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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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What’s in a Name: Toilet Paper

The other day I went to Safeway to buy toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper; teepee, ass wipe, etc. Most people I know call it toilet paper. Don’t you?

Now I know that Canadians (or Americans, depending on perspective) have different or odd names for things. How many times did I get confused looks in Seattle when I asked for a washroom? “You mean to do laundry?” No, to go pee. Restroom, bathroom, water closet, WC. In past eras houses had two rooms, one with the toilet, the water closet (WC), and the tub in the other. They may have started first with wash basins and then moved to sinks. So…bathroom and washroom? Except that the room with the tub had the sink too. Friends of mine have renovated their old house to have a sink in each room.

So, we’ve established there’s some confusion on what to call the rooms that we get rid of waste and dirt in. But in Safeway, what do you suppose they call toilet paper in the row with paper towels and tissues? They call it bath tissues. Bath tissues.  Geeze. Am I supposed to get out of the bath or shower and do a cheap remake of the mummy, drying myself off on swaths of toilet paper? It would make the paper companies happy I’m sure. But then I’d be picking little bits off of my body and find leftovers in odd places and be sweeping it from the floor for a billion years, or until the next shower. 

Sure, one can argue that toilet paper isn’t any more accurate because you don’t wipe the toilet with it and it’s not paper. It’s finer than paper and tissue like. Toilet tissue? But you do drop it in the toilet. So maybe in the way that advertising never has, we should name things exactly for what they are. Crap catchers, bum wipes, crotch cleaners. Wouldn’t you love to see a Safeway aisle with those names. Slang does have its purpose.

Yet, such terms would be offensive to many, though probably get smiles from others. So we come up with the euphemism, bath tissues, as far away from toilet paper as possible yet all in the same room, the bathroom. Some new houses have gone back to those split rooms, finding it more convenient to have the shower/bath separated from the toilet. And many houses will have just a toilet (WC) off of the living room or kitchen.

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Musings From Tibet I

I first posted July 16, 2007 on my Blogspot blog. I want to make clear that I do not know Angela McDonald. She posted this on a list I was on to do with things nomadic. I asked her permission to post elsewhere. With some of the discussion on my piece “There is No God” I mentioned maybe the Tibetans were the only people that were ruled by a benevolent religion. That got some discussion going that there have been discussions to the contrary.

Unfortunately, I worry some on how much of that might be Chinese propaganda. I then stated that Tibetans ruled by Tibetans (and not Chinese) would probably be less oppressive and who knows as the Dalai Lama has never had a chance to rule since he was a young man. And the guy has won a Nobel Peace Prize and really does have some good and insightful philosophies. But it’s conjecture.

I give you one Westerner’s view of Tibet while living there.  Angela McDonald has spent quite a lot of time living with people in Tibet and teaching English to the monks. She sent it July 7th. This is one of three parts. (I have corrected typos.)

Back in India, and happy to be home. Again here with my friends, people who speak English, and of course, my beloved cows. It was very difficult to leave Tibet, but at the same time, in some ways I was ready to leave. I loved it there very much, but I’ll admit that it was a very intense experience, and after 3months, I was feeling the need to go some place relaxing to recuperate a bit.

Before I left Tibet, Jinpa and I traveled around for about a week before finally arriving in Beijing where I flew to Delhi. It was a lot of fun, Jinpa is great. We went to a few different places in Tibet, then into China. Poor Jinpa, it was difficult for him to travel with  me in Tibet because as a monk, it’s not exactly socially acceptable for him to be wandering around alone with a woman (as the most common way for monks to stop being monks and become lay people is to have sex). Especially since he had taken off his monk robes to avoid extra attention from police (or other people for that matter). We did run into a friend of his from Labrang monastery one time. His friend looked at Jinpa, then looked at me, and then got a very concerned look on his face and whispered to Jinpa, “Are you still a monk?” Jinpa laughed and assured him that he was. I’m hoping that no rumors circulated in Labrang about that. Oh, the scandals I create…… 😉

I’m glad that I got to travel around Tibet at least a little. I think my favorite place was Rekong. It is known as the art capitol of Tibet (and I really love art as many of you know), and the monasteries were just incredible. The landscape was also wonderful as the mountains were filled with forests and rivers, so it looked a lot like Oregon and Dharamshala. Made me feel a bit homesick. Labrang is beautiful, but its basically all grasslands, there are very few trees.

We also went to Kumbum monastery which, though beautiful, was actually rather depressing. It was once one of the greatest monasteries in Tibet, but now it is only a Chinese tourist attraction. There is very little monastic activity there. The monks didn’t even really speak Tibetan, they mostly just spoke Chinese. I asked Jinpa what language they taught Buddhism in at that monastery and he looked at me strange and said “Tibetan of course!” But when I pointed out to him that the monks barely spoke Tibetan he leaned down to me and whispered “The monks at this monastery don’t really know much about Buddhism anymore.” Almost all of the monasteries in Tibet were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (I saw ruins of them all over Tibet), but the Chinese are actually allowing them to be rebuilt now, mostly for tourist purposes. They are still trying to restrict monastic activity by putting limits on the number of monks admitted, imprisoning and intimidating many monks, not allowing certain teachings, etc. but they discovered that they could make money on the tourism from the monasteries so they are allowing them to be partially rebuilt. It’s very strange, and makes me really sad to see. Also, in many of the monasteries the tour guides are Chinese (not in Labrang monastery, the tour guides there are all monks, including Jinpa) who don’t really know much about Buddhism or the monasteries, but instead just make things up to tell the tourists. Jinpa listened to the tour guides as we went to different places and many times I heard him whispering under his breath “That’s not true.” I was amazed to see just how much the Tibetan culture was perverted and changed by Chinese influence. It was really difficult to see…..

It was hard to pry myself away from Tibet. Saying goodbye to Mother and Father in Labrang was really difficult, then having to say goodbye to Jinpa in Beijing was hard again. But I am confident that I will be back there again. Jinpa and I are plotting to get me back there next year to really study Tibetan language, and he and I have several projects we want to do together (teaching English, writing books, etc.) when I return. So many things to do…..

And now back to India! The first few days here were strange, there is always a little culture shock when I switch countries. I had to get used to things like running water, toilets, pants, answering to the name Angela, and eating good food again. It’s been nice, but I still find myself occasionally in the market looking around for a field to pee in. Then I remember where I am and instead I just go to a bathroom. Weird…..

I’m still basking in the small glories of life such as toilet paper (but I still find myself rationing it ands tucking napkins in my pockets at restaurants), showers, tampons, people who speak English, peanut butter, etc. But things like tsampa, yogurt, and milk are really disappointing now. You win some, you lose some. But it’s funny how much you appreciate small things like these after you go without them for so long.

I’ve had bad luck on weather. When I left India in April it had just fully turned into summer and was hot, sunny, and absolutely beautiful. Then I went to Tibet and it was snowing. It continued to snow off and on in Tibet until I left, and when I got back to India, the monsoon season had started. It’s still nice and warm here, but there is torrential rain every day (and lots of awesome thunderstorms) which means that everything is in a constant state of dampness. Everything in our house is completely moldy yet again,and the cement walls are literally deteriorating from it. There is not much point in doing laundry as it takes about 4 days for anything to dry, and at that point it is also moldy. If you make laundry a 24-hour job for a few days you can get it done quicker, but that means taking laundry in and out of the house (and hanging it on the line outside) every couple hours between the rains. We’re to busy for that, so I’m just getting used to everything smelling like mold.

As soon as I came back, I was practically mobbed by my friends who were anxiously awaiting news and pictures of their families. It’s been fun to show everyone pictures of Labrang, and especially of their families, as many of them have not seen pictures of their families for many many years. All of Shedhe’s cousins came up the day after I arrived and they were practically bouncing up and down when they saw me. It was very cute. I had so many things to bring here that when I left Labrang I left most of my clothes there and just packed my bags to the brim with all the things for people here. I must have been quite a sight getting into the airport, I probably looked like an overburdened animal (I’d say a loaded yak, but I don’t have a big wood ring through my septum and really I’m just not quite that big).

Yesterday was the 73rd birthday of  H.H. The Dalai Lama, and there was a big celebration at the temple. Shedhe got me to dress up in the fancy nomadic clothing that his mother sent with me from Tibet, so I again became a blonde haired, blue eyed Tibetan nomad walking through the streets of India. Always an odd sight. But it was fun to wear a chupa again, though I didn’t wear it for long as that thing is made of wool and it’s hot here! Today, the Dalai Lama started a 7-day teaching which is wonderful as always. I love being here for his teachings and getting to see him. Never experienced anything else like it, I feel very blessed to have this opportunity.
All in all things here are good. Getting settled back in, and having a good time relaxing. Of course, it didn’t take me long to pick up new students, and as soon as the teachings are finished I’ll start studying Tibetan language and Thangka painting again I hope. There are just to many things here to learn, I feel like a kid in a candy shop…..

Take care, Angela

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Dark and Scary: Bathrooms

Restaurateurs, wherever you are, learn this lesson. No matter how dreamy, retro, romantic, funky or sporty your restaurant, pub or lounge, one thing you do not want ever, and I mean ever, is a dark and scary bathroom.

Maybe guys like pissing in the dark, though I doubt it because their aim is never that good, but women really don’t.

When I was a teenager, in high school, the janitors went on strike. I didn’t have the opportunity to see what state the boys’ bathroom ended up in but reports were the girls’ was the worst. And it was more disgusting than a pigsty, which really is just pigs wallowing in mud (and maybe some other organic matter). The girls stopped short of wiping their butts and throwing it on the floor but used tampons and sanitary napkins were spread far and wide.

It was truly appalling. In our me-me-me culture, women are as bad as men. There are those women who don’ t like to sit on a toilet seat because of germs or because someone sprinkled on the seat, so they squat above. Some also come from cultures where squat toilets are the norm. However, some of these squatters spray everywhere because there is a larger space in which their non-aim can go. Unlike guys, we don’t have a hose to direct.

I think half of these people leave the bathroom stall, having flushed, but not wiping the seat, because they didn’t touch it, or they don’t care and are ignorant of other people’s use. Sometimes it is the toilet’s fault where the water splashes up when the toilet is flushed.  In either case, I tend to check and wipe the seat before I leave. After all, I try to leave the toilet how I would like to have it found.

When I enter any sort of public/restaurant bathroom, I always check for toilet paper and then put some down on the seat. The few times I haven’t checked, thinking I’m safe I’ve had the misfortune of sitting in a wet spot and there is nothing more disgusting than sitting in another person’s urine. Ick!

So bright lights for the toilets are tantamount. Romantic mood lighting doesn’t help there, nor when a woman is trying to fix her make-up. Glaringly bright fluorescents that give people green-tinged skin and makes them look like zombies is not optimal but I would take it over the dark and scary toilet.

One of the worst in Vancouver, is Waazubee’s on Commercial. It’s cramped with dark blue walls, doors that rarely close right and just too dark. Time for a reno, Bennie.

Of course the scariest toilets were when I was in Asia. Singapore had modern, flush toilets, but they were squat toilets. There was a hole in the floor (porcelain, mind you) with metal footprints on either side showing you where to put your feet, as well as which direction to face (it wasn’t always easy to tell). Being a big of a benevolent tyranny, they also had very large signs posted about the fines people would receive for not flushing. It was something like $50-100.

That was the luxury in the predominantly Asian squat  toilet. Some were a horrific combo, such as the porcelain bowl, absolutely filthy and stained, but with no seat. You had to squat halfway and that was harder than squatting to the floor. And try it with dysentery, not sure if you’re going to puke or have diarrhea or both. Yeah, that was way too much fun.

Then there was the long, unlit tunnel behind some ramshackle cinder block and brick building. You ducked and duckwalked in, past a tattered sheet hung on a string, and squatted over a runnel with some water trickling through. Fetid does not describe the odor in the hot Indian sun.

The experience of using a squat toilet on the Indian trains was something else. There was a bar to hang onto as you watched the tracks beneath the hole. As well, you’re swaying to and fro, which helps little with hitting that hole. Imagine trying to hold a skirt up, squatting and hanging on and then having to use toilet paper. That was a very interesting problem.

In Mexico City the toilets were usually brightly lit but few of them flushed. This wasn’t long after a big earthquake and their water table is notoriously low. If you didn’t bring your own toilet paper you had to pay some matronly senora for paper, by the square. But the worst was that because the toilets weren’t flushing, you did your business in them but put all paper in an open garbage can beside them. Imagine the smell in the heat of Mexican summer. Not exactly pleasant, and very very disgusting.

So, in retrospect a dark restaurant bathroom may be paradise but a lot of them could improve. The Japanese and some other European countries are big on bidets that wash and blow dry your nether regions. No paper is used and considering the number of trees we kill for toilet paper, it’s not a bad solution. In India they didn’t always use toilet paper either, or water. That’s why it was important to always always carry your own.

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