Let’s Talk Toilets and Paperbacks

Let’s say you are traveling in China, Mexico, or No. Africa, and have checked in to your modest or very modest (okay, cheap) hotel room.  (This advice probably (note the shifty word) doesn’t apply to elite or posh accommodations.)  One of the first things you will want to do is to use the bathroom, where a small basket, often woven, sits next to you.  That basket is to receive the used toilet paper…..do not flush it down, because the little basket tells you that the plumbing system is not quite up to par.  At least our par.

When I was in Mexico last, I thought Mexico City at least had upgraded the plumbing–wrong.  The city sits on a wobbly (in an earthquake) sub-system of questionable plumbing in porous dirt…and if everyone used a flush toilet as designed, the results wouldn’t be desirable.  SO, when in the areas I’ve mentioned, just note the little basket.  And use it.  The same is true in many restaurants, stores, etc.  And, sometimes there is a nice young man (men’s room) or nice young woman (women’s restroom) to hand you a hopefully adequate amount of toilet paper. And usually, one leaves a modest tip, very modest. And don’t make fun of the facilities.  We’re there to have adventures, right?  So, just consider it a toilet adventure…

Oh, by the way, paper products are very, very expensive in most countries, so be gentle with the amount you buy/use.  Have you ever bought a paperback book in England or Mexico or Australia?  Well, even if you can find a good selection from which to choose, the price sticker may give you a shock.

If everything worked in these places as well as it usually does here in the U.S., what would be the fun in traveling?   Suggestion:  Carry your own paperbacks, and plan to “dump them” for the maid or a new friend as you finish reading them.  Another suggestion:  check the languages in which the paperbacks in foreign stores are printed.  Since most countries, not the U.S., have so many international travelers, they have books written in those languages.  You might be unhappy, after paying an exorbitant amount for a paperback, to find the novel is written in German or French, etc.

You’ll usually want to do some reading; many countries “roll up the streets” when people are home from work for the day.  Now, in Spain, that might not be true…..somehow those towns come back to life after “siesta”–although one doesn’t notice that as much as in the past; many countries are trying to accommodate American or western “tastes.”

Just watch for the little basket!


To China with Global Volunteers

My next trip to China was with Global Volunteers (a terrific travel/work group in MN) whose local contact was a wonderful man named An Wei, founder of a Chinese-American society to build bridges between the people of the U.S. and China.  We were to be placed in classrooms or businesses to help students and employees to better understand us, and we them.

Schoolkids in China

The chalkboard in our initial meeting room listed elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and a hotel, with the number needed for each group.  We were to select where we wanted to be placed.  As we muttered and murmured, I heard someone say: in the elementary schools’ restrooms, the kids peer over the low walls to “be sociable” as we are using the restroom.  I have no idea if that was true or not, but I could “picture” it—so my eyes focused on the hotel—but only one person was needed.  When we broke to sign up for our choice, I made such a beeline for the hotel, that I may have actually been “pushy”….not my usual self.

At the hotel, a lovely one, of course, I “talked” with desk clerks, “talked” with people who cleaned the hotel rooms, and “talked” with the stiff men in black suits who supervised the lobby. One of the questions I kept getting—you’ll never believe it—was about the behavior of men guests—and their habit of throwing their shoes about their rooms.  How could I explain something I’d never observed happening—even at home.  I was not successful, but kept smiling and nodding.  And I received some jealous comments from other volunteers, especially at the party “my” hotel put on at the end of that three week session.

Heading East

Travel, while it can be frustrating (airports), expensive (go where “locals” go!), time-consuming (pick less-busy days for sites and sights), it’s also fun, rewarding, can be inspirational, educational, and one gets to see those “places.”   I’ve been to China five times, three of those times with Global Volunteers, and I learned something–many somethings—each time.

  1. People in China—are calm (usually), courteous (always), talented  (obviously) hardworking (ditto), polite in speech (always).
  2. History lovers (me) find China a wonderful Great Wall of Chinaand fascinating place, laden with their history and some of ours.  Who can see and walk (part of) the Great Wall of China – erected to keep out invaders – look across at the hills around it, and not be amazed, maybe stunned, by the massive effort to build it?
  3. One must also address the “eastern” and “western” aspect of a certain fact of life—restrooms.  When in China, always ask “Eastern or western?” when needing a restroom.  You may not have a choice, but please use the “western” if you do. (And, if there’s an attendant there, be sure to take the toilet paper she/he offers. Or see if there’s a place to get some as you enter.)

The only description I can give for “eastern style” is “squat” toilet, and one’s aim must be accurate.  The condition of some restrooms indicates—even in Xian’s great modern airport—that others ahead of you had some difficulties. Women’s pant legs or longish skirts need to be held tightly in your hands. (Just relax.  You will soon be in the arms of a nice hotel which has western bathrooms.  You might check if you are traveling alone; tour guides are aware of U.S. “sensitive natures” and usually place us in “western” hotels.

There may be a “tip” plate sitting where one can’t miss it.  Just leave a small amount of money….probably less than a dollar. And smile and bob your head.