Travel is formidable; it takes our expectations and dumps them upside down. In our normal daily lives, because we’re used to controlling our environments, we have notions of “I need…” or “In order to feel right, I’m gonna have to have…”–but then travel comes along, fails to deliver on our requirements, and forces us to cope.
In the process of coping, we have to hold each of our notions up to the light (incidentally, you should feel a little bit sorry for my ideas and notions, what with their first being rudely dumped and then scaldingly burned by a bright light; in truth, all the best ideas are sorely bruised after a day in my care), turn them around a bit, examine them from every angle, and then concede that, while they might have felt essential back home,
they actually, under the pressure of travel, can be shucked. We can be different when circumstances are different. It’s one thing to realize that for the first time when backpacking in Austria as a 20-year-old. It’s a bigger thing to remember it after some decades have passed, once the entrenchments of middle age have been dug.
For me, I’ve been living a life in which I know who my people are and what my circumstances are going to be–I have the right husband, the gift of all the kids I’m going to have, the job I hope to occupy until retirement, the house I would love to live in until my knees give out. With so much so settled, my brain and habits have permission to coast. Even worse, they have permission to become self-satisfied and complacent. They have permission to announce, “The way I do things is right, gol dern it. If I wasn’t doing things right, I’d change ’em, now wouldn’t I?”
Under the sway of such righteousness, we need courage to risk a challenge. Travel calls to center stage all the challenges and risks that have been shuffling around impatiently in the wings (ah, but do they realize their luck in not having been dumped and held up to the light?). Travel asks us to descry the beauty in discomfort.
Personally, in addition to creating in me an addiction for the flavors of red pepper combined with plain yogurt; in addition to reminding me that relaxation is the best strategy when on a bus with no idea of where to get off; in addition to convincing me that wild gesticulation and miming often equal precise language; in addition to showing me that males can be the driving social force in a culture; in addition to filling me with awe that there are aged muezzins who, although barely able to croak out a note fit for public ears, dutifully shamble to the mosque at 5 a.m. every morning in frigid cold to grab the microphone and burnish their faith in Allah; in addition to teaching me that staring isn’t always judgmental…
in addition to all of these lessons, travel to Turkey has asked me to get over my belief that the only good toilet is a dry toilet.
At this juncture, your brain might be conjuring up an infamous Turkish squat toilet, a hole in the ground that calls upon one’s willingness to hike pant legs, strengthen quadriceps, and deliberately ignore the half-inch of water covering the floor.
But that’s not what I mean. A squat is what it is. Adjustment to its requirements is fairly straightforward: do a few limbering yoga poses, roll up pants, reach into bag for hunk of toilet paper, and then squat and stare at cracked ceiling in Directed Meditation until it’s time to fill the pitcher of water to toss down the hole.
Rather, I’m referring to the kind of elevated porcelain bowl that is ubiquitous in the Western world. Just a regglar toilet like they sell at the Home Depot. Only wet, with no orange-smocked workers milling about, ready to help you mop up.
C’mon. You know where I’m coming from. Like me, you’ve walked up to a toilet, looked down at the seat, and recoiled viscerally at the sight of droplets of moisture dotting what should be a pristine desert plain. A small voice inside of you rationalizes, “Maybe this toilet is so hygenic that its vigorous flush splashes water up from the bowl, causing it to land on the seat. Maybe what I see here is simply a respectable bleach water.” However, an insistent shouty voice inside of you overpowers that Small Dumb Voice with a beller of, “Don’t. you. dare. sit. down. That is PEE. Someone else’s pee, no less. Place not your buttocks near a stranger’s pee, Elton, or I shall smite you across this room until your head hits the hand dryer, knocking you out cold, albeit with warm and shiney locks.” The more intrepid of you, at this point, may grab a wad of tissue and wipe off the seat before resolutely sitting down for relief. The more squeamish of you may leave that stall and bang around the bathroom, looking for drier pastures. The hyper-phobic of you may seek out drier pastures and then still insist on lining the seat with a line of protective paper. The ultra No Touchy of you may deal with the situation by refusing to lower your body to the dry-pasture seat at all–instead choosing to hover over the seat, and if that’s the case, why in the hell are you getting so prissy about a Turkish squat toilet that doesn’t even have an anxiety-inducing seat built into its design?
So, um, you know what I mean about a wet toilet.
What travel has brought to me, however, is an entirely new kind of wet toilet, this version blissfully pee-free. You see, invariably in Turkey, “modern” bathrooms are built with the shower hanging over the toilet (a fact that makes it remarkably easy to pee in the shower). What this layout means is that every time someone takes a shower, the toilet gets a drenching. Hypothetically, that should make me feel good: “Hey-hey-wow-wow, this toilet is insanely clean! Three people today have showered in here, which means this toilet has had three showers, and what could be more pleasant than a thrice-douched toilet?” Ironically, though, I have enough of “could be urine” worries culturally built into my psyche that any time I see a freshly-showered toilet, I feel a rush of hesitation. The porcelain may be slippery with Pantene and not someone’s bladder expulsions, but I have to fight to get past my conditioning. A wet toilet, no matter what’s coating it, doesn’t appeal. In fact, I’ve become very good at wiping down well-showered toilets (speaking of the unexpected side effects of travel). And I’ve gotten better at accepting the water for what it is, as it coats the lid, the seat, the base, the floor around. It’s, small ewwww, just someone else’s dead skin cells floating in a tepid stew that slicks over the place where parts of My Nekkid are intending themselves. What’s to cringe at, really?
The good news is that travel not only makes us cope; if we hang in there with it long enough, we encounter situations that–wait, how did I start this post?–dump our expectations upside down. That is, if you can stand me using the word “dump” in a heavily-toileted bit of writing. If it helps at all, carry on with the knowledge that I intend to spritz all readers with lemon cologne (the Turkish version of rubbing alcohol) upon exit, as is the practice at every public restroom. So you may feel dirty now, but never fear: I’ll layer some pungent anti-bacterial over your smells before we get to the final period.
Oh, heavens. Now I’ve gone and mentioned periods, just when you thought you’d had your fill of bodily expulsion imagery.
But, okay, let’s just level with each other here: out of every single person’s privates come yellow things and brown things and, for half of us, red things, and if we’re being honest (why stop now?), that’s the ultimate lesson of travel, isn’t it? Some of us have darker skin while others of us lack distinct pigmentation; some of us wake up early with Allah in our hearts while others of us lounge all day with Kierkegaard on our minds; and some of us dither around the toilet bowl while others of us drop our pants behind the nearest bush; yet all of us discharge the yellows and browns and reds,
and so maybe the part of travel that delights me the most is the lesson called Just Get Over It Already.
And maybe the part of this post that is tickling me the most–outside of my promise to spritz y’all with lemon cologne before you go (because that’s. just. fun.)–is that I’ve written all this rambling blather and haven’t even gotten to the whole reason I started typing in the first place. When I opened this window in my browser, it was with the thought that I’d toss out some photos of a really awesome room at the inn that we’re minding.
It happens to be a bathroom.
Which is pretty much how we all got to this point together right now. I thought “bathroom,” and suddenly, whoa baby, here we all are, piddling on wet toilet seats and evacuating our bowels together in some sort of fuddled Coca-Cola commercial about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony.
The whole thing leaves me wondering: