Happy World Toilet Day!

No, I’m not making that up. There really is a World Toilet Day and it’s purpose is to bring attention to the 2.5 billion people in the world who lack appropriate sanitary facilities (ie. toilets).   That’s actually a pretty serious issue.  But this is not a serious post.  I just decided that it would be a good opportunity to reflect on one of the most necessary, but least pretty things you have to adjust to when you travel.

Bathrooms: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Sunflower sink. Photo by Simone Smith.

When I moved to Mexico six years ago, I encountered all kinds of bathrooms.  Some were absolute works of art, covered from floor to ceiling in hand painted tiles.  Other were disgusting.  The variety inspired me to make a rating scale:

Do I really have to go that bad? I think I can, I think I can… Am I still in Mexico?
Cost Costs up to 4 pesos; may require use of a machine that eats your money Free with the purchase of hotel room or meal or with the faked purchase of a room/meal. Free
Basics No bathroom available- find a tree and post your friend as a lookout to warn you if anyone is coming down the trail. Getting to the bathroom requires negotiating stairs, alley-ways, etc. Light switch is outside the door or you never actually find it (or are afraid you will electrocute yourself if you touch it). Floor is either so disgusting you are glad you wore hiking boots; or recently washed and soaking wet so that you wish you had rubber boots. Bathroom is conveniently located; stalls have doors that lock; the lights are on or the switch is conveniently located; Bonus points for special décor (tile, copper sinks, etc.). Bonus points if there is a hook to hang your purse.
Toilet A unique squatting opportunity-No seat, various stages of filth, may require one to manually flush using a bucket No seat, but otherwise clean and functioning Has seat, flushes properly, clean.
TP Bring your own or be SOL Available in the bathroom, but not in the actual stall, (forcing you to estimate how much you’ll need before you actually do the job); or a predetermined amount (may or may not be sufficient) is given to you when you pay for use of the facility As much paper as needed available in the stall!
Paper disposal Paper must be disposed of in an open trash can which appears not to have been emptied in recent weeks Trash can has been emptied recently Paper can be flushed or the trash can has a cover
Hand washing Not available or the sink doesn’t work. Sink with cold water is available.   No soap or paper towels. Facility is complete with soap and paper towels.  Bonus points if there is hot water or if an attendant hands you the towel!
Shower Not available. Have to wash from a bucket. Shower is available, but not hot; or getting it hot requires you to run the water so long that the bathroom literally floods. Warm or hot shower available on demand!

It should be noted that H1N1 Flu outbreak of 2009 had an excellent effect on bathrooms in Mexico.  One is now much more likely (though not guaranteed) to find a seat on the toilet, as well as soap and paper towels for hand washing.

Seat vs Squat

If you’re a westerner traveling in the East, you’ve had to learn to squat.  Once you get used it, you may find squatting superior to the western throne method.  It seems more natural, and depending on the condition of the facilities, cleaner.  However, this can be a tough adjustment to make.

When I arrived in China for a stint of English teaching, my first stop was to get a state required physical.  The foreigners were herded through various stations with names like “Gather the Blood Place” in an effort to complete all of the necessary tests.  Knowing that I would be using mostly squat-pots, I had tried to strengthen my legs before the trip.  One does not want to have to put their hands anywhere in order to get back up.  However, this- my first chance to practice this skill, was quite challenging.  I had to squat, take care of business and unsquat myself while holding an empty vile, a full (and very shallow) sample cup, my passport and triple copies of paperwork.

After that things got easier.

Squat pot. Photo by Sustainable Sanitation.

Pay to Pee

One often has to pay to use a bathroom.  I have no problem with this if someone is supplying paper, indoor plumbing etc.  But of course, there are those cases when you’d be better off watering a bush than using the facilities provided. Paying seems like adding insult to injury.

A friend who has spent a lot of time in Indonesia told me that she frequently encountered a two-price system – as in pay more if you’re going to do a #2.  I thought this sounded very challenging.  After all, with all that exotic street food travelers consume, one does not always know how things are going to come out ahead of time.

My friend agreed that this could be a problem. She said that on more than one occasion she had paid the lower price, surprised herself, and then pondered whether or not she was morally obligated to go back and give more money.

Most Memorable Toilets I Have Met

China offered surprises on both ends of the spectrum.  The many times I stooped over the dreaded trench made the rating scale I had made in Mexico seem meaningless.  Here I could rate how bad a “bathroom” was by counting the number of flies that landed on my ass as I squatted.  Then there was the utter disregard for privacy (which made for one particularly memorable episode). I eventually adjusted to this and by the time I left China, I felt as if my bladder would not release if there wasn’t someone staring at me.  However, as bad as a bathroom might be, the mere presence of a designated spot for depositing one’s bodily waste is not to be taken for granted.

Asia has some fancy commodes as well.  In a business hotel, the western-style toilet came with an armrest equipped as an operating panel.  Who knew a toilet could have so many functions! I was dubious about using this machine in the middle of then night.  I didn’t want to press the wrong button  and accidentally douche myself.

Do I need a pilot’s license to operate this thing?
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.

My most memorable movement of both bladder and bowel would have to have been in northern Laos, when I was enjoying the Gibbon Experience.  We lodged in tree houses high above the jungle floor and comfortable  “ toilets” allowed gravity to carry our waste to whatever was below.  A bum gun was provided for rinsing so paper wasn’t necessary, and the valley below was not occupied by humans!  Gross? Maybe, but what the hell- birds and monkeys shit in the trees all the time.  Why not me?

Here’s hoping everything comes out well for you in your travels!

I was sitting with some Dutch friends by the side of a river in Cambodia.  We were waiting for a guides to arrive with the boats that would take us upstream on the start of a three day trek.  The guides arrived and we climbed into the shallow wooden boats.  As we floated away, kids on the shore smiled and waved, calling, “Bye good!  Bye good!”

So close.

Bad English is something that happens a lot.  And I empathize.  Fortunately for me, my native language has become the default “international language”.  This is extraordinarily convenient given how daft I am when it comes to learning a foreign tongue.

Native Speakers Can Have Bad English Too… 

On another occasion, a friend and I returned to our hostel in Chendu and as we headed up to our dorm she grabbed a sweat-shirt off of rack of abandoned, and therefore free for the taking, clothes.

“This is great. I’ll get new clothes here, throw my old ratty ones out and pretty soon I’ll have a whole new vocabulary,” she chirped as she bounced into the elevator.

I frowned.  This was disconcerting.  Usually, she would catch herself when she made these kinds of mistakes, but this time she was completely oblivious. “Ally,” I said sternly. “A vocabulary is a collection of words.  A collection of clothes is called a wardrobe.”

She had lived in China for three years, one year of it in a place that lacked other foreigners, and had nearly perfected her Mandarin (at least it seemed that way to me).  But her English had paid a price.  Once before going to a lunch that we knew would involve a lot of drinking, she suggested that we eat some cookies beforehand to help observe the alcohol.  I think she meant to say absorb the alcohol, but a picture of an animated Oreo holding a clipboard and a breathalyzer formed in my mind’s eye.  Then there was the time she told me that her favorite sports bra was made by Heinz.  I politely explained that Heinz made ketchup and suggested that perhaps Hanes was the brand she was referring to.

I understood how this could happen.  When I’ve spent large amounts of time around people who speak broken English, I’ve noticed that instead of correcting their errors, I begin to copy them.  I have to make a conscious effort not to do this.

My Attempts to Speak Chinese

No one mangles English quite as well as the Chinese.  I’m not judging.  My attempts to speak Mandarin were absolutely pathetic.  I’d always get the tone wrong which meant that I was saying a completely different word than the one I had intended.  And yet, there was always a strange logic to the sentence that came out.

When someone offered me a cigarette I wanted to politely decline.  The word for smoke is cho, but said with a different tone cho means to stink.  So when offered a ciggy I would smile, shake my head and say, “No thank you.  I don’t stink.”

Not quite what I’d set out to say, but it does sort of make sense.  I mean the fact that I don’t smoke helps me not stink.

Then there was the time I tried to order a sticky-sweet dessert called sugar cake.  I got the tone wrong on cake and accidentally asked for sugar disease – diabetes (which I’m likely to get if I don’t lay off the sugar cake).

Bad English

Therefore, it is with complete empathy that I offer the following samples of Chinese English:

Do I want that on my feet?

Chinese English 5