I had just started to walk into the men’s room (hopefully) near my departure gate at the airport in Yangon, Myanmar. After checking the signage and seeing fairly identifiable male/female outlines I turn to the men’s side and freeze in my tracks. There is a young woman coming out of what I thought was the men’s room! I back up, take a look towards the signage and realize that I am seeing her reflection in the newly cleaned mirror of my bathroom while she is walking out behind me from hers. Probably she is wondering why I am backing up and looking panicked.
As I head on in to what actually is my side it occurred to me that I have had or heard of a lot of funny things that have happened around the issue of bathrooms in other cultures and places over the last 20 years of international ministry. I won’t be delving into the ones involving TMI – too much information, and will keep in mind that there are things you cannot simply Un-see even in imagination.
My first though was of an evening outing about 8-10 years ago to see Carmen performed in Ulaanbator, Mongolia. I went with the able coaching and assistance of David and Jan Bayliss who were residing in the city while working with Field Director Batjargal and the staff of FEBC, Mongolia. I headed for the bathroom while David and Jan held onto our seats. I kept wondering if I was going the right way as I went down a hall and then down a couple of ramps, not unlike trying to get out of a major football stadium. I was the only one going down and one after another small groups of ladies kept streaming up the ramp towards me.
As I approached the sinks, I am still the only guy, till one finally walks out from the left row of “cubicles” and I realize its only those that are separated between the two half’s of the bathroom area and the sinks are shared. The opera was excellent, but it was my first time and I was confused. “It’s never over till the fat lady sings” is the old adage in the USA, but there weren’t any thin ladies singing at all. I had to depend on Jan to let me know when it was over.
Like every other aspect of life, those who don’t travel to foreign places think there is only one right way to build a bathroom, a toilet, to “clean up”, and then when you travel you find out that there are several broadly followed plans: the outhouse, the toilet, and the squatty potty. “Cleaning up” is TMI. Even the toilet itself, the ones embodying the phrase “porcelain throne” have different idiosyncrasies in different places. In Japan, they want everyone to be happy with the facilities and are sticklers for getting every detail right. That’s why we all love the cars they design. In Tokyo airport, you can pick between the squatty, the regular toilet and the one with all the bells and whistles.
The fancy electronic toilets have heated seats built in water sprays that are adjustable for pattern, angle and temperature to aid the cleanup process and come with somewhat elaborate buttons and controls on an arm to the side. One thing they almost never include, however, is english subtitles for the oriental language deemed proper at any particular location the toilet is installed. Chris saved me from failing with these new gadgets by having a troubling experience in the electronic toilet in the airport at Narita, Japan. She couldn’t figure out how to make it flush. She tried the controls, could spray water around and even get it to make incredibly loud, realistic flushing noises, but no flush.
When I had the same problem at FEBC Korea, I immediately assumed she had tried all the controls and after some thought took a look at the bigger picture. There, just as you might expect on a regular toilet was a flush lever, manual style, above all the fancy controls on the control arm on the toilet tank. So after messing with all the controls in your jet-lag induced state of mind, remember my blog post and look for the flush lever as usual. Or read the instructions.
In closing, and avoiding TMI, I can say that I have been forced by circumstances and travel destinations to try all of the approved methods of clean up and all of the different types of facilities. My advice is to pack toilet paper with you just like your water bottle when you travel. Yes, you can use the squatty potty, but I recommend you practice in the hotel room first, before you have to do it out in the public bathroom. Hint – with the squatty you want to get your pants in just the right spot……