My Journey into the Shithole

When I was growing up the word ‘shithole’ was used a lot around me. As a kid, I thought it meant a place that was dirty, but as I got older I learned it also to mean a place with more crime and where the people didn’t have as much money. In my twenties, when I was in the real estate business, I would use the word to describe the most undesirable places to live. A few years later though, shithole would begin to fade from my common vocabulary.

When in 2006 I mentioned to a fellow backpacker in Singapore that I was thinking of going to India, he said, “Just don’t go to Kolkata. That place is a shithole.” Later that night, remembering his advice, I bought a one-way ticket to Kolkata.

When a couple of weeks later I got dropped off by the airport taxi at midnight in the middle of the city on a dirt street that was pitch black except for the dull light of a small fire in a bin a few hundred feet away, and began wading through the warm dusty air smelling of burning garbage, I remember thinking to myself, “Man, this place is a shithole.”

This time in my life though was the cracking open of consciousness around labels like ‘shithole’ and their full meaning and impact. The reason I had flown straight to Kolkata is because my travels at that point had come to be guided by my resistance more than my desire. The further I went into the places I was sure I wouldn’t like, the more beauty I was finding – both in those places and inside myself.

There is no way to escape the cliche – when you meet people who materially have little to nothing, you cannot help but be struck by their joy.

What you also find when you travel to a supposed shithole is that while there may be dirt, within there are also places that are meticulously clean; a spotless kitchen with pots stacked neatly and awaiting their next shift, a pair of black dress shoes somehow glistening on a dusty road, a perfectly manicured garden hidden in a courtyard behind a tall wooden door.

At that time in my life, it was so miraculous to discover that no description is complete and that opposites are always contained within.

Speaking of opposites, the trouble with the word ‘shithole’ is that it describes both things that are and are not. We don’t typically think this way in the West. For us, something either is or isn’t. A thing being both is hard for us to grasp.

There are indeed places with more dirt, more crime and less luxury, but as an adult I now know, the word shithole doesn’t represent just this. It also represents a general devaluation of a place and its people.

The Dalits, the lowest caste in India, whose job is literally (and not ironically) to clean out shit holes, are nicknamed the ‘Untouchables’. Culturally, by those still beholden to old monarchical mythology, they are seen as the lowest worth of human, if barely even that.

This is what we too mean by shithole. To call any nation a shithole is not only to describe the look and feel of the place, but it is to put its entire race on a scale of worth and to slide them straight to the bottom.

If I were to tell you that since my twenties I have not used the world shithole to describe a place, I would be lying. Never do I use it to describe a nation, but there are still cases where it slips out to describe a neighborhood or part of town that I wouldn’t want to go to for fear of violence or even the aesthetic. When it does slip out though, it is always due to old habit and a lapse in consciousness. It is the kind of thing now that echoes after I’ve said it, giving me a chance to awaken and reflect. When I do reflect, I can see that by using the word not only am I expressing my own fear and discomfort, but I am also acting violently towards the people who live there by marking them as the lowest.

Mythologically, my travels were a classic living out of psychological descent. When we follow the call to places that scare us and turn us off, we are venturing into the nether regions of who we think we are. The truth is, the shithole is always inside of us.

Being willing to go to the places that we project the shithole upon (and actually BE there as opposed to passing through on a tour bus or behind bulletproof glass), can be a useful way to awaken ourselves to the judgements we are making.

One need not travel with their feet to see their projections, however.

Another way to awaken is to see where we judge others for their unconsciousness. When we demean someone for calling a place a shithole, we are doing the same thing in different words. (To argue a difference in severity here I would suggest is escapism. If we are to speak of ethics, then a moral imperative is the most equitable stance.)

It was easy for me to not judge Trump for calling nations shitholes because of my own history with the word. It is also a practice of mine to use political dissonance as a context for self-reflection (as we also do at New World Leaders Councils).

Maybe it’s not as easy for you. Maybe you don’t use the word shithole. Maybe you never have.

I bet though that there is some language you do use which, whether you mean it to or not, lumps and ranks a people and marks them as lower than you. Maybe by your standards, the severity is nothing compared to what Trump has done. And maybe you’re right.

However, beyond the moral imperative stance I’ve already mentioned, I would challenge also that your most accessible impact on changing the world that hurts you is to be less of that yourself; no matter how close or far it is from you already.

Find the shitholes, especially the ones inside of you, and go into them.

What you find will heal your world.


* This photo was taken on my last day in Kolkata, very early in the morning. I spoke with this lovely taxi driver afterwards and learned that he and his colleagues sleep in their cars overnight, away from their families all week, so that they can be there for the first arriving trains in the morning. This is an example of the beauty I found when I went into a place I once called a shithole. These days, whenever I hear the word ‘Kolkata’ (whose nickname, by the way, is ‘The City of Joy’) my heart sings for the depth of life and soul I found there.