This is an incident that was never meant to be funny, but nothing my family has ever done has been retold with more regularity or generated more mirth.
It’s a story about one of those times when you simply have to go, and it struck during a food walking tour through the streets of Hanoi with the family.
“I’ve got to go,” I said to the tour guide as we sat on tiny plastic chairs at the front of a dumpling eatery that was as big as our laundry. And we have a small laundry.
The tour guide went inside and talked to the woman who ran the restaurant.
She beckoned me inside and directed me to a corner, pulled aside a curtain and pointed to a plastic bowl on the floor.
I looked at it. I looked at her.
“Are you kidding?” I said. She wasn’t. She pointed to the tiny bowl.
It’s difficult to describe what I was feeling at that moment without ruining the rest of your day. Suffice to say, this bowl was hopelessly inadequate for what I felt was required. And the proximity to the kitchen, and diners, was an issue.
The guide sensed my growing anxiety and dissatisfaction with what was being offered. With my family sitting on their tiny stools howling with laughter, the guide led me up the street, around a corner, up another street and eventually to a public toilet where I parted with a few dong – I would happily have paid thousands – and did what I so desperately needed to do.
Believe it or not, I relate this story in an attempt to help you because there are ways you can avoid being directed to a plastic bowl behind a curtain in a room shared with strangers trying to enjoy their meals.
It’s called “research” and everything you need to know is on the internet. Just type in “clean toilets”, then the name of the city you’re in, or going to, and copious hints will appear. If your research skills are adequate, you’ll find maps that show you the nearest toilets and possibly even critiques of them.
If you forget to do your research, here’s another tip, depending on what country you’re in: always carry some toilet paper. Stick some in a back pocket, in a backpack, in your handbag. Just make sure you have some, because some toilets in some countries don’t have such things. Though there may be someone there selling paper.
And while you’re at it, toss in some antiseptic hand gel.
Some Asian toilets – and some in Morocco and no doubt other countries around the world – have a hose so you can squirt the soiled area of your anatomy and the soiled concrete. Bum guns, I guess you could call them. That’s sort of okay, except that some of these hoses have very poor pressure. Say no more.
In many regions, including parts of Portugal on a recent visit, you’re asked to place your used toilet paper in a container rather than flush it. If the signs in the toilet say to do this, do it, and don’t feel awkward. It’s what the locals do and it preserves the plumbing.
You may also be called upon to squat, which is a lot easier if you’re wearing a sarong or skirt, not so easy for elderly types in trousers.
And then there’s the matter of privacy – or lack of it. A row of women squatting can be confronting. And I’m no princess.
No matter how you look at it, going to the toilet in some parts of the world can be a challenge that requires preparation, planning and paper.
It can be a long way from the Beaux Arts public loos at New York’s Bryant Park with their self-flushing toilets, self-changing sanitary seat covers, original artwork, music, air conditioning and fresh flowers.
Here’s our guide to help you with your public toilet experiences:
- Always carry toilet paper.
- Have antiseptic hand gel in your handbag or backpack.
- As you walk, keep an eye out for hotels or bars that may offer suitable toilets.
- Go with an open mind. If the signs say to put your paper in a waste paper bin, do so and think nothing of it.
- Wear appropriate clothing for the expected conditions.
- Work on your best squatting technique.
- Watch what you’re carrying. You don’t want your mobile phone or wallet to slip out while mid-visit.
- Search the internet for public toilets. Bigger cities have extensive websites.
- If you find a hotel or restaurant, just walk through as if you own the place.
- Carry change. Some public toilets demand payment.