I Volunteered With Animals Again

I made the decision to volunteer with animals again. As given away in the title.

I’m always on the look-out for events where I can actually interact with animals, especially in a vegan setting. If there’s one thing I can never understand it’s when animal products are served or consumed in a place where the animals are meant to be enjoying a “safe space” from that very thing. Just over a year ago I volunteered at a place in Spain called Jacob’s Ridge, otherwise known as Pig Village, and as a vegan sanctuary it ticked all the boxed for me. In exchange for a few hours’ volunteering per day, you got a tent, lots of homemade vegan food and the pleasure of interacting with animals with personalities all over the spectrum, and of course falling asleep – and waking – to the sound of pigs snorting and munching just outside.

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Pictured: the setting of a previous animal-themed adventure

I didn’t write much about it at the time, because I was only just getting the hang of blogging and there were simply too many angles from which to approach it (going through a writer’s block at the time didn’t exactly help either) so one of these days I’ll need to retroactively write a fuller account of my time there. In the meantime I’ll just focus on the present, and most recent experience.

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I’m a member of the London Vegan Meetup group, which I joined a year ago when I realised that you were actually allowed to join groups based in places where you don’t go to an awful lot but simply have an interest in what they might be doing and want to decide, at the time, whether or not you’ll be available, or be willing to make the effort to attend. I was both of these things and, based on a quick read of the website (and the fact that I was looking for an excuse to visit London (and Brighton) again anyway) I signed up and booked into the cheapest accommodation possible. This proved to be not too difficult as student accommodation starts freeing up during the summer months so woo hoo!

As per usual, I scouted around for lodgings which made up the magic combo – affordable, central in location, and with free wifi. However because it was central London I was prepared to compromise on things like cleanliness, comfort and noise level. As for getting to London, I was going to fly down, having had a not too great experience getting a very busy train for a very long five hours last time, but because it was so last minute flight prices had been bumped right up, so I looked again on the train website for journeys that wouldn’t be too expensive. It was then that I noticed that some first class seats were going not exactly cheaply but far less extortionately expensive than usual, and it was the option which allowed for individual seating. That was me sold, although it took a bit of going back and forth before finally committing to the entire thing – the day before departure.

So I packed as lightly as possible and away I went, the journey going without a hitch except that the seats weren’t quite as “individual” as they were advertised as being, resulting in me cursing my decision to “treat” myself to a first-class ticket for the very first time. Luckily the accommodation was within walking (huffing with a suitcase) distance of the train station, and the room was indeed very “spartan” – it resembled a prison cell more than a student’s room to be honest but knowing that I could leave at any time (minus the accommodation price) made it easier somehow.

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The actual view from my window. Remind you of anything…?

Rising after virtually no sleep (if any) early the next morning, I popped into Regent’s Park and took some photos – and met a squirrel who was not in the least bit shy about approaching me – before meeting fellow volunteers at Charing Cross Station.

 

It would emerge that only a third of the fifteen or so people who signed up actually showed up, which was incredibly disappointing (although this wasn’t exactly the first time I experienced this sort of thing) not least of all for the organiser, but we went ahead anyway. We were picked up at the nearest train station by the volunteer who was driving and we arrived at the sanctuary. It was a glorious sunny day for the event to be happening, and the animals – pigs, cows, ducks, chickens, geese and one very friendly goat – were all happily splashing or wallowing around, just as they were meant to be.

 

A bit of background info: FRIEND Animal Rescue is an organisation based in the rural Kent area which takes in any abandoned and/or neglected animal they can. These are primarily what most people would consider “farm animals” – who are quite possibly the most systematically abused and unfortunate creatures on the planet – along with a few “companion” animals, and here they are allowed to live out their lives in comfort and peace. Also (what particularly drew me to this place) is that it is a vegan sanctuary, with the humans actively promoting a vegan lifestyle, namely through their open days where visiting humans can observe and interact with the animals (subject to the wishes of the animals of course) and learn more about a responsible and compassionate lifestyle.

Back to the volunteer day; knowing that I don’t do well when put in a situation where I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, I decided to simply do exactly what the volunteer I was paired up with was doing, and got to work sweeping out the hen houses, picking up the eggs they had laid (along with the, ahem, accompanying fluids attached to said eggs), refilling water, shovelling manure, and generally meeting and greeting (and getting nibbled and pecked by) the non-human residents along the way.

I learned a few things about some of them; geese and ducks are quite bold and defensive, squawking constantly and trying to peck at you if you get too close;

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A not-so-silly goose running the show

Chickens don’t mind too much if you stroke them, providing they’re in the right mood;

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Came up to hang out with me at lunchtime

Goats, or this one goat in particular in any case (who I took it upon myself to name Goaty McGoatface in the absence of knowing their name) can be surprisingly friendly, going as far as to follow you for a stroke or two;

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Probably goes by a different name

Cows, particularly bullocks, are more massive than you’d imagine;

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Their moos are quite earth-shattering

And pigs can demolish entire pineapples and watermelons at an alarming rate;

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Pictured: not a video of pigs at feeding time as I’d wanted (current website plan won’t let me) so here’s one of me trying to remain awake and upright for an on-the-farm selfie

 

Of course, these traits – particularly the ones relating to temperament and personality – are not necessarily ones which define the entire species, as that would be a blanket generalisation which contributes, in part, to the speciesism which humans are all too inclined towards. Some of the negative traits, such as the fear, aggression and irritability, are just as likely to have been the result of mistreatment in their past lives as mere quirks of their individuality – with it being a rescue centre, the animals coming to the place will have come from a background which many would not even want to think about, but one which is all too often a reality – and indeed routine – for virtually all of their kind. However as volunteers we came prepared for entire personality “spectrum”, taking care to practice sensitivity and kindness, and being pragmatic about some of them not wanting to get too close.

In any case, the animals were by and large very good sports at having us there, making brief interruptions to their personal space in order to do the maintenance work required for the open day, although I did get pecked and grunted at more than a few times. Such is the price of caring!

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Travelling all that way down, only to have them turn their backs on me 😛

Before even the lunch break (an all-vegan potluck for which I was woefully ill-prepared with cereal bars being my sole contribution) I was absolutely shattered, and genuinely felt unable to continue for much longer. It is rare that I do a full day of concentrated work these days, my energy only tends to only come in the shortest of bursts here and there (if I’m lucky) but knowing it was for a special cause, and being among like-minded people, I pushed on, and I was most glad I did so. As a vegan who strives to do as much good for animals as possible (I still have too many commitment issues to adopt one but I’m working on that), I would love for this to be a more regular thing to do.

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As of yet there is no fully vegan animal rescue centre in Scotland to my knowledge – at least one that can be reached without a car. There is one which is still in the process of being funded and is not yet open but I don’t know its exact intended location. Not even FRIEND Animal Rescue could be accessed easily without carpooling, but if there were such a place near where I lived I would be a regular volunteer. Ever since volunteering itself seemingly became a “privilege” which necessitates a rigorous screening process and put on a months-long waiting list – or like me, simply being let go after a session or two for no apparent reason – I’ve found my drive to continue to make a come-back into volunteering wane considerably. One might think that simply a willingness to help would be the only necessary prerequisite (along with a basic background check if working with vulnerable beings) but when I find that I spend most of my time at home not really doing anything of much use to the wider world when I KNOW I want to be more productive, and to participate more in society, one can’t help but conclude that there has to be a reason.

The great thing about places like FRIEND Animal Rescue is that they welcome any and all volunteers with open arms, perhaps in part because compassion and consideration for animals (outside of those relegated to pet-status) is still so rare, despite growing awareness with the help of vegan activists, that all the help anyone can offer is the very least that people can offer these animals who have endured such a hard life.

I’d strongly urge anyone to go visit their nearest animal sanctuary or rescue centre – actually go to meet these animals face to face, and then never allow themselves to forget the faces that will imprint themselves on their mind’s eye. The faces behind the “machine” which only views them as products and property, doing all it can to hide the fact that they, in the truest sense, are people too.

 

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Three Tours, One Hostel Chain – An Experience

During my time in Israel I stayed at Abraham Hostels, both in Jerusalem for the conference (see previous posts on my site) and in Tel Aviv for my volunteering (see next post on my site) and I found the hostel to be the best overall I have ever stayed in.

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Hammocks in the communal area and sage life advice – what’s not to like?

For a very reasonable price (at least in this country!) one can get all their travelling needs met during their stay – if those needs, if you’re anything like me, amount to a clean and quiet room, easy access to convenience stores, easy access to world heritage sites and thousands of years of history, a generous free (vegan-friendly) Israeli-style breakfast every morning, laundry facilities (I like to be clean), a lively bar and communal area which you can dip in and out of as you please… and a wide variety of tours in and around the Middle Eastern area. Abraham Hostels aims to cater to the “independent traveller in the Middle East” and as just such a person at the time – albeit certainly not the most confident in my ability to navigate the area entirely independently, as I hear some do – I was sure that at the very least, one tour would tick all the boxes for me. As I was on something of a budget, and having to try to keep a lid on the notorious single supplement as a result, I had to be selective as to which tours to participate in. Time was also a factor too, having to schedule in at least some recovery time after the conference… so I had to make a difficult choice.

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Part I – Masada Sunrise Tour

The first was a no-brainer, as it was included for free as part of participation in the conference: the sunrise tour of Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. For me, floating in the Dead Sea was definitely something to “have done in my life” so I was happy to tag along for free, even if it meant a very early rise. By early, I mean 2am, leaving the hostel at 3am. Like, in the morning.

Somewhere about a quarter of the way up Masada mountain, let’s just say I began to question my wisdom in taking part in such an ambitious feat; this was proper hiking up an actual mountain while it was actually still too dark to see very far in front of you. But the promise of an unforgettable view (and not wanting to embarrass myself in front of the people coming up behind me) spurred me on, and eventually I reached the summit. The view was… well, I think the photos say it better than I can:

Absorbing the majesty of the panorama, and glad to have the hardest part out the way, after an hour or so it was time to go back down. After a few moments of mild panic as I wasn’t sure which bus to get on (having a not-insignificant fear of ending up getting the wrong transport and being stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no phone signal or wifi), we soon headed on to the Ein Gedi nature reserve. The scenery alone was a highlight of my entire trip, as was glimpsing wildlife I had never seen before which was native to the area, and I wish I could have spent more time there, perhaps even doing a longer hike. However time was limited so wandering around for a while and taking photos of the mini-paradise would have to do on this occasion:

The next and final stop was the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth and the setting for many amusing photos of people virtually lying on the sea due to the extra buoyancy lent by its famous extreme salinity. I am usually quite hesitant to take part in swimming when travelling alone, not only due to being something of a stranger to swimwear these days but also due to leaving valuables at the mercy of a locker which it is never 100% certain will open again. However on this occasion I felt the risk to be worthwhile, so after suiting up for the first time in a very long time I headed down to see if it all lived up to the hype. Easing myself in slowly, and slightly sinking into the sand for a few worrying seconds, time to simply float for a while…

Of course the type of “swimming” one can do here is limited, because of the sheer saltiness of the water; it’s really not called the Dead Sea for nothing, no life forms can survive in there. This means no full submergence in the water and absolutely NO drinking the water. Due to sheer curiosity however, I couldn’t resist a tiny touch of my tongue to my finger – it tasted like strong chemicals and I had a sore throat for a while afterwards so… yeah, definitely no drinking the water here. Then for the mud scrub which is meant to be amazing for your skin. This was in rather short supply when I was there but I managed to apply just enough to look ridiculous, so thankfully no-one was on hand to take a photo of me in that state. However it really does do wonders for the skin; I didn’t need moisturiser again for quite a while.

Thus concluded the earliest event I have ever taken part in, warranting a much-needed rest upon returning to the hostel, and being optimistic for the next, bigger, tour I was to join the following day: the three day tour of Jordan.

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Part II – Tour of Jordan

 The three-day tour of Jordan was one I signed up for in part due to the timing: it was right between the end of the TBEX conference and the beginning of my next project, and of course with Jordan being so close, it would have been a shame to pass up the opportunity. The tour would span almost the entire length of Western Jordan, thereby involving a LOT of driving, but there are certainly far worse ways to spend a few days in this part of the world… so another extremely early rise was then on the agenda for me.

We departed the hostel in Jerusalem at 6am, going to Tel Aviv to pick up those at the other Abraham Hostel, then doubling back and up to Northern Israel, skirting the infamous Israel/Palestine border wall, looking just as foreboding as one would expect it to. We entered the lush and fertile area near the Israel/Jordan border, going very close to Nazareth, and before long we were on the other side of the border and in Jordan.

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Making the most of the panorama feature in my camera…

Due to some confusion surrounding Daylight Savings’ Time we were left waiting for our tour guide on the Jordanian side for an hour, but it was during that time that I noticed the lovely floral scent in the air, which would characterise – for me – the natural beauty of this region, getting things off to a promising start in the country. Finally the tour guide arrived and we started our journey through the landscape of Northern Jordan. I was surprised at the greenery of the area, and then even more so when the guide informed us that Jordan is the poorest nation in the world for water, rendering it extremely scarce. This would be the first of many occasions on which I would be reminded just how precious a resource it would be, and to use it as wisely as possible while there. This to me seemed contradictory to what I had heard about the abundance of hospitality characteristic to the Jordanian people – it is said that they cannot refuse to cater for visitors to their home, and that they should provide as much as possible. When considered in the context of the apparent poverty of some rural parts of the country which we passed through, this hospitality is all the more remarkable. We would encounter a hallmark of this “extreme giving” by way of the (literally) free-flowing sweet tea we were given whenever and wherever we stopped for any length of time.

After a brief stop at a small campsite for some of the aforementioned tea (and as brief a discussion as was possible about the Israel/Palestine situation), we continued on to the ancient Roman city of Jerash. This place has the distinction of being one of the most well-preserved Roman cities still standing, with many of the ruins still identifiable as what they once were. We were able to wander through the old city while learning about the region and its contribution to the old empire, and proceeded to the main amphitheatre where, from a single spot, one’s voice can be projected clearly throughout the entire arena. Many people amused themselves with this feature for quite a while.

Afterwards we stopped for a buffet-style lunch (in the style that all the meals would end up being served here) at a local restaurant, which perfectly reflected that famous hospitality and abundance which is famous in Jordan. Admittedly, as a vegan, I was apprehensive about encountering a scenario in which this would not be understood, and as a result having to endure a very awkward situation and causing offence, which is the last thing I wanted to do while I was there. However the buffet-style manner of serving food ensured that everyone could help themselves to what they wanted, and as it turned out there was plenty I could eat that was already “accidentally vegan”: hummus, baba ganoush, salads, pitta, etc. I certainly didn’t go hungry while I was there, although I had to take the potential lack of water (and the high price of any beverage) into consideration. Then we headed on down to the nation’s capital, Amman, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And far prettier than I was expecting.

In Amman we saw the standing stones which were clues to the lengthy history of the city; its name had changed quite a few times over the years, including a spell being called Philadelphia. The views from the hill were spectacular, and made me wish we could further explore the city of Amman. It was here that I saw that kite-flying appears to be the national past-time for Jordanian children, giving me the urge, for the first time in many years, to fly one. Then we continued onward on the long drive to the Bedouin campsite where we would be staying.

The darkness of the night sky meant that the stars came out in such a way that my camera couldn’t even nearly do justice to the sight, so I appreciated the starry sky with my own eyes on the way to, and when we arrived at, the campsite. Nestled amid tealight-strewn rocky hills, it was a cosy and welcoming place to spend the night. The tents were well kitted out for the drastic drop in temperature in the desert at night-time (most thankfully for me) and more of the national hospitality revealed itself in the serving of a generous dinner. Simple but filling, which is just what we needed at the end of the day. Tea was also, once again, freely flowing, and sitting by the campfire was a relaxing and novel way to end the first day. Conducive to yet another early rise in the morning.

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The first and only full day in Jordan was to be mainly about visiting Petra. Because of the sheer scale of the site it would require most of the day simply to navigate and absorb everything. We left the camp and headed out on a still-chilly early morning to Petra, getting a first glimpse of the unique sandstone landscape in the light of day.

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The entrance to the Bedouin campsite

When we arrived we started walking down the famous gorge – which had many more carvings and caves than one would previously think. Many forget that it was actually an entire city, carved from the existing rock in a strategic way in order to divert much-needed water into the right places, and also with many caves created to offer some respite from the glaring sun. Many also forget the size of the place.

This rather lengthy walk would lead to one of the most photographed sites in the world, arguably – the Treasury.

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Oh you know, just this obscure building here.

As one might expect, both the number of tourists and the temperature started to steadily climb but of course the Treasury was the star of the show for many (although we weren’t allowed inside), and warranted some time spent there. In addition to many people, there were also a fair number of camels and donkeys looking increasingly unimpressed as the sun and the throngs grew, who I really wanted to offer some shade. There were also a couple of cats I got to meet at the cafe who seemed much happier chilling out there.

It was definitely turning into layer-shedding time, as we started to hike up literally hundreds of sandstone stairs, vendors soliciting our custom every step of the way, until we reached another part of the old city where the colour of the stone started to show a far wider range. This is when it become apparent just how old, yet how fragile, the place was – the stone came away surprisingly easily upon rubbing – which makes it all the more remarkable how long it has managed to survive.

Quite suddenly, the tour guide suggested that we deviate from the itinerary in order to hike from the monastery overlooking Petra back to the camp. It was very ambitious, especially with an uncertain amount of water available at any given time, but the group as a whole opted to give it a go. I immediately began to have misgivings about not expressing reluctance to undertake this hike, but the tour guide promised we would get for free what others pay a large amount for and the views were indeed awesome. And free. It wasn’t easy to take photos and hike at the same time but the few times we stopped – including for some impromptu Bedouin tea – I managed to take these:

We were exhausted by the time we got back to the camp, to the point where I knew I’d barely be able to move the next day, but strangely enough I didn’t feel it necessarily to decline the offer of a drink at a local bar recommended by the guide. After two of the most expensive drinks I’ve ever had, and another ample Bedouin dinner, it was bedtime. Or rather, tent time.

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We packed up and departed the camp early again (while unbeknownst to me at the time I’d left my camera back in my tent, not to be reunited with it until the day before going home) and headed for Wadi Rum. Not before taking some last photos of the place:

On the way we stopped in at a local store – not unlike a service station by the motorway which can be found at home, except the salespeople are a lot more… enthusiastic, shall we say. Having lost one of my scarves in Jerusalem I was happy to buy one here, which was why I didn’t immediately make a polite exit when approached by a salesman and invited to try one on. It was a chance to be done up in the Bedouin style, complete with eyeliner, and have my photo taken – which I’m not entirely at ease with as can be seen here:

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The Reluctant Bedouin

It was then that the salesman informed me that the scarf contained silk and camel hair; being vegan, I don’t (knowingly) eat or wear animal products of any kind, but I’m also very unskilled at backing out of what can only be described as an intense haggling situation. I made a spur of the moment decision to just buy the scarf to avoid conflict, make use it while in the desert climate and then give it away to someone who would benefit from it upon my return. This is where I ran into my next problem, not having the right currency. I only had Israeli shekels left which the salesman was all too happy to accept but when it came to negotiating change from my bill of twenties… I very nearly lost the equivalent of £30-£40 on the spot for a single scarf which I didn’t even want now. It was then that I simply decided to retreat and apologise profusely, saying I’d made a mistake and no longer wished to buy the scarf (I didn’t now anyway), hoping equally profusely that this wouldn’t result in too much of a “scene”, and then a few members of the group swooped in to my aid, pointing out that I was getting an extremely poor exchange and hugely overpaying, and eventually the salesman gave me the scarf – for free. That was some seriously good haggling in the end, then…

Now feeling guilty, and buying a coffee as compensation, I slunk out of the store in shame and then we headed to our next stop – Wadi Rum. The landscape was becoming a proper desert by then, almost Martian in appearance, and indeed many films had been made in the area. Next up was a jeep tour which felt worryingly precarious on the sand at first but eventually simply added to the thrill. Wrapping my scarf around my head in what can only be described as a parody of the traditional Bedouin style (I couldn’t quite get the hang of it at first) we braved the blazing sun, me reapplying my sunscreen every five minutes, to get some envy-inspiring photos of the desert, of the local Bedouins making natural soap from a native shrub… and of a herd of semi-wild camels wandering across our path to the nearest watering hole. It was good to see animals unrestrained in their natural habitat for a change.

Stopping for Bedouin tea (again) and finally working up the the courage to say “shoo-kran” for said tea, we boarded the tour bus, ending the jeep tour, and proceeded to take our last meal of the tour at a tiny local village. The food was remarkable yet again in its simplicity yet abundance. It was all very healthy and nourishing, just what was needed in this climate. It was then time to brace ourselves for the five hour drive back to the border, where during on of the rest stops along the way I had the pleasure of meeting two very friendly stray dogs. I was careful not to let them get too friendly, of course, but they seemed happy for a bit of attention!

At the border, we bid farewell to our tour guide, who we had gotten to know rather well within the space of just under three days, and passed through customs. It was here that the “unlikely event of being delayed for extra questioning” scenario indeed happened to me, for reasons still not entirely known, but thanks to the prior agreement of the group they were all waiting for me when they were finally done with ascertaining that I was in fact not a threat to national security. Indeed I think this should be the standard practice of every tour, especially for those in a foreign land with no easy way to get to their next destination.

Relieved to be back in Israel, but also glad to have had the experience of visiting Jordan (and having ample opportunity to practice far more diverse landscape photography) it was time for recuperate, and to prepare for the next phase on my trip, the blog of which will be coming soon.

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Part III – Vegan Tasting Tour of Tel-Aviv

As fate would have it, the volunteering placement I took on placed me at the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv so it was looking like Abraham Hostels would characterise my entire stay in Israel, which was certainly no bad thing…

I had more time during the week I spent in Tel Aviv, but rather less money (and I’m not quite at the “making millions from my blog” stage) but I was also typically indecisive, being unsure whether I wanted to spend the entire time in Tel Aviv (lively but expensive) or go on another tour of one of the regions of Israel (interesting but exhausting and also potentially expensive) but the one I had my eye on, which was an absolute must-do for me, was the vegan tour of Tel Aviv.

The vegan scene in Tel Aviv, and indeed in Israel, was one of the main draws for me to go there, and anywhere there is a good vegan scene is somewhere I feel considerable more at home. Also because I wanted to meet more like minded people (and enjoy some more great food) I signed up as soon as I knew there was one going on.

Actually I very nearly missed the tour, due to it being rescheduled and then departing early, so I quickly signed up, paid then made a beeline for the first restaurant where they were due to meet called Zakaim, a family run place. There I met three other very nice people, two of them tour guides and the other a visitor like me, and they proceeded to order us some fresh Levantine cuisine – a tomato and basil salad with soya cheese in place of feta – and a shot of Arak, the local liquor. Normally I can’t do shots but it would have been rude not to partake…

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Next we went to another family run place called Bustan 15, where we were treated to a pretty courtyard setting, some lentil burgers and mujadarrah, and some interesting facts about veganism. I was quite proud of my ability to contribute, due to my ongoing experience as a vegan advocate, but also just wanted to appreciate some world class cooking in places which I’d never otherwise have been able to locate, let alone enter, on my own.

We had a pleasant stroll to the next place, seeing some vegan graffiti along the way including the now-famous “269” image – a reference to a calf, with whom animal rights activists got to meet all too briefly, who was wearing an ear tag with the number 269. This came to symbolise the anonymous state which farmed animals are kept in, which has helped to fuel the vegan message here…

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… then we sampled more vegan cream cheeses and an aubergine and pesto dish which was so delicious that I had to try not to finish the entire thing.

Next was a local tiny cafe where half the seats were outside, which allegedly made the best hummus in Tel Aviv. This is where I learned that one could eat hummus, and other dips, with a piece of onion. Not the ideal dish for fresh breath but it was all about the experience and it certainly was an enjoyable one. If only I had nearly enough room for everything. Pictured in the photo here is the tour leader, just as enthusiastic about the quality of the food as I had come to be!

We finished at an all-vegan ice cream parlour, where we were treated to a sample to finish off the evening, along with a take away sample of chocolate tahini – which is incredible, if a bit weird sounding. The tour leaders concluded the tour by saying that they wanted to prove to everyone taking the tour how easy and tasty it is to be vegan, and certainly in Tel Aviv it could hardly be easier to be vegan.

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But perhaps not quite as easy to come up with such offbeat graffiti…

It is estimated that 5% of the Israeli population is now vegan, the highest proportion in the world, with there being the biggest increase in numbers over the past few years. It is believed that reasons for this include a speech by a well known vegan activist being translated into Hebrew, and growing awareness of the ethics (or lack thereof) of the agriculture industry. Indeed veganism is becoming vastly more common almost everywhere in the western world but in Israel the rapid rise of a diet which is both the most morally and environmentally responsible one possible today is encouraging, as it shows the capacity for positive widespread change.

In any case, it was a rather memorable way to spend a spare evening.

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The three tours I undertook with Abraham Hostels were great at demonstrating the potential of the solo traveller to participate in what the region has to offer, and I feel that I selected the best tours for me. However I would like to have taken part in far more tours than I had time for, but then again there’s always another time.

 

 

Vegan fine dining: a retrospective review

I am not, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be (at least I can’t imagine) a fine dining person. The anticipation of getting dressed up in an outfit worn only once before is almost guaranteed to be quelled sharply by the practice of going to the fancy place, sitting down and then… basically having to be on top form the entire time, being careful how you sit, speak, order, wait, actually eat impossible-looking cuisine with dignity, pay an eye-watering price, then leave. Still hungry. And now poor too.

However, in a city where there was limited time, bizarre weather, fatigue from trying to fit in all the daytime attractions at once, and not much for one to do alone in the evening besides face the nightlife alone (no) and watch Netflix in the hotel room (not what I paid a not insignificant amount to come all the way out here to do), and as a vegan (where approximately 999 out of 1000 places are unlikely to cater to you), one option presented itself more or less out of nowhere:

“Elisabeth’s Gone Raw” is a top-range raw vegan restaurant in Washington DC which I thought about trying but until then had stuck with grabbing veggie-friendly food on the go. I was hesitant when I saw the words “fine dining”, but also intrigued – usually “vegan” (“raw vegan!”) and “fine dining” are not to be found anywhere near each other in any description, and memories of being offered either a flimsy side salad, a few grains of rice, and the omnipresent “wild mushroom risotto”, along with urgent whispers to “use the right cutlery and no elbows on the table!” have stuck with me long enough to instill in me a lifelong aversion to that kind of place. I simply don’t belong. But… I saw that this place was only open on a Friday – that very evening – for a few hours, and serving an ever-changing weekly menu. Because it was raw vegan (my interest in which had been piqued during my previous visit to Prague) and very limited time only… I had to give it a go.

Upon arrival I almost ran back out again. This place had a cocktail bar and everything, I had no business being here. ALONE. But I was given a warm welcome just like any other patron and shown to the cocktail bar to await my place. One thing I learned is that these places are usually on one extreme, when it comes to serving single people: either acting delighted to see you and put themselves at your service from beginning to end, or completely ignoring you because you’re, well, not more than one person. Initially it looked like I was going to get the latter treatment, where they didn’t even acknowledge my presence. Not even when I eagerly pored over the menu and looked up every ten seconds, doing this on repeat for fifteen minutes or so. The three or four other people at the bar were getting the full attentiveness which can be expected in such a place, but when it came to serving me, suddenly other things needed to be done, like polishing cutlery. I was beginning to need a drink by that stage as what I had opted to do that evening – go to a fancy place on my own – began to sink in. I began to regret ever having such a stupid idea, as this is not the type of situation I naturally do well in. About five seconds before I made to gather my things and flee into the night, I was shown to my table.

Of course – OF COURSE – I was the only one there on my own. On a Friday night in the city. But I had long ago been forced to resign myself to this reality, so I just got on with the whole thing. Equipped with a kindle and phone, I settled in for the ride, and to my relief, was from then on treated no differently to anyone else for daring to show up without another human being in tow.

So now for the actual food experience:

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Weekly menu – because I honestly can’t remember the intricate descriptions of each plate

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The cocktail, “In the Garden of Eden”, was going to come in very handy… I had two of these

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This was the soup – yellow tomato and basil – which proved I was not in the real world anymore

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This “freebie” plate of cashew-encrusted kale chips was to be my social downfall – so many crumbs were accidentally made that the waiter had to produce a specially-designed instrument in order to sweep up the mess I made. The shame. The shame.

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Tatami wrap with “cream” and chive bloom – I had to actually start eating it to find out what this would involve…

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Vegan “caviar” – one of those bucket-list things to try – and whatever “yuzu pearls” are…

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Black sesame wrap with “goat cheese” – interesting combo, and about the time I realised I didn’t think I could manage much more

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Dessert #1: Mango sorbet with olive oil. Yup really.

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Dessert #2: “Spring root garden”

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Braised baby figs and eucalyptus tea

The quality of the food, I think I don’t really need to say but will anyway, was extremely high, and very inventive. They literally turned food into art and each dish was a miniature masterpiece. I felt like I was ruining the experience just by sticking my fork in, and very nearly did with the mess caused by the kale. Some people say no good can come of kale and while I normally disagree this was one situation where kale went very badly for me. Outside of this atmosphere, I think I would also have enjoyed this cuisine, and each bite felt incredibly healthy and alive. That’s the whole appeal of raw food, and it’s something I would commit to more often if it weren’t so heavy on price and preparation.

As for the dining-along experience… it was greatly alleviated by the fact that it was a vegan place, and therefore I felt more “in the right place” there than I would have otherwise. Also, the one and a quarter cocktails I had helped take the edge off a potentially painfully awkward situation, and when seeing the bill – that is the most I have ever paid for something I have put in my mouth and the most I ever will again.

Another major plus is that this raises the bar for vegan cuisine, as more people come out of curiosity and it gains a reputation. It proves that whether it’s a food truck, a cafe, or the type of place where they take your coat and actually narrate the “food experience” prior to eating, like a fairytale, it can compete with traditional cuisine. Hopefully, one day soon, it might even overtake it in popularity, and in terms of normalcy within the culture.

Would I do this again? Not in a non-vegan restaurant for sure. In a vegan restaurant? Maybe. In this vegan restaurant? Again, maybe. I might not even be in the neighbourhood ever again, for all I know – it’s not exactly handy from here. But even if I were, it would be an extremely infrequent occasion. I treated this evening like I would never go again, but it showed enough promise, in terms of its cuisine, that “never say never” is the best attitude to have.