The Shit Pits

the shit pits are at the heart of rainbow gatherings

Courtesy of Benoit Paillé

This is just a small extract from part 2 of Somewhere Under the Rainbow – if you like it, feel free to support the author and buy the book!

In the great collective jumble of ideals, beliefs and philosophies to be found in the Rainbow, if there’s one universal law that everyone could agree upon it would be this: shit happens.

Shit is, of course, something of a taboo topic in the Western world. Not a subject for polite conversation – much less the dinner table – and we collectively pretend it doesn’t really exist. Women don’t shit, for instance (or at least I’ve met few who admit it), neither do movie stars in their films. There’s no mention of Jesus taking a crap in the Bible and speculation about whether Muhammad ever had the runs would probably earn me a fatwah.

The late Italian journalist, Tiziano Terzani, remarked that his strategy for dealing with intimidating officials he had to interview was to visualise them on the toilet. No matter how powerful or terrible the personage, the image of them taking a shit helped put things on a level footing again.

In fact, there are few things more democratic than shit. Old or young, male or female, rich or poor, everyone in the Rainbow ends up at the shit pits sooner or later. Of course, it’s hardly the most glamorous of places – just a couple of trenches with loose earth piled at the sides to cover up afterwards. A particularly efficient Gathering might even have a bucket of ash standing by and a sign reminding everyone to cover their shit with earth and then ash to prevent flies. But humble as they might be, the shit pits are at the heart of Rainbow Gatherings.

Occasionally at some smaller Gatherings no one gets it together to dig a shit pit and everyone just wanders off to a discreet distance with a hoe to dig a hole. But relying on any crowd to be self-responsible is inevitably disastrous. It quickly becomes an unpleasant game of Treasure Hunt when looking for firewood as people end up shitting closer and closer to their tents, covering up with just a few leaves and sticks.

But at the larger Rainbows if the shit pits are overflowing then you can have an impending disaster of medieval proportions within hours. Thus it’s to be hoped that someone reliable takes it upon themselves to be shit pit focaliser and solicits the help of strong diggers to create new trenches faster than the old ones fill up, each location for the pits chosen with the care of a civic planner.

Sometimes, however, circumstances can weight the odds on the side of the shit.

One brother told me about a Gathering he was at in Australia which became infamous for an incident remembered as The Night of the Living Dal. There was a mix up in the kitchen and some lentils from the morning ended up getting served at night after sitting around in the heat through the day. All was well until the early hours of the morning when a collective intestinal rumbling was heard across the camp, followed by a mass stampede towards the shit pit. 69 of the 70 people gathered found themselves squatting over the trenches, groaning terribly, while a Russian brother – the only one not to have eaten dinner that night – was put hard to work digging new pits as fast as the old ones were filling up.

Anyone who has traveled in India is likely to have seen from a train window the liberating portrait of Indian kids taking their morning shit by the railway tracks, emptying their bowels with a dignity appropriate to the occasion. A far cry from the private, perfumed toilets of the West.

And yet in the Rainbow the spirit of collective shitting is also to be found.

I often ask people about their initial experiences in the Rainbow and one brother told me he arrived to his first Gathering and felt a sudden twist in his bowels; asking a sister where the toilets were she responded merrily:

‘The shit pits? I’m going there myself!’ Taking him by the hand, she led him to the trenches where he had the novel experience of taking a crap and making smalltalk at the same time, his new friend squatting a few meters in front.

Privacy is generally given to those who want it and sometimes the Gatherings take a more conservative tone and it becomes the protocol to go one by one to the pits, the others hopping up and down in line at a respectful distance. But there are always the hard-core hippies who believe the pits are there for everyone when they need them and it’s just up to you to deal with it. The psychological damage incurred by these incidents is incalculable. I personally consider myself scarred for life by the sight of certain individuals pulling down their trousers a few meters in front of me and evacuating last night’s dinner with a resounding fart.

Many dread going to the shit pits simply because of the vulnerability it implies. For better or worse, defecation is where our true colours really can be seen. Small wonder then that there are married couples who first met at the shit pits.

‘When I met my first wife we couldn’t bear to be apart for more than a few moments!’ a brother told me around the fire one night, his smile radiant with the memory, ‘So we used to go to the shit pit together and hold hands as we squatted!’

‘Make the shit pit a beautiful place!’ Announcers at food circles sometimes implore everyone gathered at food circle, ‘Bring flowers with you to brighten the place up! Take a guitar with you to sing a bhajan or two when you’re done for your brothers and sisters taking their turn – shit is sacred!’

It’s important that people use the pits but occasionally there’s someone who takes the matter a little too seriously. I heard of one sister who was asked by a particularly militant brother if she was on the way to the pit and, if so, would she mind shitting on the piece of cardboard he had for her. When she asked why, he informed her that he intended to put it inside the tent of anyone he caught shitting in the forest as a punishment.

That was a rare, exaggerated example but the shit pits suffer almost as much extremism as the kitchen. As so many people in the Rainbow have been to India, many have adopted the practice of using water and the left hand rather than toilet paper. It’s much cleaner, they insist, would you use paper if you had shit under your armpit? It saves trees and doesn’t pollute the earth! Naturally it’s not an easy sell. Still, no self-respecting hippie in the Rainbow would be seen dead with a roll of toilet paper and, in the spirit of live and let others know how to live, newcomers sometimes find themselves being jumped on by the Rainbow Police for using it.

I remember my first night in India at the age of 18; I’d been enjoying a first dinner on a restaurant terrace in Delhi with some backpackers I’d met on the plane until an unmistakable rumbling assured me it was time to brave the squat toilet down in my room. A cockroach scuttled out of the way and I filled up the plastic jug beneath the tap as I prepared to touch my anus for the first time in my life. I was understandably anxious – a friend had cheerfully assured me that travelers in India compared the brown stains on the hands with alacrity. I reached around with trepidation and, to my surprise, discovered it to be a unique, beautiful, even sensual  experience. I at once resolved to never use toilet paper again.

But I’d been prepared for the experience, I’d contemplated it during the 10 hour flight to India and had already accepted that it was a necessary initiation if I wanted to be a Real India Traveler. For a first-timer at a Rainbow to be made to feel ashamed for carrying a roll of tissue paper with them is an arrogance that borders on cruelty.

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book about rainbow gatherings

Photo by Joth Shakerley

This is just a small extract from part 2 of Somewhere Under the Rainbow – if you like it, feel free to support the author and buy the book!