Trump, Shitholes, T-shirts

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Like much of humanity I’m disappointed if a day goes by without another incident of the US President Donald Trump opening his mouth and seeing how far he can get his foot into it. Last week it was his ‘shitholes’ outburst and, predictably, a dozen different shithole T-shirt designs instantly went on sale. I’ve only bought one Trump T- shirt so far (Dotard vs Rocketman), but clearly I need to be investing in this art form. Will there be a Trump T-shirt art exhibit one day? The man has done wonders for T-shirt manufacturers, just like he’s rejuvenated the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The Shithole story prompted the Washington Post to review Lonely Planet’s new Toilets: A Spotter’s Guide book. To check out Lonely Planet’s own description of this timely book just click here.

The query from Botswana, ‘are we a shithole?’ was one of my favourite responses to the US President’s less than presidential complaint, but I was also reminded, yet again, that the word I generally connect with Haiti – from my two visits – is not ‘shithole’ but ‘heroic’. There’s no other word that can adequately describe Haiti’s fight for freedom from French colonial rule.

On my Silk Road travels in 2017 I was – well I won’t say delighted, but certainly intrigued – to find that despite huge steps forward in toilet facilities you can still find real shitholes in China. And finally, about 10 years ago I wrote on my own international travel encounters with interesting toilets in the UK edition of the Lonely Planet Magazine.

With all that uninhabited outback it’s hardly surprising that Australia has some fine loos-with-a-view, places where you don’t need walls around the throne because there’s nobody within a hundred miles. Yet one of Australia’s finest loo views can be enjoyed right in central Melbourne. Head to the 35th floor of the Sofitel Hotel where floor to ceiling glass allows men to use the urinals and at the same time gaze across to England losing to Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The view is close up at the harbourside Buzz Cafe in Darwin’s trendy Cullen Bay Marina. One way glass means you can have a pee while looking directly over the shoulder of diners sitting in front of you. It’s also men only I’m afraid, although women are regularly invited in to check the view.

Exotic toilet facilities may be part of the travel experience, but often it’s familiarity that travellers really want. ‘We’d put photographs of the great sights, the colourful restaurants and the swish rooms in our brochures,’ the tour operator told me. ‘But you know what people really wanted to see? The toilets. They didn’t want verbal reassurance, they wanted to see it with their own eyes.’‘Right, it’s a porcelain throne. I won’t be squatting on the floor, everything is OK, now I’ll book that tour.’

Unfamiliar food, deep vein thrombosis, lost luggage, delayed flights, all those travel risks pale beside a really bad toilet.

Or not even a bad one. You can still find the odd squat toilet in the back blocks of France and as you head east into Asia they’ll become increasingly familiar, but there are places (Japan is one of them) where brand new squat toilets are still manufactured. They may feature every modern Japanese technical twist (bar the heated seat), but lots of us want to sit to perform our bodily functions.

Japan may still manufacture squat toilets, but they’re also the unchallenged leaders in high tech commodes. The toilet with a heated seat to keep your bum warm, a water jet and hot air system that puts your nether regions through the equivalent of a car wash and a sound track to cancel out any disgusting noises.

In many places, however, KISS – keep it simple stupid – is the best advice any WC engineer could take on board. I’ve always appreciated those Indonesian toilets where the flushing mechanism is a tank of water with a plastic saucepan to scoop a flush’s worth of water out and hurl it down. It never malfunctions, never fails to flush.

I’ve encountered some wonderful toilets over the years, thrones carefully sited so you can enjoy the wonderful view over the valley. Toilets which seemed to have been built in a tropical herbarium, surrounded by plants and flowers. Toilets which manage to collide with a library so there’s no shortage of reading material for prolonged visits. Or the art gallery, so you have something uplifting to gaze at while otherwise engaged.

▲  North Face of Mt Kailash and glacier

For truly bad toilets, however, there’s one place which is way out in the lead. Tibet. Now I love Tibet. Tibetan Buddhist statuary keep an eye on things around my house, my daughter Tashi even acquired her name from Tibet. Australians talk of the ‘long drop’ outhouse, beneath the wooden seat is a pit extending half way to, to, well to Tibet. There are places in Tibet which also had long drops. Long, long ago. Years, centuries, no eons of use have converted deep depressions into soaring peaks. The worst of them all? It was in Darchen, right below holy Mt Kailash, where a visit to the campsite outhouse confronted you with another mountain, a mountain of shit.