Let’s talk about toilets! Seriously, the toilet perils of travelling don’t get talked about enough – maybe because so many of the Africa travelogues I’ve read are written by men and, I don’t care what anyone says about gender equality, men simply don’t have the same issues when it comes to toilets. They can generally whip it out and pee anywhere (and they do … every time I turn a corner there’s an Ethiopian man peeing up a fence or a lamppost or on a parked car) but for women it’s not so easy.
For a start, sometimes a toilet, however rudimentary, doesn’t actually exist. At the school I work at, there are no toilet facilities (they are being built) and very little cover to enable you to pee behind a tree. Consequently, if I’m at the school from early morning until the evening I have to either drive back to the town to pee (which makes me feel utterly ridiculous) or just hold it. So I try and plan to only stay for a few hours at a time, and ration the amount I drink (not sensible at all).
So, wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing, you try and make sure there are toilets. The first time my three male colleagues and I were going to drive from Lalibela to Addis, I made sure I said to Abiy, the driver, ‘look, you guys are men, you can pee anywhere, but we have to make sure we find me a proper toilet sometimes’.
I don’t mean I have to have a western style toilet, I’m quite happy with a hole in the ground – in fact, these can be a more pleasant experience. Toilet wise, I have done things I never would have done in the UK; I have peed while goats watched, peed in a group, behind a tree (okay, I’ve done that one before!), in the most disgusting and smelly shed, and – most memorably – I have peed in a hat (don’t ask. It was an emergency).
I’m not asking for 5 star toilet facilities, I’m relatively unfussy. The one thing I do ask for is some kind of privacy – it amazes me that in most of Ethiopia they don’t feel that a door is an essential part of the toilet experience. I really do. In one café where we stopped for breakfast, people eating had a perfect (I’m talking cinema-scope) view of anyone using the toilet as there was no door. Of course, this is fine for men, but for women it’s not ideal. Can you imagine what would have happened if I’d used the toilet? A faranji? I suspect they would have been talking about it for days.
Even when there is a toilet door, it’s rare that the door closes properly. A newly built, beautiful hotel in Lalibela has toilet doors that have to be held shut whilst you are peeing, which requires quite a lot of balance and freakishly long arms. Worse than that, the toilet doors are half glass! Half glass!! What’s that all about? Yes, it’s ‘smoked glass’ so you can’t see detail, but you can still see the shape of someone sitting on the toilet, and quite frankly, that’s not a silhouette I want anyone to see.
Once you’ve worried about showing your big (well, in my case) white bottom to the watching world, you need to worry about quite where you’re putting that bottom. Toilets in Ethiopia run the full gauntlet from ‘lovely’ right down to ‘oh my God, that’s disgusting’, but it’s amazing what you can ignore when needed. I have peed (and worse) in the smelliest and most repulsive excuses for toilets I have ever seen. I can’t understand why they just don’t clean them, especially when they’re in hotels and restaurants. When I was in the South of Ethiopia, there was a particularly revolting toilet in a hotel (I’d name and shame, but I can’t remember exactly what it was called). The floor was covered with something that definitely wasn’t mud and as I gingerly tiptoed my way through it, I dropped my shawl. Argh! I could have cried. In fact, I was ready to throw it in the bin – it’s bad enough having to deal with horrible toilets, let alone carry the contents around on your clothes – but luckily there was a big sink outside and a lovely woman who managed to clean it in minutes.
So, cleanliness is not always a given, and you don’t get much privacy, even in the 3 star hotels. You don’t always get toilet paper either. When you first travel in Ethiopia this comes a bit of a surprise and you get caught short sometimes, but soon you get used to it and you learn to steal any toilet paper you come across, stockpiling it in your bag for future emergencies. (Hmm ... maybe that’s why there’s never any toilet paper?)
Of course, all these issues triple their impact when you start factoring in dodgy stomachs or periods - I know, I know, but nobody talks about these things, and it’s an important consideration. How can I go and work at the school when I might need a toilet at a moments notice, and just popping behind a scrubby bush won’t cut it? When you’re doing a 9 hour drive and the only place to pee is behind a tree – well, it’s not the best feeling in the world when you are fighting a heavy period. And if you’re travelling with someone … let’s just say that amoebic dysentery really deepens the intimacy between you. That or it ensures that you never speak again after the trip has finished.
So there are definitely lessons to be learnt from this. When living in Ethiopia, particularly outside the capital: be prepared for some variations in toilet standards; build up those thigh muscles for the squatting you will have to do; invest in some kind of stick to hold doors closed when you need to; and always, always, always carry your own toilet paper.