Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What I'm Giving Up for Lent

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
– Gandhi

Throughout my Catholic upbringing, this has always been a major conversation topic this time of year. Depending on when Ash Wednesday fell, it could put an early end to Valentine’s Day chocolate consumption – giving up chocolate was probably my most frequent Lenten promise. And as a teenager, Lent started to seem like getting a second chance on New Years’ Resolutions.

These days, I’m not particularly religiously observant, but I love the idea of having an opportunity built into the calendar for reflection on where we could be doing better – on the “good we’ve failed to do” in the words of the Ash Wednesday hymn – and, more superficially, I love a good monthly challenge. So for this Lent, I’ve decided to give up eating meat. I’m actually pretty excited about it. For one, I love that vegetarianism is steeped in Lenten traditions: Catholics swear off meat on Ash Wednesday and then every Friday in Lent, and Orthodox Christians keep vegan during the whole Lenten season.

For another, if I really practiced what I believe, I would already be vegetarian. Without getting too deep into food politics, meat consumption is hugely resource-intensive environmentally, and like everyone else who’s seen Food Inc., I am repulsed by the conditions for animals on American factory farms. If I’m being honest with myself, it’s hard to come up with good reasons—for me!—to eat meat other than the fact that it’s delicious. As it is, I don’t really eat that much meat. We very rarely cook it at home, so I mostly eat it at restaurants. Even when I go out, I genuinely prefer veggie or Portobello burgers to the beef kind, and usually default to tofu instead of chicken with my bibimbap or drunken noodles.

But even though they say that abstinence is easier than perfect moderation, my “flexitarianism” offers me an out when I want to eat some barbecue from KBC or a steak burrito bowl at Chipotle. I still basically eat whatever I want, just closer to the vegetable end of the spectrum than many. There is some conscious choice involved but no real sacrifice. When I do eat meat, I justify it with the story that “I usually eat vegetarian,” but maybe that story is less true than I’ve told myself it is.

So I want to challenge myself to truly walk the walk – to bring my actions into harmony with my beliefs and to do a small bit of good that I’ve previously failed to do. And it will be a challenge, to plan my meals and to order at restaurants around not eating meat. But I am pretty excited for it. I want to prove to myself that I can be a full-fledged, card-carrying vegetarian if I just commit to it intentionally. And I’m hopeful that this will spur some lasting changes in my eating habits—even after the Easter kielbasa comes out.

Monday, March 3, 2014

On Harassment and Solo Lady Travel

Since studying abroad in Egypt, volunteering in Palestine, and traveling all over the Middle East, I have been conducting informal Comparative Harassment Studies. The first thing you learn when you prepare to study abroad in Egypt is to gird yourself for the harassment, and to dress and behave to minimize it as much as possible. But for all the challenges of living in Egypt, and some of my classmates’ horror stories (boobs grabbed in passing, mobs descending at night), I was never harassed very badly – it was more a constant, quiet whine than anything truly dramatic and upsetting. After graduating college, I volunteered in Palestine and I didn’t experience much harassment at all. 

So when I traveled to Tunisia for work in January 2013, I was surprised to find myself getting harassed a lot. I’d wander around Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the major artery of downtown, as night fell (upon reflection, a woman wandering alone at night is probably bound to attract unwanted attention). People would draw closer to me as I walked by to say things that I couldn't understand, so no harm done overall. What bothered me was one guy who wouldn’t leave me alone, even after I declined to engage and even changed my walking route to avoid him. He caught up with me, got in very close to me, and continued pestering me: “Are you afraid of me? Why are you afraid? Don't be afraid!” and repeatedly demanded that I get coffee with him, despite my increasingly loud and strident refusals. I could only escape by shutting a taxi door in his face. Nothing awful happened, but it soured me a little bit to the Tunisian street and made me nervous to go out at night. It also made me glad that I’d read the Gift of Fear, on the subject of enforcing boundaries with strangers, on the recommendation of a travel blogger. 

Expats in Tunis said that the harassment has gotten worse since the revolution, as freedom is often experienced as impunity and the rule of law is still slowly being reestablished. But the point is not that harassment is so much worse in Tunisia than in the other countries I’ve traveled. These observations are clearly anecdotal, for one, and the difference may be more situational than cultural – in Egypt and Palestine, I was surrounded by a support network of Americans and locals alike and tended to travel in a group, while I did lots of solo wandering in Tunis. 

Because the thing is, lots of Tunisians talked to me when I was wandering around. In addition to the low-grade harassment, there were also multiple people (well, men) who approached me to start conversations. A friendly older man who I quizzed on politics (“Even if Obama came here, he couldn’t get anything done because there would still be demonstrations”); a guy in his 20s who said he worked for Google maps and moved from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis after the revolution to get a job; and a fellow restaurant-goer I chatted with about the milk shortage and the Sheraton Gate scandal. None made me seriously uncomfortable and the conversations were valuable insights into Tunisian life and a chance to practice my French and Arabic, though I did decline their overtures (and they all made them) for coffee or drinks, which was over my comfort line a little bit.

And that’s where it gets tricky. The guidebooks and the anthropologists will all tell you that the Middle East is one of the most hospitable regions in the world. But a lot of those guidebooks seem to be written by men, who get to have a slightly larger comfort zone in unfamiliar places. The point of traveling is to be open to new people and new experiences – but especially as a woman, it's so hard to tell where the line is between that famous Arab hospitality and someone creeping on you. Shut people down early and you risk closing yourself off to new experiences and to “meeting the locals”; engage the wrong person and you risk ending up in an unsafe situation, or at least a very uncomfortable one. Isn't being uncomfortable – stretching yourself outside of your comfort zone – part of the point of traveling? Maybe there good discomfort and bad discomfort, discomfort where you’re still basically safe and discomfort where you might not be. 

Being harassed is so antithetical to the spirit of adventure and exploration one hopes to cultivate abroad. Adventure is supposed to feel expansive, to make you feel bigger, but harassment makes you feel small and hemmed-in. And in a very real way, it makes you adapt your movements and your choices when traveling. I read some awesome travel bloggers who discuss ways to make solo lady travel safe and rewarding. I love the practical tips and the “You can do it” attitude, and I am totally on board. But I seldom see discussions of the deeper, emotional impact harassment has on women’s travel experiences, the contradictory impulses of staying safe and exploring. I think those are conversations worth having.