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International Relief 

Seven Days' globe-trotting staffers unload their excretory adventures

Published October 23, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

The need to let it all out is universal. Handy terms like pakhana or shayrooteem will help you find the facilities when you get that sinking feeling in Islamabad or Tel Aviv. But tracking down the local rest area doesn't necessarily yield a porcelain throne. The following anecdotes, flushed from our own experiences, take you around the world in seven toilets. Bear in mind as you read them: As much as our crapping cultures may vary, our internal plumbing is basically the same. We hope this thought will inspire you to visualize world pees -- wherever you happen to be sitting.

Egypt: poop deck

There's a reason the Nile Valley is so fertile, and it's not the one you learned in sixth grade. There are no facilities on the dhows that ply the waters between Aswan and Cairo -- the preferred method of travel for hippies, like me, seeking the coolest way to get downstream. It was bad enough having to piss in a pot and fling it overboard. Pooping was traumatic. The only choice was to crouch down in the "hold" and just doo it. Then carry it up -- carefully -- and launch the odiferous offering into the mighty Nile. You'd think a bag full of poop would sink like a stone. But it floats.

-- Paula Routly

Japan: squatters' rights

I traveled to Fukuoka, Japan, in April 1992. People warned me about the Japanese toilets -- I'd be squatting over a small gutter. No sitting down!How primitive and strange, I thought. They can build a car engine that runs for 200,000 miles, but the women can't sit down to pee. I was intrigued by the cultural differences. I secretly wanted to squat. Maybe, I thought, the Japanese are tuned in to some basic human need that we've all forgotten about in the States. But when I got to Japan, I discovered that while some of the public restrooms retained their squat potties, most had at least one "Western Style" toilet. Every time I heard that phrase, I imagined sitting astride a freakishly large white bowl wearing a 10-gallon hat and a vest with leather fringe. In fact, the fancier "Western Style" toilets I encountered at my home stays were more like Star Trek captain's chairs. They sported armrests and consoles full of buttons on either side. I never got a chance to explore all my options on one of these elaborate pink contraptions, but I understood enough to know that I could warm my seat if I wished, or make it vibrate. I could also activate the jet spray and determine the temperature of the water it squirted out to wash my bum. These fancy toilets depressed me -- the Japanese had out-Westerned us. Recently, The New York Times News Service carried an article by James Brooke in which he describes Japanese toilets that double as air conditioners, and toilets with retractable mechanical arms holding little spoons for urine collection and testing. "Toilet jet sprays are now in nearly half of Japanese homes," Brooke writes, "a rate higher than that of personal computers." Is this what's next for us? I think I'd rather squat.

-- Cathy Resmer

Turkey: dooing business

Legend has it that Ephesus was founded when sages foretold that a wild boar and a fish would show migrants where to build a city. A traveler from Greece named Androklos was frying up a fish on a fire when some sort of combustion occurred and the fish flew out of the pan into a bush, landing on a snoozing boar. As you can imagine, this upset ol' porky immensely and it took off running. Androklos chased the beast down and killed it, and it was on this spot that Ephesus was erected. If you think that's bizarre, you should see the toilets they set up.

The toilets are numerous and public. Not so much like the public toilets we know and love, they resemble the setup of a modern classroom -- in a circle with no doors or stalls. Men would sit side-by-side on the stone bench toilets and converse about current events as they did their business on the can. I suppose it could save time by cutting down on office meetings during the busy workday.

Ephesus is famous for having such residents as Napoleon, Augustus Caesar and the Virgin Mary, who supposedly went there to die. I can imagine a conversation:

"Hey, Augustus, give me a boost, these seats are too damn high."

"Sure. Hey, look, it's the Virgin Mary."

"I don't know, I'm a skeptic," says Napoleon. "Did they really name that salad after your dad?"

-- Brooke Clover

Yugoslavia: Tito toilets

Even in the mid-1960s, when Marshal Tito's iron grip united Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia in a single, Communist Yugoslavia, defecatory details like hot water and toilet paper were luxuries you couldn't take for granted. At the public toilet in Titograd, a scowling old woman in a headscarf served as traffic cop. Whether you came in simply looking out for number one or had a broader agenda in mind, each commode customer was issued a single square of tissue. To ensure that no one received more than the prescribed allocation, the meticulous monitor used her thumb and one finger -- which she carefully licked between each sheet.

-- Ruth Horowitz

Benin: Afrique of nature

It's bad enough having the runs in Africa. But when the "bathroom" is a 12-inch hole at the other end of the compound you share with three dozen jeering Beninois locals, well, you watch what you eat. I watched where I aimed, too -- and not everybody did -- with an eye out for the giant cockroaches that crawled up out of the hole at night. A flashlight was crucial, even if it did send the critters scurrying into dark corners and cast ghastly Kafkaesque shadows on the mud walls. The cap over the crapper was earthen, too, which was another source of anxiety. Peace Corps legend told of one ill-constructed "outhouse" that collapsed under a newly arrived volunteer. He spent 12 desperate hours treading turds and roaches before he was fished out of the drink and psycho-vac'ed back to the states. Failed his toilet training. The only thing worse than pooping in that hole was puking in it.

-- Paula Routly

Russia: Comrades' Accommodations

The weather was still raw in April 1987 when I went out for a private tour of Moscow's uncapitalist version of the Church Street Marketplace with a handsome college student/translator named Sasha. We popped into a coffee shop to warm our hands and share some caffeine with the comrades. Everyone seemed to know at once that I was American; I was acutely aware of being not just myself but a reluctant representative of the enemy.

So imagine my surprise, 15 minutes later, to find myself listening to Beatles songs on the sound system and singing along with Sasha, who also knew all the words. We drank more coffee and did our part to defrost the Cold War. Then we went out for a stroll.

And that was when I had to pee -- that uniquely urgent need for relief caused by several cups of joe. I asked Sasha politely where I might go. He looked puzzled, then troubled. For good reason: We ended up walking around for at least two hours, my bladder growing in girth and fragility with each step. Apparently walking into a shop and asking to use the loo just wasn't done. I, however, was almost done for -- to hell with detente, I would gladly have dropped trou and pissed on the street -- by the time Sasha finally spotted an actual public restroom.

I made a dash for it, praying there would be no line. Ignoring the old babushka-style attendant, I sat down on an ancient toilet in a private stall -- battered but relatively clean. I let loose for a full five minutes, plenty of time to contemplate this particular curse of the working class.

-- Pamela Polston

Nicaragua: flash forward

Most Nicaraguan bathrooms seemed to be missing a key component in the mid-1980s. Ousted president Anastasio Somoza reportedly looted $3 million from the national treasury before fleeing to Miami during the 1979 revolution. Could the dictator also have absconded with all the toilet seats?

More likely, the sit-on-the-rim reality was a result of the United States' economic embargo, which made imported consumer goods scarce in the embattled Central American country.

I brought along my own supply of toilet paper. But I wasn't prepared for total darkness. A lights-off policy protected the remote Sandinista militia camp in the mountains of Matagalpa from nightly mortar attacks by the contras, the Reagan administration's surrogate army.

When I needed to use "the facilities," a young companero guided me to a bank of rudimentary outhouses. With the moon obscured by clouds, when I opened the door to the stall, I couldn't see anything inside. In desperation, I snapped my automatic camera several times. The flash briefly illuminated the rough-hewn wooden boards that served as a seat in the land of seatless privies.

-- Susan Green

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