What is Mercy Release?

This image is taken from a Scientific American Slideshow.

I’ve now been living in Asia pretty consistently for 10 years now. I have been lucky to spend decent lengths of time in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia (and although not in Asia, I have spent a year in France and also Morocco).  The first five years were spent tour-leading for a company that focused on trips that were considered culturally appropriate, fun and low impact. I spent much of my time having local interaction with the local people, taking my clients to local restaurants. markets, temples, taught them a bit of language and I have to say, I really enjoyed it It was during that time, that I started to doubt my vegetarianism values. As I have discussed on my Story of Transformation post, I really felt that  not eating animals and participating in some of the activities that were such a significant part of culture, I was somehow disrespecting the practices of the locals. For more selfish reasons, I thought that I was perhaps missing out on so much by not eating an ‘authentic’ Tom Yum Goong with the shrimp inside rather than having it with mushrooms instead.

Fast forward a few years, I am now a committed vegan, and because of my interest in other cultures and traditions relating to animals, I was fascinated to learn about mercy release today and also completely shocked by it.

Anyone who has spent any time in Asia, will be familiar with the concept. It’s a Buddhist tradition and involves the release of captive animals. Buddhists will release animals as a way to gain merit. The origin of this centuries old tradition is the idea that spontaneous acts of kindness and compassion will mean something when judgment day comes.

I have posted about religious reasons for using animals just last year when I wrote about Eid Al Adha – which is the ritualistic slaughter of an animal at the end of the fasting month.

I have recently found out a lot more about mercy release and like most traditions (cultural or religious) that we practice today that involve animals, the origins of those traditions were started out of necessity, but today have become a commercial operation and / or are no longer necessary.

I myself have witnessed mercy release in my wanderings around Asia in the few years in the following places.

  • In the lead up to Tet (Vietnamese New Year) when fish are released in to bodies of water (that is often not the cleanest it could be).
  • Walking through the streets of Bangkok, there will be people walking around with cages full of finches. The vendor will gesture to tourists and of course to anyone who will pay the money to come over the release the birds.
  • In Thai temples (of which I visited sooooo many in my tour-leading days) there are often vendors who will sell the opportunity to release animals (often birds, turtles and eels) to those who are visiting. Of course, Buddhists who are coming to the temple are in merit-making mode and will often participate in this. Tourists often do this too. Of course, all those little animals in small cages, of course we want to let them  go.

I have to admit, that until just a couple of hours ago, I had little idea about this industry. I don’t think I have ever participated in it even in my tour-leading days. I heard rumours from other tour leaders that the animals are often recaptured. I have to admit, I wondered how an animal could be captured twice (What terrible luck!) and wondered if this was THAT bad, but at the same time, there were a heck of a lot of these animals in the cages. I probably should have found out more, but you know… I never got around to it.

Well, I just found out a whole lot more in one of favourite animal rights podcasts, Our Hen House. There were interviewing Iris Ho from Human Society International who was interviewed about this issue.

Some of the incredible takeaways from learning about this issue are:

  • In Taiwan, there are 200 million animals that are ‘mercy released’ a year. I cannot imagine how many animals go through this fate altogether considering China is a country that also practices Mercy Release. Considering these animals are trapped from the wild or bred in terrible conditions, this is an almost unbelievable.
  • The animals are often transported long distances and suffer incredible stress. Many die during this process or shortly after release. They are released in places that are not native to the animals there so there can be considerable environmental impacts.
  • The animals are trapped and the traps are often not checked for a long time. Many die before they are even collected by the trappers. Many can be injured during this trapping process.

To hear the podcast interview, listen here from 28:24  for about 20 minutes.

For a snapshot of the issue, here is a video that has been produced by HIS. It’s in Chinese, for the Taiwanese communities. Please take a few minutes to find out about more about mercy release.

The idea of showing compassion towards animals to gain merit is certainly a noble one. I would like to suggest that very often these traditions and rituals have become involved in ego, rather than about what the actual message was about when the tradition started. Here’s a few examples.

  • At Christmas it’s become about parties and gifts rather than peace and goodwill
  • Thanksgiving has become about Black Friday sales and gluttony rather than simple gratitude.
  • Eid el Adha has become about who has the biggest animal to slaughter (the rich will often have the bigger more expensive animal) rather than breaking fast and sharing meat with the poor in a time of scarcity where there wasn’t much food out there.
  • Kosher and halal slaughter – the idea that the animal has to be fully conscious so that consumers could be sure that the meat was healthy has now become a reason NOT to stun the animal before slaughter.

There is plenty we can all do to raise awareness about this practice and practice alternative types of mercy release to gain merit whether you are Buddhist or not.

Things you can do.

  • Don’t participate in the practice and educate others about it. Support HSI’s work and share the information around your social networks and over the water cooler.
  • If you work in the tourism industry, please educate your passengers about this issue and ask them to not participate. Don’t visit temples that support this practice and explain why to the monks. I wish I had known more about this issue when I was tour-leading.
  • Even if you are Buddhist, you can still gain merit by spontaneous acts of compassion towards animals. Become involved with legitimate release of animals, like ones that have been rescued and then help release them back in to the wild (turtle release programs, cleaning animals after oil spills etc) or perhaps even better, help animals 3 times a day by NOT doing something! That’s right….. Not eating them! OK. It might not be looked on as favorably in your religious community, but if you are into pleasing the Gods, I am sure they will think your intentions  will gain you loads more merit.

 

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Vegan Trekking Food in Nepal

rubnunn

Many behavioral omnivores are concerned about going vegan because they think that it is too difficult, especially when traveling. I am happy to tell you that trekking in Nepal is a good destination for vegans. I would not say it is a great destination, as the food situation is not fantastic for omnivores either. It certainly is not like Thailand, Bali or the West Coast of the US but it is good. Let me explain…

It was my second visit to Nepal as a vegan, for Seb, his third so we feel like we have a good lay of the land now and would love to give you some tips in case you are planning a trip to this beautiful part of the world.

First of all, a little about our context. We were tea house trekking which means you stay at a little, usually very basic guesthouse every night and along the way there will be other guesthouses that you can have lunch in and snacks. While nearly everyone has porters and guides to help them carrying their belongings. We didn’t. We carried our own bags. We certainly did not prepare our foods or were self -sufficient. It is also worth saying, that we went in winter time which is pretty cold weather. This means that we observed very few vegetables being grown or available. The situation might be different at other parts of the year but at the higher reaches of the trek they told us that all vegetables are imported by plane from Kathmandu and that food had to be brought to the villages on the back of the yaks or the porters at considerable expense. This explains the high prices of foods compared with those in the valley or in Kathmandu. It is also worth mentioning that in my previous visit to Nepal, I spoke with someone who worked for the World Food Program in Nepal. She told me that the was a lot of malnourishment in the mountainous areas of Nepal to the extent a many people needed vitamin supplementation. At the time, this surprised me, but on my second visit, I could certainly see how this is the case even in the relatively wealthy valley of the Khumbu. There are few vegetables, hardly any fruit and to be honest, not a lot of protein either especially for those who do not need eggs.

So what kind of food is available while trekking in the teahouses?

Most of the food available is refined carbohydrates and processed foods. Some examples of items you will find on a trek are…

Dal baht: This is local stable in the mountains and I really like this. It will compose of a big plate of white rice, a bowl of thin dal broth and a vegetable curry. Usually the higher you get up the mountain,  the vegetables will be more like just potato so it not especially nutritious apart from just calories.

Magical-World

Fried rice and fried noodles. Again a tasty option, and includes some vegetables, but not that many

Momos. These a small steamed dumplings also made with refined flour and some vegetables inside.

Happy Sleepy

Pasta. One of my favorites. There might be a few different versions. The best is one served with tomato sauce which seemed to just be a canned tomato sauce or soup.

Popcorn. A fantastic snack to have when you arrive at the trek and waiting for dinner.

Plates of boiled vegetables are available although they are usually not very flavorful and fun to eat. They are also expensive.

Potatoes… Lots of them. Rostis, french fries and hash browns. All those not vegan are easily made vegan (Can I have the rosti minus the egg and the cheese?).

Soups. Lots of these that are vegan, yet not especially healthy.

Oatmeal without milk. One of the better choices. Usually you will need to add sugar and sometimes there will be some apple too.

Also a the lodges there are lots of vegan processed foods which can work out well. Oreo cookies, Pringles, candies.

As you see, there are plenty of foods available that are high in calories which is what you need when you are expending so many calories as you do on a a trek in cold conditions however, they are not necessarily the most healthy and I would suggest that working so hard on a diet that is low in nutrition over a long period of time without those incredibly important phytonutrients that should be making up a significant part of our plate each meal and I do not like missing out on my fruit and vegetables over such a long period of time that a trek can be. Some people can go trekking for weeks a a time. I contracted a cold towards the end of the trek, and I have a sneaky feeling it was because my body was not as healthy as it normally is.

So, here are some tips  to make your trek healthier and more delicious.

So, the food available at the teahouses are not especially exciting as a vegan so you will want to  bring something to make things a bit more exciting. Cookies are of course fantastic and we went crazy over a pack of Mcvities Ginger Nuts by Day 8 of the trek.  Dark chocolate is a fantastic snack to have on the trek.  A plastic jar of peanut butter is tasty and delicious. Seb thought sways of chocolate dipped in peanut butter was pretty awesome and I have to say I do agree. Ordering chapattis and spreading them with peanut butter and rolling them up and putting them in a zip lock is a good snack to have. Dried seaweed snacks are also great to have in your bag. Although not calorie dense, they are a fantastic (and light) source of vitamins and minerals. In Asia the are a huge array of seaweed snacks available. I brought this one.

You can also bring dried vegetables on the trek too. I stocked up on some from Thailand called Betterday but I am sure which ever country you are from there will be dried vegetable snacks that you can stock up on. Another thing you might like to bring is soy milk powder. Most of the milk available on the mountain is dried cows milk so asking the guesthouse to make up some powdered soy milk should not be a problem and this will open up a few more options on the trek. Granola bars are also good things to take. Although carbohydrates and sugar is not really something that is difficult to find in the mountains, if they are made from whole grains, then it would be a good source of fibre and nutrients something that is lacking up there.

Green powders would be a fantastic thing to include in your backpack. Normally, you would not put even powders in water as it would not taste particularly nice.  I put my green powders in a smoothie where the taste would be disguised but smoothies are not really an option on the mountain. I would probably just add a spoon to the last dregs of my water bottle and drink it down to get some nutrition in to my body. The last thing I would probably like to bring is some sort of seasoning. Gomashio or a small bag of nutritional yeast will be light, but some sprinkled on your food will give some good flavour and of course great vitamins and minerals.

Negotiating with staff at the guesthouses is very easy indeed. They are usually very good English speakers and understand the concept of vegetarianism, indeed, they eat mainly vegetarian food. Vegan is not a term they are familiar with, but it is easy to ask questions like “does this have milk, eggs, cheese?” Or “can go make this without cheese?” For example.

So that is all I have got. I hope this gives you some ideas about how you make  you trek more nutritious. If you have any more ideas to make Nepal treks a bit more healthy, please leave them in the comments below.

Las Vegas

Ahhh Wholefoods. We heart you.

I have to admit that I was not hugely excited about going to Las Vegas. It just didn’t sound like my cup of tea and if I am completely honest, it is not the kind of place where I want Seb to make it happen. It’s hot, brash and over the top, but I did have a fantastic time there. I can’t help but admire the ridiculousness of it all and boy and I certainly did appreciate the vegan friendliness of it all.

Steve Wynn, the owner of many of the swankiest casinos and hotels in Las Vegas became vegan for what I believe were health reasons a couple of years ago after watching Eating, a documentary about food that resonated with him. From what I understand he gave a copy of this film to all his employees and mandated that all the restaurants within his establishments should have vegan options and not just a couple of options that are just an after thought, he enlisted the help of one of the best vegan fine dining chefs around, Tal Ronnen to work with his chefs to put together menus that are really something else. Thanks Steve! One of the highlights was the 4th July brunch. My only serious complaint was that you had to ask for the vegan menu as it is kept with the maitre ‘D under the counter. All the staff knew about it and produced it the moment you asked, but I feel that it is a wasted opportunity. By not having it with everything else on the menu, it is not giving those people who would not ordinarily eat vegetarian food the chance to even see and be tempted by the veg version. I think if we are to really generate change, the vegan stuff should be on the same menu, because it really does taste just as good as the animal flesh and secretions versions and is certainly a lot kinder.

However, it’s a huge step in the right direction and for that I am very grateful.

Still, we did a lot of eating, but we also did a lot of sightseeing.

There were people rowing tourists around… Seriously.

We weren’t supposed to take this picture of Seb at the table. See the croupier’s hand?

Us at brunch

Our hotel, Tropicana!

Our pool

More pool

I love this pool!

In New York

Maija felt right at home.

Las Vegas by night

OK.. So we did do lots of eating

Inside the Wynn Casino

Los Angeles and an Interesting Discovery about the TV Industry

I am back in Indonesia and  have just finished teacher planning week at school. I am determined to get my trip documented. Luckily I have Maija’s blog post on our trip to refer to.

We all had different motivations for going to LA. For Jack, Maija and Seb, serious movie buffs it was seeing iconic movie stuff. For me it was checking out the veg scene.

First of all, I want to share our accommodation tip. As we need three rooms, we decided to try Airbnb. Despite the incredible short notice we managed to find a 2 bedroom apartment near Culver City (Jack was on the couch) which worked out as something like $35 per person per night. The downside? Only one bathroom and it wasn’t Maija and I hogging it. Just sayin’.

Catching up on the internet.

From the mezzanine

Our first morning, we headed out to Rodeo Drive and Hollywood. Seb and Jack were super excited.

Rodeo Drive

Rodeo Drive

I don’t know what this is.

Reminded me of Singapore actually.

‘Nuff said

Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood stars. There were lots of people commemorated that probably deserved it, but a few that I was surprised about; Tim Allen?

Lunch was at Cafe Gratitude. A bit of a pricy lunch but so amazing. I had a pesto zucchini pasta.

Lunch at Cafe Gratitude

Then we headed to The Payley Center of Media where our film buffs saw some cool TV and film memorabilia? I even got quite excited some of the stuff on show.

I know… I do like the show though…

Then we went to Hollywood Hills and Mulholland Drive.

Hollywood Hills

In some park in the hills.

And then Native Foods for dinner good value comfort foods at their best

Native Foods

On Sunday we slept in, had a brunch at Real Food Daily  and walked along Venice Beach. It was a beautiful day but I think I stayed there a bit too long. Too many people for too long but it was cool to see all the craziness that it is known for.

Read Food Daily. We look ridiculously happy here. #thatholidayfeeling

End of the road. Santa Monica Pier

Venice Beach

How do they not get dizzy?

Monday saw a visit to the Warner Brothers Studio lot. I was a bit ‘meh’ about going but the others convinced me to go and I will reluctantly admit it was pretty interesting even though the shows were on hiatus and there wasn’t much going on. Our tour guide was telling us about the timeline of making a weekly show on the lot. Basically there’s a 5 day process that they follow every week and they said how usually on Wednesday the network comes to visit the set to look at rehearsals and what I thought was really shocking was that they are essentially there to check that the show doesn’t upset the advertisers. He mentioned specifically that this was the reason why you will not hear a show mention that a bad cheeseburger caused food poisoning and that it is always “bad Chinese” or “bad Thai” which is essentially a cuisine that does not advertise on TV. I feel terribly angry about this. Given that processed food is such a huge source of contaminated meat leading to sometimes fatal food poisoning, this is simply outrageous. A contaminated carcass is minced up and mixed with so many other bit of carcass that contaminated meat and can find its way in to thousands of different items all over the country. Anyone who has watched Food Inc will be aware of this issue. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do so. It’s film about the food industry rather than the animals, but I do like the film and think it has helped a lot of people get started thinking about where their food comes from. While I know that the food corps had a huge amount of sway over policy and that their marketing was terrible, I didn’t know that they influenced the scripts on our favourite TV shows even over such a subtle line like ‘I had a bad burger last night’. Assholes… #rantover.

Warner Bros Tour

Daffy. Always was my favourite

I do really like this show…

Central Perk

Seb thought we were all so silly to be so excited about this. He’s not a fan. He obliged for photos though.

Afterwards we headed to Veggie Grill and actually found ourselves twiddeling our thumbs over what to do for the rest of the day.

One of the servers liked my shirt. I don’t blame them. It’s awesome.

The most convincing ‘chicken’ burger ever.

We had a classy movie experience at the Arclight Cinema before heading back to the apartment. Next stop Las Vegas,

The Arclight Cinema

Monterey, Carmel and The Big Sur

To show just how little I had researched about this trip, I honestly had never heard of The Big Sur before until Seb started talking about it around the San Francisco trip. My attitude to travel has changed so much since I was doing it full time as a tour leader and I think that is probably why. I spent so much time researching and focussing on every aspects of everyone’s trip I react strongly to having to do this. I still love to travel but I tend to pull back when it comes to making decisions about what is where and how we are going to do it as I get overwhelmed. Luckily though, Seb loves this stuff and organised nearly every part of my trip from visas to creating the most amazing itinerary and budgeting spreadsheet (which was pretty much spot on actually) that blew people away when we shared it with them (so they could see where we would be). I am so grateful to him for making the bulk of decisions regarding logistics. Thanks Seb! 🙂 If anyone ever wants to have a copy of our travel budgeting spreadsheet, drop me a line.

So Seb said that this was one of the best coast trips in the world, (“yeah” I thought… “You haven’t done the Great Ocean Road”) and I have to say that it is simply stunning. I told Seb to “MAKE IT HAPPEN!” in nearly every town we passed through. Here’s Maija account of this part of our trip.

Still, we had to get to the start of The Big Sur from Yosemite. Departing our campsite it took about 90 mins to actually leave the park and after a short amount of time we reached Groveland, a small, but cute rural town with some cute cafes that we visited and a saloon that looked like it had come straight out from a Western movie.

Mountain Sage Nursery and Cafe, Groveland, CA

Western Style Saloon

We finally got to Monterey at lunchtime. We spied a park and had vegedogs.

Vegedogs in the park

After getting sorted out at our campsite, we walked down to the water and walked a long for a couple fo clicks or so. Monterey is a haven for marine life and we even saw seals playing in the water.

The Seawall at Monterey

The Seawall at Monterey

The jetty, Monterey

How is that gulls are always so white?

We headed down to Carmel-by-the-Sea which was about as cute as a Cotswold village. Every house and shop had something unique about it.

Cute!

Not more architectural cuteness…

Stop with the cuteness…

Seb!! Make it happen!

Heading back to the tent we opened our Guac stash. Guac was definitely a reoccurring theme of this trip.

Setting up camp. Happily a bit warmer in Monterrey

This only lasted 1.5 sittings.

The next morning we headed south and started The Big Sur proper. I’ll let the pictures do the talking! It was jaw-droppingly awesome and we were so fortunate with the weather.

Seriously. These are elephant seals. Mental.

After Big Sur we had to step up the pace a bit as we’d never arrive otherwise. The approached the outskirts of LA and there still seemed to be another 2 hours of driving. Suburban sprawl it most certainly is.

After checking in to our AirBnB accommodation we headed to the closest Veggie Grill. We were pleased to see that it wasn’t just us that loved Veggie Grill. Jack and Maija thought it was the shiznit too. We had an early night in readiness for LA madness!