The other night I was cooking in the kitchen of the hostel I was staying at in La Serena, Chile, which is about a 7 hour drive north of Santiago. (Sidenote: nothing makes you feel 30 years young more than a youth hostel, ridden with teenagers and students in their early twenties.) I was making a sort of pasta concoction from the few vegan-friendly ingredients that I found in the grocery store: spiral pasta (the only vegan pasta, as the rest all contained huevos. Sorry, eggs), one tomato, an onion, and leftover vegan patties I had stocked up on when I was in Santiago. Unfortunately, I was bored by this totally uninspired meal plan, so I took a minute to remember why I made the choice to become a vegan in the first place. Oh yeah, because I'm a bad ass motherfucker with strong convictions and a dedication to my religion which is this: "Love all living things and harm no one."
Now, as you know, I am not a professional cook. I didn't go to culinary school, I only paid some attention to my mom in the kitchen as a child, and I've never worked in a restaurant kitchen or a bakery. However, I am a voracious reader of cookbooks and quickly developed a keen sense of experimentation. While this doesn't always turn out well, I am not afraid to get scientific with the spice cabinet. This habit of creating strange recipes developed as a direct result of my aversion to wastefulness; I learned to combine odd "stragglers," or leftover ingredients in that nights dinner. With this in mind, I happily began rummaging through the hostel kitchens "free bin!" Inside were several unmarked baggies of spices (or drugs, to be fair... Ya never know). Relying only on my nose, I picked a few that smelled "muy delicioso" and which I thought would compliment each other. There was a container of mustard and salt, "hmmm... I can work with this." Thankfully I found a non-stick pan, because the free bin did not contain any oil for sauteing the veggies.
While the pasta was cooking in its pot, I chopped the tomato, onion and veggie patty and threw them in my precious non-stick pan. Like a child in a candy store I collected my free-bin finds, and with playful abandon I began dumping, squirting, and sprinkling these mystery ingredients. After several minutes, I drained the pasta and mixed the "science experiment" in with the noodles. It looked okay and so I brought a big bowl and a single fork outside where my young twenty something friends were drinking pisco sours (a famous Chilean/Peruvian drink) and smoking cigarettes.
Now, one of the things I do NOT miss about being in my twenties and traveling is that I am not broke as shit. They all looked on hungrily, surprised that my "fancy" grub was vegan. One German kid asked shyly, in his thick accent: "I think I would like to try this thing." One of my very consistent maternal instincts is the need to feed people and make sure everyone is happy and comfortable. With too much enthusiasm I thrust the bowl into his hands and watched eagerly as he ate. At first slowly, then a few giant spoonfuls before passing it on to his sister: "try this it's really very good." "Yes I think I will," she agreed taking the bowl. Eyes a bit wide, a French girl reached out anxiously, words escaping her, perhaps worried it might run out, "oh mon dieu. Ees very gooood." Needless to say, I was tickled.
Traveling as a vegan isn't just a personal journey, it's a social mission. I don't think any of them are signing up for their last hamburger before turning in their meat cards, though I couldn't help but register not only their shock at how tasty a meatless meal was, but a totally vegan one at that. In that moment I remembered that sharing is not only caring, it's the most important human way to express my beliefs without alienating people. So what if they eat a hot dog for lunch the next day. That night in La Serena, with four strangers, we were all vegans, and therefore in some small way, responsible for pint sized change. After all, now -- this moment -- it's all we have. Tomorrow is another day.
Speaking of, tomorrow I head to Salar de Uyuni on a three day 4wd trek, where accommodations and food are very basic. And... I. Am. Nervous... About starving. So off to the grocery store I went again, only now I am in a small pueblo town called San Pedro de Atacama (the most arid desert in the world - at least according to the sign posted at the towns entrance). Ooh, these almacens (or little stores) are lookin' skim-pay. Crackers. Yes please, I'll have a thousand. Vegan friendly cookies, yes I recognize you from Santiago and Patagonia. Check. Pack of nuts. Do you have fifty? Okay I'll take this one. Peanut butter. SCORE. A note about this precious spread: really REALLY hard to find in Chile so far. When I saw a tall jar of it, I literally drooled. It had this golden ray emanating from its center as if God was actually facilitating it's presence into my line of vision. I practically fell to my knees, and in terrible Spanish asked for one jar. Now remember, I had crackers, cookies, nuts, a giant jug of water and the peanut butter. Ding! Well more like, tick tick, tap tap on the ancient looking calculator. In Spanish she said dryly: "That'll be 11,400 Chilean pesos." So you understand, this translates to about $22 USD. I knew instantly it was my beloved peanut butter. Oh no, please don't be the peanut butter. Maybe it's these saltines. Maybe they're like... Made of gold or some shit. No such luck. I could not in good conscience pay... Wait for it... $17 for a regular jar of peanut butter. Heartbroken I returned it to its proper home on the shelf. That lone jar of peanut butter - it was destined to be mine, I knew it. That's why there was only one left when I arrived at the sto-- forget it. Plain crackers it is.
My religion of sharing is caring was starting to haunt me: what if my trek mates want a cracker or a cookie? Greedily I shoved my snacks into my pack and walked back to my hostel where I made an American sized lunch (American sized = disturbingly enormous) and ate it all. It might be my last real meal for several days. As I sat eating way past comfortable fullness, I couldn't help but ponder the concept of balance. I am a giving person, often times to a fault. But it is a huge part of my nature that I can't deny. BUT... I also need to take care of my self (a more difficult task for me than for some). So I made a pact with myself in the interest of exercising balance: each of my compatriots on this next leg of my journey can each have one cookie, one cracker and one nut. I'm no good to anyone if I'm splayed out on the salt flats, licking the "ice" for sustenance because I gave away my only source of nutrition. So yes - sharing IS caring. But giving all of your food (or all of your heart, time, etc...) leaves nothing left for beautiful, precious YOU. And also leaves nothing left to share.