No matter your exotic destination, it finds its way onto everyone’s itinerary; a travel experience that ranges from luxurious relaxation to adrenalin fuelled foray. It’s something about which nearly every traveller has a tale. The foreign toilet.
Wherever you wash up in Expatria you will figure out your local flavour, and have to live with it. Here is my analysis of frequently encountered objects.
The Sweet Sensation
It was a cold, wet night at Narita airport. I was unfamiliar with the Japanese public transport, but fuelled by copious advice that this is the way to get into town, I slogged through a couple of confusing line changes and arrived, exhausted and dripping, at my hotel near Ueno Park. I popped my backpack down and excused myself to the bathroom.
Ten minutes later, the receptionist gave a nervous knock on the door, was I alright?
Was I alright? I was in heaven! The heated seat restored warmth to my whole body, the gentle music I controlled from the armrest was soothing my nerves and the array of water jets was simply sensational. I planned to stay exactly where I was for the next two weeks, pants around my ankles, thank you very much.
But no, I did have a few other stops to make and happily these full service toilets could be found everywhere I travelled. I knew I was hooked when I experienced genuine outrage at the lack of seat warmth in a tiny karaoke bar in Nikko.
I had a great time in Japan, I learned Origami, luxuriated in the hot water onsens, drank Saki like water and discovered how the Japanese maintain those enigmatic smiles.
The placing of western bottoms upon porcelain pedestals is a recent phenomenon, taking off in the 1850’s with the advent of modern plumbing. It has its roots in the idea that sitting is a more refined position. It differentiated ‘society’ from the lower classes and the dirt-squatting natives in the colonies.
It’s true; I’m not at all refined trying to wriggle out of my jeans, keep everything dry and not fall backwards onto my arse. And I’ve been living with squat toilets for years. These days, my knees groan so badly when I go down, that I’m not sure I’m ever getting up.
For generations of Westerners who lack the physical dexterity and necessary balance, the squat can present an almost insurmountable challenge. But the next time you come across one, before you complain, consider this. Physiologically, this is the position nature intended for the human animal. The abandonment of the squat position in favour of sitting has been medically linked to a range of serious health issues.
So I admit it, it’s better for us, but here’s the thing. The cultural ritual involves water and the left hand, rather than toilet paper. Most of the time I come across a public squat the whole cubicle is drenched, the floor flooded and unless you’re familiar with the technique, it’s not clear how to flush the damn thing. How to use a squat just isn’t something we talk about, so I extend all my sympathies to the baffled tourists who emerge cursing, bedraggled, the bottom four inches of their clothing soaked and a guilty look at what they’ve left behind.
Classic case of nurture, not nature.
The Mystery Cabinet
My first confrontation with the mystery cabinet was in France. I spotted the high-tech, self-cleaning, public loo on a street corner in Lille, just in time to save myself from public disgrace. I slipped in a coin, stepped in and the door sealed behind me. I turned around. Where was the bowl with the water? Where the hell did I wee? No clue, no damn clue. No signs, no helpful diagrams. I spun around a few times and left. Found a pub.
The Public Performance
I can see your faces now, visiting some ancient Roman ruins; Pompeii, Ephesus or maybe Volubilis. You’re looking at the communal toilets where town folk used to poop into their respective holes in the bench and chat away about the price of eggs. You’re thinking, thank God times have changed.
Not for everyone! When I was growing up, the public toilet at Hong Kong’s Stanley Market was to be avoided at all costs. To enter that chamber of horror – a row of women hovering precariously over an open drainage ditch – was more trauma than I, as a teenage girl, could endure. The replacement of that facility with a proper toilet block ended years of terror.
I wish I could care less, but I’m saddled with the hangups of my upbringing. That said, just to prove this isn’t a developing world issue, I offer you the United States. For such a prudish nation, why their public toilets don’t have proper doors is a mystery. They barely conceal a thing! This isn’t mere paranoia – not once, but twice, I’ve had to manage an unexpected visit from a curious toddler. What’s next, a naughty dwarf? It’s bad enough that you can almost make eye contact with other patrons through the massive gaps between door and walls. If I want to watch someone else on the loo, I’ll find an adult venue that caters.
The “OMG moment”
If Japan produces a force for good, there must be an equal and opposing force out there keeping the toilets of the world in balance. I won’t point fingers at a particular country or culture because to be fair these moments often happen when you least expect them.
For me, my moment wasn’t about the style of toilet (a dirt hole in the ground), but the dead, foot long rat I found lying across it. But in desperate times, there’s nothing a good kick with the boot can’t fix.
Travelling in very remote areas where people are sleeping on the ground, under corrugated iron, you expect the sanitary conditions to be on par. My solution is to steel myself and deal with it. What surprises me more, are people I’ve met, some I’ve traveled with, who seem honestly surprised at being offered facilities without scented air freshener and fluffy toilet rolls. Where are the special ‘tourist toilets’ to keep their precious white bums safe?
At home in the country they probably shouldn’t have left.
Just as I was wrapping this up, I found this article. Japanese toilets now provide health checks. Bloody marvellous.