While I was home for the holidays I found three big binders of emails that I used to send to family when I traveled as a college student. I brought the binders back to my apartment in New England and photocopied all the entries, compiling a giant three ring binder with a few hundred pages of travelogue material. I started reading through some of it today, and I am so happy that I found these copies… it is hard to remember exactly how I felt on a given day at a given time, and re-reading my ramblings brought back a lot of memories.
I wanted to mention one episode in particular… during my first trip to Africa– to Senegal, the western most country on the continent– as a freshman in college. We were told before we left France for Senegal that we should bring a roll of toilet paper with us because the Senegalese did not generally use it. The class was abuzz… no toilet paper? What do you do if you don’t use toilet paper? I guess it was one of those facts of life that we were left to figure out for ourselves.
While I was there, I was completely bewildered by it. Every time I went into the bathroom everything looked wet… the toilet seat, the ground, etc. I couldn’t figure out how everything was getting so wet, nor could I figure out what exactly the local people did to make sure that they were “clean” after using the toilet. After two weeks of living with a family in Dakar, I was still none the wiser, and my personal toilet paper roll had decreased significantly in size.
I met P after my trip. At some point or another I mentioned my experience with Senegalese bathrooms and expressed my mystification behind the entire process. P cracked up laughing, “you seriously don’t know?”
Me: “No… all I know is that everything was wet when I would go in to use the toilet.”
P: “What makes most sense? What makes things wet?”
I looked at him blankly. I really had no idea what he was getting at.
P: “They wash themselves with water.”
I still kind of looked at him blankly.
P: “We do the same thing in Nepal. Most people don’t use toilet paper. So instead people have small cups or buckets of water and they, you know, pour it on their backsides and rub off the dirtiness. In Senegal do they eat with their hands?”
Me: “Um, Yeah… Where are you going with this abrupt change in topic?”
P: “Do they eat with their left hands?”
Me: “No, it was a big cultural taboo to touch anything with your left hand.”
P: “That’s why… You use your left hand to clean your bum!”
I felt like an idiot, his explanation made a lot of logical sense… why did it take me so long to figure out?
Me: “So, what do you actually do, is there a specific process to it?”
P: “I guess so,” he crouched down and attempted to demonstrate while sitting in a chair, “you kind of put your left hand between your legs and your right hand behind you with your cup of water. With your right hand you pour some of your water onto your bum, and use your left hand to rub it and make sure it is clean. Actually, when I first moved to America I had a bit of trouble transitioning to toilet paper because I never felt quite as ‘clean’ after using it as I did back home with water. But I use what is around and what seems to be the easiest. Now I don’t think about it much.”
A few months later P traveled back home for the first time. He told me later that his family teased him a bit and called him “American” because he used toilet paper in the bathroom as a new force of habit.
So armed with this new level of bathroom knowledge, a few years later when I traveled to India, I decided to challenge myself and try life without toilet paper. Some of the students I traveled with found it either gross, or weird, or both (while a few others decided to try it themselves as well) I kind of got the hang of it after a while, but I admit that I still felt that toilet paper was easier. My vow of toilet-paper-less-ness was especially challenging after weekend trips on the road when my stomach felt a bit, how shall I say… “disturbed”… and I had to visit the powder room a little more frequently than usual. Not using toilet paper made me feel perpetually damp and moist in my nether regions, serving as a reminder for my running stomach, where as toilet paper wouldn’t have.
Today we are a toilet paper household. Its just how it is, there was never really a discussion. I guess P just got used to it in college, and there you go. Every now and then P will complain that the toilet paper chafed his bum a bit, but that is about it. For environmental reasons saying sayonara to toilet paper would be wise, but we haven’t really thought about that. Plus I feel (non-Nepali) family and friends would be just as confused as I first was if they came for a visit and found themselves sans toilet paper.
It is kind of funny though, to go back and read some of these emails and see how utterly confused I was at the time– “Everything was wet… what exactly were they doing?”