Saturday, January 24, 2009

Flashback Friday: The most disgusting bathroom I've ever used

I've tried not to use too many travelogue stories for Flashback Friday, because they generally have neither a good story arc nor a punchy ending. I have made a few exceptions, though, and I'm making another one today to bring you an account of the most disgusting bathroom I've ever used. Note the distinction between "used" and "seen." The tale of the most disgusting bathroom I've ever seen will have to wait for another day.

Is anybody still reading?

To get to the story of the bathroom, you're going to have to wade through one of the more chaotic days of my life, near the end of 2004, just a few days after Christmas. You may remember from previous Flashback Fridays that at that time, we were traveling around the Middle East with Jeremy's brother (Dave) and sister (Sarah). On one particular morning, we woke up in our hotel room in Aqaba, Jordan, planning to take a ferry across the Red Sea to Nuweiba, Egypt, and then take a bus from there to Cairo, arriving in that city late at night. A day of traveling without sight-seeing, in other words, but it was a necessary evil.

Breakfast in our hotel was like being in the Twilight Zone. We were the only customers in the entire breakfast room, and the décor was a little outdated with lots of emphasis on teal and gold. Soft music was providing additional ambiance, but after a while we realized it was actually only one song: the theme from Love Story. Instead of just repeating the same version over and over, however, there were a dozen different versions that played in tireless rotation. There was original Love Story, saxophone Love Story, salsa Love Story, piano Love Story, Spanish guitar Love Story, New Age Love Story, etc. Finally it drove us so crazy that we just had to leave. We were due to be at the ferry station, anyway.

Two words sum up the entire ferry experience between Jordan and Egypt: Bureaucracy and Confusion. On the Jordan side, nobody seemed able to give us simple instructions on where to go and what to do. Instead, there were people on all sides of us alternately demanding money, giving us documents to fill out, giving us back too much money in the wrong currency, pointing out a dozen different lines to wait in, and urging us to hurry along. It was extremely stressful, and suddenly clear why our guidebook had recommended arriving at the ferry dock 90 minutes early. It took us that long to get everything straightened out, including paying a surprise exit tax in Jordanian dinars, when we had been so careful to spend our last ones the night before.

At last we made it onto the ferry and settled into our seats for the one-hour ride. For reasons which I can't quite recall (or choose not to), we thought it would be a good idea to send me to the ferry's service counter to buy bus tickets to Cairo (a 7-hour bus ride from Nuweiba, Egypt, where the ferry would land). I headed over to the ticket counter and submerged myself in the mob of shouting Egyptian men thrusting fistfuls of money towards the cashier. It was all very awkward. I did my best to hold my place in “line,” and thankfully, Jeremy came to my rescue a few minutes later. Together, we managed to secure bus tickets from Nuweiba to Cairo for the four of us.

Among all the stresses of figuring out where to go and what to do, we were directed to hand over our passports to an Egyptian immigration official so that he could expedite the entry process. As the ferry docked, immigration officials sequestered all us foreigners into one cabin room. To our surprise and dismay, before they would let us out of the room and onto the shore, the officials demanded our passports. The same passports we had handed over a few minutes earlier to another immigration official, who of course was now nowhere to be found. Explaining the situation to the officials resulted in confusion. It took Jeremy yelling in Arabic to finally get them to let us off the ferry.

We emerged into a mass of people and a sea of even more confusion. There were buses pulling up everywhere, and people were piling onto them. We had no idea what to do. Soon, more immigration officials were demanding to see our passports. With growing exasperation, we explained yet again that an official had taken them from us on the ferry. Eventually, we were let on to one of the buses, even though we had no idea where it was going. Everyone was getting on buses, so we did, too. Our bus drove for a few minutes and then pulled up to an even more crowded area of the ferry dock and let us off, with no direction as to what we were supposed to do.

Let me pause here and mention again the absolute chaos this place was in. It was as if we had caught the ferry terminal completely by surprise; as if no ferry had ever arrived at the port before, and even if one had, there had certainly been no foreigners on it. There were no signs, not even in Arabic, just a dozen concrete buildings holding various, unlabeled offices. In actuality, a ferry arrives at that dock at least twice a day, carrying hundreds of travelers from Jordan to Egypt. The lack of organization in spite of this was absolutely appalling.

Somehow, we managed to buy our visas for entry in to Egypt, which required a bit of effort since we still didn't have our passports. Then, we wandered from building to building before being told to wait at a specific concrete office. I cannot remember how many times we were asked for our passports in the process. I was beginning to think that they were already for sale on the black market, since every single worker seemed surprised that someone had taken them on the ferry.

Finally, to our great relief, some dude showed up with a bunch of American passports, including ours. Until that point, Jeremy may or may not have resorted to yelling “THERE IS NO ORDER HERE!!!!!” in Arabic.

But there was still customs to go through, and we wove our way through hordes of Arabs toting cumbersome, metal carts piled high with suitcases, boxes, crates, and bicycles, as if they were fleeing the country forever with all of their possessions, and the possessions of all their extended family. The customs officials noticed the souvenir Damascus steel knife Sarah had in her suitcase, and started to make a fuss about it, despite the fact that it wasn’t sharpened at all. Jeremy again came to the rescue and finally convinced them that it was safe to take into the country by repeatedly and exaggeratingly attempting to slash his hand with it (it didn’t even come close to breaking the skin). This was a hilarious sight, and they laughed and let her through with it after all.

Now we had at last reached the bus that would take us to Cairo. If I had been looking forward to a smooth, comfortable ride, I was about to be grossly disappointed. The bus had indeed at one time been a luxury bus, but those days were long gone. It was old and rickety, the seats were cramped and clunky, and the upholstery was smelly. Also, I found a knife concealed behind my tray-table, which was kind of freaky and also ironic considering the fuss the customs officials had made over Sarah's souvenier blade.

The driver loaded our bags onto the bus with great urgency, as the bus was due to leave any minute. We dashed to a nearby kiosk to buy some snacks, and we each downed a can of pop - before being informed that the bus would be delaying its departure for 90 minutes to wait for another ferry passenger. There were no bathrooms in the area of the ferry terminal we were sequestered in, so I was powerless to do anything about the can of pop already working its way through my system. I was cursing Egypt already, and we still had a 7-hour bus ride to go.

I made it all the way to the halfway point of the trip without peeing my pants, at which time the bus pulled into a rest stop, our only break for the whole bus ride. I was grateful for the rest stop and rushed in to use the bathroom. In the Middle East, you almost always have to pay to use the facilities – nothing much, just a few cents to cover the cost of toilet paper and cleaning. As I entered the building, I noticed they were only charging for the men’s bathroom, but not the women’s. My lucky day! – or so I thought.

Once inside, I realized why they weren’t charging the women any money: surely no one had ever, ever cleaned this bathroom since its creation, and the lack of toilet paper was certainly the least of my worries. There were (or had once been, underneath all the (literal) crap) western sit-down toilets instead of Turkish squatters, which was usually a welcome sight, but in this case, a squatter would have been easier to deal with.

There were already a few women and a child from our bus in the bathroom, staring at the ramshackle, door-less, filth-smeared stalls with similar horror, and I asked them what we should do. With the typical Arab female fortitude, they straightened up, squared their shoulders, and explained to Sarah and me that there was nothing else to do but use the toilets as they were. We had no other alternative.

With my bladder relieved but my mood even more dampened, we boarded the bus again for the remainder of the drive to Cairo. Jeremy cheered me up a little when he shared with me some fake but delicious Oreos (called Borios) he'd found for sale at a nearby kiosk. Still, I was terrified of drinking anything for fear of what the next bathroom would look like, so I endured the rest of the trip with fuzzy Borio residue in my mouth.

Anyway, we did eventually arrive in Cairo, dehydrated and somewhat demoralized. We said goodbye to our bus friends and found a place to stay. We then ordered some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted – delivery from Pizza Hut. Throughout our journey from Jordan, Egypt had sunk very, very low in my favor. This hot, cheesy, western-style pizza was its first step toward making it up to me.

As for the bathroom, looking back, I do believe it is the most disgusting one I've ever used. The worst part is that I found out later that the place where Jeremy bought the Borios a few doors down had a perfectly usable, tolerably clean women's bathroom. I have no idea why all us women headed for the rest area facilities. I guess now I know better for the next time I'm making the trip between Nuweiba and Cairo on a public bus.

Which will be, oh I don't know, approximately never.


Suzanne Bubnash said...

It seems you were describing the same bathroom I encountered near a border post between [insert 2 Middle East countries--can't recall which they were], but since I've never been to Egypt, it appears there must be more than one sickening bathroom in the region. It was at the top of the disgust-o-meter and since it was not yet a dire situation for me, I turned right around and walked out.

Read about Filthy John's Holler at Our standards are much higher here, but it's still funny.

Amanda said...

So, I did know that people in many other parts of the world squatted instead of sat to do their business (I learned in nursing school that sitting while doing the valsalva maneuver is the leading cause of hemorrhoids), but I had never given any thought to what those facilities would even begin to look like. Thus, I lost 15 minutes of my life to Toilets around the world.

Sarah Rose Evans said...

My worst bathroom was one on a Tokyo subway-- someone had gotten drunk and attempted to smear crap in a half inch thick layer up the walls and across the floor. It was a squatter, but there was almost no where to step that wasn't covered.

Bridget said...

Mom, it was probably the one between Jordan and Syria. That one is gross but I used it a lot. There's just nowhere else.

Amanda, I, too, have now wasted 15 minutes of my life. The German Poo Shelf - truer words have never been spoken.

Sarah, did you USE said toilet??

Lark said...

Oh that was a great story! It reminded me of my worst bathroom experience in Ghana.
they didn't really have restrooms - just 4 walls of concrete with no ceiling. There is a concrete floor that is slanted and a gutter on the edge of the "room." YOu pee in the gutter with everyone else. I also noticed that most African women pee standing up, and now I know why. But, its difficult to pee standing up with Mormon undies, and plus I didn't have the experience and would probably have pee all down my leg (sorry this is becoming graphic, but I guess that is what happens when we're talking about toilets...).
So my friend and I would wait until all the ladies were out and we would quickly take turns using the bathroom. We had to use these a lot - that was all they had in most villages.

Jeremy Palmer said...

I hope everyone notices that no males have commented on this post. We just don't talk about that kind of stuff... ever.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Probably because it's less of an issue for males, right Jeremy??

Laura said...

Your flashbacks make me smile, as they remind me of some similar experiences that I have had while traveled.

Lilianne said...

The sickest bathroom I ever used was in the Philippines - it was basically a hole in the ground with two bars to "hold your weight" while doing your business. Once the hole is filled up, they just move the bathroom building. SO GROSS! They have similar shacks all through China, too. There have been so many times when I wished I could go to the bathroom like a man to spare myself from having to use those. But man, when you have to go, you HAVE to go. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?

Liz Johnson said...

Not to take away from the story, but do you think that river was that murky when Jesus was baptized? That weirded me out.

My most disgusting bathroom used (regularly, I might add), was in the ranchos. It was simply a spot of earth covered with a metal sheet, and there were no holes or attempts made to cover any of the messes made there by the six of us that shared it. You had to crouch down and waddle in to enter (the door height was approximately 3 1/2 feet tall) and then somehow wriggle your pants down, do your business, and wriggle them back up without ever standing, and definitely without falling over into the minefield of poo. Oh yeah, and you had to swat pigs away while you did it. Good times.

Maybe I'll copy you and start Flashback Friday: Rancho Edition. That could be quite fun. :)

Andrew said...

Our Aqaba to Nuweiba experience in 2006 was identical. You'd think they would figure it out sometime. Stupid ME bureaucracy.

And I won't comment on the toilets, since, as Jeremy said, we don't talk about that stuff. (Although taking Rachel to the potty at random mosques gets pretty interesting. Even she has limits--she has to approve of a toilet before using it.)

Crys said...

That same travel plan yielded two of the sickest bathrooms I'd ever seen. Sheesh! And what is it about someone running off with your passports and then the guys at the back of the boat yelling at you that you can't get off until you show them while guys at the front are shoving you off. I mean this must happen everyday. Seriously they need to just designate a place where you can sit and wait for runaway guy where they won't yell at you. Ahhh! While I was transcribing for Jason today I was thinking about how the lack of lines there is the only thing that has ever gotten me made enough to start yelling in public. What is it about the lack of order that pushes me over the edge. I still remember yelling out in the middle of Safeway, "I hate Arab men." Of course this is not true but I tell you at that moment I certainly hated the four or five that wouldn't let me weigh my dumb oranges.

Ashley said...

You told me this story before we made the trip to Egypt. You warned me and I was still surprised, but thanks to you we did not give our passports to anyone who asked for them...but we still had the same types of problems.

Steven said...

Hahaha. Borios.
Remember the ice cream parlor in City Mall in Amman? I was called Cold Rock instead of Coldstone.

JackJen said...

I would like to know where I can buy that Love Story CD.

sarah palmer cook said...

HAHA! I haven't even finished reading the whole post yet because my internet hasn't been working and I am catching up. but i HAD to read the end part about the actual toilet to jared. I've told him before about that exact bathroom experience. haha! I didnt remember there were no must have stood in front of me..somewhat blocking me. I can remember just waiting and hesitating before i guess we decided it was better to squat over a poo-filled toilet than to try and hold it! I also remember being excited that we didnt have to pay to use the bathroom..before i saw it. That was definitely the worst western-style toilet i've ever had to use. The worst hole in the floor one I saw was when I was going to use the toilet before we got on the buses for the start of that trip. I walked over to the building, saw the literal crap coming out of the squatting hole in the floor and decided i could wait. thats probably part of why i used the on at the 'rest stop'. I really enjoy reading your accounts of our shared times in the middle east, i could never write it so it was so interesting and comedic. i love it!

sarah palmer cook said...

and i think i remember jeremy and dave not being too concerned about our traumatic experience after we joined them in the 'restaurant'. I recall stray cats walking in the restaurant and on the tables..i think thats why we ate some packaged foods from the store nearby.

sarah palmer cook said...

ONE more thing. i sadly cannot even remember what happened to that damascus knife. do you remember bridget?

Bridget said...

I don't remember what happened to that knife, even after all the trouble we went through to bring it through to Egypt. Ridiculous.

I can't decide who wins for grossest toilet. Lark and Liz's sound gross for day-to-day use, while Lili's is gross for the general concept. Perhaps more thought on this subject is required.

dave said...

I really do often wonder what's become of my mosaic...


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