Remembering the Camino, Part 5: Women Walkers and...Questionable Bathrooms

I have a childhood memory involving my grandmother's outhouse in a South Korean fishing village that has morphed into an irrational fear that won't go away.

In my nightmare vision, I fall inside the narrow rectangle that had been cut out as a make-shift squat toilet, and I flail around in the repulsive mess.  Yes, I had quite an unpleasant deja vu when I saw Slumdog Millionaire.

Given this phobia, I have more serious qualms about "rough" travel than Will does.  Besides which, men have it a little easier when it comes to using porta-potties and outhouses during their excursions.  Typically, they just need to urinate, and men can do that without touching any surface that might be a bit iffy.  Not having that luxury, women suffer much greater agonies when contemplating the relative cleanliness of bathrooms they might come across.

During our Camino de Santiago walk, we had occasion to try out a myriad different bathrooms.  After all, cafe bars along the camino were welcome sights not only for their caffeinated sustenance but also because they offered bathrooms for use (in exchange for purchasing coffee, tortilla, or magdelana, etc.)  Most toilets were not sparkling clean (and, really, how can they be with so much use from all the walkers?), and many were missing toilet seats, and almost none actually had toilet paper available. A piece of travel advice: Bring a small packet of kleenex tissue wherever you go!

At albergue hostels, almost all showers and bathrooms were unisex.  At first, I was a bit squeamish about unisex communal bathrooms.  European walkers seemed to congregate in semi-nudity and didn't bat an eyelash, but American women were especially a bit shy about waiting for a man to come out of a shower--or to have a man, wearing just a towel, waiting right outside our toilet stalls.

And it just didn't feel right when, as happened in one albergue dormitory we were sleeping in (where the only private room was already taken!), we were sharing a room which also hosted three 70-something Danish men in their underwear and two 30-something French sisters in their bras.  But of course people do that all the time in public beaches, so what's the fuss?

In any case, all that is NOTHING compared to one bathroom on the middle of the path.  In our research for places to stay--and, in this case, to avoid--we'd come across this description (in John Brierly's indispensable Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago) of an albergue which was a bit more au naturel than we care for: It has "very basic facilities which includes an outside toilet and water from a well on the other side of the road."  Nice.

So, needless to say, when we came across it the next morning, we were curious to observe it, from afar.  (Yes, indeed, it is pictured at the top of this post.)  Unfortunately, our breakfast cafe con leche having worked its way through our system and having come across no other servicios up to that point on the walk that morning, Will and I actually had to use its services.  Will went first to scope it out (--he's such a gentleman that way).  He came out with a skeptical frown and asked me if I really needed to go.  Bad sign.

Well, it was my grandmother's squat-toilet outhouse all over again.  The only saving grace (if we could call it that) was that the pile of putrid matter was high enough that I wouldn't have to drop very far to wade in it.  And the shack came with a hand-written sign asking users to sprinkle lime powder on our leavings to reduce the stench.  Will thinks it helped.  I couldn't tell since I tried not to breathe at all during the entire episode.  Holding one hand to my nostrils really made the squatting process even that much more awkward too.

While we look forward to much more international travel during the remainder of our sabbatical lives, I must admit that I am not keen on discovering the more adventurous toilets around the world...


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