Image: Controversial toilet
China Daily  /  Reuters
A man uses a controversial outdoor toilet in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality earlier this year.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 4/24/2007 11:51:09 AM ET 2007-04-24T15:51:09

The world's toilet facilities never cease to amaze me.

Consider the older women attendants in Germany, who have no problem mopping the floor as you do your business. Or the thoroughfare arrangement, in which female customers have to walk past the urinals to get to their toilet, as I've seen in Japan. And what about those coin dishes — does anyone know how much change to contribute? And let's not forget the famous hole in the ground, where the squat technique takes some getting used to. Other toilet surprises include pull-chain and infrared flushes, the "poo-with-a-view," and coed restrooms — not to mention wide variations in hygiene, condition and smell.

Everyone has his worst traveling toilet story. Mine comes from Prague, where I paid the equivalent of a nickel to use the facility in the train station. The stench and the filth were so bad my eyes burned and I threw up instead. On my way out, I took back my nickel and yelled at the attendant, who seemed baffled by my reaction.

I've heard some pretty good stories, too — like getting caught behind the bushes, and squatting in an alley in front of a one-way window (a whole convention of people got a great back view). And then there was the female skier in the French Alps who dropped down her one-piece ski suit to squat behind a tree; her center of gravity shifted midstream, and she ended up skiing down the mountain, backwards, screaming the whole way. Can you imagine spotting that coming at you?

Sure, it's funny when it happens to someone else, but do you remember the last time you were in a foreign place, desperate to use the facilities, and there were none to be found? At that moment it's no laughing matter. This happens to me all the time, but after 20 years of international layovers, I consider myself something of an expert on this matter. So here are 10 tips and observations on the subject of "Going, abroad."

1. Wipe out. Always carry tissues or your own toilet paper. It only takes one instance of going without or using the sandpaper provided at some stalls to set you straight on this one.

2. The change will do you good. Always carry spare change in the local currency. The toilet facilities that you pay for are generally the most hygienic ones, except perhaps in Prague.

3. McBathrooms. In other columns, I have criticized travelers for eating at McDonald's when abroad, but there's no denying that their restrooms can get you out of a pickle when you are abroad. If you have to order something to gain access, get a small bag of fries — it costs about the same as an attended toilet.

4. Ooh, that smell! If the odor is unbearable, put a wet wipe over your nose or put lotion on a tissue and use that to mask the smell.

5. Squatter's rights. It's daunting to enter a toilet and find a hole in the ground with two depressions for your feet, but after you get the hang of it, it feels quite natural, and apparently it's healthier as well. Ladies, skirts are easier to manage than trousers in such a place.

6. Confidence counts. Most every fancy hotel lobby has a restroom. Just walk in as if you are a guest. I have never been questioned or turned away.

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7. On the go. Use the facilities whenever you get the chance. You may not have to go at the moment, but a little effort could save you from desperation hours later on the tour bus.

8. Earplugs. Longtime readers know that I think earplugs are the cure for just about everything and, yes, I have even worked them into bathroom advice. Personally, I can't stand some of the noises that emanate from the crowded stalls next to me. Apparently, I'm not alone. Did you know that many toilets in Japan produce running water when the user is seated, to mask all embarrassing sounds? Well, if you're not in Japan, try the earplugs. They will let you concentrate on the task at hand instead of flinching from the grunter next door.

9. A no-go. Know that if you risk going in public areas, like behind a tree or in an alley, you could be breaking the law, and the offense can carry fines or even jail time. A colleague of mine was so desperate to pee in London that he urinated on the Houses of Parliament. He wound up in jail and had to plead no contest because he was caught with his fly down on video.

10. Attitude adjustment. It's all in the way you look at it. If you treat your trip to the toilet as a cultural lesson and a small adventure, you will come out of it with a smile.

I was once at a restaurant in Mexico and just barely touched a bowl of spices on the table before I went to the restroom. Let's just say I soon was on fire and in an unexpected place. For the longest time afterward, my airline nickname was "Jalapenis."

Do you have any traveling toilet stories or tips? Send them to me. Believe it or not, I want to hear about it.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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