After an eight-year flirtation with vegetarianism, I toasted my return to eating meat with a glass mug of yak blood.
I drank yak blood. Really. It was one of the most conscious actions I have ever taken.
I drank from a glass mug because new roads and an ever-growing lust for foreign imports had caused this clear basic cup to become the standard in the mountain region of Nepal where I was conducting research. I drank yak blood, first and foremost, because after nearly three weeks of research on tourism and development in Kagbeni, Mustang, Nepal, my host, Tenzin had invited me to take part in this traditional high mountain ritual.
One evening I huddled by the wood stove with Tenzin’s family and several other visitors, sipping bhoy-cha (Tibetan butter tea) and chatting as always about cultural differences. Tenzin, with his slightly crooked grin and cheeks flushed from an after-dinner raksi (local brandy), announced that the yak he had purchased was on its way from Dolpo, a higher-altitude village in the next district where the massive creatures thrived. At least 700 pounds, the yak would provide food for the family for most of the winter.
“When we kill the yaks,” Tenzin said, still grinning, “everyone drinks some of the blood. It makes you strong.”
In Mustang, everything, from raksi to buckwheat, makes you strong. Tenzin reminisced about taking part in the tradition when he was a young boy, then he looked directly at me. “You will try it. I think so.” He laughed with typical Mustangi merriment, but he was quite serious. I laughed along and in a moment of bravado agreed.
“What better way to go back to eating meat?” I thought as I processed what I had just agreed to. I had for some time now been contemplating making the shift. In part, I would be traveling for a year, often staying with host families or friends, and I wanted to be able to try everything and accept everything my hosts offered to me. Already I had refused meat offered by Nepali friends several times and it made me uncomfortable.
On a more philosophical level, however, I had been thinking a lot about what it meant to live, and, specifically, eat consciously. After studying traditional hunting cultures in North America and Mongolia a year prior, I had begun to examine my motives for being vegetarian. I realized that I had stopped eating meat because I could not do so consciously. That is, I couldn’t think of the live chicken while eating wings without feeling sick and guilty; so, I chose not to eat it. Lately, I had come to recognize that part of myself that was instinctively capable of hunting and eating meat, and deliberately continued to reject it.
Studying animistic cultures where hunting and spirituality went hand in hand, and witnessing the central role of meat in the high-altitude mountains of Nepal, I started to reconstruct my relationship to my own instincts and by extension to meat. I wanted to embrace my own nature, not reject it. In doing so I hoped to achieve a more conscious and honest existence. In Vajrayana (also known as Tantric or Tibetan) Buddhism, practitioners sometimes engage in baser activities like drinking alcohol or eating meat in order to transcend these lower impulses. I am not seeking transcendence, but the concept still holds.
Several days later, the yak arrived in Kagbeni along with two others, and a good portion of the village gathered in a stone-walled courtyard to help or watch. I stood just outside the stone wall with two other Americans and a small crowd of children to watch the slaughter from above. The kids, none older than eight or nine, passed around fruit candies, shouted at us in shrill voices and clambered onto rooftops and ledges to acquire prime seats for the show. A woman sat behind us scraping creamy cheese off of a flat stone, occasionally whacking me with a stick for blocking her sun.
The longer I sat above the courtyard, watching the men turn bodies into carcasses, their hands turning from brown to deep red, the more comfortable I became.
This is something that humans do, I thought. This is natural.
When it was time, mugs were passed around and Tenzin beckoned me into the arena. I walked through the entrance, where several women were turning intestines and other innards into sausages, and I took the proffered mug. I drank the brilliant red liquid, but couldn’t finish. I won’t go into detail, but it tasted how you would expect, but a bit thicker. On my way out I slipped on the wet stairs and the men laughed and joked that I was “drunk from the blood.” I did feel a bit jittery, but whether it was from the shot of vitamins or from nerves I don’t know.
There is nothing savage or bizarre about the process I witnessed. Animals are killed and eaten every day, everywhere; that is a part of life. There is nothing disgusting or barbaric about the tradition I took part in; it made sense in its place, surrounded by others doing the same thing, with gusto.
My part in the ritual was meaningful to me in two senses.
First, I truly engaged with another culture and for that I felt satisfied. Since November, I have traveled across Asia and Europe and eating everything offered to me has continually proved an avenue for cultural exchange and new experiences.
Second, I had watched the slaughter from beginning to end and rather than feeling disgust for what is, after all, a natural process, I had felt deep gratitude towards the animal. Now, when I do choose to eat meat (which is still quite rare), I try to always recall that same sentiment. I acknowledge that a life has been given for the food I am eating with respect, but never with shame, for I believe I am honoring my own nature by partaking. I greatly respect vegetarians for their decision, and understand it well, but for me, eating meat is at present the most conscious choice I could make.
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Asst. Ed: Meagan Edmondson/Ed: Sara Crolick