What six years on the road taught me about being a woman

In India the bum rises before the sun. Those who have taken an early morning Mumbai local, leaning out over the tracks fighting off the city’s morning breath, know what I’m talking about. It may be an embarrassment for most of us, but our propensity for open defecation holds a certain kind of tourist in thrall. Varanasi, to most western tourists, cements the idea of India they come seeking. A Bavarian friend I made recently sang its praises. “Yeah, it’s dirty,” he told me. “But that’s what I find incredible.”

Women travellers don’t have it easy on a long bus ride.

A recent photo-feature on Varanasi (graphic content, discretion advised) by a Chinese tourist made stink waves for depicting a dismayingly graphic picture of India’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Besides painting Varanasi as a necropolis of half-decayed human and animal corpses, the photographer did not turn his camera away from the minefields of human faeces.

Is that what Incredible India is about? A showcase of s**t?

Visitors to India sometimes leave with the impression that we as a people were doing our business in the open before the Dutch came by and introduced the idea of a sit-down lavatory. Incidentally, the Dutch word for the latrine, kakhuis, seeped into Indian vocabulary in a number of languages. Fact: The Indian subcontinent is not new to the idea of a water-washed toilet. Archaeologists exploring the ruins of Indus Valley sites in Harappa have found evidence of wet toilets connected to sewerage systems. We’re talking of more than 3,500 years ago. Surely, it can’t take this long to fix the flush?

Convinced that information technology could wash away this social malaise, I talked to a couple of software developers about building a smartphone app that would help travellers locate clean, safe loos around India. Imagine that. A free app – call it Map-My-Loo if you will – that searches a database of geo-tagged, user-rated loos by proximity, cleanliness and safety.

They nodded, clicked their tongues, scratched their stubbles, made obligatory notes and were never heard from again.

Unsurprisingly, both were men