for their ability to be a bleeding heart foreigner who helps the poor people by bringing in some revenue (it is arguable whether any of the money goes to the community)? Of course my holier than thou attitude takes a bit of a beating when I get to Sao Paolo or Rio and a part of me wants to take a look at the nearby favelas. This is perhaps also in part because of the danger, not despite it, though to say the truth I don't really believe that it is extremely dangerous (the ignorant tourist?).

When it comes to exoticization, I had thought of the tourist as the one with agency- the one who gawks at the local people and customs to come to some conclusion along the lines of 'how quaint'- while forgetting that the local people also have prejudices that they may be more than willing to share. There is currently a hugely popular soap opera running on Brazilian TV that becomes the topic of conversation every time my nationality is mentioned and after a lot of smiling and 'namaste'ing, I am asked questions such as "why do Indians follow the caste system?" While getting on the bus at Sao Paolo, someone asked me where I was from (this happens rarely unless I open my mouth, apparently I look Brazilian) and as the bus pulled away, he yelled "Ali Baba" after me. Tania, on the other hand, has almost awalys been greeted with the word 'vodka' when she mentions where she is from. I guess Indians can claim a slightly more varied heritage in the common Brazilian consciousness than Russia.

To be a foreigner can be a very convienient thing. People have generally been very helpful when it comes to navigation, sometimes stopping what they were doing to show us the way- some may call it mollycoddling but it's convienient and wonderful after hours of fruitlessly trying to find the place on our own, so I won't complain. We asked a cop for directions in Rio yesterday (we needed to figure out where to take a bus to the metro from) and instead of pointing out the bus stop, he gave us a ride to the metro in his car. He was very excited, in fact ecstatic at having met a Russian who speaks Portuguese and an Indian who speaks Russian. Of course we didn't mind the cool ride either. I doubt he would have done the same for people hailing from less exotic places. Maybe I should put on a bindi and start namaste-ing before any conversation with the locals :P

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Istanbul, July 30-August 2, 2009

I love Istanbul. The food, the sea, the tramway that makes navigation so easy, the hilly roads and by-lanes that make navigation impossible, the people, the food, the shopping, the magnificent opulence juxtaposed with colorful little European style houses with flowers on balcony grills, and did I mention the food? Of course nothing can beat baklava (and I ate enormous quantities of it) but I also loved sipping Ayran (similar to lassi), salatali pilav (similar to veg pulao for the desis) with kuru fasulye (bean soup) and kumpir (which is similar to крошка картошка, a baked potato served with cheese, yogurt, beans, peas and some 20 other toppings). I've decided I need to move to Istanbul, sit by the Bosphorous as I gorge myself on baklava and then trek back to my apartment on top of a hill on a hard-to-find nook of Beşiktaş.

Part of what might have made me feel so at home in Istanbul is the Turkish language. I only knew a handful of words before and the language sounds completely foreign but throughout the days in the city, I kept coming across words in Turkish that are either the same as or very similar to words in Hindi (talk about linguistic borrowings leading to a complicated displaced sense of 'home'!) Here's a sampler for those interested: kitap (book), hafta (week), sabah (morning), meydan (arena), hakim (judge), sabun (soap), amrut (guava), nar (pomegranate), sharap (alcohol), shikayet (complaint), just to list a few. In terms of hospitality, it also helped when I saw people going far out of their way to help us out- a woman who was rushing somewhere stopped when I asked for directions and asked around for about 15 minutes until she found and showed me the doorway of the house I needed. It's in stark contrast with the city I currently live in, which I love for other reasons, but where any pleas for assistance will almost certainly be met with a "не знаю".

I think my favorite part of Istanbul (besides the food :P) was the view. The hilly roads coupled with the view of the water reminded me of Athens and it made me nostalgic for a place I barely remember but want to return to. While we had some minor scares between me and my friend- like a lost cellphone (found), a lost MP3player (gone), overbooking on the flight and someone else with the same seat designation, a night spent at the airport due to late night arrival and misinformation about taxis, etc., they were minor blips on an otherwise excellent couple of days.