The views expressed in this blog are personal and not representative of the U.S. Government, etc etc etc.
Read at your own risk.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Facing My Fears, or How the Squat Toilet Got Me in the End

Warning: This post is about bodily functions.  If that grosses you out, you've been warned.

I don't consider myself a fearful person.  I will squash a cockroach if necessary.  I've ridden that ride at King's Dominion where you drop several hundred feet.  Mice, as a concept, don't bother me.  I'll try most new foods that don't include eyeballs or rotted shark.  I homeschool my children.  I've lived through an evacuation, and traveled internationally solo with children more times than I like to think of. I live overseas.  I've birthed four children.

I have done lots and lots of scary things.  Not much scares me - except for using the bathroom.

Okay, not using a regular, western bathroom - the kind that involves sitting on a seat.  I can handle that.  It's the other kind of bathroom-using that scares me, the kind that doesn't involve a nice comfy seat.  The kind that is done in the woods and in strange places like China.

I've had this fear since I was a small child.  I remember being locked out of the house one afternoon when my mother was running errands and wasn't home in time to let me and my sisters in from school. One needed to use the bathroom and couldn't wait.  I remember thinking at the time that I would rather have my bladder burst than go anywhere other than a toilet.

My father loved to go camping to amazing places with waterfalls and hiking and horses on remote islands and swamps.  I would look at the pictures of the great campouts he had taken his scouts on and think about how much fun it would be to go to those beautiful places.  "Dad," I would ask, "do they have toilets there?"  When the inevitable answer was 'no' I wished that I could just face up to my fears and go along, but I never did.

When we were assigned to Cairo, I found out that squat toilets were not just in China so I made plenty of preparations to avoid ever having to use one.  When we went out sightseeing, I planned excursions that lasted as long as I knew my bladder would.  I avoided drinking lots of fluids.  I planned strategic restaurant stops that included known western toilets.  

Once when Brandon and I were waiting for a train in the Alexandria station, I went to the restroom.  The ever-present bathroom attendant waved me over to a stall when I asked for the restroom, and was very confused when I turned right around after seeing the toilet and marched right back out again.  A two hour train ride in semi-agony was worse than using a squat toilet.

All of the time I knew I was being irrational - after all, how bad could it be?  Millions of people have never seen a western toilet.  My sister goes hiking all of the time in places that don't have toilets for miles.  Even my mother went on those backpacking trips with my father.  It would be okay.  I could do it.  If I can birth babies, I can use a squat toilet.

Here in Azerbaijan they are called 'Turkish toilets,' and I had my first run-in on Victory Day on a CLO day trip to Beshbarmag.  Thankfully the trip only lasted into the early afternoon and so with careful fluid intake I was able to survive the trip with no other new cultural experiences other than watching people hack sheep apart with (probably dull) axes.

The next reckoning came at the beach this summer.  We went with friends who had been before and recommended the little beach club since it had bathrooms.  When Kathleen announced that it was time to try out the bathrooms I accompanied her to the hut next to the parking lot.  We both made an abrupt u-turn as our bladders suddenly didn't feel so full at the sight of the (always stinky) squat toilet waiting for us.  Kathleen later shamed me by being the first Sherwood to successfully acquire the art of squat-potting.  I, on the other hand, drank nothing for the rest of the day and survived again.

But when we planned our trip to Guba this past weekend, I knew that my number was up.  Azerbaijan and the Turkish toilets had outmaneuvered me.  The first day of our trip was a CLO day trip to Guba and environs.  We left the embassy at seven in the morning and our hotel check-in wasn't until the evening.  There was no way my bladder could last that long and absolutely no way there would be a western toilet between seven am in Baku and Long Forest Resort that evening.

We started the morning off early and were waiting outside the gates by 7:15.  Our departure was delayed somewhat, so by 10:15 we were in Guba.  Our trip started with a visit to a waterfall a distance outside of town.  The further we got from Guba the bumpier the roads became, paving turning into potholes, potholes turning into patches of asphalt, and patches finally dying horrible deaths, giving way to rocky unpaved road.  As we bumped over rocks and through holes and over mounds I had a new empathy for pioneers crossing endless prairies on wooden wheels as their teeth jarred out of their heads.  And as each mile passed I grew a mile farther from my last bathroom stop early that morning in Baku.

Sophia piped up from behind me.  "Mom, I need to go to the bathroom."  Kathleen chimed in "Me too. When are we going to stop?"  Since we were caravanning to an unknown destination, I confessed that I had no idea.  "We're just going to have to wait.  If we stop, we will get lost and not know how to find the waterfall.  Can you hold it?"  Ahh, the joy of being a mother - when you have more than your own bladder to be responsible for.

The endless rocky road stretched on and on and on, each rock bouncing the seat belt against my lap, each drop pushing me and my full bladder painfully into the seat.  How long was this going to last?  Were we going to go on forever, bouncing our way into eternity with my bladder screaming at me over every. single. rock.  At last we came to the entrance of a canyon.  Finally, almost there.  At least we could stop and find somewhere and save my seats - good thing they're leather - from ruin.

The lead car stopped.  We all waited, no knowing what had happened - had we gotten lost?  Was the road closed?  Did we forget someone?  Then it backed up and turned around.  Everyone else dutifully turned around one at a time, narrowly avoiding the rock wall on one side and drop into the river on the other.  We retraced our route and pulled up to a handsome, half-finished hotel.  The girls perked up.  Hotel?  Lovely?  Surely this place would have bathrooms - the right kind of bathrooms.

We all hopped (well unbuckled and climbed) out and made our way over to the group standing near an empty doorway.

"What's going on?" I asked the CLO lady, the obvious authority figure.

"Bathroom break," she smiled. "We still have ten kilometers to go before the waterfall, and we thought it would be a good time to stop."

"Oh thank heaven!!" I breathed in relief.  "Where are the toilets?"

"Well..." she continued, starting to look distinctly uncomfortable.  "Here's the thing.  There's only one toilet.  And it has no running water.  Or lights.  So you kind of have to keep the door open.  And... well... it's a Turkish toilet.  Sorry.  It's the best we can do!" she tried to finish cheerfully.

I thought of my bladder and ten kilometers more of bumpy, rocky, jarring, bone-rattling road and smiled back at her.  "Well there's nothing like new cultural experiences is there?"

So when it was our turn the girls, Edwin (who had steadfastly and stubbornly refused to pee in the scrub surrounding the hotel) and I hiked across the rocky, weedy ground to a small door in the back.  Edwin walked in, looked around and hastily retreated shouting "Never mind! Never mind!" as he left.

Kathleen, who was a Turkish toilet pro because of her experience this summer, volunteered to go first to show Sophia and I how to get things done.  After seeing her sister Sophia made her mother proud and added "using squat pots" to "counting in Azeri" and "knowing not to drink the tap water" to her list of accomplishments gained while living overseas.

And then it was my turn.

When I stepped out of the door a few minutes later (with dry shoes and pants I might add), the girls were proud.  "You did it, Mom!" they smiled at me.  "Good job!  Don't you feel much better?"

And I did.  Much, much better.  Now I can go on all those camping trips with my dad next time he asks.


Bridget said...

I am amazed you've been able to avoid them this long! Honestly, they don't even faze me anymore. Sad but true.

Laura said...

I am very proud! I've gotten to the point that I prefer using the woods to using stinky trailhead pit toilets. (Or parking lots or sides of the road. . .). It actually revolutionized my life when I learned the art of the squat.

Welcome to the club!

Mommy said...

Love that someone else has bathroom fears like I do! I have come a long way but there were many years when I wouldn't even use public Western bathrooms (as in, in the U.S.).

I, too, will never forget my first squat potty experience. I was driving through the desert in the West Bank (as in Palestine) with a group of folks...we were speeding over rough terrain b/c we were dangerously close to not making it through our checkpoint before it closed. I could take no more and we pulled over to a random house in the middle of nowhere. The kindest Palestinian family happily showed me to their toilet: a squat potty. I was so nervous that I didn't get my trajectory right and may have gotten my pants a wee bit wet (pun intended). Never will forget that!

Also, I lived in Egypt and had a mishap the first time I had to use one of the spray hoses. I botched it big time and came out of the bathroom looking like I had peed my pants.

Ah, the fun of international toilet experiences!

UnkaDave said...

Cool! Let's go camping!

UnkaDave said...

I encountered my first and only squatty potty in France. It was not the highlight of my trip. And it was filthy. Laura is right, the woods are better. I'm grateful they don't exist in South America!

Anonymous said...

I'm with Laura, it's an art and one learned (and accepted), you will love your life. My wilderness preference is to find a smooth big log to sit on. That way your guaranteed not to get your pants wet and it's comfortable!

Anonymous said...

and *once learned

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to lie: the warning of bodily functions made me think we were going for a diarrhea with squat toilet story! Now aren't you glad that wasn't the case?

So far I've been able to avoid them here in Asia, but probably bc we don't have them in the Philippines, and anytime I encounter them elsewhere there's either another door with a toilet somewhere, or I'm not dying to go and I can hold.

Just US said...

This is my biggest fear with living overseas too! So far so good but I know it is only a matter of time until I have to face this fear.