Sand, Stars and the Space In-between

Have you ever seen one of those cliché coming of age movies? You know, the ones where a mellow song comes on just as the protagonist is staring out of the car window questioning life pensively? Well, much of my three-week bus trip from Zambia to Cape Town was a constant priceless movie moment. The wild, African roadside was the setting, and I was the stargazing traveller.

Days after days of watching country-sized game parks fly by the window, and observing giraffes gently grazing by the side of the road led me to fall head over heels in love with Africa. About a week into the trip, I entered Namibia – a golden, duney land of desert that is home to ‘Mad Max Fury Road’, and a sizeable segment of my heart.

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While preparing for the impending heat, we were warned about the necessity of hats and sunscreen, and most importantly, water. Lots and lots of water. Every two days or so, we would stop at a store and have to buy at least one five-litre water container each. Hydration was even more vital in the desert (three hours was the ballpark given to us for survival time without this precious liquid).

During the briefing at our campsite one night, our fellow travellers enquired as to how much shade there would be, the quality of hand-dug latrines, and tactical escape plans from encounters with deadly scorpions (eternally grateful for tent zippers). It was thrilling to say the least. Camping at its finest.

Now imagine that scene from Jaws where the townspeople are discussing their plans to deal with the shark, and the eerie but experienced bad guy from the back forewarns them of the tragedies that may ensue. It was like that as one of the Dutch girls in our trip spoke up to caution us about the desert.

“Some people lose themselves in the desert… They go insane… They just can’t take all that raw, open space, and it drives them to madness…”

If I’d had a mouthful, I would have gulped. It was terrifying.

But despite the warnings, the next leg of our trip proved to be the most exhilarating travel I’ve experienced yet. The endless hours of watching the glare bounce off uninhabited, illuminated, sun-scorched, red earth in every direction for as far as my eyes could see.

Key expectations from an African adventure:

  • Layers of sand on top of sweat on top of bug spray on top of sunscreen on top of more sweat.
  • Getting stage fright when trying to pee behind the truck when on the road.
  • Sunrise and sunset yoga in bikinis atop wildlife viewing towers while your washing dries in seconds from the intense dryness of the air.
  • Watching out for scorpions when you need to relieve yourself during the night
  • A canvas of stars so vivid and unaffected by light pollution that Van Gogh himself would surely trek to the desert with paintbrush and easel at the ready
  • Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn in upwards of 40 degree heat
  • Sunbathing on mattresses in the middle of the desert at sunset (with ample supply of ‘Savannah’ beer)
  • Learning how to make fire with natives
  • Trudging aimlessly (and slightly deliriously) across the desert with no guide, map or water supply, but merely the directional gesture of a local driver

 

It was somewhat frustrating on the drive to and from Spitzkoppe (that magical word still gives me chills). My tent buddy and I were unfortunately at the back of the bus as we drove along the very bumpy and long dirt road between the main road and the towering dunes. The frequent and painful lurches of the bus kept causing my earphones to dislodge themselves, disrupting my movie-moment-window-gazing bliss (and the stomach contents of one of the poor Germans). Once the pure-hearted had proved their worthiness by managing to endure the hour-long road hurdle, they would find themselves in the middle of the Namib desert, surrounded by Mad Max-style splendour like no other. It was surprising that I found such bewildering beauty in this place that was so bare and expansive. Hello insights! The peaks were surprisingly easy to climb, and we took full advantage of this by perching ourselves high above the sparse trees to behold a flawless sunset. Incomprehensible distance existed at every angle: our vision only hindered by the natural curvature of the planet.

 

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Cue epiphinal moment #846 from this trip. You know how people argue over whether it’s black with white stripes or white with black stripes? What we witnessed in the sky this particular night would no doubt be considered a white backdrop with fleeting moments of darkness, as the celestial glow that lit up the Sossusvlei as we sat (wide-eyed, stunned, and possibly being nibbled by scorpions) outshone every inch of empty night space. Stargazing in silent awe, we literally tilted our heads from side to side, trying to take in the sheer number of stars that was spread across 180 degrees of African sky.

 

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We continued to be exposed to this splendour long into the night where, in our sand-infested tents, our unobstructed stargazing blurred into existential questioning. Somewhere amidst all the sleepy “what is life” moments and shooting star anticipation, I fell into the most restful sleep in this magical, star-kissed land.

 

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Untouched and unforgettable
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Why breaking veganism has made me a happier vegan

#vegan.

There’s still a decent amount of stigma associated with that word.

It’s a much-hyped trend, and causes substantial eye-rolling from parents, doctors, and anyone else sick of the latest restrictive diet.

I was vegan for over a year, and breaking it for a while has proved to be extremely beneficial in adapting to it again for the following reasons:

Firstly, it’s amazingly eye-opening being on the non-vegan side of things.

When you’re part of such an exclusive group, I think it’s easy to become ignorant of what else is going on: how people view you and how you should view others who have made different choices from yours. Experiencing how myself and other animal-product-consumers treat those that have chosen an animal-free way of life made me realise how much of a rift I had created in my own head. Turns out that non-vegans generally are not intolerant to our plant-based buddies or their choices, but are often quite open-minded with curious attitudes towards the lifestyle.

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The stereotype is real. And delicious. Thank you “Sexy Food” Cape Town!

On my two-month trip to Africa last year, I made sure to keep my mouth shut as much as possible about my dietary decisions so as not to come across as “ramming it down their throats” (thanks mum, does she realise the pun?), however, due to my awful stereotype-filling at the cafeteria which featured much salad, rice and potatoes on my plate, word got out and I got a lot of questions. By that stage I had existed egg and dairy-free (and nut and wheat-free, but that’s a different story) for over a year and was used to the instantly confused and very defensive responses I usually got from non-vegans, which often included unwarranted excuses for why they themselves couldn’t do that: “I just can’t because of my iron”, “protein is just too important to me” or “but cheeseburgers!” I have literally had a doctor reprimand me for my inconsiderate eradication of a potent source of calcium (before he checked my blood results to see that everything was perfectly fine and I wasn’t at death’s door).

Naturally, the second I stop, everyone I know starts turning vegan or vegetarian or “mindful” of their meat intake (nice timing universe). It’s wonderful that there is such growing acceptance of this and it makes it so much easier to feel supported in the community. So a support network makes all the difference for sure.

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Making this vegan oreo cake for a party where most where keen to ditch dairy and choose coconut (eternally grateful that oreos are vegan)
During my break, I realised how easy it is to feel intimidated and judged by someone who is making substantial effort. Somehow after living this very lifestyle for yonks, I can end up feeling defensive myself for why I am not living that way. It can definitely be challenging and I think that can be intimidating to those who have not made a similar choice. Especially in a society where our focus has swung so heavily towards environmental awareness, such a commitment is quite commendable, and I think this may be a potential threat to some egos.

So I’ve absolutely learnt how to go about discussing it, as I’ve now experienced what it feels like to be the non-vegan in the conversation. There is a lot less hate between vegans and non-vegans than I had created in my head.

I think round two will be better practically as well because I have learnt from my mistakes from last time. Making such a big change is not something that should be done instantly, and is certainly not always as easy as it seems. There is a transition period, and having watched several friends go through this period, I can now see how valuable it is to avoid an extreme or yoyo kind of attitude towards it.

The first time I went vegan, it was a snap decision after watching the film “Earthlings”. I had been vegetarian for a year and it was easy to make the switch emotionally. My choice was almost entirely ethically-focused and so was fuelled predominantly by a passionate anger. I was confused, resentful, and absolutely judgmental for many months – of others and myself- and it broke my heart that people I respected for their intellect and caring nature had not come to the same conclusion. This difference in habit affected my relationship with my mum at times. For a while all other values got put on hold and many uncalled for comments like “great, it smells like dead animal in here again” were thrown her way.

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A true cafe staple. If you don’t smother your toast in both avocado and Vegemite, are you really Australian?

Combined with my competitive nature, veganism was, in some aspects, a frustrated girl who was seeing how long she could go without touching dairy and trying not to break that perfect streak. Coming back to it a second time is based on logic and productivity. This makes sense to me, and I know it’s doable, gently. The decision is not emotionally-charged, and I’ve realised that “vegan” is not a trait that defines someone. It is simply a lifestyle choice that is easily “broken” – accidentally or otherwise- and it doesn’t mean you’ve failed, that you don’t care about the environment or that you hate animals. Some of the most kind-hearted and loveable people I’ve met can tuck into a cheeseburger like there’s no tomorrow – and that’s ok! I love them for what’s inside and not what’s on their plate.

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Helloooo Zambia! That feeling when the only thing you can have is “chips and salad please”…

I also feel like I have a healthier attitude towards dairy and egg products. No they’re not “bad” or “gross”, nor do they make those who consume them “bad” or “gross”. I can put them in my body if I choose to, and it will function just fine.

Having this more rounded view of it means I’m fully able to laugh at veganism, make fun of it and accept it for what it is: a social and environmental movement, dietary fad, and Instagram hashtag. Yes I will embrace the beautifully cringey jokes and memes: “How can you tell if someone’s a vegan? Because they tell you!” Yes I still appreciate the smell of bacon and barbecues and will make sure my friends keep giving me whiffs of their steaks.

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Cape Town was MUCH more accomodating…
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How many probiotics can we fit in ONE bowl?
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If you’re vegan then you are automatically a health addict and automatically are obsessed with quinoa… right?

In round two, I’ve been reminded of how convenient it is that this pretty much cuts out all the junk… Since most overly-processed, plastic-wrapped, sugar-laden, and eight-line-ingredient-list foods are generally inclusive of milk products, it certainly makes eating “whole” unavoidable. I’m not going to say it’s easy all the time though. Not being able to snack on whatever is going can be downright annoying, and cafe-hopping can be a challenge, but being pushed to learn how to cook proper, balanced meals from scratch is never going to be a bad skill.

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Vegan ways have opened my eyes to this super easy brekkie: overnight oats. They take 20 seconds to prepare the night before and are YUM

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Experimenting with pasta (aka food of the gods) and grilled eggplant. Who says vegan is just boring salads?
That said, it is definitely not a miracle. I come across so many articles about how veganism “fixed” everything. Yes, a lot of things are going to change and hopefully improve if you replace a steady source of slow-to-digest products that are high in saturated fat with whole grains and veggies, but claiming that it makes hair grow more or that it can cure cancer just seems ridiculous. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this journey so far, it’s that you have to listen to your body. If it seriously craves yoghurt, give it yoghurt. Everyone is different. Maybe veganism will make one person’s nails weak, and another person’s eyes twinkle. Maybe several serves of bacon per day will make someone’s split ends vanish forever. I’ve met people who have quit animal products and their skin has gone crazy! I’m talking acne flare-ups having a field day all day every day…

We all respond differently and at the end of the day aren’t we all just trying to work out what works best for us?

So with a hopefully more realistic and open-minded view of this lifestyle, and more respect for other people’s choices and my health –both body and mind- I embrace round two of this vegan adventure.

Now, where’s that lettuce at…?

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