Field Notes

My Kingdom for an Outhouse

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 12, 2008; 5:33 PM

LITTLE RANN OF KUTCH, India -- I prefer to use the bathroom without witnesses.

Just always thought of it as a solitary endeavor. But out here on this barren, dried-up seabed the size of Rhode Island, there was not a bush, a tree, anything to hide behind. There certainly wasn't a toilet.

I was spending a few days in the salt pans of western India, a scorching hot place where tens of thousands of poor people earn a living channeling salty water into shallow, hand-dug ponds. The salt crystallizes in the baking sun, and they sell it.

I wanted to stay overnight with one family to write about how different life is for girls, compared with boys, to see the rhythm of life even after the sun set in this place without electricity and running water. Having no light wasn't a problem.

It had, however, been 10 hours since I left a place with plumbing. I now really had to go.

But where?

Here, everyone just goes in the open. Like one-third of the world's population, these salt workers have no toilet. In India's big city slums and rural villages, tens of millions of people just meander outside and find any old spot. Railroad tracks, for some reason, are a favorite.

But out here, where the world is as flat as an ironed sheet, I looked in every direction and saw absolutely nothing but the distant horizon.

The bottled water I had been drinking in the 100 degrees heat was now the enemy within.

I thought about Japan, where I used to live, and its high-tech toilets with seat warmers and soundtracks of chirping birds. The hotels near my current home in London have spotless marble floors and uniformed ladies offering fluffy white hand towels.

At this moment I would have settled for -- in fact, I would have been overjoyed to see -- one of those nasty flooded gas station restrooms.

Then I had an idea.

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