The first time I traveled abroad was on a choir tour of Lithuania during my senior year of college. Our university had an exchange program with a university in Siauliai, and we spent nearly two years learning about Lithuania’s culture, customs, music, food, and even language.
We traveled during our “Spring Break” in March. I remember stepping off the plane onto the tarmac, and taking a deep breath, and….holy beans it was cold. But I didn’t care. I was in a foreign country!
Our first stop was lunch. (Beet soup. Yum.) Afterwards, I headed to the bathroom. At the door, I was greeted by a woman with a little bowl full of coins. I didn’t understand her, even when she spoke louder. (Funny how that works.) Eventually she shook the bowl at me.
I needed to pay to pee? I didn’t know what the going rate for using a toilet was, so I gave her a few coins. She seemed happy enough, so in I went.
But then….. I opened a stall door and did a double take. OMG I was in the wrong bathroom! Why didn’t she stop me? I rushed out to check the sign on the door. Nope, I was definitely in the women’s toilet.
What was happening? I looked in the stall again. The “toilet” was a porcelain hole in the ground, with foot plates on both sides. How in the hell was I supposed to use that?
I shut the stall door behind me to figure things out. It seemed pretty obvious…..except….where was I supposed to sit?
And then I remembered one of my mom’s “pearls of wisdom.” Since I was a child, she raised me to be independent and strong, and not rely on a man. “Melanie, you can do everything a person with a penis can do. Except pee standing up.”
I couldn’t wait to tell her she was wrong! Squatting counts as standing, right?!?!
But my saga wasn’t over yet. There was no toilet paper! (Which I’ve learned since isn’t unusual.) Instead, there was a hand sprayer, which I suppose I could’ve figured out, but probably not without making a mess. Thankfully, I had tissues in my purse. (Something I still do, as it’s common for restrooms to not supply toilet paper.) I assumed (correctly) that I was supposed to throw the tissues into the waste basket, not flush it down the toilet.
My first experience with a foreign toilet was over. But, I wondered…..Why, in all of the lessons over previous two years, did no one teach us how to pee?
By the end of Spring Break, I was a pro at using a squat toilet. And now I can even see why so many around the world use them: They’re more hygienic and can even make elimination easier. Just make sure your clothes are out of the way, or you’ll have quite the mess on your hands…..
Since that trip, I have literally peed around the world. And it’s been illuminating.
For example, I’m still amazed at the seemingly countless ways to flush a toilet. Especially in Europe. On more occasions than I’d like to admit, I’ve found myself spending toilet time lost in thought, curiously marveling over the ingenuity. Some toilets use the standard lever. Others require pressing some type of button. And still others have ropes or chains that require pulling. On top of that, the location of the flushing mechanism varies. Sometimes it’s on the side of the toilet. Sometimes it’s on the top. And sometimes it’s on the wall…. Or even the ceiling! Who knew flushing could be such an adventure?!?!
On the other hand, it seems the world’s inequalities are perfectly highlighted around the conditions in which people relieve themselves. Because while the wealthy have found countless ways to dispose of our waste, much of the world lacks access to a flushing toilet.
Growing up, my mom’s family didn’t have a toilet. They lived on a farm in rural Iowa, and were very poor. She’s told me stories of using the outhouse, and of fighting over the Sears catalog. (I’m not making this up…. Apparently the catalog was useful not only as reading during their number twos, but for wiping. And since some pages were softer than others….)
So, as a result, I’ve learned certain “skills” from my mother. After all, I’m not only a rural Iowan, I’m a trained field ecologist, so I’m no stranger to outdoor elimination. (Number ones only, of course.)
But I was still shocked when I first saw someone pooping in a gutter. An incredible number of people worldwide lack toilets. As a result, nearly a billion people defecate outdoors, killing millions and sickening countless more.
Pathogens spread in feces are the cause of the diarrhea travelers can experience in poor countries that lack adequate sanitation and safe drinking water.
Several years ago, Hubby took his choir, the Boston Children’s Chorus, on tour to Jordan. The general rule on tour buses is that the toilet is for number ones only. But some (many) of the singers had no choice, and as a result, the scent on the bus grew so strong that, when it wafted by, made our eyes water. So, to solve our problem, the bus driver pulled over on the side of the road and discharged the toilet. Right there on the road. No wonder we were sick!
However…. Nothing. And I repeat… Nothing…. could have prepared me for Kibera, Africa’s largest slum.
Just outside of Nairobi, Kibera is home to approximately 2.5 million people, and essentially no flushing toilets. Instead, hundreds of people share longdrops, essentially holes in the ground that empty into the slum’s narrow, rutted, unpaved “roads”.
And then there are the flying toilets. Because there are no toilets, people poo into plastic bags and throw them in the streets. Basically, you have to be very careful where you step.
A few months later, I was treated to yet another shockingly different toilet experience in Korea. First, I could choose to either sit or squat. Sit, of course. I opened the stall door to the most luxurious, and yet confusing, elimination experience of my life. On the side of the toilet was a plethora of buttons. They were in Korean, but I was curious, so I started pressing. One warmed the seat. Nice. One started making noises, which I assumed would help mask the unpleasant sounds that occur while on the toilet. And another was clearly a bidet function. And so on.
These experiences really got me thinking.
All 7.5 billion humans on this planet have “to go”. But while the wealthy have found ways to make “making” more comfortable (and even entertaining), many of the world’s poorest can’t even flush a toilet, a “luxury” that prevents the countless illnesses spread by human waste.
Traveling is awesome. It’s simply the best way to learn about the world. And myself. I’ve learned to question even the most basic assumptions I have about the way the world works. Those things that are so basic we don’t even think to question them. Because even two years of preparation for traveling to Lithuania couldn’t prepare me for my something as banal as going potty.
Traveling also forces us to get outside of our comfort zone. Yes, comfort feels, well, comfortable. But like exercise, you have to push yourself to see growth. Have I enjoyed all of the ways I’ve peed around the world? No. But I’ve learned something from all of them, and I’m a better person for it.
So, if you’re the type of person that is such a germaphobes that you are unable to use any public restroom. Let me tell you: It gets a lot worse than an office bathroom. But don’t let that stop you from traveling. Go with the flow, so to speak.
How about you? Do you have any interesting toilet experiences from your travels? Share them in the comments below!