10 Best Vegan Food Places in Makati City, Metro Manila

If you plan on spending any time in Makati as a vegetarian or vegan, it can be helpful to know in advance where to eat. There are a range of spots to eat vegan food in Makati City, from pizza to Mediterranean, Middle Eastern to Japanese, and beyond.

In no particular order, here are the places you need to know about if you’re vegetarian in Makati. Don’t let your veganism or vegetarianism limit you to side salads and fries: here you can have delicious Japanese noodle soup, falafel wraps with chili sauce and grilled eggplant, jerk wraps, mac and cheese and, yes, pizza too. Read on.

[If you are staying in Poblacion, check out Top 5 Vegan Eats in Poblacion, Makati City!]

Best Vegan Comfort Food in Makati:
Green Bar

Hovering between the best hangover food and refined cuisine, Green Bar has it all. Their menu includes pulled pork & mac and cheese wrap, cheesy potato pizza and their trademark Hail Seitan burger, as well as a sumptuous array of filled donuts and cinnamon rolls. And it’s all vegan! With a respectable wine list to boot, and the best “breakfast sandwich” in town, there are so many reasons to love Green Bar.

The relatively new site on Aguirre, Legazpi Village, is bigger, better, and more beautiful than ever before. Pop in for vegan cinnamon roll, or filled donut!

Best Vegan Japanese Food in Makati:
Wabi Sabi

Located in one of Makati City’s less ostentatious malls, Wabi-Sabi is a true hidden gem. Billed as a ‘noodle house’, it is so much more! They serve excellent Japanese comfort food – noodle bowls, corn & cheese fritters, tofu, gyoza, and a whole host of others, plus their signature shaved ice sharer sundaes! Wabi-Sabi is entirely vegetarian and very accommodating to vegans. You will not regret.

They were listed on Spot.ph’s Frugal Foodie Finds, because many of their meals are under P200, or even under P150! Their stylish wooden interior design will set you at ease, while their servers take care of the rest. Sit back, relax, drink delicious brown rice tea, or genmeicha, and enjoy your noodles.

The ‘Best Hummus & Falafel in the Philippines’:
Hummus Elijah

It’s come to this. And it’s not even a specialised ‘vegan’ restaurant! Hummus Elijah is another bastion of the vegetarian/vegan cause in Makati. They produce some of the best hummus, falafel, and baklava this side of the South China Sea. If you’re looking for vegetarian or vegan food in Poblacion, Makati, this is the place for you.

A bunch of restaurants and cafes even source their ingredients from Hummus Elijah. Without them, Makati City would not be the same.

They offer a range of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods – call it Palestinian, Jordanian, Lebanese or Turkish, they have it covered. They’ll deliver it to your door or you can go in to experience the sumptuous menu in the setting they intended it for. Unbeatable.

From their website:

We aim to provide the friendliest, most helpful service and the freshest, best tasting hummus, salads and platters. We want our guests to integrate Hummus Elijah into their daily healthy lifestyles through our fast service, welcoming atmosphere and of course delicious food.

Get through those doors and eat that hummus!

Best Multinational Vegan Comfort Food in Makati:
Corner Tree Cafe

It may not be on a busy thoroughfare, but it’s worth making the detour to Corner Tree Cafe. They serve up a huge variety of dishes from around the world, from Indian to Mexican, and do it well. From their website:

Corner Tree Cafe serves happy ‘office workers, expats,  teenagers, elderly people, children (believe it or not), backpackers, yogis, weight-watchers [and] plain healthy eaters.‘ In fact, many of their customers are people who simply like good food – including meat-eaters and straight-up carnivores!

It is a place that serves simple, down-to-earth, good food and also offers great desserts, coffee & tea, smoothies, wine, beer & spirits. The soft music is cool too.

Stick it on your weekend itinerary to enjoy some of the best vegan food from around the world in Makati City.

Makati Markets:
Salcedo Saturday Market

For sumptuous international cuisines, freshly cooked and prepared, including a pretty big spread of vegetarian and vegan foods, make a stop at Salcedo Saturday Market. Here you will find falafel wraps, lahmacun, Indonesian food and everything in between.

Salcedo’s market offers a calmer vibrancy and slightly more space per person, when compared to Legazpi’s market –

Makati Markets:
Legazpi Sunday Market

Presenting the unwitting passer-by with a smorgasbord of smells and flavors, as well as plumes of aromatic BBQ smoke, Legazpi Market is a phenomenon. Whether it becomes part of your Sunday routine, or is just a one-off stop, don’t leave without trying the falafel pita from Mandaluyong-based Bait Lehem. Or you can eat great Indonesian laksa, while sipping on fresh spicy ginger beer.

There are also a plethora of market stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, books and vinyl records, plants of all shapes and sizes, and more.

Legazpi Market also hosts one of Makati City’s best vegan cheesemakers. In A Nutshell make vegan gouda, brie and pepperjack, among others. Check them out!

The Social: Crosta Vegan Pizza

Steaming into third place is The Social’s other offering. Crosta is hailed by many as the producer of Makati’s best pizza. It certainly makes Makati’s best VEGAN PIZZA.

Not only do they have a solid and original vegan pizza menu, but they will accommodate adjustments too. With a variety of cheeses, mushrooms and other tidbits to choose from, plus stuffed crusts to boot, you’ll have your taste buds tingled to high heaven.

If you want cheese and haven’t got much to spend, you can go for their Basic Bitch, a classic mozzarella which comes in at just 200 pesos. Their vegan offerings will set you back a bit further, up to 500 pesos, but they’re worth it for the decadent delight you’ll feel with every bite.

Poblacion’s Finest Vegan Establishment:
Cosmic Vegan Cafe

Vegan, check. Poblacion, check. Makati, yes.

In second place is one of Poblacion’s, or even Makati’s, vegan staples – a veritable institution of vegan deliciousness. Self-described as a ‘vegetarian & vegan cafe and bistro’, Cosmic is almost a world in and of itself, a microclimate of vegan friendliness just waiting to take you into its folds.

From their website:

Contrary to popular belief, vegetarian and vegan food should actually be more affordable. We want diners to try our version of everyday Japanese, Italian, Filipino, and Mexican dishes without breaking the bank.

The folks behind Cosmic have been vegetarians beyond their recall and Cosmic was built out of passion and need for more vegetarian and vegan options for Manila’s growing health-conscious dwellers.

Agreed! That’s why Cosmic produces healthy, affordable, traditional and fusion foods that everybody can enjoy. You can dine on their delectable Filipino classics – their sisig, for example, absolutely swings – or go for something with a western bent. They are the proof that veganism doesn’t need to cost you. With meals for as little as PHP200, your wallet will thank you.

On top of this, they champion a bunch of great community outreach projects, and host workshops and events in their upstairs lounge, including music meditation sessions. They are great. Check them out!

Classic Filipino Dishes Reimagined:
Greenery Kitchen

For over 10 years, Greenery Kitchen has been producing some of the finest vegan/vegetarian takes on classic Filipino foods such as kare-kare and sisig. They also run a delivery service and will deliver straight to your door, on a one-off or regularised basis. You will not regret it. Try this food!

If you live close by, it is also worth checking out their organic vegetable boxes, packed with love and delivered directly to you. Choose from different size boxes, and select or de-select in order to design your perfect combination of delicious fruits and veggies.

Visit their website here.

Undeniable Contender for Best Hummus Ever:
Mediterranean Cafe

While its location in Greenbelt 1 doesn’t do it any favours – Mediterranean Cafe makes up (and then some) with the quality of its food.

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Have you got any more to add to the list?

Read more vegan-related pieces at this link!

Top 5 Vegan Food in Poblacion, Makati City

Here is a starter list for anyone looking for vegan or vegetarian food in Poblacion, Makati City. From vegan pizza to Makati’s second-best hummus.

Looking for vegan food in Poblacion to sweeten that space between bars? Line your stomach with some of the finest international vegan cuisine in town, by visiting any of the following 5 eateries.

Where there is a will, there is a way. And where there is a demand, there is a supply. In Poblacion, Makati City’s thriving and vibrant red light district and social hub, there is, it seems, a demand for great vegetarian and vegan food. From hole-in-the-wall vegan pizza at great prices, to much larger establishments, Poblacion has it all. And here are my top 5 recommendations!

All of the following are nestled right within the Poblacion district, so don’t worry about walking too far from place to place! It’s easier to find vegan food in Poblacion, Makati, than you thought.

5. The Social: Indonesian

While it may not be an exclusively vegan, or even vegetarian, place, The Social’s very own Indonesian kitchen is definitely worth a visit. Tucked into the courtyard of The Social – Poblacion’s answer to ‘those hot sweaty nights’ – this little nook produces a range of Indonesian delights.

Their menu may be somewhat unpredictable (depending on how generous you’re feeling, you might call it rotating or dynamic), but on a good night, there will be three or four delicious vegetarian and/or vegan options. These include (and may or may not be limited to) gado gado, laksa, nasi campur and sate. Ask them what they can do for YOU. And maybe they’ll do it.

They don’t seem to have a web presence, so you’ll have to take my word for it!

4. Greenery Kitchen

For over 10 years, Greenery Kitchen has been producing some of the finest vegan/vegetarian takes on classic Filipino foods such as kare-kare and sisig. They also run a delivery service and will deliver straight to your door, on a one-off or regularised basis. You will not regret it. Try this food!

If you live close by, it is also worth checking out their organic vegetable boxes, packed with love and delivered directly to you. Choose from different size boxes, and select or de-select in order to design your perfect combination of delicious fruits and veggies.

Visit their website here.

3. The Social: Crosta Vegan Pizza

Steaming into third place is The Social’s other offering. Crosta is hailed by many as the producer of Makati’s best pizza. It certainly makes Makati’s best VEGAN PIZZA.

Not only do they have a solid and original vegan pizza menu, but they will accommodate adjustments too. With a variety of cheeses, mushrooms and other tidbits to choose from, plus stuffed crusts to boot, you’ll have your taste buds tingled to high heaven.

If you want cheese and haven’t got much to spend, you can go for their Basic Bitch, a classic mozzarella which comes in at just 200 pesos. Their vegan offerings will set you back a bit further, up to 500 pesos, but they’re worth it for the decadent delight you’ll feel with every bite.

2. Cosmic Vegan Cafe

Vegan, check. Poblacion, check. Makati, yes.

In second place is one of Poblacion’s, or even Makati’s, vegan staples – a veritable institution of vegan deliciousness. Self-described as a ‘vegetarian & vegan cafe and bistro’, Cosmic is almost a world in and of itself, a microclimate of vegan friendliness just waiting to take you into its folds.

From their website:

Contrary to popular belief, vegetarian and vegan food should actually be more affordable. We want diners to try our version of everyday Japanese, Italian, Filipino, and Mexican dishes without breaking the bank.

The folks behind Cosmic have been vegetarians beyond their recall and Cosmic was built out of passion and need for more vegetarian and vegan options for Manila’s growing health-conscious dwellers.

Agreed! That’s why Cosmic produces healthy, affordable, traditional and fusion foods that everybody can enjoy. You can dine on their delectable Filipino classics – their sisig, for example, absolutely swings – or go for something with a western bent. They are the proof that veganism doesn’t need to cost you. With meals for as little as PHP200, your wallet will thank you.

On top of this, they champion a bunch of great community outreach projects, and host workshops and events in their upstairs lounge, including music meditation sessions. They are great. Check them out!

1. Hummus Elijah
The best vegan food in Poblacion, Makati

It’s come to this. And it’s not even a specialised ‘vegan’ restaurant! Hummus Elijah is another bastion of the vegetarian/vegan cause in Makati. They produce some of the best hummus, falafel, and baklava this side of the South China Sea. If you’re looking for vegetarian or vegan food in Poblacion, Makati, this is the place for you.

A bunch of restaurants and cafes even source their ingredients from Hummus Elijah. Without them, Makati City would not be the same.

They offer a range of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods – call it Palestinian, Jordanian, Lebanese or Turkish, they have it covered. They’ll deliver it to your door or you can go in to experience the sumptuous menu in the setting they intended it for. Unbeatable.

From their website:

We aim to provide the friendliest, most helpful service and the freshest, best tasting hummus, salads and platters. We want our guests to integrate Hummus Elijah into their daily healthy lifestyles through our fast service, welcoming atmosphere and of course delicious food.

Get through those doors and eat that hummus!

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For more vegan-related writing, read any of the following:
Milking the issue – arguments about the best milk substitute
Where To Eat Vegan Food in Sri Lanka, and Chinese

More Manila guides can be found in the Manila page!

What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?

Coronavirus has devastated swathes of China and infected tens of thousands in Italy, Iran, South Korea and northern Europe. Experts predict it could infect half the world’s population in its lifetime–some say it is here to stay, much as is flu or the common cold. But coronavirus may have a dark, secret history, deep in the bowels of Wuhan’s National Biosafety Laboratory, part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

[This article also appears on Medium. Read more pieces about China here, here and here.]

Where did coronavirus come from? “The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market,” you say

Spoken, heard, read and written across the world, the story goes that the virus spontaneously hopped from animal to animal, living and/or dead, in a Wuhan wet market. Images circulated of the cheek-by-jowl bustle of such places. 

Incidentally, the Wikipedia page for the market in question lists among its wares some very peculiar items, at least, by ‘western standards’. Long before the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market made a name for itself as the so-called birthplace of this particular strain of coronavirus, it was a marketplace for rabbit organs, spotted deer, koalas and/or beavers, camel, wolf puppies and, for good measure, Emmental cheese. 

It is the perfect story. We in the West love to read about what the Chinese are prepared to eat. We fetishise the Chinese propensity for eating every part of the animal, and blindly condemn the consumption of animals such as dogs (despite tucking into an equally intelligent and emotionally attuned animal, the humble pig, as a national pastime). It was one of the first questions I was asked upon returning from a stint in Chengdu in 2017 – “Did you eat dog?” I was almost sorry to disappoint.

But the story stands on shaky legs. The first documented cases of Covid-19 were among people who may never have set foot in the much mythologised seafood market. 

Sometimes the truth is an even better story

The truth may be more insidious, less banally cartoonish. Biological warfare, aka the development and deployment of bio-weapons, has been part of reality’s fabric for longer than you would care to think–much longer. Our shared history includes stories of Roman soldiers dipping their swords, and Scythian archers their arrows, into cadavers and faeces, causing their victims to be infected with tetanus. There are those who argue that the Black Death resulted from deliberate germ warfare.

Bio-weapons are defined as living organisms or replicating entities (this latter includes viruses, which are not universally considered ‘alive’). Bio-weaponry has always been difficult to control, and merciless when unleashed. In the last century, we have developed increasingly sophisticated bio-weapons for use during WWI, WWII and beyond. War strategists now have the ability to specifically target personnel, crops, livestock or fisheries. 

In Britain, the 1950s saw the weaponisation of a variety of diseases such as plague, tularaemia, brucellosis and vaccinia viruses. At the same time, the United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories were doing the same. National-level policies to ban the use of biological weapons date back to 1969, when the UK and the Warsaw Pact introduced proposals to the UN.

Coronavirus: “Hopefully it won’t last long since it was made in China”

In February, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive to those in its employ, titled: “Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.”

In China, as in many other countries, there are microbiology labs which conduct in-depth research into bacterial, viral and fungal diseases. Laboratories are given a Biosafety Level (or Containment Level in Canada). Levels of precaution ascend according to the Biosafety Level. For example, at Level 1, laboratory personnel must wash their hands upon entry. 

Biosafety Level 4 microbiology labs are used for diagnostic work and research on easily transmitted pathogens which can cause fatal disease. Examples include a number of viruses known to cause viral haemorrhage fever, such as the Ebola and Lassa viruses. Level 4 laboratories also work with Variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox. These are the realm of protective suits and disinfectant tanks, autoclaves and chemical showers. They must have seamless edges to allow for easy cleaning. 

There is precisely one microbiology lab in all of China that handles “advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus”, and it is located in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic – in the city of Wuhan. To be clear: this is the only laboratory on Chinese soil that handles viruses such as the novel coronavirus, and it is the city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Exhibit B: Bio warfare expert Chen Wei is in charge of containing the outbreak

This is the intriguing fact that the top biological warfare expert of the People’s Liberation Army of China, Major General Chen Wei, is the woman drafted in to Wuhan at the end of January with the task of containing the outbreak. 

Aside from it being evidently uncontainable, this is striking for how it looks, diplomatically. Chen has been researching coronaviruses since 2003’s SARS outbreak. She has also been through the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s doors more than once before. Such a dispatch rings alarm bells, especially when compounded with the notion that this is exactly the type of place where a coronavirus would be artificially developed.

The scariest part

To me, the most frightening thing about all of this is not the notion that China has the capacity, or even the political will, to develop new strains of a deadly virus. As a cynical citizen of the West, I rest on the presumption that most of the world’s most powerful countries are either doing something similar, or at the very least have the political will to. 

Despite near universal ratification of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, stories abound about offensive biological weapons programs, in Russia and beyond. ProCon lists Algeria, China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia and Syria as Maybe/Likely in possession of biological weapons. I would not be surprised to learn of clandestine bio-weaponry programs in Europe or North America.

So no, that China is capable and/or willing is not the most frightening thing. The most disquieting part, if this is true, is that China lacks the capacity to contain the virus. If it got out of the lab, the most concerning thing is that it got out of the lab. The NY Post writes that China has unleashed a plague on its own people. Again, if the rumours are true, it has unleashed a plague on the whole world

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https://www.ibtimes.sg/wuhan-virus-china-may-have-just-accepted-that-man-made-coronavirus-escaped-its-biowarfare-lab-39911?fbclid=IwAR23WbADEIarAcfdSumtwVYfrYJO0B_CxNtmOTxo48X0AMTNHaNK21FgY1I

https://nypost.com/2020/02/22/dont-buy-chinas-story-the-coronavirus-may-have-leaked-from-a-lab/?fbclid=IwAR225Dxxg3gqJHNh71ve1amKklUxOQmnMMrPHpPuc0_hI09j_mcGwv0GK1o

https://usiraq.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000678

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51839944

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/asia/china-coronavirus-contain.html

‘Every day we see plastic’ — The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Is it real?

The Pacific Garbage Patch, or simply the Patch, is, by now, a household name, the climate bogeyman, a beast of biblical proportions — like an ark, but built (or so you think) from bottles and toothbrushes, and supporting mostly nebulous and parasitic life forms. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

History of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In 1997, on his way home from competing in the Transpacific Yacht Race, yachtsman Charles Moore sailed through a film of plastic debris on his way home to Los Angeles. The accumulation of human-made waste, infamously dubbed ‘twice the size of Texas’, was first named by an oceanographer from Seattle, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who previously tracked the course of a consignment of 29,000 Friendly Floatees — rubber ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs — as they drifted through the Pacific, having been thrown overboard in a squall.

For 15 years, the Patch’s multifarious identities proliferated. It took root in the public consciousness. Recently, Al Gore was given honorary citizenship of Trash Isles, a cumulus ‘emerging nation’, floating somewhere between California and Hawaii — i.e., the Patch.

[Note: the word ‘Patch’ is, I’m afraid, misleading. Patch connotes island, which is something we can picture, and destroy. More on this later. In short, they are not so much patches as nebulas. I will, however, keep referring to it as the Patch, because it’s convenient, non-acronymic shorthand, and sounds cool.]

The Ocean Cleanup project – a source of hope

Then, The Ocean Cleanup was born. Founded in 2013, the project aims to clean plastic debris from the world’s oceans, and minimise the release of plastic waste into the oceans via rivers, with methods ranging from the deployment of passive ocean cleanup systems to so-called Interceptors.

Rubbish from rivers, as well as battered container ships, accumulates in gyres, large circular currents that twine the oceans of the globe. Objects migrate to specific zones, the confluence of currents, or tip-off points, and get stuck there. While the Patch is arguably the most nefarious of these cul-de-sacs, there are in fact at least five in total, the results of gyres in the Indian (1), Atlantic (2) and Pacific (2) oceans.

The most commonly circulated images of the (Pacific) Patch — popular because they present something tangible, provocative and shareable — are of piles of bottles and fishing nets. But the reality is a little different.

What is the Patch actually made of?

Short answer: microplastics. Comprising 94% of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch is a smog of microplastic particles. The most delightful thing to not think about, these bits of eroded, softened plastic come in inconceivably large numbers, and are toxic to marine life.

Microplastics are the devil. You’ve heard of them. They’re small— smaller than a pencil eraser. They’re hard to pick up — especially without killing loads of fish. They also make patches such as this hard to quantify or measure.

The majority of the rest, or an estimated 46% of the overall mass, is fishing nets. Much of the remainder is fishing industry gear — traps, baskets, crates, etc. It is not the plastic bottles you read about in the headlines; nor is it bubble wrap, or toothbrushes. It’s fishing gear, abandoned and swept out to sea. Discarded nets strangle, suffocate and injure as many as 100,000 marine animals per year. They also transport species from one place to another. Non-native invasive species can disrupt fragile ecosystems by outcompeting or overcrowding native species.

So there are fishing objects and microplastics and nets and bottles and toothbrushes, and they inhabit an area that is or is not twice the size of Texas. But The Ocean Cleanup says they can reduce it by ½ every year, so what do we have to worry about?

It’s worse than that:

The reality of ocean pollution is more insidious. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that as much as 70% of marine litter sinks — which stinks. So the ocean bed is home to more than double that which is already largely invisible from the water’s surface.

Moreover, according to a study published in Nature, plastic pollution within the Patch is increasing exponentially, which means immediate action is essential.

To run with a relatable, domestic metaphor: the drain is blocked, the tap is on full, and the puddle on the floor is increasing in size, faster and faster every minute. What’s the first step when dealing with an overflowing sink?

Turn it off

Perhaps the most alarming statistics have to do with global plastic production. To take this as a starting point is to truly understand the scale of the problem. Globally, producers churn out 300 million tons of plastic every year. Of this, half is for single-use purposes.

8 million tons of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year. Already, the ocean contains up to 165 million tons of plastic — which, as Business Insider loves to point out, 25 times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

By contrast, the Patch contains an estimated 80,000 tons of plastic, a mere 1% of annual global ocean-bound plastic waste. So the puddle is getting bigger, bigger and bigger every minute, and the tap is spewing out one hundred times the volume of the puddle every year.

Conclusion: any measures put in place to filter plastics from the ocean should be multiplied a hundredfold, and redirected towards reducing the plastic that is bound for the oceans in the first place.

The Pacific Garbage Patch really is a bogeyman — a sort of amorphous, ugly, life-asphyxiating scapegoat-metaphor we use to effectively package the plastics issue into something digestible. By fixating ourselves on this titanic pile of netting, and shrouding it in mythos, we conceive of the problem as something both fixable and eternal, as if its presence is a requisite truth.

Hard truths

  • 2.5 billion people rely on fish for 20% of their animal protein. Polluted oceans means polluted fisheries, which means polluted us.
  • By 2050, scientists estimate, there could be as much plastic as there are fish in the ocean. Plastic is literally designed to defeat natural decay. It is both our trump card and our downfall.
  • 99% of ocean-dwelling plastic waste is unaccounted for. The island is unseen.
  • Plastic chokes the ocean’s ability to trap CO2, thereby exacerbating global heating.

Is there room for hope?

An estimated three quarters of the Patch’s mass is carried by debris larger than 5cm. This means it can be feasibly, mechanically removed. (Microplastics require more complex filtration systems, which are far more likely to result in collateral by-catch.)

More hope is to be found in the Ocean Cleanup’s interception systems which, when strategically placed in 1000 river locations around the world, should prevent a portion of ocean-bound plastics from ever reaching the sea.

What can we do as consumers/voters to help reduce the Pacific Garbage Patch?

  • Avoid high-density polyethylene. This stuff makes soap bottles, toothbrushes, many consumer goods that float in the ‘garbage patch’, and elsewhere. Choose Lush, or Ethique, or any of the proliferation of ethical cosmetics companies. Try shampoo bars, rock salt deodorant, bamboo toothbrushes, all that jazz — see if it works for you.
  • Shop at wet markets, or simply do not use single-use plastic bags some supermarkets use to wrap fruit and veg.
  • Buy local, Soil Association certified, organic, etc.
  • Carry a tote bag for food shopping/groceries, and a refillable, washable water bottle.
  • Vote for the party with the greenest policies.

“Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”

Unknown

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This article also appears on Medium, along with several others to do with the environment and politics.

For more environment-based articles (including itineraries and restaurant recommendations), head over to the Sri Lanka and Philippines archives, or to Features to catch my latest research pieces.

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/03/great-pacific-garbage-patch-plastics-environment/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendly_Floatees

https://theoceancleanup.com/about/

https://www.discovermagazine.com/environment/the-worlds-largest-dump-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch

http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/marinelitter/publications/default.asp

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22939-w

https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/patch.html

https://www.businessinsider.com/plastic-in-ocean-outweighs-fish-evidence-report-2017-1

Milking the issue – arguments about the best milk substitute

Milk substitutes get a lot of flak — they are hypocritical, they are unhealthy, they are bad for the planet, they use too much water, they shouldn’t be called milks, and so on. In trying to sort wheat from chaff, I have found that, largely, these criticisms are unfounded, rooted in misunderstanding and/or peddled by dairy lobbyists. But scare stories stick in the mind, and often require unwedging. The question of ‘what is the best milk substitute’ is buried under mindless prejudices.

Many of the shots fired masquerade as legitimate, informed concerns, be they medical, ecological or nutritional. However, many of them require little research to dislodge.

What is the best milk substitute?

Soy milk

Criticisms of soy include the causation of hormonal misbalance, or a ‘feminising’ effect on men (untrue / incomprehensively tested / tested on animals, rather than humans). There was one guy who reported increased oestrogen levels, and breast tenderness, but he was drinking six pints of soy milk a day: too much, as they say, of a good thing.

Soy is also panned for its monoculturism. Production has increased fifteen-fold since the 1950s, and is mostly limited to the United States, Brazil and Argentina. It is true that soy accounts for the second largest portion of deforestation worldwide — after cattle ranching. Plantations are ploughed into land which, for generations, has been used for subsistence farming. The forest, rugged yet fragile, loses its balance. More than 200 tribes, comprising 650,000 Brazilian Indians, are threatened by the expansion of agricultural and grazing (read: soy and ranching) land. Jaguars are dying.

So, is soy bad? Well, on such grand scales, yes. But 70–75% of soy worldwide is used for livestock feed. 32 million acres of South American soy-growing land feeds Europe’s meat and dairy industries — equivalent to three Switzerlands. So with ranching in the top position, and soy, three quarters of which is converted into animal feed, in second place, any criticism of soy monocultural deforestation is more justly levelled at the meat industry (having been multiplied, by three or more).

Almond milk

Almond milk has come under fire too, for its allegedly astronomical levels of water wastage — a wave of criticism set off by a dietary consultant of the diary industry, albeit a lactose-free arm.

A widely shared graphic, cited by the BBC, shows almond milk water use to be substantially higher than that of oat, soy or rice milks. Almonds are one of the most water-intensive crops in California, requiring approximately 1 gallon per almond. However, dairy milk water use is still nearly twice as high.

The results are derived from a University of Oxford study. Taking into account 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors, the study finds that ‘the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins’, almost across the board. (It shows as much as 105kg of CO2 is produced per 100g of beef protein, compared to 3.5kg of CO2 per 100g of tofu protein) The Guardian’s environment editor talks about this too.

“Save the bees; drink dairy.” During the winter of 2018–19, an estimated 50 billion bees were ‘wiped out’ during the Californian almond harvest. But the news articles and opinion pieces which actually investigate this typically point to industrialised farming methods as the primary culprit, not the fact of almond consumption — nor, indeed, almond milk production.

A typical line runs as follows:

If you’ve given up dairy in a quest to be a little kinder to the planet, we’ve got bad news. Your almond milk latte obsession may be doing more harm than good.

NewsHub

Well, no it’s not, because it’s not dairy, which is doing more harm than good, and more harm than almonds — much more. Waves of bandwagon/shifting-the-blame criticism like this prompt such high-grade opinion-havers as Piers Morgan to tweet things like “the mass slaughter of billions of bees is on YOU vegans [and] vegetarians,” which is super intelligent, because only 1/25 of almonds are actually used to make almond milk (my estimate, calculations below).

[The United States produces 2 million tonnes of almonds per year. Global almond milk sales for 2018 were just under $6 billion. Divide this by a conservatively low retail cost per litre ($1.50) = 4 billion litres, consisting of 98% non-almond ingredients (water, vitamins, salt, oil, etc.). My own shaky maths gives a total of 80 million kg (or 80,000 tonnes) total mass of almonds used to produce almond milk per year (those pesky vegans are so thirsty), out of total almond production of 2 million tonnes (in the US alone), accounting for just 4% of almonds produced.]

“Your ‘animal ethics’ don’t extend to the little guys,” Piers adds. And yours, apparently, don’t extend to one of the most intelligent animal species on the planet.

Drinking the milk of a cow does nothing to salvage the fate of the bees. Plus, if the lives and livelihoods of droves of bees are of value, why then should the mass slaughter of larger mammals be ignored? Per litre, almond milk accounts for a quarter of the carbon emissions of dairy milk. Any criticism aimed at the almond industry, its affiliates and associates, should surely be multiplied and redirected at dairy.

Oat, Cashew, Hazelnut & Rice milks

As far as I can tell, basically no one has beef with oats. The Oatly brand got a bit of stick for selling shares to China Resources, and running an ad campaign tagged with a line reminiscent of a ‘quit drinking’ slogan, but besides that it’s actually hard to find any criticism online. Drink away.

The cashew industry certainly presents an ethical dilemma, but again, it has nothing to do with the fact of cashews being processed into a milk substitute.

In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report exposed the conditions in Vietnamese forced-labour camps, in which cashew nuts were being processed. Fortunately, this particular punitive slavery practice has been put to an end. Still, cashews are harvested and processed manually, which takes several steps. Exposure to the caustic oils contained within layers of cashew shell causes painful burns and lung irritation, and many workers choose not to wear gloves, in favour of unconstrained handiwork.

Turkey produces and exports three quarters of the world’s hazelnuts, 30% of which are sold to Germany. Productivity is affected by disease and climate. No highlighted concerns.

Rice milk substitute is fine, as long as you don’t drink nothing other than rice milk, while also eating nothing other than rice. Criticisms are hard to find. Plus side: if you have a nut allergy, you can still drink this (because it doesn’t contain nuts).

Basically, it seems, cashew, hazelnut and rice milks don’t offend anyone like Piers Morgan because they are not widespread and popular enough to challenge the status quo. People get tizzy and amplify concerns over soy and almond milks because they are disrupting the dairy-ruled equilibrium, and because, as a rule, people click on headlines which are provocative and reactionary.

In an era where environmental consciousness is entering the mainstream, we owe it to ourselves to sit on the right side of the fence. Plant-based milk substitutes are no longer the domain of the hip, nor do they belong to alternative communities. They have firmly wedged themselves into everyday life. Sacrifices no longer have to be made. Pathos, or ‘loving animals’, is no longer required to make the transition. People are starving, or obese, or sick; the world is burning, sinking and melting; vegans, like non-alcoholics, or those who have quit smoking, are often healthier and happier than meat-eaters; Logos wins outright. It is simply more sensible.

What you can do

Make your own milk — the best milk substitute is a homemade milk substitute (that ancient adage). Almond, oat, soy, even cashew and hazelnut (though these last two are costly). Source your products as locally as possible, control the variables, drink at your leisure.

Buy organic, and/or local. No pesticides, less water, less guilt.

Consider the options. Basically any milk is better than cow’s milk. Remember, mammals are only supposed to drink animal milk while they are suckling. From a bunch of perspectives, it makes much more sense to make opaque white protein-filled liquids from plants instead. Try all of them, see which you like best.

In a nutshell, then:
To minimise CO2 emissions, drink almond.
To minimise land use, drink rice.
To minimise water use, drink soy.

On the other hand, if you want to increase the risk of heart diseaseweakened bonesprostate cancer, while contributing more generously to deforestation, habitat loss, global carbon emissions and water usage, while also minimising the number of times you are insulted by Piers Morgan,

…drink cow.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to share.
Pea milk article coming soon.

Let cows live as cows, please.

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This article also appears on Medium, along with several others to do with the environment and politics.

For more vegan/plant-based articles (including itineraries and restaurant recommendations), head over to the Sri Lanka and Philippines archives!

Sources:

https://www.baldwin.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/S.%20130%20DAIRY%20PRIDE%20Act.pdf

https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2017/animal-or-plant-understanding-north-american-protein-preferences/

https://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/product-water-footprint/

https://www.ediblebrooklyn.com/2019/plant-milks-sustainability/

https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2014/06/10/non-dairy-milks-once-the-solution-now-part-of-the-problem

https://www.truthordrought.com/almond-milk-myths

https://www.plantbasednews.org/news/piers-morgan-brands-vegans-hypocrites

https://academic.oup.com/humupd/article/15/4/423/733861

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fertnstert.2010.03.002

http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2092004,00.html

https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/summer-2018/articles/what-are-the-biggest-drivers-of-tropical-deforestation

http://www.fao.org/3/x4484e/x4484e03.htm

https://www.ishs.org/ishs-article/1226_2

https://www.seeker.com/iq-tests-suggest-pigs-are-smart-as-dogs-chimps-1769934406.html

https://qz.com/1737048/is-your-cashew-milk-latte-an-ethical-choice/

https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2020/01/bees-doomed-thanks-to-world-s-almond-milk-obsession-report.html

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe

Tel Aviv Airport, Israeli Immigration—On Being ‘Checked’

A step by step account of what it is like to be held by Israeli immigration at Tel Aviv Yafo for five hours.

A step by step account of what it was like to spend five hours in Israeli immigration in Tel Aviv Yafo airport, between 10pm and 3am, without explanation.

Airport Queue

Landing at Tel Aviv Yafo Airport, thinking about falafel, trying not to think about Israel immigration queues

We land at 10pm, keen to make up for lost time, hoping for a quick sweep through Israel immigration. Outside the plane, we’re smoothed with that cold heat, night-warmth of the Middle East. We are here, after much umming and ahing. I was dubious about our trip to Israel, as you can imagine, and made more so by the Lebanese girl, in Delhi, who said to me directly, ‘Do not go to Israel. You would not go to a zoo, so why would you go to Israel?’ Well, yes.

Our flight was delayed by a day because of a nuisance airline. That was fine because they put us in a 120EUR/night room in Lisbon and gave us lunchmoney, but it was still a bummer. So, when we do get to Tel Aviv Yafo, we want to hit the ground running, so to speak. It is 10pm and we want, probably more than anything, to eat hummus and falafel. We approach the immigration desk, passports in hand.

It is a strange thing, holding a UK passport. Travelling within Europe is so seamless it is possible to change country without even realising it. Passing in and out of Sri Lanka or India is typically painless, often smiley. Most countries, it seems, are happy to have us—our money, at least. We enjoy many of the same freedoms as our European friends. Only occasionally is our ‘special relationship’ with the US an active hindrance (as with Iran). We are used to being treated as trustworthy.

Having a Lebanese stamp is incredibly naughty

Perhaps I was lackadaisical in my approach, (I read that a Lebanese stamp might slow the whole Israel immigration process down), complacent in my expectation that if I tell the truth, and am polite, it would be a relatively smooth entry. This is what one is taught. I went on the internet; I prepared.

At first we are told to sit in a waiting area, penned off from the main immigration room. Well, no, not exactly. At first, we are actually told to go to the office, and waved away from the immigration queue. It takes some time, waiting at an empty reception desk, before we are told which waiting area we should sit in. The pen is lined with chairs. Perhaps five or six other seats are occupied.

Hipsters in charge at Israel immigration – devils in designer stubble

At its mouth stand a number of security guards. These are the hip vanguard of Israeli immigration officials. Young, bearded and jocular, they appear incongruent with the guards one imagines guarding Israeli outposts in, for example, Palestine. They laugh with each other and make jokes while watching the television. There is a football match on. Perhaps, I think, their good humour with each other is an indicator of how they might treat us, their wards.

Unfortunately this interview was not written by Seth Rogen

After an hour of waiting without any explanation, I am interviewed, alone, by a man with an American accent. A woman sits with him. She has curly hair and wears glasses. The man asks me about what I do—which can be difficult to explain. He asks me about my father and his job, about where I plan to go within Israel and why I am visiting. Then he asks me about Lebanon. He asks me why I went there, where exactly I went, if I went to the south of the country, why I didn’t go to the south of the country (this is a very political decision, from an Israeli perspective), if it was my first time, if I went alone, why, why, why, and so on.

This is known as an Israeli breakfast. Now I’ll switch to past tense.

It was written by Israel Immigration officials

In the end the mood was positive, a small bark and no bite. He gave me a chance to confess any other transgressions, should anything come to mind, “because our security checks are quite thorough”. I’m sure they are, Mr. Man. The woman spoke for the first time: “parking fines, that sort of thing”. What? Why would you need to know about parking fines? Are parking violations indicative of anti-Israel sentiment? Heaven forbid I should have an overdue TV license bill—they might have accused me of being a terrorist. Then I’d have Israel immigration on my back forever.

No, I’m being sarcastic. But that really was her only interjection.

Waiting for four hours in an immigration pen made for humans

I was excused from my interview and told my passport would be returned in due course. In due course… those three words. During the four hours which followed (approx 11pm to 3am), we saw two dozen people come and go—be interviewed, security checked and let in. At several points we remarked on the high percentage of single, young women among the people held. At one point, there were 13 women, most very young, three of them pregnant, four of them with infants or young children, five of them in tears.

Sat nearby was a French woman, heavily pregnant. She was distraught. She had spoken on the phone with a man we presumed to be her partner, and was sobbing loudly, inconsolably. We did what we could to comfort her but our words were useless. She then called her advisor, or lawyer, who required to speak with the Israeli immigration desk. The security personnel refused to even look at her, let alone talk to her—they would not tell her how to get the information her advisor required. When I suggested to one of them that it might be easiest if they just speak to the advisor directly, I was told, ‘It might be easiest if you sit down and be quiet’. It was shocking. It was a blatant display of collective disregard for this heavily pregnant woman’s emotional state. There was nothing. This went on for 45 minutes.

Trying to make it nicer; failing

There were times when, glancing cursorily around the room, my eye would sought out another’s. Women were upset, a man with broad shoulders spoke peremptorily into his phone, girls looked to the guards for hope. But no one looked at each other. I looked around and wanted to build some kind of clan—to express to the others, waiting there, that we were all clearly lumped in this thing together and should treat each other as teammates. But everyone was so subdued and defeated that eye contact was nearly impossible.

It was a bizarre experience. It wasn’t traumatising, but it secured a negative mindset towards a country rich in culinary and cultural history. Naturally, we came with preconceptions—we understand. But this was our very first experience on Israeli soil, and it concretised an already burgeoning sentiment of negativity and incomprehension.

And my guess is that it can happen to anyone—a big Saudi businessman, a petite Russian teen, a French mother-to-be, me. A four hour social media security check really does scrape the bucket dry.

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A version of this article appears on Medium, here
Further reading can be found here and here.
Read about different countries here, and about Israel and Eurovision here.

Diarrhoea in India: A Series Of Flatulent Events; or, one account of what it’s like to have diarrhoea in India

The author recounts tales of woe, sufferance and tribulation, nursing a wobbly bowel.

Bangalore City Panorama

Episode 1: Diarrhoea in India, specifically, Bangalore

It is a fate that many suffer, under the brown awning. To have diarrhoea in India is to live life well, it is often said. Well, let them say it.

Shit is the tofu of cursing and can be molded to whichever condition the speaker desires. Hot as shit. Windy as shit. I myself was confounded as shit…

― David Sedaris

Most of what I do when I rush to the toilet is spill gas into the bowl. I have diarrhoea, in India. India, they say, is the place for this. Plups of steam-brown turd cloud the toilet water, clinging to the surface tension, swimming around like schools of muddy fish. What goes beneath is lost to the eye, wisping into nonexistence.

It has been 7 weeks and it will not abate. We are still in Bangalore. The hotel manager, kind Ramesh, lets us stay in the double deluxe room on the second floor for off-book prices. Tax free. Airbnb won’t take any of my pounds, nor his rupees. I transfer GBP direct into his account. Exchange rates come and go, like water in an estuary. I guess everybody wins. We are external to the system—awol, MIA, offline renegades living irl.

With 1GB of data each per day, we can watch precisely 6 hours and 37 minutes of Netflix, in colour, provided we sacrifice premium resolution. But on a 12 inch screen, 100 fewer lines of pixels makes little difference. We have only actually maxed out twice. We also read. Anything as long as it is in the vicinity of the bog. Anything which distracts us from the matter at hand, or, rather, at arse. Diarrhoea in India.

It is a strange thing, almost meditative, to surrender completely to the bowel. Autonomy and liberty go hand in hand, as blessings, but it is well known how the human mind responds to authority. We crave it. We could not have had tyrants without this oxymoronic muscle. We are slaves to hormones and genetics—and the bowel knows how to exploit these weaknesses, with finesse. In Trainspotting, Renton finds pleasure and solace in the simple, choice-free life heroin allows him to lead. Replace ‘hit’ with ‘shit’, and the analogy is complete.

One small fortune is the lack of direct clashes, as yet, in our schedules. I have heard tales of double-teaming, an arse directed between the legs, the hopeful projectile sliding along a thigh, browning it, muddying the waters between friend and enemy. We are still friendly. The closest we have come is a nervous shout, outside the door, followed by a slick wrap-up operation. “Any chance you’ll be out soon?”
“Yes…”

And then the swift return. Stay tuned for more episodes in this Series, A Series of Flatulent Events, all of which deal with diarrhoea, in India.

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This article also exists on Medium. Check out my other stories there.

Want to know more about India? I have articles on Kerala, Indian heritage sites, and more. Follow these links!
An Alternative Heritage Tour of Southern India
Tourist Places in Kerala: Human by Nature

An Alternative Tour of India: The truth about Indian culture

There are some things tourist information companies don’t want you to know.

The Indian subcontinent is brimming with a smorgasbord of cultural nooks and delicious crannies. And Indian culture cannot be summed up in a single sentence, or even a book. But there are certain things that you might not read about in Lonely Planet, when visiting the southern states, such as Kerala, Goa or Karnataka. Here are some of them.

Kerala, and the states it borders, are known for many things: expansive beaches, breathy hill stations and plump fruits, to name a few. But there is more—much more. During our romps around the area, it was a mild shock to us to find certain things cropping up again, and again, and again. A cultural smorgasbord awaits, albeit a repetitious one. It is accessible to all. We explored the lesser-known nooks and crannies of southern India’s cultural mosaic. Here, I present some of the highlights.

Coconut Museum, Kochi—3/5

Calicut, Kerela

To be clear, this museum does not showcase items of historical significance. These are not artifacts from bygone times. Rather, they are artisanal artworks, constructed entirely, and exclusively, from materials extracted from the coconut tree. Idols of Ganesha, Shiva and Buddha, each carved from a single log; two elaborate models of the Taj Mahal (strikingly accurate), one of wood, one woven from coconut fibres; Patachitra paintings on plucked coconut husks, a vivid portrait of lions and tigers made of bits of coconuts; and a large, majestic chessboard with hand-carved pieces. Unfortunately, the latter was in a state of ruin—heads balanced on shoulders, gammy legs, club foots and so on. Nevertheless, we played.

“There are artisans who specialize and use only a particular part of the coconut for their work, like its husk or sticks or shells alone,” says the sub-editor of the Coconut Board.

It is a true ode to the myriad powers of the coconut, a vital ingredient in the cultural cocktail India mixes. Without the humble coconut, Indian culture would be unrecognisable to what it is today. Read more about it here, and view its TripAdvisor reviews here.

Kerala Science and Technology Museum—4/5 (and the same from TA)

[Activity Room & Planetarium & 7D Thrillarium]

Located deep within the bowels of Thiruvananthapuram (aka Trivandrum), this centre for science is a multifaceted monolith, with activities on all sides. It has great potential. However, what it has in ideas, it lacks finesse–and execution–and, I suppose, funding.

The Activity Room contains all manner of activities, perfect for people of all ages. These are science experiments, science facts, demonstrated before your very eyes. There is much to learn! Sadly though, due presumably to a funding deficit, many of the exhibits are falling apart, tearing at the seams, or simply missing parts, and therefore malfunctioning.

The Thrillarium does not quite live up to its name, though does offer a few luke-warm minutes of being fanned, heated or sprayed in the face while being taken, arse first, on a rollicking, Triassic adventure. Good for kids.

Last but not least, the Planetarium. This is where it really comes together. Despite being in the local language, the show here was enjoyable for all four of us. Not a dry eye in the house, I’m sure.

Chapora Fort, Bardez, Goa—2/5

Welcome to the Best Fort in Goa.

A stark wind blows from the coast. We are high up, blistering against the rain. Drum, drum, drum, the rain thrums at our ears, pockmarks the ancient walls, beats at the stones of the earth. We are up here, and why? To feel the weather upon us, around us, surrounding us. Belittled by the sky, we almost begin to tremble, but then we remember. We are here for a reason. We have been brought together, to this place, in order to celebrate. It is Goa. There is wine. We have love. We have Indian culture, imbibed.

Wax World Museum (and Walkthrough Horror Experience), Old Goa, Velha—1/5

This was something else entirely, and generally not very good. But these things depend in large part on company and attitude, and we were fortunate in both. It was raining outside, and I had told our diminutive, teenage driver to hold his horses. We had not yet learned quite how many wax museums there are in this part of India. They seem to be following us around.

In order to fully experience this wax museum, we were given the tour. To wit: a fierce Indian woman barked us from one statue to another, allowing very little time for reflection. She told us that the Obama statue was of an Indian actor. None of us had the heart to tell her she was wrong.

The horror experience mainly deployed cheap gimmicks; it could have been designed by a 7 year old. There was nothing unexpected—as one Trip Advisor reviewer puts it: ‘There is nothing like horror in this’. Yet, somehow, it shocked two of our party. We came out feeling refreshed, closer than before, interknit, and with a pissy aroma about our persons. We retrieved our shoes and walked to the main road. There was our driver, red cap gleaming, top-heavy, waiting to whisk us away to a drier place.

One TA user says DON’T VISIT. I’m inclined to agree. Does this qualify as Indian culture? Who knows.

Ooty Wax Museum—2/5

I agree that, in a sense, it is a ‘great alternative to sightseeing’, as advertised on the Travel 2 Ooty website. However, I prefer to see sights. This wax museum is owned by the man who makes the wax statues. He also owns and fills a similar museum in Kodaikanal.

Credit where it’s due: this man has made an obscene number of wax sculptures, and invested a great deal of money into the enterprise. Discredit where it’s due: often, without textual aids, it is impossible to tell your Einsteins from your Mother Theresas. And, the only black character is a cartoonish imagining of what African musicians actually look like.

Ooty Boat House Triple Whammy—Horror Experience, Mirror World and Jurassic Jungle—4/5 

Yes, we got sucked in once again, to the standard south Indian plethora of fun & games.

First up, the Mirror World. (There are 17 mirrors in the Mirror World)

While the mirrors were just a tad grimy, it was almost immersive in there, and we definitely had a few minutes of what amounted to “fun & games”. Positive vibrations coming through the walls. For a second or two, I actually managed to suspend my disbelief to the extent that I could convincingly regard myself as ‘lost in the Mirror World’. Well done there.

Horror Experience and Jurassic Jungle. Hmm. Impossible to ignore the overwhelming aroma of urine, throughout these walkthroughs. Now, this is a pity, because this is quite a distracting and, dare I say, disconcerting smell, especially when its potency reaches Richter one gazillion. This was a downer, because these two were otherwise pretty spectacular. The crocodile made Laura jump out of her skin, and there was something uncannily freaky about the gorilla. Dinosaurs were all good too. 

Not a bad score.

Blossom Bookhouse, Bangalore—5/5; a bastion of Indian culture

Had everything a bookie can dream of, except Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Can’t argue. It is a resounding success, chock full of delights: absorb Indian culture through the words it prints.

Sivananda Yoga Ashram: Review; or, Why We Left

Sivananda

Note: this piece collates research and details our/my personal experience of attending the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala. It extrapolates, to a certain degree, based on the evidence. At times, its style borders on the tongue-in-cheek, but its message is sincere.

Nestled amid Kerala’s green-yellow foliage, and breathing daily its damp hills, Sivananda (Yoga Vedanta Dhanwatari) Ashram sits, imperious and well-ventilated, overlooking a lake which both contains, and does not contain, crocodiles. Its flowery views of the Western Ghats are sometimes green and sometimes yellow—occasionally, the still, yogic waters are disturbed by a passing puma, or a long snake. Hell, you might even find a potentially deadly scorpion in your room. This is an integral part of living an ascetic lifestyle.

Structure/Hierarchy at the Sivananda Ashram

Hidden from view, the ashram’s seneschal is a mysterious and private director. (He is named on the website simply as The Director) In order to meet him, you must book a 5 minute appointment in advance, within a small daily window. This elusive white man, about whom lurid stories abound (no, really), oversees the acquisition of large sums of money from naive western tourists. He initiates contact only if it is to expel said tourist—a gesture which is made in no uncertain terms, and with very little notice. His work is carried out for him by three primary staff members and several volunteers; the latter pay for their positions.

Its holy/NOT HOLY personages are Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda, the latter of which is best known for introducing the Beatles to yoga in the 1960s. The parent organisation has ashrams in California, New York and the Bahamas, among others.

Public Opinion, in a Nutshell

A Google search for “Sivananda reviews” brings up some troubling results. The very first, entitled ‘Ashram, or overpriced cult…?’, argues that “any place that has 200 students gulping salt water and making themselves sick into a lake may need to be more up front about what you are asked to do while there’. It gives two out of five stars.

The low-scoring reviews are only funny until they aren’t. A cursory glance shows the centre has a very chequered reputation. It is described variously as an “opportunistic commercial centre” with “rigid, outdated attitudes” which makes a “mere mockery of yoga”. Reviewers frequently invoke the experience of a prisoner, or naughty schoolchild, reprimanded for giggling in the brunch hall, or monitored during toilet breaks to ensure they return to the mandatory morning satsang. One reviewer goes further, saying it is “very racist”, charged with “hypocrisy” and “1950s-style sexism”, and that it preys on the naivety of tourists. Some raise the issue of hours spent chanting religious hymns, making symbolic gestures and prostrating before idols.

Others paint even ghastlier pictures. In 2013, a female attendee was taken to hospital and underwent an induced abortion. She received zero pastoral care from staff, was required to pay for the damage to her sheets, onto which she had bled. When she acquiesced, she was accused of stealing them. The only person with any authority who came to her side was a volunteer. In 2015, another reviewer describes the case of an older lady who broke her ankle in the washroom. She was only provided the most basic medical treatment, and received no extra care or personal attention from staff. Incidents like this clearly illustrate an institutional disregard for women who have suffered taxing tribulations while staying at the ashram and, ostensibly, under the care of the ashram staff. The following year, a group of male volunteers was overheard making comments about how they could “feel up foreign girls” while practicing yoga.

That same year, a guest (link to her full write-up below) remarks on how the karma yoga (which, in this context, meant doing chores to assure favourable reincarnation prospects) tasks were divided according to ethnicity. Iranians served tea and Indians cleaned the toilets and served food, while whites were given “white collar jobs” such as taking attendance or assisting in the bookshop. When asked to explain such stark racial stereotyping, the director replied, “Indians are good at serving food”. This was in 2017.

Consistent over the past nine years, such negative reviews are indicative of an institution unwilling to accept and, Shiva forbid, integrate feedback into their program. Responses from the director are often formulaic and fail to actually address any detail of the review. Worse still, they argue back, as if pedantry is a substitute for pro-activity. Reading of these experiences justified the way we reacted to our own.

Why we left Sivananda Yoga Ashram: Science vs. Religion

Our reasons for leaving were not particularly severe, not in light of the reviews quoted. They were also not trivial. We felt uncomfortable but convinced ourselves to stay. Then, the following day, we felt unable to. Initially, our concerns were to do with the (pseudo-)academic content and manner of delivery, i.e., pseudoscience delivered sanctimoniously.

A compulsory part of a day-in-the-life was the lecture. (Attendance was recorded; three black marks in a two-week period and you’re called up for a meeting with the director) Lectures generally lasted two hours. At first, the anthropologist in me found these sessions entertaining, if not edifying. It was kind of fun to be told that our bodies comprise five basic elements; that stone, when melted, turns into water; that one ought to treat boils (which are wet, as in, filled with water) with powder (which is dry, like earth, like kapha); and that induced vomiting, repeated three times a day for a month, is a stepping stone on the path to becoming certifiably yogic.

But opportunities for amusement wore thin. The derision of science quickly became abrasive. I found myself disagreeing at every other turn. No, yogis did not invent breathing deeply, as the teacher claimed. No, it cannot be said to be “true” that the ‘causal body’ will depart from the physical realm at the moment of death and, in time, inhabit another body. You cannot presume the existence of a soul. And no, the human body is not made up of ether, air, fire, earth and water, just as it is not made up of black and yellow bile, phlegm and blood. We have moved on from then, thankfully, to greener pastures. Please do not teach this as a scientific practice.

It was apparently deeply surprising that any of us western laypeople should know the names of more than five organs. Likewise that any of us actually think about breathing in our everyday lives—to breathe consciously and mindfully is practised only, and only ever, by yogis. Breathing consciously is a yogic practice, invented and defined by yogis.

We were told that no form of exercise other than aasana practice clears the mind—“But are you really relaxed when you’re at the gym? Are you really?”—and that creative energy takes 30 days to regenerate. All in all, our teacher’s rejection of science was based on a narrow view of western medical practice. It was rendered simplistic and therefore easy to criticise. Being given the wrong drug is not a failure of science: it is human error. Similarly, suffering terrible back pain three days into a yoga vacation does not mean yoga is at fault—it means the institution is at fault, for creating an environment in which that happens, repeatedly. Doctors are imperfect. So are managers and instructors.

Injuries are frequent at the ashram

An acquaintance of ours, while we were there, sprained his wrist while attempting one of the aasanas. We were told of the commonality of neck braces. Several guests experienced acute back pain, including my partner, who had to duck out of two yoga classes. We attributed this, at least in part, to the lack of guidance and tuition offered to individuals, regarding specific postures. (Also, to fatigue caused by the rigid, 05:30—22:00 schedule, during which we spent at least six hours sitting on the floor) We were also told, in hushed tones, of multiple suicides which have occurred within the high walls of the ashram. Evidently, people stay in a place like this in order to process darkness they hold within them, to ‘deal with shit’. Fair enough. Please, Mr Director, provide pastoral support for the people who struggle along the way.

Vacation vs. Religion

For us, the draconian implementation of outdated policies outweighed the benefits of staying. That, and the exploitation of certain tenets of an ascetic yogic lifestyle. Karma yoga is transliterated to become working the bins, mopping the dorm room floor or serving your fellow ‘vacationers’ during the half-hour eating periods. Devotional practice, the spiritual practice of worshipping a personal god, an inner god, becomes call-and-response chanting of unknown Sanskrit words, prostration before an altar and pretending to rub fire in your hair; and so on. For a non-religious institution its religious elements were pervasive.

Despite the twice-a-day chants, prayers and prostrations, and the weird bit where we self-blessed with a sacramental flame, the operation is peddled as entirely nonreligious. Congregations, idols and nibbles from a silver bowl taste like religion to me, especially when surrounded on all sides by images of mythical deities and watched to make sure I don’t leave. The cultish dogmatism and strict regime were a far cry from the ‘vacation’ we signed up for—nomenclature is important—and further still from the open, spiritual journey we were continually promised. The giant statue, referred to as an altar, was another giveaway.

The Importance of Pastoral Support

But the incident which set us both particularly on edge was the flat, non-negotiable refusal, by one of the more willing volunteers, to allow my partner to leave the premises. Sure, this was in line with regulations, which we all sign on the dotted line on arrival. However, denying a woman of 30 the right to a private walk, who is visibly distressed and shaking with sobs, who wants to feel less entrapped and spied-on, is a clear marker of institutional neglect for the feelings of the patrons it attracts. This is an organisation which makes large sums of money from often naive or mentally fractured westerners—it is a retreat, or vacation, after all—and does next to nothing to assist them in dealing with the issues they might face during an incongruously regimented spirituality camp. Bizarrely, the place of solace – of refuge – to which my girlfriend was taken, was a rooftop within the compound. In a twist of irony, or satire, she was left up there, not checked on, until she came down. What if she had been deeply depressed?

Last words

We had intended to stay for 14 days. For my part, I have always been able-bodied and flexible (I have always been able to get both of my legs behind my head—a neat party trick). I had been practising yoga in some form for six months, and my partner, the other half of ‘we’ in this piece, had done so for a number of years. We are by no means unfit. But we do value autonomy, and we hold compassion in very high regard.

Individuals should be treated as individuals; there is always room for that. Years of scathing reviews, the most troubling of which concern the hardhearted treatment of women in distress, should serve as a clarion call for structural change. Offering free basic counselling training to all volunteers would be a good start. That way, they would feel empowered to approach guests who are struggling. Allow people their freedoms or stop calling it a vacation.

Further reading:

For a more thorough analysis, with regard to actual yogic practice and an understanding of the Sanskrit element, read—Why I left Sivananda Yoga Teacher Training course within five days on yoganama

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This article also appears on Medium, along with many other tales of joy and woe.

Read the opinions of others here, here and here.

Read more of my pieces about India in my India archive – specifically dealing with diarrhoea in India, and southern India’s multifaceted and thoroughly interesting culture.

Sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is ubiquitous. Are women safe?

Shocking statistics abound, yet travel bloggers, tourist boards and travel agencies are ardent in their praise of Sri Lanka’s invariably hospitable locals. We have a duty to inform.

The argument: Basically, it should be possible for a young woman, “modestly” clad or otherwise, to travel independently around a country without exeriencing sexual harassment, be it in the form of physical abuse or verbal assault. In a country known for its pristine beaches, verdant forests and luscious flora–perhaps, above all, its welcoming locals–it is important to note what goes on beneath the surface, and how sexual harassment in Sri Lanka affects all who live there.

Note: Ninety per cent experience sexual harassment in Sri Lanka

It is a shocking statistic, one that many would choose to disbelieve. 90% of Sri Lanka’s women have endured some kind of sexual harassment on public transport, against a global estimate of 1 in 3 women. It is the highest rate in South Asia. Conversely, according to a 2013 UN study just one third of Sri Lankan men admit to having carried out an act of physical or sexual violence against a woman. 3% are arrested.

But statistics often fail where a personal, targeted anecdote will succeed. Statistics are shocking but rarely incite behavioural or ideological changes. The mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang Province is shocking, but persists in part because of deliberate blind-spotting; the number of people reliant on foodbanks in the UK is shocking, but policy changes are not forthcoming.

People become rape apologists when they say things like she should not have worn those clothes, or she was drunk—she was asking for it. These familiar statements are almost never spoken by women, let alone sufferers of abuse. Why? Because shared experience, or, failing that, mutual understanding, leads to solidarity.

A rape apologist changes his tune

We have three levels of kinship: small [intimate—family], medium [associative—community] and large [distant/extensive—race, country, religion]. Statistics appeal to the broadest of social circles, and garner an academic response.

My connection to the UK is vague, so my response to an issue like homelessness in the UK, when presented in terms of statistics, is just so. Narrating isolated incidents is more affective. Localised and personal, a story is more likely to strike an emotional chord; it establishes humanness, but it does not guarantee the element of community. Hearing about the brutal murder of two touring cyclists in Mexico in June last year sent shivers down my spine because I was cycle-touring at the time. If I read about it now, my response would be more distant.

The surest way to generate an emotive reaction is to make something about the inner circle—it is a matter of framing. People care about themselves and their families. Quote stats to Tom, Dick or Harry and you are likely to receive glazed eyes and excuses.

What if was your daughter?
Then I’d kill him.

It happens like this. If a family member is on the line, no counter response is too severe.

Selective offence-taking

Taking something personally (offence) depends on ones investment in an idea. Anyone who has received abuse on the basis of something particular (race, gender, sexuality, disability) shows solidarity with the other members of their clan. They are committed to the idea; it is something integral to their identity. Feminists are committed to the ideal of equality of opportunity among all genders—therefore the abuse of women is offensive. It is an effrontery. Islamophobia offends devout Muslims because they are emotionally committed to the idea of Islam: Allah, Mohammed, the Qu’ran—these are sacrosanct. For trans people, being trans is very important. The oppressed defend each other because of their need for mutual solidarity.

Piquing the interest of straight men in what are perceived to be “women’s issues”—sexual harassment, misogyny, domestic abuse—can be bizarrely challenging. “Causes” like feminism, trans rights, or pro-choice campaigns are of no interest, because they seek to increase representation for members of other clans. Sexual violence statistics are shrugged off because they are just that—statistics. However, ask this man how he would react if it was his sister, or his mother or daughter, and a switch will flick.

Assaults on Sri Lankan women, whether by family members or uniformed officers, are widespread, and should offend us all. Yet somehow they slip off the radar. These women live in a culture which grants immunity to many predatory men. While this is certainly the case in much of the world – rape cases are notoriously unreported, and seldom lead to prosecution – the proportions seem magnified in Sri Lanka.

Infographic containing sexual harassment statistics for Sri Lanka
Image credit: Sri Lanka Brief

Are we really living in paradise?

Sri Lanka is frequently hailed as a slice of heaven, the ‘Wonder of Asia’. This level of praise is to be expected from those who have a vested interest in increasing tourist traffic, i.e., business owners. But bloggers are at it too, lauding Sri Lanka as the perfect destination for young women (and men) to come and reconnect with nature.

But given the statistics regarding sexual harassment in Sri Lanka, should this not come with a caveat? Leafing through articles dealing specifically with whether or not Sri Lanka is a safe place for solo female travellers, it is deeply surprising to find such consistent disparities between point-blank assertions of paradisal safety and the reality I have come to know.

The increasing role, and importance, of social media reportage

On social media, everyone has a voice. There are democratic platforms where perpetrators of sexual violence can be called out directly by their victims. Solidarity can be established. This is where the truth emerges.

A recent post on the subject, in an expat group on Facebook, has received a lot of attention. Dated 10th June 2019, the original post details a series of incidents of harassment experienced by the poster’s partner, and asks how often the (mostly foreign) female members of the group encounter sexual harassment here in Sri Lanka. Responses almost invariably expressed solidarity. Many were vocal with words of support, or offered their own experiences.

To quote a few:

“I don’t trust men here at all”; “I feel her pain”; “Sri Lanka is the first [on my] list of sexual harassment problems”; “Having travelled extensively and lived in several countries I’ve never experienced this as much as in Sri Lanka. Pls don’t put your head in the sand, it’s a known issue here that needs to be addressed”; “Women should not have to be covered completely to avoid this vulgar stupidity”; “This country is the pits […] So tired”; “Every day. I can’t even walk to the shop 50 meters away without getting some”; “It’s a daily struggle”; “I only go out with my husband”; “All. The. Fucking. Time”; “It’s every time I visit Sri Lanka, the amount of sexual advances men make is numerous”

and so on. Let it be noted that there are severer denigrations of the culture here which I have elected to omit—likewise, there are women who have not experienced problems. The quoted passages are, in truth, the modal average. They are in the majority.

I was there for 3 months and experienced this on a regular basis… the landlord’s relative would sneak into the house in broad daylight just to “talk to me” and would follow me everywhere. At first id be polite but when I raised my voice and told him to F off he tried to block me with his bike. Not to mention the time he broke into the gates of the house I was staying at in the middle of the night and tried to steal my things off my windowsill/watch me sleep […] Verbal harassment daily, I couldn’t go to the beach alone…

Reading these drove the point home to me, personally, in a way that an article on a news website does not. It is something to do with being part of an actual, active community. I do not know these people personally, but feel tied to them, experientially. Similarly, hearing the experiences of friends here actualises the problem in a way a statistic does not.

One comment stuck out to me, and resonated with Laura.

After two years there, [I am] living elsewhere now and realizing how much it made an imprint on me. Half a year later and I’m still walking around in a much safer country with my walls up, dressing more conservatively, carrying anger when I don’t need to point it at anyone.

This is a culture which rubs off on people, creating lasting effects on behaviour, openness and personal security. Besides these, I have heard personal accounts of hit-and-run groping, motorbike drivers who swerve towards and grab at someone’s body before speeding off; hotel owners persistently offering massages or requesting to teach the Kama Sutra to a single woman in her bedroom; a jogger being pursued onto the beach by an unknown man; the list goes on.

Selective advertising

Contrary to a position held by many online writers, sexual harassment (from untoward attention to physical assault) is the rule, not the exception. Some argue that ‘dressing modestly helps’, but the evidence also contradicts this. One woman I spoke to has been groped in plain sight, while wearing jeans and a long sleeve top. That modesty helps is a truism, a platitude, and as such is meaningless.

People write with ostensible authority about how safe Sri Lanka is for women after spending a week on the island. It seems pertinent to consider how much one can learn of a country in a week, and how much safety depends on financial insulation. No doubt many of those who can afford to stay in resorts, and pay drivers, have no problems at all. It is those who cannot pay for this treatment who are more vulnerable.

Yes, Sri Lankan bus rides are part of the *authentic experience*, but if that authentic experience involves a man rubbing his groin on your shoulder for two hours, perhaps it is worth foregoing

Reporting sexual harassment

While there are relatively few published accounts, incidents of harassment/abuse concerning foreigners are real, and troubling. What’s more, given their scarcity, it is a duty of those selling the Sri Lankan experience not to gloss over them.

Rarely covered, rarely reported. Why?

Submitting oneself to Sri Lanka’s legal process is an ordeal most tourists and expats (and, I imagine, local women) would rather avoid. The simple act of reporting can be torturous. One woman wrote of her experience reaching out for help from four police officers at the front desk of a police station. They heard her out and laughed, ‘as if I had just told them a joke’. When the tuktuk driver who had attempted to assault her entered the police station demanding she pay him for the journey, the officers told her she would have to ‘stay with them’ if she did not pay her would-be assaulter. ‘This is why the women rarely report incidents to the police.’

Grandiose actions taken by the Sri Lankan authorities do little to solve the real issues. After Dutch tourists were brutally assaulted on Mirissa beach in 2018, the government responded with a sweeping gesture. Much of the beach infrastructure was bulldozed in a morass of short-sighted problem-solving. 100 police officers, 24 Anti-Riot Squad personnel and a water cannon, as well as several teams of Special Task Force personnel, were deployed to oversee the demolition and prevent any protest.

It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut: the collateral damage was huge, and unnecessary. Innocent people lost businesses and the town suffered because tourists had nothing to stay for. Such token gestures are big on pomp and circumstance, and little on tackling the cause—a lack of sex education and a society which marginalises (devoices) women.

Why does this continue to happen?

It’s the last thing that this island needs right now is bad press and a few dumb idiots chasing away the few tourists we have.

Sri Lanka is still reeling from a spray of coordinated attacks by religious radicals. As tourist numbers begin, at last, to climb, and business owners put out calls to repopulate their hotels and cafes (“for the good of the country”), it is imperative that the sexual predators of this country do not go unnoticed. For this to happen, duties need to be fulfilled.

Bloggers have a duty to inform incoming tourists of the statistics, as giving out rose tinted glasses to young women on journeys of self-discovery can encourage naivety and feed the opportunism of their would-be antagonists. Residents and tourists alike, male and female, foreign and native, have a duty of care to each other. Foreign offices must acknowledge the prevalence of sexual harassment, as should informative sites like Lonely Planet, Wikitravel and Trip Advisor. These are also truths that should be circulated in expat communities, so that incomers understand the environment they are committing to living in.

But the real onus to change lies with the men who perpetuate a culture which freely oppresses women’s freedoms. This includes the police officers who discredit the testimonies of the women who come to them for support; anyone who witnesses anything and fails to call it out; anyone who does not apply pressure to a brother or friend to change their behaviour. Seen from any angle, the verbal and/or physical harassment of people based on their sex is socially backwards. Quashing it requires a push from all sides.

Tackling the symptoms

Sri Lankan women, at least in the provinces, endure silently, while foreigners lack the wherewithal to penetrate a self-protecting system. Fortunately, the ball is rolling on policymaking, and change is on its way, but campaigns like ‘Not On My Bus’ need nationwide (not just metropolitan) publicity, and legitimacy.

Combating sexual harassment requires a two-pronged approach. Not only is it necessary to give voice to victims—all victims—by inviting claimants to come forward and treating claimants with compassion, not disdain. Perpetrators must be brought to account. Police officers who would rather laugh at victims than help them are guilty and should be reported, because they create an environment in which it is impossible to pursue justice. The man on the bus who, while pretending to be asleep, repeatedly touches the thigh of the woman sitting next to him, is guilty, and should change his behaviour. Colombo’s mayor understands that this is a “national issue”—the country needs to understand this too. Zero tolerance. Don’t be a bystander. #CreateAScene.

Addressing the cause

This is how problems are really solved. Sex education here is basic. A 2013 study by the Family Health Bureau found 50% of young people in Sri Lanka had limited knowledge about sexual reproduction and health. Less than half of girls knew that pregnancy can result from the first sexual intercourse; many across the board failed to answer basic questions about reproductive health. It has been called a ‘sexual emergency’.

According to independent sexual health consultant Peter Gordon, sex(uality) education has a number of clear mutually reinforcing objectives:

  • Increase knowledge and understanding (about sex and the law, the nature of abuse and how to address it);
  • Explore and clarify feelings, values and attitudes (developing self-esteem, pride in one’s body);
  • Develop or reinforce skills (saying “no”, resisting pressure);
  • Promote and sustain risk-reducing behaviour.

Educators are in a position of great power and responsibility when it comes to the development of children’s attitudes to fundamental social issues. Suitably trained, they could make up for lost time, regarding those children who receive no sexual education at home. Furthermore, they can facilitate open and safe discussion spaces, in schools, in which children and young people can come to terms with: a) the attitudes they absorb from the media they subconsciously consume, b) the sexual naivety of their peers, and c) the fact of their own humanness, their history and physiology.

Addressing domestic abuse and sexual violence in a curricular context brings these issues to the surface, and assures would-be victims of the prevalence of the issue—it establishes a nationwide support network. It also informs the would-be perpetrators of the traumas these practices can induce. There is a future in which no part of society is oppressed because of their sex, sexuality or sexual decisions. Informing the national dialogue on these subjects may well be the key to unlocking that future.

Further reading:
Facts and Figures: Ending Violence Against Women
CCD removes 21 illegal structures along Mirissa beach
UN Women: Asia and the Pacific

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This article also appears on Medium, along with several others.
Read more stories from the ground about police harassment in Sri Lanka, a research piece about the same, how to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka, or about where to eat vegetarian food on Sri Lanka’s southern coast (originally published on Travelista)