The restroom. The WC. Toilet. Powder room. Bathroom. It has a million uses and a million euphemisms, and nothing will make you feel farther from home than being so confused about how or where to handle your basic bodily functions that you are afraid to pee.
My favorite bathroom nickname accompanied with one of the nicest places I’ve stayed. On a junk boat in Bai Tu Long Bay, our guide repeatedly reminded us, before we headed out for a kayak or hike, to go to, “the happy room.” It elicited giggles, until one guy went to the happy room erected near the cave where we ate Christmas Eve dinner and hit his head so hard on the rock ceiling that he bled for two hours. Not so happy.
Twenty years ago, I learned the hard way what to expect from plumbing in the developing world. Nothing teaches you to appreciate the luxuries of home quite like having to crawl out of a sleeping bag in the middle of the night, put on two extra layers of clothing and your hiking boots, and race outside in 15-degree weather to have multiple bouts of diarrhea in a dirty outhouse. What I hadn’t expected, on this journey, was to find report-worthy bathrooms before I even left the relative haven of the United States.
On I-8, so far down the state of California that a random border patrol outpost pops up out of nowhere, I pulled over at a rest stop between the east-and west-bound segments of the highway. There is a special place in hell for this chemical toilet positioned near a neglected, overflowing dumpster surrounded by more red ants than I could find in the state of Texas, and quite a few large bees.
Conversely, in southeast Wyoming, just off I-25, oil dollars have developed a rest stop complete with dinosaur fossils, dioramas on the history of Wyoming, and the cleanest highway-side bathroom I’ve seen. In Wallace, Idaho, a town familiar to those who’ve read The Big Burn, a large green area with outdoor exhibitions on mining and logging, the history of the town, and a lovely playground is sabotaged by a metal toilet-tank combo, the likes of which I believed only exist in prisons. Clean, but depressing nonetheless.
Let’s be honest: the issue isn’t ambiance. It’s sewage. Like most of life’s unpleasant aspects, sewage is something best put out of sight and out of mind. In much of the developing world, where things are turned inside out, sewer systems are close to nonexistent. Necessity being the mother of invention, this leads to some creative ways to handle every day need.
The key to getting around plumbing problems in places with little infrastructure is to reduce waste. No toilet paper goes in the toilet. Instead, it goes in a waste bin next to the toilet. The only place I’ve intentionally flushed any toilet paper in the last three months is on an airplane – which makes business class seem even classier. The more common solution to this problem is just to not use toilet paper. Problem solved. One problem, anyway – and another presented. How does one…clean up? The answer is: water.
Water, you ask? What do you mean, water?
Here, we have two choices. The manual method is the bucket of water with a scoop/cup which you use to clean yourself. The ‘automated’ method – think mobile bidet – is a sprayer like that which may be on the side of your kitchen sink, used in theory to clean yourself.
In practice, by the unpracticed, this tool frequently leads to an entertaining mess. If you are lucky. If you are unlucky, it leads to an entertaining mess on your clothes. Neither of these methods leaves you dry – an obvious point I feel the need to mention.
Honestly, one should never assume that there will be anything useful in the bathroom. If you want toilet paper, carry your own. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how seldom I’ve had to pull mine out of my bag on this journey. As a result, I’m still carrying around part of a very high-grade roll of Charmin pilfered from a friend’s apartment in Dallas. You should also never count on having anything with which to wash or dry your hands. I’m ok with being that horrible tourist with the hand sanitizer. I’m not afraid of germs; I’m afraid of typhoid. As a consequence, I’m also still carrying the same container of hand-sanitizer I brought with me from the states.
While I’m being frank, one should also never assume there will be a toilet in the happy room. Don’t worry – you can still be happy. A squatty, in a lot of instances, is actually cleaner than a western toilet. Especially if you are in places where people aren’t going to sit on it anyway – or where, as is frequently the case in Asia, they have to be reminded not to stand on it.
None of this addresses what happens with what goes in the toilet. In many places I’ve seen, much of the plumbing is actually not hidden in the walls. The sink and the bathtub (a rarity) may drain out of a pipe and into the drain on the floor.
The same will be true of the shower, if it’s actually a separate section of the bathroom. More likely is that it will be a showerhead coming out of the bathroom wall, and should there be toilet paper provided for you, you’d best remember to remove it from the room before accidentally turning it to paper-mache material by turning the shower on in its presence.
But what of the actual sewage? I have mentioned that in some places, it is actually running right beneath the sidewalk, as an unfortunate misstep may reveal. In other locations, nothing’s left to the imagination: it’s simply running out from beneath the outhouse. For example:
Occasionally, you can get the same thing with a much nicer view:
Or this, where you simply squat over the ditch with water that runs through it…and I honestly don’t want to know where it goes.
More disturbing were the outhouses I saw at the floating villages on Inle Lake, which is also ‘famous’ for its floating gardens, which yield tomatoes, cucumbers, and watercress offered in every restaurant in the vicinity.
I ate the tomatoes. They aren’t Washington State heirlooms in August by any stretch, but they didn’t taste like their fertilizer. One of many small blessings I’m counting while I wait to see what entertaining plumbing Africa has in store for me.