How to Survive the Toilets of the World
It should come as no surprise to any of us that toilets can be really dangerous. After all, Elvis Presley died on one.1
Anybody who has done any amount of traveling will be quick to back me up on this: while it's true that sometimes the toilets of the world can come with delightful surprises--from the completely automated toilet-seat covers at the Chicago O'Hare airport to the brilliant commode-side view from the bathrooms in the tallest skyscraper observation deck in the world at the Shanghai World Financial Center--more often than not, the toilets of the world offer surprises that are somewhat... less than pleasant.
The truth is that the toilets of the world can be very, very dangerous.
Based on my vast amount of experience (mostly gained through unfortunate situations of trial and error), I now humbly offer you a list of suggestions as to how to survive the toilets of the world.
Toilet 1: The Truck Stop
The Good: There probably won't be a line for this one. And if you're desperate enough to go so far as to consider using a classic truck stop bathroom, the lack of line is something to be glad of. Perhaps the only thing to be glad of.
The Bad: The only light comes from a feebly-flickering electric bulb which periodically buzzes and shorts out. There is no toilet paper--just a roll of paper towels which someone has dropped lengthwise onto the mucky floor, where it has partially unrolled and (by the looks of the boot prints across it) has been stepped on multiple times. If you're lucky, the room will carry the musty smell of clogged drains. If you're unlucky, it will smell of ... other things.
Your Best Bet: Hope that someone from Hogwarts is along with you and is willing to perform a hover charm (Wingardium Leviosa!) on you before you enter the bathroom. Barring that, it's time to do everything within your power to ensure that you can do your business and get out without actually touching any square millimeter of yourself or your clothing to any surface of the room, including the sink.2
Toilet 2: The Squatter
The Good: Spending a lifetime using squat toilets often ensures that the elderly of certain regions (Asia, the Middle East, etc.) maintain a remarkable level of flexibility into their old age.
The Bad: If you haven't been raised using squat toilets, chances are very high that as an adult, you're going to find yourself making lots of rookie mistakes. And the bathroom is not a place in which people our age prefer to make rookie mistakes, if you know what I mean.
Your Best Bet: 1) Watch your step: it does not do to let either one or the other of your feet slip while positioning yourself over the squatter. 2) Don't look down, especially if you happen to be wearing sunglasses on the top of your head at the time. (In the event that you forget this piece of advice, remember that some things which are lost are not meant to be recovered. Ever.) If the squatter is a pit-toilet variety, you do not want to look down for obvious reasons. If the squatter happens to be an open space directly over the railroad trestles of a fast-moving moving train, you especially don't want to look down lest you lose your equilibrium. 3) Have a plan in mind for the proper handling and keeping-out-of-the-way of all of your articles of clothing during all stages of the squat-toilet experience. Remember that if you don't have a plan, the squat toilet will. And his plan is to make use of the combined forces of gravity, disorientation, and nervousness in order to overwhelm you. 4) Above all, remember to TAKE YOUR TIME. Although it may be difficult sometimes given the urgency of the business as hand, slow and steady wins the race in this case.
Toilet 3: The Vanishing Toilet
The Good: There is nothing good about a Vanishing Toilet. You know the type I mean: the type of toilet that, for one reason or another, isn't where you expect it to be. Perhaps you've remembered the layout of the theme park incorrectly. Perhaps in your haste to reach the bathroom before the moment of crisis, you've mistaken one hallway for another. Or perhaps, as I experienced once, a wildfire has recently swept down the freeway and burnt the bathroom where you expected to find relief completely to the ground.
The Bad: By the time you've realized your mistake, it may be too late (especially if you're dragging a panic-stricken child by the hand).
Your Best Bet: Pray.
Toilet 4: The Great Outdoors
The Good: There are fewer experiences in life more soothing than taking care of some of life's most basic needs under a canopy of the sky with only God and the clean, fresh outdoor breeze for company.
The Bad: There are many downsides. First, you may not be as alone as you think. (Horrors!) Second, although the inherent dangers may sound amusing on paper--accidentally squatting on a cactus, unwittingly using poison sumac leaves as personal wipes, angering a family of demented badgers by infringing on their territory and then having to resort to a humiliating, pants-around-the-ankles stumbling run for freedom, etc.--the fact remains that using the great outdoors can be downright dangerous, if not outright deadly.3
Toilet 5: The Toilets of Japan
The Good: Japanese toilets are wonders of modern technological engineering. While basic models come equipped with standard features such as automatic lids, heated seats, blow dryers, water jets, and massage options, advanced toilets also include the ability to play games and music, and (best of all) release air deodorizing, anti-bacterial mists with each automated flush.
The Bad: These can be very confusing to foreigners. There's also a persistent rumor that a Japanese man was electrocuted by his Super Toilet, but I've been unable to find substantial support for this tale.
Your Best Bet: If you find yourself in Japan, you can either have a Japanese friend draw you a diagram or give you a quick tutorial before your first foray into the world of Japanese Super Toilets. Otherwise, it's just you, your plucky sense of adventure, and a dazzling array of buttons.
The truth is that even though I like to think that I have come equipped with a plucky sense of adventure, and although there is little doubt that I love many aspects of travel, I've become convinced that when the following iconic words were penned in 1823, John Howard Payne was probably thinking of his own private water closet far, far away:
Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.
Or, as I foresee it in his first draft:
Mid pleasures and palaces down yon gold road
Naught shines e'er so bright as my own, dear commode.
1 - Okay, so... maybe, maybe not. Everyone's best guess seems to be that the combination of hard living and too many peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches was just too much for his poor heart. But the point is that he was found in the vicinity of the toilet after he died. And while George II of Great Britain did indeed die on the toilet in 1760, it was a heart condition that killed him, not the toilet. The 14th-century Bohamian king named Wenceslaus III was murdered while in a toilet chamber, but again, it was a javelin that killed him, not the commode. But still. You get my point.
2 - It's no doubt with these sorts of bathrooms in mind that our mother puts bottles of hand sanitizer into our Christmas stockings each year. Thanks, Mom. This one's for you.
3 - See Ghiglieri and Myers in Over the Edge: Death at Grand Canyon for actual statistics on how many people have fallen to their deaths in their attempts to pee into the largest and most glorious of outdoor commodes.