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.

"What time does the sun set?" I asked.

"Six o'clock," someone answered.

Two hours before a curtain of darkness.

I could do that. As long as nobody said anything really, really funny.

I tried to focus on my story. Oddly enough, I found out later that exactly when I was day-dreaming of nice bathrooms it was World Toilet Day, an idea ginned up by WaterAid, a U.K.-based nonprofit, to "celebrate the humble, yet vitally important, toilet and to raise awareness of the global sanitation crisis."

"Imagine life without a toilet," the group's Web site implored as it emphasized that more than 2.5 billion people in the world don't have "somewhere safe, private or hygienic to go to the toilet."

At the moment, of course, that included me.

It also included Nikki, the Washington-based Post photographer who was working with me. She was having her own little crisis, and the second the sun slipped below the horizon she was off like somebody set her shoes on fire.

But as soon as she tried to put distance between herself and the small group of people chatting near the family's hut, they started following her.

I tried not to laugh. But I did. I also couldn't stop the little posse following Nikki.

Lost in translation was the concept that she "just needed a few minutes alone." They kept following her. Turns out they were outright alarmed.

"You can't go out there alone," said Sabshi Bhalagama, who grew up here. He explained that there are "illusions" out on the plains at night.

Strangers unfamiliar with this place have wandered off and become disoriented. There are no lights, and each hut is a mile or so from the next. The dead bodies are eventually found, he said.

Okay, maybe privacy is overrated.

We did learn a neat trick. In the pitch blackness, you cannot see very far in front of you if you are standing up. But if you put your head close to the ground and look out toward the horizon, it's easier to make out the faint outlines of the huts.

"Are there any snakes," I asked.

"Scorpions," Bhalagama said cheerily.

I moved my head further off the ground.

Then I remembered the wild asses. The world's last population of a graceful Asiatic mix of donkey and horse roams here -- the Indian government has declared it a Wild Ass Sanctuary.

Someday this will be a World Heritage site with a visitors' center. Then there will be loos!

But for the moment, all I had was darkness, so I used that, which turns out to be what thousands of women who live out here do every day.

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