The first really, truly questionable toilet I encountered was somewhere between Saint Petersburg and Pskov. And toilet is a loose term—I should say a hole. Saving my money had been a theme of studying abroad, so when our group stopped at some train station, I along with a few others opted for the free toilets. I shut the door of the stall, hovered over the hole that was surrounded with—you know—and I failed. I couldn’t figure it out. So I pulled a few rubles from my purse and went to the paid toilet where I could actually pee. I was nineteen and my American self was still innocent and rather squeamish about the span of toilets that can be found in the world.
This was not my first toilet adventure, but rather, my first truly negative one (if we toss aside the normal, nasty American gas station toilets, which are offensive but usually harmless). Toilet-related excitement first occurred in a northern European airport—Stockholm, Copenhagen, or Helsinki, I can’t remember which. My young, sixteen- or seventeen-year-old environmentally aware self looked with glee at the flush. Half flush/full flush! The glory of saving water! I was so enamored with this there-common option that I took a photo of my friend’s toilet in Finland (sorry, Elina). But no, you don’t need to see it.
I had only positive toilet encounters in my subsequent travels after Russia, if I don’t count the annoyance of having to shell out a couple of euros to pee (how American of me, I suppose). But then came East Africa. I had no option but to master the art of peeing into a small, small hole in the ground.
I’m now truly okay with most toilets. No seat? No problem! I’m a hovering queen. Toilet in the floor? Oh, okay, it’s a lot better than a hole. But I hate the holes. My hatred grew quickly, when, after a few weeks in Kenya, I got sick. Malaria?, wondered my companions (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I felt feverish and so weak I could hardly walk, let alone use my thigh power to crouch over a hole in the ground, surrounded by questionable materials, at the only rest stop between Mombasa and Nairobi. I did it, but I’m not sure how I remained conscious as I devoted every last bit of energy I had to not toppling over.
And then there was the bus from Nairobi to Kigali. The ride was over 24 hours long and no, the bus didn’t have a toilet. So, we stopped at… places. Some were gas stations, some I don’t know. These holes were foul. It wasn’t just me—I was warned of what to expect by the expressions of the women I saw emerging from the stall. Stall doors that didn’t close properly, shit on the floor, I pulled my shirt over my nose and stepped carefully. My friend Hayley turned to me, “I never thought I’d want a gas station toilet.” Oh, I know. Even the system of passing off a bucket of questionable water to the next person in line for flushing was better than this.
But, I got as used to it all as I could, desperately coating my hands and arms with hand sanitizer. And then came the pee-rats.
The bathroom in our room in Bujumbura wasn’t that bad, relatively speaking. The toilet had no seat, but my experience with cheap hotel rooms in East Africa taught me that was the norm. The toilet wasn’t leaking, either. The reason, though, was probably that it didn’t flush. No matter, the three of us girls sharing the room decided. We were only going to be there for two nights. We agreed to keep the toilet use to pee only, no problem.
On our second and last night, I traipsed into the bathroom to pee before bed. I glanced at the toilet and noticed something brown. Oh, I thought, someone must not have been able to help but break the rule. But then I did a double-take—did I see this brown thing move? With horror, I peered into the toilet properly. I turned around and quickly walked back into the room, announcing shakily, “I think there’s something alive in the toilet.” The three of us hesitantly went in and peeked in together.
Rats. Rats were just chilling in the toilet, hanging out in two days’ worth of three girls’ pee.
One of us told the people at the desk, somehow, given that none of us spoke fantastic French. Our door opened toward the bar, and the lucky souls sitting there spun around to watch the evening’s entertainment. A man entered the bathroom with a plunger and somehow got the toilet to flush, sending one rat down the drain. He carried the other out balanced on the plunger, passing through our room as we all squealed. The bar roared with laughter, “this is Burundi!”
Well, the kindly hotel workers told us we could move to the room across the hall. I was glad because I didn’t want any pee-rats crawling on me in my sleep.
Luckily, since the pee-rats I haven’t encountered any truly horrible toilet situations. Sure, hiking around in Peru and Bolivia meant peeing outside often, but I’d take clean-ish ground over dirty holes any day. Perhaps the pee-rats will remain the epitome of my toilet tales, but I’m fine with that. It makes a good story, one that has been told to groups of friends many a time, but I won’t mind if I never see dirty pee-rats again.
So, dear readers, what’s your worst toilet adventure?