Toilets I Have Known: Part Two

21 Jun

I spent nine weeks during the summer of 1989 in Thailand with a group of about 100 college students. Most of the summer was spent in Bangkok, hanging out at Ramkhamhaeng University. Then, at least, it was the largest university in the world, boasting over 500,000 students. We met with students, debated God vs. Buddha (though most of them knew very little about him) and we talked about America. It was a challenging and sweaty summer, full of pop-in-a-bag (in the interests of reusing their pop bottles the venders poured pop into ice-filled bags and gave you a straw), bargaining over trinkets (actually I’m a horrible bargainer – I’d way rather just pay the money they’re asking and be done with it), and salmonella due to an unpalatable “dessert” of an egg poached in coconut milk complete with tiny rice balls floating around in the bowl. I had two bites and could stomach no more but it was enough to keep me indoors for the next several days…and then led to more fun later on back at home. Oy, vey.

Don’t you just love this? Taken in Krabi – a strong wind blew the umbrella away from the fruit stand and this boy was sent after it. I have loved this photo for 23 years!

We also spent some time in northern Thailand in Chang Mai and Khao Yai National Park, which was a lesson in identifying land leaches and in what not to do when you see a small hole in the ground right outside your cabin door.

We visited a waterfall at some point, driving down a heart-stopping, narrow, curving, hilly road. The fact that I survived that drive is a miracle, as we swerved past busses, trucks, and other wide loads that almost gave us heart-attacks, let alone almost sent us careening over the edge of the road into land-leach-filled tropical jungles.

We also took a train to see the actual bridge at the River Kwai…which broke our hearts and caused me to quote Rupert Brookes “The Soldier”, which famously says, “There is a corner in a foreign field which is forever England” as we saw the rows upon rows of white wooden crosses marking the British cemetery. Still makes my heart ache to think of it.

But then, at the end of the summer, we went to Phuket Island for a few days. (Yes, you’re remembering right: it’s one of the scenes of the Tsunami in 2004. It’s just one of the places I’ve been that afterwards has suffered incredible loss…I need to blog about that whole topic sometime.) We also spent a week in Krabi nearby, which I’m sure also suffered beyond belief from the tidal wave, though I’ve never heard details.

Some of my fellow teammates. I have a feeling all of this was destroyed in the tsunami, though as I don’t know the exact name of the beach I haven’t been able to confirm this.

Krabi is a nice, small, southern city on the coast of Thailand. We spent most of our time there in a jungle village outside of Krabi proper. It was there that I saw my first lightning bugs, incidentally.

While we were there we visited some homes located on the Andaman Sea.

Yes, ON the Andaman sea.

On stilts, over the water, with the tides coming and going not far below their floorboards.

We visited with the familes, talked, ate a little something, and then – SHOOT! – I had to use the facilities.

Now, virtually all of the potties in Thailand were “squatty potties” – non-flushable bowls with a handy water source nearby which, after you “went” you cleaned by filling a pan (or two) with water, pouring the water down the bowl, and hopefully sending all the nastiness far away so as to not offend the next person.

Way better than what I faced. These squatty potties seem to even flush!

Not so with a house-on-stilts over the sea.

I told our interpreter of my need and he, knowing what I would be facing, asked me just how badly I needed it. I told him I was rather desperate. (This memory gives me a little more patience with my children on long car trips.)

He then relayed my need to the man of the house who, with an agreeable smile, motioned for me to follow him. There was another girl who needed the same thing so the two of us followed him into the house. (We had been sitting on the deck outside.) There was, of course, no electricity, no hallway lined with school photos, no recycling bins, couches, or TV guides on over-laden coffee tables.

There was one windowless room, the bare grass-woven walls leaving chinks of light on the smooth floor. There was a cooking corner, some sleeping mats rolled up for the daylight hours, and a walled-off area smack in the center to which he led us. He gestured inside, picked up a door (with both hands) which was leaning against the wall, and, with a few incoherent words, indicated that by strategically placing the door over the opening, we could shut ourselves in. Smiling and unabashed, he turned to go.

My friend and I looked at each other, our eyes wide. The door, which was made of uneven sea-worn boards held together by a board or two nailed across them, was heavy. I entered the room, which is surprisingly large in my memory, and there, in the far corner, was a hole.

Below the hole was the sea…which, at low tide, was simply a beach. I was glad the tide was high just then.

Gotta admit, though, they had a good flushing system!

Yes, this is the actual house – I took this 23 years ago in a slide and my dad has the capability to turn the slide into a digital image – thanks, Dad!

The hole was bordered on both sides by bricks, to elevate the feet (often bare or possibly in flip flops) in case of misses, I suppose.

I heard kids playing outside, and voices floated in from the deck. I shrugged my shoulders and proceeded with the task at hand.

And that, my friends, is why I am so thankful for my life. For the blessings I enjoy. For the bills that get paid and the firm roof over my head. For the food in my cupboards. For my lovely kids and patient husband.

For toilets that flush.

And the tides that wash away our iniquities.

P.S. – I’ve heard, though haven’t been able to confirm, that military cemeteries in foreign lands have been deeded over to that country. So the military cemetery for England, for example, there at the Bridge of the River Kwai, is officially on British land. I think that’s very cool.


21 Responses to “Toilets I Have Known: Part Two”

  1. Minnesota Prairie Roots June 21, 2012 at 9:00 am #

    I’m speechless. Your ending: “And the tides that wash away our iniquities” is pure genius writing, Gretchen.

    And that photo of the boy with the red umbrella. Stunning. Impressionable. Remarkable. I can understand why it remains one of your favorite images.

  2. treadlemusic June 21, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    The “Boy with the Red Umbrella” deserves recognition beyond this blog….for sure! These 2 posts have been a lesson in “things I should be grateful for and not take for granted”, also! Thank you for your memories and pictures!!! Hugs………

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 21, 2012 at 9:41 am #

      Yeah, it’s pretty cool. And yes, I agree – we take so much for granted, don’t we? Got to work on that…

      • treadlemusic June 21, 2012 at 9:44 am #

        Me, too, but in the “good times/days” we enjoy in this land, gratitude is often forgotten and rightful expectations takes its place;-(

        • Gretchen O'Donnell June 21, 2012 at 10:19 am #

          Yes. So true. There were advantages to the olden days, weren’t there?

        • treadlemusic June 21, 2012 at 1:37 pm #


  3. Shirley Dykstra June 21, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    Oh my yes, the squat pots. We spent a month in Thailand at one of my student’s homes.
    They had a real potty-thank goodness. But traveling around the country we did not and
    Mary would go into the stalls and make sure the area was clean for me. They put in a water heater for the shower just for our comfort, Imagine! Oh how dirty all the rivers were-
    no wonder. So what ws s the hole by the door? Yes the River Kwai. Did you get to see the
    museum of that some blocks away? I will tell you one thing I read there. Can’t even post it-
    it is so gross and inhumane. Great read this a.m.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 21, 2012 at 10:22 am #

      Yes, we did get to see the museum – I don’t remember a lot about it, as we only had about 1/2 an hour there before the train left and I really wanted to see the cemetary and buy my brother-in-law a t-shirt! So not a lot of time to peruse the history – which, in light of what you read maybe was good. Ha.

      I’m glad your time there included a real potty! Can’t imagine having to use a squatty one for a whole month! How great that you got to spend all that time there.

      The hole in the ground was a snake hole – just smack in front of our cabin. Never did see the inhabitant, thankfully.

  4. cravesadventure June 21, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    I would be baffled if I had to go #2 – #1 I more than likely could handle. Hope to Heck DO NOT get Food Poisoning or any type of stomach illness – the HORROR! Thanks for Sharing & Have a Great Day:)

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 21, 2012 at 11:15 am #

      Well…it was an adventure, that’s for sure! And in the days before Germ-X, too!!

  5. whatimeant2say June 21, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    I love the removable “door” detail!

  6. gardenfreshtomatoes June 21, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    Such adventures you’ve had! They’re always counted as a success if you can look back and smile…

  7. hotlyspiced June 21, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    What an interesting holiday. Love the images. It’s amazing that they live on the sea like that. I would be so terrified of king tides or tsunamis! And all that effluent just going straight out to where they swim and wash and fish! Horrifying. xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 22, 2012 at 8:41 am #

      I know, it’s hard to imagine. We are very fortunate, that’s for sure.

  8. Just A Smidgen June 21, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    Your writing today took me from poignant sadness to despair and then humour.. such a fine writer you are, Gretchen! I’m glad to hear the graveyard belongs to the countries of the fallen.. that is so meaningful.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 22, 2012 at 8:38 am #

      Thank you, Smidge. I really resonate with that cemetary thing, too – I agree – so meaningful. Makes it a wee bit easier for those loved ones left behind, somehow.

  9. prairiewisdom June 23, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

    Your story brings the experience to life. I haven’t traveled to Asia, although my sister has and she has some amazing bathroom stories also. But then, I remember using the outhouse on my grandparents farm when I was little.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 24, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

      Yeah, those days aren’t that far behind us, are they?! I’m glad I live now…though it’s not perfect…but at least we have flushing toilets!

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