When travelling, you come across a lot of interesting toilet situations. They can be squats or holes; on moving transport or in the middle of nowhere; with paper or without; using jugs of water or handfuls of rice husks to flush with. The infinite number of variables makes the unknown condition of a foreign toilet something that often plays on your mind.
Over the last seven years, I've spent untold hours with foreign toilets on my mind. Whether it's due to an overly full bladder on a long-haul bus ride, praying for an over-eager driver to pull over, or a few hours after a somewhat dodgy tasting skewer of unidentified meat that I chose to eat anyway – chances are, I've been forced to head to the nearest available bathroom, regardless of its cleanliness.
Because when you need to go, you need to go.
Why exactly am I writing about toilets?
Today, November 19th, is World Toilet Day, an event established to draw attention to the issue of sanitation around the globe. Travelling makes you extremely aware that we live in a world of bad hygiene, illustrated by a myriad of disgusting toilets, filthy bathrooms and dirt-filled 'cleaning' facilities.
But toilets themselves are crucial to maintaining health. As the guys at WaterAid say:
“Toilets can change everything. Germs in human waste spread disease and open defecation makes living conditions intolerable. And, without a private toilet, women and girls are vulnerable to human and animal attack.
Toilets are one of the most basic human rights, yet one in three of the world's population don't have one.”
Sadly, though, the mere act of building a toilet doesn't mean it's automatically safe to use. The clean, private toilets I know and love in England are miles away from some of the bathrooms I've experienced around the world.
There have been many occasions when I'd have much preferred to simply squat somewhere and be done with it. And luckily that's been an option a lot of the time. I've weed freely on beaches, behind cars, in forests and up mountains; but often it's simply not feasible.
As a female traveller, you learn the ways of foreign toilets very quickly. And number 1 in the travel rulebook states that whenever there's an opportunity to use a bathroom, you take it, even if you don't really need to go – because chances are you'll be desperate in about 3 hours, by which time there won't be anywhere to wee.
For the most part, I haven't found toilets in South America to be that disgusting. But in honour of World Toilet Day, and seeing as I recently caught an infection which the doctor told me was probably a result of “significantly dirty bathrooms”, I thought it was high time to write about some of my worst toilet experiences.
Because there have definitely been a few.
Three terrifying toilets around the world
3rd place: middle of nowhere, Lithuania
We'd been travelling for a good five or six hours through the Lithuanian countryside when the coach finally pulled over. I was desperate, squirming in the back seat for what felt like a lifetime. My then-boyfriend stuffed our current roll of toilet paper into my hand, and I raced down the aisle and off the bus, to join a small queue of ladies outside a smaller wooden shack.
We were in the middle of what seemed to be a forest – but, of course, the bus engine was revving and I didn't want to risk running off to a suitably far away tree. Besides, they were barred by a line of men, spraying pee in all directions.
So I shuffled nearer to the wooden door – and eventually I caught my first whiff of the toilet, the sheer acridness of which almost made me turn and run.
The dark cubicle ahead was the stuff of nightmares. Flies buzzed erratically in the dank space; they would've flown into my mouth if it hadn't been tightly clamped shut. Placing my feet somewhere not covered in filth was impossible, so I tried to get it over with as quickly as possible, trying my best to aim into the tiny hole. Not that it really mattered; clearly a lot of people hadn't aimed that successfully.
Tiptoeing across the excrement-covered floor (seriously, how do people actually manage to poo on the floor??), I eventually got out of the cubicle and back on the bus, where I poured an entire bottle of antiseptic hand gel into my palms and spent the rest of the journey trying to forget what I'd experienced.
2nd place: Aqaba ferry terminal, Egypt
We were never supposed to spend an entire day in the ferry terminal. Arriving an hour before our boat was due to leave for the Jordanian coast, an impromptu workers strike gave our group an unprecedented eight hour stint of sitting on our bags, playing cards and avoiding drinking any water, despite the intense July heat.
Why? Because the toilets in Aqaba ferry terminal are not somewhere you ever want to go.
Eight hours is a lifetime for your bladder, though. I held out as long as I was able, but eventually I made the piteous walk to the end of the building, and handed over the requisite money to the small girl in charge of the bathrooms. A bit of a piss take really, having to pay for the following experience…
Thinking back to Lithuania, I may have preferred this place to be dark. The cubicle I was presented with – missing a door, by the way – still stands as the filthiest space I've ever seen in my entire life. The walls, which I assume had once been white, were crusted over with a cacophony of colours; a huge amount of blackened dirt and mud, but also with arcs of red and thick smears of brown in various shades. An Impressionist painted bathroom of the worst possible kind.
I don't think I need to explain what the accompanying smell was like, either.
Somewhere in the midst of this mess was a toilet bowl, with the typically Middle-Eastern touch of a seat wide enough to place your feet on and squat. Enough people had clearly done so; the grooves were caked in shit. Even if it had been relatively easy to clamber up onto the seat, the risk of slipping off into the mess was something I had no intention of doing.
I stood in the empty doorway with my mouth open. Was this even possible?! But nature doesn't stop calling, and I just had to grit my teeth and do it. The water I was supposed to drink that day went all over my hands and feet in an attempt to get clean instead.
(Note: wearing flipflops in any kind of disgusting toilet is likely to make you feel even more filthy. Because afterwards you probably will be.)
1st place: bus station, India
Ah, India. A country famed for its squat toilets, balancing-act train bathrooms, and constant public displays of urination. On my second day in India, I watched an old woman hitch up her sari skirts and proceed to defecate on a train platform. Not onto the rails, but actually on the platform. What a welcome, huh?
One particular Indian experience tops the awful toilet list, though – and it wasn't even due to uncleanliness. This was a lesson in humiliation.
I was on route to my friend's wedding in the Himalayas. The journey was about 12 hours, on three or four different types of transport; and though I took the utmost care to keep my fluid intake to a minimum, there came a point where I simply had to go.
Luckily, the bus pulled into an empty parking area – just open concrete and low scrubland. And as I've done in many other places, I simply followed the local women who were trotting off in another direction. Clearly they knew where to wee.
But what awaited us was completely unexpected. In amongst the grass and the scrub was a rectangular stone construction, with little walls about mid-thigh height that partly split the rectangle into three partitions.
A woman had already entered when we reached it, and as I watched, she bent down, lifted her sari skirts around her waist and proceeded to pee. In full view of anyone who cared to watch.
The reason this was so shocking to me was that these women clearly weren't happy with the situation. When I made eye contact with the woman next to me and gestured to the stone, her small nod and the expression in her eyes said it all.
This horribly public non-toilet was the only option we had.
For some reason, squatting outside in nature doesn't really throw me. Of course I try to find as much privacy as possible when doing so, but still – it's a relatively normal thing to do. But the fact that people had gone to the trouble to build this construction and yet still made the users completely visible?
Something was very wrong.
Urinating and defecating is an act of human nature that puts us at our most vulnerable, our most private – and it deserves to be conducted in a relatively personal way. Being forced to allow people to watch your actions is deeply humiliating – and as a result, that toilet experience in India made a much longer-lasting impression on me than a filthy bathroom.
It's not all completely shit: the better foreign toilets I've used
The good thing is that I've also encountered a huge number of clean and hygienic toilets in my travels. Japan boasts scarily efficient creations, complete with indecipherable instructions and buttons for water jets. I've encountered compost toilets in Thailand, Ecuador and Brazil, where there's virtually no smell and the resulting compost can be used as fertiliser for plants.
Even the squat toilets prevalent throughout Asia are often really clean, hygienic, and are actually much better for your system – providing you've got strong enough calf muscles!
Having a foreign toilet routine is crucial, too: making sure to carry your own paper or tissues, a bottle of hand gel and sometimes a bottle of water too. Perfecting the art of hovering doesn't go amiss, either.
But eventually, I always have the privilege of returning to England and using a clean, sanitary toilet. The above experiences aren't the norm for me – but they're all too usual for a large proportion of the global population.
Clean, safe toilets should be everybody's right
2.5 billion people struggle with basic sanitation issues in their daily lives. Around 700,000 children die each year from diarrhoea, which is caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. These statistics absolutely need to change – which means action must be taken.
World Toilet Day is designed as a platform for breaking taboos about these issues, and to start a dialogue about sanitation. To talk about toilets, and about the absolute necessity of adequate sanitation for the global population – which is a basic human right.
Breaking the taboo about poo!
So in order to get this subject out in the open, I want to hear your best and worst toilet stories in the comments: the gorier the details, the better. A bit of toilet humour won't go amiss, either – and the author of the most impressive story will get a little toilet-inspired something in the mail!
For more details about World Toilet Day, you can check out the main sites here and here, as well as searching the hashtags #WeCantWait and #ToiletDay. You could even write your own article about toilets and sanitation, like my friend Steph at Twenty-Something Travel. But whatever you do, try and spread the word about World Toilet Day and the accompanying issues.
Because it's quite important to give a shit.