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Uncomfort Zone: Welcome to the potty

What you need to know before taking that trip abroad

 by Jenna Eckenrode  published on Thursday, February 3, 2005


Preparing for a trip overseas is nothing short of a nightmare.

The traveler nervously jam-packs a suitcase in anticipation of every possible contingency: more than double the amount of necessary clothes, more makeup than a Las Vegas showgirl would need and enough film to supply The New York Times for a year.

What a lot of people forget to consider, however, is the restroom situation. And with countless study abroad programs at ASU, SPM wants to make sure students get the lowdown on the potential potty problems they could face overseas.

"I have seen my fair share of troths, pits and holes," says Teri Murphy, a professor of religion and justice studies.

Murphy, who leads students on study abroad programs to various regions of the world including South Africa, says the flushing toilets and scented hand soap the Americans are so accustomed to are not the norm in many foreign countries, especially those in more undeveloped areas.

"In certain places, people think about hygiene very differently," she says. "It is normal for them, but for us, it can take some getting used to."

Even in developed European countries, Murphy says students may be stepping outside their comfort zone when they step into the restroom.

"There are places in Europe where your toilet is just a partition and a little hole in the ground," she says.

Photography senior Emily Winters, who traveled to Borneo and Thailand in 2003, says she had no clue what to expect from the cultures or the toilets when she set out that summer.

"I wasn't sure what to expect," she says. "But I was more excited than scared."

It was that attitude that got her through what she calls Thailand's "squattie potties."

"We took a trek through northern Thailand and I didn't know what to do with a squattie pottie at first, because you don't sit," she says.

A squat toilet, although it has variations depending on the region, is generally no more than a basin dug in the ground with little steps on either side for the traveler to put their feet. Some of the restrooms have cups that may be filled up with water from a spout so that one can manually flush the basin by pouring water into it.

"In some parts that are more primitive, you just think, 'Ew. What do I do?' " Winters says. "But you just have to get used to it."

Murphy says that although some students are afraid to ask about restrooms, she is always very upfront with them about all aspects of their travel, including the toilets, or lack thereof.

"Bathrooms and personal space can be a point of stress for students because they think 'OK, I am not sure where to put my feet' and things like that," she says. "It's amazing how all of your old camping skills come back to you."

Those skills, she says, came in handy while traveling in China. There, Murphy encountered "a shallow troth with no water," allowing "everything and anything" to remain in sight.

"When you are camping, the hole is pretty deep, but this one was dug out only about one-and-a-half feet," she says. "Although it is completely normal for those who live in that culture, it was a little too much for me."

Winters says that getting used to squat toilets didn't take long, but added that those planning to travel should definitely consider packing a roll of toilet paper and loading up on hand sanitizer.

"You have to bring your own toilet paper ... you just have to," she says. "Bring hand sanitizer or soap because they are not readily available.

Murphy agrees, but says that if there is piping in the area, it may not be able to handle the paper. She recommends small packs of tissues as well as baby wipes. Hepatitis A and B vaccines also might be a good idea because many countries may expose foreign travelers to foreign organisms, making them more susceptible to illness.

Most importantly, Murphy adds, if water is available, use it to flush, not brush.

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