Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Most Important Word in Any Language

Stephanie at "Where in the World Am I?" is hosting this week's Round Up on a topic near and dear to every traveler's heart - bathrooms. There are few times in my life I wished I was a boy, but almost all of them have occurred when my bladder was full and my options were limited. So this topic is a great walk down memory lane.

Travel notwithstanding, I am a bit picky about bathrooms. Luckily I have a pretty good bladder and can make it through long road trips and airplane rides without needing to compromise my standards too much. That said, I will almost always take advantage of a clean rest stop bathroom. But I don't get as desperate as some others do, for which I'm thankful.

Even post-anesthesia on all of my knee surgeries (five), when I couldn't walk without assistance and had no business being vertical, I always refused a bed pan. No matter how difficult or painful it was, I was going to use the bathroom.

My first experience with a squat toilet occurred in Mostar, Bosnia when I was in college. I decided I didn't need to go that badly.

Growing up, I always thought I wanted to do Peace Corps. Then I lived in Thailand for six months, and that disabused me of that fantasy pretty quickly. In my dorm room I thankfully had a western toilet and a shower head. What I didn't have was hot water. Given the choice all over again, I'd go that same route in a heartbeat. Here's the thing. I have no problem with the concept of squat toilets and would happily use them if I could. My problem is that I physically can't easily use them. The aforementioned five knee surgeries have pretty much made them impossible. So my strategy is to avoid them except where they're the only option and I'm desperate. Which happened quite often in Thailand when we would stay in small villages for 2-3 days at a time with host families.

These same Thai bathrooms usually had two cisterns of water and two buckets. One, smaller cistern, and bucket was for flushing the toilet. There was more often than not a goldfish in that cistern. The larger cistern was bathing water. We would wear our sarongs and pour water over ourselves and soap up and then rinse. Sometimes the cisterns would be outside and communal, which was more fun than it sounds. Plus, when they were outside, they tended to have warmer, sun-warmed water.

During my semester in Thailand, bathrooms were a frequent topic of conversation, so perhaps that's why I have such vivid memories of them from my time there. First of all, we talked a lot about building sustainable and eco-friendly homes, including bathrooms. Second, we were a small group with each other 24/7, so we shared everything all the time and were very close, whether we wanted to be or not at times. Third, we were living in a tropical country with its share of bacteria and parasites, and none of us were immune. Food poisoning and intestinal critters were a part of life. Oh, the memories! Let's just say that we quickly learned the locations of all the private hospitals wherever we traveled, since being violently ill in a public hospital is not a pleasant experience.

When I lived in South Africa, I found mostly western toilets and learned early on always to carry toilet paper. Actually, that was true in Thailand as well. Even when there were outhouses, they tended to have seats. My favorite outhouse was in a small village in Lesotho, where gravity and the hill kept the door closed, and the door had a window that perfectly framed the moon at night. The bigger problem in Southern Africa was critters. I had at least one close encounter with a scorpion in a Namibian bathroom, and I saw more than a few snakes. I heard one time a story about a black mamba curling around the underside of a toilet seat waiting for an unsuspecting victim. That made me pretty cautious about looking before sitting, even if it was a likely urban legend.

My favorite thing about bathrooms in South Africa was the availability of condoms. Since much of my time there was spent studying HIV/AIDS from a sociological perspective, I thought this was a great initiative. Colleges, malls, movie theaters, restaurants - all had condom dispensers, usually free. Even in the bathrooms of remote camps in places like Kruger Park, there they were! Now granted, in most of these places, the supplies would be depleted almost immediately after being refilled, but the idea was the same. My public health self still thinks this is a best practice.

In KSA, bathrooms are pretty clean but always wet - from people doing ablutions in the sinks or from the water hoses in the stalls. Many public bathrooms have a few stalls each of squat and western toilets. And rarely toilet paper.

When it comes down to it, during most of my travels through dozens of other countries, I've been pretty lucky with bathrooms. Or at least I've repressed all the horror stories and gotten really good at holding it.

So thank you Stephanie and the Round Up for allowing me this unique but incredibly relevant trip down memory lane!

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

The Weekly State Department Blog Round-up is posted, and you’re on it!

If I’ve made any errors, or you prefer not to be included, just let me know. Thank you!