Today’s post is from the wonderful Apple Gidley, author of the hilarious, poignant and very, very well observed memoir Expat Life, Slice by Slice. For more of her writing, you can find her blogging at the UK Telegraph. But today, she’s writing for us – hooray!
“You didn’t warn me about the long drops,” my sister admonished on her return from trekking up Machu Picchu all in the name of charity – Great Ormond Street Hospital being the chosen one.
“Would it have helped to know?” I asked. Never having attempted the climb myself I thought her accusation a tad unfair – how was I to know about the lavatorial facilities on a Peruvian mountain?
“It might have,” she sniffed, “And you know about these things!”
Long drops, dunnies, bogs, loos, privies, ploppen, names that vividly describe those receptacles we all use regardless of race, colour or creed.
Val’s assertion got me thinking about how much we really need to know about a place before we travel to new lands, whether for a few weeks or a few years. Yes we need information about healthcare and schools. A broad overview of the political climate is helpful and an idea of basic customs and acceptable behaviours is essential, but do we really need to know the intricacies of day-to-day life in a new country before arriving? Doesn’t that lessen the excitement of discovery; take away from the foreign flavours if we’ve read all about it in Rick Steves’ travel guide?
Maybe it lessens the pitying glances as you ask a seemingly obvious question, like the first time I went to Australia. I was only seven at the time and my Australian mother had neglected to explain certain differences in Antipodean and English English. “What’s a dunny?” I remember asking my cousin of the same age as we headed to school on the bus, me just for the day so as to experience a rural bush school. I got over the shame of ignorance and the smirk that accompanied the explanation, and I never looked back.
Like most people I am sure, I prefer a little privacy when attending to my daily ablutions but it is quite amazing how many places there are in the world where that doesn’t happen. I’ve squatted in the New Guinea highlands surrounded by soaring eucalypts and ficus, or on in the scrub of seemingly secluded African beaches only to become aware of eyes belonging to the two-legged species watching me through the dripping mist or the sea grapes.
“Hong nam ti nai kha?” was an oft-heard request as my daughter and I raced from an idling car clogged in the Bangkok traffic to burst through the door of many a coffee house during the potty training stage of her life. She learnt to squat over a hole in the ground with equanimity. “Sawadekha,” she would trill to the occasional head poked through the flimsy curtain providing the barest of privacy, curious at the mad farang using their facilities; she far more at ease than her mother at the same intrusion.
Despite a dislike at these intrusions I used to think us Westerners were probably far too sensitive about discussing our bodily functions but a recent conversation changed my mind.
“I looked everywhere for ploppen loos,” Jo, an English friend renovating a house in Den Haag, mentioned to us over wine at this year’s FIGT conference.
“Why?” asked a Dutch friend. “Non-ploppen toilets allow you to discern the health of your movements.”
A charming way, I thought as I spluttered inelegantly into my glass, of entreating us to check our crap.
“I don’t want to check it, I want to flush it,” Jo said.
“Oh you English are so puritanical,” Jantje commented.
“Did you find any ploppens?” I asked.
“Eventually!” Jo said.
The wonderfully euphemistic phrase used in the United States for the lavatory, whether ploppen or non-ploppen, is ‘restroom’. Strange as the experience might produce relief but rarely rest. Certainly not in America where the whole ordeal is heightened by the need to avoid exposing one’s nether regions, or the acrobatic reengaging of tight tights over round rumps, by staying firmly out of sight.
“Don’t they have doors?” I hear you ask. Well of course they do, but a great many restrooms also have an inch gap around the stall walls. I know we have all been confronted at some time by an inquisitive face peering up under the door to be quickly followed by a mother’s voice shrieking, “George, don’t do that!” That is an accepted part of children in public loos, rather like a face through the curtain was in the less sophisticated eating establishments in Thailand. But really, having to dodge between the gaps is a bit much.
So no, I didn’t warn my sister about long drops but she didn’t warn me about American restrooms, and really does it matter? When you’ve got to go, well, you’ve just got to go regardless of where you are and who’s watching, and don’t these little discoveries add to the excitement, and laughter, of life on the global trail?
Apple Gidley has relocated 26 times through 12 countries and has found the amusing side of life in most places. She is the author of Expat Life Slice by Slice, Summertime Publishing.