At a floating restaurant on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, I headed for an outhouse that hung on the dock edge above the lake. It was being used and someone told me there were urinals around the corner of the building. As I approached the urinals, which were open on the deck, several small children who had been playing in the water climbed onto the railing and started smacking me with something wet. Snakes. They were hitting me with live snakes and laughing at me. I decided to hold it.
When I finally used the outhouse, I watched — fascinated — as my pee went straight into the lake … exactly where the children were swimming.
Everyone has a toilet tale to tell, and it usually takes place while they’re traveling. Toilet troubles for us have included:
Trying to find one — Lost in Boston’s Financial District at night, after a full day of exploring the city — and sampling its pubs — I (once again) had to pee. Everything was closed and I had no idea where to find a bathroom. After a futile search my civil decency vanished, and I ducked into an alley to let it all out — muggings or arrests be damned.
Unexpected companions — While I was using a urinal in a Mexican restroom, the female attendant started her cleaning routine which included sloshing her mop against my shoes.
Unexpected darkness — Julie paid a small boy a few coins to use a dingy, spider-web-filled concrete bathroom at Angkor Wat. She let out a groan when she saw the dirty, squat toilet on the floor. She let out a second groan when she shut the door. No lights.
Being prevented from using one — Again, Cambodia. A rough, bouncing three-hour taxi ride from Poipet on the Thai border to Siem Reap turned hellish when the driver refused to stop and let us pee.
While these experiences were unavoidable, we have found a few things that have helped reduce toilet trauma while traveling.
Don’t wait until the last minute.
I know, obvious, right? But did you really learn anything from your parents who kept asking if you had to go before you left the house?
Know what to ask for.
The loo, the can, the water closet, the crapper … whatever you call it at home it’s a good idea to know what they call it in the country you’re traveling in — and how to say it. Pointing at your privates and then at the ground, while hopping from foot-to-foot, could lead to some exciting adventures but you’ll still wet your pants.
Carry small change.
In many countries you may encounter a shakedown when you try to use a public restroom. This is someone — an enterprising street person, an “employee,” — who claims you need to pay up before you can use the facilities. This person is often in the form of a little old lady tugging your arm, pointing at the door and holding out her palm as you try to enter the bathroom. Don’t get the wrong idea; she just wants a coin or two.
If I have some change I’ll give it to them. If not, I shrug apologetically and enter anyway. I’ve never been challenged, but I often have gone back and paid afterward. Keep in mind that many of these shakedowns are legitimate ways to cover costs of water and maintenance, and might be helping out someone who has a lot less than you do. So I always try to pay my way.
Sometimes those women out front might be selling a few squares of toilet paper. There’s a reason for that, which you’ll discover when you’re done with your business. Just remember, when you see the empty toilet paper dispenser and yell “Oh shit!” she’ll be out there smirking. So do yourself a favor — and show her you’re the boss — by carrying a little TP when you’re out and about. It’s not a bad idea to carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer as well.
Finally, have a sense of wonder — and humor. After all, there’s nothing to spice up your slideshow like a bawdy bathroom tale.
What are your favorite toilet tales and tips?
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