I started to entitle this posting, Bathrooms I Have Known, but that is more explicit than I intend, also it was the projected title of a book of my good friend, Ted R., who traveled the world as I did, and had suffered the use of foreign facilities in more remote locations that I. Unfortunately, Ted is no longer with us, but I’m sure he would have appreciated my efforts.
As I’ve traveled around both the civilized and not so civilized world for the last forty years or so, I have seem them all. Bathrooms, johns, WC’s, toilettes, banos, toiletten, crappers, comfort facilities, or whatever they may be called in your part of the world and in your vernacular.
Those of you who have led a more sedate and sheltered life may think that the places where our most personal and important daily business takes place are all the same. Oh, you’ve probably run into the new trend toward unisex facilities, which I believe to be high on the list of the most uncivilized modern practices. It’s unlikely, however, that you’ve ever had a person of the opposite sex scrubbing down the porcelain bowl next to you while seeking the relief we all periodically need. This first occurred to me in a “toreii wa” in the entrance hall of Narita Airport in Tokyo. I knew then, on my first trip to the heretofore hidden world of Asia, that it was going to be different. The cleaning lady didn’t seem to care, but my body did. I could not, in spite of heroic efforts, get my plumbing to operate with its normal efficiency.
No, I’m not going to detail all of my odd, even bizarre, experiences in search of the nearest water closet, but be assured that I’ve experienced every manner of flushing device invented by man…left handle, right handle, manual push button, digital bush button, chain pull, foot peddle, rope pull with water tank above, constant drain, slow drip, no water at all, and the good old fashioned bucket pour.
I’ve seen porcelain contraptions of all design and many with no porcelain and little thought to design. The Japanese have the most complex electronic flushing devices, one of which I ran afoul of at a friend’s home in Tokyo. It was perfectly functional, even comfortable with a heated seat and numerous other functions described in kanji characters which, of course, I could not translate in my moment of need. Experimentation only resulted in various noises and streams of water, none of which completed the action that I intended. Finally, in desperation, I sought instruction from my Japanese host. Perhaps my most terrifying encounter with relief facilities was at the Ba Da Ling gate of the Great Wall of China. After a overly long ride from Beijing and way too much coffee, I came a cropper at an urgent moment in a cave like room, one side of which was a dugout slit trench filled with pebbles and covered in heaps of lime which not only befouled my sense of nose, but whose noxious fumes impeded my breathing and blinded me. I’ll not go further for fear of negatively impacting delicate sensibilities.
The lavatory practice which most offends my sense of proper restroom protocol is conducted in those places in those countries which post guardians at the gate to the relief stations. They are, more often than not, babushka like women who are evidently in need of a job, any job, and take some pleasure in profiting from the most basic needs of their fellow man. Cuba, from which I’ve only recently returned, is one of those places. I could almost give them a pass on my critique, given the socialist imperative of providing succor for every single one of their huddled masses., and but for the behavior of one such guardian, which I will describe below, I would have done so. But for the long suffering totalitarian state, any job is good job, I suppose.
When cruising around in buses from one tourist site to the other, I’ve learned to be on the lookout for comfort facilities. In my case, I never know when “the urge” is going to strike. Such was the circumstance as we entered the Museo des Bellas Artes on the edge of Old Havana. Rumor had it that this decrepit old palace was chock full of great Cuban art, and I was anxious to see what it had to offer. As I was waiting for Jorge, our Cuban guide, to present the documents to gain us entrance, I surveyed the area for “banos” signs. I finally located a sign suggesting that they were located on the sixth floor. It seemed a little odd that a building of this magnitude would have banos only on a single floor, but I accepted it as fact and as there were no elevators I determined to grit it out until we reached that level. By the third floor, which was Cuban art of the 18th century, I knew I was in trouble. I was on the verge of attacking the three flights of stairs when I saw it. Los Banos. Down a dark hall with some jetsom and flotsom of underutilized cleaning supplies scattered about. Two doors were available. One for los Caballeros and the other for las Senoras. I also noted the small white table with a saucer containing a scattering of coins, which announces, if you go in, you’re gonna have to pay. I had no coins, but then again la senora babushka was not in sight. I wasn’t inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth. I figured, wrongly as it turned out, that I could dart in. do my business in double time, and get back out before she showed up.
The first part of my plan worked to perfection, but as I turned and tried to make good my escape, there she was. Blocking the door. She wasn’t a large women, but she had expanded to the point were I could not squeeze around her to freedom. She pointed fiercely at the small sink stained the color of nicotine, obviously demanding that I “lavarse las manos”…which I did forthwith. She then thrust a single small square of translucent paper in my hand while making a hand wringing motion. I was supposed to dry. I did my best, but the paper dissolved in my hands. With hands still dripping, I gave her a juke to the left, went to her right while trying to get at some folding money in my pocket. I extracted a crumpled wad of CUC’s (Cuban Convertible Currency) and threw one in the general direction of the coin filled saucer. A clean get a way, so to speak. I didn’t even look over my shoulder.
It was only later that I discovered that the 1 CUC note I thought I was buying her off with was actually a 10. At an exchange rate of .87 to 1, it cost me $11.49 to do what, in any civilized nation, should be free.
It was worth it.