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Friday, October 20, 2006

Potty talk

In response to Jenny's post about the photo her friend sent her of an ancient potty-training chair, I found myself rooting around for this photo from my trip to Africa: Look inside that open door. Notice anything missing? Yes, you got it - a toilet seat. Or even a wooden bench with a hole in it. This, my friends, is what we "affectionately" referred to as the "squatty potty". You just hike up your skirt or shorts, squat down with your butt hanging over the hole, and do your business. With practice, you can actually get everything IN the hole instead of beside it - or worse, on your foot. After one of our travel companions, while trying to get used to the squatting position, dropped a few shillings down the hole, we started referring to our "business" as "dropping shillings in the hole".

When you're doing the kind of travelling I did in Africa (visiting remote villages, staying far from any tourist attractions), you have to get used to dealing with squatty potties. Not all of them were this bad - in some of the nicer establishments we stayed in, they looked a little more like this: See the shower head on the wall? In this particular hotel, the squatty potty doubled as the drainage for your shower. And, if I remember correctly, you were supposed to gather as much of the water from washing and showering in that bucket as possible, so that you could save water by using that for flushing.

Are you tempted to go to Africa yet? When I shared these pictures with Jenny, she said she was going to kiss her toilet. (I'm still waiting for the pictures of THAT!)

I love travelling, and I look forward to going back to Africa, but I have to admit, washrooms provided the greatest challenges for me. One never feels particularly clean when you have to squat over a dirty hole in the ground and only occasionally find a water source close enough to wash your hands. And (guys, you may want to skip the next sentence), if you have your period, like I did during my trip... well, you can guess how "lemony fresh" I was feeling. Add the oppressive heat and the dust, and the lack of showers in some of the places we stayed, and you have the makings of a fairly stinking bunch of travellers stuck in a bus together for hours on end.

One of my bleakest moments in Africa happened in a washroom. Thankfully, this was one of the few places with a western-style toilet, because I spent much of the night on it, doubled over in nauseous agony. In my sickly stupor, I glanced up at the concrete wall in front of me, and there perched a happy little gecko munching on his night-snack - a very large cockroach. Ugh.

The truth is though, I can't wait to go back. Africa is amazing, the people are fascinating, the experiences are exhilarating, and the scenery is incredible. I want to fuel my soul with their stories again. I want to be touched by their hospitality. I want to hear the joy in their singing. I want to listen to the wisdom of the community elders. I want to watch the children dancing in the village gathering-place. I want to be humbled and honoured when they share a meagre meal with me. I want to relive that breath-taking moment, watching the uniform-clad school boys dash off to school singing, while the sun rose over the accacia trees. Once in awhile, in this efficiency-obsessed western world, it does us good to squat over a hole in the ground for awhile. Sometimes, in the giving up of conveniences and the acceptance of simplicity, we find ourselves more connected with the earth and the people who walk on it with us.

16 comments:

Dale said...

Thanks, Heather. There are worse things indeed, than suffering a lack of indoor plumbing.

I hope Marcel's dad will be OK.

Gina said...

Oh my. I think I would have some serious problems in Africa. Which is a shame, because that means I am a selfish Western prude who needs a reality check, eh? I suppose you have to do what you have to do.

Could you bring any type of pre-moistened wipes to compensate? Or is that wasted space in a tightly packed suitcase?

But really, it does sound wonderful. Other than the potty issues.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, Gina, we carried toilet paper and hand sanitizer with us and used it regularly. It became a regular ritual that the bottles of hand sanitizer would get passed around before every meal. Because, as much as you learn to live with some inconveniences, it's just not smart to risk your health.

Nah, you're not a selfish Western prude. :-)

Anonymous said...

That toilet post ended up being very profound...

Marnie

Heather said...

Oops. That anonymous was supposed to be me. :-)

Marnie's right - blogger sucks.

Melissa said...

I love your pictures! And the "dropping shillings in a hole" bit had me crying. I watched a Jaime Foxx comedy special on HBO, and at one point he talked about when he went to Africa to film 'Ali'.

He said "bring yourself an extra set of nostrils when you go to Africa because that first pair will just burn off the second you step off the plane'. You made me think of that and I'm still laughing. Great story! And I envy your chance to travel the world. How exciting. I haven't left the country in several years and I miss it.

I want to see more pictures!! :)

Pamela said...

Similar post over at Willowtree
a few weeks ago.

I had a friend that lived in Zaire for 10 years and never once did she mention the toilet holes. she must have been accustomed to them and it just never came up in conversation.

So - what did you do with your female paraphernalia? Were there garbage cans or what?

andrea said...

Thanks for the perspective. We are considering staying in a mounatin cabin at Christmas at a place that only has pit toilets. All of a sudden it doesn't seem like such a bad idea -- even in winter. :)

Liz said...

Great pictures! I just may have to kiss my toilet after that too!

What part of Africa did you go to? My brother lived in Kenya for a couple years after he graduated college.

Brian the Mennonite said...

It's the conveniences, I found, that are noticed the most when returning home. There is a greater shock when coming back at how decadently we live than at how "poorly" they live. It should be a requirement to spend time abroad every few years just to maintain perspective. I'd like to see "that" get passed in the boardroom.

BarnGoddess said...

oh my, I feel like such an ungrateful spoiled brat after reading this post.

right now, I am thankful for who I am and where I am......

Coll said...

I must admit.. I have been spoiled by our Canadian toilets. :-)

Swampwitch said...

What a way to end that story! Thank You! We forget too often and take things from granted, don't we?

Karla said...

Talk about perspective and feeling like we live like royalty eh?

Very humbling indeed!

It makes me feel like such an evil spoiled witch for not wanting to eat my MIL's cooking because she doesn't wash her hands before touching food.

Jenny said...

I loved the pictures, but the pictures combined with the profound last paragraph? So much better.

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