Toilets = luxury

A quarter of the Earth’s people have never used a restroom

Kimberly A. Edwards is an employee for the California Department of Education and a freelance writer of 30 years who serves on the board of the California Writers Club Sacramento branch.

When Lewis Mumford in 1938 wrote, “The only place sacred from interruption is the private toilet,” he underestimated such a privilege. As it turns out, restrooms comprise a comfort yet to be fully enjoyed worldwide. The Associated Press reported recently that only a bit more than 50 percent of India’s population shares this convenience.

In Malaysia in 2007, my companion Frank and I visited a bus counter to purchase passage to Singapore (coincidently, site of the 2001 and 2009 World Toilet Summit & Expo). When Frank disappeared, I panicked. A stranger piped, “They took him down the street to find a toilet.”

In our cozy American homes, it’s difficult to fathom that a quarter of the Earth’s people has never used a restroom. In some countries, schools offer no facilities. On some train lavatories, it’s clear when you peer down the hole and see the rails moving just how realities differ across our globe.

In 2010, The New Yorker cited Melinda Gates as condemning poor sanitation for adding to the deaths of a million and a half children annually. Often aid groups find that when outhouses are supplied, they mutate into commodities used for goats, livestock or to store grain. Rose George in The Big Necessity exposed the harm that doesn’t get discussed: sewage emitting carbon dioxide, water contamination, spreading diseases. A United Nations Children’s Fund official says bashfulness should be disregarded when “around 4,000 young children die each day because they do not have access to these basic services, which we take for granted.”

Exactly what is “taken for granted” was illustrated by a trip Frank and I took in Peru’s central Andes. With the journey scheduled to last eight hours, our agent assured us that the double-decker bus boasted a bathroom. Yet when passengers settled into their upper-level seats, I found the lavatory locked. After the first stop, I checked again. Chains still blocked entry. As the vehicle took off, I wondered how to communicate with the driver, insulated in the cab below. Frank promised to remind him at the next stop.

When the bus pulled over. Frank descended.

“Over there,” the driver said, motioning to the shoulder. “I’ll remove the chain for your girlfriend, but you take advantage here.”

When the bus took off, the bathroom remained barred. “The driver probably has to clean it himself,” speculated Frank.

As I rocked from side to side, I recalled the previous week, when in the Sacred Valley a boy led me through a bar, past a tethered bull, to a wooden frame sheltering a hole in the ground. In Lima, a man at a table outside a public restroom collected entry fees. He quizzed Frank on which “call of nature” to determine how many squares of tissue to dole out.

At the next stop, Frank joined other male travelers pounding the driver’s cabin. “Open the bathroom door,” they demanded.

“If you swear to do only one thing!”

“We promise!”

Pipi. That is all you can do on my bus!”

In summary, the next time you enter a restroom, appreciate the indulgence and envision the circumstances faced by millions who lack the luxury Mumford knew in 1938.