As a fresh-off-the-boat graduate student at USC, I was mighty impressed with, among other things, the quality of the restrooms on campus.
Well, "restroom" was a word I quickly learnt after a funny experience. I wanted to check out Waite Phillips Hall on campus. As I entered the building, I asked a young guy who was on his way out for the direction to the lift. He looked at me with a quizzical expression, shrugged his shoulders and kept going.
Turned out that the "lift" was obviously there. But, it might have been that I had used the word "lift" in place of the word "elevator." And, my accent, of course.
In any case, "lift" and "toilet" were words that I quickly deleted from my very, very, limited vocabulary. The restrooms were mighty clean.
But, oddly enough, it took me only a few days to up my expectations for how clean restrooms ought to be on campus. So, I started making a mental list of the better restrooms to go to, and the not so good that I wanted to avoid.
When it came to restrooms, all libraries were certainly not created equal. My favorites were the ones in the philosophy library and the ones in the basement of Doheny Library. I even preferred to walk a couple of minutes to these locations than to use the less than clean ones.
Ironical was this practice, given that it was only a few weeks since I had left India where public restrooms were rare, and I tried to avoid using them as much as I could!
Now, after my limited travel experiences, I have even started using the conditions of public restrooms as some kind of a crude measure of conditions in a place. Even at the high school reunion, I ended up checking out the restrooms for students and taking photos there.
In the restroom barometer, conditions in India definitely seem to be improving.
In the "family reunion" phase of this trip, we went to Mahabalipuram. As we started driving, I asked the driver, Balaji, about restrooms there and along the way. He hesitantly replied that good restrooms are rare, but that they would be clean at the place where he was going to take us for lunch.
"But ..." I started. "It is a place where lots of tourists go. Especially foreigners. Then how come?"
Balaji paused. Then he said, "that is what we also cannot understand, sir. I think we Indians don't maintain things well."
He then went on to describe the "petrol bunks" that Reliance had started along highways. These were stations with restrooms, and mini-food marts, like how most US gas stations are. But, apparently they soon became horrible restrooms. In any case, he said Reliance has closed them all.
Just outside the administrative boundaries of Mahabalipuram was the restaurant that Balaji said had clean restrooms. After we parked there, we men headed to the gents toilet.
It was clean. Really clean.
When the women were done and as we got back into the van, I asked them about the women's toilets. They were also clean.
Score that for India's progress.
It was a similar experience when we all went to Express Avenue--a new mall in Chennai. It is certainly upscale. And, yes, the restrooms were clean.
Now, one might yet criticize that these two locations are not geared to serve the average Indian. True. But, even for the above-average Indians, such options of clean restrooms did not exist a few years ago.
There are two challenges for India then: first is to make sure that the maintenance of facilities like these continues. Second, for similar facilities to become available to "aam aadmi" too.