The Uncomfortable Subject

There’s something that few travel writers (or writers in general, for that matter) talk about when they discuss getting along in another country, even though it’s something that will inevitably come up in the life of a traveler, usually when he or she least expects it, and more often than not, unpleasantly.

I’m talking about poop.

Sure, it’s a minor detail in life, something that happens pretty often but which nobody seems to want to discuss, and most of the time, it’s no big deal.

I’m pretty accustomed to all manner of toilet mishaps. Anyone who knows me has heard the story of the time the toilet in Spain overflowed and ended in a swampy yard, a broken pipe, and plumbing clogged with tennis balls and plastic bags. There’s also the story of the one that just wouldn’t flush. And the story of getting used to Asian toilets, which involve squatting and water hoses. There’s the time I ate bad clam chowder and didn’t make it in time, the time when I had to pee in a gas station restroom with no lock and a big hole in the door. And the time I was sitting in a public restroom when a girl burst into my stall and threw up. In short, I’m no stranger to restroom incidents.

But then I ended up in the Philippines, in a public toilet somewhere in the city, with my stomach gurgling uncomfortably. For the past half hour I’d had the feeling that I was soon going to regret the Indian food I’d ordered “extra spicy” for lunch. I excused myself from my meeting and hightailed it to the bathroom (after scouring various floors of a building to first find a bathroom) and ran into the stall with a sigh with relief.

Until I noticed there was no toilet paper.

It’s not that they were just out of toilet paper. There was no empty cardboard roll, no scraps on the floor – no evidence that toilet paper, that blessed invention, ever existed there. There wasn’t even a metal fixture on the wall where toilet paper might go. There was nothing.

Okay, Plan B. I looked for a hose, the little water spouts so ubiquitous in Asian toilets. No luck there either. My travel tissue packet was empty. I rummaged in my purse for a leftover napkin, a moist towelette, a gum wrapper – anything I might be able to use. I briefly considered using the notes from my last meeting. Maybe that plastic folder?

I won’t tell you how that scenario ended, and I wish I could say that it had only happened to me once. But the worst was on our way to Mindoro island, where we had gotten up very early in the morning and had downed bad coffee and doughnuts on the street next to the port while waiting for our boat. Feeling the effects of stress and a bad breakfast, I finally found a public restroom where I locked myself into a stall as my stomach tied in knots.

A good while later, when I was finished (thankfully, I managed to have some tissue with me this time), I looked around to where the flush handle would be. There was none.

Okay, Plan B. I looked for the little water buckets used to manually flush away the water in many an Asian toilet. None of those either.

I peeked out of the stall and thankfully saw that there were tons of buckets of water over near the sink, where the bathroom attendant was standing and cleaning. I motioned to the attendant that I’d like to flush the toilet, but she guarded the buckets and said, “Don’t worry, Mam, I’ll do it.”

Uh oh. I really wanted to flush the toilet myself. I had been sick, so this was no ordinary…deposit. I’m sure you can imagine.

I insisted on taking the bucket, but the attendant simply asked for the five-peso bathroom fee and kept the buckets on lockdown. Figuring I’d never visit this place again and die of embarrassment, I shrugged and handed over the coin. I left the bathroom and was heading down the street when the attendant, who had obviously looked into the stall, came running after me with a look of horror on her face, yelling “Ten pesos for you, Mam!!! Ten pesos for you!!!”

And that is the story of my life.

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