Worried about toilet travel trauma?
There's nothing like a little potty humor to make you crack a smile. ("Crack"! Get it?!) But in many parts of the world, bathrooms are a most serious business. According to the CDC, 25% of the world's population does not have access to adequate sanitation. Inadequate waste disposal systems are a contributing factor for everything from cholera to trachoma. These illnesses are no laughing matter.
I can certainly appreciate why some travelers hesitate to go anywhere without a modern flush toilet. Serious illnesses bear serious concerns. And, let's face it, 'crappy' toilets can be really unpleasant and uncomfortable. What kind of vacation involves toilet trauma? But if you want an ironclad guarantee of particular standards and services when you travel, well, you won't go very far.
Nearly all of our favourite destinations brought a bit of toilet culture shock. And sometimes it took a while to adjust. But we haven't let a throne, commode, or outhouse cast a stench over our travel dreams and neither should you!
There are no washroom warranties.
There are gross toilets all over the world and there is no "safe" destination that is 100% free from yucky bathrooms. (Case in point: Our nearby shopping center.) Familiarity does not equal cleanliness and basic design doesn't mean a bad experience. I'd happily take a clean outhouse over the mall's disgusting flush toilets any day!
Furthermore, there are very few countries without some toilet variety. Squat style toilets aren't exclusive to developing countries. Even my favourite bar in Paris has one! There are outhouses in many of the most beautiful destinations on earth, like Death Valley National Park. "Western" style flush toilets are now more common than ever. It's the only kind of toilet we saw in Myanmar (including at a guest house that cost less than $30 a night). And in Turkey, there was a mix of every kind of toilet imaginable. Don't base your travel choice on an assumption - you might just be in for a surprise!
Don't let anyone flush away your dreams.
Don't let other travelers get the better of you. Toilet stories have a way of getting more and more dramatic every time they're told and make for more exciting lore than all those reasonably clean washrooms around the world.
Everyone has a horror story about the most revolting toilet they've ever seen. I'm looking at you, Myanmar train toilet (left) and Parisian Port-a-Potty! But, knock on porcelain, the overwhelming majority of travel toilets I've encountered ranged from tolerable to gleaming. And chances are that yours will too.
Answering the call of nature.
So what kind of toilets exist out there for you to use? Well, in some areas there are no toilets. This isn't as alarming as it sounds! Chances are we've all answered nature's call in...um.... nature! Sometimes there's not much choice but to run behind a shrub and do your business.
This was my strategy when some friends and I were returning to Lilongwe after a weekend away visiting a national park in Malawi. We all had to "go" so we just pulled over on the side of the road, scampered across the field, and did our business behind a huge boulder. We thought we were the only people around but no sooner had we dropped our trousers that we heard giggles from a group a kids spying on us! Um, thanks guys! Meanwhile, our friend who stayed with the vehicle had struck up a conversation with a local resident who informed us that the road was the unofficial border, we had unwittingly (and illegally) crossed into Mozambique, and there was a good chance that there were still a few stray landmines in the field. Oops!
Not having a toilet is never fun (though it may be adventurous) but at least things are relatively clean. Just do your part to keep it that way. Be prepared to carry your toilet tissue back out with you using a plastic bag and avoid areas close to waterways.
Outhouses can be kinda awesome!
One step up from the non-toilet is the outhouse. An outhouse may be a squat toilet or a sit toilet but what they all have in common is that the waste isn't flushed away. It composts into the ground through a latrine hole. Decrepit outhouses have haunted several of my camping trips but in many developing countries they can be a pretty good option.
A well designed outhouse and properly dug latrine can be a hygienic and relatively comfortable option. And there are many innovative and dedicated organizations who are working hard on making this kind of toilet even more safe and efficient, bringing improved hygiene and health to people throughout the world.
My best advice when it comes to using outhouses is to roll up your trousers and carry absolutely nothing that can possible fall out of your hands or your pockets. Put your smart phone in your backpack! This is one environment where a headlamp is your best friend at night.
Squash your squatting fears.
You've likely heard horror stories about "hole in the ground' squat toilets, but just like with outhouses, they're not always as bad as you imagine. A squat toilet is usually made of porcelain and the toilet bowl is recessed in the floor. Like the name suggests, you use this toilet by squatting down low. Really low. And it's surprisingly manageable!
If you've ever had to awkwardly 'hover' over a yucky Western style toilet, you'll find the much lower squat you employ to use a squat toilet a million times more comfortable and stable. It's actually remarkably hard to tip over or wobble in this position, as your center of gravity is so low. It is a much more natural position than the 'hover'. Your body never touches the toilet and as such it's a very clean experience. (Still not convinced you can master the squat? A number of companies make special funnels that help women pee standing up).
There are two kinds of squat toilet - wet and dry. Wet toilets have a water tank and a flush mechanism (often mounted on the wall) that you flush like any other. A dry squat toilet is flushed manually after each use, either with a hose of running water in the stall or a bucket of clean water. You will often be encouraged to not flush toilet paper and there will likely be a nearby garbage bin for it.
Persnickety paper problems.
Speaking of toilet paper..... Believe it or not, much of the world never uses it. It's an expensive luxury for some, it can interfere with the composting process of some latrines, and it can clog up the delicate sewage systems of older cities. Most people use clean water from a nearby bucket or hose to splash themselves clean. In many countries you traditionally use your left hand to do this and thus its considered impolite to use that same hand for eating. Before I moved to Malawi, I prepared by sitting on my left hand during every meal for weeks, training myself not to use it.
But in all honesty, I have never really gotten used to the splash method and I always travel with my own tissues. They come in handy for many purposes and my own brand is much softer than what is available around the world. All the same, I'm glad I did my self-imposed 'left hand training'. Gestures of politeness are just as important as good bathroom habits!
Toilet paper isn't the only think you should carry around with you. Keep some spare change with you at all times. In many places in the world, you have to pay a small fee to use washrooms in public setting. Sometimes it's a requirement just to enter the facilities (like at Amsterdam's Central Station) and in other places it's more of a suggestion, like a kind of tip for the attendant (as it was in Myanmar's Mandalay airport).
I also carry lip balm infused with essential oils - yes, for the bathroom! Lip balm isn't just for your lips! One of the most crafty travel tips I've ever heard is to scrape a little balm out of the tube and rub it under your nostrils. The soothing smell of the lavender, peppermint, or other essential oils will temporarily block any unpleasant bathroom odors.
Be of good cheer.
Finally, don't beat yourself up if you just aren't comfortable with less-than ideal-toilets. It doesn't make you a bad person or a bad traveler if you get grossed out by a squat toilet. It happens to everyone! What's more important is that you're exploring a new land, meeting new people, and enjoying the beauty and excitement that you otherwise would have missed had you not stepped out of your comfort zone... and into the outhouse!
A little discomfort, combined with an open mind, can actually make you a more kind, understanding, and respectful traveler as you now have a new appreciation and empathy for the kinds of challenges, big and small, faced by the local population on a regular basis.
It's your turn! Tell us a GOOD toilet story! Have you ever found an unexpectedly clean toilet in an unusual location?
Looking to stay healthy on the road? These articles will help!
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We proudly support This Village, an Ottawa-based non-profit, which focuses on small scale, sustainable poverty alleviation, one village at the time, and recognizes that access to clean water and sanitary waste disposal systems is a key part of poverty reduction.