2016, Cheap Travel in India, Foreign in India, India and public health, India: the unexceptional, Indian bathrooms and showers, Indian filth, Indian government incompetence, Indian Hotels, Indifferent Indian government, Kohlapur, Maharashtra photos, Sanitation in India, The Ordinary in India, The poor in India, Travel in Maharashtra, Uncategorized, Unromanticized travel

Keeping Clean in India

KOLHAPUR–I made it back to my hotel, just, stomach churning from the hotel’s plain omelet this morning, I think. The kitchen is mediocre at best, but I haven’t had a problem before with an omelet. Today, I could take only a couple of bites. It was rancid.

Whatever. Maybe it was one of a hundred other things, or just a malevolent stray bacterium adhering to something I touched–a tea cup rim, or the silverware lying flat on the omelet, placed there neatly by the unsoaped, sweet-acting waiter, a wall outside, a public monument.

I am fond of India, but it is overly mild to call it exasperating.

I had taken a tuk-tuk (which this miserable uninstructable auto-correct always wants to turn into yuk-yuk) west to the celebrated Gandhi Maidan, a dusty open area just east of Lake Rankala. The lake is a a 400-acre waist-deep body of water presented on maps as blue, though it is a stew of sewage and trash. But, legs crossed and breathing shallowly, I made it back, and safe at last, relieved, I was soon sitting as usual after an excursion on the plastic stool in the shower, scrubbing my feet.

My shower, Hotel Pearl, Kolhapur

I lather them with soap and wash carefully between my toes with my indispensable fingernail brush. The bottoms are more difficult, and though I do this at least twice a day and scrub my sandals, also with bar soap, or laundry detergent or shampoo, my heels remain nearly black, even after the fingernail brush. When I rinse the suds off, the water runs dark to the drain.

I wear sandals instead of shoes because I can kind of clean the sandals. The shoes, after my months of walking in Indian cities, down slum lanes and the much dirtier main streets, would be poisonous by now. I keep them in my pack, all clean, and I’d turn to my flip-flops before lacing them up.

I make these notes because in a few months, back home, I will have forgotten how dirty it is here. It may seem unnecessary to mention, comparable to pointing out that Saudi Arabia is intolerant or that the dog pound at Cleveland games lacks a sense of fair play. But the filth is deep and pervasive and Indians are oblivious to it. That’s interesting.

I’ve seen squalor in many places, including individual apartments in our inner-city slums, or in the Middle East, where trash and garbage is pitched over the wall and forgotten. In Kuwait, the rats scurried in the piles at night, but the Kuwaitis hired workers from Bangladesh and Yemen and Egypt to pick it all up. Here, it just moulders where it falls.

Northward on public road adjacent to Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

The trash–the plastic bags and sugar cane stalks and wires and discarded flip-flops, more plastic, snack packaging, broken machines–is everywhere. It fills the parks and the sewage trenches, blows across the maidan, and rims  the lake, which has crumbling pavilions and battered fences suggesting a cleaner past; and grotesque as it is, the trash is the most bearable of the dirt.

Public road at Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

The streets are uncleaned, except with whisks, and the sidewalks, the public walls, every empty lot. I don’t mention this just to be an impolite visitor but to highlight the self-imposed degradation to which humans can become accustomed. As I sit in my hotel room now, writing, the room smells of burning garbage from the lot next door.

An image I can’t push out of my mind is from relatively clean Baramati, Swiss-like in comparison to Bombay or Pune or most of Tamil Nadu. I stayed in the plush Baramati Club in a wealthy neighborhood. It was about a half mile on narrow streets past new apartment buildings to the main road, where I could catch a tuk-tuk into town. Returning one afternoon, I saw two professional men standing on an apartment balcony, talking. One finished a Pepsi, and without looking or pausing in conversation, he pitched it to his left down into the empty lot next door. I glanced over the wall. He had done it before, often. He was a pudgy man who apparently drank a lot of soft drinks and ate chips and other snacks, and the rest of the building’s garbage was there as well, a corner of it smoldering, a nasty smell that even beyond the urine smell from convenient walls and alleys across the country is the most familiar smell of India. India is burning garbage, urine, and fumes from millions of scooters and cycles and tuk-tuks and fuming buses with slick tires, spit, uncleaned public toilets, raw sewage. Pigs were rooting in the Pepsi drinker’s heap.

But it is the surfaces that are unavoidable, caked with decades of dirt, embedded grime, never washed–the streets, the buses, the walls, the rubbly roadsides.

The crumbling pavilion at Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

It’s fair to generalize about such things. The cleaning, in the hotels where I stay, on the streets, in the parks, in every public place, is done by the very poor. They usually have nothing but a whisk. They seldom have soap or other equipment. They have no training, and no supervision. If they’re workers on city property, they’re often hired by private contractors who take the contract money, kick back some to the corrupt officials who awarded the contract, and then cheat the workers of a portion of their tiny wages. The workers go through the motions, but they spend much of their  time sitting, having by their presence relieved other Indians of a need to look at what they’re walking in.

Most surfaces here, even in my cleanish hotel room, are infectious. I bought a couple of cleaning rags when I arrived and scrub as well as I can when I arrive in a new room. I do it daily, obsessed I suppose it might seem to the unexposed like a latter day Howard Hughes, and I use a sanitizing hand cleaner from Kroger and otherwise wash my hands again and again. My sanitizer is supposed to have a citrus scent, but when I put it on it outside it has a smell of urine.

I watched poor women this morning, all of them barefoot, wash clothes in the lake, just beside the happily gurgling water buffalo who were being scrubbed by their tender. I wash my own clothes here by hand, and I have a routine. I put my underwear and T-shirt from the day before, shorts if needed, in the five gallon bucket which is in every hotel bathroom. I add a small packed of Tide or Surf and suds it up for a minute, then go to breakfast. When I come back, after an hour, I slush for another two minutes in the suds, pour out the brown water and rinse for several more minutes under the running water. It works. I can do the same to myself.

Women washing clothes in lake

At Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

The women arrive with a large basin of clothes (never any bedsheets or towels). They wet them in  the basin, and some add soap such as I use, but they can’t take the time to soak. They would be there all day. They smack the shirts or pants or once-bright sari cloth on the rocks, or twist them up and rub them hard on the rocks, then rinse in the lake water. They work at it, but the clothes are never cleaned, and on the streets most people look dingy.

Because they have no space at home, the women often dry the clothes by stretching them out flat on the trash-covered, pissed-upon dirt by the lake, or, in other towns, on the river bank.

Washing buffaloes and clothes, Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

Another image, and a fair one, I think, is from Phaltan, a town of Dickensian grimness south of Baramati. Adjacent the pleasant Hotel Jeet Paradise in a relatively prosperous neighborhood, the kids play cricket on a rutted empty lot ringed with trash and piles of burning garbage. It doesn’t occur to anyone, the proprietors of the hotel, the fathers who take their children there to play, to clean it up, and so a boy running after the bouncing ball jumps without thought over piles of trash and skirts rubble and avoids as he can the piles left by the neighborhood cows.

And, interestingly, on Indian television, the streets are alway clean and the peasants newly washed, just as, I suppose, our commercial images–perky, bright acting employees of Wal-Mart or Burger King–depict what we want to be true.

I think it’s related, or it seems so from my perspective: In today’s Indian Express and Times of India, which often print the same stories, a small article mentioned that 80 percent of the graduates of India’s thousands of engineering schools are unemployable, because they have no useful skills. That’s deplorable, of course, and the papers clucked disapprovingly today–standards must be raised! They have the same tone when, as today, “a shocking incident,” arises, they conclude, from the stress of failed exams or college debt (three female students at the Yoga and Naturopathy college at Chinna Salem in Tamil Nadu, despairing at their inability to pay “exorbitant fees,” jumped into a well  yesterday and died). Tomorrow another two or three engineering schools will open, and more students or debt-ridden farmers will commit suicide.

Filth and and public graft are flip sides of the same coin (e.g., Flint, Michigan).

One must acknowledge that the same conditions exist at our own proliferating diploma mills, which hand out worthless degrees in return for a quick buck, though our diminished sense of public honor may lead less often to suicide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
2016, Cheap Travel in India, India and public health, Indian bathrooms and showers, Indian bureaucracy, Indian Press, Lack of toilets, Sanitation in India, Shitting by the road, The poor in India, Travel in India, Travel in Maharashtra

Kolhapur Hurrah! ODF!

I will be here to see it not happen.

Kolhapur will be the first Maharashtran city to “Achieve 100% Target,” the Times of India said yesterday (Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016), referring to ODF, with funding coming from “corporate social responsibility initiatives” (the city) as well as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It will happen by Republic Day on Jan. 26.

The Times of India, Jan. 19, 2016, p. 2

For those who have been living somewhere unplugged, “ODF” means “open defecation-free,” or, maybe, “open-defecation free.” Kolhapurians, by the end of the month will no longer PIP (Poop in Public).

The good word comes from Vijay Patil, Kolhapur’s chief sanitation inspector, who told the Times that four years ago over 1,150 families in the city of about 400,000 lacked a toilet, a number that has been reduced to 113 by “efforts undertaken through various goverment schemes and sensitising programmes.” He added that SBA (“Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” or “Clean India Mission”) money has been used to build public toilets for “around 27 families.” The story didn’t explain why that number was uncertain.

Public toilet, Kolhapur

SBA was begun by the Prime Minister a year ago and Kolhapur would have already made “the Smart City list,” but couldn’t last year, “owing to the open defecation cases.”

The story adds that 10 toilets for women have also been built on an unexplained BOT (“build operate and transfer”) scheme and plans are afoot for 20 more.

Mr. Patil didn’t detail the exact costs of each toilet, the drain on the city budget, the locations, or the style (Japanese modern? American standard? French pre-war?), and the Times didn’t ask. The story didn’t mention a CRPT (“Clean Reeking Public Toilets”) plan.

 

 

 

Standard
2013, 2014, Bad hotel, Cheap Travel in India, Indian bathrooms and showers, Rameshwarum, Shooting midgets, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel

The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget)

The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget).

Standard
2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Indian bathrooms and showers, Indian Hotels, Rameshwarum, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel

The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget)

Early March, 2014, RAMESHWARUM, Tamil Nadu

It had been a grueling 180 kilometer trip in a horn-tooting auto-rickshaw from Tuticorin to Pambam Island and Rameshwaram. When I arrived in late afternoon the temple town’s slippery lanes were teeming  with sober pilgrims to the 12th century Ramanathaswamy Temple. It is a commercialized memorial to Lord Rama’s attempt to rescue his wife Sita from the evil Ravanai.

Sri Lanka lies  just a few miles to the east.

The first four hotels I tried were dingy and  full. The general manager of the last called me back as I was leaving and with an air of magnanimity made an offer: a “suit” for 3,800 rupees, a staggering $61. It was a suite because it had an unlighted ante-room with a conference table. In the bedroom, two emperor-sized beds had been pushed together, creating mattress space but little roll room for at least eight chaste pilgrims. The bathroom was the normal bathroom for a single room.

I went next door to the Rama Palace, a two-story building set in a well-tended compound with much of the trash and garbage thrown over the wall.

Prabakaran, the 22-year-old co-manager and a graduate of a regional college for hotel administrators, showed me room 105. The sheets were short but looked clean, I would have doors both to the lobby and to the driveway and windows that opened. The uneven curtains were undecided whether to be raw or burnt umber, with decorative swirls. The walls were prison green, and just beyond the foot of the bed finger streaks at about four feet fell toward the floor where a midget had been shot. The shelves had an empty Fanta bottle with dead ants, a newspaper page dating to the previous fall and a bent plastic flower. I saw nothing moving.

The bathroom was across the lobby through an unmarked door: the cold-water shower was in the first stall, an old-style squat toilet was in the second, partially blocked by an overturned plastic bucket and a stiff mop.

“The toilet!” Prabakaran said with a flourish.

It all went for 600.

Prabakaran’s co-manager, a handsome but glum one-legged man I immediately thought of as Golm, sneered, though it made no sense. He swung away with his one crutch to the lobby sofa and stretched out facing the wall.

“What happened to your leg,” I asked him later, when he was sitting up.

“Bad man!” He glared.

I was unsure whether he meant me, for asking, or someone who had cut his leg off for some reason. He seemed healed, but maybe the memories were fresh.

The next morning the ancient city and temple called. I found my knees still worked for the squat toilet, then moved to the dim shower stall. I had the tiny bar of hotel soap, my shampoo, my finger-nail brush and my bath puffy in a plastic bag.

I had walked through  the unusually demented traffic of Rameshwarum the evening before in bayou heat but had fallen into bed unwashed except for water from the wall spigot I splashed on my head and feet. I had considered a shower, but the stall was daunting in the twilight, and I was tired. Now, I was sticky.  I needed a long, soaking shower without touching the wall.

I stripped, put my glasses in the pocket of my shorts on the door handle, balanced my puffy atop my purple soap dish, placed my green plastic bottle of Reebonn shampoo for dry and damaged hair in a cleanish spot on the dry and damaged floor and reached for the faucet.

The handle seemed to be missing. I squinted close. Yes, there was no handle.

The shower would not work

The shower would not work

No problem. It had likely fallen off and rolled to a darker corner of the stall or was outside in the larger stall behind one of the plastic buckets or the tipped-over plastic bottles on the shelf or under the wrapper from a bar of soap. Maybe even in the squat room.

I found my glasses, but the handle was gone. I had hopes for the small dark pile of this and that by the old mop. It wasn’t there.

I showered the traditional way, pouring water from the bucket over my head.

“So, the shower?” I said to Prabakaran when he appeared. I hadn’t awakened Golm, who was asleep on the floor. He was the weaker administrator of the two.

Prabakaran frowned, puzzled. Shower?

“Yes, I said. “No handle.” I motioned as though turning on a shower, indicating with fluttering fingers the water falling in the morning light on my dry and damaged head. I pantomimed finding the handle missing. My disappointment and surprise.

He had known the word “shower” yesterday. He had pointed at it and said “shower.”

He was reluctant, but I led him to the toilet room and pointed into the shower cubicle. The faucet handle was still missing.

He cocked his head and looked at me with suspicion. One day, and I had broken his shower. First minutes on the job, and he had to deal with this!

“Yes,” he said, wagging his head. “Plumber. Plumber come.” That meant the problem was solved. He turned to return to his chair by the front door.

“This hotel?” I asked politely, pointing toward the rooms I could see beyond the atrium balcony upstairs. I would appeal to his professionalism. “Pay 600 rupees. Shower broken!” I opened my arms dramatically as though it had exploded. “Want shower! Shower handle.”

“Plumber, “ he repeated. He frowned. Why was I so obstinate?

No, I said, forgoing the measured language of diplomacy. You don’t need a plumber. Give me a pair of  pliers. That will suffice. I imitated using pliers on the de-handled shower stub and celebrated the flow of water.

He grimaced, wrinkled his nose and moued at my pliers. He didn’t understand. It was too technical.

I had been too fast and overly poetic. I pinched my fingers on the grooved stub where the handle should be and tried to turn it. It wouldn’t turn.  I urged Prabakaran to try. He didn’t want to. I pretended I had a pair of long-handled pliers. I turned the stub. Water fell from the shower head. I made sounds of water.

Prabakaran denied pliers. “Plies?” he said, making a sound like a housefly.

He was getting uncomfortable. He had missed the nuance, but he understood I didn’t like the shower. I had paid 600 rupees, nearly $10, for the room. He had promised a toilet and a shower, and it was becoming clear the shower without water wouldn’t satisfy me. He was unacquainted with pliers, yet he knew my complaint was valid. It was a conundrum.

He made a full pirouette. The solution came to him. I saw it at once in his eyes.

He gestured commandingly and led me to room 107, adjacent to my toilet room. Room 107 was the hotel’s Chief Ministerial room, with two triple-size beds pushed together, a bureau, a tiny TV dating from 1969 and an attached toilet. It was the 1,000 rupee room.

He led me in. The bathroom was unbuffed since the last visitor, with coiled black noodles in the sink drain. The flush toilet’s bottom-cleaning hose was lying on the floor, leaking. The mirror had been sneezed on. There was a small dollop of brown stuff on the floor near the toilet, but the room had a shower with a faucet handle

“Lovely,” I said.

“Use shower,” he said, pointing. A small, soft-looking piece of yellow soap was waiting for me in the soap dish.

I tried the handle. It worked. Water dribbled out through the partially clogged shower head.

“And toilet,” I said, pointing and applauding like Richard Simmons. It needed a brushing, but so did the squat toilet. I tried the bottom-washing hose. It wasn’t good. The water jet was weak, but it would probably work for the brown stuff on the floor. Anyway, I had flip-flops.

“Shower,” he said firmly. He seemed displeased that I might use the deluxe toilet as well as the shower and take advantage of his good nature.

“Yes!” I said. “Good job. Shower toilet. Will use. Plumber come!” I was pleased.

He made the decision. “No problem,” he said.

He resumed his administrator’s chair by the front door. The shower complaint had been resolved in only five minutes. This was how to run a hotel!

Golm, who had gotten up and moved to the couch, didn’t agree. He wiggled unhappily and turned again toward the wall, breathing a long, exasperated sigh.  Later, he removed the bar of hotel soap I had thoughtlessly left in the 1,000 rupee soap dish.

Prabakaran (l) and Golm (caught in a rare smile), co-managers of the Rama Palace in Rameshwarum

Prabakaran (l) and Golm (caught in a rare smile), co-managers of the Rama Palace in Rameshwarum

Standard