It was harder than I thought. Being vegan in Mexico that is. I am so fortunate to be a Web designer with amazing clients, the majority of which are doctors and some of which are surgeons. You see I’m a wanna-be surgeon. And occasionally my surgeon friends let me follow them to remote parts of the world and help out on their medical missions. Week before last I found myself lucky enough to end up in Jalpa, Mexico with the smart, incredibly nice, and talented trauma surgeon, Dr. Chris Salvino.
When I was packing for the trip I felt confident about all my supplies including water purification tablets and a sleep sack. But I was feeling a bit nervous about what the food situation would have in store for me. I quelled my unease by convincing myself that Mexico is the land of rice, beans and tortillas. What better sustenance for a vegan? I seriously could live on rice, beans and tortillas for quite some time. If for some reason that would not be the case, I took 12 Luna bars as a back up
It was a trek to get to Jalpa, Mexico. Jalpa is a town of 20,000 people and a one hour plane flight + two hour car ride from Mexico City. Leaving from Phoenix, we first hit Los Angeles, then Mexico City and finally Zacatecas by plane. Then Gloria Silva, one of Jalpa’s city council members, met us at the airport with a driver that would take us two hours by car to Jalpa.
During the car ride, I was really surprised to see the Mexican landscape. In this part of the country it looked exactly like middle/northern Arizona. I seriously could have been on the I-17 headed up to Flagstaff. We passed several small ranches where the cattle roamed freely and looked quite happy. They had small trees for shade and plenty of water. There were no feedlots in sight! I wondered, could it be that Mexico has more humane meat production standards? Unfortunately not. During one of my conversations with the local surgeon, he explained that factory farming exists in Mexico and the conditions for the animals are the same as what I described to him about America’s factory farms. As usual it comes down to economics. The farmers with small operations raise animals for their sustenance and perhaps that of their friends and family. They don’t really make a living treating the animals with respect and compassion.
Once we arrived at the hospital, I was surprised at how modern it was! They had several units, exam rooms, recovery rooms, and even two surgical suites. By far, Jalpa had the best set up of any hospital I’ve visited on a medical mission before. We met two additional surgeons from Pittsburg and Detroit as well as two awesome nurses and a scrub tech from Chicago. We all became fast friends and worked hard over four days to complete about 50 surgical procedures. I watched almost every procedure, was able to assist in two, and even intubated a patient! It was amazing and solidified my latent desire to stop just hanging out with doctors and actually become one myself. More on that another time.
But what about the food? The Mexican people were extremely kind, welcoming and generous. They wanted to make sure our every need was met. This meant that one of our hostesses even took three days off work to cook and serve us food! I mean seriously, who would do that in America for a bunch of people she has never met before? Now let me explain that I speak Spanish well and communicated several times that I would love to eat rice, beans and tortillas for every meal. Our hostess nodded in agreement as if she understood and I was really excited at how seemingly easy I thought it would be.
And then my first meal arrived. It was a salad tossed with ham and a chicken fried steak on top. Argh! I am not an obnoxious traveler, really I’m not. I didn’t want to complain. But I was starving not having eaten since dinner the night before. But looking at the salad, my stomach dropped to my knees. What exactly was unclear about the rice and beans? Apparently there was some issue with the restaurant or something … I was so appreciative of their hospitality but I could not eat that salad! I mean all I saw when I looked into the box was a screaming pig and a squawking chicken that would have rather lived than be part of that salad. It was traumatic for me. I have not seen a dead animal on my plate in at least seven years. After taking a deep breath I painfully removed all the pieces of pig and chicken. Then I ate what amounted to two cups of iceberg lettuce. I hoped the next day would be better.
I kept communicating with our gracious hostesses that I’m vegetarian. It was futile to explain veganism. They didn’t really understand what that was. The closest I could get was vegetarian. Apparently they were confused because to our Mexican hostesses, rice and beans were a side dish to meat. They could not understand why I only wanted to eat the side dishes! As each day went on, they began to understand and you can imagine my happiness by the third day when I was served up heaping plates of rice, beans and tortillas. Aside from the occasional cheese sprinkled on this and that, I was able to maintain a mostly-vegan diet. Success!
One afternoon, I ate lunch with the Mexican nurses who were a complete and total hoot! They told me vegetarians don’t exist in Jalpa. Not one in a town of 20,000 people. This makes me think that veganism may be an aristocratic luxury. When people are more concerned with survival than whether or not they harm animals, they choose survival. Were we in the remote parts of Somalia where people were truly starving, I might have understood this. But in Jalpa, people were not starving. At least not the people I saw. In fact there were some people that would qualify as obese and fit right in America. So what gives? Rice and beans are inexpensive. Maybe they are uneducated like many Americans or maybe their society places animals in a place where their wellbeing is not valued like we do in America.
I realized quickly that discussing veganism with my new Mexican friends was interesting but futile. However, not surprisingly, it became quite the discussion with my fellow Americans. From the very first meal I started fielding questions like “what do you eat?”, “where do you get your protein?”, “why are you vegan?” The usual. And since we were held captive for a whole week together, this gave me many opportunities to discuss the situation for farm animals in our country. By mid week, one of the nurses said she couldn’t eat her eggs in the morning and Dr. Salvino decided to exchange meat for veggies once in a while. I am always amazed and incredibly excited when people really listen to what’s going on with our food production system. Even very well educated, well intentioned people are ignorant about this topic. It gives me an enormous sense of gratitude when they decide to look at their food choices a bit differently.
While I went to Mexico to get some reprieve from the daily grind and to watch surgery, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the kindness of our Mexican hostesses and the open-mindedness of my fellow Americans.
Keep your eyes and ears open for more on Dr. Chris Salvino. I gave him an earful about factory farming and food safety. He may soon have opportunities to really do something about these issues but he will need our support. I’ll keep you posted ….