Toilet Technology: A Personal History

As I walked around Bingen last week, I noticed that there has been a marked improvement in the quality of public toilet offerings in Germany, perhaps throughout Europe, since my first trip to this continent nearly three a decades ago.  I consider Europe advanced when it comes to the care of its citizens, yet have always been shocked at the standards they exhibited in the realm of water closets available when out and about.

All those years ago, It was not that one had to pay. Or that more often than not, the attendants were of a sour mood – that seemed to be yet another cross-cultural encounter.  More mortifying to my 16-year-old sense of decorum was the vast majority of public toilets were toilet bowl without toilet seat. One was expected to squat and I had never been instructed thusly!

Add to it that there was rarely toilet paper in the stall (my recollection is vague but perhaps that was the whole point of the attendants, but if so, they were never generous with the number of sheets they gave out). I quickly learned that one NEVER traveled without portable tissues, a great invention. One that did not reach the US market for at least another two decades.

I found this set-up cumbersome to say the least and grew a strong aversion to using the loo in public.

I remember a trip to France where I learned it could get worse: not only no toilet seat, but no toilet bowl! Holes in the ground. Again, this was something to which I was wholly unaccustomed and found nearly untenable. But when one has not only the urge, but the need, one learns that limits can be stretched and new experiences experienced.

Which helped when I spent a semester in Kenya. There I stayed  with a rural family in Akambaland for three weeks. They were so kind to me, treating me as their special guest. One way included constructing a plywood box, with properly-placed and -sized hole on top, for the outhouse, just for me. I felt honoured at this special gesture and in no small part comforted.

It was the rainy season; the roof on the building where I slept was corrugated tin, making the rainfall resound loudly. This had the effect of being highly suggestive to my bladder that it needed emptying often and with mighty urgency.

On the first night, I walked out into the very dark night with my flashlight in hand to the outhouse to relieve myself. As I shined the light inside the outhouse, I beheld a plentitude of rather gigantic beetles huddling on top of the box, scurrying around. After my initial startle, and with an ever more urgent need to pee upon me, I did the only thing that came to my mind at that point: I banged the flashlight against the box to disperse the beetles, sat down to do my business, banging the flashlight intermittently in hopes of keeping those insects at bay. It was a hilarious moment, but only in hindsight.

It was in East Africa that I learned there is an amazing science to handling human waste; along with this science, there is a plethora of designs for outhouses and toilets and such. The ingenuity was impressive and in the quarter century since, I hope it was only grown and become widely accessible to as many people as possible.

In Kenya, I encountered the best design for the excretion-hole-in-the-ground. It was a non-descript as far as holes go. However, the outstanding part was two footholds, one on either side of the hole. Each were at the perfect angle to support the person squatting. It was more comfortable than some toilet seats I have sat on or even had in my own homes.

The ergonomics of it were to die for! And if not to die for, then at least to pee in comfort for…

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