In my last post I shared with you the surreal experience of having a long line of schoolchildren waiting to shake my hand as I would be the first white person that many of them had ever touched. It was a great experience that I'll never forget. But I should confess that there's a backstory to that experience that you probably won't find all that impressive.
Many people find it helpful to go through life with a daily mantra to guide them and keep them on track. Mantras like "Om," "Thy will be done," and "Be the change you wish to see in the world" are common examples. My mantra in rural Africa was often an inspiring "Don't touch your face." This was the lofty thought that often crossed my mind while shaking the hands of children who had never touched a white person. I know ... I'm truly an inspiration.
Why did that thought cross my mind? Because I'd seen the local toilets - think ramshackle outhouse with a hole in the ground, two well-worn spots for your feet, and a questionable bucket of water to clean your butt afterwards ... with your hand.
Before I entered one of those outhouses, I always did a quick scan of the floor, walls, and ceiling to look for snakes, spiders, and other unmentionables before committing to the journey to enter. Once my feet were in place, my goal was to not look too closely at anything at all and get out of there as quickly as possible.
Toilet paper did not exist in these remote outhouses. For that matter, neither did sinks, running water, or electricity. Your choice was to either use the perilous water bucket or skip the cleaning part altogether. The latter seemed to be a popular choice among many of the young children. Heck, many of the kids didn’t even bother using the outhouse! On plenty of occasions, I had the joy of witnessing young children on the path in front of me suddenly stop, squat down to do their business, pull up their pants, and merrily carry on as if nothing had happened, leaving little landmines to dodge.
Faced with this stark reality, I always carried a stash of toilet paper in my pocket. (Well, almost always.) I remember two notable instances where I forgot this prized possession. One instance forced me to use the dreaded bucket. The second instance warrants a story.
I woke up one morning with some “intestinal distress,” which didn’t surprise me given the risky food and water that I was exposed to on a regular basis. But, on this particular day, I had plans to meet with two community leaders to get a tour of some local conservation projects. Since there were no phones (this was 1996), and the people I intended to meet were several miles away on foot, I had no easy way to reschedule.
I reluctantly put on my hiking boots, made the trek to the neighboring village, and met my colleagues as planned. As we made our way to one of the conservation project sites, I really had to go the bathroom. There were no public facilities in the area and no easy place to squat down in private, so they took me to a nearby farm and asked the owner if I could use their outhouse.
Relieved to receive the green light, I told my colleagues, “Go ahead, and I’ll catch up with you.” Their response was a distressing, “No, no. We will wait for you here.”
I felt like I was about to burst, so I accepted my impending humiliation and stepped inside. What followed was a classic bout of explosive diarrhea, and the community leaders enjoyed front-row seats for the fireworks. Still, I felt relieved … until I realized that I didn’t have any toilet paper with me. My eyes darted to the water bucket in the corner, and my heart sank when I realized that it was empty. Not good. In desperation, I took off my underwear and used it to wipe.
Unfortunately, there was no garbage can or easy place to hide or bury the evidence. I felt that it would be rude to throw it in the toilet for someone else to fish out later, while also realizing that it’s generally considered uncool to emerge from an outhouse with a pair of filthy underwear in your hand. I decided that the only way to escape with a tiny shred of dignity was to hike up one of my pant legs and stuff it in my hiking sock.
I emerged with my best poker face and said, “Okay, thanks for waiting. Let’s go.”
So, what's the moral of this life-changing story? Whenever you're traveling in remote parts of the world, always care spare toilet paper or, at the very least, wear thick socks!
Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States. Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.