The sensitive topic of toilets and travel

Even if you’re a member of the aristocracy with refined blue blood coursing through your veins, at some point when travelling you’re likely to get caught short and have to use a public convenience… or something that passes for one.

Hopefully most of the time this will involve the sort of uneventful travel experience which is flushed from your memory as soon as it is over.

But the more you travel, the more the law of averages pulls the scales towards the likelihood of having a travel toilet nightmare.

Saying that, not all unusual travel bathroom experiences leave an unpleasant stain on the memory.

WC, Santo Antau, Cape Verde
A WC in Santo Antau, Cape Verde. We gave it a miss.

Scariest toilet experience – Sri Lanka
It seems obvious but downing a couple of big bottles of Lion beer over lunch before heading into a rural part of Sri Lanka’s hinterland was a recipe for a protesting bladder. Why I chose a tiny workers’ shed beside a river instead of just ‘going’ behind a tree I don’t know, but I did and a long, happy sigh of relief was cut short when I felt something big land on my shoulder, then something else. Before I knew it the insect cast from Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom – big spiders, huge centipedes – were dropping from the ceiling onto my back and shoulders as it gradually dawned on me the toilet wasn’t actually black porcelain, it was covered in creepy crawlies. The memory still makes me shudder.

Hi-Tech toilets – Singapore
The first time I encountered a self-flush toilet was in a bar beside the river in the financial district of Singapore. The oppressive heat had us downing icy jugs of Tiger beer far too quickly before they turned tepid. This in turn resulted in a bit of a maelstrom in my guts. It was a smart, clean bar with immaculate loos, so no hardship… until I dropped my wallet on the floor and bent even further forward to retrieve it. Which is when I discovered it was a toilet with a laser which, when the beam was broken, automatically flushed… powerfully. It was a sobering moment.

Sexiest WC, Lisbon
Different in Lisbon, but probably not the sexiest on Earth

Sexiest WC on Earth – Lisbon
For once there was no urgent need to enter this toilet on Terreiro do Paço in Lisbon, but when a loo proclaims itself the ‘sexiest WC on Earth’ you have to take a pee-k. It was nicely designed, with a vibrant colour scheme and lots of bathroom eroticism adorning the walls, but sexy? I think most people might pooh-pooh that claim. Read our ‘Ten alternative things to do in Lisbon’ for more unusual suggestions of things to do and see in the city.

Most confusing convenience – Mumbai
During a meal in a restaurant on the top floor of a hotel in Mumbai I had to visit the men’s room between courses. When I returned the table had gone, completely disappeared. It simply wasn’t where it had been when I’d left it. Moving tables isn’t one of the things you think about when eating in a revolving restaurant for the first time. It took me five minutes to track down its new location.

Toilet, Baker River, Patagonia, Chile
Loo with a view, Chile

Paying for the convenience – Beijing
It’s not uncommon to have to pay to use public toilets, but signs at the entrance to the ones at the entrance to the Forbidden City intrigued and amused. There were different prices depending on what the purpose of your visit was. This fascinated me. I wanted to ask if a cleaner went in afterwards/during to check people were being honest and not trying to sneak a number two for the price of a number one.

Historic attraction – Rothesay, Bute
People visit the Victorian toilets on the pier at my home town of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute whether they need to spend a penny (actually thirty pence the last time I was there) or not. These gorgeous enamelled toilets are a masterpiece of pissoir art from the 19th century and one of the few loos where the sight of someone lurking around with a camera wouldn’t result in a swift call to the local police.

Victorian toilets, Rothesay, Bute, Scotland
A touch of Victorian class on a small Scottish island

Pissoir or art? – London
With some modern urban pissoirs it isn’t always obvious they’ve been designed for the purpose for which they exist. Such was the case one murky Sunday night near the Embankment in London. Whilst Andy was at a plush British Guild of Travel Writer’s dinner at the Savoy, I stood cross-legged desperately trying to decide if the cylindrical concrete block with curved man-sized niches cut into was indeed a pissoir or a work of modern art. I still don’t know for sure, but it reached a point where I didn’t care.

Most bizarre toilet – Costa Adeje, Tenerife
In recent years toilet designers have loosened up and are now having some fun with public conveniences, especially urinals. I like the one where photographs of women mock those using the urinals. In Munich Airport some urinals have a little golf flag in the bowl, to encourage better aim. Ones which were visually stunning, but also quite disturbing were in a bar called the Faro Chill Art in Costa Adeje, Tenerife where metal urinals were sculpted into the shape of nude women.

Nude urinals, Faro Chill Art, Costa Adeje, Tenerife
This just felt wrong in Costa Adeje

Intriguing bowls – Bad Reichenhall, Bavaria
I didn’t like to ponder too much about the toilet bowls in the cable car station at Bad Reichenhall in Bavaria. It’s Germany’s oldest cable car and I suspect the toilets date from the same time. What’s odd about them, to me anyway, is there’s a flat shelf in the bowl, right in the target zone area. The process doesn’t bear thinking about. But I’m intrigued as to why? It wasn’t really the sort of thing I could ask a Bavarian stranger.

Worst ever experience – Kandy, Sri Lanka
To round things up, it’s back to Sri Lanka. In the Royal Botanical Gardens near Kandy in the middle of a monsoon downpour, as we sheltered under a baobab, my stomach turned mutinous in the most violent fashion and I had to make a run for it on a desperate mission to find a loo. A sign for ‘welfare café’ seemed promising. It turned out to really be a welfare café where servers passed bowls of gruel through an iron grill to a sorry collection of souls. I shouted “toilet?” and one pointed to the rear where there was a lone corrugated-iron shed. My savour. In true thriller film fashion I made it with barely a second to spare. Only then did I realise there was no paper, no means for washing… nothing except the hole in the ground. All I had in the pockets of my snow-white shorts was a wad of rupees. It was the most expensive toilet visit I’ve had to this day.

Carnival toilets, Tenerife
Bizarre sights at the carnival portaloos on Tenerife

I still wonder now what the next person who used that loo must have thought. I can imagine him/her saying to friends and family: “You want to know just how rich Europeans are?”


Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+

About Jack 799 Articles
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a Slow Travel consultant and a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Facebook for more travel photos and snippets.

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