Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Porcelain Gods of the World

In the western world, we think of our toilets as being made out of ceramics, white or beige in color, comprised of a toilet bowl, tank, and seat.  In a private home, toilets usually have lids, although the contrary is true for public establishments.  Attached to the tank is a flush lever, sometimes in the form of a button on the top of the tank.  There are fancy models that flush automatically, and toilet that let you choose how much water to use when flushing depending on the amount of waste.   Sometimes referred to as "Porcelain Gods,"  I found the concept of a toilet truly unique in each of the countries I where I traveled and my interaction with toilets amazing.  Kids were also amused by the topic and during my school visits, students never failed to ask me how I went to the bathroom.  It's actually a  fascinating question considering all the different shapes and sizes of toilets that exist around the world.  I answered their question without getting into a lot of detail, admitting that I used nature frequently especially in remote places.  To tell you the truth, the answer is much more complex than I led on to students.  In fact, in writing this blog post, I realized that I could write an entire chapter of a book about my bathroom experiences around the world.  If there is one thing I wish I would have done on my trip, kid you not, I regret not having taken many pictures of bathrooms I used in the 26 different countries I visited.

In Europe, toilets are very similar to those in the United States, the only difference being the quantity of water in the bowl and the flusher.  Long before the United States, toilets in Spain offered different flushing options depending on the amount of water and waste.  The flushing button is divided in two parts, one larger than the other to indicate that more water will be used when this button is pushed. Less water also sits in European toilet bowls, but don't be fooled, the flushing action is comparable to toilets in The United States and effectively discard the waste.  

The main difference between public restrooms in Europe and The United States is that public restrooms are not a common occurrence on the streets of Europe.  When I lived in Barcelona, I always had to plan my bathroom breaks strategically whether it be on a morning run or an afternoon shopping trip.  I had my "go-to" restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels I used in the city.  When available, hospitals always had decent restrooms with anti-bacterial soap.  On my trip, I always coupled a coffee or snack with a pee break, using the restroom at the bar or restaurant.  If there are public toilets in a European town or city, they aren't usually free to use. Granted the fee is generally symbolic, it seems crazy to me to have to pay for a toilet!  When I pedaled through Venice, I encountered the steepest charge for a toilet on my trip, an outrageous 1,50 euros!  For two euros, I figured I was better off buying a small coffee and using the restroom at the cafe.  Considering I was in Venice, I went inside the bar (don't be fooled, there is a surcharge tacked on to outside patio consumption) and ordered a shot of espresso, the cheapest coffee on the menu.  It took me longer to go to the bathroom than drink the coffee, but the purchase was justified!

I just couldn't bring myself to paying this steep fee to use a public toilet in Venice, Italy

Europeans argue the reason they charge to use a public restroom is to maintain a sanitary and clean environment.  Your 20 cent or 50 cent fee pays the salary of the attendant responsible for cleaning the public space.  In theory, it all sounds nice, but I just couldn't bring myself to paying to use a bathroom.  Instead, I tried to sneak into establishments and make a b-line to the restrooms, which isn't necessarily each dressed in full on spandex bike gear with a helmet.  Most of the time I would put on a face of desperation and ask a waitress if I could use their bathroom, stating it was an emergency. And so, the restrooms I used in Europe looked as though the people before me peed everywhere except for in the toilet.  A rainstorm had hit the toilet seat and toilet paper was a commodity, never present in any of the stalls.  At the start of my trip, when my leg muscles weren't so strong and it was hard to hover above the toilet seat without touching.  I quickly learned to bring a Kleenex along with me into the bathroom, and if I forgot, I was thankful to be wearing my bike chamois.

Sometimes in Europe, you'd find an occasional bathroom lacking what we westerners would consider a "proper toilet."  There was a hole on the ground with a porcelain slab and some sort of foot imprint or guide on each side, showing people how to stand so they could aim rightfully at the hole.  Serious planning and engineering had been put into the design of this slab, so that your feet were placed just so, avoiding any splash backs.  Usually these slab toilets had a tank that was hanging on the wall, with a long chain coming down that required flushing.  They aren't the most user friendly toilets and require a bit of skill and aim, but there is a fast learning curve.

When I arrived in Hong Kong, the porcelain gods were of the higher class.  Not only were public toilets commonly found around Hong Kong, they were free and clean.  In fact, I was shocked to see a cleaning schedule posted on the walls of the public restrooms that actually invited people to call a toll free number and leave feedback regarding their cleanliness.  Who would have called to complain about their cleanliness, restrooms were so impeccable, you could have eaten your lunch off the toilet seats!

Hong Kong's toilets are models for the rest of the world with their sanitary expectation clearly defined on the walls of public restrooms

Like I said, you could eat your lunch off the toilet seat it was so clean

Toilets in Hong Kong, however, were not representative of those I would encounter in the rest of SE Asia and using the toilet became another adventure added to my daily life on the bike.  You'd think words such as bathroom, toilet, and restroom are universal.  You automatically assume that people understand you when you ask to use a bathroom, but in China, as was the case with most of my attempts to communicate, I had to supplement my verbal language with hand and body gestures, and resorted to making sound effects when asking for a toilet.  On top of this language barrier, there is also no such thing as a public restroom.  First of all, there is no such thing as a public restroom.  Waste in SE Asia is not welcomed.  As I mentioned in some of my blog posts, I constantly struggled to find a garbage bin in cities and towns to dispose of my waste.  No one wanted to be responsible for other people's waste, explaining why I frequently saw pigs and other animals eating the garbage thrown alongside the road.  There were cafes, bars, and restaurants, but they were usually part of a private home or attached to a private home and therefore don't advertise toilets.  I must admit, I wasn't ever turned down when I asked if I could use a toilet at a cafe or restaurant, but it usually meant walking through their private home and using the family bathroom.

If this is what happens to rubbish tossed by humans, I don't want to know what happens to human waste in China

Human waste seemed to present a logistical problem for people in SE Asia.  Sewer systems are primitive, which is why toilets look the way they do.  Many times there is a toilet bowl, but no tank, and a lot of bathrooms have some sort of slab toilet on the ground without a flushing mechanism.  Instead, there is a bucket of water and a pail, which sometimes doubles as a shower apparatus.  Yes, it is primitive indeed, but functional!  There is a faucet to fill the bucket of water.  After going to the bathroom, you have to manually flush the toilet by pouring in the bowl or down the hole afterwards.  This becomes an entire art in itself as there are many ways to pour the water in the bowl trying to flush out the waste with the momentum of arm's throw.  If you are so lucky as to have toilet paper, it does not go down the hole, rather it is collected in the garbage by the side of the toilet.  Since there aren't many trash receptacles on the streets, I have a sneaking suspicion that this paper waste is later burned (and probably the most organic materials that is burned).
One of the more fancy toilets I used in SE Asia

Although the majority were more along these lines.......

I used a few interesting toilets in Asia, including a trough-like toilet in a bus station in China.  There were stalls, but under my feet was a continuous concrete ditch running along the ground for about 10 feet.  There were handles, no special foot slab, or toilet paper was of course out of the question. A trickle of water flowed through barely moving the waste present in the trough.  You can imagine the   pungent smell that wafted from the stalls.

Undoubtedly the most memorable toilet I used in SE Asia I found in Northern Vietnam.  To this day, I still don't understand how this toilet worked or if in fact it was actually a toilet, but I felt confident the women who served me coffee at her small cafe had understood I needed to go pee.  Unfortunately I didn't take a picture of this room, but if I did, all you would see is a small room with a primitive sink, a faucet, and a mirror.  I identified it as the bathroom because there were toothbrushes, toothpaste, and shampoo bottles in one corner, but the room lacked anything us westerners would identify as a conventional toilet. My eyes searched over the one square meter area frantically, but all I could find was a small hole in the floor, no larger than 2 inches in diameter, a pipe that went into the ground.  Surely this wasn't the toilet? I thought.  This hole wasn't intended for anything other than liquid.  Thankfully that is all I intended on doing.  Going to the bathroom, which should be a relaxing experience, had all of a sudden become a stressful event.  I skillfully aimed into the hole and used the pail in the basin to wash up the surrounding area.  The whole experience was just so baffling, for the next hour or two, my mind was flooded with thoughts.......Did I make a wrong turn and just pee in their shower drain? Where do people do their solid business at that house?  Do sewers even exist in these villages, and if so, where does the waste flow?  The entire event could be summed up in one concluding thought,  Mother nature provided just a good of toilets which became my default restrooms in SE Asia."

In Europe, I had started to use nature, pulling off to the side of the road to hide behind a tree.  This was possible to do in Europe with such little traffic on secondary roads, but in SE Asia, everyone uses the same roads that you are never truly alone!  I shared the road with farmers and their buffaloes, women and their crops tied to their backs.  If I wasn't waiting for a truck to pass, a moto whizzed by or out of nowhere a small child came running through the bushes on the side of the road.  Not to mention, I never new what type of animals were lingering in the bushes along the side of the road.  I felt like the chicken in the "Chicken Crossing the Road" jokes.  Poor chicken, just when he thought it was safe to cross to the other side, a car would come whizzing by.  Just as I thought I was in the clear to pop a quick squat, something or someone would creep up, making it impossible to have any privacy.  Unfortunately this made for a lot of emergency type situations where I just couldn't wait any longer to go to the bathroom.  Once, I vividly remember waiting so patiently for a truck to pass me in Northern Laos.   It drove by me in the same direction I was pedaling and before it had passed me completely, my bike shorts were down and I was relieving myself.  I looked up expecting to see the truck driving off in the distance, and was surprised to see the back of the truck piled up with people.  It was the local bus taking people into town and they all had the biggest smiles on their faces, some even hollering at the sight of my white bum.  I should have been embarrassed, but as my motto went, I had no shame, not even 4 months into my trip!

Individual public restrooms large enough to enter with my bike.  If only they were spotlessly clean like the ones in Hong Kong, I would have opted to sleep inside!

Some of the most fascinating public restrooms, I found in Australia.  On my day off in Melbourne while walking the streets, I stumbled across what I would call a futuristic public toilets, looking more like a spacecraft rather than a toilet.  They were silver metallic oval structures, big enough so that I could bring my bike with me into the restroom.  You pushed a button to open the door and once inside, a women's voice started talking to you.  She guided you through the entire event warning you of the closing the door, letting you know how much time you had, telling you when and where to push other buttons for flushing, turning on water and blowing your hands dry.   Not to mention, there was also music playing in the background.  If I hadn't known any better, I would have thought I was in an elevator at a fancy hotel.  I couldn't help myself and made a video of the experience and shared it with my hosts later that night.  I thought Australia's public restrooms were at the top of the list for porcelain gods around the world, but then my hosts informed me that these bathrooms were invented to give drug addicts safe places to shoot up.  All the automatic features including a timer that counted down were so drug users wouldn't get trapped in the bathroom if they passed out.  A scary through, but probably a clever idea.

By the time I arrived in North America, I thought I had seen it all when it came to toilets and restrooms.  Little did I know the saga awaiting me in the public restrooms.  I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles where I had a 3 hour layover and used the airport women's room.  I entered one of the many stalls and just as my hands reached for my elastic waist band, the toilet flushed.  What's this? The toilet is flushing and I haven't even pulled down my pants?  I reached for a toilet seat cover, one of the best inventions ever in the United States, and the toilet flushed again.  I continued to reach for a toilet seat cover, and this time I was successful in opening it up, but as soon as it was on the seat, the toilet flushed again, taking with it the seat cover I had freshly placed on the seat.  I was up against a loosing battle.  I managed to set down another toilet seat cover, and quickly plopped down on top of it as not to loose it to another flush.  This time, when the toilet flushed, the seat cover stayed, but bum felt as though it had been showered from the spray of yet another flushing.  By the time I had actually gone to the bathroom, the toilet had flushed a total of five times, taking with it pee and paper waste only once!  Imagine my surprise when I exited the stall and made my way over to the sink.  The faucets, soap dispensers, and paper towels all worked on a sensor as well!  Unlike the toilet, the sink water turned off in the middle of my washing and I struggled to get the water on again, making hand washing an exhausting 5 minute event.  By the time I was ready to dry my hands, all I had to do was flash them under the paper towel sensor and voila, a paper towel came down.  But by now, I was exhausted and my head was ringing with all the different sounds each of these automatic contraptions made.  I went to open the bathroom door, which you think would also work on an automatic sensor (so you didn't have to contaminate your hands with germs after freshly cleansing them) but it wasn't.  As you can see, students were right, going to the bathroom was a complicated ordeal.  No wonder the topic fascinated them!

Toilet flushing sensors look almost alien-like
The most clever invention I came across in terms of porcelain gods in my opinion is the toilet seat covers found in North America.  By the time I arrived in The United States, my leg muscles were strong enough that I could have hovered over the toilet bowl for an hour without touching.  But why use your leg muscles when you can comfortable sit on a thin layer of tissue paper on top of a toilet seat? Toilet seat covers.  I had always taken toilet seat covers from granted, but when I moved abroad, I realized just how much I cherished this small and simple invention.  It wasn't until I was 100 miles from completing my world bike journey when I asked the million dollar question and realized that most people, like myself, took toilet seat covers for granted as well.  How exactly do you use a toilet seat cover?  Is there a right way and a wrong way of placing it on the toilet seat?  When I first arrived in the United States on The Loong Way Home, I had an epiphany one day in a restroom, when I discovered that I had been using toilet seat covers backwards for over 30 years.  I had always torn the three tabs that held the middle section in place prior to laying it on the toilet seat.  I placed the cover with the connected middle section at the back of the bowl.  Arranged in this manner, however, I was always in a race against time as the the middle section would eventually touch down into the water and drag the rest of the seat cover into the bowl, sliding off the seat, and therefore offering little or no protection at all.

This is the way I always thought they went on a toilet seat

But if you search "toilet seat covers" on Google, you will find both placements on the toilet seats

One day, out of hast, or maybe absent-mindedness, I accidentally placed the seat cover so that the connected tab was at the front of the toilet seat.  To my surprise, the middle section crept down to the water in the bowl, but the  seat cover didn't budge, staying put on the seat, offering maximum protection.  Wow!?! I remember thinking, had I been using the seat cover wrong my entire life?  Do other people know about this?  I wanted to badly to write about this experience, but then realized my epiphany might not be appropriate to share on my blog or Facebook.  Talking about seat covers isn't exactly dinner table etiquette, but it should be, because I can guarantee you that your friends and family will offer great insight into this subject matter.  In Portland, three days before my grand arrival, while out having beers with my siblings and a few friends, I brought light to the subject.  I told them about my predicament, not completely sure how to use a seat cover properly and asked them how they used it.  Their answers were fascinating!

After all those years of putting on a toilet seat cover backwards, I finally discovered this is the way it is done (or so I argue)!

Jessamyn explained that she carefully pulled off two of the tabs on the middle section and left the tab connected at the front.  She then placed this tab towards the front of the seat and hoped that the gravity from her pee or the dampness would cause the last tab to tear off and eventually fall into the toilet bowl. Although the seat cover went on the seat backwards like I had done originally,  the seat remain protected the entire time.  Others started to laugh while she explained her meticulous process which is when my brother-in-law chimed in to share his strategy.  With vigorous hand gestures, he stated, "Usually I pull the tabs so hard the whole middle section rips off! But that doesn't matter because after I place the toilet seat cover, I cover up any sections of the toilet seat that might be exposed with the middle section I originally ripped off!" We all started laughing at Paul's technique. Jenny, my sister, and his wife was appalled to hear her husband share his technique.  But then it made Tom, my brother share his strategy.  He took us all by surprise when he asked, "You guys really take the time to use seat covers?"  Here was a guy who used to drive home from High School to use his toilet at home during the school day telling us 15 years later that you couldn't get any sort of germs or disease from an unprotected toilet seat.  Barb, the remaining person at the table pipped up in Tom's defense and was also adamant about the fact that bacteria can't survive on a toilet seat long enough to contaminate your bum!

Here we all were completely cracking up over something so simple and overlooked as a toilet seat cover.  Really the topic is considerably mind blowing.  After traveling around the world and using all sorts of "toilets", I found myself in The United States baffled by some of the most modern toilet inventions.  How on earth do you place a toilet seat cover on a toilet seat?  Dare you ask yourself?  Go for it, experiment, ask your friends and family, their responses will blow you away.  Of course you can always cycle a few thousand kilometers and build up those quad muscles so you don't touch down upon the porcelain gods!

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