Monday, August 10, 2009

I´d like a hamburger and a hazmat suit please.

I believe I mentioned a while back that while I’m here I’ve decided to be a vegetarian. This isn’t a significant change for me since I was pretty much a vegetarian back in the US, especially if I was doing my own cooking.

What is a ‘Vegetarian’:

Now, what exactly does being a vegetarian mean here? Well, first off if I tell a Paraguayan that I don’t eat ‘ ‘carne[meat].’ However the word ‘carne’ generally just refers to ‘beef’ here so I have to go through the list an explain that I don’t eat chicken, pork, or fish, either. I do eat dairy products and eggs.

Because I have almost no time to cook my own food, I’ve been flexible and allowed myself to eat food that has been cooked with meat and I just pick out the meat. My host mom in J.A. is actually one of the cleanest Paraguayan cooks that I’ve seen, so I don’t worry too much about contaminated meat. However I’ve already established at my new site that I do not eat things cooked with meat.

During training I’ve also eating things cooked with animal fat which generally includes chipa and mbeju, those these can be made from vegetable oil. However a fateful dinner in Villa Florida changed this and I’ve already explain to my family in my new site that I also don’t eat animal fat. One of the host families was cooking mbeju for some of us volunteers to have for dinner. They pulled out a 2 liter plastic soda filled with suspicious grey stuff. A short while later, they began squeezing this thick sticky glob into the mbeju mixture dough and I realized that it a giant bottle of pig fat. I think they used about 1/3 of the bottle. I almost vomited. I to look away from the table towards my awesome vegetarian volunteer friend at which time we both started laughing since we were having the same reaction to the table drama. And yes, we both ate the mbeju, and yes it was yummy. But now that training is ending I pretty much avoid chip and mbeju if I don’t know how its cooked. I can’t get the image of Carrie’s kindly host dad squeezing that ghastly grey fat out of the bottle out of my head when I do. I’m even feeling a little queasy just writing this. Fortunately my host mom in Campo 9 is a nurse and I didn’t see any scary grey bottles at the house, so I’m pretty sure her mbeju is safe.

Fun facts:

• Pescatarian: No-landanimals, poultry. Yes-seafood,
• Lacto-ovo Vegetarian: No-meat, poultry, or fish. Yes-eggs, dairy, honey
• Lacto Vegetarian: No-meat, poultry, fish, or eggs. Yes-dairy, honey
• Ovo Vegetarian: No-meat, poultry, fish, or dairy. Yes-eggs, honey
• Vegan: doesn’t eat anything made from animals including dairy products, eggs, broths, honey, seafood, gelatin [made from animal skin, bones, and connective tissue], etc.
• Flexitarian: A diet that consists primarily of vegetarian food, with occasional exceptions

Why I am a Vegetarian here:

Reason #1) Meat Handling Practices:

The meat handling practices in this country are frightening. As far as I’m concerned all meat should come with a bio-hazard sticker. I’m not confident that the live animals receive proper medical attention, may have parasites, and they are often on the skinny side. However I will say that their though their general diets and overall quality of life is probably far better than the poor factory produced animals that are raised the US.

It’s treatment of the meat once the animal is dead that scares me. I’ve been told by an American working for CHP, my training program, that the meat from an animal that has just been killed can actually sit out for 2-3 days before it needs to be refrigerated. I think this is bullshit. This is a subtropical climate with high humidity, and bugs of all sorts everywhere, not to mention stray dogs, cats, chickens, and small children. The meat often hangs in public where the afore mentioned parties can easily access it or it sits in bowls or on meat counters this I highly doubt are sanitized before the next round of meat is put on them. While I do think animals that are killed relatively closely to their cooking date, I have no faith that they are always consumed before the magical 3rd day. I have seen very few dispensas [very small neighborhood stores] that have proper storage facilities to put the meat that does take a few days to sell.

Even if the meat is stored properly, I am pretty sure there is cross-contamination between the meats and other items in the store. In smaller stores, it is not uncommon for people to handle the meat with their bare hands and not wash their hands before they touch other pieces of meat or any other items. For example, at the dispensa near my training school I went to buy some bananas. While I was in line I saw the store lady:

1. Grab a huge piece of meat with her bare hands
2. Cut it with a knife that I’m pretty sure hadn’t been sanitized since its last use and has been used to cut who knows what
3. Put the chunk of meat on a scale to weight it [I don’t remember if she put any paper under the meat to prevent it from directly touching the scale]
4. Put the meat in a bag and give it to the customer
5. Go about her business selling other stuff in the store without washing her hands
6. Repeat the same meat handlings process for another customer. Again, she never washed her hands, never put on gloves, the meat wasn’t refrigerated, it was just sitting uncovered in a bucket on the counter, I’m not confident she put something on the scale [which she also uses to measure vegetables], touched everything else in the store,
7. And she was shooing away the kittens that were meowing on the ground under the bucket o’meat. And you know that she can’t protect the meat at all times so there is a good chance some lucky kitty gets a nibble on occasion. Did I mention that most of the cats, especially the kittens, have parasites?

Jenna, another volunteer, did say she has noticed that her host mom, who runs a dispensa, is very very clean with her meat ie always wears gloves, and protects the meat from touching other items in the store. So there are exceptions.
However in this instance I held on to my bananas like it was life or death. Thankfully they don’t sell bananas by weight usually so she didn’t have to touch them to know how much to charge me. She did have to touch the package of the knock-off M&Ms that I bought, which still scared me. Fortunately it has been a good while since this happened, and I’m still alive, so it didn’t kill me…this time…I’m pretty sure it was a close call.

Reason #2) Having Complete and Utter Control Over My Diet *muuahhaa haaa

Another reason why being a vegetarian makes my life easier is that it is such a radical difference from the way that the Paraguayans eat that they just don’t know what to do with me. And thus they are much more inclined to just me make my own food, which is what I prefer.

While much of the Paraguayan food is tasty, it consists almost entirely of starch, sugar, and salt. I went with my J.A. host family to have lunch with Teresa’s family. This entire meal consisted of: fried empanadas, mbeju, pajagua mascada [kind of like a very large hushpuppy], and dinners rolls and mandioca[similar to a potato]. This translates nutritionally to: deep fried starch, grilled starch, more deep fried starch, baked starch, with a vegetable starch. At my host family’s house in Campo 9 we had noodles, with mandioca, with sopa Paraguay [very dense, corn breadish], with a very salty salad. And they wonder why so many people here have gastritis and other digestive problems? I have to give them credit though. I’ve never seen so many different slight variations on the same basic group of starches. They are certainly making the most of what they know.

The funny thing about this meal was that the night before, my host mom [who is a nurse] and I spoke at length about how Paraguayans do not incorporate enough vegetables into their diet even though they are fresh, cheap, and plentiful here. I think I’m going to introduce them to the 1/4, 1/4, 1/2 rule. 1/4 of a dinner plate is carbohydrates, 1/4 is protein, 1/2 is vegetables. Let’s see what they think about them apples [its not like they are going to eat them or anything ;) ].

At least Carly, a volunteer who has been at my site for over a year, is a pescatarian. She has acclimated a good number of people in the community to the basic idea of vegetarianism. Though Paraguayan still pretty much think I’m going to die of malnutrition.

I will give my J.A. host mom credit though, she does cook have a lot more veggies and less starch that most other families and she avoids salt and sugar. Though she did try to get me ricotta cheese with coquitos. According to her its ‘rico’ because it doesn’t have salt. Same things with cakes that aren’t very sweet. She’s on the right track most of the time, though she does incessantly try to stuff coquitos down my throat with every meal

…And thus I am a vegetarian …and I’ve also managed to convert another person in our group to the cause.

Explanations I can use with Paraguayans why I’m a vegetarian:

• I just feel really bad for the animals: True, but not effective
• I don’t like meat: Semi-true, but not effective because it is a little insulting and solicits a ‘but why don’t you just try a little, maybe you’ll like it this time’ response
• My ethical system indicates that I need to avoiding causing the unnecessary suffering of other creatures and meat isn’t necessarily-Completely true, but incomprehensible to many Paraguayans
• Meat isn’t good for you and it is easy to get protein from not meat sources: Very true, but Paraguayans generally don’t really know what ‘protein’ is or what the nutritional advantages and disadvantages of meat are.
• I’ve been a vegetarian for soooo long that my body has trouble processing meat now and makes me sick: Not completely true [the meat does make me nauseous on a mental level, does that count?], but pretty effective except that I’ll have to explain why I started and why I’m not trying to slowly integrating meat back into my diet
• Meat makes me sick- Again, only true on a mental level, but pretty effective since they already have numerous beliefs about food combinations that supposidly will make people sick.
• My doctor says its better for me to not eat meat: Not true, but effective [Paraguayans are very disinclined to argue with doctor’s orders]

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