Thursday, August 19, 2010

Indian Plumbing

During my six-month stay in India, my experiences were largely shaped by the bathrooms I encountered there. This is partly due to the fact that when you sustain entirely on a diet of cream-based curries and fried, spicy things, you inevitably become very familiar with whichever porcelain privy is nearest to you at all times. But it is much more due to the fact that Indian bathrooms—and the antics they reduce you to—are just plain strange.

The first four weeks I lived in the country, our group of travelling students escaped Delhi’s stifling heat to a hill station in the Himalayas, called Mussoorie. At the top of a very steep hill, which we nervously switchbacked in some very creaky taxis, we came to our little village of apartments and divvied up into groups. Little did I know the error in choosing to live with a few reasonably big guys; we only received water in the apartment for a one hour window every day, and outside of that time frame nobody could shower, nobody could wash their hands, and it was absolutely impossible to get the toilet to flush. And the toilet was a strange entity in itself. It was Western style, so no great differences there, but by the presence of one little object it was made so foreign to me, for a toilet in India is not a toilet without its omnipresent plastic jug on the floor beside it. For a long time the jug puzzled and confused me, even though the answer to its reason for being lurked in the back of my mind the whole time. After some time (probably the first time we ran out of toilet paper) I finally came to terms with it—think bidee, but more manual.

We quickly found that trying to shower in that magical space of time when we had water was not an option, as the hour was switched to a different time everyday and we had absolutely no way of knowing when that time would be. So we began to fill up buckets, and I had for the first time one of my most authentically Indian experiences, a bucket shower. The rule of thumb to this, as the maid who lived next to our apartments once told me, is “Use tiny bit water, make everything clean!” In other words, “Forget shaving your legs darling. Oh, and you can forget about the water being hot, too. You see the water heater in the corner? Well, they don’t work in India, not ever. Just make sure you squeejee the floor when you’re done, or else mosquitoes will come and you’ll get malaria, and you didn’t bring any doxycycline with you, did you? Silly white girl.” That was basically what I took from her words, so I went into my cold bathroom, got naked, doused myself with freezing water, and got everything clean (well, every three days, that is).

But a worse problem I encountered in Indian bathrooms was that while I was, ahem, using them, I was frequently bothered by some rather unwelcome visitors. In Mussoorie we had a problem with large spiders that liked to hang out on the wall right beside the loo. These I would steadfastly stare down whenever they were in my sight, and then I would slowly back away and get our resident hippy roommate, Skye, to come in and release it. This last part was not my preferred method of handling the situation, but more a way to placate the very sensitive Skye, and I was convinced that it was the same spider that came back every time, plotting his attack whilst I was at my most defenseless. Later on in Delhi I had a problem with pigeons flying in through my window and nesting in an alcove above my shower, but probably the worst of my beastly problems was while I was still back in Mussoorie, getting endlessly haunted and robbed by monkeys. Generally they were just a nuisance that would sometimes force entry into our kitchen and steal our Cadbury’s (a cardinal offense in my book), but once one of their pack dared to go much further. I was in the bathroom and alone in the apartment at the time, when I heard a rustling noise from the room outside. I assumed it was one of my roommates returning, until I saw, from where I stood in front of the mirror, a long-fingered, hairy brown hand slowly curl around the side of the door, which I’d left slightly ajar. At times of panic like this, words fail you, and only the most obvious expulsions cross your lips. And so I leapt up, screaming the creature’s name to the empty house, and chased it like a wild woman back through the living room and out the front door. It was then, watching it bound across the roof and away from me, that I finally accepted I would have no privacy in India when it came to the bathroom department.

The alternative to a “Western” toilet was something I already knew quite well from our years of living back in Hong Kong—the oriental-style, glorified hole-in-the-ground. That was what I had to work with when we moved into a dusty flat near Delhi University, where I lived for the subsequent five months of my trip. My other roommates got rooms with the only things I considered to be actual, proper toilets (ones that stood above the ground), whilst I got an opening in my tiled floor that running water passed through—still, of course, accompanied by the obligatory plastic jug beside it. Right next to this was a set of rusty pipes that pumped out a meager drip of water, also known as my shower. The head inexplicably busted after about a month, and I took to sitting cross-legged under the bottom tap, resolved to be happy with something that was still a step-up from a bucket shower.

I’d certainly drawn the short straw when it came to the bathrooms in our new abode, before a couple of incidents changed my mind. One day a friend of ours came over and stayed behind to study while we went out for dinner and some exploration. He went in to use the bathroom in the boys’ bedroom, and somehow became trapped inside. With nobody to let him out from the other side, Alexy tried standing on top of the toilet to get to the window above it and ended up detaching the entire thing from the wall with his sheer bodyweight. He must’ve weighed about 90lbs from the sight of him, but the damage done to the boys’ prized porcelain throne was irreparable. It was only the following week when the toilet that belonged to the couple we lived with no longer flushed, again dying abruptly and without good cause.

Only my lowly Indian hole-in-the-ground got all five of us through the next four months, so that by the end of my stay in India, I had gained a whole new respect for it, if you can call it that. Or I at least thought, looking down into the rusted opening in the middle of the grimy bathroom tiles for the last time, these Indian models sure can take a lot of crap.

My apologies to anybody I’ve offended with another meager attempt at tackling a Magpie. I saw the pipes and for a week could only think of this topic! Another set of funny memories from my trip to India that I’m sure I will never forget.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Garden

My grandparents lived in a lovely little village in Wales, called Crickhowell. Every year while I was growing up, my mum packed us three kids up to stay with them there for the summer. She downright refused, much to our derision, to ever bring us over for Christmas, vowing never to endure again the harsh Northern winters of her childhood. Having lived in hot climates all our lives, always yearning to play in snow, I suppose us kids took for granted those warm Welsh summers much more than she did, seeing as Mum was always bounding across green fields and down lanes with so much zeal every morning. But eventually Crickhowell’s magic crept up on us, seeping through like the persistent summer dusk that that could not be shut out of our bedrooms, even after ten o’clock at night.

It began with the garden. It was our grandparents’ greatest pride in that house. Every morning we’d gather round the bed in their room, where they’d both be sitting up—Nana holding a cup of tea and Grampy with a huge pair of binoculars around his neck—fiercely looking out on the backyard activities. The thrush who lived between the conifer trees was welcome; her little territory was a graveyard, littered with the empty houses of pesky snails. Rabbits and moles were not, and whenever he’d catch one during the daily watch Grampy’d spring up off the bed like he was making to jump out the window but had at the last minute thought better of it. He’d call us over saying, “C’mon kids, look! Look over there!” and then after sufficient time had passed to be totally annoyed, would mumble, “pesky rabbits…” over and over again to himself. I wondered whether, had he ever managed to catch one, they would have shared the same fate as Peter Rabbit’s father, became terrified that one day we’d be sitting round the table eating rabbit stew for lunch.

The garden was divided between three levels. You came out to it through the utility room on the side of the house, and then by walking through a narrow path stacked with wellington boots, gardening gloves, oasis blocks for Nana’s flower arrangements, and watering cans. There on the top level was my grandfather’s greenhouse, inside of which the oddest-shaped vegetables you’d ever seen grew. He’d pull out a big, curved cucumber for me, or a little three-headed grape tomato, and smile—he always had the widest grin of anybody I knew. Next to that was the outside table, where a bee once flew into Mum’s wine glass and came out drunk, and where she told me that money spiders bring good luck.

The middle level of the garden was a rectangular piece of grass surrounded by a border of flowers that Nana had planted. Later on, years after we stopped visiting, they put a fountain in this patch that I never got to see. One of my jobs there was to fish out slugs that liked to chew up her lamb’s ear and drop them all in a slimy bucket. Grumpily I’d wonder who did this awful task the rest of the year, as I could see no way on earth our Nana, who hated any kind of creepy-crawlies, would ever be caught doing it! Her roses grew to about five feet tall, were like trees to me back then. They extended down to the bottom of the garden, on the opposite side of which was the long row of Grampy’s berries and peas. These needed a net of defenses draped over them at all times—they were the prize that fuelled the war between our granddad and all the birds that flew into the garden to ravage them. Somewhere close by there was also a patch for lettuce and potatoes to grow. Everything we could eat from the garden came in through that utility room on the side to be washed down at lunch with cold meats and a never-ending supply of fuscia-coloured beets.

Though I didn’t think it then, I’m quite glad now that I never saw the garden in the winter. As beautiful as it would look laced in white snow, everything that gave it its magic would be dormant or dead, and these memories might not have stayed the same. When I was ten we moved countries again, and we had to give up our Crickhowell summers. Many years after that, Nana and Grampy passed away. They were buried at the village chapel. I can’t think of them without remembering the garden that was their pride and joy. At its very bottom there was a small iron gate that led out to a huge green field, with more fields and a beautiful canal beyond.

In my mind it swings open, and I run out, and I keep on running through the Welsh countryside forever and ever…

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hurting Someone

They had everything in common. Most nights they would find themselves sitting on her bed, staying up hours after the other roommates had fallen asleep, just talking. She kept her scuffed-up white laptop on an end table in the corner. Before he came over she would always set it to a new playlist of shuffled up favourites—his, hers, theirs. Some nights he’d bring his guitar, and he’d sing as her eyes were closing, will it mean much to you if I treat you right…

She didn’t even care if he saw her changing. Definitely not after he told her she was crazy to worry about her figure so much. That cheeky grin had got him a lot of girls in the past. Their conversation would usually steer to one of his old stories—like the ice cream server he’d got to fool around with him in the back of a Baskin Robbins—and she’d laugh into his shoulder about those other ones, happy that she was the closest.

But one night, after he’d hugged her and was just walking to the door, a voice that she did not recognize as her own crossed her lips, telling him he did not have to go. So he smiled, put his guitar down on a chair, and came into her bed, changing everything.

He left while it was still early morning. He’d sleep better on his own, he said, giving her a small kiss on the forehead. She didn’t get out of bed at all that day, but just lay there under the covers, wondering what the hell she’d just done.