I Lived Next to a Slaughterhouse for a Month
I put a drop of soap into my menstrual cup and use my hands to spread the soap around the silicon. There is something grotesque about washing a menstrual cup while listening to pig squeals echoing from the abattoir down the street of the Bali villa. Paradise met with slaughter. The scent of my blood and theirs: a confrontation that we are both living and breathing beings. We share life and death and motherhood and the world. It hits me all at once as a campur merindu (mixed longing). For what I long for I am not sure; the feeling exists somewhere between my heart and stomach — a sickness and empathy.
As I try to save the planet using a menstrual cup over single-use products, I listen to a mild form of death. Animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than all forms of transportation combined. But it’s easy to suggest that everyone stop eating meat. It’s not realistic, and meat-eating is embedded in culture. Take, for example, the infamous Christmas turkey, or eating babi guling (suckling pig) during Balinese ceremonies. Not many people ask why and continue to do it absentmindedly because it’s “just the way it is”. Christmas feels incomplete without our oven-roasted and stuffed turkeys. It becomes a symbol of our cultural identity.
However, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who enjoys the thought of killing animals. The conflict between enjoying meat-eating and discomfort at the thought of killing animals is referred to as the meat paradox. Conscious meat consumption forces us to confront ourselves as unfavourable as we consider our responsibility in the process.
It’s exhilarating to ride on the back of a scooter everywhere in Bali. Sometimes I pull my limbs in closer; I’m afraid I’ll hit cars as we ride fast between them. A dog runs out into the street and the driver slows down, causing me to crash into his back. He lets the dog pass and speeds up again like nothing happened.
Dissonance is the state of emotional discomfort when people act in a way inconsistent with their attitudes or beliefs, and is a common reaction to the meat paradox.
In North America, it is often out of sight, out of mind. Repression is easy when slaughterhouses are far from sight and meat production is heavily industrialised. Most American people do not think about where the meat on their plate comes from during their meal.
On the way home from one of my first meals in Bali, I see the abattoir doors were left open. Small cages in close proximity hold each of the pink pigs. Human curiosity leads me to peer inside, but I look away immediately. A form of guilt for looking, or intense confrontation being too much to bear. Each morning the sound of the squeals brings my mind back to the cages.
It is not uncommon in Bali to scoot past an abattoir, see chickens on the back of a truck in transport, pick up live animals at the market or see the whole pig laid in front of a community as they indulge in babi guling. Babi guling is a traditional food made from piglets that are degutted, seasoned, and spit-roasted over a fire. This ceremonial delicacy has over time become more common, and it is not difficult to find a warung (restaurant) advertising their juicy, delicious babi guling. Perhaps it is through this familiarity with the slaughter which is de-dramatising. The act of killing animals is less disassociated from Balinese culture.
“The pigs,” our teacher says, as confused heads try to figure out where the awful noise is coming from during our balcony lesson. It was then that the consciousness of the slaughterhouse becomes collective. Stifled responses and cringes amongst eyes of empathy or emptiness prompted him to continue, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.” I question how people could live so close and not be wrenched. Walking past the abattoir always makes my guts turn. I want nothing more than to understand.
There are parallels between denying animals’ emotional states and prejudicial behaviour. A tendency to treat things different from ourselves as “other”. The conflict between behaviour and action requires justification of such actions as natural, normal, or necessary. Often animals are viewed as lower on life’s hierarchy, and perhaps it is only after other minority groups are awarded moral standing that animals can be considered in the same light. Moral conflicts are met with convenient beliefs about lack of responsibility, lack of causing harm, and what identity we would experience without it.
Living with 15 other girls, almost all of whom are vegan and vegetarian, doesn’t seem like it would be particularly interesting. But then there was the abattoir down the street. An unavoidable soundscape to fuel emotions and thoughts on what I’d only faced once before when I went to the butchers with my father as a young girl; a memory I’d since suppressed.
But vegetarianism is the minority, and being able to follow these diets is a privilege in itself. It takes a lot more vegetables to gain the same caloric density as a plate of babi guling. It can come down to factors such as economic power. It’s still more expensive than an omnivorous diet in many places in the world. Most people who follow a plant-based diet are from younger generations, which might indicate change for the future. Those who have the privilege of being able to eat a plant-based diet can decide whether or not to use it to work towards a more sustainable Earth. Perhaps the issue is not meat-eating, but rather industrialisation. Many reasons prevent the overhaul of diets across the world. It’s up to individuals to decide what they will do about their own personal meat paradox. What will you do about yours?
One day, after listening to the squeals again, I walk down to the abattoir. The doors are open. I peek inside and hold my gaze for a few moments longer.