A friend once told me she would never travel anywhere without the guarantee of an available flushing toilet. Happily, my horizons have never been – and will never be – that limited.
I’ve been lucky. Although I’ve always had a flushing toilet in the home, since I was a kid family trips have generally involved getting as far from civilisation as time and resources would allow. Inevitably, toilet breaks in remote areas have involved traipsing into the scrub with a shovel, finding a quiet spot, and digging a ‘cat scratch’.
In more recent years, I’ve encountered many pit toilets at designated picnic areas or campsites in nature reserves. These types of latrines are usually dry drop holes reliant on bacteria and worms to break down the waste. Personally, I’m pretty wary of these toilets. I know that pit latrines are used by nearly two billion people worldwide. But I also know that when the volume of crap produced outstrips the rate at which the bacteria can break it down, these facilities become absolutely disgusting. At that point, I avoid them like the plague-inducing cesspits that they appear to be.
And, let’s face it: drop toilets are more likely to leave a bad impression than a good one. Indeed, my most vivid memory of a drop toilet comes from one of the coolest places I’ve ever stayed. While visiting Japan as a teenager, I stopped at a traditional Japanese inn known as a ryokan. This place was fantastic. It probably dated back to the mid-1800s. It had tatami floor mats that smelt like fresh hay, translucent shoji screen doors, and a traditional furo deep bathtub that was so hot it turned my skin pink and soft as a prune after a five-minute dip. While these things were unforgettable, my most vivid memory is the drop toilet in the ryokan’s smallest room. It was so daunting that I think my sphincter muscle locked closed for three days straight. I recall fearfully stepping across the threshold of this foul smelling space, and the zinging mosquitos that lurked menacingly within its dark void. Is it any wonder that many Japanese kids believe that a ghost of a young girl called Hanako-san lives in some toilets?
For the last two years, my biggest fear of drop toilets has been around their potential risk to our young daughter. Like all kids, from the age of about three, she developed a strong independent streak combined with a determination to demonstrate that she can do just about anything without adult assistance. So, at times, I’ve been genuinely fearful that she might slip away from camp and explore a drop toilet without supervision. The prospect of her clambering on to the seat and falling into the abyss is not unreasonable. After all, YouTube is full of supposedly-humorous videos of kids slipping into toilet bowls. In the case of a drop toilet, however, there’s nothing to laugh about. It’s hard to imagine how a fall into a toilet pit by an unattended kid could end well.
So it was with some relief that, on a recent visit to our favourite traditional archery club, I found that our now-five-year-old daughter was confidently using one of these facilities fairly safely. In fact, she was positively enthusiastic about the dedicated ladies’ drop-pit which the club had adorned with three different air fresheners, some mosquito repellent and a sink with soft soap. My daughter was so impressed with the atmosphere that she insisted that we close the door behind us every time we left so that no-one else might know it was there.
“This toilet is just for us girls,” she told me, conspiratorially.
It shows that, with a bit of pride and care, basic latrines don’t have to be scary.
I’m very thankful that I can offer my daughter fresh running water and a clean, flushing toilet. More than a quarter of the world’s population are not so fortunate. But I’m also pleased that her horizons in life won’t be defined by the availability of a porcelain bowl.
Check out the full feature in issue #101 June 2016 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.