When Nature Calls in Foreign Lands

Copyright 1999 -- story by Jean-Philippe Soule

Thailand is famous for its white sand beaches, plunging cliffs of limestone surrounded by lush rainforests and warm turquoise water. The bay of Phang Nga has quickly become a kayaker’s paradise. Your best friends invite you to join them on their paddling trip around the bay. You’re now paddling the longest stretch from the resort of Krabi to the famous island of Koh Phi Phi. The day breaks with the sun reflecting its orange beams of light in the water. The only ripples are the ones from your paddle strokes. You think you’re in paradise when you start feeling strange movements in your bowels. You shut your mind to it but soon stomach cramps alter your paddling. You remember the delicious spicy food of the previous night and have no choice but to jump in the water…

It isn’t difficult to imagine this scenario. Most travelers and adventurers have had experiences similar to this. People often ask me, "What do you do when you need to go to the bathroom?" or, "How do you keep your toilet paper dry in your kayak?" even, "How much paper do you pack for a month in the wilderness?" I wonder if the people who are curious enough to ask are ready to accept the answers? Education and cultural habits are hard to let go of. I would think that famous explorers such as Livingston or large crews like that of Captain Cook must have dealt with a lot of "----", yet none of the classic or modern travel writers have ever touched on the subject. If it isn’t from lack of public interest it must be due to a taboo that I am about to break here

During one of my first travels I met a young British couple in Thailand. They had spent a year touring India and recounted to me fantastic tales. Somehow our discussion moved toward the subject of daily necessities. Shocked and horrified, I listened to this charming woman saying, "Now I’m so used to using my left hand that I don’t want to use toilet paper anymore. You feel so much cleaner with water." Even though more than half of the world population has never used any toilet paper, my upbringing and narrow mindedness forbade me from accepting that she could be right.

My subsequent travels have taken me through various places around the world. I have learned that a taboo in one culture is a norm in another, just as a culinary delicacy in one country is considered inedible somewhere else. While it is natural that we all think differently, we usually are strongly influenced by the education we receive and the social habits we are taught. This early bias, or coloring of thought, makes it is hard, if not impossible, to judge the good from the bad. With enough exposure eventually the world traveler comes to the realization that no one culture is definitively right or wrong, just that they are different. Sometimes you wonder which is more absurd, the hang-ups we have developed or the habits that offend us.

Education starts at an early age. In Nepal the Sherpa children are dressed in pants with the crotch seam left unsewn. When kids stand up the pants are naturally closed. When they squat down they automatically split open and the young child doesn’t need any help. Of course Sherpa children spend most of their time outside and house floors are made of packed earth that are easier to clean than a Persian carpet. In modern countries toddlers benefit from the latest technological research in the field of diapers. The most recent products ensure a nice hermetic seal that lets the toddler stew in its own excretion for hours. Which is cleaner I wonder? Westerners have gone a long way in order to hide these small natural disasters for as long as possible. Perhaps we develop a phobia of feces as a reaction to the experiences we undergo at an early age. It’s understandable that after sitting and playing in one’s own waste daily for years as babies, the same adults develop a hypersensitivity to the matter. This would also explain the use of scented three ply toilet paper and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a new five ply with tropical fruit scent in the twenty first century.

As little puppies grow up, they are trained to be clean; people too are trained to "hold it" until they reach a special place. For some people it is a hygienic bathroom with a toilet, for others it may be a place that does not always appear clean to the eyes of outsiders. In small Indonesian fishing villages, a narrow dock over the sea takes you to a small space surrounded by boards. When you look down, crabs and fish are all waiting to be fed. On the side you notice some old coconut shells. Although I have never tried the coconut shells, I can imagine that it would be similar to using sandpaper. In China you squat down in a communal room over a tube from which a strange snorting sound comes out. A closer examination reveals to you the moving snout of a pig impatiently waiting at the other end. In African villages vultures pick the streets clean. The precocious birds can sometimes come too close to your hind flesh before you have even finished with your business. If you take a taxi through the poorest part of Katmandu, the capital of Nepal, you will be blessed with the sight of dozens of butts squatting over the ditch by the road.

In other places people use stones, sometimes leaves from various plants, but most people still use water. Toilet Paper, commonly referred to as TP, is a modern invention that is always evolving. You can choose from single, double, or triple ply with a full array of colors, patterns, and softness. Scents vary from rose to violet. I’m not sure if such large selection is supposed to make you feel better or if it is just to match your mood of the day, but maybe it should be marketed in Latin America. There, TP is commonly used, but the toilet plumbing can’t handle the paper so you are provided with a small plastic garbage container in which you dump the used paper for the visual and olfactory pleasure of your successor. Of course TP also needs to be disposed of, and you may find that you need to remind your hotel host a few times. All the above makes me think that after all maybe the British lady wasn’t entirely wrong.

Sometimes a person’s dedication to the use of toilet paper can be taken to extremes. The most absurd thing I’ve seen on the subject took place a few years ago in San Francisco. I was jogging early on a winter morning when I saw an old lady walking her little poodle that was dressed in a hand woven wool jacket. After the dog defecated on the sidewalk the lady picked her dog up under one arm and opened her handbag. I expected her like all good Americans to pull out a Ziploc bag and clean up. Instead she pulled out some tissue, lifted the tail and very thoroughly wiped her dog. She repeated the operation two more times, put the dog back on its feet and nonchalantly threw the used tissues on the street before resuming her morning walk. Shocked, I stood there staring and wondering if she had made that dog the cleanest or the dirtiest in San Francisco.

Modern toilets, most notably public ones, are built with complex specifications. In the USA, thin disposable paper seat covers were recently replaced by rotating plastic wrapping operated by an electrical engine and a conveniently positioned button. People don’t have to touch anything that has ever been touched by another human being before. In France, public pay-toilets are self-cleaning. Make sure you get out quickly after you close the door a second time or you might be disinfected and cleaned up yourself. When you close the door after use, in addition to standard flushing, the full cabin is washed with pressure jets. If you happen upon the strong smell of urine in a Paris subway, don’t worry it isn’t a leak from the modern toilets. The homeless simply can’t afford to pay the fees.

Japanese public toilets show the technology at its best and their use is free. The seats are heated in cold areas. Toilets come with a full console. You have to read Japanese to make sense of all the possibilities or you could have fun experimenting a little on your own. One of the most utilized features is the sound track. At the push of a button, a flushing sound conveniently covers the sound of your excretions. This feature is important, without it people might know what your business it all about.

It seems like the more modern the country, the more self-conscious its people are about the most natural thing.

This hypersensitivity is linked to education and social habits and it isn’t easy to set aside. When you travel, sometimes things happen that will shake the most unflappable person. On a solo trek into the wilderness of Irian Jaya, with my long beard, I was more of a novelty to the small Papuans than they were to me. Adorned with boar tusks through their noses and dressed in nothing but their penis gourds and grass skirts, they followed every move I made. I ate and went to sleep under the gaze of hundreds of eyes. After a couple of weeks I got used to it but once I was in a village where nobody spoke a word of Indonesian. Half of the village was following me so closely that I had begun to feel claustrophobic. When nature called, I tried to communicate my desire to be left alone but nothing worked. After trying to escape for an hour I resigned myself to squatting behind a small bush with all the people surrounding me to see if excrement from the white giant were similar to theirs. I remembered feeling humiliated, but at least I wasn’t sick. Maybe it would have destroyed their image of a strong bearded spirit. Dani and Yali people believe that a man with a long beard is a great spirit as very few of them are able to grow long facial hair.

Being sick is another issue most travelers worry about, and for good reason, as most of us get sick eventually. It varies from a little diarrhea to bloody or watery dysentery. In Katmandu I lost twenty pounds in two weeks. Another time in Indonesia, my self-consciousness was pushed beyond its limit. I was on a local bus crossing the long island of Flores driving through terrible roads. The bus was hours late. I was sitting in the last row, holding my stomach as best as I could. Cramps became unbearable and when I felt like I couldn’t hold any longer, I discretely told my neighbor to immediately stop the bus. His response wasn’t the one I was hoping for. From the rear he screamed loudly to the driver, "Hey the tourist is sick, stop the bus." Before the driver could even touch the brake, the fifty heads were turned back and staring at me. The bus stopped, the rear door opened, and I wasn’t able to go farther than two steps before abandoning all decorum and going right on the road. All the people came out of the bus to urinate, forming a half circle all around me as I was relieving myself. To me it was another shameful experience, but to them it didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. I was learning to fight my hang-ups the hard way.

These experiences don’t always happen in front of perfect strangers. More recently when my expedition partner Luke and I were paddling from the border of Belize to Guatemala, I had to hastily throw myself in the water three times. Because we were paddling through a storm on rough seas, I needed Luke’s help to stabilize my kayak while I was holding on to it with one hand from the water. Do you think I asked him for some toilet paper?

To better understand the sanitary conditions of a long expedition, one needs to have a better understanding of multi-cultural differences. What you need to pack depends on your needs and ability to adapt. You might want to trade some TP for insect repellent. Sometimes when nature calls, you have to expose some flesh to painful bites.

One day you might run out of paper or your TP might be wet. You might be forced into trying something you would have never considered otherwise. You might realize that you were wrong about one of the most natural things. You may even come to the conclusion that the British lady was right. WATER IS JUST MUCH CLEANER.

Jean-Philippe Soule

Sorry no photos for this one !

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