Inspection toiletFor reasons only known to the gods of cyberspace, I came upon multiple posts one day dealing with expat nightmares and struggles concerning foreign toilets or facsimiles. Once caught in that particular web trap I kept surfing, and even came across a blog called (I kid you not) The International Center for Bathroom Etiquette. You can spend a lot time there and find yourself well-educated in the field, but alas, no degree is offered. T-shirts, however are available.

(This story is an improved repost.)

I decided it was time for my own toilet post, but I’ll tell you what: I’ll keep it clean, more or less. Not that I have to: I’ve been around, and not in the most hygiene-oriented locales. I’ve enjoyed facilities in African and Asian villages as well as in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus . . . oh, never mind. I survived and I am a better person for it. Living abroad is an educational experience, but not necessarily a high-minded one.

I grew up in the Netherlands in various houses with the type of toilets Americans call “shelf toilets” or “inspection toilets”, terms unfamiliar to me until recently. You’ll see such a specimen on the photo at the top. (Sadly, I never had a funky seat like that one.)

If you need an explanation, here it is: “Shelf toilets” are so called because the user’s offerings land neatly and gently on a flat surface, which facilitates inspection and admiration. This in contrast to American “plunge and splash toilets” where deposits end up in a bowl of water with predictable results.

“Shelf toilets” are also common in Germany and cause all kinds of crises for hung-up Americans, who make their angst the subject of numerous posts. Here’s one called Terrifying Toilets. May I gently suggest they go to an African village and use the community latrine? It will cure their horror of “inspection toilets” forever more.

Village latrine in GhanaCommunal village latrine in Ghana

As a young child, I was fascinated with the facilities offered in the house of an aunt and uncle, who had what was affectionately called a doos, which word means box. If you look at the photo you will understand why. This box was located in a small room off the kitchen. It was kept meticulously clean, no worries. (Much to my chagrin, a brand-new updated bathroom was installed later.)

Oude doos

Doos: This one looks like it has been somewhat updated.

So, you ask, what happened to the . . . eh . . . deposits? Okay, brace yourself: They were collected once a week by a sanitation service that would go door to door. One can imagine some of the slang terms used to describe this service. I shall not translate.

To offer a contrast, here’s a photo of what is available for male passengers at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam.

Dutch ToiletsI love Schiphol Airport

Now that’s cool, don’t you think? Unfortunately, I have not seen this restroom myself, as I am not of the appropriate sex. And no, the peeing gents are not being admired by all and sundry strolling along the canals. The view is a photo mural. In one of the many lady-loos I’ve visited at the Amsterdam airport the walls offered views of endless fields of blooming tulips. Very cheerful.

There’s still quite a bit of discrimination going on in my country when it comes to public toilets, especially during festivals, fairs and outdoor orgies. Have a look at this contraption for men. Clearly the Dutch aren’t bothered too much by modesty and traumatizing passing children.

Netherlands Public Toilet© Bur Holland Used by permission

Once I started exploring the rest of the world, I became familiar with simple holes in the ground, outhouses of all sorts, communal latrines and of course the so-called squat toilets, the nightmare potty of many Westerners. Here’s one in passable condition, since I promised to keep it clean. As many of you travelers know too well, these squat toilets can be found in the most excruciatingly disgusting conditions. Photos abound on travelers’ sites.

Squat ToiletYou don’t want to see a dirty one

As an expat I have had the opportunity to become extremely adept at using these types of facilities and feel I may well have earned the title of Queen of Squats. My agility came in handy once when visiting a wobbly outdoor privy somewhere deep in the Caucasus Mountains. I nearly crashed through the rotten wooden floor-with-hole and would have fallen into the fragrant abyss had it not been for my well-trained nether-region muscles. I have to tell you, I’m having trouble keeping it clean.

In some places these types of toilets are now converted to the sit-down variety. Below is an example of such a conversion.

Refitted Armenian toilet

Don’t you love the decor?

It is (or was?) located on the premises of a restaurant and bar in Yerevan, Armenia, where I domiciled many a year. This particular one worked splendidly, at least when I made use of it. One did have to pay attention to the step-up to the throne so as not to stumble and fall face forward into the bowl.

In my various travels I also came across toilets with signs that instructed the user NOT to flush the paper. A receptacle of some sort would be available in which to deposit the used paper. If you were lucky, there was paper. (Most expat women know to carry tissues along with their Prozac and stun guns.)

At the time of this educational plumbing experience I was living in Ramallah, Palestine, in a beautiful, brand-new apartment with all the modern plumbing an expat girl might covet. There was only one little hitch: Our landlady implored us to not flush the toilet paper. Being an unbeliever, and new to the Holy Land, I decided not to heed that warning, which had a disastrous, explosive result. Again, I want to keep this clean so I will refrain from explaining further. You want to know, really? Okay, read the story here (but not while you’re eating your chocolate mousse).

And perhaps with that, I should end this post.

* * *

You know it’s your turn now, don’t you? Tell me your toilet tales.  And for your enjoyment, here’s a fun post by a bloggy friend of mine: The Expat toilet. (But first tell me your stories!)


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Once upon a time in a far away tropical country, in the early beginnings of my expat life, I baked a simple cake–a light, lovely, lemony cake. But baking a simple cake, I’ll have you know, was a major undertaking, nothing like taking a box of mix, adding an egg, some oil, some water and bingo: batter.

Ghana, West Africa, in the late seventies and early eighties was not a happy place and there were no gourmet food emporiums with cake mixes and smoked salmon to make life easy. However, these days several well-stocked supermarkets make cooking and baking no problem; I know because I came back and lived there again in happier times, times replete with cappuccino and cheese and wine and all manner of lovely comestibles.

However, in the earlier, trying times, improvisation and resourcefulness, not to speak of courage, were essential ingredients for successful cooking and baking, so let me tell you how I went about the laborious task of baking a cake in Ghana in the mid-seventies. If you think you bake cakes from scratch, you’ve seen nothing yet, girl.

Follow me to the pantry, please. First we have to take inventory to determine whether the baking of a cake is an actual possibility rather than a culinary pipe dream. As we all know, to create a simple cake, you need flour, sugar, eggs, butter or margarine, vanilla, baking powder and salt. So here goes:

FLOUR. I’m in luck. Some time ago I was able to procure a one-hundred-pound bag of white flour from a local merchant with shadowy connections to the government. He “slipped” me the bag at an exorbitant price. Jubilant, I dragged my black-market treasure home, called my friends to share in the bounty and a flour-scooping orgy followed in my bedroom (the only room with an air conditioner). A festive mood prevailed as everyone filled empty milk powder cans and Tupperware containers with the precious commodity. Some said it was better than sex, which should give you some indication of how desperate we were.

Flour, then, I have. So far, so good.

SUGAR. Again, I am in luck. I have a box of French sugar cubes, a hostess gift presented to me by a good friend with sugar connections. These need to be smashed. This can be accomplished by putting the cubes in a bag or tea towel and applying a common hammer. If the electricity is functioning, one can try using a blender.

SALT. I have some.

Photo © bethantigua. Used by permission

It was harvested from the local seaside salt ponds and looks coarse and dirty, but it’s just healthy minerals that make it look that way; I hang on to this illusion as well as I can. As I said, it takes courage.

BAKING POWDER and VANILLA. These I have too. When I’m on home leave, I buy a supply to bring back with me to sustain me through another spell of scarcity and deprivation. (Why do I even get on a plane, you ask? Let’s not go there.)

For flavoring I also have a lemon that’s courageously trying to look yellow, but fails. Lemons look green, as do the oranges, since they need the contrast of cool temperatures at night to produce the vivid yellow and orange colors we are familiar with. (Cool weather is not a known concept in tropical Ghana.)

EGGS. My nanny has chickens running free in her compound and I buy eggs from her. (These eggs look just like ordinary eggs anywhere, just so you know.)

MILK. I am the happy owner of a can of Dutch milk powder, acquired during my latest shopping foray across the border into Togo, a neighboring country whose economy – at the time of this writing — is supported by France and therefore has everything known to mankind sitting on the grocery shelves. I reconstitute the precious powder with tap water that has been boiled for fifteen minutes to exterminate life forms you don’t want to set up house in your body.

This cake is starting to look like a real possibility. Next is:

BUTTER OR MARGARINE. Unfortunately, I have neither.

Women pouring newly presssed coconut oil. Photo © Traveling Diva (Thank you Diva!)

But despair not. I do have a beer bottle containing unrefined coconut oil that my thoughtful husband was able to purchase for me from a roadside oil press last week. It’s the equivalent of receiving a dozen long-stemmed roses, and if you think something is wrong with me in the romance department, all I can say is, go suck an egg.

Unrefined coconut oil gives a slightly sweet, coconutty flavor to your scrambled eggs, fried fish and everything else you cook using it, but for a cake this is not a calamity.

SOMETHING FRUITY FOR THE TOPPING. The mango tree in my backyard yields several ripe fruits not yet pilfered by the neighborhood boys.

I’ve got it! I can do it! I can bake a cake! That is, if the electricity holds out long enough for me to use my mixer. Fortunately the stove and therefore the oven run on bottled gas, and the tank was recently replaced (also not easy).

I am grateful for all my blessings, including cake.

So, I get started, only to discover that the flour, which has been sitting around for a while, has become colonized by weevils, the signs of which are cobwebby strands in the flour and tiny little wormy things wiggling around convulsively. Some adult bugs are holding court as well. Excellent protein, I’ve been told, but I hope you’ll forgive me for employing my strainer and sifting the creatures out.

Next I mix boiled water and milk powder and add the salt so this can dissolve and not end up like crunchy nuggets in the final cake. I tell you, you have to think of everything. Now I pulverize the sugar cubes, enough to measure one cup of loose sugar, and after grating the lemon zest I’m ready to assemble the cake batter.

And I do. And I bake it. And put sliced mango on top. And voilà, the best cake in the world!

(Or so I thought in those long-ago days.)

* * *

Please entertain me with your baking and cooking adventures — the good, the bad and the disgusting unappetizing. Links to hair-raising tales are welcome!

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