The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Potty Talk

Everyone knows that in Asia, it’s common to squat and bring your own toilet paper. But what do you do when all you find is a cement slab and a bucket half-full of water?

In Vietnam it’s a common assumption that if you live where you can bury it or wash it away in a stream, then you don’t need indoor plumbing. My friends who live in the dunes around Mui Ne simply direct me up in the hills (by the way, never squat on an incline when you have diarrhea). My friends who live on the ocean-side direct me to the shore. I’ll never forget my first walk along the beach near the Phan Thiet wharf and wondering why so many people were sitting in the mud. My friends that live along the cemetery direct me to “unoccupied” graves. I found that after dark it’s hard to get the thought of ghosts pulling me back into an empty grave with my pants around my ankles.

When I first bought my house and was putting in the bathroom, I decided to put in a traditional squatty potty. I was so accustomed to it by then, that I saw no point in a Western toilet. Squatty potties are easier to clean, good for maintaining lower-body strength, and are better suited to the way the human body is engineered. The bathroom plumbing all worked by gravity, which was cheaper (and since I didn’t have a private well, my only real option), but in the end it was a big mistake because the water pressure wasn’t strong enough most of the time. Even so, my friend helping me was worried I was spending too much money. He tried to convince me that I didn’t need an indoor toilet. He could teach me how to use the stream below his house (he lived behind me), like his family does. Remembering that the stream was barely a trickle that seeped out from the bottom of the hill, I knew that would never work for me. What was worse however, was that the stream-toilet also doubled as the family bathtub and the dish washer.

Toilet paper is always in short supply. In a pinch I’ve found new uses for pages in books I’ve already read, socks, receipts, and low-valued Vietnamese currency when I’m really hard-up. Some people never find what the need. For this reason, never touch ANYTHING in public bathrooms.

Using the toilet is always an adventure in Vietnam, but it can be just as perplexing for my countryside friends when they encounter a western-style toilet. I’ve found a lot of footprints on toilet seats in hotels where someone climbed on top the seat itself and squatted. Eventually they seem to figure it out, but I’ve still not solved the cement slab with that bucket of water.

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