The Ugly American: 4 Travel-Toilet Catastrophes

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There’s an app for finding public toilets while you’re on the road, because being stranded when you have to take a dump is so terrifying that scores of people choose not to leave the house at all instead. Don’t be one of those people. I suggest you download the app, and on top of that I offer my own experience for your sake in hopes to inspire you to venture to foreign lands and know that toilet options, though perhaps terrifying, are still surmountable:

1. Tijuana, Mexico
Part of my upbringing entailed living in a trailer two miles north of the Tijuana border. My mother had a job making bombs for the American military, which was not at all as profitable as you might think, so as a kid I spent a lot of time across the border pursuing a career as an under-aged drinker. The drive back into California could entail an hours-long wait at the border—and this after consuming copious cervezas along with mystery-meat street tacos. One time I had to exit my vehicle, run into the border market and beg the locals to direct me to a toilet. They gamely pointed me to a tarp-covered corner blocked by a hanging drop cloth. Behind that was a hobo passed out in his own piss, and behind him was a hole in the ground, next to which was a cinder block supporting a roll of toilet paper. I felt fortunate there was toilet paper. I made it back to my car before the people behind me in line honked for the fourth time.

2. Milan, Italy
Here there’s not so much a deficit in toilet availability as there is a severe protection of access to said toilets. To avail yourself to a lavatory that meets civil standards, you have to pretty much purchase something to eat or drink at a bearable place. If you’re a backpacking urchin like I was, you’re relegated to the public toilets at the train station, which still cost a Euro to use. You pay the Euro to a craggy, babushka-wearing woman who waves you toward a stall, but that stall has a real door that extends ceiling to floor. You could spend the night in there if you want. Well worth the price.

3. New York, New York
Speaking of spending the night in toilets, one of my favorite toilet-related experiences was in Bryant Park, which, when it’s not being used for Fashion Week, is a public park with a public toilet. But this public bathroom is a lovingly preserved time capsule from the fifties, and protected by public servants, and open to everybody. And with daily fresh flowers and floors covered in subway tile, it’s totally nicer than my own-ass bathroom to this day. If it was open 24/7 I’d totally camp out there.

4. Beijing, China
It’s funny how suddenly tolerant you’ll become when toilet options are isolated to alleyway enclaves. You think you’re persnickety? You think you have standards? I laugh at your standards. You will situate your feet on the porcelain waffle boards on either side of the Amityville Horror hole to sewage hell like the rest of us. You will squat and thank the heavens this isn’t a fly-encrusted, cholera-infested cesspool. Don’t be a toilet pussy. Embrace this part of the culture. You’re ready.

Photo: gwynydd michael, CC-BY

Hollis Gillespie writes a weekly travel column for Paste. She is a writing instructor, travel expert and author of We Will be Crashing Shortly, which is on bookstore shelves now. Follow her on Twitter.