Sunday, April 5, 2009

Toilet Talk

Its the post you've all been waiting for! Time to scoop the poop about doing your business in India.

(I realize not everyone is as interested in this as I am, but for those of you who are coming to visit us, or to visit India in general, this may prove to be vital information. Despite my husband's best efforts and an illustrated packet from the Center for South Asia, I was still woefully unprepared for the toilet situation I encountered here.)

(Also, for those of you with more delicate, sophisticated sensibilities, be forewarned that I am going to be a bit flip, a lot frank and perhaps just plain gross. You may want to move on to another post, or another website.)

(Still with me? Then Nature calls and away we go!)

There are two types of toilet in India - Western and Squat. For the uninitiated, behold, a standard squat toilet:

Western toilets here are pretty much the same as you'd see at home, but there are a few things to keep in mind as you approach one in India. First, there may not be toilet paper. Many folks use water and their left hand to clean up so you may notice a small plastic pitcher and water source (spigot or bucket) near the toilet instead of TP. Second, in public places Western toilets are often even filthier than Squats so you'd want to "hover" over the seat, making the Squat toilet ultimately the better choice. Last, some places have hybrid toilets:
which allow users to choose either to sit or squat. If you want to sit, make sure the seat is down, and for squatting, the opposite. Should you find a clean, well-supplied Western toilet, by all means carry on. I'm going to trust you know how to handle that.

Squat toilets are where the real excitement begins. Depending on where you are in India they may be nearly universal of thankfully few and far between. But unless you're travelling first class all the way you are likely to run into at least a couple of situations in which using a Squat is your only option.

All Squats have a place to put your feet, on either side of some sort of hole. The toilet is often ceramic and either flush with the bathroom floor or else raised a bit. Some have a toilet tank attached so you push the handle and it clears whatever needs to be cleared. If there is no tank you must "flush" it yourself by pouring sufficent water down the toilet to clear what needs clearing.

Proper positioning is the key to sucessful Squat toilet use. You must crouch down all the way, getting your rear end as close as possible to your ankles and the ground. Ideally your heels will be flat on the floor. The lower the better - going low will keep your unmentionables and your shoes clean and dry, and will improve your aim. These gentlemen exemplify good squatting position - feet flat, rear end very near the ground:

Men squatting.  Wangfujing Ave.

On the other hand, homeboy below is going to be in trouble if he squats like this. Aim is all wrong (the shoes!) and this position is really hard on your knees, leg muscles and feet. Also very unstable and you don't want to have to reach out to steady yourself on the floor of an Indian bathroom.

Once in your squat it is a good idea to bunch up your pants, etc, around your ankles and hold them up and out, away from the action. With your heels flat on the floor try angling yourself forward a bit too - sticking your read end out. Now you're ready to get down to business.

(Don't be surprised if you have a bit of stage fright - this is a new skill you're attempting!)

Using toilet paper in a Squat is not recommended. The force of the flush (tank or bucket) will likely not be forceful enough to adequately clear the paper, nor will the pipes be big enough to accomodate it. And so instead you must learn the Left Hand Rinse. After you're all done, with your right hand, pour water from a pitcher (see above) down your very low back, at the base of your spine. It should flow down over the parts that need cleaning. Wipe said parts with your left hand. For bonus points and extra cleanliness, pour and wipe at the same time. Repeat as needed. (You'll be able to tell when you've gotten the job done.)

(Note to lefties: Your kind are scarce in the Lands of the Squat, and now you know why. I leave it to you to weigh the pros and cons of trying to do the Left Hand Rinse the other way around...)

Afterwards you'll be wet. (Hopefully just the business parts, but until you get the hang of the rinse, you may have some undesired splashing.) No idea what you can really do about that. Maybe just take comfort in the knowledge that lots of other people are probably also a bit drippy? India is usually hot - you'll dry soon enough.

Do I need to mention that handwashing is a must? And do you still think me neurotic for carrying hand sanitizer everywhere?

India vets allege that with just a little practice squatting becomes easy and even preferable. I'm not there yet and doubt I ever will be. I love my Western toilet, thank you very much. And yet we all quickly reached the point where we could do what had to be done, when it had to be.

Its funny - my kids always run home to use our Western toilet when playing at a friend's house who has a Squat, and vice versa. The Indian kids try their best not to have to use our freaky Western toilets!

If you are planning a trip to India (and you know you don't have the budge to avoid Squats at all times) you really should practice at home. For most Westerners squatting is uncomfortable because we never do it. Your muscles will need to stretch and strengthen in new ways. If you are a bit squeamish about the Left Hand Rinse please try to practice that in the comfort of your own clean, good-smelling American bathroom, at your own leisure. Its pretty rough to try to figure it out in the trenches.

Don't let all this scare you off. A squat here and there and a few drip-dries never killed anyone. And there are certainly enough Western toilets around (in most tourist places anyhow) that you'll almost always be able to find one when you need one. And if for some reason you must squat, just focus on the excellent quad toning.

(And don't forget the hand sanitizer!)


Lynch Family said...

We are enlightened! Great to hear about every day life--everything!

Grandpa George said...

This is very informative. Chris did not educate me before my visit, and I suppose it is not so easy to lecture your dad on pooping practices (although I was quite involved in his potty training 32 years ago!). So I had some uneasy moments not knowing what to do, and I'm sure I made some honest mistakes and offended some Indian (crazy, gross westerners!).

As I grow older and sometimes seek the handicap access toilets with their higher seats and/or handrails, I think that we Americans could probably learn from having to squat longer into our old age--might enhance and lengthen the time of our ADL capacity/proficiency.

Anyway, Maggie, this was delightful. It brings together two things I have always prized--education and non-squamishness about basic bodily functions.

BTW, I forgot to tell you how much I loved the Harper's index style Haskett index on Hasketts and Pune. You know how much I like disaggregating stats.

Grandpa George said...

This is Grandma Ginny, under the flag of Grandpa George, because I don't understand how to get my own identity to work here. Sus understands it, but she's never available when I want to post.

Unlike Grandpa G., I am ordinarily prudish about conversations about basic bodily functions, but like Grandpa G., I enjoyed the toilet post. And I just want to add, as an encouragement to possible visitors, that I managed eight days in Benares without using a squat toilet. That was mostly because we were usually in places where Hasketts had trod before, and Hasketts keep good mental notes on the location and condition of Western toilets.

Anonymous said...

This is TOO funny and ohso true. I had forgotten about the hybrid toilet. One must be flexible to step up to the plate,as it were.

I was always so happy to find the ceramic/flush/Squat toilet. It was like heaven after holes in the ground. Or heaven forbid the train toilets! Nothing like riding the rails whilst within squatting view of said rails.

I can't stop laughing at this post. I am getting the squat thing...I don't think I ever managed to get low to the ground and there for "ran" into problems. I do have a more question for you in terms of bunching one's knickers, but I think I"ll email you for that!

And the water thing. So everyone just is a bit wet. Hmmmm. That would be so annoying! I've got sensory issues,man! And I"m also thinking of all the times there was NO place to wash my hands!! Hence, I see, the sanitizer.

I can see the sense in practicing ahead of time. That was where I went wrong before....

Wonderful and enlightening post!