Asia, South America, Tourist, Traveling

The Happy Room

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.

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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.

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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.IMG_5610

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.

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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:

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Occasionally, you can get the same thing with a much nicer view:

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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.

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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.

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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.

Asia, Tourist, Traveling

Bagan Bandit – Barely

When I get to the bottom of the temple steps, the hotel staff is waiting for me. Two of them, boys almost, have followed me here on their motorbike, determined I owe them for one of my five nights in their hotel. A night for which I paid online, three days ago.

We have had this conversation already once today, at 5:25 a.m., when I asked them to call the taxi that was ten minutes late. The sun only rises once a day, and this was my last chance to see it in Bagan. I was not willing to wait patiently while the light rose through the morning mist that hangs over the temples and sugar cane. Instead of calling the taxi, they started sifting through a registry notebook.

“Is the phone number for the taxi in this book,” I asked, smiling, in my English which is broken from conversing with non-native speakers for weeks on end. It is unfair to speak grammatically proper English when you are talking to people who only know half the words (which is of course many more than my two words of Burmese). The remainder just get in the way, so I’ve learned to take them out. It reduces confusion to a tolerable level for both parties. “I get you phonebook,” I ask, pointing to the phonebook, never used, on the lobby table.

Bagan phone book

Bagan phone book

“Yes, yes, taxi coming. And you pay for the night of the 11th?”

“I’m sorry?” It’s what has replaced ‘excuse me,’ in Myanmar. For everything.

And so the conversation went, the poor clerk, speaking to me in his five available English phrases, both of us trying to be polite while not giving ground.  I explained that I had paid, online, on Agoda, just like all the other nights.

Not only did I pay, but I gave the day manager the reservation number. My name was on the welcome board outside the door that day, though I was already riding a bike through a countryside of red temples, covered in dust and sweat, flipping off my flops at the bottom of steep temple stairs whenever I could to climb to their tops, wander their hallways, kneel in front of their giant sandstone and gold leaf Buddhas and ask for a little wisdom or peace.

Red temples in the country

Red temples in the country

I promised him that I did not owe him any money.  And then I pointed to the whiteboard on the wall where it was clearly written in Burmese from the night before: 5:15 to Buledi for sunrise, 8:00 a.m. to airport for room 501.

Room 501 for sunrise pickup

Room 501 for sunrise pickup

And then I lost my composure, and said he needed to call the taxi right now because my friend was waiting and the sun was coming up. And it scared him, so he did.

We made the temple for sunrise.  We stayed for two hours, climbing up the steps in pitch black and watching the mist creep, the light change, the hot air balloons rise above us with a loud, repetitive hiss of helium. We listened while fifteen Chinese shutters went off repeatedly, watched professional amateurs with tripods set up shots, joked about gently nudging them over the ledge to get them out of our own photographic frames.

The cold air turned warm with the appearance of orange on the horizon and at last, we decided we were ready to climb down, get some coffee, and move on from temples to lake, and that is how we found ourselves standing by the taxi with the hotel staff, holding two of my three reservation receipts and convincing me I owed them for the middle.

Travel Companion's rendition of me being captured by hotel staff at our taxi

Travel Companion’s rendition of me being captured by hotel staff at our taxi

They won’t budge. I promise them it would not be good for me either, to owe them money. I get their email so I can forward them my reservation number. They point at my phone and tell me to get it for them, but what can I find them, at a temple? I have no internet, no phone service here. Travel Companion mentions we should go back the ten minutes to the hotel and use their internet to get the number, put this whole thing to rest. And so we do. On the way, I begin to question myself.

Maybe I didn’t really make the reservation? With all the problems with the promised free wifi that goes out for ten of every twenty minutes….with the rainstorm that knocked out the power and added a welt to the already buckling ceiling of my room …maybe I didn’t feel motivated to add another $43 to my tab?

At the hotel, the wireless isn’t working. The day manager is there and I remind her I stood in front of her and gave her the booking number. Maybe it isn’t so nice to tell me I am lying? They invite me into the office to use their computer.

I take off my shoes and enter. I try to load web pages that move at the speed of a 1996 dial up connection. One of the young men from the temple stands over my shoulder, waiting. The others huddle in reception, flipping through pages of registration receipts. And then I hear it. From the young man who was so determined in the temple.

“Oh shit.”

I close the internet browser, push back my chair, and walk out of the office. “Thank you,” I say. “Chi-zu-be.” And I go to have my coffee, and fly away.

Asia, Moving

Business Classy

It’s time for a confession: I sprang for business class.  A 14-hour stretch of dehydration torture with air contaminated by the coughing tubercular denialist three rows back isn’t my idea of a good time, so I paid to put a little space between us.

It takes less than five minutes on my first long-haul to deem the price of this extravagance worth packing in. I board, and go to the left. First class is sequestered upstairs, and everyone in coach heads right. I feel delightfully free of the fray, especially since I survived three bad omens to get on board.

The first involved an overturned Mini Cooper on the ramp to airport departures. The driver lay on the cement, her head braced by a civilian as her own blood pooled at her side. Its color matched the cherry red car. I’m 90% sure she was missing her right hand, but I stopped trying to figure that out the minute I noticed it.

The second occurred just after my taxi driver/ English professor/ Masters in Linguistics candidate (“you learned your Spanish in Mexico? Ahorita is a very Mexican wor.”) pulled to the curb. According to the lovely agents at Quantas, I am required to have a visa to enter Australia, even if I only plan on spending the night. In the airport. (I’m a princess, but a stingy one.)

Luckily, I can get this right across the hall. After some back and forth, some very vague responses to my question of requirements (is this for Chileans, for planes arriving from Chile, or for everyone?), and $26,200 “leftover” Chilean pesos ($50USD), I am checked in and on my way to goof off for a bit before boarding my plane.

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Chilean money is the prettiest I’ve seen so far. Some of it has windows and the $10.000CP notes match my iPad cover.

Aside: I’m traveling with books on my ipad, which means I have to find something to do during take-off and landing. (God forbid I read Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and actually plan my trip.) I wander to the airport newsstand where I find a Vanity Fair. Disturbed by my level of excitement, I take it to the counter and tell the woman behind it I’m afraid to ask how much it costs. She laughs, and tells me: $7900CP. That’s $14 US dollars, which converts to one dollar for each hour of flight. Jay-Z better be pretty damn interesting.

I go upstairs for one last fantastic South American cappuccino before leaving. Somehow, I get this:

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A cappuccino to insult all cappuccinos.

How milk foam with a little espresso becomes coffee with whipped cream is a conundrum.  Also a conundrum: how to drink this.The whipped cream foams in the coffee, spilling over the edge of the mug and onto the saucer. I let it sit for a while until the foaming comes to an end, and I drink it. Why not?

Eventually, I slink through duty free, careful to avoid the perfume assault zone,  and find some other interesting items, like a $19USD bag of m&ms,

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Easy economic conversion for Chile: drop 3 zeros and multiply by two. Thus, this bag of m&ms costs (9,500/1000)x2. Or $19USD.

and a selection of goods in sardine cans with the brand name “Robinson Crusoe.” They are things I wouldn’t consider eating, regardless of being stranded on an island. One can’t help but wonder who does the product selection for this location, and how much canned octopus cocktail they actually sell.

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I don’t know what oil of maravilla is, and I think I’m better off this way.

And here I arrive at bad omen number three: I queue like a South American now. In other words, I line up ridiculously early and completely ignore all order-related instructions. Boarding rows 45-60? How nice. I’m in row seven and I’ll just be boarding now too. Apparently I’ve adopted this mentality during six intracontinental flights and a similar number of bus trips since leaving home.  Consequently, I unintentionally cut a long line of people who actually are in Business Class, boarding with me. Australians do not take kindly to this provincial custom, and I garner quite a few dirty looks.

When I get to my seat, I shirk off the guilt. I’m too giddy to care. I’m on to more important things, like my seat. It flat-reclines, has adjustable lumbar support, and a massage feature. A pillow and two blankets await me, and there is so much leg room, I can stick my legs out straight and still not touch the next row.

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I have my own tv that rises out of the center console and has movies, tv shows, documentaries, news, and more. There is a vast menu of food options that make my mouth water, even if I accommodate for them to be done airline-style.

The flight has a customer service manager, who introduces himself in English, with a tasty Australian accent. This is the first time I have understood a flight attendant’s safety instructions since I left the US. As soon as the door closes, I am brought a bottle of water, hot towel, toiletry kit. And then…a set of pajamas.

The woman sitting next to me is a pro. She already knows that second blanket is a bedroll to pad your seat for more comfortable sleeping.  The minute we are allowed to unbuckle and move about the cabin, she is first to the restroom to put on her pajamas. (The bathroom has a flower arrangement, and individual cloth towels instead of paper.) She is quickly followed by most of the rest of the cabin, so that, while we boarded as normal individuals, we slowly don the appearance of a doomsday cult.

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Yes, these are real. I checked.

Luxury comes at a cost, though, and I’m not talking about the price of the ticket. The cloth towels go into the trash just like paper. Does this happen with the hot towels, which are made of the same cheap washcloth? What about all those pajamas when we are done with them? Are they laundered and reused?

What about all those cases with unused toiletries, facemasks, and little black socks? The list of waste goes on, and maybe this is why I don’t sleep for more than about three hours on this flight.  I am slightly ameliorated by putting some of my beloved Chilean pesos in the UNICEF envelope provided with my headset and collected at the end of the flight, but heading into an area of the world with extreme, extreme poverty, this definitely provides some food for thought.

The price of just an average foreign vacation in much of Southeast Asia is much more than the average Southeast Asian can afford. People in the countries I am visiting don’t use toilet paper, so how does one explain throwing out cloth towels after a single use? I may be Business Classy, but the contradiction between the way I’m traveling and the standard of living in the countries I’m traveling through is definitely not lost on me. It’s food for thought for that four-star menu.