“Let’s talk about your bowel movements for a moment.”
When one arrives in India, a fine line is appropriately drawn, quite quickly, between how to decide when it is at certain points of the day that you need to start searching the streets for a toilet with time to spare, and when it is that you have absolutely no time to waste from a sudden gurgle down below and you need a bathroom ASAP. In our western society we are surrounded by sparkling clean wash rooms with toilets that flush so fluently and there is no need to think about toilet paper because it is always just there, awaiting our arrival, a trusty comfort side kick.
However, in India it is quite the contrary. As well as thinking about what day trips you will be taking and how to eat accordingly for that day, you also have a constant fear that the toilet paper you carry in your bag may be lesser than you thought at the time you need it most.
When travelling long distances or sharing dorms, without even realising it, your brain scrolls through the most dauntingly embarrassing experiences you could be exposed to. Your self-dignity scales from the highest form of normality to a sky rocketing all time non-existent low.
Once greeted in the morning by fellow backpackers, conversations are usually followed by, “So how’s your bowel movements today? Anything solid yet?” Or “I had chronic lower stomach pains last night I feel like I finally know what it must be like for women with menstrual cramps/women in labour”.
The last statement obviously comes from men with stomach issues who think that the never-ending, all star, inconsistent tummy patterns they share with every other westerner in India can compare to a woman with her period or a woman in labour. Yeah well… I haven’t given birth, but I have had many a menstrual cramps so I’ll take one for all the women out there and say that, although the pain we all feel in our lower abdomen when exploring India is intense, it just ain’t quite the same as pushing out a baby.
Before entering India myself I thought about the worldly subjects I would discuss with people, about the common interests I would share with the wonderful like-minded travellers I would come across each day… Little did I know that the most common interests shared amongst all, and the largest dominating discussion throughout each day,would be about not only MY bowel movements, but about all of those peoples’ I met too. A topic not usually discussed so openly, becomes the main focal point whilst siping your chai in the morning light.
I have been dating my boyfriend for 1 year now. We were living with each other within 4 months of being together, all the while we had non-intentionally, but happily avoided being within hearing, smelling and seeing range of each others time behind the bathroom door.
It was inevitable, that once we entered the world of Delhi-belly, dirty water, extreme curries and un-adulterated, ruthlessly grubby bathrooms that the clock was to strike midnight and the spell of hiding our toilet runs with a silent walk from the couch to the bathroom was to break.
Didn’t take long… Though, our first week in India, I did find a way to differ the inevitable and lead my boyfriend astray for a little while longer. It gave us a little more time to examine the little mystery that was left between us, but it was sure to falter at any given moment.
The time had come after a week in Thailand and our first curry in India for me to run to the toilet with dramatic force for fear of not making it in time. I turned to Zac who was reading on the bed and spoke rather abruptly; “Darling, I uh, I just have to go… See the unicorns.” And so began my explanation for each time I would run to the bathroom. The unicorns in the fields need tending to a few times a day. Though I continue to use this phrase when using the facilities, I think he may have caught on to what is really happening behind closed doors.
A couple of weeks back me and a few friends sat at a railway station late at night, awaiting our overnight train to a new destination. As we sat and discussed the raw tenderness of our stomach motions, I listened to people’s stories and realised that the worst was yet to come.
I’ve heard of bad luck, but damn. I mean, a know a girl who had to take an overnight bus, then an over night train all in 48 hours and as she sat and settled into her seat for her long bus ride she heard a grunt and a gurgle and knew that this was just the beginning of a transport trip she would wish she could forget. Awaking in the middle of the night, running up to the front bus door and pleading the driver to pull over right then and there, resulting in her only having enough time to jump off the bus, pull down her pants, and shit in front of the bus driver and all those who had awoken from their sleep and were peering out their window in the middle of the night, was just the beginning of her story. By the end of it she had pulled over the bus several times to shit on the side of the road, emptied out her tote bag to throw up in it as she was too late to even open the window and expel her issue that way, and ruined a perfectly good scarf she owned because she had run out of toilet paper.
So we went around the circle and each foreigner had similar horror stories of toilet mishaps.
While discussing this I noticed one of the travelers I was with turning a little pale. It came to the point where he stood up and said through gritted teeth that he needed to find a toilet. The bathrooms in Indias railway stations are that of the worst and I avoid them at all costs, but when you gotta go, you gotta go.
The poor guy left us with a toilet roll in his sweating hands, running up a staircase in search of the right direction. He came back to us 20 minutes later with a smirk of shame across his face.
“I can’t believe it, after all that talk. I was so close but I… I… I didn’t make it.”
Nope. Right before wobbling into the cubicle his bowels caved in and that was that. He had joined his right of passage to the others in the group. And he came back one pair of boxer shorts down.
“A right of passage to those who travel india.” They tell me. So I wait patiently. Each time my tummy gurgles I think today just may be the day, toilet paper at the ready. Because whilst my bowel movements have in themselves been up and down like a roller coaster since entering India, I have not yet soiled myself, resorted to squatting on the side of the street, or used my own personal belongings as a bucket to vomit in.
But as they say, tomorrow is a new day, and you never know when the vegetables in a dish you eat may or may not have been washed with tap water, or perhaps a monkey high up in a tree will decide to wee right on top of where you stand, and you forget to wash your hands before your next meal.
You may just encounter a friendly foreign parasite who will choose you as an outlet to home himself, or perhaps an Indian selling water on the side of the street who swears the bottles aren’t just “taped closed” but then somehow after drinking it you are injested with some new, fun and playful bacteria, ready to stir things up.
However it happens, it’s bound to leap into your life for a fun 24 hours, maybe longer, maybe less.
Before getting on one of my first really long train trips in India, I told an Aussie backpacker, a now, dear friend of mine, how I had bought a huge bunch of bananas so as not to eat anything else but that. I didn’t trust the steaming hot samosas that pass through the train hallways at each stop, or the rice biriyani that after 7 hours of eating only bananas smells like a field of fresh coriander. Avoiding these foods is a way, I thought, to avoid an upset stomach on a 18 hour railway trip, on a train that has never been cleaned in its lifetime.
She looked at me and laughed. “Oh no, eat girl! That’s the best part of any train ride. Each time they bring around food you peek your head out so excited for what might be passing you by!”
Is it a papadum? Packets of cookies? Maybe a plate of chapathis with curry sealed in a plastic bag?
“The toilets on the train and by the railways may be some of the worst, but the food, is some of the best!” She told me.
I looked at her reluctantly, she seemed like a relatively responsible traveler. I guess I could trust her judgement.
It didn’t matter either way. Now, 2 hours into any train trip I take, and due half to boredom half to starving myself for the day so as not to risk getting an upset stomach, the samosas come round and I’m ready to order 6 of them. Because when it comes down to it, travelers in India will usually look at their food, think “hmm, I have an inkling this might make me very sick…” Then continue on with eating every last crumb.
Our love of food conquers over our fear of future undie changes.
And damn straight, after all, in India you’re bound to shit your pants sooner or later, may as well sit back and embrace it.