Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Devil's In the Details

A Post About All the Little Things
Written from Luang Prabang, Laos

I gathered my shower things -- shoes, towel, soap, shampoo, conditioner, flip-flops, razor, bottle of water -- and made my way down the hall to the bathroom. Once there, I locked the door, hung up my towel and turned around to contemplate the room. Sink, check. Toilet, check. Shower head, check. All seemed to be available and in working order. After brushing my teeth and carefully ensuring that not a drop of water from the sink comes even a millimeter too close to my toothbrush, I set about determining how to use the shower. There was the telltale external hot water heater, which was a good sign that I would, in fact, have a hot shower. But after turning on the water from the shower head, being careful to avoid the bucket of water next to the toilet that's used to scoop-flush the toilet, I found that the external hot water heater was not cooperating. I walked over to the wall of switches, flipped the breaker, and went back to test the water. Eureka! A hot shower! A hot HAND-HELD shower, to be more exact. But here I am, ten minutes later, showered, dressed, shaved, writing to you about the experience.

There were so many things about traveling to Asia that all the Lonely Planet books and blogs in the world couldn't have prepared me for. I didn't know, for example, that when you use toilet paper here, you throw it in a waste bin next to the toilet, rather than IN the toilet. And that in order to flush the toilet, you use the aforementioned pot of water next to the toilet to wash down whatever you've done. Squat toilets I'd heard of, and I knew that I'd have to travel with plenty of Purell, but I was totally unprepared to throw my dirty toilet paper into a trashcan. I was also unprepared to encounter what looked like a spray faucet next to the trashcan. Most people here don't use toilet paper at all and instead use the spray faucet to wash themselves after they've done their business. An overheard conversation in a youth hostel the other day revealed that most travelers use the faucet to wash...their dirty feet.

Now that we're in Laos, everything is touched by a lingering French influence. This didn't disturb me in the least when we were able to eat decent chocolate from a street vendor last night. But this morning, contemplating the fact that I have one hand in which to hold the shower head, and another to, um, clean myself, I was cursing that French influence and all of its requisite charm.

Today at around 3pm, we'll come back to our guesthouse to pick up our clean, folded, slightly warm laundry. It costs less than a dollar per kilo to do laundry, which, for those of you not well-versed in the kilo, means that it's quite cheap. We allow ourselves to get down to one or two pairs of underwear, put all of our dirty stuff in one big bag, then drop it off somewhere to be perfectly laundered. And thanks to my dad's warnings of all of these years, we know to request that it be washed AND dried. So far, we haven't had any problems, and the only remaining question is if we'd prefer that they iron our socks. True story.

Every single day I find myself wondering what my friends and family members would think if they were here. Would they walk out? Would they use the squat toilet? Would they get used to carrying around a roll of toilet paper with them wherever they went? Granted, if we were staying in places that catered to Western tourists, or were slightly above Lonely Planet's "budget" category of accommodations, we wouldn't be met with some of these Asian charms. But we're slowly but surely getting used to them, and now that we're getting used to them, they feel like part of this whole thing. Like, I'll get to look back on this experience and think, "not only was I in Laos, but I also braved a hand-held shower and scoop-flushed my own toilet!" This, people, THIS is why you travel.


Cris said...

No, that's why you stay home :) I just don't know if I'm a scoop toilet kind of girl, but I'm glad you are, Lizzi.

Amanda said...

I could only those toilets if I carried a huge bottle of Purell! I hope there's lots of soap available!

Lizzi said...

Soap! Soap is a thing of the first world, rarely found in these parts. In fact, we have taken to carrying Purell with us wherever we go (a tidbit of advice we got after Julie went to Africa) and more than once I've wished that we had baby wipes, too.

And Cris, so far, I am too. But ask me again in three months and we'll see what I say!

Matt said...

Soap? What's that? There's no soap in most of the places we go. We carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with us, but mostly we just wait till we get back to our guesthouse to wash up.

Richard said...

Hey Guys, see, I told you to take the giant economy-sized Purell!!