Travelers' Revenge

We take a break from our usual programing to go to the bathroom.  Yes you read that correctly.  Today, we are talking about the culture of international bathrooming.  There are a number of global options for getting down with nature that are an enigma to westerners, and vice versa.  

When people talk about travel--or more locally, trying ethnic food--the subject using the bathroom always is close at hand.  Such discussions are full of fear, worry, wild speculation, and at times, vows to hold it till you get back.  Part of the fear of ethnic food is that such indulgences will lead one, sooner than later, into an uncomfortable bathroom situation.  

It is not only westerners who fear such an event when traveling abroad.  Some people fear our food as well!  Check out South Africa's Trevor Noah's take on eating at a taco truck in L.A. for the first time.


When travelers go abroad, they are often baffled at the number of global bathrooming options, and can feel something like passenger in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  (you can see the full list of instructions here)


You are not alone; the confusion goes both ways.  People from cultures with more um.... natural ways of using the bathroom are often baffled at western style toilets.  I have seen signs like this one in fine establishments in many developing countries.  This sign, however, is from a leading British University.

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Squatty Potty

All joking aside, let us begin with a short overview of a few different styles of toilets around the world.  We will begin in the middle with the "squatty potty"  The entire inspiration for this post came about as a result of a conversation I had with several ladies at work (Ladies, if you are reading this, my apologies...).  They were talking about the glories of the squatty potty.  These ladies were not the type to use the squatty potty, much less, to sing its praises.  My confusion was the result of assuming that they were speaking of the global variety of the squatty potty (a hole in the ground you squat over).  Unbeknownst to me, there is a new product which brings the benefits of the hole in the ground to the comfort of your home.  Westerners who for the last century have spurned the eon-old method not only find the squats potty to be revolutionary, but a surprising revolution at that. Westerners who for the last century have spurned the eon-old method not only find the squats potty to be revolutionary, but a surprising revolution at that.  

Fear not!  Wilbur Sargunaraj has put together a helpful video to teach the wary traveler how to use such facilities.

In the Middle East, where the squatty potty is alive and well, and where the left hand with water is the traditional cleaning method, many bathrooms have bathroom attendants.  These attendants keep the bathroom clean and require a tip.  Such attendants are often present in fine establishments throughout many major world cities and provide the same service.  Having lived in the Middle East, the pay to use bathrooms are worth the small tip!

Throughout many of our posts, we will note that restauranteurs should not use their left hand when eating base on the culture of the restaurant owners.  On the chance that the reason for this has not yet been emphatically clear, let us go one step further,

Flying Toilets

It might shock you to think of the squatty potty as the middle of the stack of global bathrooming, but that is only because you might not be familiar with the flying toilet.  Nairobi Kenya is home to Kibera, Africa's largest slum where more than a million people live in an area slightly larger than a square mile.  Lacking basic sanitation, Kibera is known for its open sewers (open trenches dug in the streets) and flying toilets.  The essence of the flying toilet is that one does their business in a bag in the privacy of their home (shack) and then ties a knot in the bag and throws the bag.  These bags can be found littering the tin roofs of shacks and piling up in certain areas of the slum.  I have been there and walked through the streets; it is like walking on bubble wrap....  Many humanitarian organizations are attempting to help combat these toilets by installing bio-centers, a public toilet where the methane is used to create flame for cooking or heated showers.

At the other end of the spectrum are the over-engineered Japanese toilets.  Wilbur Sargunaraj guides us though the maze of sensored, bluetooth connected, toilets as only he can do.  But to get the full effect of Japanese creativity one must read the wikipedia article, which last I checked was about 14 pages printed!

The bottom line (he he.... get it, bottom?).  Should you risk potential dire consequences and baffling solutions to these consequences for the adventure of trying something new?  I suppose it is a matter of choice.  For me, the choice is easy.   Here I am pictured in Egypt during Ramadan.  Some friends took me to this place that was down a alley in the old part of the city.  We sat down at a table and they offered our table one bottle of water--which had already been opened and refilled and was now only half way filled.  There wasn't any running water, and all of the dish service was done through a 50 gal drum of water.  The dirty plates were dipped, swished around, and waived for a brief moment through the air to shake the water off before being handed down the serving line.  Did I eat?  You bet!  It was fantastic.  I even lived to tell about it.