Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Toilets of the World

I count myself a fairly well travelled person in that I've been to most continents there are and visited a fair few different cultures, even if I do have a overwhelming tug to return again and again to Greece for many a holiday. Within Europe my work has also sent me to many different countries that would otherwise still be sitting on the to do list. I certainly wouldn't call myself a "seasoned backpacker" or anything like that, but I do already consider myself lucky to have seen as much of the world as I have and hope to see a lot more.

And on those journeys I've met a fair few people, some forming good friendships and others just a pleasant chat. One thing you can count on though to cement a good traveller conversation, is "how bad are the loos?". Is it Freudian - I don't know - but the toilet seems to hold a fascination that is universal. I'm sure if aliens made contact tomorrow one of the first ice breakers would be "you should try the bogs on Altair Five! Phew!" Bad toilets around the world are what binds complete strangers together in a common suffering brotherhood (or siblinghood if the term bothers you).

I've met trekkers in Nepal who treated me like a God when I had "real" toilet paper to trade, and high level business men in Paris who have howled with tears in their eyes when trying to describe their trouser round the knee squatting antics with a French hole in the floor public convenience. So, as the topic came up again the other day, it got me wondering, what were the worse loos I've ever been to? You've probably experienced worse, and feel free to leave a comment especially if you have a really funny one, but here's my bottom five in reverse order:

5. The pub bog. This is fairly generic really, and to be fair I'm on about a general lack of bothering by certain (not all) landlords about the toilet experience of their patrons. Two things to me are the mark of crap loos in pubs. Firstly a lack of locks on the cubicles (yes I know they get broken, but if you hadn't put the cheapest shitty lock on in the beginning to save a couple of groats, then they might have stood up better!) as wiping your arse in private I feel should be an inalienable human right. Secondly, the stainless steel wall in stead of urinals. Now it's not that I'm particularly bothered by the possible comparisons that might be made by the other fellow urinators that may stand adjacent - more it's the splash back factor - for the price of a few pipes and bits of porcelain, please, please, please end the fine mist of ricocheted pee fog that coats the shoes and lower trouser legs!

4. The Ice Hole. Now I'm on to specifics - this toilet was the outside loo at Annapurna base camp in Nepal. At about 4000 and something metres, you are into the snow and ice zone in the Himalayas, and so going outside to the loo is a chilly experience to start with. The last thing you want to do is to be exposing private parts to the cold air. Anyway the loo itself is a little stone hut outside the main camp and is a fairly basic hole in the floor with a foot plate at either side. What makes this a more interesting terror is that fact that while shivering your way through trying to squat over the hole with all the extra layers you're wearing, you also have to cope with the fact you need to balance on the foot plates which at this altitude are just sheets of ice - and given the circumstance, probably not water ice, if you get my meaning. So this toilet comes in at number 4 purely for the difficulty factor in not slipping up and landing in you own mess.

3. The Greek Return. Now this is not so much a problem with a particular toilet itself as a problem I have with the first time I visited Greece. These days I sure everyone knows the state of play, but when I first went, no-one had mentioned that toilet paper in Greece goes into the bin by the side of the toilet and does not follow the doings down the bowl. Needless to say the pipes are much narrower and the plumping blocks up fairly easily and a few days into my holiday I found out exactly what happens. Have you noticed the small round grate that sits in the middle of the floor in most Greek bathrooms? Well that's where all the semi dissolved bits of crap and paper reappear from if you don't follow the rules, and cleaning it up is not a nice task at all.

2. The Lord of the Flies. Another Nepal one, this is the village toilet block in Singa Tatopani an off the beaten track village where most trekkers don't venture. The toilets themselves are outside of the main village down by the river. A row of stone cubicles have again fairly standard hole in the floor toilets in them but unlike the iciness at Annapurna base camp, this village is much lower down in the foothills of the Himalayas and hence much warmer. The result of this is that unless you can hold your breath for the length of time it takes to both take a crap and wipe your arse, the swarm of flies that would be the envy of any plague spawning demon, have a far to intense curiosity to fly and crawl into every orifice going. It somehow puts you off your game to be constantly spitting and snorting out the insects while holding up your trousers and doing the business at the same time.

1. The Good Old US of A. This sounds somewhat generic to be the worse loo of all time? Especially to be worse that the flies of hell at number two, but the problem I have with American toilets is that they are bad in a country that should know better. It's supposed to be the civilised west, but they still insist on building cubicles where the doors are not as wide as the opening they are supposed to close in. Consequently you end up sitting on the loo with not only the gaps at the top and bottom of the door, but also down each side. Great if you are walking in the toilet and want to check if a cubicle is free without having to push on the door and risk the possible enbarressment of an unlocked and occupied one (see pub loos above), but I afraid it may be just me, but the act of taking a crap is a totally private one and it's a disturbing experience to be going through this process while all and sundry can be peeking in through the gap in the door. Yes, I'm sure worse things happen at sea, but for land of the free, I want the freedom to shit in private. Shame on you, America!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Celery and Psychology

Now there’s not a lot of things in this world that I won’t eat (Dolphin on toast anybody?) and there’s very few things I won’t try. In fact the only time I’ve ever been put off eating something merely by knowing what it was (other than arsenic or cyanide that is – we’re taking about stuff that’s classed by at least some culture as food) was as a young man travelling in Poland when faced with a bowl of soup with bits floating in it. After much pigeon English and sign language I had determined the bits were from an animal, probably a pig, and having questioned further, as there was no pork cut that I knew of that had a hexagonal pattern on in, it transpired that the floating bits were in fact pig’s stomach lining. I still managed to drink the broth it was in but there was a large pile of (no longer floating) bits left in the bottom of my bowl.
These days a hexagonal stomach animal body part probably wouldn’t phase me at all, especially as having just returned from Greece were for the first time the squid served was complete with those really long couple of tentacles ending in the big cluster of suckers. Normally those bits seem to be missing, but down the hatch there went and with a light batter and a touch of lemon juice, delicious they were too.
No, food is one of the great delights to living, but there is one food-stuff that is too terrible a taste for even me to stomach – hexagonally patterned or not. That item is the dreaded celery! It manages to contaminate other foods even on different shelves in the same fridge with its insidious flavour, and only intense boiling and chopping up into very tiny pieces in a stew or something will allow it to pass my lips at all. As you may guess I’m a careful man when it comes to selecting which strips of pale green salad like stuff to add to the crispy duck pancake before scoffing with a splash of plum sauce.
And so, it was a tad of a disappointment on my flight home from Athens with KLM to discover that the main content of the invitingly titled food box “Selected Delights” that was handed out once cruising altitude was established, was ….a celery salad. Not just a salad with celery in it, but at least half of the thing was pure celery, and the rest of the stuff cut up so small that it had totally absorbed the celery flavour and might as well have had that crinkly edge too.
Now here’s where an interesting thing happened and incidentally why the word psychology appears in the title (you were wondering, weren’t you?). Even though the salad tub was relatively small, together with a bread roll and a couple of biscuits & cheese also supplied, it probably would have sustained me well enough, and indeed as the salad was sealed and hence had not yet infected the bread, cheese etc, I did eat those. But the result of having a little bowl of salad sat in front of me at the start of the 3 hour flight which I knew was impossible to eat, was to suddenly make me as ravenously hungry as I could possibly be. I was now incapable of thinking of anything else other than food. Was there any way I could con another bread roll out of the cabin crew to make up? Could I look pleading and puppy like through the curtain to business class in case the posher cabin staff might take pity on me? Can I justify the exorbitant price of a can of Dutch waffles from the duty free?
In the end I continue to sit in my economy seat feeling harder done by when the smells of the hot dishes being served to the business class travellers wafts through the gap in the curtain, and I wonder about the merits of a strongly worded letter to KLM’s catering department decrying their flagrant use of what is widely known as a universally hated bit of vegetation.
Or then again, perhaps I’ll just head to McDonalds when I land at Schipol.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Pleasures of Travel

I like travelling, and normally even when it's just travelling for work, but today I'm particularly enjoying he fact that for once I'm not doing it in my car but have taken the train. As I write I'm travelling back from London on the Grand Central service that although only operate a few trains seems all very civilised. I'd forgotten just how much more comfortable it is to be able to relax as you hurtle about. In the car your consentrating too much on driving and on the plane the seats are so cramped and uncomfortable that you're yearning to get off by the end. This trip is longer than it should be as we're on a detour via Lincoln due to the ever present engineering works, but I've got free internet access, a power point so my laptop battery doesn't run out, plenty of room to stretch my legs out and if I weren't travelling alone even gaming boards (chess, cluedo and monopoly) inlaid on the table for which you can either bring your own pieces or buy little tra vel sets from the buffet car.

If only it were a little cheaper I'd probably use it a lot more. And for a bit of a political comment on it all, I say, lets re-nationalise it and pump some public money back into public transport....but that's another debate.