Traveling in India: Toilet Terrors

Ancient Greeks had it rough but not that rough.

I have had some pretty interesting toilet adventures when traveling. Mexico City didn’t flush their toilet paper but had open garbage cans beside the toilet for people to put the soiled pieces into, which was especially disgusting. Singapore required you to squat in the right direction and if you didn’t flush they would fine you. Britain used something akin to parchment paper with the absorbency of stone. But India was perhaps the place where I experienced the most travails. I was there for two months and on top of that, contracting dysentery meant I had many intimate moments in the can.

Toilets (or ditches, troughs, or trenches) could always be found but if you’re of a culture used to sitting, the other style can be a challenge. Squatting is something that takes more work if you don’t continue to do it from childhood. The muscles and tendons shorten and it’s not as easy to even achieve a full squat without having the feet jutting out at 45 degree angles. In Nepal, while on the bus, we’d pass people on the side of the road, just squatting right down, arms wrapped about their knees and doing their business, watching the cars go by. I presume they used their hands to wipe as they do in some Arab countries but I never asked. And after seeing one man walking along and blowing a booger into his hand and then flinging it, I didn’t want to know, nor shake anyone’s hands.

On one trip, there was a little shack where they served up rice and dhal bat (some sort of lentil stew that I can’t eat because of food sensitivities.  Behind that brick shack was an old piece of cloth over a very short vestibule. At the back of this was a thin culvert (about six inches wide) of water running through. You squatted over that culvert of water and did your business. Toilet paper isn’t something the locals use and they probably shake their heads at our finicky ways.

My time in Meghalaya was fine since every home had flush toilets with seats and the Khasis tend not to squat at home though I’m sure they’re used to the squat version too. By the time I made to Delhi I was desperately sick with dysentery. I didn’t know if I would puke or have diarrhea or both at the same time. The worst version of toilet is the one that combines the squat with the Western style. These were porcelain toilets with no seats that people squatted over. It’s much easier to squat full to the ground, than halfway as if you’re skiing. And if you’ve ever been so sick that you just want to lay on the floor and hang onto the toilet, well, there was no way to do that with this style of toilet. The floors were filthy with everything including the grunge from using a toilet. And the porcelain rim, without seat was just as mucky. What to do (as they said in India). Try being steady when you feel like fainting and vomiting into the fecal void. I hated this toilet style most of all.

The most adventuresome one was taking a train from Delhi (it might have been Varanasi) to Calcutta. It’s a long train ride and eventually you’re probably going to have to use the toilet. I waited as long as I could, partly because I didn’t want to leave my pack alone. But eventually I had to go. I wore long skirts a fair deal in India because they were cooler and because it was culturally more acceptable. On the train, the toilet is only a hole in the ground, where you can watch the tracks shooting by beneath. In fact, you’d never want to walk along the tracks there because everyone defecates onto the tracks. I can’t imagine it being pleasant at all.

So here I am in this darkish metal box, bunching my skirt up about my thighs and squatting down. What does a train do when it moves? It rocks, so there was a bar to hang onto. But being a Western person I also used toilet paper. One hand is holding up my clothing, one is hanging on to the bar. How do you wipe yourself? It took some judicious bunching of fabric and balance. My fear was I’d fall onto the disgusting floor and contract a disease.

But I managed. And I brought my own toilet paper know it’s not something used by all cultures and it’s a good thing I did or I would have been using my hands. And after seeing the Ganges River, with ashes from the burning ghats, dead cows, marigolds, people washing clothes, themselves and doing spiritual ablutions, there was no way I was going to touch the water. I was raised in the cushy Western society and I’m not used to other styles of toilets. But if I had grown up in Asia  I would probably sport a limberness that aid me in other ways. I still wonder what happens when a person gets too old and rickety to squat though.

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