I noticed the maggots in my toilet paper before I used it. That's the best thing I can say about the bathroom situation in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in Republic of Congo, where I spent a week camping. But I adjusted. Because like all travel's vexing peccadilloes, befriending the bathroom, no matter how treacherous, is a choice.
Having traveled all over the world, I've seen and used more than a fair share of its bathrooms.
Some are amazing. So beautiful I wanted to live inside them. Or at least redecorate my apartment to look like them.
The bathroom in my hotel room in South Korea had a toilet with a keypad that was so complicated I literally couldn't use it. I remember posting this photo of it at the time with a caption that read, "Help! My toilet is smarter than I am!" Eventually I had to have one of the hotel's staff members come up to my room just to show me how to flush it.
However, most bathrooms are not amazing. They are at best basic, dirty and lacking one or more critical components considered necessary for a satisfying bathroom experience: toilet paper, running water, soap, light, and/or privacy. Or they are just downright disgusting, when they exist at all.
So if you want to see the world and experience how its people live, you're going to have to get your hands dirty.
Whether the foe you face is a pit latrine, a hole in the ground, a long drop or squat toilet, a filthy fly-infested outhouse, or just your standard issue loo that's seen better days, here's how to make peace with the enemy:
Expect a flood. When the facility floor is dodgy, roll your pants to your knees before using the toilet, particularly one that requires you squat. It stands to reason that the lower you go, so go your pants. The last thing you want are your cuffs inadvertently soaking up questionable liquids from the floor (ewww). And, bonus, when your pants are hiked high, unintended "splash back" will hit your ankles, which while (very) gross, are far easier to wash than your clothes.
Better safe than sorry. Think your pants cuff skimming the floor was bad? Wait until you're mid squat and your sunglasses fall off your head into the filth. Cameras slung over shoulders, jackets tied around waists, wallets stuffed into pockets, and glasses hooked onto shirt collars should all be tucked safely inside your day bag instead. And since there's usually nowhere clean to stash your bag, carry a backpack or short shoulder bag that won't get in your way while you're taking care of business.
Bring Your Own. Seems pretty obvious, but carry hand sanitizer and flushable wipes or toilet paper. Even the nicest bathrooms run out, and most you encounter have neither. When traveling in remote places, I covet wipes and hand sanitizer more than iPhone battery power. Enough said.
Smell ya later. Seeing is bad, but the smelling, worse (and the surest way to really feel sick). Holding your breath during a visit to a particularly odorous outhouse is an option, but not always. Better to cover your nose and mouth with a bandana or T-shirt, or stick tissue up your nose before going in.
Clean getaway. I'm sure there are studies that will back me up on this, but common sense alone dictates: if there's no TP or soap in a bathroom, all surfaces have poop on them. Therefore, don't touch anything with your bare hands, especially if there's no soap and water to wash them with. Use TP, a wipe or your foot to flush the toilet, turn off the tap, and open and close doors. And if possible, use your non-dominant hand for the dirty work, as you're less likely to wipe your eyes or mouth with it.
Zip it. You can take pains to prevent everything else from touching bathroom floors, but not your shoes. The last thing you want is contaminated shoes trapped inside your suitcase with the rest of your poor clothes. Quarantine them in Ziploc bags until you get home and can give them a good scrub.
Ready, set... When Ben Franklin said, "By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail," he probably wasn't referring to colonial water closets, but his advice still stands when it comes to rank restrooms. A successful visit on the inside begins on the outside. Roll up your pants and unbutton them and secure your belongings before going in to reduce time in dank, dark, smelly latrines. Have wipes or TP ready - the time to realize you're without isn't after the deed is done. Make sure the tap has water before soaping up. For really hairy situations (trust me, you'll know), surveil the latrine before going in. Kick or push open the door and use a flashlight to check dark corners. It's the only way to avoid unpleasant surprises of the two-, four-, or 400-750- legged kind.
Nature calls. If going inside is more disgusting than going outside, or going outside is the only choice, then take steps to help prevent water contamination and the spread of disease: make sure to bury waste as best you can, and place used TP or wipes in a Ziploc bag to carry with you until you can dispose of it properly.
Get over it. My most embarrassing moments when traveling have been -- without question -- bathroom-related. But who cares? It's a moment in time that I will laugh about later. Don't let the toilet take the fun out of your trip. As author Taro Gomi wrote, Everyone Poops.
So relax, go forth and conquer.