The shock of the loo

By | Category: Travel rumblings
saxaphone urinals

The Bell Inn in Ticehurst

It must have been hearing the urban myth about the unfortunate woman who flushed the lavatory on an aircraft while in situ and was glued there by suction until the plane landed, which reminded me of an inevitable aspect of the travel writer’s life which is rarely aired.

The shock of the loo.

Sometimes this is brought about by cultural differences. Why for example do the Chinese go in for the skimpiest doors imaginable on their cubicles? While visiting Suzhou, that pleasant Chinese city of canals and gardens, I was glad to find a ladies’ room in a public garden but rather disconcerted that while sitting on the lavatory, not only your feet but also your head and shoulders are completely visible, a fact which in this instance, permitted the local ladies to continue their loud and cheerful conversations unimpeded…

In Japan the facilities range from basic hole-in the ground to alarmingly high-tech. If a heated seat is a boon, the Washlet with its incomprehensible (to non-Japanese speakers) side panel is a mixed blessing, especially when you try to find the flush and accidentally hit the temperature control, hot-air drier or ultimate horror, the bidet nozzle which causes a long metal arm to extend from the bowl …

You do not actually need to go far from home to find odd loos – and it must be said they sometimes  backfire. The lovely Bell Inn in Ticehurst in Sussex is full of charming and enigmatic furnishings and artefacts – including tenor horns as urinals in the men’s room. When I asked my husband Dennis what he made of the these, his reply was that they were, “Possibly a triumph of form over function.”  The previous user had missed …

A hotel room in Miami where the loo door had to be propped open by a paint container to catch the rain coming through the ceiling!

Linguistic differences can also make for trouble. In Britain for example, a bathroom is usually where you take a bath and a rest room where you have a siesta, while the British phrase “spending a penny” can be a complete mystery to non-English speakers, especially as the penny is now obsolete.

In fact any form of euphemism invites trouble. Arriving tired after a day’s Land-Rover travel in West Africa at the riverside town of Georgetown, my young daughter and I both needed a pee. We were the only Europeans in the tiny local restaurant and foolishly, I didn’t like to ask our friend and host, the very dignified Mr Sidibe outright – saying instead that, “we wanted to wash out hands.” This was met with looks of consternation, there was a babble of chatter, and a boy was despatched – to do what we couldn’t imagine. Clean the facilities?  Find a towel? But no, he returned out of breath, having lugged a pail of murky water up from the river especially for us to ,‘wash our hands.’

Sometimes it is simply an act of fate. When they first made their appearance on the streets of Paris we all felt rather nervous of those tinny lozenge-shaped public toilettes – the ones which play music as you enter and wash the whole thing down as you leave. Urban myths about them proliferated too; people had been locked in and had to spend the night inside, a baby has been drowned in one – but nothing prepared me for the time when, just as I was ensconced within, the computerised whatsit went berserk, and to the rhythm of the Blue Danube, the door swung rhythmically, repeatedly and unstoppably open and shut – gathering quite a crowd in fact.

spae loo

How did the the space loo work? is the most asked question at Cape Canaveral

The toilets in the Café Cobra behind the Rikjsmuesum in Amsterdam are also a surprise. The doors to the cubicles are plain glass – but once you turn the lock, they milk over. Videos have been installed to entertain ladies as they wash their hands – men as they pee. All very trendy but rivalled in Lisbon by a public lavatory which  calls itself, “ The Sexiest WC on Earth.” Situated on the Terriero do Paco, this unisex establishment is certainly the most colourful. One is greeted by a rainbow wall of loos papers from which to choose before entering the individual cubicles and provided with a giant yellow toilet roll-shaped bowl  in which to wash your hands before leaving. Yes, all the initiative of a loo paper company.

That the shock of the loo can be experienced by proxy is something  I found when it actually happened to my husband. We were in  an old London theatre and during the intermission he left to go to  the lavatory but when the curtain went up for the second half he still had not returned and I began to worry. Where was he?  Had he had a heart attack?   Eventually he stumbled back and explained: on trying to leave the men’s room, the handle had fallen off the door. After hollering to no avail he opened the window and, regardless of the fact that it was three stories above a street of busy traffic, he managed to squeeze out, slide along   the window ledge and enter the open window of the next room, unfortunately the ladies’ lavatory, where he mumbled something about ‘window cleaning’ and sped past the  surprised incumbent and out the door before she had time even scream….

an elegant men’s toilet at the Rainforest

Of course not all  surprises are disasters  – there are hotel bath rooms so luxurious that you could easily spend a holiday in them, anointing yourself with  unguents and relaxing on deep sofas – but somehow they are not the ones you remember.  Although that being said, perhaps the best one I’ve ever come across was in Gotland, that lovely Baltic isle. Mind you it knew it was good –  as inside the sea-blue painted wooden building,  as well as the usual offices all shining with cleanliness, and decorated with shells, children’s paintings and huge bunches of scented wild flowers, was a  visitor’s book  in which to note  your appreciation…

The thoughts of readers about toilets the have visited is always welcome – editor

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