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$h*t Happens

This week marks the beginning of my eighth month in India. Over the course of this time, I have heard two things regarding Yaks quite frequently. The first is that people love “daily routine” Yaks, a glimpse into our everyday for our parents and friends at home. The second is that my parents really want me to write a Yak. They have been so impressed with all the other students’ Yaks. Why haven’t you written more Yaks, Lena? So here I am, writing a yak, although I doubt my parents will be as fond with this topic as they were with the theme of Tom Earl’s “Driving to Kashmir.”

The theme of this yak is shit.

A reality of my daily routine is my constant interaction with poop. The smell of poop, consistency of poop, the frequency of poop, the sheer gravity of poop. It’s so important. Let me explain.

The first and most obvious source of poop in my life is my own. Upon arrival in India, my group and I were introduced to the “poop scale,” an aspect of our check-in agenda. In addition to rating our physical and mental energy on a 1-10 scale, we also would rate the consistency of our poop. Best described by Uttara Pant, a ten on the poop scale is rock solid. A one on the poop scale? Uttara simply placed her bright orange Nalgene on the table. “Water.” What’s a five, then? Imagine an easy release, followed by a satisfying “plop.”

Poop became an open, important topic of discussion. Something we often ignored at home was now critical, as our bowel activity would be the first indicator if we became sick, dehydrated, infected, etc. Our group got creative, adding multiple dimensions to the scales, incorporating ratings for gas and, as we refer to it, spiciness.

When I think about the amount of shit I carry around during the day, it is astonishing. I think of pooping as a cleansing of sorts. Passing all of that out of my body has become an important release of each day. Recently, being ill, I realized how much I value a good poop, how unpredictable and unforgiving my digestive system can be, and how generously kind it is to me the majority of the time. Occasionally there is the less than pleasing pooping experience, like this morning when I went to flush the toilet with a forcefully applied bucket of water and ended up splashing poop all over our program house bathroom. (It has been thoroughly sanitized.) But on the whole, I have developed gratitude for (and a intimate knowledge of) my own poop.

The second most obvious source of poop in daily life is the poop on the streets. Udaipur streets are home to a plethora of cows, dogs, pigs, and the occasional donkey. The likelihood of stepping on, rolling through, tripping into a pile of poop, is, needless to say, high. You smell it. You wear it. You live with it.

The poop scale is no strange topic on the Yak Board, as every Dragons group interacts with it, nor is the poop covering the streets. Poop is comical to most Americans or Westerners, kind of childish, a topic often joked about, but generally considered dirty. Poop is considered to be waste, be it from a human or another animal.

At the organization with which I volunteer, Shikshantar, I have learned a very different lesson about poop. Poop is considered the farthest thing from waste, actually. It is a resource, sought after, valued and utilized. My boss, Manish, told me in my first days that there was a tradition for new interns and volunteers. At some point, I would be provided a bucket, and told to get out onto the street and not come back until I had filled a bucket with gohber, or cow manure. I have yet to receive this particular assignment, but I have been tasked multiple times with sourcing gohber, both fresh and in dried patties.

One of my jobs at Shikshantar is helping in the garden. As Udaipur has been in a drought, we water the garden two or three times a week, as well as mix our own fertilizer, and use food scraps to maintain a healthy compost pile. The fertilizer we make is called “amrit juel”, and consists of gohber, cow urine, jagree or raw sugar, and water. Occasionally, basin (chickpea flour) is added. If fertilizer is plant food, this stuff is plant steroids. It is a miracle drug for the dried and often ailing plants in our garden, which gets exposed to the harsh Rajasthani sun everyday without fail. If not for the poop, nothing would grow.

My favorite use for poop, however, is as a cooking medium. Stay with me here. The most quintessential Rajasthani dish is Dal Bhati. This dish has two components. The first is dal, made with local lentils, a staple of Northern Indian cuisine. Bhati is less common. They are ridiculously dense balls of dough, about the size of a baseball, with a hardened shell and softer center. When eaten, you crumble the bhati into small pieces, pour dal on top, and mix. There is a Marwari phrase that roughly translates to “the bhati demand water.” As compact as they are, most are unaware of what they have actually consumed until an hour later, when your stomach has expanded to twice it’s usual size and you’re incredibly thirsty. Countless myths surround bhati, most relating to Rajasthan’s desert climate. Bhati keep people hydrated, as they make you thirsty, they keep longer and better that simple rotis in the long, dry desert days, the list goes on.

However the most interesting thing about bhati is how they are traditionally cooked. Bhati are rolled into balls, and baked in ash. Not just any ash, but the ash of dried gohber patties that have been already burned. To cook the bhati, they are buried in the heap of ash, turned occasionally, but mostly left to bake in the remains of the gohber. Once hardened and browned on the outside, the bhati are removed and wiped off, then ideally served immediately.

I have made bhati like this a handful of times. Today, most make bhati on the stovetop or in a microwave oven, like my homestay. Few people in the city still use the traditional cooking process. But I’m so grateful that I have had opportunities to learn how. Dal Bhati is one of my absolute favorite dishes to cook, eat and share. It also perfectly encapsulates my journey with poop. At first, I was thoroughly repulsed by the idea of cow poop ash touching my food in any capacity. It felt dirty and deeply wrong. Even when I began cooking it for the first time, it was the respect I had for my friends and colleagues teaching me that kept me from expressing my disgust. But the longer I watched those bhatis brown, buried the mountain of grey ash, the more I tasted different bhatis, the more I saw the versatility of poop, and the vital role it plays in traditional Rajasthani culture. And my conclusion? The ash-baked bhati has no rival. It is the best.

I use a lot of poop in my everyday life here in Udaipur. So at the end of the day, when I have an excess of shit on my hands, what do I do with it? We put it into the compost. We let it sit, and sit, and sit some more, and after a while, it feeds something new, most likely the garden. My instructor Sarah reminded me recently that this is also a perfect metaphor for life, as most things can be twisted into with enough effort. When shit comes up, sometimes the best and only thing to do is let it sit for a while. And one day, a good thing could come from it. One day, you may just be able to use it for something, to grow something new. This lesson is perhaps one of the most valuable that I will take from my time here. In the face of an abundance of shit, there is always the compost pile.

Have I totally fallen for poop? No. Have I become a full-fledged feces fanatic? Absolutely not. Will I be chasing down the street cows with a bucket, hoping to collect some fresh gohber? I don’t leave Udaipur for another two weeks, and can’t realistically count this out. However, I do have limits. I’ve drawn the line at using gohber ash as toothpaste, and using fresh goat shit as an eczema treatment. Seven months is a long time, but not that long. But my appreciation for poop is deeper and wider than I ever thought possible. I’ve seen it feed people and plants. I’ve seen it revered. I’ve seen it sit and help things grow.

To conclude, in life and incredibly frequently on Bridge Year, shit happens. And thank God it does.