One time I peed my pants.
It was December 1994. I was in Kathmandu. I’d spent the past month in the mountains in western Nepal, a long bus ride from the capital to a lowland town, then a short flight to a mountain village, then a three-day hike to the cluster of huts where I hung out for those weeks, chilled, often homesick, usually lost, and mostly unsuccessful in the little research project I’d made up for myself. I slept in a sleeping bag on a mat on a clammy dirt floor. I ate with the village family who was kind enough to host me: rice, lentils, potatoes. I daydreamed about cheese.
I returned to Kathmandu on an overnight bus. It was 12 hours across the hot lowlands. I tried to sleep with my head against the half-open window, and ended up with a pounding headache from the wind and the bumps and vibrations of the bus. I was grubby from weeks without enough water to really get clean, wearing the same clothes I’d worn, unwashed, for most of the trip, and wiry from all those days walking. The bus arrived in the city just after sunrise, and I went straight to a favorite student hangout, a breakfast joint, and devoured a plate of pancakes and a pot of coffee.
I planned to spend the next week staying in a guest house, writing up my research report on a borrowed computer. I was ready to check in and head to my room for a long shower, but on my way I stopped at a little grocery store to pick up some food for those days.
It was a grocery store by 1994 Kathmandu standards, which is to say about an eighth the size of your average American gas station convenience store, and with basic (though, in that context, exotic) merchandise: bread, jam, peanut butter, candy, cheeses. You could buy produce and meat easily in the outdoor markets; these were prepared foods, provisions for the backpacks of trekkers and snacks for the pockets of tourists wanting something a bit like home.
I walked into that store with my filthy green backpack over one shoulder. I picked up a red plastic shopping basket and stopped in front of the first set of shelves, stacked with Snickers and Smarties and Mars bars and all varieties of Cadbury’s chocolates. And suddenly there was something warm and wet running down my leg, soaking my thick cotton kurta and eventually my raunchy wool sock as well.
At the time I couldn’t figure out why it happened. I even went, a day later, to a clinic to find out whether I had some sort of infection. The doctor told me I’d probably just drunk too much coffee.
Now it’s obvious: I was in sensory overload; more specifically, luxury overload. For those weeks, I’d been isolated, hungry, and away from almost everything I knew as comfortable. And then there I was, beholding three hundred chocolate bars. What could I do but fill my hiking boot with urine?
When what I have doesn’t seem like enough, I think about that village in the mountains, and about returning from there to the life that’s mine. That grocery store would seem sparse and tiny to just about anyone in this country, but the scene was enough to make me empty my bladder on the spot. In a way I think I went to Nepal in the first place—and to that remote village—in order to have that experience. To move so far outside the familiar that I could come back and know it in a new way. It’s a hackneyed reason for travel to the developing world, but it was mine, and I got what I was after.
I’m thinking of this these days because A is in such a remote place. He doesn’t hear the doom and gloom headlines or get a constant stream of witty and informative comments via Twitter or eat anything but overcooked vegetables and stewed fruit and gravy-covered meat. He bathes with a bucket of water twice a week and pees in the snow. And here I am, with proverbial fistfuls of proverbial chocolate bars, and feeling, on occasion, that the world is desolate, that we’re all getting poor, that the weather is terrible. It would take a lot, these days, to put me into such luxury overload that I’d need a change of clothes. And yet, look what I’ve got: so much more than a rack of candy bars.
Maybe the day A comes home, I’d better put some newspaper down on the floor.