If you think using the restroom is a pretty straightforward activity, think again. There’s remarkable variations in the way people access toilets and the way toilets function, across cultures, and around the world.
Paying to use a toilet is a foreign notion for most Americans, but it’s actually the norm in many parts of the world. Automated pay toilets are ubiquitous throughout Europe and Asia and in Eastern Europe you’re more likely to encounter live attendants at the door. And yes, they should be tipped. Think of what’s involved in their eight-hour workday.
In China, home of the Modern Toilet Restaurant (that serves soup in miniature toilet bowls), you’ll often be required to pay for toilet paper. In India, most pay toilets are operated by the social service organization, Sulabh International, which uses the profits to operate toilets in areas with poor sanitation. German service stations have an interesting arrangement with their customers. Expect to pay a small fee for entry, but also receive a voucher for a refund upon exit. The toilets must be pretty spectacular if operators feel the need to incentivize people to leave.
Even more foreign than the pay arrangements associated with many toilets abroad, are the toilets themselves. All across Asia you’ll find “squat toilets,” which are porcelain receptacles built into the floor to be squatted over. On the other end of the spectrum, both Japan and Germany have toilets with some very exotic features. Electric Japanese toilets have white noise systems built into them and many Germans are using a contraption called a “washout toilet,” which has a platform built inside the bowl to allow users to inspect deposits before they flush.
With all this variation you may be wondering what a traveler can do to prepare for the unexpected. First, acknowledge the need for preparation. The average person uses a toilet 6-8 times per day. If you’re on the go in a foreign country, those trips can either be small diversions or big stories, depending on how much you’ve prepared. Most important, bring hand sanitizer! Many facilities don’t have soap and water to wash your hands after the use of the toilet, so hand sanitizer is crucial.
Also, keep some pocket change on hand at all times, in case a pay toilet is your only option in the moment (and if you’re out of money, remember most restaurants, museums and historic sites often have free toilets). Finally, consider bringing an umbrella with you. Sure, it’s eccentric and cumbersome, but you may be astonished by the lack of privacy in some public toilets abroad. And if you’re a modest person, an umbrella will feel quite practical once you find yourself stumbling into these situations.