Concluding that we are all capable of change

This month should have seen the sixth Jersey Festival of Words. In celebration of the event, author Caroline Earle chooses three words which defined her life’s change of direction in 2018…

(n) the journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self, or way of life

Earlier this year, sometime before lockdown, I was watching the remake of Dumbo with my grand-daughter. Even though I know the elephants are computer graphics, I found it almost unbearable to watch. 

My grand-daughter, who had not yet reached three, certainly picked up on the fact that Dumbo and his mum were incredibly sad.

Performing animals in circuses… What were we thinking?
A decade ago I took my kids to Seaworld to see dolphins jumping through hoops and ‘trained’ whales flipping wet-suited humans in the air. I wouldn’t do it now. What were we thinking?
Women with no vote. Smoking in workplaces. Homosexuality illegal. Times change. We change.
We are all open to change our ideas, beliefs and habits all the time. And this is what I found happening to me, over six months in South East Asia and India. It’s not what I expected when I got on the plane from Heathrow to Bangkok. From there, it was north to Chiang Mai, and then a slow boat down the Mekong to Laos, a nightmare 26-hour bus ride to Vietnam, into Cambodia, a hop over to Sri Lanka, and three months in India, from Madurai in the south to Amritsar in the north. 

This was not just sightseeing. This was a midlife reboot, pressing the ‘back to factory settings’, living out of a suitcase for six months. The joy of having more money and slightly more wisdom than you had when you were 18, when I was more worried about finances and the state of my bowels than politics, religion or indeed compassion. 

I used to be the kind of person who would haggle like my life depended on it… until I realised that I was negotiating over the equivalent of 5p. This time, there was a growing compassion that I had not known before, a caring for all who were poor, disadvantaged, or disabled. 

At one point, in India, I saw a beggar who was prostrate, limbs gangly in all directions, as if he had landed splat on the ground like the coyote from the Road Runner cartoon. He inched forward, pushing an aluminium pot in front of him to collect money, pulling himself forward with his arms. As foreign tourists we are advised to ignore the beggars. But they are people and every one of them has a story to tell. I am not saying we can give to them all and we continued to be wary, but we started to ‘see’ the beggars.

One day, we came out of a large temple and noticed a man with severely deformed legs. We were about to cross the road to talk to the street cow and a couple of friendly dogs, when we realised that we’d be ignoring the human being. We gave him some money, probably a lot more than he earned in a day, but to us was little more than the cost of a Starbucks. His face lit up with a smile and he kissed the money and said thank you by touching his heart.

This brings us to my second new word, Sawubona…a Zulu word meaning ‘I see you’. Former US president Bill Clinton, when asked for a piece of life advice, said: ‘I’ve come to believe that one of the most important things is to see people. The person who opens the door for you, the person who pours your coffee. Acknowledge them. Show them respect. Sawubona.’

I wasn’t just noticing the human beings, of course. I was becoming very aware of the animals. It started in Chiang Mai where we stayed at an elephant rescue sanctuary and we learned about Phajaan, the brutal practice of beating elephants into submission for any human interaction. I am ashamed to recall that I have ridden an elephant in the past. But doesn’t this illustrate perfectly how we can and do change? When we know better we do better. 

Nowhere is animal welfare (or lack of) more in your face than India. In Udaipur I volunteered for two weeks at Animal Aid Unlimited, the most wonderful animal sanctuary. Disabled dogs, mangy dogs, a brain-injured dog who walked like he was a puppet, dying cows, calves that smelled of candy floss, wonky donkeys, and a water buffalo called Flower who liked to cuddle up and put her head in your lap. I really did find myself telling a cow that I’d never eat meat again. The experience forms the opening chapter of my book, Ahimsa…, another wonderful word, from Hinduism and Buddhism, meaning respect for all living things and avoidance of violence towards others.

I went vegetarian just before the travelling, because I didn’t want to eat dodgy meat. I told my sister, who has been vegan for more than 25 years, that I would never be vegan. She merely replied: ‘Never say never.’

In the back streets of Old Hanoi I saw a dog being roasted on a spit. I saw tortoise on the menu. The reaction was predictable when I said as much on Facebook. It was my sister who said: ‘What’s the difference?’

What, indeed, is the difference between tortoise in Vietnam and crab or lobster on the menu at home? What is the difference between a spit-roast dog in Hanoi and a hog roast at a summer party in Jersey?  It got me thinking. Me, a meat-eater all my life. And then one evening I watched the documentary Dominion and I realised that veganism was indeed my next step.

Veganism has never been easier, food production is evolving, it’s good for the planet and good for your health. Can you justify taking a sentient being’s life just for the taste in your mouth for a matter of minutes? But can just one person make a difference?…

Well, it’s estimated that by going vegan, you can save 100 lives per year. If I reach 85, which I sincerely hope I do, I could save 3,000 lives. If the six members of my close family were also vegan, together we could save 24,000 animals. That makes it worth doing, doesn’t it?

Eating dead flesh. Destroying the oceans. Drinking the milk of another species and sending their babies to be slaughtered, just for being born male. Just imagine that in 10, 20, 50 years time, thousands if not millions more people will be saying: What were we thinking? 

Only when the last tree has died
and the last river has been poisoned
and the last fish been caught
will we realise we cannot eat money
– Indian proverb

*Ahimsa: A personal journey, via an animal sanctuary in India, to veganism, by Caroline Earle, is available on Amazon, as well as locally at the Harbour Gallery and Cooper’s at Castle Quay. A special podcast with the author, produced for the Jersey Festival of Words, can be found

The word ‘vegetarianism’ was coined in the 1840s. Before that, vegetarians were referred to as Pythagoreans after the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who lived from 570-490 BC. He said: ‘As long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.’