Loo and behold

Sunday, 3 February 2013 - 7:00am IST Updated: Saturday, 2 February 2013 - 10:37pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
In the middle of the pristine, wind-whipped Tibetan landscape, Colleen Braganza rose above petty concerns like bushes, boulders and port-a-potties. This is her story.
  • Sudhir Shetty DNA

I achieved loo nirvana three years ago in Tibet.

This simply means that I have been released from the burden of expecting and worrying about finding clean loos when I travel. To put it simply: I have been to loo hell and back. After that, everything else is an improvement. I am therefore free of the inevitable disappointment that such an expectation entails.

Let me explain. Like all travellers of the female species, prior to 2009, I was obsessed with finding clean loos when travelling. Men will not understand this since all they have to do is unzip and let it flow. Women need supporting infrastructure: a rock, a few withered shrubs, a makeshift curtain, clean toilets with running water, fresh towels, toilet paper, liquid soap, an exhaust fan and, if possible, a free back massage.

During my childhood, as part of a travelling Army entourage (Dad was in the Indian Army), loos materialised in minutes no matter where we were. There were always two smart green tents: one for ladies, one for gents. Inside, you’d have mirrors for those who wanted to freshen up and chairs for those who had to wait. Sometimes, you ‘went’ in a pit surrounded by tarpaulin so that you did not muddy your shoes. A few enterprising units even installed western commodes. Those were the good days and I thought that was the way of the world.

Sadly, it isn’t. During my mid-teens, a trip back from Mussoorie with friends led to the realisation that loos on the road are more rare than diamonds. No one but me seemed to want to “go” and it didn’t help that the Dehradun-Delhi road didn’t have much loo infrastructure and I was too shy to fertilise the roadside.

Then in 2009, everything changed when I went to Tibet, lost all inhibition of “going” in the great outdoors and attained loo nirvana. Female travellers in India are usually mentally prepared to “go” outside and rely upon the presence of a bush or boulder. But in Tibet, we female travellers found ourselves in a strange predicament. Vast stretches of absolutely flat land without any protective rocks or plants lay all around us. So we hunted for a depression in the land or would walk away from the rest of the 150-strong contingent to escape the all-pervading male gaze. (The men had no hesitation in following us with their eyes wherever we went.)

It’s no wonder that by the end of the 16-day trip, we women were seasoned veterans of “going” outdoors. In fact, we were so used to peeing outdoors that I was ready to pee near the trusty Land Cruiser we were in as soon as we stopped. “You want to see my ass? Here it is,” I figured. It helped that I didn’t expect to see most of the people I was with ever again.

But this was only a prelude to the actual gift of the trip to Tibet. For it was there that I discovered the dry loo, a specialty in high-altitude areas where water is scarce.

Imagine a small room of about 10x10 feet. Imagine another room on top of it. Now imagine an Indian-toilet sized rectangle cut into the floor of the top room. And then imagine a five foot-high or more pile of s*** in the room below. You ‘go’ on top, it collects at the bottom. Welcome to the dry toilet. If you’re scratching your head to figure out how this works, let me enlighten you. Windows in the lower room allow Tibet’s ferociously strong winds in, and these dry the discharge. Sounds good in theory until you imagine getting ready to use the first floor loo when a gust of wind rushes through below. Because that’s when the dried and accumulated years-worth of s***, can rush up to the first floor to engulf you, the dismayed traveller, with a dust and smell you simply do not want to think about… even now.

And then imagine not having a bath for seven days after that because you are in a high-altitude desert and can only bathe once you return to civilization.Nothing beats that experience.

So now, I may be at the seediest bar in the country, but when I need to go to the loo and I ask my colleagues if the loo is clean, it’s just a formality. Can it be as bad as the dry loo experience? No, it can’t. Similarly, when I’m on the road, like in the Nubra Valley in Ladakh, I don’t worry about clean loos or look for boulders. Port-a-cabin? Excellent! Behind a boulder? Even better! On the side of the road? Watch me do it! In fact, now I want to get off at every possible loo stop to see if it gets any worse than what I have been through. And the answer is always no, no and no. If this isn’t a state of nirvana, what is?

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