Starting from the bottom


By Don Knebel

Because I will be writing about travel, I thought it would be a good idea to get one important subject behind us right away – toilets. As travelers to eastern locations have learned, when nature’s call comes far from home, the result can be charitably described as a “cultural experience.” What visitors find is little more than a hole in the floor, with a hose hung nearby. They soon discover the hose is not just for washing down the floor and that they should carry their own tissue. If they have forgotten, they may find an entrepreneurial person who will sell them a handful of tissues for the going rate. They then have to throw the tissue into a little basket sometimes near the hole that was, hopefully, emptied less than a week ago.

Like many Americans would, I assumed once people in such places learned about the miracles of flush toilets with seats and squeezable-soft paper, they would quickly abandon their old ways. I was then surprised with what I saw when we were about to leave the international airport in New Delhi. Identical doors near security were marked “Eastern” and “Western,” and they were not airlines – they identified the type of facility. Many of the passengers, whose familiarity with western culture was trumpeted by their stylish jeans and sneakers, nonetheless chose the door that opened to a hose and a hole in the floor. Not recognizing at the time how arrogant and condescending this must have sounded, I asked our guide why so many people still preferred the “Eastern” door. His answer was as matter of fact as it was enlightening: “It is hard to convince most people here it is appropriate to sit on a seat someone else has just used, and to put their hands in places their mothers have taught them to avoid.”

Travel provides a variety of learning opportunities, from the big ones about our history to the little ones about our cultural biases. That is why we travel. In future columns, I will try to provide some of the other lessons learned. But there will be no more talk about toilets – I promise.

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