No matter what country I’m travelling, the one phrase I must have in my limited foreign language repetoire is ’Where is the toilet please’. In Japanese – my current favourite overseas destination – I’m told that ’please’ is not a word you would use when asking toilet directions. Though, when travelling, there have been occasions when I’ve begged to know where the nearest loo was.
“Please, please, tell me quick – p l e a s e!”
Why would I blog about toilets? It’s a universal subject that binds us all. German film maker Wim Wenders is even making a film centred on them – more specifically about high end public toilets in Tokyo. Announcing the project in Japan this week, he said “I almost think it’s a utopian idea because the toilet is a place where everybody is the same. There is no rich or poor, old or young. Everyone is part of humanity.”
All travellers surely have stories about unusual toilets and toileting desperation. Especially if you’ve suffered ’Delhi belly’ en route. I wonder why India’s Delhi gets blamed for travellers diarrhea. Why not ’Welly belly’ (Wellington, NZ ) or ’Mellie belly (Melbourne)?
I’ve spent several weeks backpacking on a shoestring budget in India, with no urgent toilet needs. Was it because I strictly adhered to advice to never indulge in dairy products – boiling hot black tea only, with no sugar – never drink water, except bottled french Perrier, and never drink any soft drink other than Coca-Cola. This last advice was not because Coca-Cola might be capable of destroying nasty stomach bugs – we know what it can do to clean up coins. But because the company apparently had strict health and hygiene rules when bottling. I always had freshly cooked hot food too – never reheated. I went weeks without any fresh fruit.
My uneventful Indian toilet travels also may have resulted because I had developed an iron clad stomach after a toileting nightmare in Europe several months earlier – a natural vaccine?
This is my worst travelling toilet story. Spoiler alert! Anything else I’ll tell you will be decidedly more pleasant than this tale! Read on if you’re brave. You have been warned.
I was driving in what was then Yugoslavia, travelling with my two younger siblings. Nearing the Greek border, in what is now Macedonia, we came across Roman ruins. I didn’t actually view these ruins. They were across a field, unseen from the highway, and guides were available to show the way. I was halfway across the field when thunder rumbled my bowel and sharp pain punctured my abdomen like a lightning bolt. I needed a toilet quick!
The guide pointed to a nearby river where he assured me I would find a loo. He continued on his way to the ruins with my siblings and other tourists, while I diverted at an Olympic qualifying run to locate the toilet. And suddenly, there it was – a tiny tin shed, much like an old fashioned Australian outhouse loo, perched in the middle of nowhere on a slope descending to river bank. Thank you, God. I made it, and flung open the door.
There were no male, female or unisex signs. Nor was there a ‘Hazard zone sign or a ’Enter if you dare’ warning. I was desperate and beyond caring, even as an overwhelming stench invaded my nostrils – almost suffocating. Adjusting to the lack of light – no windows – I saw there was also no floor. Just a massive pit, close to overflowing with human excrement. A pit of squirming snakes would not have been more shocking!
Two old wooden planks, spaced about a foot apart, crossed over this hell pit. I had no alternative. I pulled the door closed and stepped tentatively onto the planks. I tried desperately to control my fear as I dragged my jeans and knickers to my knees in a move worthy of a contortionist working on a high wire without a net. Squatting, I stretched out my arms to seek balance support from the shed walls. My fingertips just reached, pressing in for dear life.
I could not end this horror quickly and leave. I was in the throes of the worst case of the trots I’ve ever encountered, and had to remain perched perilously on those wobbling planks until my crisis subsided. At any time I could have toppled off into that pit of excrement – would my weakened legs give way or would I be overcome by poisonous pit gases ? I drew on all my powers of endurance, trying to focus on remaining upright, and keeping at bay thoughts of falling – sinking – disappearing into the pit. Poop quicksand!
Finally, my bowels settled. I wobbled off the planks carefully on very shaky knees, opening the door to fresh air. Glorious cleansing fresh air.
And – applause. The sound of ’many hands clapping’ and a lot of laughter coming from a large group of people, enjoying a picnic and looking at me from the opposite bank of the river. It was pretty clear they knew what lay waiting inside the tin shed. Was this pit latrine a source of local entertainment? Did they regularly gather to watch tourists react to the pit? To see them racing desperately over the hill from the path to the Roman ruins. You don’t usually seek out lonely public loos in the middle of nowhere unless you’re desperate.
Did others come bolting like me? Running fast while clenching the buttocks very tightly would be an interesting challenge to add to Olympic events? Or did some try to maintain their dignity with a fast walk, a contender for Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks?
My siblings discovered from the Roman Ruins guide that the pit toilet was moveable. A pit, about 5 foot (1.5 m) wide, was dug and the tin shed placed over it for privacy. And when the pit was full, the shed would be moved to cover a newly dug pit. I know the measurement, because that’s how far it is from one of my hands to the other with my arms stretched out. I wonder now about leaching from the pits along the riverbank into the river. I didn’t then. I just wanted to leave – quickly and as far away as I could go. I didn’t even progress onto the Roman ruins. I gathered up my siblings and pointed the VW Kombi to the Greek border.
Where are my photos of this pit loo? Are you kidding! I don’t need them. It’s still indelibly marked in my memories. Even if I sink into dementia in old age, I’m certain the image of the pit toilet will remain with me!
Fast forward 24 hours, and I was in Greece’s northern city of Thessalonnaiki, camping overnight in the Kombi on the beach after finding that the YHA (Youth Hostels Association) was closed for renovations. We arrived in the dark after a long day’s journey, and failed to park anywhere near a public toilet. As I realised early the next morning when, like a follow up tremor to a major earthquake, the trots threatened me again.
I desperately tried to rouse my younger brother, sleeping on the front seats, so we could drive off to find a public loo. But he wouldn’t budge. Perhaps his enduring nightmare is the tirade of curses I let loose to him as my younger sister and I left on a hurried walk to search for a toilet along the beach. Just as my situation deteriorated to ‘highest crisis level’, we spotted a man setting up his ocean side cafe for morning trade. He did not speak English, and we didn’t know the Greek for ‘where is a toilet, please’? So I began a mime that would have made Marcel Marceau proud of me. The cafe owner got the message, and thankfully pointed the way to his cafe loo.
That’s when I resolved to always know the local language phrase for ‘where is the toilet’ in whatever country I’m travelling in! And ‘thank you’. More important words to always know! To that Greek cafe owner, a belated – Efharisto! Many decades have since past, and I remain grateful.
Another loo memory is my Uncle’s farm toilet in the 1960’s. It was separate from the main house, and the loo was a large tin, a couple of feet tall – set under a wooden box with a nicely carved hole, capped with a proper toilet seat. Wooden too, as I recall. Within reach, a pile of neatly cut newspaper squares instead of toilet paper.
When the tin was full, it would be emptied. I’m not sure where. It was a farm, so the contents may have been buried. Or it might have been collected by a ‘poo truck’, common back then.
This story fits into my ‘travelling toilet’ category, as visits to the farm were a regular Sunday tour – a long family ‘driving expedition’ to the country from our city home. It was where I learnt how to hand milk cows and to dodge cow dung pats.
An embarrassing ‘toilet stop’ for me happened while crossing Afghanistan by public bus.
In the middle of nowhere, the bus pulled to a stop and most of the passengers alighted – men to one side of the bus, women in their flowing, all encompassing burka robes to the other side. I presumed it was a toileting stop for a piddle. Luckily, I decided to stay in the bus. With not a tree in sight, I couldn’t see myself pulling my jeans down in public to squat – even on the women’s side. I realised how a tent like burka could be quite handy in this situation!
Suddenly, looking out from the bus, I realised it was not a toilet stop. It seemed to be a praying stop. I silently thanked my lucky stars for remaining in the bus. Fortunately, no one else knew my mistake.
I’m still confused when I look at the photo I snapped from the bus, with the men facing different directions. One sitting chap, seems a bit confused too. Was a compass necessary to figure which way to pray? Then there’s the European bloke, who seems to be beating a hasty retreat back to the bus. Perhaps he thought it was a toilet stop too. Perhaps there was actually a piddle line and a praying line? One of my life’s mysteries.
There are pleasant toilet memories from my journeys. Like the elderly Italian Nonna who sat all day, every day, outside the shared bathroom/toilet at a lovely family Pensione I stayed at near the main Rome railway station. As soon as you left the room, she was in like Flynn (Errol – it’s an Aussie saying) with her bucket, mop and other cleaning apparatus.
This was not one of those loo ladies to whom you give a few coins at public toilets in some countries (another of my travelling shocks – we didn’t have them at our free public toilets in Australia). This was simply her job in maintaining the family pensione. I’d smile, she’d nod. And that was about it. I appreciated her efforts. That room was always immaculately clean. I’d mumble “Grazie” in my limited Italian. Thank you. I wish I’d known enough of the language to be more specific. ’Thank you for such a lovely clean toilet’.
Bidets were confusing to me when I first encountered them in France. Mum said they were for washing your feet. She also seemed pretty sure they were a ‘sink’ useful for washing socks and undies. She was as unfamiliar with bidets as me!
At this point, I must beg that if you are ever travelling in the Australian outback, please ensure you have a small trowel in case you need to toilet in the bush. Dig a hole to bury your waste. There is nothing worse than finding what should be pristine landscapes littered with used toilet paper! My pet hate!
I went on an organised outback camping tour of Western Australia’s Kimberley where trowels where provided for use when the tour group was free camping with no toilet facilities. A Melbourne woman on the tour – now a good friend of mine – emerged from the bush early one morning, trowel in hand, proudly proclaiming ‘ I am no longer a bush toilet virgin!” It still makes me smile when I think of it.
A warning – check for snakes if you need to take a bush squat in Australia. We have a lot of poisonous snakes, but they rarely cause deaths. Unless you fail to seek medical help. Like the girl student travelling with other University students on Tasmania’s rugged West Coast in the 1960’s. She was bitten on the buttocks, but was too embarrassed to mention it to her male companions. She probably thought she’d seek medical help later when they reached a town with a hospital. Too late.
Make a lot of noise to let snakes know you’re there, clear your space, and squat. What self respecting snake is going to stick around for that!
Intriguing toilets are those that are space savers. Dual use! Like this one below that my son had at the Cortina d’Ampezzo ski resort in Italy. A heat rack,above the bidet and next to the loo, doubled as a drying rack!
I do love loos with a view, and Australia has plenty of them along its coasts. Most of them are ‘drop loos’ – they look like regular toilets, but the waste drops down to a collecting area – an upmarket ‘green’ version of my dreaded pit. Many are waterless self composting. You’ll usually see a water container next to them, so you can scoop water in to cleanse the bowl. Drop loos can be a bit smelly, especially in hot weather. But they are light years ahead of ’the pit’ I experienced!
My favourite loo with a view is along the Cape to Cape trekking track, in South West Western Australia. You can relax there, doing your business, while gazing out a window enjoying a view of the West Coast wilderness and Indian Ocean.
There was a men’s public loo in central Hobart, Tasmania in the ’90’s that actually had a one way mirror – the men at the urinals could see out to a popular public laneway. On the outer wall hung a regular mirror. So from the men’s urinals, you had a view of passing people stopping to preen themselves in the mirror. I, of course, did not see inside this men’s toilet. But I sent M.J in to see if it was true. It was. I doubt it has survived in these days of correctiveness.
Japan has toilets with a view too. Using smart glass, they have well lit colourful see-through glass toilet stalls in a couple of public loos in Tokyo. When you enter and lock the door, the glass becomes frosted so that people can’t see in. When you leave, they become transparent again. I plan to seek them out next time I’m there! An experience not to be missed!
It is truely toilet delight world in Japan. Yes, there are the classic squat toilets. They are usually very clean, even in public places. You don’t actually have to touch anything. I find them rather hygienic!
Many public toilets have tiny children’s seats positioned inside the toilet stall – you pop your child safely into them while you do your business. I first encountered these on arrival at Narita airport in Tokyo. Great idea!
And then there is the Starship of all toilets – Japanese washlets – Woshuretto. Smart technology in toileting at its best. I’m sure you’ve all heard of them. Let me assure you, they are as fabulous as they sound! Although, you might need to put in some study before trying them. There are often many buttons to push for the various functions. Not always with instructions in English. My eldest son, when he first encountered one, hit every button he could while gazing down into the toilet trying to figure it out. Result – his face got a good squirt of water rising up from the toilet bowl.
You can have warm seats in winter, and various ‘water squirts’ at the press of a button to wash different regions of your undercarriage. Japanese hotels often will centrally turn off or on the warm seat function according to the season. May 31st -it’s still a hot seat even if there’s an spring heatwave going on. June 1 – it’s off, even if a late freezing cold spell has hit. This drove an engineering friend of mine nuts as he reasoned there must be a way manually to turn his room’s hot seat off. He called in management. I recall seeing Japanese staff gathered in his ensuite, looking as perplexed as him. Probably not because the toilet seat heat was on, but because they couldn’t understand why this Aussie guest wanted the hot seat off. It was, after-all, still a few days before summer began!
Be warned – the same seasonal principle applies to Japanese hotel air conditioning. In Hakone, that same hot May, I had a perfectly good functioning state of the art air conditioning unit in my room, but central control, far away from my hotel, would not turn it from heat to cool until summer. Hotel management finally solved my problem by bringing me a small electric fan on a stand. The upside of this very precise character of Japan is that trains always run on time!
Some Japanese toilets have automatic flushing as you rise from your throne. Automatic seat closure. That could save a lot of relationships! And western style flushing sounds – in case you’re missing them!
Some have automatic deodorising. Some, I’m told, glow in the dark. I personally haven’t seen one of those! But it would save on turning on the light in the middle of the night. I have come across some with music in my wanderings. A bit like Japanese style elevator music. I couldn’t understand the Japanese instructions. So I didn’t know if I could select a song – ‘The Toilet song’ by the Wiggles perhaps. That old favourite ’Looby Loo’.
Or a bit more soulful and upmarket – the Etta James classic ’At last’. With that thought lingering, you’ll never play it at a wedding again, will you!
For me, sitting down on a Japanese washlet is the ultimate – akin to sitting in Captain Kirk’s Star Trek chair – Warp speed – beam this loo to my Australian home ,Scotty! Kudasai (please).
I’ll leave you with a question posed to me at an earthquake office training course in Wellington, New Zealand where offices are equipped with earthquake emergency supplies including food and body bags. You are advised to stay put if a quake hits because of broken glass and collapsed live electrical wires on the ground outside.
You are alive, but some are not and should be moved into the supplied body bags and stored in a toilet. The question is: The men’s or women’s? Answer below the next photo (which has nothing to do with the question).
Answer: The men’s because they are likely to have less sit down toilets than the women’s. The sit down toilets probably won’t be functioning, but can be used by lining them with bags supplied in the office emergency kit. Luckily, I never experienced this scenario while living in NZ.
For more about Wenders’ new ‘toilet’ movie project see: