People are crammed into the Business Class Lounge at Livingstone airport. “Air-conditioned Lounge” the sign says – the fans are working furiously. I hesitate, briefly considering staying outside in the general lounge. It seems far more peaceful. But I hesitate too long and the seats I spotted have been taken. So it is into the Business Class lounge, which resembles an obstacle course. Every time someone opens the door, the receptionist is in danger of being squashed behind it.
I am not surprised that it is so basic – our boarding passes were manually ticked off by someone sitting at a little wooden desk as we came through security. My husband has cut a path for us and has found a corner to squeeze into. We are so tightly packed that he feels compelled to start a conversation with the person who he is sitting almost knee-to-knee with.
The décor in the lounge is from another era – all chintzy and chunky – cheap dark furniture with amateur paintings adorning the walls. Against the opposite wall is a table with an electric kettle, mugs and a row of jars with tea, coffee and creamer. Next to that is a table with boxes of wine, glasses and plastic-wrapped bowls of curly yellow chips and popcorn.
Opposite us are two doors, one emblazoned with a thorny branch, the other with a red rose. “No seats on the toilet,” my husband announces as he comes out of the door with the thorn branch. I wonder if the door with the rose signifies any better. After 20 years of travelling around the world I am suspicious of public toilets.
There is more than an hour’s wait before boarding, if all goes according to plan, so I am forced to heed the call of nature. I enter the door with the rose, not expecting much. This is reasonably clean and I have learnt to use the reasonably clean toilet because you never know what you will find next. The toilet seat is there but the lid of the cistern has gone missing. I have to position myself with right leg extended to hold the door shut with my foot – good thing I do yoga – because it will not stay closed, never mind lock. But I have seen worse.
My suspicions have been nurtured by the squatting toilets of India, an experience which for the first time made being a man an attractive prospect. Indian public toilets are definitely to be avoided. This is not so easy when you are travelling from city to city in a less than speedy 1950s Ambassador. Not only did you have to squat while gingerly arranging yourself (thank heavens I was not wearing seven metres of sari), but hygiene was not high on the list. “What can you do? Too many people,” my mother-in-law would declare with a shake of her head.
When we were forced to stop, I would send my husband in first. I reasoned that if the men’s toilets were halfway decent there was the chance that the women’s would be too. After all, he didn’t have to sit down. Too many times he came out holding his nose and giving it the thumbs down.
My daughter, who was not quite three at the time, had taken one look at the squatting toilet and pursing her lips, had declared, “I don’t have a wee anymore!” No amount of cajoling could change her mind. She developed a leak-proof bladder, waiting until we were back at the hotel so that she could use the Western-style toilet. It has stood her in good stead over the years.
There have been other occasions I have thought about being male, like on long game drives in the bush. My husband and son have hopped out during stops and marked their territory a little too proudly for my liking. I was not about to squat behind a bush so that a lion could tell me how low on the food chain I happened to be. So what’s a woman to do but limit the sundowners and cross her legs more tightly?
There have been many toilets in many countries over the years. My daughter has even acquainted herself with a spade called Oscar while canoeing down the Orange River and braved living in a rural village for three weeks in the north of Thailand while building water storage tanks.
It was in Thailand though, that we came across such clean public toilets that I was moved to take a photograph. Rows of plastic shoes stood on shelves outside under a sign that asked you to please remove your shoes and use the plastic ones. This was to protect your shoes since the floor of the toilet was being constantly washed. Finally, somebody had got it…“life is lived at lavatory level!”
As a first year Occupational Therapy student, learning about independence training for people in wheelchairs, our lecturer had regularly chanted this mantra to us. She believed that being able to use the toilet in a dignified manner, in spite of disability, was of paramount importance. Years later it had taken on a rather different significance for me.