Nomads and Bathrooms


“Did you take your shower this week?” I ask Baby D’s babysitter. She’s sitting in the Louis XV chair I inherited from my French grandparents, her favorite, waiting for Baby D to finish her breakfast. Her hair is combed back neatly into two plaits. The sleeves of her heavy Tibetan robes are bundled behind her. Perched on the elegant antique she looks like she’s entered the wrong movie set. The story of our lives; East meets West in a head-on collision. Behind her, through the living room windows, the plateau is laid out, green and lush, a perfect summer scene.


“Of course I did. Wouldn’t miss it! I am quite a clean woman,” she adds beaming. Rare for our older female employees she isn’t bothered by the new Norlha rule; once a week mandatory showers for all employees. Once a week might seem like a stretch but for many of these nomads it’s the first time in their lives they’ve taken regular showers. When we introduced the concept of hygiene and the need for personal cleanliness, it was the first time many of our employees had ever had full body showers.


“The shower was burning hot though,” she adds, shifting a little in her beautiful chair.


“Don’t tell me you still don’t know how to use the faucet?”


“Yes, it must be that. The younger kids are all saying that the temperature is perfect, but I just seem to keep getting freezing cold or burning hot.”


“Come here,” I say beckoning her towards the kitchen sink. She gets up a little uncertainly and shuffles over. “Ok. Now can you find me warm water here?”


“What do you mean ‘find’?” she asks looking a little skeptical. The word find seems to have complicated the task in her mind.

“Ok,” I say calmly and twist the knob to one extreme. “That’s cold. Here, feel it.”


She holds out a knobby hand. “Yes,” she says happily.


“Now, if you turn the other way, the water gets hotter,” I explain. “Here you try.”


She yanks the knob in the other extreme and lets the water stream onto her hands. “This is perfect,” she says as the water heats up. Suddenly she lets out a yelp and her hand jumps from under the tap. “See it always happens. I think it’s perfect but then it just keeps getting hotter!” She snaps accusingly. “Why can’t it just stay at the right temperature?”


“Ok, now turn it back slowly until you get the temperature you want.”


The sixty-two-year old nomad yanks at the knob again and just when she thinks she’s found the right temperature, it turns freezing cold. “See,” she says accusingly.


“You have to turn it slowly and find the right temperature,” I coax her.


“You can’t teach us old people these things. They’re too complicated.”


I get impatient. “It’s not an airplane you’re learning to fly. Just don’t yank the knob, turn it slowly.”


I watch from behind as she practices at the sink. “Too cold, too cold, too cold, ahhh perfect … No … No. Nooooo, it’s burning again! How can I know it’s at the right spot when it keeps changing! With the things they can do now, you would think a push of the button would give you the right temperature! And here we are still having to ‘find’ the right temperature! I’ve had enough.” She stomps back to her Louis XV chair.


I am actually quite proud of Acha Tsering. Despite having suffered through freezing showers and burning ones, as well as an episode of locking herself in the bathroom for over an hour, she still insists on taking her once-a-week showers.


For one man, at least, it didn’t go so well. It was the first time in his life he’d showered. The week after his first shower he claimed he had diarrhea. The next week, after his second shower, he was met with the same calamity. He indignantly stated that high land people aren’t meant to wash themselves. “It’s like having a layer of protective skin pealed off,” he explained, referring to the years of accumulated dirt. “Without this my pores are exposed to the cold. I just feel naked! And then I get sick!”


“Let’s just keep trying for a couple more weeks and then see if your body gets used to it,” he was told by Dunko.


Bathrooms literally do not exist in the village. Even outhouses are rare. “But where do you go?” I asked during one of my early visits. There were giggles and then someone thrust out his arms and said with a grin, “Anywhere!”


At the workshop we built the first bathrooms with running water in the area. One day I was crossing the courtyard when a group of women called out to me, “Dechen! Dechen! Come here!” Some were laughing as they waved me over. I walked in the direction of the bathroom. Water was gushing out of the taps in the sink. “We just wanted to try it and now we don’t know how to stop the water,” they said in chorus. I twisted the tap and the water went from a gush to a dribble and then stopped. The women roared with laughter. They had been pushing at the knob and hadn’t thought of twisting it. “Well, aren’t we stupid,” they laughed. “But how did you turn it on in the first place?” I asked perplexed. “It was her,” they said pointing to a blushing girl. “And then she didn’t know how she did it!”


Later that year, we started construction on our own house. During lunch break, the women would go in herds for a tour of this “modern house.” “What’s that?” they asked pointing to a toilet. Their manager, a more worldly woman, explained that this was where people went to the bathroom. There was a roar of laughter as the women, not being in the presence of men, took turns sitting on the toilet. “Who would’ve ever thought of such a thing! A chair with a hole to do your business! You’re joking, right? I mean who could take themselves seriously seated on such a thing! It’s like a throne! A special seat just for pooping? What will they think of next?”


From the very beginning I dreamed of a shower house for the employees. Due to budget constraints it was years until we finally managed to install two showers. We set up a schedule and posted it so every single one of the 120 employees had time to take a shower once a week. Those who failed to show up for their slot would have to pick up garbage on Saturday afternoons. Surprisingly, there was little opposition. Most were happy and thankful for the opportunity even though there were some problems early on. For most women, it was the first full body shower of their lives. They didn’t know how to use the taps or unlock the door. Poor Acha Tsering spent one hour in the shower room, shouting for the guards to help her. She didn’t realize that the latch had a small knob that needed to be clicked in order for the door to open.


“I really gave the guards something to talk about this week,” she said laughing. Sure enough, it became the talk of the workshop.


But as time wanes, there are fewer stories of freezing, burning or being locked in the bathroom. These days most employees eagerly anticipate their turn. For me, well, nomads are taking showers! My world is the rainbow that shines after a heavy storm, following a long drawn out draught; the perfect summer scene.

One thought on “Nomads and Bathrooms

  1. Thank you for writing about Tibetan facilities. You have literally brought tears to my eyes on bathroom incidents.
    A stark reminder of walking half a mile to bathe down in the icy cold Machu with my good hearted sister-in-laws who were my minders to scare off curious soap hunting yak, gawping children and twinkly eyed old men.

    Joking aside encouraging better personal hygiene, particularly amongst the ladies, the primary care givers, is admirable.

    Wishing all the very best for your projects.

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