I had been a strict vegan for 4 years when I moved down to Peru to work for a nonprofit on the outskirts of Lima.
My decision to become vegan was influenced by years of practicing yoga with teachers who advocated for a plant-based diet as the cleanest option for the health of the body as well as the health of Mother Earth. In yoga we are taught that a vegetarian diet is a way of practicing ahimsa (nonviolence) for all beings everywhere. Animals products which include meat, seafood, eggs and dairy are commonly viewed as the antithesis of ahimsa since they require the blatant killing of many beings for the satiation of a few.
With my vegan ideals in mind and heart, I packed up and moved down to Lima ready to help the world. Very soon upon arrival to Peru, I realized that veganism was not going to be possible outside of my green yoga community in the States and inside of the life I was creating in my new home. I didn´t have the luxury of a Whole Foods within driving distance to stock up on nut-based milks and meat substitutes. I couldn’t be so picky with food when I was around people who didn’t always know when their next meal would come.
Working at the orphanage in Lima wasnt the only moment during my time in Peru when I questioned my decision to remain vegan and even vegetarian. A year after my arrival to the country, I found myself at a holistic medicine center in the jungle. The lunch being served that day at the center was a beautiful plate of freshwater fish caught in the local river just a few hours before the meal. I graciously refused the fish and loaded my plate with rice and veggies instead.
The Peruvian shaman (indigenous healer) who was present at the meal turned to me to ask why I wasn’t eating the fish. I had to explain to him what “vegan” was. He began to laugh so deeply and so hard without stopping for ten long minutes. As he was laughing and I was slowly making a dent in the mountain of rice I had on my plate, I experienced a whole range of emotions. I began to feel angry that he was laughing at me, then I started feeling superior to him, thinking that he didn’t realize the goodness and higher spiritual quality of excluding animal products entirely from the diet. After that, I felt slightly embarrassed, my cheeks becoming more tangibly flushed with every chuckle. Toward the end of his laughing spell, a question rose up from a deep, guttaral place inside of me.
Why was I eating vegan here in the jungle where fish is super abundant and nutritious, the traditional fare of people who have occupied this part of the world for thousands of years? Is it a violent choice to eat animals even here?
To answer my question I had to understand the other’s perspective. This shaman laughed so hard and so long not as much to poke fun at me (although maybe he was having a little fun), but rather because I think in all honesty he did not understand my decision to not eat animals. He saw the fish as an offering from Pachamama (Mother Earth). Mother Earth nourishes us with plants and animals, and we take care of her in return. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be—a symbiotic relationship between man and Mother, a beautiful and never-ending cycle of death and rebirth that’s happening in every single moment.
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