April 19, 2011

Toilet Tribute

While talking with people after returning home from our travels, most found a way to politely ask about the state of our bowels during our time in India.  Among the more round about questions included “how was your health?”  and “did you have any problems…you know…with your stomach?”.  The most direct question came from a Portuguese cousin upon our return that roughly translates to, “so, how many times did you get the runs?”

These questions always bring up memories we had tried to push out of our minds.  Panic rises in our stomachs as we fearfully look around for the nearest restroom, sighing in relief as we realize we’re no longer actually in India, and a toilet is just down the hall. 

Of course we had stomach problems - show me someone who visited and left India without some sort of stomach emergency, and I’ll show you someone who did not experience India properly.   So, we quickly learned that since you’re going to have a dodgy stomach – you have no choice, it’s India!- do so within a couple kilometers of a five star hotel.  Try to find the hotels that cater to the really rich; those who are oblivious to the irony of going to India to stay somewhere that makes them feel like they never left home.  These places are an oasis of comfort and luxury as children stand begging two blocks away, covered in dirt. 

Enter the lobby, walk past the guests who visit the major sights in air conditioned vehicles, who take tours of the beautiful parts of the city, then return back to the hotel and take the elevator to their rooms that cost the same amount that it would take to feed about 100 of those hungry children for a month.  Take advantage of the presence of these types of tourists and vacationers.  Learn to see these hotels as the god-send that they are when that bad curry calls for an emergency evacuation. 

I broke the cardinal rule of traveling one morning in Mumbai – I drank the water in the form of ice in a questionable drink.  Bad decision and bad luck, but thankfully, I had the good fortune to feel the effects right in front of the gorgeous Taj Hotel, whose lobby contains the most luxurious semi-public (for those who can get into the hotel) restroom ever. 

It was glorious – the culmination of all that is good and right in the world.  A smiling woman in a delicate silver sari greeted me happily as I pushed past her to get to the toilet.  I walked into the stall that was larger than the room at the hostel where we staying, and even in my agony had to take a second to look around.   The bathroom had a padded seat, an automatic air freshener which filled the room with a burst of scent every 30 seconds.  Four different rolls of toilet paper beckoned from varying heights, conveniently making it comfortable to reach for toilet paper no matter how doubled over I was, clutching my aching stomach.  The public restroom there was 10 times nicer than anything the majority of the Indian population will ever set foot in.  It made me want to eat that street vendor food just to get to spend more time in there.  Naan with questionable meat, days old tomatoes and onions washed in tap water on the side?  Yes, please!  

The nicest bathroom I've seen was located in a luxury hotel bordered by slums in Mumbai.  

The hard part of course, was leaving, once my stomach had emptied its contents, knowing how awesome the rest of the hotel must have been, but I took what I could get.  Lessons learned: 
  1. Luxury hotels are the best medicine for a bad stomach in India
  2. The price of a good toilet is impossible to quantify.  
Toilets were something I had taken for granted.  When nature called, I went to the bathroom; I came back out, problem solved.  Traveling through Southeast Asia, I became more aware of toilets than I have ever been in my entire life.  There was always the problem of finding one, figuring out the logistics of using one, not contracting a strange disease from one, not getting propositioned by a 14 year old boy whilst offering up my bottom as an all you can eat buffet for mosquitoes in one (a story for another day), and always needing my Western toilet paper. 

I now realize just how important toilets are in our everyday lives, and the role they could play in improving quality of life. 

In the Philippines, in Mactang (my mom’s village),

View of Mactang
the majority of households are so poor that they do not have a bathroom.  I don’t mean a lack of indoor plumbing, or getting rid of the “washing with water” cleaning method (this isn’t about forcing our toilet paper habit on the rest of the world), but simply a lack of a section of the house set aside as a bathroom.  With a few hundred dollars, we can install a working bathroom in each household in the village.  A seemingly simple, basic thing.  But the positive effects of this simple thing are great.  

Above all, the installation of bathrooms creates sanitary conditions for everyone.  They eliminate certain diseases, the threat of ground water contamination, and other chances for infection that comes from contact with human waste.  The respect for the cleanliness of the land and village increases.  And when flooding occurs, flood water contamination can be crossed off of the long list of things to worry about.   We can hire locals to install the bathrooms which creates jobs, hence reducing the increasing rural exodus of young people and men from the island.   

So, on the rough, long list of goals for our non-profit, among the top rests the entry: 
 - Install a bathroom in every hut. 

In parallel to the famous saying:  

“give a man a fish, you feed him for a day but teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”  

The motto for this particular goal will be: 

“give a man a toilet…and he doesn’t have to go outside anymore” 

And that, my friends, will be a giant step in the right direction.  

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