Exercising is not my favorite thing, but I have been making an effort so that I will be strong for working in Africa. One exercise that needs to be worked on before we go is the "squat". I informed the kids today that we would be working hard on this skill for the next 8 weeks so that we would be prepared for our trip. Met with puzzled looks, I then informed them that not all toilets are the same and they would be happy if they have their squatting technique perfected before we leave. I'm sure they were thinking "How bad can it be?" since we have camped ever since they were young.
Camping in Minnesota may have flush toilets but most rustic campsites are lucky if they have a pit toilet (and sometimes with snakes crawling around in the bottom). We have had our share of nasty bathrooms in gas stations across the country. I'm not much of a germ-a-phobic but some bathrooms are just not sanitary. I remember as a child crying and refusing to use a pit toilet no matter how hard my Mom tried to persuade me. I don't know if I was afraid I would fall in or what, but I held it an awful long time.
Drew and I were in Africa back in 2005 and one of my biggest regrets was not getting photos of all the different toilets we came across. Don't get me wrong, Africa has flush toilets, just not always when you need one. Road trips leave you at the mercy of whatever you come across when the urge hits. I remember one rest stop where there was an attendant and he motioned us women to the MEN'S room. He insisted, so we went. Later we discovered he was being very kind to us foreigners since the women's room was a "long-drop" - or basically a hole in the ground. The men's room was much like any gas station bathroom you would find in America, flush toilet and all. The squat toilets or "long-drops" are fairly common throughout Africa and we just do not have our thigh muscles strong enough to use them well. At another rest stop I walked past my husband and a few other men from our team standing at a fence facing the market area. I said "Hi" and went on my way when I realized they were all standing there doing their business (I could only see them from the waist up - it was just awkward). That was the men's room - the other side of the wall had a trough like urinal. I'm not sure why they only put up half a wall but that's what it was. Every stop we made was like a little adventure to see what kind of bathroom we would encounter. Traveling with a team can be quite a bit of fun in this regard. Can you imagine being all alone and having no one to discuss how different, dirty, stinky or gross the potty was? Many times there would be no toilet paper, so it was always good to have a companion who could share their tissue with you.
All over the world there are different rules, it's hard to keep up on them all so it's best to find out any special rules for the area you are traveling. In Africa it is considered impolite to touch the left hand of anyone. The reason is the right hand is for eating and the left hand is used for other unpleasant things (like wiping). Good to know though. It's interesting because that is such a practical reason for not touching someones left hand and many other rules are also for practical reasons. In Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, you find out immediately in the airport bathrooms that the rules have changed. The bathrooms are fairly clean but the smell is really strong. The reason is the plumbing is not adequate enough to handle toilet paper so that is just thrown (used) in the garbage next to the toilet. The smell would be much worse if everyone ignored this rule and clogged up the whole system. Actually I saw several backed up toilets in the airport because people were just unaware and they threw their toilet paper in the toilet without thinking.
People traveling to America from other cultures probably find things confusing here too. I remember one time being in the bathroom at Costco. I didn't see any feet under the door of the stall so I gently pushed the door only to find a woman with both feet on the toilet seat, squatting over the toilet. She said something (probably cursed at me) in some other language and I apologized. I didn't stand and stare but the image was burned into my mind so I had to follow it to a logical conclusion or it would just be disturbing. I realized quickly that she was from somewhere else and that this was comfortable and sanitary to her. We have friends that were in a refugee camp in Nepal for 17 years and they used pit toilets that whole time. Think of how different it must be to have flush toilets in your own apartment for the first time in your life. I noticed at one of the homes of our Bhutanese friends that they had taken the toilet seat off completely. Who needs it when your culture teaches you to squat? Maybe they think we are really different because we share toilet seats that we actually sit on, or because we spend so much time in the bathroom that we have books and magazines to read at the same time. Try doing that in the squatting position.
So if you're planning a trip anytime soon - especially to a poor area of the world - I would highly recommend you start working out those thigh muscles. Remember to have good form, if your knees are weak you don't want to have them go past your toes, try pushing back into a sitting position and keep your feet flat. If you are unsure about the toilet conditions where you are going, and you're too afraid to ask, there are lots of different online sites that can walk you through this interesting subject. By the way, November 19th is World Toilet Day! Do a set of squats to celebrate.