A few weeks ago I returned from a month-long trip to Guatemala. I brought back all sorts of habits that make me proud – things like saying “gracias” politely when given a beer, greeting a roomful of strangers with an excited “Buenos Dias!” and paying for things by yanking money from my bra like the Mayan women making change at the markets.
My friends accept these things about me, as they have accepted most of the strange behavior I bring back after being gone. But, despite all this love and appreciation, I’ve found that there’s one habit that continues to go over poorly, no matter how long I’ve been gone and no matter how much I have been missed. I can’t say I blame them, really. If someone came for dinner at my home, used the bathroom and then tossed used toilet tissue in the garbage can I’d probably find it strange as well.
Unfortunately, this is one habit that’s followed me home from virtually all of my travels to places with under-developed plumbing systems.
The first time it happened was after a four-month trip to Southeast Asia. I was sleeping in a friend’s living room for a few days and all of my new habits were on full display. I left the house barefoot and walked six blocks without realizing that sort of thing is frowned upon in New York City. I washed my pink sarong in their sink turning the entire bathroom magenta. Rather than piling my things neatly in the corner, I lived out of a messy backpack that smelled like a basement and cat litter.
They took it all in stride.
Except when I started to fill their garbage can with toilet tissue. That is where they, understandably, drew the line.
Most developing countries don’t have the sophisticated plumbing systems that we’re used to in places like America or Europe. To keep things running smoothly, virtually every restroom you use in countries from Southeast Asia to Central America will have a basket filled with used toilet tissue. Sometimes these have a little swinging top to avoid having to see anything that took place before you arrived. Sometimes it’s just an open bin with nothing to hide. After months of using these, my first reaction when back home is to grab some toilet tissue and toss it in the trash.
This is frowned upon in most homes. And businesses. And schools and movie theaters and doctor’s offices and just about any other place you might use a restroom.
Trying to explain why I’m mistakenly doing this ultimately ends in me saying something like, “at least I’m not using one of your bowls as a bucket to flush!” See #3 below for more on that.
Reflecting on all these bathroom mishaps has led to the following list, which describes a few of the most common toilet-related situations you may encounter across the globe.
Don’t let this list scare you. Instead, use it as a checklist. Once you’ve encountered them all, you’re ready for anything.
1. The Japanese Electronic Toilet
Let’s start with some luxury to ease us into this conversation. I had heard stories of the high-tech toilet seats in Japan, but didn’t imagine that they’d be as ubiquitous as they are.
Even the most basic of electronic toilets will include enough options for a pretty good time.
You’ll start by adjusting the water pressure, then maybe turn on some totally legitimate sounding flush sounds. When you’re done, choose either a front or back spray, pull on your Sailor Moon costume and you can head back out to the streets of Tokyo!
The process might take a bit longer if you’ve been lucky enough to get one of the more advanced toilets, which include a deodorizer and an option to have your buns warmed by a seat heater.
After a 23 hour Tokyo layover, the only real tip I can offer is: keep the water pressure low – you’ll be surprised at your own limit for water being sprayed toward your nethers.
Unrelated to the electronic toilet, but still worth a mention is the efficient use of space in Japan. This includes hotel rooms and their bathrooms. If you’re staying in a mid-range hotel I recommend you don’t share a room with someone you don’t know well. Or, with someone who you’d like to kiss at some point in the future. Or, really, anyone.
Just don’t share a room with anyone.
Your proximity to them while using the bathroom will make things strange and awkward.
2. The Squat Toilet (Or, the Squatty Potty)
You’ve probably seen or heard of this one already, so we’ll keep this short. If you’ve traveled even slightly off the beaten path in an Asian country you’ve surely encountered one of these guys. Even the more tourist-frequented areas will have one in addition to the option of a Western toilet.
Seems pretty straightforward – you walk inside, squat and go. The toilet itself looks almost identical to the bowl portion of a toilet you’re probably used to. Most notably, the plumbing is typically towards the back. When popping a squat, you’ll face forward just as you would in your own home. If you’re not sure, just face whatever direction ensures that everything eventually goes through the hole.
Because you’re not sitting safely atop a stationary object, it’s easy to lose your balance and embarrassingly topple over onto the floor in a roadside Laos restaurant. To avoid this and other mishaps, use your hands to steady yourself on the door in front of you. Eventually you’ll become so adept at the squat that you’ll be able to do it while holding a backpack above your head with your hands.
The best part about the squat toilet is that using it is one of the healthiest positions for your insides. I’ve considered using it at home, but it’s harder to explain falling out of the bathroom into your own kitchen than it is in a roadside Laos restaurant.
Be sure to keep your clothes off the floor. For reasons I’m sure do not need explaining.
The squat toilet provides the perfect segue to our next restroom related situation.
3. The Bucket Flush System
In many squat toilet situations you’ll need to handle the flushing of the toilet yourself. Meaning, you won’t find anything to pull, press or push in order to make it happen. Instead, you’ll need to use the bucket system.
Next to the squat there should be a large bucket of water. Typically much larger than what’s pictured here. Inside the large bucket, there should be a smaller bucket or cup. Use the smaller one to scoop out some water and pour it into the squat. Do this as many times as necessary to make it seem like you were never there.
Above the bucket there should be a pipe that you can turn on and off to fill up the bucket when it’s running low. Do this after you’ve flushed so that the next person can get in and out as fast as possible.
Do this even if there is a small colony of mosquitoes living on the top of the water. It’s just polite.
In some situations, you won’t find a personal bucket in your stall. Instead there will be a more formal-looking trough filled with water that is shared with the stall next to yours. In this situation, the smaller bucket may bob and float around from your stall into your neighbor’s. When grabbing for it, be sure not to mistakenly touch the hand of your neighbor. Avoid the inclination to make friends here.
It’s always weird. Every time.
4. The Multipurpose Bum-Gun
Whether you’ve found a toilet you’re used to or you’re using the squat variety, you may have the option of using the “bum-gun.” This is a small spray apparatus connected to flexible piping. Squeeze the lever like a gun and it can be used in the absence of toilet tissue. It looks and acts very similar to the sprayer on top of your kitchen sink, but the direction you point it in is probably very different.
After using the toilet, you’ll take the gun and point it anywhere you’d like things to be made a bit cleaner. Some people will use their left hand to help with the process. Do what’s necessary.
My favorite thing about the bum-gun is its versatility.
I’ve been in circumstances where the bum-gun has doubled as a shower and I’ve never felt more resourceful in all my life. I spent three nights sleeping in Northern Cambodia with no working shower. There was a bucket that could have been filled with the drip coming out of the non-working shower, but I was only staying three nights and it probably would have taken more like 45 days to fill the bucket enough to dump it over my head. Instead, I used the gun and my hair was probably the cleanest it had been in two months.
5. The Seatless Toilet
Sometimes seats go missing. Use the toilet anyway. You’ve done weirder things. If you haven’t done anything weirder, we might have nothing in common.
In the middle of a Khmer wedding I used a toilet with no seat. If you’re a guest at a Khmer wedding and someone lifts a beer in the air, everyone drinks. You drink until everyone stops raising their beers and eventually goes home sometime around sunrise. As a result, I was uncoordinated, didn’t squat and dropped my borrowed dress and half of myself into the bowl. You don’t realize how big a toilet is until its seat goes missing.
Falling into the toilet is not the strangest thing that happened that night and it still goes down in history as one of the best of my life.
Seatless toilets should not worry you. You’ve already learned to hold your backpack in the air while squatting over a toilet. You’re a champion.
6. The Side of the Road Stop
I will tell you right off the bat that I have no photos of this, but you’ll have to take my word for it.
If you’re a guy and you’re worried about having to use the toilet in the middle of a bus ride, fear not. You’ll be taken care of in the form of an impromptu stop somewhere along the road.
I didn’t take a single bus ride in Cambodia or Laos that didn’t include a slow roll onto the shoulder to let the men out to relieve themselves. The men would space themselves out appropriately, get to business and then climb back on the bus leisurely. I once got out to squat at the side of the road as well, but it didn’t feel like my scene. I felt like I was intruding and never did it again.
If you’re outside at the same time and happen to catch the eye of one of these guys, just smile. They’ll smile back and you’ll have shared a nice moment.
7. The High Altitude Hole
To complete this list of restroom situations for which you should be prepared, we have perhaps the most rudimentary of toilets.
The hole in the ground.
I’ve used my fair share of outdoor toilets. The first time was when 11-year-old me locked herself out of the house for 4 hours after summer camp. This lockout, unfortunately, took place on the same day that I was victorious in a dare to eat five peaches in under 2 minutes. I learned a lot about peaches that day. And the woods.
The most luxurious of outdoor toilets was used while camping out in a MASH style tent on the Maasai Mara with a Canadian development organization. Yes, it was a hole in the ground, but they managed to put a toilet on top that was so realistic you could almost see your reflection in the non-existent water.
Neither of these situations were anywhere near as daunting as the High Altitude Hole. This is a toilet situation you’ll come to know if you enlist in a multiday trek just about anywhere.
A few months ago, I went on a two-day hike to the crater of Rinjani, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Lombok. We had local porters, a singing guide with an adorable daughter and tons of delicious local fruit. But, we of course had no bathroom. Instead, the porters dug an efficient hole in the ground and erected a four-sided tarp that was high enough to cover the head of a very short person. I am not a very short person. And neither was my travel companion who had an unfortunately timed bout of food poisoning at 13,000 feet.
Use of the High Altitude Hole is similar to that of the squat toilet mentioned in #1. The only difference is that you’ll need to kick your own dirt in to “flush” and there isn’t much to hold onto in order to remain steady. The best advice I can give is to squat and hope that the wind whipping around the tarp at 13,000 feet somehow provides some sort of wind-force to keep you in a vertical squat position. And if that doesn’t work and you fall, knocking the tarp over in the process you’ll have a great view and your Indonesian guide with have a fantastic story.
This post was written by Michelle Starin, who normally hangs out on her very entertaining travel blog The Guatebloga.