I was born on January 22, 1991. It snowed that day in Albany, New York.
Twenty-five years later – against all odds and expectations – I find myself traveling around New Zealand. On this day I am in the quaint tourist village called Queenstown. I woke up in my van the following morning to find a $200 ticket for prohibited freedom camping.
The day started in Wanaka. It is peaceful and easy to live there, with a low–cost DOC campsite alongside a magical river where we can swim and be refreshed. I could not stay there, however. It was my birthday and I am required by the Gods – old and new – to celebrate this ancient tradition on the anniversary of my exiting my mother’s womb.
In the early afternoon, I drove from Wanaka to Queenstown to meet up with some friends.
Queenstown is beautiful, but in that beauty is chaos. Tourists and buses crowd the city and money is sought at every venue, bar and retail outlet.
Money rules here. Money is king.
Tourism is New Zealand’s top export. People come here from all over the world to experience the robust natural landscapes and easy-going human residents. Judging from the countless adventure tourism options in this area, I’m sure Queenstown collects its fair share of that revenue.
I too have paid my fair share to this industry. Before I arrived in New Zealand last June, I lived and worked in Australia for a year, mostly in the remote outback town of Alice Springs. I arrived in Australia with no money. I worked long hours in the hospitality industry. I saved money knowing that I would be venturing to New Zealand, where the pay is much lower and the natural beauty much greater. There I would travel more and work less. There I would spend most of the money I made in Australia.
On my birthday I was anxious. I was frustrated at the lack of camping options and the expensive prices and limited availability of accommodation. I made the bold decision to park my van in the Queenstown Gardens knowing that I would return there to sleep in the early morning. It was my birthday and I wanted to have fun and I didn’t know what else to do. I took a risk and for that I am sorry. I did not dump any waste – human or otherwise – and I did not cause a menace. I simply slept in my van with my female companion instead of driving drunk to the DOC campsite 12 kilometers away.
I woke in the morning to find the ticket on my windscreen. My first reaction was to simply ignore the fine and join the approximately 900 tourists who chose the no-payment option in 2014, according to the NZ Herald article titled, “Hundreds of tourists dodging $200 freedom camping fines.”
I only received one Birthday present this year. I complimented the duo playing guitar and singing pop songs at World Bar and told the beautiful singer that it was my birthday. She asked my name and then dedicated the next song to me.
It was “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. I nearly cried. Maybe because I was drunk. I then rejoined my friends and danced the night away.
Now, I implore you, human who is reading this letter at the Queenstown Lakes District Council, I beg thee from the very depths of my soul and I promise I will never again sleep in my van in a prohibited zone:
Would you find room in your heart to forgive this ticket and follow T. Swift’s motto and shake it off?
I was wearing a white collared shirt and a blue tie.
I find myself sitting in an auditorium at an awards ceremony for creative academics. All of the smart people in the crowd want to do big things in this world. They play a video of a hovering metal drone with eight compartments that releases blue balloons into the air that are filled with an element that reverses climate change in places like India and China that are full of smog and smoke and pollution.
I left the auditorium and I wandered around the city feeling depressed.
I walk down the street and stop at an Asian stir fry takeaway shop with a keno style video lottery screen and something compels me to put down some numbers.
1, 3, 6, 9, 46.
The screen keeps flashing 1, 3, 6, 9 and I knew I won big.
The payout was up to $1,000 then it kept going to $10,000 then to $100,000 then it stopped at $76 zillion.
I wandered around the dark city at night. I looked around and everywhere I looked were skyscrapers. The air is thick. Dark and ashy. Smoke and pollution from the underground vents blackened the already dank buildings. The streets are empty. I sit there looking all around me, knowing I just won an incredible amount of money and all of the sudden a behemoth of a construction vehicle drives between the two buildings before me.
The ground shakes.
It is like a big tractor trailer but way too big. It fades from my view and then another drives by, even bigger. More massive and the ground shakes again. The Earth trembles. It is not natural. Another truck. This was the biggest I have ever seen and it is hauling a truck that appears to be the same size as the first truck. It must be seven stories tall. There are big rubber tires and then there are little wheels coming down on stilts for extra support. It is like The Butter BattleBook by Dr. Seus. It is going slow and it is as big as the entire road and I don’t know how it can make turns.
Then there are different kinds of machines that don’t have wheels, they walk like lizards.
Mechanical lizards with armored feet.
They can climb up the sides of buildings. I follow them to the construction yard. I float around on a grappling hook and no one can see me. And I observe everything. Workers. They look different, detached from me. Different from me. Sad. I float up past the scaffolding on my grappling hook going up and looking down at the construction and I can hear them. I hear pieces of conversations and they are all the same. They are talking about what they want to do with their lives if they weren’t in construction.
“After this job I’m going to…”
They talk like they have dreams. They talk like they are stuck here. In this life. They talk like they have no control.
I find myself back at the Asian stir fry takeaway shop where I won the keno outside on the street. I stand in line and order the tofu or the miso soup. She takes out a bag and it says it is tofu but it is filled with prawns and insects and maggots. She says the miso soup has meat in it. She says all of the food has animals in it.
I walk along the street after seeing this pollution and broken dreams and all of the food is animals and I won all this money and I’m walking along with my shirt and tie after going to the award ceremony with all the smart people with big plans and here I am with 76 zillion dollars and I can do anything and help anyone and while I’m thinking this I’m walking and I start to float up into the air while the city sits in darkness as a slight gradient of sunrise starts to shine above the skyscrapers and I just float up in the air and my blue tie is flowing in the wind and I just float up with my eyes closed and that’s how it ends.
Then I wake up and look through the window of my van to see the sun rising over the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
I’m on duty from 8:30 pm to 7:30 am on Saturday night, but I was talking to the cops till nine.
Friday is the warm up and Saturday is the real deal. You never know what to expect as night porter at a “party” hostel. Make your rounds, watch the cameras, keep your ears open. Be ready.
This is my home and these people are my family. I love it and I love them. Don’t fuck with us.
At 11:15, I received a call from the manager, who lives next door, telling me she saw a group of five drunken idiots vandalizing a tour bus parked on the road.
We checked the camera footage from the street and saw a raggedy group of hooligans strolling down the street with swag and beers in hand. Young Kiwis with an appetite for destruction. The camera was behind them so we didn’t see their faces, but there was one dead giveaway. The back of one of their shirts read, “yess” or “less” or “guess.” They think no one is watching them, but we know everything.
The drunkest of our “dirty old man” crew — every hostel has one — wanted to chase them down and deal out some vigilante justice, but Carl, with an age advantage, knew the best course of action is to make a police report for insurance purposes. It is his work vehicle. We just need a record.
The night goes on and I think nothing of it. The drunk get drunker. The Argentinians are still cooking dinner till midnight and Ivan brings out a bottle of Jaeger. We are going to drink this, and then go into town, he says. OK, just don’t be too loud, I tell them.
The Germans are drinking in the broken-down bus converted in a chilled-out, good-vibes TV lounge. They are smoking cigarettes. Guys, guys, guys, what the fuck are you doing. No cigarettes, just joints in here. C’mon. Have some respect. The people who pass through for a few days don’t respect this hostel like I do. And many of the long-termers think they are above the rules. I walk by again and the girl by the window says, put the cigarette out he’s coming. Do they think I can’t hear them? Do they think I can’t see them?
At last they go to the pubs or they go to sleep and the tranquility of the darkness settles in.
I want this peace to last forever, but I know soon the light will begin to creep over the mountains. A blue-to-white gradient will infect the cloudless sky. The birds will begin their chirp chirp chirp. The fish factory workers and the early morning tour-bus-takers will stumble into the kitchen looking for free breakfast.
I sit in the office, reading news articles about ISIS, Republicans and Bernie Sanders. There is so much hate, ignorance and fear in the world but I still have faith in my hero. From time to time, I walk around or glance at the cameras. Keeping my family safe and making sure no one is being a fuckwit.
And I’m writing in my journal:
Melissa walked by earlier while I was pushing in chairs by the pool. “Smile, John,” she says because none of the Argentinians can pronounce my name. It’s Sean, not John. And juice sounds like shoes. Change your face, cambiar tu cara, she tells me on a daily basis. How about you mind your own fucking business? Maybe my face isn’t an accurate representation, but I was actually in a perfectly good mood before you came along and spoiled it. Now I am self-conscious and you just walk by with hubris like you are the almighty purveyor of true happiness. You don’t know me. Puta madre.
Later, Naji from France sidles up to the “dirty old man” crew — if you can’t think of a good comeback to their constant banter, jokes and criticisms, then this group is not for you — he is there for a few seconds before arrogantly proclaiming, Sean you are always quiet. Always observing.
I tell him I was talking just before you came and I’m thinking, what is wrong with people? What gives you the right to make such a statement about another person?
My mood immediately plummets after his comment and now I have to retreat to the office and write these thoughts and calm down before I can rejoin society.
Suddenly the time is 5:30. Dawn has broken and with the morning light I can feel my power fade. It is time for me to put out the communal breakfast of muesli, corn flakes, rice puffs, weetbix, bread, jam and milk. I share a few words with the Japanese guy sitting in the kitchen. He is taking a bus to the Nelson Lakes for a day of tramping. Nice, have an excellent day.
The light is here and I think it is safe to sleep until my shift ends at 7:30. Surely no one would be so bold to be drunken assholes at this hour.
I hear voices. I know this hostel and I know who is staying here. These are stranger voices. I try to drift to sleep but the voices don’t stop. I hear them walking out of the front door, directly below my open window. They are laughing and they sound dangerous. I have to get up and investigate.
I walk down to the office and playback the front door camera. I see a familiar shirt. “Yess” or “less” or “guess.” He is carrying a box of beer. I shut the door, slip off my sandals and run.
I run to the end of the driveway. A tall man is looking around.
“Where did they go?” I ask.
“I’m calling the police,” I say.
I follow them and dial 111. The tall man and I are both barefoot, the Kiwi way, and he is carrying a smashed milk jug that I put out only ten minutes ago. I tell dispatch I need police and I explain who I am and that I am following a group of kids that we suspect vandalized a van earlier and they probably just committed other crimes at the hostel.
They are ignorant, proud of their destruction. They are blind but the tall man and I are awake.
They turn around and see me with a phone to my ear as they approach a quiet intersection in this normally quiet neighborhood. They bolt and we pursue. I follow them down a cul-de-sac and I hear rustling in the bushes. A skinny punk with a black t-shirt and a hearing aid walks out as if he lives there.
“Fuck you, man,” I yell at him.
I forget the police are in my ear and she tells me not to talk to him. He doesn’t try to run. He has given up. He is not blind, but he is half-deaf and it’s impossible to understand him after a night of drinking, vandalism and probably drugs. Meth is way too common in New Zealand. This country may look green, clean and beautiful, but there are very serious problems with crime, drugs and domestic violence.Young people are uneducated and have no motivation. Tourists don’t see it though.
The tall man is Nick, our neighbor. He is thin but strong with a clean look about him and slicked back curly brown hair. He speaks with the classic powerful, deep Kiwi voice. He says he saw the group when they walked by just after 11. They “biffed” a beer bottle down the road while he was just getting home and locking his gates.
“Oi, don’t be throwing beer bottles,” he called out to them. “Not on my street, mate.”
I’m glad we share the same passion for protecting our homes.
A police officer arrives in about ten minutes of waiting and then another joins. They look tired.
“It was like the full-moon was out last night,” he says.
I wouldn’t be surprised if these kids, who I later found out are in their early 20s, we’re involved in a litany of other crimes throughout the night. We give brief statements and they take a beer bottle littered on the ground for fingerprints and they arrest the deaf punk who couldn’t run fast enough.
I return to the hostel to check the cameras to try to get the full story. And what a story it is.
A group of six walked into the hostel four minutes after I retired to my bedroom. Great timing. They made themselves at home. They headed straight for the pool and relaxed into the hammocks, played table tennis and dipped their toes in the pool. They must have been tuckered out after a long night of fucking with innocent people.
Then, one-by-one, they all walked directly toward the camera by the spa. I finally read the rest of the shirt. “Rekless.” Yes, you are. And now we have all of your faces in stunning HD color video.
I recognized one of them. Naji. Except for your earlier comment, I always liked you, man. You stayed here for about a month and you worked here, cleaning rooms. We practiced the slack line together a few weeks ago and you picked it up almost instantly. You gave me advice: “There is only the line.” Everyone around here has a limited wardrobe, but you wear the same exact clothes everyday, a neon wind breaker jacket and black track pants, a black hat with a skull and cross bones and you carry around a small man bag. The girl from Carlisle, in the North of England, with caked on makeup, nice tits and an annoying “Geordie Shore” accent asked you what you keep in the bag on the first night she met you. (No one else has ever dared asking such a personal question.) You said, “This bag is my life.” We still don’t know what you carry around in there. And now you betrayed me. You let these savages into our home.
Then someone kicked the meter tall stone statue into the pool. We only caught you on the edge of the camera. All we can see is a black shoe with a white stripe on the bottom. Two of you are wearing shoes that match the description so that will be easy to narrow down once the cops find the rest of you.
At that point Naji waved good-bye and went to his bed. He realized these are bad guys and he didn’t want any part of it. But he left them to their own devices.
Then the punks walked into the kitchen, but first the “Rekless” guy grabs darts off the dartboard and throws them in the pool. No respect. It appears they have the thirst so they open up a jug of milk and two of them take a nice big swig. The blonde idiot looks straight into the camera and laughs. What the fuck are you thinking? Then they grab a box of beer from the fridge, which belongs to a German girl, and walk out the front door.
That’s when I heard them and got out of bed.
An hour later the cops rock up to the hostel and I show them the footage. The morning receptionist is hung over and he strolls in with bloodshot eyes to an office with two police officers.
It’s funny how cops are so reliant on their iPhones. Earlier on the street, he used his iPhone to take pictures of the beer bottle and the deaf guy. Now this cop uses his iPhone to snap screenshots of each of the assholes who invaded my hostel. Later we would send them the full tapes and stills.
The cop’s name is Johnny and he is just a regular guy. He says if he answered his phone earlier in the morning he would be in a helicopter over the beautiful, pristine Fox Glacier right now helping with the search and rescue of a helicopter tourism crash that left seven dead. One of his mates on the force sent him a picture of the view. “Bastard,” he says.
He tells us it’s a pretty interesting job and he gets to see a lot. I’ve never spoken with a cop with his guard down like this. He looks into the kitchen and see’s the collection of happy young travelers gathered around the communal dining table with the pool in the background. He says he’d like to come back here sometime. The receptionist says, yeah, come back on a Saturday night without your uniform.
I wake up Naji from his sleep and the cops talk to him. It appears the hooligans took advantage of him. He met them on the street on his way back from the pub. Naji says he is going back to the hostel and the group of cunts say, Oh yeah, that’s where we stay. I guess he was too drunk to realize that they were lying. I don’t forgive you.
Backpackers walk by the office and see me talking to cops and they all look curious and that’s fine.
Now it’s 9 am and I can finally go to sleep but I have work at the Fish and Chip shop down the road at 12. It is a restless sleep with all of the excitement and ideas floating in my head but I can’t write. Now I need sleep.
Libby says I look tired. I tell her the story during the quiet lunch shift. She tells me if they are minors they will just get a fine and maybe community service.
“Teenagers get away with everything,” she says.
I feel tired but I can still smile at customers because that’s the job and I like it because I’m in New Zealand.
All of the sudden lunch is over and I can go home and make my own lunch. Asian stir fry broccoli with cous cous and a side of baked asparagus because I do what I want. And then I immediately feast on a breakfast of muesli with dried fruit, banana, linseed, chia seed, psyllium husks and soy milk because I do what I want.
I sit with the Argentinians and tell them the story. Camila has to translate some parts for Mica. She gave up on our English lessons a few weeks ago because she is always around her own people. She speaks to me way too fast in Castellano, not the Spanish I learned in school, and she uses slang words I have never heard before but she still says I always understand her.
Then I try to sleep for an hour until I have to return to the Fish and Chip shop for dinner service. It’s Drew and Shell. Shell is a 30-something Fillipino, she likes anime and is looking forward to playing Fallout 4 on her day off tomorrow. Drew is a lanky 17-year-old with short blonde hair and a grimy rat-tail. He is usually still wearing his school uniform pants and black shoes with white socks. He constantly abuses me and takes the piss because I’m American and that’s what any respectable Kiwi would do. I love it. We’re listening to American Pie by Don McLean and I ask him if he knows who sings this and he says, No, it’s just some American bullshit. It’s a constant conversation in the kitchen and we are always saying what we are doing. Pizzas are in. Burger is flipped. Chips are on top of the oven. Pizza is on the rocks. Can you take that order? I love it.
One day I was talking about how difficult it is to understand Kiwis and then an hour later he starts talking to me and gesturing and it takes me a good twenty seconds of asking “what?” “huh?” before realizing he is actually speaking gibberish.
I try to fight back, but I’m not as practiced as this guy who is seven years younger than me. He comes in one day and I ask how he is going. Great, I just had my first swim of the year in the river. It was kinda scummy, though. Oh, just like you, I say.
Shell squirts tomato sauce into a ramekin and it sounds like a ripe fart and I say, Eww, Shel, C’mon not in front of the customers. And she says, I thought Americans we’re soft.
They always like when I have a good hostel story for them. Like when I walked in on an attempted threesome between a short Mexican guy, a French man and a French girl. The Mexican walks out of his room wearing only a towel and he yells, “Get the fuck out of here, I’m trying to have a threesome.” I love hostels.
Now it’s 1 am and I really need to get some sleep and I realize it was probably for the best that I was in my bed when the drunken vandals walked in to the hostel. If I was still in the office, I would have immediately heard them and told them to fuck off and they wouldn’t have committed any crimes and we would have no evidence and that’s boring. Or I would have confronted them and they would have smashed me and done whatever they can to escape. Maybe they had knives. It was more fun to let them fuck shit up and let the cameras see what kind of people they are. Let them leave the property with stolen beer and milk and then chase the fuckers. Yeah, that was fun.
The hostel is the state of nature. It is our reality but it is not real. We govern ourselves. We sleep together, we play together, we drink together, we smoke together and we laugh together.
What happens when you throw one hundred young travelers together? Inside these fences — which provide us with a pool, sauna, spa, volleyball court, table tennis, slackline, guitars scattered about, free breakfast, soup and bread — we have our paradise. But how long can this last? Is this sustainable? Mentally? Emotionally? Financially? I don’t know. That doesn’t matter. We are a family of friends and travelers, we care about each other and we learn everyday.
I teach impromptu yoga lessons in the park to whoever wants to join. An ever-changing assortment from France, Argentina, Greece, Uruguay, Germany, Holland, England and Canada. The sexy girls bow to me and say Namaste while the boys stay and smoke joints. I practice Spanish and correct improper English grammar. We are vigilant with language. We play soccer and I scored two goals and got a ball kicked in my face when I was goalie. We play music and sing.
We all have a unique story. No one is here by accident. Some people are running away from their problems. Some people just need a break from their careers. Some people are trying to find their careers. Some people just graduated high school and they want to get drunk and party, yeah! Some people are lost souls trying to find a purpose.
No one is happy all the time, but some people are better at pretending.
What will you find within these walls? Sexual frustration and desperation.
Philina walked in to the kitchen and flashed me the innocent, pure smile that can only come from the gentle faces of the young, female warrior-angels traveling the world on their own.
I know this smile. I’m used to it. But it catches me by surprise and I think about what she is thinking about and what she thinks I’m thinking about and what if we are thinking about the same thing?
Sean, you live in your own little world. None of this is real. But what if it’s not? I can’t stop thinking about a line from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?”
We cooked on the same stove in the empty kitchen. I was making pasta with vegan eggplant Parmesan, substituting ground almonds for cheese topping. She was cooking pasta with beans and spinach. Clean.
She talks to Johannes in German. She has a slim face with shoulder length brown hair, strong eyebrows and dark eyes. Tiffany, the hostel manager, interrupts our silence and asks me why I am vegan and I tell her for the environment. It’s one change I can make as an individual to lower my carbon footprint.
When Philina hears this, she tilts her head down and whispers, “I’m vegan too,” with that smile.
She is the first vegan girl I’ve met. We share a moment and I continue my conversation with Tiffany. But all I can think about is, what is vegan sex like? My body feels better than it ever has. What is she like? I expect many vegan orgasms.
She sits down at a table by the window, alone. I join her.
We talk. She likes to eat, but she doesn’t like to cook. She makes the simplest vegan meals possible. Raw veggies, pasta, rice, beans. She looks at my salad of spinach, cucumber, tomato and sprouts with fresh squeezed lemon juice and my baked eggplants with tomato puree.
“I used to have a gourmet vegan cookbook,” she says. “But now I just do what is easy.”
The next day, we meet again in the kitchen. She is eating a plate of free bread after the communal vegetable soup has been devoured by the masses. I’m cooking a tasty concoction of crushed tomatoes, butter beans, Portobello, onion, garlic, spinach and oregano.
“Just bread tonight?” I ask across the table.
She says she is too lazy to cook. I ask her if she wants some food and before she can reply I fill her a bowl. I sit down next to her at the long wooden dining table.
“Oh my god, I am in heaven,” she says. I don’t think she is used to other people cooking for her.
I am awkward when I talk to girls that I have any interest in. Juan walks by and saves the day. He tells me how good he feels from yoga that morning. “Philina, you come tomorrow?”
Once darkness falls, I am the night porter. The watcher on the wall. The shield in the darkness. Protector of the realms of backpackers and hostel managers. I don’t tell the managers who has the weed connection. I don’t tell the backpackers what the managers do when no one is around. The bourgeoisie hides from the proletariat and the proletariat hides from the bourgeoisie. I am in the middle of these realms for three nights every week, in exchange for a private bedroom in this house and a bit of cash. Drink your beers and smoke your joints, no worries. But if you have the audacity to leave your pots, pans, plates and cutlery, I will playback the video footage and I will find you. And I will smite you.
I see everything and I keep the secrets.
Philina, you are sitting by the pool drinking a bottle of vodka with your roommate, Anthony, the French guy with a topknot and manicured goatee. You are laughing together while I pick up beer bottles.
You both disappear and I hear you giggling together in your bedroom, just down the hall. You both emerge with red faces and sex hair. The topknot is now a mop. You play card games together in the kitchen. The two of you ignore the crowds of international travelers.
You go to bed and Anthony comes out for a cigarette. He talks to friends while I clean the kitchen. They make fun of him, “Who was that? Your girlfriend?”
He is disappointed. “Psh, I spent all day and all night with that German girl and nothing happened.”
I laugh inside. C’mon man, think about this. She is your roommate for the next week, what did you expect? Girls in hostels have to be guarded. Don’t shit where you eat. Yeah, a bottle of vodka, that will definitely make her want to have sex with you. C’mon man.
I don’t proclaim to know how to win a woman’s heart, but I do my thing and sometimes it works and sometimes I am hurt. But what is hurt? It is a teacher. It makes you stronger and you learn and try to avoid the hurt next time. Maybe that means avoiding a woman, or maybe that means kissing her at the exact right moment.
Elevate yourself above the momentary and remember the infinity. There is an endless supply of females on this great Earth. Just stay at this hostel for a week, see how many warrior-angels flash you the smile that makes you melt. Put in some time and get to know her.
Anthony says she is 19 and she is cute. Nineteen. I’m twenty-four. As the week progressed, Philina and I shared more conversations over soup and bread. I see her young face and her young clothes. She is probably tired of every guy making a move on her. She’s too young. On her last day at the hostel, we say goodbye and I tell her to keep being a good person and now she is just a memory. I don’t know what she expected from me or what she wanted from me or if she wanted me. All I know is that I am different from the stocky South African lout who flirts with girls by splashing them from the pool. Different, not deficient.
I am back in college. But this is far from the homogeneity of Virginia yoga pants, north face and ugg boots. Here, everyone has a story. Everyone is from somewhere. But all people are pretty much the same. We all share the same desires and urges. We are all here for the same reason, to find paradise in ourselves and in others.
I never thought a documentary could convince me to change my lifestyle.
One week ago, I attended a lecture about the unsustainability of climate change and then watched Cowspiracy on Netflix.
In one night I learned that the global temperature is expected to rise by two degrees Celsius from 1995 to 2100 and the No. 1 contributor to climate change is agriculture and livestock and the easiest, most cost effective, healthiest, health-care saving way to save the world and prevent cardiovascular disease is to just eat plants.
For the first time in my life I am free of meat, dairy and eggs and it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
Why did I switch to a vegan diet?
Just like Cowspiracy producer Kip Andersen, I always thought the main contributor to climate change was fossil fuels. Not even close.
Do you take shorter showers and switch the tap off when you brush your teeth? Thanks, but that burger you’re eating used 660 gallons of water. Private homes account for 5% of water consumption in the US. Meanwhile, 55% is used for animal agriculture.
Raising livestock takes up a crazy amount of land. The current livestock system occupies 45% of global surface area. To do this, we have to cut down trees. Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of Amazon deforestation. We are destroying the Earth’s lungs in order to eat meat and drink milk.
Our current addiction to meat and dairy is not sustainable. The UN projects the global population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050. We don’t have enough room for all of those people to eat meat and dairy.
A vegan needs just 1/6th acre to produce enough food for a year. A meat eater needs 18 times as much land, for a more expensive and unhealthy diet.
I made this change for the environment. Veganism means living in the future. In a future with more people, higher global temperatures, more global inequality and more greenhouse gasses, veganism is the easiest and most sustainable option.
Well, shit, why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner?
Cowspiracy shows how nearly every environmental non-profit is eerily silent on the effects of animal agriculture.
Here’s a taste:
The dairy lobby, the meat lobby, and the incredibly powerful prescription drug lobby want us to keep eating animal products and, in turn, destroy the Earth and kill ourselves. They don’t want these environmental charities to be spouting off the truth about the cause of climate change. They want to make money.
The money, he says, is in people with chronic conditions who eat fast food and take prescription drugs everyday of their lives. If everyone ate plants, everyone would be healthy. That’s not good for business.
You don’t know what you’re talking about! You’ve never worked on a farm!
Over July and August of this year, I worked on a 230-cow dairy farm just down the road from the Hobbiton movie set in the heart of Waikato, New Zealand.
On my first day on the farm I had to hose down the massive amount of shit and piss the cows left in the shed. I was shocked by how much water I had to use. It takes about 5-10 minutes running a high-powered hose to clean the shed after milking. Every other day we had to hose down the entire yard, which took at least 15 minutes. I was told to not worry about it.
This is the standard practice done on every farm, after every milking, twice a day. It takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. Is it worth it?
During calving, the newborn are throw into the trailer and taken back to the shed while the mothers follow, wanting to nourish and care for their young. The most heart-breaking moment is when the cows are led up to the shed for milking. They moo and yell to their children, who are confined in a crowded pen. They want to be together. I’m sorry, but we need protein.
All of the cows and heifers are impregnated so they can lactate. We had around 200 calves. About 30 of the calves were kept on the farm as replacements. The other 170 were sent away in the “bobby trucks” were they would either be chopped up for dog food or fattened up for a few months and then sold as veal. We need protein.
Yeah, what about protein? Don’t you feel malnourished?
When I used to lift weights, my diet was mostly meat, dairy and whey. There’s no protein in plants, I always thought.
Ha. In the past week I have been astonished to learn that nearly every plant has protein. Then there are super foods, ancient grains and multipurpose cereals.
All of these contain protein: Broccoli, spinach, peas, sweet potato, soybeans, soy milk, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds, whole meal flower, nut butters, hemp seeds, chia seeds, linseeds, quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal, bean sprouts, tofu, tempeh, edamame and kale.
I’ve been eating plants for a week and I don’t feel malnourished. I actually feel better than I ever have.
My skin is glowing. My stomach is happy. My brain has more power. I feel more awake. My sinuses feel more open. My poop has been a thing of beauty. My body is working better in every way. I can feel it.
Was it difficult to completely change my diet overnight?
It was incredibly easy. The morning after watching Cowspiracy, I tipped out my milk and gave away my cheese, butter, ham and salami. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Every meal I’ve cooked since then has been fun and exciting. I made curry for the first time ever. Throw a bunch of vegetables in a skillet with a bit of oil, add curry paste and coconut cream and eat over jasmine rice. Amazing.
I made ramen with organic noodles containing 12 grams of protein per serving. I never thought noodles could have protein. Add some tofu, steamed veggies a hoisin sauce and it’s the bomb.
Even before this transition I ate vegetables nearly every night, but now I am thinking outside the box. I’m no longer just throwing a pat of butter in a pan and adding veggies and meat. I can’t wait to learn new recipes and experiment with different spices, cuisines and techniques.
You’re just a fucking hippie! Get a job, eat meat and shut up!
I do have a job, thank you very much. I fold sheets and towels, clean the kitchen and slice the bread every afternoon in exchange for accommodation at a beautiful hostel in Nelson.
That doesn’t count, does it?
You’re right. I’m a bearded, yoga-practicing, pot-smoking, anti-capitalist-writing, Dr.Bronner’s-for-everything vegan, traveling around New Zealand in a 1987 Mitsubishi campervan.
And I couldn’t be happier.
But, seriously, man. What’s next? Barefeet? Actually I have been walking barefoot around the hostel and the park for the past couple of days and my calves and feet feel so much stronger and I feel like I am walking more naturally than I have in years.
Oh Jaysus. Just don’t grow dreadlocks.
No one else is vegan. You’re going to be forever alone.
During my first three days of vegan cooking, people in the hostel observed me and asked what I was doing.
Matias, from Uruguay, and Angela, from Argentina, were speaking ultra-fast Spanish as I sliced tempeh.
“Sean, is that cheese?” he asked me in English.
It’s fermented soybeans I tell him, lots of protein. This was my first time cooking with tempeh so I had no idea what to expect when I put it in the skillet. I added some soy sauce and sweet thai chili and, god damn, it was so tasty.
The next day I joined the South American table with a heaping plate of brussel sprouts, mushrooms, tomato and tofu. They all examine me.
“Porque, Sean?… What about vitamin B12?… Necesitas carne,” the girls interrogate me.
I don’t know! I just started doing this I don’t know what I’m doing or anything about vitamin B12!
Giovanni from Italy looks at my plate.
“Chickpeas, broccoli, cabbage… Are you vegetarian?”
“Vegan,” I reply.
“You poor guy.”
And then I met John.
I brought a joint into the smoke-O room on Friday night to share my favorite plant. Around midnight at the hostel, everyone who wants to keep drinking has to go into town. As the exodus began, I started talking to John. After a half-hour, everyone was gone and we were still talking not giving a fuck about what anyone else was doing.
He has thick-rimmed glasses and shaggy ginger hair. He wears linen pants and a loose fitting red collared shirt. He is from England and we both manage to squeeze in, “man,” into every sentence.
I started telling John about Bernie Sanders, because that’s what I do. I was explaining his platform when all of the sudden it clicked for both of us. Bernie is the American Jeremy Corbyn. An old-school leftist, populist politician who sticks to what he believes in and knows that his way will bring prosperity and peace to the people.
“No, but I’ve heard of it. Why, are you a veg?” John asked as he smiled.
“I’ve been vegan for three days,” I said
Instant best friends. He’s been a vegetarian for two years and has been vegan for three months, ever since he couldn’t finish eating a slice of pizza in Auckland. We talked about how much better the body feels on a plant-based diet. He said his acne vanished once he dropped meat.
The following evening, we had a little dinner date and now I’m sure everyone thinks were gay. Nope, just vegan.
He showed me one of his go-to meals. Cauliflower, onion, chickpeas and tomato sauce with fresh spinach wrapped in a tortilla served with wedges.
We ate a lot and talked about what we couldn’t recall from our conversation last night. I felt so full afterwards.
He said when he used to eat meat he would want to put his head down and rest after such a meal. But on a plant-based diet, he has never felt sluggish. If you eat a lot of plants, you’ll just a have a really good poop later.
The next day I showed him the vegetable green curry I was cooking. We are both staying at this hostel for a few months, so we will have plenty of time to share recipes and ideas.
It’s so good to have someone to share this with.
You’ve only been vegan for one week. You won’t stick with it.
I realize seven days is not a lot of time to really gauge how this will affect me. But I don’t see any reason why I would ever go back.
When I walked through the meat section of the grocery, I felt a sudden burst of anxiety. I felt bad that I ate these products for so many years without a second thought. I quickly moved on and picked out oranges, bananas, broccoli, onions, capsicum, carrots, cabbage, muesli, quinoa, linseed, curry paste, coconut cream, organic brown sugar, psyllium husk, tofu and sultanas.
I really don’t think I can eat dairy or meat or eggs ever again. I can’t do it. Something has clicked inside of me.
It’s easy to do this living at a hostel with a kitchen and a health-food store in town. The real struggle will be from going out to eat with friends and family and having to make sure everything is free of animal products. I’ll have to talk to every waiter and read every ingredient when I shop.
I’m not a true vegan, however, because most of my clothing is merino wool. This is going to be a much more difficult transition. I’m a budget traveler and I don’t own much clothing. My socks, underwear, top and bottom base layers, sweater, t-shirt, singlet and gloves are all wool. A few weeks ago, I bought $300 leather hiking boots. I would be naked if I gave up my animal clothing. I posed this question to the vegan subreddit and they said I shouldn’t worry about it, just replace it over time. Phew, at least they won’t look down on me for not being pure.
One person going vegan isn’t going to change the world.
My generation is different. My generation has the Internet and Netflix.
At the time I watched it, Cowspiracy was at the top of the “Popular on Netflix” queue. Then there’s, Forks over Knives and Food Matters, both very convincing scientific accounts of the benefits of a plant-based diet. If you want to be disgusted by how humans treat other animals, watch Earthlings.
People are watching these documentaries and becoming interested in how to live better lives.
My generation cares about the world. We are tired of extreme inequality and careless disregard for the Earth. With President Bernie Sanders, we will start a revolution. We will reverse climate change and reduce poverty and humans will become happy animals living in balance with the world we share with so many others.
All we need is information and social media.
Everyone has to do something.
I can’t pretend to be an ethically-grounded, environmentally-conscious human and writer if I’m eating eggs for breakfast, sliced ham for lunch and 300 grams of neatly packaged boneless, skinless chicken thighs with a glass of milk for dinner.
This is such an easy thing to do and if everyone puts in a small amount of effort, we can shift the way people view animal products.
The truth is, meat and dairy production is killing the world. And it’s killing humans. And it’s killing animals.
We don’t need it. All we need is plants. We can live very happy and healthy lives on vegetables, legumes, grains and cereals. It’s so easy. Grow stuff in the ground and eat it. It’s cheaper, easier and healthier than raising livestock. And it doesn’t involve torture and pain.
We have to live like it’s 2100 or 2200. We can’t just live until the next election cycle. Live in the future, be vegan.