Really, it’s the kind of unique cultural experience that you travel for..
From Morocco to Bangladesh, use your left hand to eat with, pick stuff up in the grocery store or even worse, to shake someone else’s hand and you’ll be considered a filthy barbarian. You might be forgiven for your ignorance if the locals take into account that you’re a Westerner but most Arabs, Turks, Africans, Iranians, Indians and Thais could just never imagine sinking to your level of squalid personal hygiene.
What on earth am I talking about?
When travelers head to the bathroom in North Africa, the Middle East and most of Asia they’re often confounded by the lack of toilet paper. They’re presented with a tap and a jug or maybe even the luxury option of a little hose pipe but nothing in sight with which to clean their behinds. For most people in the above mentioned countries, however, nothing could be more disgusting than to think of wiping with paper.
When I first went to India at the tender age of 18 I was already aware that this small cultural leap of faith awaited me and I did my best to learn as much as I could about toilet etiquette. One particularly merciless friend fooled me by saying:
‘Yeah, you’ll see travelers everywhere in India comparing how brown their fingers are…’
But try as I might on that first day in Delhi, everyone’s hands looked perfectly clean. Then came the moment of truth after my first curry, squatting down over the Indian toilet, reaching around with the hand and… it felt surprisingly good. I discovered a part of my own body that had always been out of sight and out of mind, the least conversational area of the human anatomy – unless you happen to be a traveler in India in which case a discussion of your recent bouts of diarrhea is a normal topic at the breakfast table.
Within no time I was using my left hand and water to wash and soon couldn’t imagine doing otherwise. For one thing it marked apart the travelers from the tourists and I took great pride in pointing out:
‘Look, if you had some excrement under your armpit would you use tissue paper to clean it or water?’
With closets full of chemical cleaning products and electric trimmers for ‘unsightly nasal hair’ (God bless you, Mr Remington) most people in the West imagine they live a clean, hygienic lifestyle. It comes as a shock to most of them then to learn that the average Muslim, Hindu or South East Asian considers them to be rather dirty.
It’s been suggested that the British might never have lost control over India had they adopted the local culture of personal hygiene. For while Indian streets may be some of the most squalid in the world, Indians themselves spend hours everyday cleaning and purifying their bodies. Yes, they hawk up lumps of mucous in the morning and don’t hesitate before spitting it out into the gutter but the idea of wiping one’s nose with a handkerchief and then putting it back into the pocket would be almost inconceivable.
So when backpackers wear the same shirt two days in a row, blow their nose with tissue paper and, worse, block up the plumbing system with wads of toilet roll, small wonder that locals hold their breath when we pass.
It’s been 13 years since I first set foot in India and I haven’t used toilet paper since. I can’t even bring myself to sit down on a Western lavatory any more, preferring to lift the seat and squat on the rim Asian-style. I clean myself every morning with almost Indian thoroughness, scraping the gunk off my tongue and the back of my throat when I brush my teeth and keeping my nails short at all times.
Then again, my last girlfriend left me because she couldn’t stand to see me spitting in the gutter any more…