Potties: a Foreign Service Retrospective

I wasn’t going to write for the round-up this week, but then I heard the topic was potties around the world. How could I resist? I only regret that we started in the FS before blogs and digital cameras existed, and so sadly, I did not take all the lovely photos of potties that I could be posting on my blog right now. Oh well.

First post: Bolivia. Notable primarily for the lack of potties of any kind. You could usually find a restaurant or something in La Paz, buy a Coke and ask to use the bathroom, but the indigenous people who are the majority there just do their business against the sides of buildings or in gutters. Strangely, they have no shyness about this at all, but don’t like to be seen eating. This is one of many reasons that Bolivia is a very odd, but fascinating place.

The Altiplano. A whole lot of big flat nothing.
The Altiplano. A whole lot of big flat nothing.

We joked while traveling out on the altiplano that we’d look for a sleeping llama to squat behind. There were no trees or other handy landscape features to speak of. Just scattered ruins and huts of various shapes and sizes. In reality, the solution was usually to pull off the road a bit (the altiplano being more or less flat), check that there no llama shepherds lurking about, open a car door, and do one’s business behind it. Always having TP, paper towels, and a bottle of water in the glove compartment, of course. No hand sanitizer in those days, at least not that I knew about. (Jeez, I sound older than I am. Maybe I should call this Grandma Kelly’s Old-Timey Blog….)

This is not an outhouse.
This is not an outhouse. That would be wrong.
This is an ancient pre-Inca statue. Again, WRONG. No matter how desperate you are.
This is an ancient pre-Inca statue. Again, WRONG. No matter how desperate you are.

Second post: Guatemala. Notable (to me, anyway) for having at least some potties. Since I was pregnant for most of this tour, this was very important, and I wasn’t in a mood to be picky about it. Generally, we could find a roadside restaurant or something where a very basic facility could be used for a tip. Mamacitas are generally treated very well in Central America, so if a pregnant lady walks into a shop asking for a bathroom, someone will find one for her. Of course, they weren’t usually clean, and so I learned a valuable technique:

*****VERY IMPORTANT FOREIGN SERVICE TIP HERE*****

standing backwards over the toilet with my hands on the wall, which was probably the cleanest part of the stall, and daintily squatting over the seat without touching it. Dave Barry called this “hover-peeing.” That sounds about right.

There were a few outhouses, too (with which I had had some limited experience in the States, after all.) One day, I visited a village while seven months pregnant, and had to use the bathroom right that minute. We asked a local contact if we could use hers, and she proudly escorted me to her sanitario, which was a small shack in the backyard equipped with a platform with a hole in it. With a stack of newspapers at hand. But hey, it was private, and considering I’d made the mistake of wearing maternity overalls that day, I was grateful for that—and for strong knees!

Third post: Zambia. Again, notable for a general lack of bathrooms, however, there was also a general lack of people outside of Lusaka, so the car method worked pretty well. And there really weren’t very many places to go in the city that weren’t other people’s houses, so we didn’t actually need many public bathrooms. Yes, it was actually that boring. I don’t even have any good photos.

The little  kids at post all ran around half-dressed, which had advantages for potty training. My daughter usually wore a t-shirt or sundress, and either an easy-to-remove cloth diaper, or no diaper at all. (I’d post a photo of a typical playgroup, but my daughter would never forgive me, and my blog might get banned or something.)

Most of the kids would make like African babies and just squat wherever they were and do their business when outdoors. It sounds kind of funny now, but we honestly didn’t even notice it after a while, and there were very few problems with diaper rash. Even indoors, I let my daughter wear a cloth diaper that tended to fall off a lot, because the floors were that awful and ubiquitous third world terrazzo so accidents were easy to clean up. (I just realized this sounds like we were potty-training puppies!)

More people = more potties, if not especially modern ones.
More people = more potties, if not especially modern ones.

Fourth post: El Salvador. Notable to us for many reasons after two years in Africa! There were lots of people, lots of places to go, and lots of potties, though usually not very nice ones. I refined my hover-peeing technique, and learned a few tricks from the natives, too. How to keep your toddler/preschooler from touching anything in the bathroom for one thing.

****ANOTHER IMPORTANT FOREIGN SERVICE TIP HERE*****

For little ones, take off their pants and hold them snug against your front with your hands under their thighs. Then aim them toward the toilet. (This works well outside as well.) Alternatively, have them stand or squat on the toilet seat while holding their arms to steady them and so they can’t touch anything with their hands. Got it? Don’t worry about getting the toilet seat dirty—it’s already unspeakable, so no one is going to be sitting on it anyway.

This is not a bathroom. It is a Maya ruin. I think there was a sort of concrete outhouse at the site. My daughter did not touch it.
This is not a bathroom. It is a Maya ruin. I think there was a sort of concrete outhouse at the site. My daughter did not touch it.

Fifth post: the Czech Republic. Lots of bathrooms there, though not always very clean. There were times when third world techniques came in handy. One very odd thing you find in Czech bathrooms, even those that are otherwise pretty clean, is a well-used hand towel hanging on the wall. It’s really very strange. It’s not like Czechs don’t understand germs. They are educated people, and they can afford paper towels. There is just about always toilet paper available, and usually soap. But whatever you do, don’t touch that nasty hand towel!

Another odd thing is that quite often bathrooms are totally unheated, and will even have the window open in winter. I know this comes from the Germans, who have the cleanest, coldest bathrooms in the universe (and do not hang filthy towels in them). I guess the idea is that cold kills germs, but man, it can get really cold in those parts! We all remember one particular bathroom in Rothenburg that could not have been more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit. As I recall, it was actually colder than the outside because the window had been left open all night and the tile walls held the cold. I believe I actually shrieked when I sat on the toilet seat. On the positive side, even if it almost killed me, there probably weren’t many germs living on it.

In Europe there are an amazing variety of toilets. In our house alone, we had toilets that flushed three different ways. They have everything from teeny buttons on the top, to pairs of buttons on the top or side so you can pick how much water to use based on the business at hand *cough* to Victorian-style pull chain toilets. (All totally fascinating to my son, who was three years old when we got to post. )

And then there are the toilets with the platforms designed to display one’s, er, results. I am not making this up. The Germans apparently have a real thing for examining their own poop. I was going to link to something to prove it, but I could find any pages that I would want my grandmother to click on. Suffice it to say that names for this type of toilet include “inspection platform” and “lay and display.” And that is definitely enough of that.

Finally, I do have one photo of a toilet  in a small-town museum in Italy. My then-preteen daughter—yes the one who ran around au naturel for two years in Lusaka—totally freaked out when she saw this thing. It was hilarious. I was so happy for the opportunity to pass on some third world potty techniques.

It’s the little things, you know?

No, the potty isn't missing.  This IS the potty. And no, there isn't a door, either.
No, the potty isn’t missing. This IS the potty. And no, there isn’t a door, either.
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6 comments

  1. Okay, so I have to mention that in Wyoming, things are so far apart that if you don’t plan well, you may just need to pull over to the side of the road and find an appropriate place to go. If you are in a wooded area and it is not winter (defined roughly as early November to early April (or later), this is not a problem. A little stroll and a squat can take care of business. But much of Wyoming is flat sage meadows, and sage doesn’t grow high, so if you are male, you can just choose a place to stand and point. If you are female, I advise opening both the front and back passenger doors and squatting. It isn’t like people won’t know what you are doing, but perhaps they won’t see parts usually covered.

    In Iraq, we were lucky to have squatting toilets. The worst I saw was in the jail after my car accident. Being the spouse of a diplomat did not keep me from going to the police station, but at least I didn’t end up behind bars. And when you are sitting at the officers desk, it would be rude to refuse tea. The toilets, however, were in the holding cell area, and had no doors, not to mention any sign of ever having seen a cleaning solution.

    In Germany, male children just went to the nearest tree and let loose. I didn’t have female children, so I didn’t know what they did. Older children and adults would never have dreamed of this, and if you had a pet who soiled the sand in a playground, you were responsible for replacing ALL the sand.

    India. What can you say about India? Men peed anywhere. Women who didn’t have underwear could pull up their skirt or sari and squat anywhere. (My mother actually told me that she used this technique during her extensive Indian travels.) If you lived in a slum that actually had toilets, you were well off. Still, children would just squat over the open drains when needed. And one should never, ever, walk on the beaches or streets near a curb in the morning. Bombay was a city that had 13 million people, and half of them had no access to toilets.

    The big nasty secret about Dulles Airport near Washington was that women who had never seen western style toilets would climb up on the seat and attempt to squat from there, not understanding the sitting (or hovering) process. Never use one of those toilets near international arrivals without using appropriate caution. Recently I traveled, and I think it was in O’Hare that I discovered the joy of magically moving plastic covers that snake around the toilet seats. Neat, once you figure out how to make them move.

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  2. I always wondered about those revolving seat covers – what if they just keep going round and round and round….

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