Saturday, May 7, 2011

Fun With Foreign Toilets

We’ve now come to the foreign-toilet talk portion of the blog and, believe you me, it’s been a long time coming.  I was just thinking this morning that I’ve used toilets in over sixty countries and have become quite the expert adapting to different commodes around the world.  I’ve used flush toilets, squat toilets, high-tech toilets, in-ground toilets, seatless toilets, dual-flush toilets, French toilets, porta-potties, pail closets, fancy bidets, and plain old holes in the ground.  I should warn you up front:  if you’d prefer not to read about toilets, then this post is not for you.  It’s actually not that bad, but there are some pictures.  (Because who doesn’t love pictures of toilets?)

The fact is, the toilet situation is a big part of travel.  Whether you call it the bathroom, the loo, the toilet, the WC, or the John; everyone everywhere has to go at one time or another.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that when it comes to relieving yourself, you must go with the flow wherever you are.

Sossusvlei Desert, Namibia

Pahia, New Zealand

Uyuni, Bolivia

Restaurant in Budva, Montenegro
Restaurant in Tirana, Albania

In a related vein, let me first say a few words on toilet paper. 

Sign in Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
I’m a girl who’s accustomed to throwing my toilet paper into the toilet and flushing it down.  But in many parts of the world, it is not okay to do this, particularly where the pipes are old and the systems otherwise cannot handle it.  This was the situation in Russia, among many other places.

So what are you supposed to do with your dirty toilet paper, you ask?  You must throw it in the bin provided.  Some people wrap it in clean toilet paper and place it in the bin, while others don’t bother with the extra wrapping, which can be pretty disgusting but does save on paper.  In any event, there is usually a sign (often translated into English) telling you what to do for the most part.  The good news is, in places that require throwing rather than flushing, people are usually vigilant about changing the waste paper bins often.

Ushuaia, Argentina
Once you begin to live with throwing your toilet paper in the garbage, it just becomes second nature.   But old habits die hard.  A couple of times in my hostel in St. Petersburg, and elsewhere, I reflexively dropped the toilet paper in the toilet.  Of course I couldn’t fish it out at that point, but instead I prayed it wouldn’t clog the toilet as I flushed.

Also, it’s important always to carry some toilet paper on you.  In some places, like in public bus and train stations, the paper often runs out and no replacement is to be found.  In other places, it is simply not provided in the first instance.  Still elsewhere, like in Macedonia, small measures of toilet paper are sold as part of the cost of using the bathroom.  No matter where you are, go prepared.  There’s nothing worse than being caught short in the hopper with no TP, and no one around who can spare a square.

Boy in Peru capitalizing on TP situation.

Bathroom attendant during bus break in Macedonia.

Now on to the toilets. 

For many so-called Westerners, the bane of foreign travel is the squat toilet.  I admit, at first I dreaded them too.  But now I don’t mind them at all.  I used one just this morning, in fact, here in Albania.  There’s no better exercise for your thigh muscles and it’s actually pretty sanitary once you get it down.  It’s all about the angle and stance, and that’s all I’m going to say because the rest, as they say, would be TMI.

Odd Ukrainian train toilet.
Still, even if you are a master squatter, using a squat toilet on a moving train is probably the biggest bathroom challenge a traveler can confront.  Recently, on the train between Ternopil and L’viv in Ukraine, I encountered a toilet the likes of which I had never before seen.  It looked like a regular commode, but there were marks on the seat indicating that’s where one should place his feet.  Someone told me you’re supposed to hop up onto to the toilet itself and squat on it.  I couldn’t wait the hour or so until the next stop, so I did.  It was not easy--as it took a lot of preparation and balancing--but it was doable.

Probably the oddest bathroom experience I had occurred during a long bus ride in Vietnam.  We pulled over for a bathroom break and were shown to the “toilet.”  It was a hole in the ground in the corner of a chicken shack, in which dozens of chickens and roosters were milling around.  I didn’t want to do my business with all these live creatures so close, but what I could I do?  When you gotta go, you gotta go.

Outside the chicken-shack toilet.

Inside the chicken-shack toilet.

During this latest trip through eastern Europe and the Balkans, it’s been a big mix of different kinds of toilets, but mostly ones I’m used to seeing, and ones that can handle toilet paper, especially going west from Ukraine.  But hit a bus station anywhere, and you can pretty much bank on the squat.  Recently I successfully used such a bus-station squat toilet with my heavy backpack still on my back.  The floor was completely wet from being hosed down, and there was no hook on the wall, so I just kept the backpack strapped on.  It was a success.  Afterward I thought, I can do anything.

My high-tech Japanese toilet.
The best toilets in the world, as far as I know, are in Japan.  This is a place where you’ll want to hang out in the John for a while.  Not only are the seats heated, but they play music as well.  I’ve since learned that they have additional features—e.g., blow dryers, massage options, water jet adjustments, and automatic lid opening—but since everything was in Japanese, at the time I felt a little gun shy pressing the various buttons on the toilet's  side arm.  Who knows what could have happened?

The most exciting toilet I ever used was Nelson Mandela’s.  In December 2007, I visited his former home in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the Orlando West section of Soweto.  The home has now been turned into a museum.  At the time of my visit, I really had to go, so I asked if there was a bathroom I could use.  I was taken to a side room that looked like it was not meant for the public and was allowed to use the toilet.  I also snapped a picture.

I’ve since read that Mr. Mandela briefly returned to this home after he was released from prison in 1990.  So, assuming this same toilet was there at the time, it is entirely possible that Nelson Mandela and I have sat on the same toilet.  That’s like zero degrees of toilet separation, I think.  Or is it one degree?

Outside the Mandela House.

The Mandela Home toilet.
There’s a lot more I could tell about foreign toilets, but I think perhaps my blog readers have had enough.  Plus, it's now lunchtime here in Albania, and I don't like to talk toilets while I'm eating.