Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, interviews fellow author Lucas Spiegel, who spent two years circumnavigating the world as a vegan traveller
I have travelled quite a bit.
Although I don’t travel much anymore, I have been privileged enough to have travelled to many countries for both pleasure (rarely) and work (mostly), but as a Catalan immigrant who tried several countries before settling in the UK about 30 years ago, I have also travelled to live. I was vegan when I visited many of the countries I have been to, so I have a pretty good idea of the type of challenges vegan travellers can face, and how they can be overcome. Some are purely logistical, while others are cultural or even psychological.
In the same way spectators of films and theatre are expected to temporarily suspend their disbelief to enjoy the story, one may think that vegan travellers could temporarily suspend their philosophy to have a good time abroad, but it does not work like that. The philosophy of veganism is not abstract, temporary, and distant but palpable, permanent, and present, so one cannot simply “disconnect” it as this would disconnect us as living beings and deflate us into a stupor. For ethical vegans like me, veganism is not something we do, but something we are. By holding the philosophy of veganism as the guide of our choices, we have incorporated it into our essence. We have been transformed by it, and, if we really are ethical vegans and not just experimenting with veganism, we cannot go back (not even temporarily).
The vegan philosophy manifests itself in so many aspects of one’s life, that without it we no longer have a life we can run, let alone one we can travel with, as when travelling we must be extra alert, active, make new choices and go to unfamiliar places. In many respects, the lack of familiarity with new situations and scenarios enhances our “vegan radar” and sharpens our ethical judgement — or at least, it should do.
It has been precisely when I travelled that I felt the most vegan I could feel, not only because of the satisfaction of eventually choosing the vegan options where they were not immediately apparent to me but also for witnessing cases of animal cruelty and abuse from which I could no longer shelter myself. Therefore, it does not surprise me that when other vegans travel long distances through many countries and cultures, they would have so explicit vegan experiences that they could write books about them.
Imagine, then, how much could you write if you are an ethical vegan who travelled for 697 days, sleeping in 152 different beds, being transported by 25 aeroplanes, six ferries, and countless buses, trains, taxis, cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, and bicycles, crossing two oceans and a handful of seas, and passing through 20 different countries? And imagine if you did all that in a single trip that circumnavigated the world starting from Vancouver going west and ending in Vancouver arriving from the east, not through a travel agency visiting tourist destinations, but by volunteering along the way in animal sanctuaries to be able to afford your trip.
There is a vegan who has done that while helping many animals along the way, and his name is Lucas Spiegel. I read his amazing book titled “The Weight of Empathy. A travel memoir” (which not only is very inspiring but is full of beautiful photographs) and I caught up with him while he was in Vietnam on another long trip (although this one not that long), so he could give me the inside story of an experienced vegan traveller.
Lucas’ vegan journey
Lucas Spiegel is an American author, traveller, photographer, social entrepreneur, activist, architect and vegan. When I asked him how he defines himself, he replied that he wasn’t sure—which I think could be a side effect of constant travelling. But he is definitively an ethical vegan who has been vegan for almost three decades, so that is bound to be an important part of his identity. He told me about his vegan journey:
“I grew up mostly in rural Colorado in the US and I lived largely in the countryside, in small towns. There was a lot of wildlife in my life as well as dogs and cats. My stepfather at one point even raised ostriches, so I had many animals around and I always felt a kind of connection with them. As far back as I can remember I had an affinity with animals. As a kid, you could say I was an animal lover, but beyond that, I think I felt some connection and commonality with all sorts of animals as the underdog — I may have felt like the underdog in my own life — and I always had sort of a distaste for bullies and people using and abusing power. And I also was a bit of a pacifist and felt very drawn to non-violence.
Those two things combined led me to want to stop eating animals. I was probably about 13 or 14 years old at the time. I felt that it was not fair or right for animals to lose their life for me to eat something that I liked, a flavour that I liked, or a dish that I was used to. At that time, my mother ran a health food store in Colorado, so that was very lucky for me. To go vegetarian in the early or mid-90s in a small town in the US would be very difficult for many people, but I was lucky enough to already have access to, and familiarity with, many of the alternative foods that were out there. My parents met in a macrobiotic cooking class in the 70s in Chicago — they were kind of hippies — and we ate a lot of brown rice, miso soup, and that sort of thing. So, I was lucky to have that kind of background. It wasn’t that difficult of a transition.
A couple of years later, I just thought about veganism, and without knowing many of the gory details, it seemed like a logical extension of that journey, of that path. I had a pretty good indication that animals were also harmed in dairy and egg production, and that it would be really more aligned with my values not to eat any animal products. So, I decided I would try it for a week, and that was about 29 years ago. It just got easier over time. The longer that I was away from eating animals the less I associated meat and animal products with foods that I liked, and the more I associated them with the animals themselves.”
An Architect Who Wants to Travel
Travelling to see the world is something that most of us have thought about at some time in our lives but just a few actually do it. This is because there are numerous logistical barriers, physical handicaps, political obstacles, cultural restraints, lifestyle commitments, legal hurdles, and, of course, financial requirements on the way to making that dream a reality. But for an ethical vegan, you also must add the fear that you perhaps would not be able to keep your philosophy up in places they might not even heard about veganism. Lucas successfully overcame all these barriers, but before doing that, he had to build up some motivation, devise some basic plans, and save some cash. He explained to me how he did all that:
“I was the first person in my family to go to college and I didn’t really expect that is what I would do — much less have the sort of logistical and financial support to do it straight out of high school. And so, I kind of just took a more alternative path and assumed that the things that I wanted to do I would just have to teach myself. I worked many different jobs and lived under the radar in some activist animal rights and sort of anarchist communities in Oregon. That was pretty formative both with regard to animal rights and veganism, but also feminism and other related ideas.
Years later, I ended up going back to school for architecture. I just realised I might want to have a family someday, or own my own home someday, and there was no way I could do that with my earning potential at the time. Architecture seemed to fit my interests, and so, I jumped into it. I worked in architecture for about five years. Kind of fortuitously, I graduated from architecture school in 2010, when the global recession was still quite strong. So, the only job opportunity I had was working in a village in central India for a small company, doing bamboo architecture. That was really my first experience spending some real quality long-term time abroad. Living in India for about a year had a huge effect on me.
Then, years later in 2015, I was living in Vancouver, Canada, working in architecture, and I decided I didn’t want to stay there for a variety of reasons. I had saved some money for the first time in my life and decided that was possibly my only chance to do some really long-term travelling. So, I developed this idea to circumnavigate the world. Just keep going west until I circled all the way back to the US. It started out as maybe a one-year plan and by the time I finished, I had been travelling for almost two years, for about 22 months.
I’m not independently wealthy. I was mostly just travelling using my savings. I live and travel very frugally. I did a lot of work exchanges, where you can help out for five hours a day and they’ll give you a place to stay and feed you. That was an affordable way to travel and spend meaningful time in different places. Also, because I was looking for vegan farms and families to live with, those ended up being some extremely long-lasting friendships and really meaningful experiences as well. Then, as I got further into the trip, of course, I stayed with any friends I had anywhere in the world.
For me, this was an extremely transformative experience for many reasons. It’s impossible to have that kind of experience and not be affected in profound ways, but some of the most impactful experiences of that trip were my different times volunteering and visiting animal sanctuaries in different parts of the world.
I probably volunteered at maybe ten different animal sanctuaries in different countries and continents, and it was just remarkable to be able to experience all of those different cultures and how people’s relationship with animals differs. It was really inspiring not only to meet the animals, but to make personal connections with them — including exciting exotic animals like monkeys, moon bears, and elephants but also rescued farmed animals like chickens, pigs, and donkeys. Those were some of my first opportunities to really form real friendships and relationships with individual chickens, pigs, cows, and donkeys, and that was just such an incredible gift.”
A Photographic and Philosophical Travel Memoir
With a camera in his hand, Lucas managed to capture amazing photographs of animals, people, and landscapes during his two years on the road, which can be seen in his book “The Weight of Empathy. A travel memoir”. Hard copies and sliding-scale e-book sales of it can be obtained at weightofempathy.com. This is how this inspiring book was conceived:
“I did want to have a project I could build on as I travelled, and a friend of mine suggested collecting recipes around the world and writing them in a vegan cookbook. I had this concept of that project when I started, specifically using a recipe as a sort of window into the lives and culture of the people who shared the recipe with me — which I still think would have been a nice project.
But the way my trip ended up going was unpredictable and ended up having these really impactful experiences at these animal sanctuaries. So, the book just took a different turn. By the time I had gotten back, I had taken 17,000 photographs and I had about a dozen pretty substantive travel blog posts that I had written. They were kind of the bones of a book. Part of why I put it together was just for my own edification, to be able to process and synthesise almost two years of really intense experiences and figure out what it meant for me and my life going forward. What I ended up with certainly served that purpose, but it was also really a kind of pro-vegan call to action for a kinder more merciful future. There was no point in having a call to action just sit in my computer drive somewhere, and for nobody to see, so I decided to really polish it and publish it and get it out into the world.
I did a little planning, but I also wanted just to throw myself out there in the world — and I knew that the less planning I did the more interesting experiences I would have. And I was fine knowing that there would be times when I might be hungry, or maybe some plain rice and some fruit would be the only thing available to me for a time. I was fine with accepting occasional discomfort in order to have the sort of more rich and more compelling experiences that come with accepting some discomfort and unpredictability.
I did a little planning but, honestly, it was hit and miss whether the planning worked out as I intended. For instance, one of my thoughts was, ‘well, if I stick to countries that have a large Buddhist population, then there’s bound to be at least some traditionally vegetarian cuisine,’ and that turned out to be basically half true. There are so many different ways that people practice Buddhism, and in some countries, like Vietnam and Thailand, there are a ton of Buddhist restaurants around that are basically 90 to 100% vegan. And then, countries like Cambodia and Myanmar, have also extremely high Buddhist populations but the Buddhists there eat meat, so there was a completely useless part of my plan in that regard.
What was interesting was there were plenty of experiences where I really wasn’t sure if there would be anything to eat, and then I was just blown away by all of the vegan options. For example, in Myanmar, which is not an especially vegetarian or vegan-friendly state, they have this incredible food called chickpea tofu, made with chickpea flour. That’s just a random traditional cuisine that is accidentally vegan that I’d never heard of, and was just incredibly delicious and delightful.
Veganism, compassion, and including animals in your sphere of compassion, are certainly not exclusive to any one part of the world, or any socioeconomic class. That was certainly an encouraging aspect of travelling. Even though there is so much cruelty and indifference in the world, I also found compassion and kindness, and animal lovers everywhere in the world as well.”
When I did two long trips to the American continents during my anti-bullfighting campaigning, I was already vegan, so I had to experience many challenges, especially in some remote areas in Latin American countries, that had very little to do with food. This is why I completely relate to what Lucas told me when I asked him about which type of vegan-related challenges he faced:
“The challenges ended up being of a completely different nature than I anticipated. One of the chapters in my book is called ‘eating is the easy part’ and it’s about my experience here in Vietnam, about six years ago. Essentially, it talks about the challenge of being in a place where animal agriculture happens out in the open and all of the brutality that exists everywhere in the world in animal agriculture it’s not hidden from view.
In the US, where I’m from, there are probably half a dozen states that make it illegal to do undercover investigations — the so-called AG gag laws — so all the factory farms are super high security and they don’t want anyone to see what is behind closed doors. But in a place like Vietnam, you see everything, there’s nothing hidden from view. It really forced me to confront the cruelty and brutality in the world and presented this challenge, which is really what is at the core of the book. This challenge is, ‘how I continue to be a compassionate person, to nurture my soft heart, and the strengths that that gives me, without going crazy in a world that is often uncaring, selfish, and cruel?’ In that regard, there were huge challenges in travelling. Regardless of how much vegan food is available, that challenge is always there. It might be some meat wrapped at the grocery store or it might be some animal in a cage on the side of a road in a country like where I am now, but that struggle is always there.
I don’t want to be paralysed by what’s going on around me, and I don’t want to stay walled off and hidden from the world because I can’t face what’s out there. And at the same time, I don’t want to be desensitized to it because that empathy for those that are subjected to cruelty is a source of great pain, but it’s also the source of my compassion and my motivation to improve the lives of those that are subjected to that cruelty. It’s an ongoing challenging balance to strike.
Today I was driving around the Vietnamese countryside on a motorbike with my friend who runs an animal sanctuary here and there are a lot of animals who I know I can’t directly help, and sometimes I have to just not look at them when I pass them by — whether it’s their body strung up in front of a restaurant as a main dish, or animals in cages, or on the back of a motorbike being transported to their slaughter. Just trying to spare myself a little bit of that secondary trauma of seeing them, but also not wanting to pretend it doesn’t exist or shield myself entirely.”
When Lucas returned from his trip, he wanted to do something with his life that directly helped individual animals like those who met in the sanctuaries he volunteered with. He had an idea, and he became a social entrepreneur developing it — until COVID came and ruined it.
“I think the lesson that I learned from this trip, or what a conclusion I came to — it’s not the most original idea, but I still think that it’s important for me — it’s just this idea that positive action is the only way through. Either you witness suffering, recoil, and become withdrawn from the world, cynical and passive, or you act to make the world a more kind and compassionate place. That was the decision that I made throughout my trip. As I got back, I was not going to return to a full-time architecture job, but I was going to try to figure out a way to maximise the good that I can do in the world.
Part of that was in writing my book and putting it out into the world — which I know has accomplished to some degree, as it has impacted people in a meaningful way which I’m very grateful for. And then part of it was this project that I started when I returned, which was a vegan dog treat company called Haven Hearts.
Unfortunately, the project is no longer active, but I ran it for about three years after returning from my travels. It’s an idea that percolated in my mind as I was going through the last few months of my trip. I got more and more excited about it, and it was basically a vegan dog treat company that donated 100% of its proceeds to farmed animal sanctuaries. Not only was it a way to generate a non-charitable revenue stream for animal sanctuaries, which I believe are doing very important work, but it was also a way to connect to animal lovers, who may or may not be vegetarian or vegan yet, and not just tell them that they’re doing something wrong, but offer them a way to make a concrete positive impact in the lives of farmed animals without making any compromises or sacrifices.
Each bag of dog treats would come with a postcard attached to it, and on that postcard was the photo of a rescued farm animal at one of the animal sanctuaries in the northwest. And I would choose one animal at a time and raise enough to donate a lifetime sponsorship for that one animal. The postcard would have their photo and their rescue story. It would have information about the sanctuary that saved them and so it’s a lot easier for people to start to empathise with one pig, rather than tens or hundreds of millions of pigs in factory farms around the world. That was the idea.
It was kind of a way to secretly smuggle animal rights propaganda into grocery stores — which was a really satisfying thing to do — and it was quite successful in so far as it lasted three years. There were a lot of really rewarding stories. In particular — I actually wrote about this one in one of the last chapters of the book — there was this little girl whose parents bought a bag of dog treats, and she got the postcard of Goldie and Cornelius, these two chickens who are very different but they’re best friends and live at a local sanctuary. I think she was just five years old, and she fell in love with them — apparently, she slept with the postcard under her pillow. And finally, her parents took her to the actual sanctuary, and she got to meet these chickens in person. It was incredibly rewarding to be able to play a part in making that connection, especially for such a young compassionate person.
It was, unfortunately, very bittersweet that I had to wind down the company by the end of 2020, due to complications with COVID, and it just wasn’t viable by the end of the first year of the pandemic.”
Animal Sanctuaries Are a Window to the Future
Lucas’ book is not only an interesting compendium of experiences and a collection of beautiful thought-provoking photographs, but I would say it is also a philosophical book. Lucas was able to absorb the experiences in a meaningful way and then reflect on veganism and humanity’s relationship with animals from the unique perspective of a decades-long ethical vegan traveller. Our Zoom conversation also reached this level of philosophical insight, in particular regarding what animal sanctuaries represent:
“One of my experiences with animal sanctuaries was that even the happy stories are still connected to the massive tragedy of animal agriculture. Even if there is a chicken who gets to live out the rest of his life at an animal sanctuary, he is literally the sibling and family of animals who were tortured and died at animal factory farms, so he is sort of a living connection to those horrors. As someone who is quite sensitive and empathetic, that part is challenging for me, even just volunteering there throughout my trip. But I find them to be also just incredibly inspiring places.
However, sanctuaries are a very inefficient way to help animals, if you look at how much it costs to feed them, especially a large animal like a cow or a pig, not to mention the veterinary care and everything else. If you were to put that money toward some other kind of campaign you could make a good argument for it. But at the same time, they are the only real living examples we have of treating animals the way that we claim that they should be treated. And I think there is an enormous — and possibly unquantifiable — value to that.
I think of farm sanctuaries as being sanctuaries for vegans as much as they are sanctuaries for the animals who live there, and I really felt that during my trip, especially when I was spending so much time at them (Mino Valley Farm Sanctuary in Spain, Ippoasi sanctuary in Italy, and Fields of Freedom in Denmark). There was a string of sanctuaries I was volunteering at and I didn’t quite realise just how much of an effect it had on my day-to-day life to be living in a place like that. In a place where all of the animals were being treated with the love, kindness, dignity, and care they deserve, and everyone else was vegan. I didn’t have to justify my choices or my lifestyle to anyone. I didn’t have to ask anyone if the food they were offering me had any animal products in it. I didn’t have to turn the other way to divert my attention if I saw some meat in the grocery store because I was in this sanctuary for vegans.
It was such an inspirational experience to be there. To be living in an example of the kind of world that I want us to create in the future. To see that it is possible; that other people feel and act the same way that I do toward animals. And this made very real and physical this idea that a kinder more merciful world is entirely possible.”
The vegan world is not only possible, but it is already happening — albeit in an embryonic state — not only in the very few vegan animal sanctuaries that we can find scattered all over the world, but also in the minds of people like Lucas, who not only can create a micro-vegan world in each home where they live, but they can carry it with them when they travel.
As a vegan, I also have travelled from vegan world to vegan world.
I hope they will all be connected one day.