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Bad Breaks

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While visiting the Golan Heights in Northern Israel several years ago, I felt the sudden need to relieve myself. Instead of heading back to the bus, though, I went behind some bushes along a cliff overlooking the Syrian border. A communications tower loomed behind me, no doubt casting a watchful eye on Damascus a mere 40 miles away and the entire Middle East.

With my right leg literally perched over the edge of the cliff, the thought occurred to me of what the next day's headlines might read should I slip and fall which gave me pause: "Tourist Dies Taking a Leak While Taking a Peek." To add insult to injury, my imaginary death spiral would probably be caught on tape for posterity (a recurring bit on the cable TV show Ridiculousness, no doubt!). I quickly zipped up and went back to the bus.

We've all experienced them at one time or another -- untimely and embarrassing bathroom breaks. Granted, none perhaps as monumentally humiliating as in the movie Bridesmaids where Maya Rudolph has to make an emergency pit stop in a wedding dress in the middle of a busy Chicago street, but we all can relate.

I can trace my first bad bathroom break back to Clover Drive Elementary School in Great Neck, Long Island. I was daydreaming while sitting on the toilet in first grade, my gaze lost in the dimpled grooves of the orange-painted concrete walls. Pretty soon I heard voices coming from outside the bathroom, which was in a corner of our classroom.

"Where's Kipp?" asked my teacher with concern. One of my classmates mumbled a response. Next, the unimaginable happened: the bathroom door swung open and my entire class was standing there staring at me! And then the laughing started.

Nowadays, my bad bathroom breaks usually occur while on vacation. Far from the daily grind of work and home obligations, this is when you're supposed to be at your most relaxed, unguarded and without care. But, as any experienced traveler will tell you, leisure travel can be just as taxing on the system as, say, an early morning budget meeting or trying to find a plumber to fix a busted water pipe at midnight.

Just getting to your destination is a minor miracle fraught with a multitude of things that might go wrong: cancelled/delayed flights, missed connections, crying babies, lost luggage, sardine-can-like seating, nonexistent hotel reservations, jet lag, etc. By the time you reach your final destination to Mumbai, you're an emotional and physical wreck.

Then, for good measure, throw into the mix foreign food of questionable origin and cleanliness.

Speaking of which, I once had a bout of food poisoning while visiting my hometown of Manhattan, which sent me on a 10-block odyssey through some of New York's finest bathrooms. (I highly recommend the opulent lavatory at Tiffany & Co.) While I managed to avoid making a Bridesmaids-like spectacle of myself, there were some close calls.

Unfortunately, most people don't have the luxury of a Tiffany & Co. to choose from during these times of bodily crisis.

During my food poisoning episode, I did not discriminate when it came to restroom choices. My decisions were based on two factors: a. proximity; closely followed by b. availability. I remember slinking into a bathroom of a midtown Manhattan bookstore and just as I settled in, a fire alarm sounded which disabled the lights. Flustered clerks quickly ushered patrons out, but I wasn't about to budge, even in the dark, and despite my wife's pleas from outside the restroom: "Kipp, there's a fire! Get out!" I finally emerged to a darkened, near-empty bookstore. When we left, a fireball jetted skyward like a geyser from an exposed manhole on the street which only served to further inflame the fires that were still raging within my belly. We quickly headed for the nearest department store, which happened to be Bloomingdale's.

Sometimes the heaviness of a particular travel destination is enough in itself to do a number on your nervous system. I knew that as part of a heritage trip to Poland our itinerary included a stop at the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. For weeks leading up to the trip I steeled myself, trying my best to put the death camp's unspeakable horrors out of my mind. But days before leaving, I panicked, and almost cancelled going at all.

By the time we arrived at Auschwitz and passed through the infamous wrought-iron front gate with the chilling welcoming sign "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" -- "Work makes you free" -- I felt queasy and full of dread. Restored red brick barracks presented a very real Halloween chamber of horrors. One display was filled with hundreds of eyeglasses; another was piled high with confiscated luggage; a tower of old shoes occupied another display; another room featured stolen Jewish religious objects including row upon row of tefillin -- prayer shawls; another, prosthetic limbs; one space contained dozens of empty canisters of Zyklon B used in the gas chambers. Perhaps the most disturbing exhibit of all were the tumbleweed-size mounds of dull-gray matted human hair and macabre fabric and clothing made from the hair.

Our Polish tour guide at Auschwitz droned on, unemotionally, about the endless horrors perpetrated by the Nazis who literally spared no part of the human body or soul. When she casually described how soap was made from boiled human fat, I had had enough and quickly left the barracks.

I wandered in a sweaty haze throughout Auschwitz in search of the nearest bathroom. I passed the menacing empty guard towers and the bullet-ridden brick wall that was once used by a firing squad; wandered past endless lines of barbed wire; ignored the numerous "HALT! STOJ!" signs with a drawing of a skull and crossbones that had warned inmates to keep away from the electrified fences. Somehow I found my way to the bathrooms at the entrance to the complex. Apparently, Auschwitz has this effect on visitors for I have never seen so many bathroom stalls in one facility in my life.

During a Scandinavian vacation last summer with my wife, Anne, I forgot to bring earplugs on board our flight and barely slept thanks to the wailing of a chorus of babies. As is the case in most long-distance excursions, sleep wasn't the only part of my system that failed me.

On our first morning in Norway, we visited the famous Vigeland Sculpture Park and Gardens in the fashionable Frogner district of Oslo. The sprawling park, the largest in all of Norway, features over 200 bronze and granite sculptures depicting the lives of men and women from birth to death. Interestingly, the artist, Gustav Vigeland (who also designed the medal for the Nobel Peace Prize), chose to have all of his subjects depicted naked. At the center of the park stands a 46-foot monolithic pillar of 120 naked figures struggling to reach the top of the sculpture.

I felt the first rumblings of what was in store for me shortly after boarding the bus to the Vigeland park. I couldn't find the bathroom on board so I asked the driver if we could stop. He told me the restroom was tucked away behind the stairs in the middle of the bus, but, as is often the case in such instances, once salvation is presented, the urgency mysteriously subsides.

When we arrived at the statue park, we were each given a pair of headsets so we could follow our Norwegian docent. I felt the ominous sensation of wading into the deep end of the ocean without a life preserver as I gamely tried to keep up, occasionally doubling over from stomach cramps. Looking back, I noticed that our bus was nowhere to be found -- it had left to meet us at the other end of the 80-acre park, which now resembled the expanse of Lake Michigan.

It's amazing what thoughts go through your mind when you find yourself in desperate need of a bathroom -- especially in a foreign country, in the middle of a crowded park filled with statues of naked men, women and children. Does that door under the promenade lead to a bathroom? No such luck. That boathouse below the bridge -- might it contain a bathroom? Nope. Try not to look at the bubbling fountain! As my condition worsened, my thoughts became more primal: would anyone notice if I went behind those hedges?

One of the top stories I saw in a Norwegian language newspaper that morning was of a drunken young moose that had somehow gotten stuck in a tree. Would I be the subject of Norway's evening news? "American Uses Vigeland Park as a Public Restroom!" accompanied by a sequence of photos of me squatting in the bushes (click here for video).

Somehow, I found the intestinal fortitude to make it all the way to the end of the park where I found our bus and driver, who mercifully let me in. Crisis averted.

My wife and I are now preparing for our next big trip: two weeks in Turkey this summer. I plan on taking all the necessary precautions to ensure a smooth trip: earplugs, sleeping pills, eye shades, healthy snacks, pills for all sorts of head and stomach ailments, etc. But I'm sure I'll forget something. I was less than comforted when a friend told me of her trip to Turkey several years ago. She said she unwisely ate some gray-colored lamb stew at an empty restaurant that landed her in the hospital for several days, forcing her to miss most of her time in Istanbul.

Fortunately, my wife and I are now vegetarians. Now if I can somehow avoid the crying babies aboard our flight to Turkey, I'll be in good shape.