Friday, March 21, 2014

Bicycles and bathrooms

I have just one week to go in Chennai.  The girls are still taking board exams and keep wishing the time would go by more quickly, while I'm wanting to slow the clock down.  They say I'm winning; I think they are.  In the meantime, life here continues much as it has.  A treasured routine of study, yoga, reading, walking and riding, scrumptious food from Indrani's magic kitchen, with special activities sprinkled in to make the routine even more appreciated.  Even a few valuable cooking lessons from Indrani.  Temperatures are rising and by soon after the sun rises it's almost too hot to be out.  Our compensation is that it is now mango season!  Let the feasting begin!

Riders and organizers of the Tamil Nadu cycling club's Pink Ride, 2014.  I'm the one with the white hair, far left in the back.

Last Sunday I participated in a "pink ride," a women's bike ride to celebrate International Women's Day which was March 8.  There were 72 women, children and men riding, 26 of whom were women.  The ride was about 34 kms. from the starting point.  Lalitha and I added another 10 kms. or so onto that to get between home and start.  We left home at 5:30; the ride started at 6:30.  Some friends have asked why so early.  Two reasons: heat and traffic.  The ride was organized by the Tamil Nadu Cycling Club.  It was well organized and very pleasant, with a fabulous breakfast at the Radisson hotel in Mahabalipuram as our reward.  There was also a break point a little past midway with water and snacks.  Jean asked if there would be a porta potty.  I doubt it I said, having yet to see one of those here.  And indeed there wasn't.  But there was a nice bathroom at the hotel, and it even had toilet paper.  And now you see, I've managed to segue into my second topic, one that I promised to write about long ago.  

The most important thing to be said about public bathrooms is that there aren't any.  Okay, maybe a very few and probably not places we'd choose to go.  There is even an organization called Sulabh International whose primary goal is to provide proper toilets, especially for public use.  It is not a trivial issues.  In the absence of such facilities, people do what they must, which is to use ditches, roadsides, railroad tracks.  It is not unusual to see men using vacant lots.  I've learned to just look the other way.  Given the number of people here who die every day from waterborne disease, sanitation is a major issue.  And its impact is felt in many ways.  Ravi says it is one of the things they must think about before the family heads out traveling.  And one of the saddest stories is one that Sheela told.  She works for a company that sells software to schools to help kids learn math.  She went to pitch their software to a school where the government had provided internet access and one computer.  The teachers just laughed at her.  Forget about math they said.  We don't even have bathrooms and because of that we can't get the girls to come to school at all.  I've included a blurb here about Sulabh.  Their website is in case you want to learn more.  I suspect they will be a charity of choice for me from now on.

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak

Sociologist, social activist, and Founder of Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, Dr. Pathak believes the toilet is a tool for social change. He has received a great deal of national and international recognition for his work, including the Stockholm Water Prize in 2009, and he is considered a pioneer for social reform.

As for the toilets that exist, once again the story is best told with pictures, so scroll on down. Suffice it to say that some of the differences seem quite strange to us westerners.  Before you judge, just let me say that our habits seem just as strange (and uncouth?) to the folks here.  I've adjusted by always being prepared, which means carrying toilet paper with me.  In this respect, I haven't "gone native."  It took a while to gather the information presented here.  Bathroom etiquette can be a difficult subject to broach.  If you have questions, let me know.  I suspect this may be one of your best chances to get a straight answer.

Ready, set, go.  This is always the trickiest part of a group ride, and this was no exception.  A rider fell right in front of me just as we were taking off. Fortunately she wasn't hurt and I was able to stop before I contributed to a chain reaction.

I must have been enjoying the ride.  This is a smile, not a grimace.  And I managed to stay upright the whole time on this one!

I followed Lalitha's lead most of the ride.  We ride well together.  Either we are well matched, or she slows down to accommodate my speed.  Either way, it works.

Our breakfast spot was very pleasant.

And the food was great.  This was just my first plate, not my last.

And now on to bathrooms.  Most toilets I've seen look pretty similar to the ones back home.  But when I first got here and was dealing with jet lag, I kept trying to push the knob on top to flush.  When I finally figured out I had to pull it up, it worked just fine.

There are showers, no bathtubs.  Every shower has a shower head and also a spigot with a bucket and a cup underneath it.  This is used for "bucket baths" when one wants to freshen up but not get their hair or whole body wet.  In a place where frequent freshening up is needed due to heat and bare feet, it's a great idea.  And it saves water.

This is the "geiser," where water is heated.  There is one mounted in each bathroom.   It has to be turned on for each use, off afterwards.  Makes great sense not to be heating water when you don't need it,  and I've found that it's really fast.  Just a couple minutes is all you need.

This is the panel of switches just outside my bathroom.  The switch to the far right is for the geiser.  It took me a while to remember that up is off, down is on.  Just the kind of little thing that can be confusing at first.  The three pronged thing is an outlet that is controlled by the switch next to it.  All outlets must also be turned on and off.

This is a sign on a toilet stall in the fancy new mall where we went shopping.  There is toilet paper in this stall, as indicated by the graphic.

This is a sign on a different stall in the same bathroom.  No toilet paper here, but instead a hose next to the toilet with a little spray attachment, as indicated by the graphic.  These signs were a giant clue to help me figure out why there was no toilet paper in so many bathrooms.  The simple answer is that people here clean themselves with water, not with paper.  And then they let nature dry them off.  Sounds uncomfortable to me.  But I've read that it seems less than sanitary to people here to just be cleaning oneself with dry paper.

The hose and spray attachment.

This is the public toilet at the visitors center at Auroville.  Needless to say, not a good place to read the daily paper.  I've seen toilets like this in a couple of other public places.


  1. YOUR BEST BLOG YET!!! The out house on the farm with the sears catalogue was, comparatively, a LUXURY!!!

  2. The switches and toilet knobs were things I encountered often in those days when I traveled abroad so much. Bidets, too, though the bathrooms in places I was always had paper as well - thank goodness... :P