The smoke of burning hair fibers stings my eyes as the sweat keeps fogging the viewfinder. I use the scarf wrapped around my nose and mouth and clean the glass. It’s my second night at Adrika’s family slaughterhouse. After being introduced to the family by a “fixer“ the day before, I'd made the 45-minute drive from Ubud on my moto scooter. I had left at 11pm so I that I could be at the house with plenty of time before the scheduled 12:30 butchering, done at that hour so that a pig would be ready for the opening of the local market at 4:30am. I checked and re-checked google maps every twenty minutes to make sure I hadn't’t missed the small turnoff onto the narrow back road leading to the slaughterhouse. Everything looks different at night, and my mind kept playing tricks on me: I was convinced I’d overshot the turnoff, or that the turnoff didn’t exist at all, or that, upon arriving at the slaughterhouse, I would be relieved of all my possessions (best case) and/or and/or killed (worst case). Twice I was forced to swerve onto the dirt shoulder as large trucks passed, the dome lights illuminating forest, pushing my shadow out in front me. Part of me feels undeniably cool, squatting in a slaughterhouse shooting frame after frame as Adrika and his colleague butcher live pigs. But I’m also at a loss as to what drove me here. I am committed to shooting this story no matter what; but where that conviction came from and why it persists is a mystery to me.
Eating “good” food, from a nice restaurant to an alley food cart, is an important part of my life: of how I understand foreign cultures, of how I spend my time with friends, of how I interact with the world. Cooking is one of the few ways I know of turning off my brain for an hour or two, and most of my past birthdays have been spent over long meandering meals, either with family and friends or just as satisfyingly, alone. But like most Americans I don't know where my food comes from. Even when I cook, and eschew the convenience of the supermarket for a local stall on the road, I don't know where my food comes from. I don't know how vegetables are grown and how animals are treated.
I enjoy the challenge of “eating everything”, stomach be damned. Sheep brains sautéed in garlic, a delicacy in the middle east? Yes. Intestines slow cooked and served in an okra stew with a slimy texture that clings to the roof of your mouth? I'll have two bowls. But lately I’ve begun to feel a strange creeping sensation; a new, profound responsibility to know what my food is, how it came to be, and what my personal relationship to it is. Am I perpetuating the torture of animals? Is a farmer slightly more emboldened to stop using pesticides because he sees the financial incentives? Which direction does the needle inch towards with the money I spend on food? What if the needle doesn't really move at all? I can't possibly be absolved of accountability if my money has no real purchasing power in the grand scheme of things can I?
During Penampahan, one day before the culmination of Galungan, which lasts for 10 days in Hindu tradition and is celebrated throughout the Indonesian island of Bali, it is common for communities to come together, slaughter a pig, divide the pig among themselves, and then use the pork for offerings to the gods, as well as for special meals in the home. It is hard to drive down a road in Bali and not see a crowd gathered, watching a pig being butchered, waiting with anticipation for their share of the meat. One sees a playfulness during the butchering, of camaraderie, found in small communities around the world where towns are really just large extended families. Many of my friends took photos of the butchering, which is understandable. Something we don‘t see everyday. Something foreign. Something, if not beautiful, then perhaps soulful: people coming together, fraternizing, preparing for a holy day.
But how are pigs butchered on the other 364 days of the year?
Adrika, the grandson of the founder of the slaughterhouse, has the unglamorous job of waking up each day at midnight, slaughtering and butchering the pigs, and then getting a few hours of sleep before the sun starts to rise around six. He’s the youngest family member in the business, so it’s natural for him to have the shittiest job. His grandmother, by contrast, negotiates with buyers at the market, friends she’s been working with for years. I imagine them laughing and telling each other stories as they “haggle”, the price more or less set after decades of minor negotiations.
At 2:30am there is an eery stillness in this room. Adrika lights a cigarette and puts a pot of coffee on. Crickets chirp outside, and the last of the water used for hosing down the floor gurgles down the drain pipes. The smell of burnt hair fibers cling to my scarf, and as I take it off I realize I’ve sweat through my clothes. Adrika’s face reveals only the monotony of the night, and he seems wholly disinterested in anything other than the cigarette and boiling kettle. I want to stay. But it’s time to leave.