By Haley Elizabeth
Some of the most terrific and terrible experiences you will have while traveling come from the unexpected. You prepare and prepare with internet searches, travel guide perusing, and even messaging obscure friends of friends for travel tips. Maybe you’ll even learn a few key phrases in the native tongue.
“Where is the toilet? “
After having exhausted all resources there is nothing left to do but print out your airline confirmation, mash all of your things into a backpack, and confidently set off in search of any number of things. Now you’re four days into your respective adventure. Let’s say you’re sitting in a small Italian café sipping a frothy cappuccino. Your face is flushed and hot after receiving a wink from Giovanni two tables over. You’re feeling more confident than ever about your travel skills. You’ve emerged from the fog of airport related confusion and jet lag and feel like you’re taking the first steps on the road to assimilation. Then, suddenly, the day dream of you and Giovanni whizzing through the Tuscan countryside on a moped is interrupted by stomach pangs. The ones you get when the rich smooth Italian espresso sets your insides in motion. Deep breath in. You’ve prepared for this. You calmly flag down the waiter.
“Mi scusi Signore, dov’è il bagno?”
Despite your shitty Italian accent he smiles, appreciative of your effort, and points to a small door at the back of the café.
Fast forward. You’re finished with the nitty gritty and are anxious to get back to your italo-eye candy. You reach behind you to flush, but to your horror that little magical silver bar is missing. Cue unexpected set back. You’re frantic and a little bit embarrassed; searching everywhere for some semblance of that reassuring little lever that you were sure was universal.
As horrifying as it is the first few times, “How the hell do you flush this thing?” became one of my favorite games in Italy. Maybe it’s a pull cord. Maybe it’s an obscure button that takes you 10 minutes to find. Maybe there isn’t one. No worries though because as a traveler, you need to be prepared for the unexpected twists and turns.
I thought my travels in Europe had prepared me for the worst of it; I had even used a pit toilet once or twice in seedy bars. However, nothing could have prepared me for the horror that would await me in Thailand.
It was my first day of work I was settling into the new office. I’m always more pleasant and efficient when I am caffeinated. Needless to say I had had my fair share of Nescafe instant brew that day and it was time to pee. I politely asked one of my veteran coworkers, Sophie, where the bathrooms were. I found them easily enough, slung open the slated wooden door, and was shocked by what stood before me. I could not even begin to sort out how the hell I was supposed to utilize these facilities.
I sped walked back to the staff room and whispered my second question,
“I’m really sorry, but how do I use it?”
Sophie smiled sweetly and looked unfazed by my confusion which was a huge relief. Apparently I wasn’t the first newcomer to be absolutely clueless about what was going on in there.
To spare you some panic and/or embarrassment I’ve decided to offer you all a crash course in Squat Toilet Etiquette 101:
The Hardware: A squatter looks like some long lost inbred cousin of a western style toilet. If you took a toilet, removed the tank, the flush mechanism, and bottom stand, then proceeded to flatten the bowl into a somewhat trapezoidal shape, you would be left with a squatter. The widened areas on either side act as foot rests and often are equipped with divots for optimal grip.
Procedure and Techniques : The actual procedure reveals the origins of its name. The squatee in question has to position a foot on either side and then get themselves in a deep squat position in order to do their business. I recently found out that there are two schools of thought when it comes to technique. Faction 1 believes that facing forward and placing your hands on the side wall is the prime positioning. Faction 2 believes that facing the back wall offers the squatee more stability and is ultimately the best way to get the job done. As to remain impartial, I’ll keep my personal beliefs a secret.
Next, there is most likely going to be no toilet paper in sight. You didn’t miss it and they aren’t hiding it from you. There is none. Your options are the dreaded frat party style drip-dry, or you’ll have to remember to bring your own. Just another thing to add to your adult responsibility check list.
**Pro-tip: You cannot flush TP in Thailand. I’m no plumber but I’m pretty sure that it’s because most facilities are operated by above ground water pumps. Toilet paper clogs up the works. So to avoid mess and looking like an asshole, please place your TP in the trash can that you will undoubtedly find near by. It’s a hard habit to break, but you’ll get there.
Disposal: Now it’s time for the “how the hell do I flush this thing” game. If you look around you will most likely see a water spout that is positioned over a receptacle of sorts. Inside the aforementioned receptacle there will be a device similar to a cup or ladle. You need to use the cup to transport clean water to the squatter to wash away your business. When you get the all clear you can place the cup back into the receptacle. Extremely considerate squatees will refill the receptacle to a near full level so that the next person will have an abundance of clean flushing water at their disposal. However, this step can be omitted if you are in a hurry or lazy.
Hardware cont.: You may have also noticed a small hose with a water spray attachment hanging from the wall. You will recognize this hardware as the small water sprayers that are often found on kitchen sinks in the United States. This is what my fellow teachers and I have affectionately dubbed the “bum gun”. The bum gun is the Thai answer to the always classy (and sometimes feared) European bidet. Using the bum gun requires impeccable aim, fearlessness, and general hygiene conscientiousness (At absolutely no point should the bum gun come into contact with any part of your undercarriage. That’s disgusting.)
***Pro-tip: Brace yourself! The bum gun is often forceful and ice cold.
Congratulations! Pull your pants up soldier. If your bottoms are wet from the bathroom floor or a bum gun misfire, no need to worry. You’ll get it eventually. If you accidentally peed on your foot, again, don’t fret. Use the bum gun for a quick rinse and enjoy your soggy walk of shame. After all, practice makes perfect.
Aside from my rather crude and bathroom humor laden lesson, the real lesson here is to relish in the unexpected no matter how scary, inconvenient, or stressful. Because there is absolutely no way that you can prepare for everything.
Happy and safe travels to all!
Haley’s first love is and will always be Italy. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2013 and is currently working in Thailand as an ESL teacher. When she is not teaching/ entertaining/wrangling 30 eight year olds she enjoys reading, investigating the coffee shop scene in Suratthani, Facebook creeping, and swapping classroom horror stories with her coworkers. You can follow her sporadic blog activity on her personal blog http://tonguethaidtravelers.wordpress.com/.