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The Rolf Potts Virtual Book Tour: The Cross-Cultural Ramifications of Wiping Your Ass

September 24, 2008 at 11:15 AM | by | ()

Long-term travel guru and po-mo hero Rolf Potts has been doing the travel blog circuit for the past week and a half, talking about travel writing, travel writing and, well, travel writing. So we put that topic aside and asked him to tell us a funny story from his new book, Marco Polo Didn't Go There. Thus this tale of pooping in India:

Chapter 5 of Marco Polo Didn't Go There is entitled "Something Approaching Enlightenment," and this story recounts a grand misadventure that transpired in the Indian Himalayas a few years ago.

By the time this tale ends, I have endured detainment by the Indian army, survived an attack by a giant mastiff dog that ripped my pants to shreds and spent a long night stuck in a town where the only place to sleep was a room occupied by three drunken, porn-obsessed Indian road engineers.

What I never included in the original story, however, is a small, tangential detail that can functionally serve as a little parable about the cross-cultural ramifications of wiping your ass.

I added this toilet-protocol detail in the "commentary track" endnotes to Chapter 5--but I've never published it anyplace else. Today, as part of my virtual book tour, I will share that endnote here. Note that this episode took place in a town called Pooh (no joke), shortly after a patrol of Indian soldiers caught me trying to smash up a door near the Tibetan border (long back-story on that; you'll just have to read Chapter 5). In the scene, I am just settling in for a night's sleep in an army-base office:

This office had a wood-burning stove, and the officer on duty had a young orderly drop by at several points during the night to stoke the fire. When the boy first came in to check the stove, he wordlessly presented me with a roll of toilet paper.

I found this curious, since Indians don't typically use toilet paper. In most Indian toilets (which often consist of little more than a hole in the floor), buckets of water are provided for the purpose of "wiping." The thought of cleaning your butt with some water and your fingers might seem unsanitary to Westerners, but Indians will insist it's a superior method.

After all, they note, would you wash yourself with paper if you had dung on your face? Of course not--you would use water, then thoroughly wash your hands when you've finished. The same principle applies to the cleanliness of your butt.

It's a sensible argument, though I'll confess I still haven't broken the paper habit.

Anyhow, I suspect the duty-officer had told the boy that Westerners have this bizarre method of cleaning their asses, and that he should remember to be culturally sensitive in their presence. In this sense, breaking out a roll of toilet paper at an Indian military post was quite the grand gesture--the socio-hygienic equivalent of presenting me with a bottle of champagne.

Though this is the most colorful illustration of cross-cultural toilet protocol in my book, it's amazing how frequently international travelers end up debating this topic. Just last winter I was staying in Rio de Janeiro for several weeks, and the presence of a bidet in my bathroom got a friend and I to discussing how excessive it seemed to have a separate ass-washing appliance when you already have a toilet.

The more we thought about it, however, the more we realized that a bidet is really a quite practical device, and that the cultures who use them are invariably more hygienic as a result. By comparison, it would seem that Americans put more thought and care in cleaning their cars than in cleaning their asses.

One prominent American advocate of proper ass hygiene is film director Barry Sonnenfeld, who in a 2004 Esquire article endorsed Tuck's medicated pads as "an instant portable bidet" and "a romp through a field of daisies for your butt." His argument quite compellingly continued as follows:

You know how when you're done with a plate of ribs or a fine three-pound lobster, you're desperately looking forward to wiping your hands with a moist towelette? Well, Tucks are moist towelettes for your ass. Take an entire roll of toilet paper. Keep wiping until the paper is as clean as when it came off the roll. Not a speck of fecal matter? Okay.

Now take a single Tucks, place it across your three middle fingers and wipe. The amount of sadness on the pad will make you faint.

A vivid endorsement indeed. Now I'm off to buy some Tucks.

You can follow the rest of Rolf Potts' virtual book tour online, or see him in person at one of 20 cities nationwide as he celebrates the release of Marco Polo Didn't Go There (Travelers' Tales, 2008). Grab the book at Amazon.com, or follow Rolf's tour diary at Gadling starting September 29.

Tomorrow's virtual book tour stop will be at National Geographic Traveler: Intelligent Travel. To read yesterday's tour stop, go to Brave New Traveler.

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