So often it is the small, unexpected differences, the things that I took entirely for granted and never expected to miss, which have wound up being the source of the most stress and lamentation. Example #1: Public restrooms.
Ahh, everyone always loves a good bathroom story, right? I’ll indulge you in my favorite one from before I left the States. As most of you know, I have spent a substantial portion of my life on roadtrips on the stretch of I-5 between Seattle and Portland; usually beginning at home in Portland and ending at Mighty-O vegan doughnuts (sigh; I never should’ve told this story, now I want one!!!! Nobel Peace Prize to anyone who can figure out how to ship them to Botswana while they are still fresh. Well, maybe not a real Nobel Peace Prize, but a Chelsea Award for Awesomeness, certainly. Anyway…) or Bamboo Garden vegan Chinese, Araya’s vegan Thai, or Wayside vegan homestyle cookin’ (sigh; see previous parenthetical statement). All of these trips were, fueled by excessive quantities of coffee— gargantuan Gilmore Girl-esque proportions—and, of course, a significant amount of water as well (coffee is a diuretic, after all, and one must stay fully hydrated at all times). Although this does seem to be a recipe for disaster, having made the trip on numerous occasions, I know the road like the back of my hand, including each of the rest stops and choice gas exits (exit #13—especially pretty on a clear night; great view of the stars, but usually passed over in order to hit my favorite gas station in Kalama, exit #30; exit #53—well-placed between major cities, and always, always, always, always has coffee and Oreos, even though lots of other rest stops are only staffed during the cushy peak-travel hours; exit #90—alright, but I prefer the Fred Meyer, Starbucks, or Taco Del Mar at exit #102, or if I’m feeling crazy, holding out for my gas stop on Berkley Street, exit #122, next to the $1 Chinese Food sign; and last but not least, #143 near Sea-Tac, but only going North, as it’s just south of Seattle, which abounds with acceptable restroom opportunities, even at night), so rarely did my trips to and from Seattle pose any problems.
Except on one notable occasion, a fateful day when I was heading to Green Lake and Mighty O. This spot is fairly close off the freeway off exit #169, and I was feeling confident, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and skip rest stop #143, and hold out until I arrived. Although this involved a certain amount of chance, I had made this judgment call on many occasions before without repercussions, so I was confident in my decision. Unfortunately, I had picked the wrong day to toy with fate. Traffic was wretched—even more wretched than usual—and my destination was of particular concern, because there was a Husky football game, which meant my exit, which was shared by the University of Washington, may as well have been a parking lot I (I have always hated sports…). So, by the time I was finally able to get into moving traffic on the street, the situation had grown dire. But no problem—there was a Shell station on the way; the impending crisis would be easily averted. However, upon stopping at the gas station, I was greeted by a lovely “no public restrooms” sign. At that moment, I had to make a critical decision—proceed to Mighty O, which would require me to find street parking and potentially walk a ways before getting to the bathroom, or drive ever so slightly farther to the lake, and use the public parking and public restroom. Because of my disdain for parallel parking, the answer seemed clear, and I proceeded to the lake. So I stopped in the first parking lot. But there wasn’t a public restroom nearby, so after wandering and trying not to look too frantic, I managed to spot another gas station across the street and made it there, where I was immediately shot-down by a cruel “out of order” sign. The attendant offered to let me use the employee-only stall, but it was sufficiently skeevy, and he was sufficiently creepy to prevent me from ending my quest there. Besides, there were several other bathrooms at Greenlake—I’d just dash back to my car and visit one of them.
But alas, that was not what the Universe had in store. The next bathroom was being cleaned, and the one after that landed me in the parking lot, stuck behind some dumb guy who was insistent on sitting with his blinker flashing a painful rhythm like the tick-tock tick-tock of a clock, holding me and several others hostage, while he waited for a family to haphazardly assemble themselves, their toys, and the remains of their picnic into their car, so that he could claim their parking spot, which was, of course, only minimally superior to the several available spots in the row behind us. The situation was growing more dangerous by the second, and I found myself clutching the steering wheel, nearly in tears, and scorning the Universe for not letting me simply have a place to use the restroom—how hard could that be; is it really THAT much to ask?
To my great relief (and that of my Prius and everyone who has traveled in it since), the next bathroom attempt was a success, and to this day I am immensely grateful that the end result of this ordeal is a delightful story (you WERE delighted, darn it!) rather than a tragic end to my beloved car (hehehe, if you’re reading this, Lindorac©—INBB©!!! Sorry everyone else; couldn’t resist—inside Fanson friend joke ;oP).
But, now that I have arrived in Botswana, I see that there is a greater lesson in all of it: the many luxuries that we take for granted, and the impact that being deprived access to such amenities can have on daily life. You’re probably thinking something along the lines of “I hardly ever use public restrooms—how could this possibly have an impact of any real significance?” True, lack of public restrooms seems to be among the more trivial aspects of living in a different culture, but it actually does alter the course of my daily life. You see, I am a full-blooded eco- and health-conscious American (earlier story about greasy doughnuts and Chinese food aside), which means everywhere I go, roadtrip or not, I’ve got my stainless steel Kleen Kanteen water bottle or French-press insulated coffee mug in hand (thanks, Mom! Also, side-note: if anyone is reading this whilst consumed by the flurry that is the Peace Corps application process, I highly, highly, highly recommend purchasing an insulated coffee press travel mug the instant you receive your invitation. If you have even a remote fondness for coffee, you will thank me fort this piece of sage wisdom. And friends and family of volunteers/recent invitees, if you are looking for the perfect gift that will make your special person love you forever, this is it!!! But once again, I digress…). In America, catering to my endless thirst is no problem, because it is extremely safe to assume that anywhere I go, there will be a shiny, reasonably clean bathroom waiting for me—in the office, at friends’ houses, stores, restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations, shopping centers, etc. It never even occurred to me to think out where and when my next bathroom opportunity might be. So if I was thirsty, I drank. If I was craving that wondrous magic energy-generating elixir known as coffee (or, in my case at the moment, “OH MY GOD! COFFEE!!!! REAL COFFEE!!!!!!” synchronized with nearly giddy jumping up and down), I had some. And if I needed to go to the bathroom, I just went.
But here, that is not so. The only public restrooms I have seen have been in large shopping malls in large cities, and one that is on the 10 hour bus ride between Gaborone and Maun. My office does have restrooms, but not all do, and, actually, not all households in the area even have a bathroom or pit latrine of their own. What do people here do, you ask? Just what you’d expect—people just go outside. Now, as most of you know, I’m pretty rugged; I go backpacking, and am perfectly comfortable doing most things the “natural” way. But the problem is, with the exception of when I go running, I’m almost always in areas that are extremely populated—houses and rondevals everywhere, and people walking all around. It is rare for me to walk more than 100 feet without passing at least one other person. Not to mention the fact that the Kgaladi bush doesn’t exactly provide the same concealing buffer as the shade of the dense evergreen forest that I’m used to camping and hiking in—indeed, one can literally see for miles here. So while it is entirely socially acceptable to relieve oneself in the bush, even in the downtown areas in my village, well, it’s just a leap that I can’t quite make. And because I get around by foot, if I find myself on a long trek to the social work office or catch myself waiting upwards of an hour in line at the post office to pick up a care package (YAY CARE PACKAGESS!!!!!!!!!), it’s not like I can just hop in the car to get quickly home. Indeed, my lack of beverage-consumption planning has led to several long, painful walks, cursing every step and the empty water bottle or coffee mug in my hand.
In addition to my impromptu lessons about proper hydration planning, another tricky adaptation has been getting in the habit of always keeping toilet paper on hand. Even should you find yourself in a situation where you are graced with a bathroom—pit latrine, or a glorious flushing toilet—etiquette here dictates that each person is responsible for supplying his or her own TP—even at offices, restaurants, and friends’ houses. The same is true for soap, or hand sanitizer (again, thanks Mom!) where no running water is available. And don’t even think about such foofy things as paper towels or hand dryers (which, admittedly, I rarely used anyway; that’s what pants are for [see, I told you I was rugged!])—ha! I actually haven’t even thought about paper towels since I left Gabs!!
Again, I know that these things are obviously quite trivial in the big scheme of things, but it’s the barrage of little differences like this; the fact that every aspect of life here is different, that so much of what I have always regarded as basic common sense must be discarded and re-learned from scratch, which makes Peace Corps service so psychologically challenging. Those moments where I am already feeling overwhelmed, and then something small, like not having a bathroom when I need it, goes wrong, and I feel like the entire world around me is crumbling and everything I know is wrong. Of course, eventually, gradually, I’m adapting to all of these things and one by one they aren’t getting to me so much. But there are a lot of these little things, and a lot of little adaptations, and the process of changing fundamental assumptions is not without its toll—including the sense of being culture-less, as I realize that I have not (and probably won’t ever) fully acclimated into my new culture, but have still managed to drift away from my own culture (which I’ve already discussed, and will probably continue to discuss, in great detail).
And yes, I am well aware that I could have easily gotten to the cultural-exchange/moral-of-the-story part without making you all trudge through my (surprisingly entertaining) US bathroom story, but it’s called setting the scene, folks!! Plus, I’m perpetually insanely homesick, and sometimes it helps to reminisce about fond stories (of course sometimes it makes it worse…seriously, any mad scientists out there willing to do a thesis project on maintaining organic vegan doughnut freshness in the mail for up to 2 months?!), so I’m sure none of you minded my little self-indulgent jaunt through memory lane, right?! :oP
P.S. I’m not cheating with my song title/song reference trend. Rest Stop is a Matchbox Twenty song. Totally legit, check it out. :oP