We Americans are private about using the toilet. It is not a group activity, and we don’t like to share the gory details. While I am able to vomit with dignity in front of my medical doctor spouse, I must have total privacy, with the door closed, when I am sitting on the toilet. Of course, in America, we have toilets. Not everyone does, as Albert and I discovered in China. In fact, as guidance for those who do not have indoor plumbing at home, Chinese public restrooms often have signs providing helpful direction such as, “Use this toilet only for pee; if you have to shit, please go to the restaurant on the corner.” Throughout our yearlong honeymoon, our uninvited companion Constipation led Albert and me to have daily discussions about our bowel activities, as if we were the parents of a newborn. “Did you have a delivery yet? What color? Did it sink or float? How many days has it been?” Always before leaving our hotel room, Dr. Albert would ask if I remembered to stash toilet tissues in my purse and on my person. After ten days touring China under polluted, slate grey skies, we flew to Lhasa, Tibet. From the air, the Himalaya peaks appeared like whipped cream topping on a pumpkin pie. The sky was pure blue. Heaven! We were so busy oohing and aahing at the landscape, we forgot to use the bathroom on the plane.
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Conquering the Tibetan Trough Part 2
On the ground, having collected our luggage, we met our hired guide, Tenzin, at the airport parking lot. As Tenzin draped Albert with a khata, a long white scarf that is the formal Tibetan welcome, Albert said, “Sorry, I have to go back and use the bathroom.” Except the guards would not let him reenter the terminal. So, during the forty-minute drive into Lhasa, Albert held it. As we pulled up in front of our 2-star hotel, Albert opened the car door well before we came to a stop and hurled himself toward the revolving doors, calling for directions to the bathroom. Moments later he reappeared with a look of indignation and said, “I’m not going to use that bathroom. You have to squat!” “I’ve been squatting for a week,” I replied. “You didn’t tell me,” he said. I shrugged: “Why should I?” So back to the lobby he went, and he used the squat toilet, returning completely disgusted by the experience. Thank goodness our room had a flushing commode. Too bad I didn’t use it before leaving the next morning for our first Lhasa tour. In the car, Tenzin explained that we’d be visiting the Drepung Monastery, founded in 1416, the same year Donatello sculpted his Saint George in Florence. This monastery was home to four Dalai Lamas. Before the Chinese occupation of 1959, it was the largest monastery in the world, housing 10,000 Buddhist monks. I pictured sleeping quarters filled with that many bunk beds, and it occurred to me there also must be plenty of bathrooms.
Our tour began at a row of brass prayer wheels set along a wall and protected by a low metal overhang from which fluttered rows of shiny red and green pleated cloth banners. Buddhist prayer wheels are cylinders held upright on wooden spindles and embossed with ancient script. Religious pilgrims spin the wheels with the right hand in a clockwise direction while walking and reciting the mantra “Om Mani Padma Hum” (“Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus”). Female pilgrims wore chubas—ankle-length sleeveless black wool dresses over long-sleeved shirts—with bangdans—colorfully striped aprons that hung to mid-calf, signifying they were married. The men wore Western-style jackets, pants and hats in tones of gray, black and brown, or the traditional zhuba—a knee-length robe belted at the waist over a long-sleeved shirt, vest and pants. Some carried wooden prayer beads and small prayer wheels. A street musician plucked a dramyin, the Tibetan lute, for donations. We didn’t spin the prayer wheels until we were alone, since we are not practicing Buddhists and did not want to offend. Albert and I exchanged awed glances as we touched the brass wheels. There we were, in Lhasa, Tibet, where the 14th Dalai Lama had fled under the cover of night on March 17, 1959, into exile, walking a path in our Keen’s that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had trodden in boots made of cow skin and wool. I had to go to the bathroom.
Up the hill, past the prayer wheels, I spied a small white plaster building with a flat roof. Men and women were exiting through separate doors. “I’ll be right back,” I told Tenzin. He replied with a shake of his head and a grin: “No, you don’t want to use that bathroom,” he said in English. But nature was really insistent. “I’m sure it’s fine,” I said, patting my pockets to show Albert that yes, I’d packed my tissues. Rushing into the women’s side of the building with hopes of immediate relief, I was choked by the stench of raw sewage. In front of me were three Tibetan women silently squatting side-by-side over a trough, eyes downcast, their skirts pooling around them. To my left, across the wet cement floor, I saw more of the foot-wide trough bisecting the room, filled with piles of human excrement and thick puddles of urine. Behind the trough, diarrhea spattered the walls. Curiously, I did not see a shred of toilet tissue in the trough, and there were no dispensers.
I froze. There was nothing to hold onto, and I didn’t know if my thighs had the strength to maintain a five-minute squat. Touching the wall for support would be out of the question. I was afraid I might slip, stumble or slide into the trough, or that my precious parts might hover over something repulsive.
Discretely my gaze returned to my trough-mates. There was no toilet paper in their hands. Did their clothes contain residue from each potty stop? Or did they drip-dry, or wipe with a hand? And then what? A flick of the wrist? There was no running water for hand washing. In dismay, I imagined the same hands preparing food or caressing a baby’s face and almost threw up, thanks to my Western ideals of personal hygiene. I decided to straddle the trough instead of standing with my heels at the edge and extending my backside the way the other women were doing, for fear of losing my balance. I took the tissues out of my pocket and readied them for use in my right hand, while unzipping my pants with the left, and also rolling up the hems above my ankles so they wouldn’t touch the soppy floor. Then I pulled my pants down to the knees and squatted into action. I looked straight ahead at the wall, and, with just an ounce of pride, congratulated myself for overcoming my initial revulsion.
Tenzin had said that many of the Tibetan pilgrims at the monastery came from remote areas where they had never seen white-skinned foreigners. This came to mind when I suddenly began to feel self-conscious. In mid-poop, I looked over my left shoulder and into the three faces of the women from whom I’d taken squatting lessons. Their eyes did not meet mine because they were staring at my bare white bottom. “Now I know why they wear long dresses,” I thought. “Built-in privacy.”
Thoroughly humiliated but happy for my handful of tissues, I wiped. Then I zipped and buttoned, patted my hair into place, held my head up high, and followed the three long black skirts out of the bathroom and into the fresh air. Only later, when we were alone, did I describe the experience to Albert. He was astonished that I hadn’t complained.