Expat Life: Toilet Tales

by Miss Footloose

Inspection toiletFor reasons only known to the gods of cyberspace, I came upon multiple posts last week dealing with expat nightmares and struggles concerning foreign toilets or facsimiles. Once caught in that particular web trap I kept surfing and found all manner of interesting sites and articles. You can spend a lot time doing this and find yourself well-educated in the field, but alas, no degree is offered. However, T-shirts are available.

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.

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? 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 Toilets

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 Toilet

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

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.


You may also like

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

[…] one of the things that even as a fairly seasoned traveller can cause a few tremors – as this pretty funny post gives some insights into! We have established that the hotel will have ‘western […]

People always seem so horrified by the squat toilets but as long as they’re clean I think they work really well!

what a very interesting post..i should photograph the different toilets i used during my previous travels in europe and asia..thanks for the visit in my other blog..


I have to say, having grown up with the ‘inspection-shelf’ version, but later in life moving into the ‘plunge and splash’ model, I much prefer the latter. I still encounter the inspection shelf type when I go back to Holland, but I never really understood the purpose of the design. You need more water to flush it away, and in the plunge and it is much smellier! Anyone knows the reason for this particular odd design?

Oh, how I have missed this blog! Toilet tales? I could fill a book with them. My very favorite toilet belonged to Japanese friends who lived way out in a rural area. The toilet was a non-flush type with a function I’ve never seen anywhere else: your ‘deposits’ (such a delicate phrase!) activated a spring which dumped the matter into a pit below. When you were finished, there was a flush that would wash away all traces. The fun thing about this toilet was guessing the number of times you could make the little gizmo flip over. On a plain… Read more »

Oh my that was informative! I wrote about the infamous bidet and found myself laughing as I researched. Always up for a potty story!

Two countries’ facilities stick in my memory. One was Iraq (this was in 1965, backpacking with a girlfriend), where each public toilet was a bare hole about three inches across, with evidence all around that previous users were both blind and spastic. The other was – believe it or not – France (1963 and subsequent years), with the “footprints in the snow” versions whose flushings were instantaneous torrents that required users to grab the chain and swing themselves off the ground and out the door in one speedy motion (so to speak…). Slow movers got soaked and their shoes filled… Read more »

Thanks for the giggle. I do love toilet stories — not quite sure what that says about me, but there you have it. I recently took to flickr to find some photos for an article I’d written on this very subject, and I was amazed at how difficult it was to find one that didn’t make me throw up in my mouth a little. After the 20th “no aim, no shame” photo, I gave up.


*been appalled


I’ve got LOTS of toilet tales, including once having to empty my very full bladder in full view of a Senegalese village. I will link that story.
But I wanted to share that yesterday, we had some former expats (like ourselves, Americans who formerly resided overseas) for lunch, and over the meal we went from grossest foods eaten to sharing about our intestinal parasites, all while eating, all without anyone turning a hair. Had any non-traveler types been there, they would have been appalled! 😉 It made us all laugh when we realized what we were doing.

Sadly, I’m not so terribly travelled that I have amassed such amusing tales. But when I was about 5, we went to an aunt’s farm that was complete with an outhouse. I took one look inside and announced that ‘I can wait til I get home’. I was shortly ushered to the nearest gas station for my business….


This brought back many funny memories of the loos that I have visited across Europe. I’ll never forget my first road trip with my team in Paris — women ran to the bushes on one side of the highway and men to the other. Any ol’ kind of funky toilet is better than no toilet at all!

Hi Miss Footloose —

I have too many toilet tales to tell, pretty much all of them on the gross side. I’ll spare you them though for now though but I’ll say this: there have been many a time when out traveling where I’ve crossly thought “those romantic travel writers… they never did discuss how icky going to the toilet in many parts of the world can be, did they?!” :O

Hi Karen,
Thank you so much for my morning chuckle! I’ve experienced all of these except the shelf one (still can’t picture it in my mind but, never mind). I’d like to add one though… the toilet with no flusher and a big barrel of water on the side complete with a saucepan floating on the top:) Hmmm…. took me a while to figure that one out.

You’re right – if people experienced toilets in African villages they’d never complain again. For some reason I’m more grossed out by toilets that don’t accept paper and you have to dispose it another way. Last year in Ghana, we had to keep a plastic bag by the loo and re-use it. Even though it was my own personal bag (not shared by anyone) I still almost gagged every time.
Sorry, too much info!

Did you ever see the fly decals in the KLM loos? Little images of flies inside the toilet bowl? I read that they ensured a more accurate aim by our menfolk and saved thousands in cleaning costs. I haven’t seen them recently, so perhaps they are no more 🙁

Haha – I’m glad I inspired one of your posts – at least I think I’m the culprit behind at least one of these stories you read. “…but alas no degree is offered”. How true. Or otherwise us expats could put many a title next to our names. By the way, “doos” is a most terrible cussword in Afrikaans, and to this day I have not quite figured out what it really means. Box, yes, but there must be something else there. My dear husband was once awarded the “doos of the day” award for waking up an entire house… Read more »

It took a while before I understood shelf toilet or inspection toilet. I get it now though and must admit to preferring them to the plunge and splash version! But, I will keep it clean too!

I don’t have that many tales about toilets, although I do collect toilet door signs. On photo!

Joburg Expat

“plunge and splash” – I must remember that term as a retort to all those inspection shelf toilet fiends. As one who also grew up with the inspection shelf (without ever knowing it was called that) I was horrified the first time faced with the prospect of having everything drop into a big bowl of water and getting soaked in the process.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x