Getting to the Bottom of Things

Nobel medalI’m exploring a theory–plumbing the depths, in fact–but I’m keeping my hopes for that Nobel Prize in economics in check. Pinched back, you might say. Here’s the poop: I believe I’ve found a way to divide the world into first world, developing/emerging world, and third world that is completely void of controversy. What relief! A method that eliminates all wrangling over GDP, debt ratios, per capita income, and other subjective measures that frankly reek of first-world high-water attitudes. No judgment, no complications, no math. But whenever I have an urge to float my theory with fellow-travelers, plop! They’ve already arrived at the same end. So it’s clear I haven’t found anything new, but if I close my eyes and concentrate and hurry, I MIGHT be the first to publish it.

Here goes: It’s in the plumbing. As follows:

  • First world: Reliable drinking water comes from the tap, you can order a salad in a restaurant without worrying about how the greens were washed, and sit-down, flush toilets with toilet paper are available everywhere you go (outdoor venues excepted, where maintained Port-A-Lets are available instead).
  • Developing world: The taps are reliable (though it’s unclear whether you should drink what comes out), restaurant ordering is generally safe, but you frequently find some funky bathroom situations.
  • Third world: Non-potable water from rough-looking taps, and bathroom situations occupy the range between funky and primitive, with no way to anticipate how far up or down that spectrum you’re going to find things.

I hope I didn’t use too much technical language, but I needed to be specific if I had any hope of marking the territory around my theory. I expect future travels to clean up some of the swampy areas between categories, but I think I have a good start. Those Nobel people pay some mad cizash and I don’t want to lose out over a careless smear. Plus I hear they keep things really clean in Stockholm and I’d like to go there. So let me plunge into the details:

First world

When you’re in the first world, you know what to expect when you go into the bathroom. Americans make jokes about European toilet paper, but come on–you’re using public toilets. You ever wanted to buy one of those gigundor rolls in a U.S. public bathroom for your home installation? Institutional toilet paper is the worst everywhere, but in the first world it IS everywhere, unless it runs out and you need your neighbor to spare a square. You’re going to have a room with a door, a sit-down toilet (and a urinal, if applicable), and by global standards, it’ll be clean. Anything other than that is an exception and a reliable conversation piece. As for water, you just don’t think about it, other than to say the tap water tastes better here than there.

Developing world

In a lot of ways, the developing world looks like the first world. Highways, office buildings, first-class shopping. You eat in restaurants without worry. And then you go to the bathroom. Sink? Maybe. If there is a sink, soap? Maybe. Towels or paper towels? Maybe. Toilet off the ground, like a chair? Maybe. Toilet paper? Maybe. What have other people done in there before you? Not sure, but it appears probably something different than what you’re doing.

Third world

In the third world, you carry bottled water everywhere you go. You eat fresh vegetables only in a high-end restaurant or if you’ve prepared them yourself, and you may or may not have seen somebody washing his face in the water used to cook the street food. You are likely to find yourself needing to use the bathroom more often here than you do at home, which gives you a broad survey of what’s available: squatters (both elevated and flat), pull chains, dip buckets for low-tech flushing (and washing), straight-up pit toilets, sit toilets without seats or tank lids, and privacy that’s left up to you. And toilet paper? Don’t make me giggle. When you’re finished, that hand sanitizer in your purse is probably your only option.

Which brings me to my current state of residence, where we have highways that look like this:

Riyadh Ring Road. Source: Dar Group

Riyadh Ring Road. Source: Dar Group

Office buildings that look like this:

Downtown Riyadh. Source:

Downtown Riyadh. Source:

And shopping malls that look like this:

Al Faisaliah Mall, Riyadh. Source: Arab News

Al Faisaliah Mall, Riyadh. Source: Arab News

It’s all got that freshly scrubbed sparkly shine, doesn’t it? So now it’s time to evaluate the plumbing. Potable water? Not sure. And whether you want to drink even if you’re guaranteed of its safety it is a separate question. A seasonal question, actually. When I got here in late August, I was taking showers straight from the cold tap. We knew the seasons had changed when we noticed cool–as in drinking temperature–water from the tap a few weeks ago. So, with first-world water checked off it’s time to go the bathroom for the final part of the evaluation.

To establish the context, perhaps the best place to start is with my own:

My powder room, Riyadh

My powder room, Riyadh

Admire my decorating? This is the powder room/loo/WC/washroom/toilet by my front door. That’s one of the rugs the carpet dealer threw in when we bought our larger rugs. The sink is the smallest I’ve ever seen–good luck getting both your hands in it at once, but I’ve provided soap and a towel if you’re game to try. (Though I’ll understand if I see you washing your hands in the kitchen.) Most Americans are familiar with the hand-held shower wand so universal in Europe and inexplicably absent in the U.S. I have those, too, in my showers and will miss them terribly when I go home. But what is that sprayer by the toilet, Americans ask?

Well, as convenient a tool as it might seem for rinsing out the toilet you’ve just cleaned, it is, in fact, for cleaning the person using the toilet. No matter what else is lacking in a public restroom in Riyadh, you will ALWAYS find one of these. A lot of non-Americans find the customary U.S. reliance on dry toilet paper alone disturbing. If you leaned back at the park and stuck your hand in dog poo, you wouldn’t just wipe it off with paper, would you? As the girl from Cottonelle reminds us here, wet washing is much more civilized than using just toilet paper, don’t you agree? (Don’t forget to talk about your bum on Facebook!) So in Europe you find the bidet, and in the Middle East a spray wand. It is also known as a shattaf or more commonly among expats, a “bum gun.” (Enjoy a family-appropriate video tutorial here.)

But it gets a lot less civilized in a hurry. There are some problems with the use of these things in a public setting:

  • Overreliance: Washing with water is a first-rate idea. Not having anything to dry with? Uh…are you supposed to just air-dry under those abayas and thobes? It’s common to find no toilet paper, or to be made to feel that your predicament is your own fault because a roll of toilet paper is sitting on the sink and you were supposed to tear some off BEFORE you went into the toilet. And yes, that is also what you’re supposed to dry your hands with at said sink. The well-prepared traveler carries her own.
  • Overspray: Finding water on the seat in a public bathroom in Saudi Arabia is normal. So is finding water on the lid, the tank, the wall, and the floor. And I’m told the women are tidier than the men, but both often use the sprayer to do ablutions before prayer, which include washing the face and head, hands and arms to the elbows, and feet and ankles. The directive also seems to include just walking away when you’re finished. It’s up to the next many users to keep their own hems out of the puddles on the floor until the dry climate does its job. Here’s what I walked into just last week in a restaurant:
Water on the toilet in a Riyadh restaurant

Water on the toilet

Kinda hard to capture water with a phone camera and the backup distances available in a toilet stall. You’re looking at front edge of the toilet and the floor on the left, and the back edge of the seat and the lower part of the lid on the right. With a little study you can see the droplets all over the toilet lid and seat and the sheen on the floor. Thanks a lot, sister. I hope you’re feeling good about yourself.

  • Overly male world view: Dudes building public buildings, you do realize we’re wearing abayas, right? Which are another layer of hitching and handling you have to manage on top of whatever clothes you’re wearing underneath. And which tend to drag on the floor, so you have to start wrangling from the moment you enter the bathroom/poolroom. And you DO realize we carry purses, right? Well, of course not. These are the same dudes who don’t consider the next man to use the bathroom when they spray water everywhere. The same men who say they wear ONLY white in the summer because it’s Just Too Hot to wear anything else, and say it front of a woman wearing a black robe with zero sense of irony. The same men who tell me to bring a lab sample back to the clinic the next morning and seem puzzled by how I’m supposed to do that when women can’t drive. So, of course, I have yet to encounter a SINGLE bathroom with a purse hook. Not one. I’m considering the merits of a backpack.
  • Overuse: How, exactly, did the last person use this wand I’m supposed to take in my hand and…oh, never mind.

If you can look past the water-everywhere issue, bathrooms at malls and restaurants are usually fairly clean. Even when instructions are required.

Comfort Room Etiquette sign in Riyadh toiletBut when the instructions fail (or patrons are just making their best guesses about what they’re supposed to do) things can go badly awry. Excluding highway truck stops and scheisty places where you really shouldn’t be asking for the toilet anyway, the worst I’ve seen was in…[drumroll]…the health clinic. Repeat: THE HEALTH CLINIC:

Health clinic toilet, Riyadh

Health clinic toilet, Riyadh

According to my formula, here’s where the faintest trickle of a chance of Saudi first world status swirled down the drain. Yes, the pink tile is everywhere because, duh, it’s the ladies’ room and there MUST NOT be any confusion on that score. Yes, you’re looking at a squat toilet cemented into broken tile and exposed concrete, which patients (who are wearing long black gowns) are supposed to use while gathering sterile samples. Just out of the frame is the pull chain and overhead tank, like the one in a museum re-creation of a Victorian house. Yes, there’s the spray hose to the left and yes, that’s water on the floor on and around where you’re supposed to squat, but what I learned only AFTER using this exemplary public facility is that the water did not come from the hose. Not entirely, anyway. Turns out that flushing the squat toilet sent flush water all over the floor. IN THE HEALTH CLINIC.

And for the final flourish:

Bathtub in the health clinic toilet, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Bathtub in the health clinic toilet, Riyadh

This takes a little more explanation. This is the bathtub. I can’t tell you why there’s a bathtub in the health clinic’s public bathroom, so don’t bother to ask. More interesting, though, are the tenants, a collection of dead roaches and flies. See those l-o-n-g antennae on the big one in the middle? So clearly the bathtub was unnecessary, except to confirm that yes, no one ever cleans in here. IN THE HEALTH CLINIC.

Have I scoped out the picture well enough? Have we come to the end? Are you ready to deposit your global rankings votes? And do you feel relieved of the pressure to make these decisions without the right reading material? I hope so. My goal has only been to expel any contention or confusion. Hmm…maybe I should be eying that Nobel prize for peace, instead. Here at the end of November, it’s the season for warmth and closeness, after all. So with the approach of this Thanksgiving weekend and the houseful of guests it brings, may I wish you good times, a unnatural willingness on everyone’s part to go with the flow, and fully functional plumbing.

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