Tag Archives: toilets

Jesus wants you to build a toilet

Recently Alexis Grant mentioned on The Traveling Writer that someone had googled “best travel memoir’s by women” and landed on her blog. It made her day.

This piqued my curiosity. How were people (people other than my mother, that is) landing on my blog?

It took a while to figure out how to get this information, but a bit of my own googling eventually told me how to access the search terms on the blog stats page. So without further ado…

The number one search terms – lisa mckay and lisa mckay laos – made total sense to me.

The second most trafficked search terms – laos and laos writing – made less sense. I’m not quite sure how it’s possible to google an entire country and find my blog, but perhaps this is an unanticipated bonus to living in the least developed landlocked nation in Asia.

Then things started to get even weirder. The following search terms all showed up on the list:

  1. Lao snake
  2. giant snake Laos
  3. sneck in laos (no, I am not making these up)
  4. daaaaaate in asia.com
  5. pepsi from the fat of pig
  6. zozo spray India (pretty sure that one’s your fault, Jos)
  7. pebbles like girl scouts
  8. tropical waterfall
  9. honeymoon constipated
  10. poo laos existence
  11. males doing toilet on roads

If I were to take this as a guide to the sort of content my readers really want, I might conclude that my niche market is writing about toilets (or lack thereof) in Laos. That and snakes.

So for all you lovers of toilet stories, today I have a really good one for you. It was written by Mike a couple of years ago and published here by Reuters AlertNet. Enjoy.

Jesus wants you to build a toilet

by Mike Wolfe

“Jesus wants you to build a toilet for the women,” I told Pastor Barry in my best broken Tok Pisin. Normally I feel a bit annoyed when people make Jesus the poster child for their personal cause. I remember, for example, the billboard in Atlanta a few years ago that showed a picture of a cherubic Jesus and stated “Jesus was a vegetarian.” I laughed nearly every time I saw it.

But Pastor Barry wore a baseball cap that sported the phrase “Jesus is my boss”, so I figured I had his attention.

We were sitting on a bamboo bench on Petats Island in Papua New Guinea. A refreshing sea breeze rustled the coconut palms and mango trees. The bright red hibiscus flowers danced in the wind. It was a beautiful Pacific morning. A perfect day for conducting an evaluation of the water and sanitation project that World Vision is implementing in the region.

I had just inspected one of the new ventilated improved pit toilets built near the church. It’s a really well constructed toilet. And Pastor Barry keeps a lock on it. The women told me it’s only used on Sundays or special occasions. Apparently Pastor Barry doesn’t want people using it regularly. So most of the time people go in the bush or walk into the sea. But sometimes they get to use the nice new toilet.

I asked the women whether they liked it. They giggled, perhaps on account of my broken Tok Pisin, and perhaps because they were embarrassed that a white man with notebook, camera and funny GPS unit strung around his neck was asking them whether they like defecating in the lone toilet. After the initial embarrassment, the eyes of one of the women lit up. “Yes,” she told me. “We feel safe with the toilet.”

The United Nations has proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Sanitation. That may seem irrelevant for those of us who are able to flush and forget. But roughly one third of people on the planet don’t have access to improved sanitation. That more or less means 2 billion people relieve themselves in the bush.

Lack of improved sanitation has all sorts of negative effects on public health. Like dead children – diarrhea is still the leading cause of death for children under five. Like the additional burden for mothers who regularly have to take care of a sick child. Like cholera outbreaks – ever hear of cholera occurring in a place with improved sanitation? Nope.

Sanitation is a basic human need. If you look at the data from New York, London, and Paris before those cities built sewers, you’ll see their mortality rates were about the same as mortality rates today in Sub Saharan Africa.

On my first year in an overseas posting as a water and sanitation engineer, my focus was on improving access to clean water and sanitation. Women in displacement camps in northern Uganda would often wait in line for two hours to pump water, while some 1500 schoolchildren would have to share two toilets. So we drilled more wells and built more toilets.

I spent my second year in Sri Lanka where thousands of houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. In addition to rebuilding schools, health clinics, and homes, we installed hundreds of wells and built hundreds of toilets.

In Papua New Guinea I’ve begun focusing more on improving hygiene practices than building infrastructure. We can build lots of toilets, but what if people don’t actually use them? (Happens more often than you may think.) And if people don’t wash their hands after using the toilet, it’s likely there will be hardly any improvements in health.

So for the past year my focus has been on behavior change: improving hygiene practices that complement improvements in infrastructure. But while assessing this project, I’ve been particularly moved by something that isn’t directly related to safe water or improved sanitation.

Before our project, the women walked an hour or more to get water. To relieve themselves, they walked far into the bush or the mangroves. The women told us they used to get sexually assaulted by men hiding in the bush. Now that there are water taps and toilets close to their homes, they no longer get attacked on trips to fetch water or go to the loo.

Domestic and sexual violence against women is prevalent in the Pacific. I reckon that women tend to get the short end of the stick all around the world but it seems to me to be particularly bad here. In the Pacific, the women are damn lucky if they get any of the stick at all, because most of the time the men take the stick and beat them with it. Given a choice, I reckon I’d prefer to be a woman in Afghanistan than a woman in PNG.

On Petats the women told me that they felt safe when they used the new toilet.

“You know the Bible and I know the Bible,” I said to Pastor Barry. “You know that Jesus loved the mamas and he loved the weak and the vulnerable. I think Jesus wants you to build a toilet for the women.”

I hope he will.


The existence of poo

On Friday night Mike and I had a hot date. As you all know by now that we live in Laos, and that Laos is often very hot indeed, it would be overkill to add the word “literally” here. I will just move right along to the many other things that made this date hot.

It was a gorgeous, velvety, night at the tail end of a long week, and we decided to go somewhere special for dinner. So we left the guesthouse and wandered up main street – through the colorful carnival of the night market, past the lady who makes great mango shakes, past the stall where we buy nutella and banana crepes, past the air-conditioned wine bar that serves warm eggplant and carrot appetizers drizzled with olive oil, past the place that offers ‘three for the price of two’ cocktails during happy hour, and past the French bakery that serves chocolate au pain dense enough to tide you over until lunch if you eat it at 7am.

And to think that my mother and my husband were so worried that I’d never be able to find my way around Luang Prabang without a GPS.

After passing that parade of gastronomic delights we wandered down a couple of side streets towards the Mekong until, opposite a gold-glazed temple, we reached Tamarind.

Tamarind is a small nook that serves traditional Lao food along with a dash of cultural orientation. The menu, written in English and Lao, tells you that it’s impolite here to put your fork into your mouth – the fork is intended only for shoveling food onto your spoon. It tells you not to buy rice from the street vendors to give to the monks in the morning – that the monks consider that rice tainted and will not eat it. And it explains one of the reasons why Lao cuisine is so different from Thai – because the staple, sticky rice, is better suited to thicker dipping sauces and pastes than the soupier Thai curries.

It was at Tamarind that I first sampled a tall glass of cold tamarind juice, and a stalk of lemongrass stuffed with minced chicken and herbs and grilled over an open flame. It was also where I first tried those ubiquitous brown triangles of dried riverweed studded with sesame seeds that you are meant to dip into tiny bowls of chili paste mixed with buffalo skin. The latter was not such a transcendent epicurean moment, but I guess you can’t win them all.

Despite the occasional appearance of buffalo skin in the dishes, I love the food at Tamarind. But, so far, the food at Tamarind has not returned my affection in equal measure. The first time we went there I was already unwell, probably sick from something I’d eaten in the market the previous day. And on Friday – although I was feeling perfectly perky when we sat down to dinner – I suddenly felt markedly less perky about halfway through our feast.

There are few things more deflating than suddenly becoming aware that you may need to make an emergency toilet run in the middle of a hot date.

Mike – a water and sanitation engineer and himself a veteran of giardia in Tajikistan – was sympathetically no-nonsense. We got the coconut sticky rice desert to go, walked down to the road along the river, and caught a tuk tuk back to the guesthouse. After we got there I made a beeline for the toilet. Then I collapsed, petulant and groaning, onto the bed.

“What?” Mike asked. “Don’t you feel better?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s just that, well, Asia is forcing me to acknowledge poo.”

“What about poo?” Mike asked.

“Its existence,” I said.

“Wait,” Mike said, genuinely baffled. “Let me get this straight. Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the existence of poo.”

“Yes,” I said.

Then Mike busted up laughing so hard I really thought that he might fall over.

“I love poo,” he taunted, when he once again had enough breath to speak. “Poo is my bread and butter.”

“Ugh,” I moaned. “I can’t believe you just said that. You’re disgusting.”

“You are unbelievably quirky,” he said. “I can’t believe that you just said that Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the operational outworkings of a normal bodily function that you have, on average, been experiencing at least once every two days since you were born.”

“Mere existence doesn’t mandate open acknowledgment,” I said. “And I am not the only one. This is a widespread woman issue.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

“What do men do when they feel the urge and they’re out somewhere – at the office, or at a friend’s house?”

Mike looked at me as if trying to figure whether I was asking a trick question.

“You use a toilet,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for – to deal with our body’s normal waste in a sanitary and efficient manner.”

“There are some exceptions to this, obviously,” I said. “But women usually find it excruciatingly embarrassing to be caught out in public and need to do the poo. It is generally understood that you do not do the poo anywhere where other people may surmise what you are up to – much less anywhere you may be heard or smelled. Ideally you do not do the poo unless you are at your own home. Alone.”

Mike did not want to believe me on this. I had to tell him about women I know who will never use a public restroom. I had to tell him about women I know who regularly go to an entirely different floor of their office building to use the toilet if they simply cannot wait any longer at work. I had to tell him about women I know who spent their entire honeymoon constipated because they refused to use the bathroom in their hotel room.

“No!” Mike said, horrified, upon hearing this last tale of poo-shame.

“Yes!” I said. “They made covert runs to the bathroom in the lobby.”

“Did you…?” he asked.

“No!” I said. “I wasn’t that bad. But I get it. It’s hard to suddenly acknowledge the existence of poo to someone else when you’ve spent much of your life working to hide it.”

“How can there can be that much shame around something everyone experiences?” Mike asked.

We both lay on the bed for a while, staring at the ceiling, pondering this question.

“What else is up there on your shame index?” Mike wanted to know.

“Crying,” I said. “I don’t think this one is nearly as female-universal. But I hate crying in public. I hate crying in front of you.”

“But that’s my favorite.” Mike said. “When you’re such an angry little ball of woe it’s really sexy.”

“Shut up,” I said, whacking him on the head.

“You’ve had a bad week then, haven’t you?” Mike said, still far too amused to pretend much straight-faced sympathy. “You’ve cried in front of me. Asia has forced to acknowledge the existence of poo. And poo, come to think of it, has probably forced you to acknowledge the existence of Asia.”

“It’s been great,” I said. “And tonight’s been the best date ever.”

“You’re welcome,” Mike said.

“What exactly am I supposed to be thanking you for now?” I asked.

“For helping you get over your quirky issues,” he said.

And to that, I had no good comeback.

I still don’t have a good comeback, but this week will doubtless bring more opportunities to come face to face with those quirky issues, and perhaps I will find one. For tomorrow I’m traveling with Mike four hours north, to spend a couple of days in a village in Viengkham province. Mike will be performing the final inspection of a gravity-fed water system there, and he assures me there will not be any air conditioners or internet present, but there will be a blessing ceremony, lots and lots of local food, and way too much beerlao.

I can hardly wait. I just hope they also have toilets.