Whenever I write or read about travel, I focus on adventure, learning, beauty, maybe even making a difference. But whenever I talk about travel, whether with global trekkers or homebodies, at some point we end up giggling and gasping over the same subject: bathrooms. So, here’s the straight poop on three of my overseas toilet tales, which didn’t make the final cut of my travel memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands. Please excuse the potty humor. It comes with the territory.
I wasn’t about to let a little killer diarrhea stop me from seeing the Taj Mahal.
IN THE TRENCHES
For the night, I’ve checked into a large hostel, a dim, dank, dismal place that’s not enticing at all. When I grabbed my backpacking towel and walked down the hall to the showers, I took one look and decided not to perform any ablutions until I arrive in Lijiang tomorrow. The stench from the trench toilet was foul, and the showers were parked right next to it, with suspicious pools of yellowish-brown water on the floor. Unfortunately, my bowels could not wait.
I’ve become used to China’s public trench toilets. Each trench is a long narrow gap in the bathroom floor, over which several people of the same sex can squat in a row. Stalls are delineated by two-foot dividers with no doors. This makes each squatter completely visible to anyone who walks in, so I’m not sure the dividers serve any meaningful purpose, unless it’s to give the occupant something to hold onto while she aims for the gap.
Hanging my bare ass over a trench in front of a roomful of women amuses me more than it embarrasses me. Or I might be in denial; so far I’ve only managed to pee. Whether it’s the strangeness of the toilets, or the change in diet, by this afternoon, I hadn’t pooped in four days.
By the time I reached the disgusting trench at this Kunming hostel, I was ready to burst. So I did. While I was noisily bursting, the cleaning woman came in and, oblivious to my belief in the personal nature of a bowel movement, she began mopping — not only throughout the bathroom, but right inside my tiny stall, right next to my squatting body, strands of the mop slapping wetly over the tops of my feet. I looked down at the rude mop and tried to avoid eye contact with the silent woman wielding it.
I waited until she left before I walked to the water bucket, picked up a cup, and poured water onto the evidence, manually flushing it along the slanted trench, where it skidded ever so slowly toward the gravity drain at the other end.
It may be days before I take another shit.
I THINK I’M GONNA DIE
New Delhi, India
During the flight from Katmandu, I began violently shivering with the chill that accompanied my third bout with dysentery, or its crapping cousin, the worst since I’d been in Asia. When I asked the flight attendant for a blanket, the Indian woman sitting next to me stared at me in surprise. Everyone else on the plane was quite warm, and anticipated being even hotter when we landed. It was all over the news: people in India were dying in a killer heat wave, with daily temperatures reaching about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I lurched to the airplane lavatory several times, only to discover faint splotches of diarrhea had been trickling out of my ass while I sat half-conscious in my seat.
I shared a taxi into town with a woman from New Zealand. The taxi dropped her off at a swanky hotel, where she planned to stay with friends. Rooms there were about $150 U.S. I checked into a cheap hotel: 200 rupees (about $5 U.S.) for a room with a toilet, shower, and a fan that did little more than churn the unbearable heat like thick clots of butter. I swayed to the bed and fell in a half-faint for two hours, occasionally waking to stare at the fan turning overhead, my head spinning with it, my gut cramping until it seemed my intestines must be tied in a sailor’s knot. Now burning with fever, now cold as ice.
I wondered if I might die right here, and how long it would be before anyone found me, rotting in this heat. The idea floated to me from far away, as if it wasn’t even my own thought, but something I’d overheard. It took a moment to realize that the faint moaning I heard was coming from my own throat.
I finally hauled myself out of bed and wandered feebly down the street to buy some Norfloxacin, the same antibiotic my travel doctor had sent with me when I first left the States. In India no doctor’s prescription is necessary to purchase antibiotics. I then ate a few bites of omelet and chapatti at my hotel’s rooftop restaurant. I drank endless quantities of water, but the input at one end couldn’t keep up with the output at the other.
Any rational person would have returned to bed. Instead, putting faith in my medicine, I dragged myself to the India Tourism Development Corporation to buy tickets for a tour of Agra the next day, and a tour of Delhi the day following. As I walked through the wriggling waves of heat, I felt as if I were pushing my way through clear, hot, liquid Jello. But I only had two more days here, I’d paid 70 dollars for a Visa, and I wasn’t about to let a little killer diarrhea stop me from seeing the Taj Mahal.
After I bought my tickets, I had no strength for the walk back to my hotel. So I broke down and risked a ride in an auto rickshaw. The turbaned driver agreed to take me to my hotel for 20 rupees.
As I climbed in, he said that first he would take me to a nice shop on the way.
“No! Absolutely not,” I said.
“But it will still cost only 20 rupees.”
I closed my eyes, set my mouth in a line, and shook my head until it felt as if it might fall off. “No, no, no!”
“I cannot. I’m really very sick. I must lie down.”
He finally acquiesced. Fewer than two minutes later he stopped the vehicle and said, “The shop is right here and it will only take a few minutes.”
“No! No! No! No! No!”
“But I will get a coupon worth 25 rupees.”
“Yes, I know this. But I am really sick. I feel like I will faint.”
He shot through the streets like a renegade rocket, as if determined to kill me in revenge. Every jolt sent colorful pains shooting through my hot and shriveled brain.
By 5:00 in the afternoon I was back in bed, and didn’t open my eyes again until 6:00 the next morning. It was a nice little surprise, opening my eyes again.
Every jolt sent colorful pains shooting through my hot and shriveled brain.
A REVOLUTIONARY BLADDER IN THE GARDENS OF VERSAILLES
With the lowbrow humor of my own un-landed class, my favorite part of the private tour of the Chateau de Versailles was the king’s toilet. Everywhere I travel, the potty habits of the present and the past fascinate me — whatever our culture, whatever our status, at some time or other everyone’s gotta go. Yet most people maintain some degree of privacy about how they go. Seeing, or using, the peeing and pooping paraphernalia of other cultures gives me the sense of unveiling a secret that is both common and mysterious. And, being reminded that even royalty must take a dump is an entertaining equalizer, as unfailingly funny as a fart.
In this case, the king’s potty deserved the euphemism of “throne.” It was a noble, gilded chair too fancy for its purpose. The royal family was born in public, lived in public, and died in public. I assume the king did not crap in public, however he did have a servant to wipe his royal arse.
In the afternoon, I toured the palace gardens and Les Grandes Eaux Musicales, “The Great Musical Waters.” For two hours the fountains of Versailles sprang to life. Glorious geysers gushed into the breathless blue of a summer afternoon, while classical music played over loudspeakers.
Throughout acre upon acre of classical French symmetry, I strolled among some two-dozen astonishing fountains, graced with large sculptures of marble, bronze, gilded lead, and other luxurious materials. In the white marble Le Bosquet de la Colonnade, a circular colonnade was interspersed with shooting fountains, in the midst of which Pluto abducted the nymph Proserpina. In Le Bassin d’Apollon, a gilded Apollo and his horse-drawn chariot emerged from an explosion of water representing the rising sun.
Halfway through the show, the sight and sound of hundreds of gallons of gushing water created a problem I hadn’t planned for: I had to pee, now. The thing was, the urge didn’t strike me until I was nearly a mile from the chateau, which was jammed with tourists, and the need became dire so quickly I knew I’d never make it. After months of abusing my bladder for hours at a time while searching for toilets, my control over that body part has reached an all-time low. There was no question: I was about to let go a gusher, in front of hundreds of people.
So, as fast as I could, I scurried to a nearby group of lawns bordered by tall trees, as far from the crowds as I could manage. Once out of sight, I grabbed my crotch and held on as I rushed to a long line of bushes, where — hoping no official-types or guardians of French etiquette would walk by — I hiked up my skirt, dropped my panties, crouched on my toes and, with a grateful sigh, peed loud and long in the opulent Gardens of Versailles.
It’s funny how the problems in my life shrink when I have a desperate urge to go, and how beautiful and tranquil that same life seems right afterward. As I continued my stroll, feeling light and relaxed, it occurred to me that I’d likely just repeated a revolutionary act. Surely a few of the peasants who ransacked the palace during the French Revolution — upon seeing this opulent affront to their hunger and poverty, and upon hearing the suggestion of the fountains — must have seen fit to take a piss in the decadent dirt of Versailles.
Do you have a story of toilet trouble on the road?