A Few Words About India and the Intestinal Tract

While typing up my travelogue, I realized that there is one topic that pretty much warrants its very own paragraphs. I apologize in advance for offending anyone’s sensibilities — but hey, let me know and I’ll take you off the list.

Excrement, a.k.a. shit is a topic that is thoroughly explored whenever a group of travelers come together here in India. It may be over breakfast, a few beers, a cup of tea, or while waiting for a train. Generally the catalyst is the one poor soul clutching a roll of toilet paper sitting in very close proximity to the “toilet.” There is always 1 whenever you find yourself in a group of 3 or more. He or she generally tries to dissuade the sympathetic and knowing looks, and inquiries as to how long, consistency, do you know where you got it, and are you drinking enough liquids. Eventually the topic is seized upon by all present, albeit delicately at first. The hardest part is coming up with a word that is understood by the mixture of Scandinavians, Germans, English, American, Belgians, French, Russians, Spanish, and Italians. Diarrhea is usually initially attempted by some English speaker, but the difficulty and rather crass nature of having to describe for understanding in the multi-lingual community usually results in the term “the shits” which interestingly enough everyone always understands.

After inquiring about the status/health of the person clutching the roll of toilet paper, the conversation will then lead to the merits and disadvantages of Imodium. This generally encourages a lively debate — you have your purists who refuse to ever take the pills, the pill poppers who have been on the stuff for 2 months, and the more moderates who agree it has it’s uses for long transportation bouts. The conversation will usually segway (or deteriorate) into personal stories of encounters with the shits, then move on to the worst “toilets” encountered with everyone trying to top the other’s stories. Then it is impossible not to address the sheer amount of shit that seems to be smeared across this country. People offer counts on the numbers of people spotted squatting by the train tracks on their last journey, the variety of shit, human and animal that they had to wade through to reach the guest house, and the train stations with the worst stench (no one seems to pay attention to the “do not use toilet in station” sign whilst parked in a station). Once I heard 1 man offering instructions on how to follow a trekking trail in Ladakh, with “make sure you follow the donkey shit and not the yak shit if you’re not sure where to go next.”

In my case, I was plagued for a good two weeks. The entire Ladaki family (running the guest house) and all the guests, would inquire several times a day on the status of my affliction. The family often had serious internal debates with regards to the best treatment. The grandfather would suggest one thing, while the grandmother would disagree. The mother completely censored my food intact and I was not allowed to eat or drink certain things like mint tea or porridge. Even the 9 year old girl got involved by trying to force me to eat — at one point arguing with her mother that I hadn’t had dinner or lunch the previous day and was now only having tea and bread. At the end I was ready to check into the local hospital (this tells you how terrible I felt), when the French anthropologist also staying at the guest house dragged me to the Tibetan Amchee for a cure (I think he was looking for a patient to observe more then anything else since there seemed to be a scarcity of observational subjects and he was studying the transmission of Tibetan medical knowledge). The Amchee felt my pulse in both wrists, and then gave me 3 sets of pills that closely resembled the fecal matter of rodents and possibly a small deer — wrapped in old newspaper, along with strict instructions regarding my diet (glass of boiled water before and after eating, no eggs, and no fresh fruit or vegetables). The pills were awful, but after 1 day I was completely cured.

One of my favorite fellow traveler quotes is from a French Canadian who was visiting India for his 4th time. He commented that occasionally he’d encounter an open sewer in Montreal where there was construction or some sort of infrastructure improvement — the smell always made him extremely nostalgic for India.