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!

14 replies
  1. Joy
    Joy says:

    haha! This is great. You really do meet all sorts of things in bathrooms when traveling. :-) China is by far the grossest. When I was in Thailand there were sandals to change into as you entered the bathroom!

  2. Koren @ City Gal
    Koren @ City Gal says:

    I love this post! I recently went from Japan to Thailand on my last trip to Asia, and the toilet differences could not have been more vast! I LOVED the toilets in Japan. Heated seats? YES please!! A week later I was paying to pee in a hole in the floor. Sad, but true!

  3. memographer
    memographer says:

    This is a great post :) My favorite toilet was in Japan. I also took a picture of it’s “dashboard” similar to yours from China. Ha Ha! And I have been in “funky” restrooms in India and Russia… But the weirdest was in Laos where a public fabric towel was hanging out above an urinal (for wiping the hands off)…. I took a pic of that too :)

  4. Michael Falk
    Michael Falk says:

    haha, my favorite part of this is the pay to pee, I’ve encountered it a couple times and it makes your start to think…I better bring some spare coin incase dinner don’t set so well haha

  5. Judy
    Judy says:

    Awesome post, Jennifer! Hilarious and oh-so-relevant for any traveller! Toilets never fail to amaze, startle and shock us anywhere in the world, eh? Which is kind of crazy since we all basically have the same parts..
    I used one at a casino in Monaco that washed, sanitized and dried the seat inbetween uses which was a technological wonder. People must have wondered why I spent so much time in there as I tried to figure out just how it worked… Definitely a highlight of my trip!

  6. Corrine
    Corrine says:

    To add support for the anthropological study idea, our Chinese students would often avoid using the Western-style toilets in our apartment when they came to visit for as long as they could (even if they stayed for 3 hours or more — they would eventually leave to go use a squatty-potty!). One student eventually told us that some believe that squatting is healthier for your body by using gravity to eliminate even more waste than sitting upright allows.

    • Jennifer Choban
      Jennifer Choban says:

      Oh dear- that must have gotten uncomfortable! I sort of understand though. Once I got used to squatting it did feel like a more natural position for dealing with the problem. Thanks for commentig, Corrine.

  7. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    Fascinating article! My worst toilet experience was at a train station in MIlan, Italy, summer 1968. Filthy and no commode; just a hole in the floor. I remember pay toilets from living in Germany back then.


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