“The ruins at Panduwasnuwara are from this ancient city that ran on shit,” Josh told me.
“Then we have to go see it,” I said.
So we found ourselves exploring the crumbling brick walls of the utterly abandoned archaeological site with our two wives and two three-year olds. With very few signs telling us what we were looking at, Josh played tour guide, relaying to us what monks had told him on a previous visit: Panduwasnuwara is remarkable for its system of sewers that drained to a central holding tank. When this tank filled, the residents would dry the waste and make fuel out of it.
We wandered the site almost alone, joined by a few Sri Lankan couples more interested in canoodling in the tall grass than in archaeology. When it comes to ancient ruins, Panduwasnuwara isn’t at the top of Sri Lanka’s must-see list. My son and Josh’s daughter were playing together on the walls. Josh’s wife was taking pictures, and Josh was telling my wife and me the little he knew about Shit City as we wandered the ruins.
All this talk of poop alerted me that I needed to make a deposit in the National Bank of Panduwasnuwara. There were no bathrooms around, not even a Port-a-Potty. We were in the middle of the jungle, so clearly I was going to have to pinch one al fresco.
There’s no holding it; if I don’t do it now, I will surely pay the price in thirty seconds when things spiral out of control. My fuse shortens exponentially with each passing year; I am pretty sure I’ll be carrying a just-in-case Big Gulp cup and a pack of baby wipes with my AARP card. I was wise enough to have a sweat-soaked handkerchief in my back pocket. I was wearing light-colored khakis (CUE: foreshadowing music), and we all know that khakis have a narrow margin of error.
I spotted a nice big tree next to the ruins – plenty of privacy. I trotted toward it and began unzipping. My sphincter has ears, and the sound of an unzipped zipper is the equivalent of “Taps” – time to put a few soldiers in their grave.
The bad news: while my sphincter ears were hearing a sweet siren song, my real ears heard the sounds of a young couple making out on the other side of the tree. People within earshot and noseshot made it an automatic no-dumping zone.
The good news: it was a large, empty complex, and I could find another spot for privacy.
I zipped up, shouted at my sphincter to have a smoke and relax, and searched for another spot. An inviting cluster of trees was not too far off, so I headed toward them. The Oompa Loompas were screaming to make chocolate, and I told them to get ready.
That’s when I heard the high, shrill scream of a child’s agony.
I ran toward the wail, now punctuated with sobs. Josh and my wife ran in the same direction, the three of us shouting and running blindly, following the crying child sound to a spot at the far corner of the ruins.
I arrived shortly after Josh’s wife. My son stood on a crumbling brick wall, looking down. Four feet below him, Josh’s daughter lay on the dirt, shrieking and holding her visibly broken forearm which jutted at an awful angle. My son’s face was awash in panic.
“We were just playing on the wall and she fell,” he whispered.
Josh came barreling onto the scene, taking in the sight of his wife comforting his daughter, taking in her broken arm. This normally calm man completely lost his shit at the sight of his broken child. He reached down and scooped up his tiny, sobbing daughter.
“What did you do to her?” he roared at my son.
“Josh!” his wife shouted.
My son froze.
I took a deep breath to keep calm; getting in a fight with Josh about mistreating my son wasn’t going to do anything but make the situation worse. My wife came and wrapped her arms around our son, and Josh cradled his daughter in his arms.
Clearly, we needed to get her to a doctor. We got in our rented van, Josh driving and his daughter sitting on her mother’s lap in front, me and my wife sitting on either side of our silent son in back. We sped to a nearby small town not ten minutes away. Josh stopped the van outside of some sort of backwoods medical facility; I couldn’t read the signs in Sinhala script. He tapped the wheel a few moments and then shook his head. He announced that he couldn’t take her to a village doctor; who knows what kind of treatment she’d get? Josh had significantly more Sri Lanka experience than anyone else in the van, so we bowed to his knowledge.
“We have to go to Kurunegala,” he declared, throwing the van into gear and speeding off down the dirt road.
“But that’s an hour away!” his wife exclaimed.
“We can’t take her to a village doctor,” Josh muttered. He was in a crazed state, and there was no reasoning with him. He glared at my son in the rear view mirror, and I pressed my boy closer to me.
My son whispered to me and my wife, “We were playing. She ran past me and fell off.” I believed him, and he maintained his innocence in the years since.
Josh drove through the jungle like a madman, tearing around buses and cars and three-wheeled tuk-tuks, slamming the brakes for every goat and python in the road. Each time he jerked the van, his daughter cried out and his wife yelled at him to slow down.
That’s when I remembered how badly I had to shit. An hour to Kurunegala! What the fuck was I going to do?
I knew Josh wouldn’t stop, and I sensed that if I did ask him to stop, he was going to unleash a fountain of unpleasant that was going to end with my family abandoned roadside in the middle of the jungle, with no ride home and paternal khakis full of hot jungle shit.
I don’t trust my sphincter. For years, it has promised farts and delivered mudslides. It doesn’t wait for the actual toilet seat to go down; it starts releasing at the first song of unzip. So I couldn’t just clench, not with Benedict Anus on duty. I needed something else. It was time to get a little Zen on my ass. Or in my ass.
This was time for serious visualization exercises. I closed my eyes and took control. What the mind can believe, the colon can achieve. Rather than squeeze my sphincter desperately, I pictured a fist closed firmly around my colon like the neck of an upside-down paper lunch bag. No matter how full that bag gets, ain’t nothing coming out. Road closed, and there is no detour: you’ll just have to wait.
We drove on. Josh’s insanity showed no sign of abating, and as we tore through the jungle at breakneck speed, I kept my mind on the prize. It was working. The pain was still there, but none of the urgency. My wife tried to whisper something to me, and I cut her off: I am trying not to shit my pants and I can’t talk right now. It is a testament to her that she understood and took on comforting our son solo.
Josh’s daughter was coming in and out of an exhausted, pain-drenched fugue state, half-sleeping, half crying. It was easier to concentrate on the Zen fist when she wasn’t crying, and each time the van jerked, I had to redouble my efforts to close the fist. I considered praying for Josh to drive better, but that used precious mental energy.
An excruciating hour later, we were tearing through the streets of Kurunegala, Josh stopping at each intersection to get directions to the hospital. When we arrived on the hospital grounds, we left the van in front of the main entrance, and Josh and I both ran in. He went to the front desk to find out about getting his daughter admitted; I started looking for the toilet. A woman in a habit – either a nurse or a nun or both – directed me to another building.
No toilet in the hospital? You’re shitting me!
This was getting dangerous. Running and nun-critiquing and thinking meant less mental effort expended on my magical clutching fist. Things were churning, and it wasn’t good. I ran to the next building; it was nearly deserted. There were no signs for a toilet. Running was not good, either, so I slowed to a waddle.
Nothing. No toilet. As I exited the building, I was nearly run over by Josh in the van.
“Hop in! This place is a nightmare! It’s filthy. We’re going to Kandy,” he said. Kandy was home, another hour away.
I looked at the maniacal glint in his eye, the child wailing in her mother’s arms. I had no choice: I got in the van.
My wife smiled at me. “Feel better?”
“There was no toilet,” I whispered.
The sympathy and horror on her face were enough to void my bowels right then and there. As we’d traveled together over the years, I’d abandoned enough underwear in fast-food restaurants and train station bathrooms that she knew I was beyond my abilities here.
I sat back and regained my concentration on the fist. It wasn’t working, though. It was a struggle now. I had lost ground while running about the hospital. I pictured the Zen fist, but my colon was having none of it. Vesuvius was about to blow.
But what of the poor people of Pompeii and Herculaneum? What of them?
I had to keep trying, so I added a second fist. Two fists are better than one, right? My mind’s eye stacked them end to end the way you’d hold a baseball bat. I made and remade the fists, one finger at a time, like playing a scale on the piano. Reverse peristalsis. Exorcism. In my mind’s eye, both fists squeezed, working the toothpaste back up into the tube.
And suddenly, I was back in control. I was in the moment. I ignored everything around me, focused within, and found inner peace in the form of two fists clenched around a bag of turbulent shit. Transcendence in the back of a van lurching through the hill country of Sri Lanka: I don’t remember that ride. Everything was blacked out.
We got to Kandy, pulled up to the front door of the hospital, and Josh and family rushed inside. Here’s the thing: Lakeside Adventist Hospital was a five-minute walk from my house. My house was right there. So close. Toilet and shower right there in the same spot. A perfect denouement for the Greek tragedy brewing below.
But I had to face facts, and I had the presence of mind to know that I couldn’t walk that far without my house of cards tumbling in disaster. As soon as I stepped out of the van, the fists disappeared. The siren song began its call, and I started clenching as though my life depended on it. Are you there, God? It’s me, John. Please let there be a fucking toilet in the lobby.
I looked around the main entrance and saw a sign for toilets. I walked very slowly and deliberately toward the men’s room. I have to be gentle with my sphincter in this hair-trigger state: I have been known to crap myself right outside the bathroom door. My sphincter is an excitable, piddling puppy.
I got to the bathroom. The good news is that it was unoccupied. The bad news is that it was a squat toilet, a tiny closet of a room with a sopping wet tile floor and two footrests astride a hole. I don’t mind squat toilets, but I had enough experience with them to know one thing: the minute I bent to squat, I would shit all over my khakis.
The only way to make this work was to step completely out of my pants without releasing the Kraken. My concentration was shot, and I relied on SuperSphincter to do me right. I unzipped. I couldn’t let the khakis fall to the floor, or they’d be soaked in the rinse water of everyone who’d pissed and shat in there before me. I clenchedclenchedclenched and, balancing on one leg, worked one foot free of the pants leg – thank God for yoga – stepping expertly out of and back into my flip-flop. I performed the same feat with the other foot, then clutched my khakis in a ball to my chest as I squatted, now naked from the waist down, above that black hole. A Kodak moment.
While shit poured from me, I sobbed. Really, I did. My head on my forearms on my knees, crumpled in despair and victory and relief: never have I been so victorious over my irrational, disobedient sphincter. I shat and I cried and I held my khakis high as I released the Black Plague all over the floor and my feet and my flip-flops.
It took me a good half hour to empty my oil tank and then clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But that’s okay: that’s how squat toilets are designed. There was a spigot near the door which flooded the tile, and it all ran into the squatter, Black Death and drowned cormorants and all. It all washed away.
By the way: if you find yourself in the Kandy Lakeside Adventist Hospital men’s room, here’s a word of warning — there’s no soap.
I walked back out to the lobby a good twelve pounds lighter and learned that Josh’s daughter was with a doctor. (Her arm was set in a fetching, hot pink cast; six months later, she re-broke it in the U.S. because they set it badly.) We were free to go home, so we did. I’m pretty sure my wife had some new-found respect for me that day.
I’ll end this tale of victory, of mind over matter, of man vs. sphincter, with a word of warning: if you picture two fists wrapped around your colon, it has the same physical effect as having two real fists wrapped around your colon. I might have been victorious in the van, but it took two weeks before my off-ramp was working properly. Be careful how you use your powers.