In honor of World Toilet Day today, I’m updating a piece I wrote a couple years ago on toilets around the world.
How perfect is it that this day comes right before American Thanksgiving? Especially this year and in these weeks following our election when thankfulness seems very hard to come by.
So let’s take a trip around the world of toilets, shall we?
In my birthplace and first home, we had no rest stops or toilet-graced gas stations on the road, merely a lot of men squatting on the street with their backs to the traffic.
I became conditioned to pee right before leaving the house and then dehydrating myself so I wouldn’t have to go again until we got home.
The best public option was eating at a restaurant and using the wet-floored facilities with the dreaded “squat pot” dug into the floor, its low, black hole challenging our aim and then laughing at us if we lost our balance or wet our shoes.
If you got lucky, the bathroom even boasted pink toilet paper the consistency of sandpaper, a scrap of soap embedded with hair, and the aromatherapy of Eau de Mothballs.
I spent a week in Lima in a small hotel room with a high school classmate whom I quickly got to know on a far too intimate level – as is bound to happen when a mere scrap of a wall separates the bed from the toilet. The partition came with no door or curtain and sadly reached only halfway to the ceiling. Needless to say, we had learned each other’s pooping cycles by the end of the week.
The dehydration method saved me from some potentially uncomfortable and embarrassing bathroom breaks on my trip to Cambodia earlier this year.
I was especially grateful to avoid the use of one particular establishment, a backyard enclosure of bamboo walls surrounding a small volcano of dirt. At the top of the crater there perched a white ceramic platform most likely retrieved from some more permanent squatting structure. The “toilet” stood in full view of the doorless entrance and the path that led right past it.
If given the choice between this facility or the nearby bushes, I surely would have chosen the bushes. Thanks to dehydration, I didn’t have to make such a painful decision.
When I got off the train in Rome needing the loo after my journey from Milan, I discovered the toilets at the station cost 80 centesimi. As if a cheap and soon-to-be-broke student would spend a dollar-something on the luxury of a toilet rather than a Roman gelato.
So I gave my bladder muscles a workout instead, as my roommate and I proceeded to get lost wandering the streets in search of her friend’s apartment.
The toilet once there? Perfection. Or as you say in Italian…free!
A week and a half here visiting my sister included just about as many toilet stops in the wild outdoors as the mouse-infested indoors. I crouched in grass and bushes and sand, mosquitoes nipping at my heels and…well, elsewhere.
In one town, the privilege of an enclosed hole in the ground came at 100 ariary for a pee and 300 for a poo, paid out to a little girl who kept the key to the hut and was responsible for cleaning it (hence the heftier price for committing a Number Two).
I felt spoiled because my sister had spent six months living here with nothing but a bucket for a bathroom.
I spent my childhood terrified of being sucked down the black throat of this roaring dragon they called a toilet and then being spat out into the great open sky where I would plummet to my untimely death.
But after nine days of African pit stops, I boarded our Air France flight with giddy relief, reveling in the discovery that the same beastly airplane toilet I had always feared had suddenly become the most wonderful, luxurious invention ever created by man.
In childhood, I saw America as the place of smoothly paved highways, fast food restaurants, and a vast landscape of Western toilets that (for the most part) are free, clean, walled, and doored. They even have flushing features, running water, liquid soap, and sanitary hand dryers!
So this November, I will try to be thankful for toilets. Because there are millions of people who would be grateful for half the luxury of half the bathrooms we take for granted every day.
So Happy World Toilet Day to you! If you feel the urge to help get toilets to the millions who need them, check out the World Toilet Organization.