Friday, January 24, 2014

all the best travel stories include a bathroom scene

Can you believe it? Another toilet photo?
This one's at my university. Lovely, huh?
It was July 2000, and I was enjoying my third trip outside the U.S. This time, I was visiting my dear college friend Julie who was living in Londrina, Brazil.

As has continued to be my modus operandi in my travels since then, I had gone to Brazil to see Julie, not to check off a long list of tourist attractions. Thankfully, though, she organized for us what is still one of my favorite travel memories.

One afternoon we hopped aboard a bus for a lengthy-ish trek to IguaƧu Falls/Iguazu Falls. Being the bad traveler I am who doesn't research places before I go to them, I had never heard of this rumbling paradise before. (Here are some intel and photos.) But I was excited about the trip: taking a local bus with real local people outside the city with stops in small towns as we made our way to the grand attraction would be almost as great as the waterfall itself, in my opinion.

As I recall, the bus ride delivered on its promise of adventure, including some crowdedness and an unplanned stop at a bus depot because someone threw up. We either changed buses or waited for ours to be cleaned; I can no longer recall the specifics.

What I remember most about that ride, though, is climbing off the bus at a small town bus station and eagerly following the other women to the bathroom. So far all my Brazilian bathroom experiences had been pretty much like the ones in the U.S., so I had no expectation of anything different.

But as I stepped into the stall, I paused in surprise and confusion. Was this possible? Were my eyes deceiving me? And what was I supposed to do next?

In that little Brazilian bus station I encountered my first seat-less toilet. It had never occurred to me that toilets might not automatically come with seats. Or that it could be an intentional choice not to include a seat with a public toilet. I had never thought of toilet seats as luxuries.

I've traveled a lot more since then and used a lot of different types of "toilets." I've even mastered the squatty potty variety enough that on a couple occasions -- given the options and depending on what I was wearing -- I've chosen the squatty over the regular toilet (and then called my girl scout leader to request my squatty potty badge). I've probably encountered other seat-less toilets, but they don't stand out in my memories.

But then I arrived in France, a reasonably hygienic country with most of the amenities my American self is used to. Yet after nearly 1.5 years here, I'm still not fully acclimated to the bathroom culture of this place. Sometimes it's pretty much the same as in the U.S., but other times it's wildly different.

For starters, it's rare to find a toilet seat in the bathrooms in the university building that holds my classrooms, and in addition to that, most of bathrooms aren't designated as male or female. They're a free-for-all. There are individual stalls, so really, there's still full privacy, but it still feels strange to walk through the doorway from the hallway into the bathroom on the heals of a man, because in public bathrooms in the U.S. that only happens by accident, in the stories you tell your friends for a laugh (after you've recovered enough from the embarrassment).

In other places, here, things are even more shocking (to my privacy-loving, body-parts-covering American self). At a nearby brasserie, when the need for relief strikes, you follow circular stairs down to a small basement bathroom. First the sink greets you at the bottom of the stairs. Then to the right are a couple small stalls with doors. But beside those and without a door? A urinal. C'est la vie ici.

It's also reasonably common to find men relieving themselves against some building or other (or sometimes a dumpster suffices for them) right here in the center of town, especially at night after a few hours at a bar. Sometimes they seek out shadowed corners, sometimes not. I suppose it's one way of feeling a little like you're camping even when you can't escape the urban life to hie thee for the woods?

Bathroom culture is a fascinating piece of culture exploration, one that any traveler will unavoidably encounter. It doesn't get much more quotidian than reliving oneself somewhere, somehow. And it strikes into all these core assumptions and sensibilities that are part of us without our ever choosing them. They're part of us simply because of where we come from and how we've grown up. And it's not until encountering an alternative that we ever realize our way of doing bathrooms isn't the only proper one. And that maybe the other options are perfectly and completely acceptable, even if they just feel awkward and weird and uncomfortable because they're not what we're used to.

And as uncomfortable as these moments are, one of my favorite things about soaking into a new culture is discovering the many ways of thinking and being that are subconsciously part of me. Once I discover there are other options, I get to make a choice: continue doing things the way I've always done them or make a change. Whatever the result, the beauty is that it's now an intentional choice, not an at-the-mercy-of-not-knowing-anything-else one.

For the record, I still choose toilet seats whenever possible.

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