Bathroom etiquette can be one of the most challenging aspects of traveling abroad, yet it seems to be one of the least commonly discussed topics. Maybe writers are just squeamish about getting down and dirty with human necessities. Not I! I knew going to Morocco that bathrooms would be one of the many challenges I would face on a daily basis. During my research about the country I came across the term “Turkish toilets” for the first time ever. To my surprise and curiosity this meant a toilet without the toilet. It was just a hole, apparently with grooved porcelain pads to indicate the location of your feet – very important when you’re trying to direct the stream of your business into a five-inch diameter hole while squatting. Next you fill a bucket with water and pour down multiple times to remove the waste. This is the replacement for the flushing mechanism we are so fond of in the United States.
“Yeah, and you know how old that plumbing probably is? Seventh century I’d say,” my dad commented when I showed him my research. He was never very keen on my traveling to Morocco.
Unsurprisingly, though I did adapt to the Turkish toilet in my host family’s house, I located every Western, seated toilet in the city. Just in case I was struck down by the mysterious traveler’s stomach illness. And one of those Western toilets happened to be at the Rabat train station.
We were getting ready to leave for our three-week research projects, and were thus carrying nearly all our possessions on our backs. The four of us sat on the benches at the platform between the tracks. We’d each wanted to leave our host families with plenty of time to get to the station, with the result being that we were nearly an hour early. Having known there was a Western toilet in the bathrooms at the train station, I’d decided to clamp down on my needy bladder and wait until we were nicely situated before dashing off to the restrooms.
An attendant stood waiting just inside the room, cleaning solution bottle in hand. I smiled and went to the open stall closest to the wall. I shut the door and sat down on the pot before realizing that one very crucial aspect of the architecture of my stall was missing. The doorknob. And the dead bolt was still in place, meaning the door had clicked shut and there appeared to be no good way to open it again.
Now’s not the time to panic, I told myself. I sat down and calmly finished my business, pushed down on the glorious flush handle, and assessed the situation.
“Is there a problem?” the attendant called in French after I spent several minutes examining the door and the stall. It was the type that has walls running all the way down to the floor – no escape route there – and the walls must’ve been about nine or ten feet high, with about a foot and half between the wall and the ceiling.
“There’s no doorknob,” I called back to her in French. I could almost sense her confusion. Crazy foreigner, she was surely thinking.
“Unlock the door,” she responded.
“It is unlocked, it’s just that the bolt is caught and I have no way to turn it open. Is there a doorknob out there?” This exchange was fortunately carried out in solitude, since no other women appeared to have entered after me. The attendant pushed on my door several times, and again urged me to unlock the door.
“It is unlocked!” I repeated several times. This was getting us nowhere.
At that point I’d been trapped in the bathroom for about twenty-five minutes and knew our train would be coming soon. Frustration mounting, I opted for what appeared to be the only escape route: up and over.
I hopped onto the toilet and asked the attendant if there was anyone in the stall adjacent to mine. She confirmed the emptiness and probably stood back to watch the spectacle occurring before her, though I couldn’t say for sure as her face was blocked from view.
Now, I am very, very lucky to be 5’ 11”, because any shorter and I would’ve been well and truly stuck in that bathroom stall. I hopped up several times, not quite able to pull myself up to the 6-inch wide wall between the two stalls. Dry wall from the unfinished top came crumbling down, showering into my shirt and down the other side of the stall. I finally managed to heave myself up, scraping my forearms on the rough section, shoulders and head touching the ceiling, stomach balanced on the beam and feet still hanging over in my original stall. In an epic feat of balance and strength I swung my legs up and over until I was parallel to the little wall instead of perpendicular to it.
(It wasn’t actually all that graceful or stunning a performance. It was more of a dying-crab shuffle.)
My feet drooped down into the other stall and finally found purchase on the toilet. Abdomen scraping down against the unfinished top of the wall, I slid into the open stall.
Freedom! Success! Escape!
The attendant regarded me with a look of utter disbelief and astonishment on her face. I proceeded to the sink, washed my hands, and dusted the dry wall off my shirt.
To this day I examine all bathrooms, both foreign and domestic, for two requirements: 1) I must be able to escape from them from someway other than through the door and 2) If there is no escape route besides the door it must be a big enough and nice enough stall to sleep in.