Monday, November 07, 2005

Riding the Iron Rooster - or, How to use a "Squat" on an Indian Train....

NOTE: With sincere apologies to Paul Theroux for the use of the title - but it's SO appropriate.
EXTRA NOTE: If you are squeamish, have a sensitivity to graphic descriptions of bodily functions or are of a delicate nature, do NOT read this!

One of the first things you learn when traveling at the level we did in India, is that bodily functions are generally performed in a "squat" - a euphemistic term for a toilet without a seat and on which you have to perch somewhat precariously in order to fulfill your needs (not "wants" - just "needs").

There are three main senses you need to draw on to use a squat:
* A sense of balance
* A sense of adventure
* A sense of humor

All your other senses - sight, smell, taste (even hearing), you can safely tuck away - if fact, the further away, the better.

By way of description, (moving from the general to the specific):

We spent a good deal of our traveling time on trains. When you are on an Indian Railways train for 27 hours (between Kolkata and Jaipur for instance), the chances are you are going to need to visit that swaying little cabin between the coaches on at least one occasion - and your visit will in all likelihood be to perform what you usually do sitting down (of course this is written from a male point of view).

The "squat" is a hole in the floor , through which you can see the ground underneath the train rushing past. On either side of the hole are corrugated footrests - one left, one right. They are uniform in design, to ensure that each foot (shod of course) stands neatly on the rest, no matter which direction you are facing (again, the male point of view). The male standing function is fairly easy to achieve: you mount the footrests, the corrugations ensuring that you don't slip, aim in the right direction, and there you go...

As long as there is no updraft, you will probably leave the loo in the same dry state you entered it.

Now: to perform what you would normally do in the sitting position (ladies, this is also for you), you need to take stock of your situation before advancing...your sense of adventure is useful here.

Look around carefully - note the position of the grab handles on the wall - they are sometimes at a rather uncomfortable angle at which to hold on for dear life (do you get the picture?). Secondly, ensure that you have an adequate supply of toilet paper with you. Oh, did I mention that Indian toilets (as a general rule, not only on the trains) are not overly generous with such luxuries? To make up for this lack, there is usually a cute looking water spout situated strategically in front of you.

This is activated with an interesting combination of movements - push up the spout with one hand and contain the resulting powerful spray of water with the other. How you achieve this without letting go of the safety handles is where your sense of balance becomes quite useful.

The newer trains have a shower arrangement which, to the novice, initially looks inviting: showers on a train, my goodness! Er...NOT. These "showers" are designed for a specific purpose. Shower or spout, you better work this out or you will find your popularity with your fellow passengers plummeting.

Also take a cake of soap or a leaf of "paper soap" - a fragrant little square of soap-impregnated paper, which must rate as one of the best inventions ever to come out of the sub-continent.

A word of caution: make sure that your toilet paper is accessible and easy to reach at the appropriate time - more on this later.

So, to the actual performance: you are on a train, remember, belting across the Indian countryside - yes, they do move quite fast once they get going. Trains tend to bounce and jounce around, and this is where those grab handles prove their worth as life preservers.

Depending on your preference - and of course wishing to ensure that your clothes remain unsullied - you can either strip down completely and hang your slacks, shorts, or knickers on one of the hooks provided; or you can roll said clothing items up your thighs as high as they will go, while still allowing you to assume the required position: feet flat on the footrests, knees bent double, legs jutting at 45 degrees to the rest of your body, and everything else free and easy in the breeze billowing up the disposal chute.

You grab the handle in front of you with both hands, take a deep breath (if you dare) tell yourself: "I can do this - I HAVE to do this...!" and let nature take its course. Pretty soon, you get the hang of it - picture a skier behind a speed boat - and there you are riding along in perfect unison with the swaying of the train, like a bizarre ride at the Lunar Park - faster and faster, you ride this Iron Rooster and the freedom is exhilarating!

Eventually all good things come to an end, and you will have to finish up. This is where life can get complicated. Remember my earlier injunction to ensure that your toilet paper is placed exactly where you can reach it? A lack of planning in this department may result in the following potentially embarrassing scenario:

If you have stuffed the paper into the back pocket of your shorts or slacks and somewhat naively hung these on the back of the door, you will find that they are just three inches beyond your immediate reach. Hanging on to the grab handle with one hand, stretching for your clothing with the other, leaves you in a dangerously vulnerable position. You dare not let go for fear of sliding into the oblivion beneath you. If your shorts etc. are rolled up your thighs, you will soon find out whether you are actually double-jointed or you may even put your back permanently out of whack.

(Hylton got himself into this situation and we nearly had to send the plumbing rescue team in to extricate him) .

But once your session is completed, and you rise to your full height again in one fragrant piece, all clothing in the same, albeit slightly more rumpled condition in which you entered the booth, you will realize you have a huge grin on your face. Returning to your compartment, your fellow travelers welcome you with victory cheers and slaps on the back. One more achievement to chalk up to experience.

Of course, you can always use one of the Western-style toilets provided on all trains - but then, why deny yourself the fun!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Pix Update

Top: Street Scene, Jaipur; Udaipur - hotel in the lake,
Interiors Beth El (left), and Maghen David Synagogues, Calcutta

Update 4: Udaipur - Delhi

We trained overnight from Jaipur - a beautiful city, with everything abuzz ahead of Divali. We visited the Amber Fort on a hillside (choosing not to take the elephant ride up, mainly because we felt the elephants we not particularly well treated). Later we did some shopping in the crowded main street, dinner on the roof of our hotel with a view of the city and then to the station to Udaipur.
How can I describe Udaipur? Heaven, Paradise, Garden of Eden, Little Switzerland? Actually all and none of the above. It is quite exquisite and I do not use the word lightly. The lakes are full for the first time in many years after good monsoon rains. The palaces and hotels on the island dotted around Lake Pinochola sparkling in the morning sun, turning golden at sunset. If ever there was a place to rest up after a weary, grimy and totally exhilarating tour of India, this is it.
The town is clean and quaint. There are tailors working in literal holes in the wall, food shops offering cooking lessons (we are going to one this morning); a music shop offering tabla lessons (this afternoon)...restaurants offering superb fare and the market stores are alive, buzzing, entrepreneurial, assertive...
The past two days have been crazy, with Divali being celebrated with fireworks and bangs, music and dancing - every few seconds there is a huge "bang" and then a volley of crackles, whizzes, whoozes, swishes and cracks. In the evening, rockets shower sparkling stars over the lake...amazing.
Udaipur takes much pride in having had a James Bond film (Octopussy) made here a number of years ago, and you can take in a showing at one or other hotel every night. There are palaces and temples, museums and gardens. It is without doubt a jewel in the crown of Rajasthan.
I won't go into much more detail now; there is so much to tell and so many pictures to show: all that later. We leave (sadly) tonight for Delhi - one day, a short evening and then on the plane to Istanbul and eventually home.
It's been amazing...'nuff said for now.