In response to a reader’s request for more explicit information regarding my allusive reference to the toilet in Odessa, I offer the following bit of education on one of the grittier aspects of Peace Corps service. Those of you with toileting issues might want to refrain from reading….
One of the first social mores to be dumped during Peace Corps service is the general prohibition – assuming one is not working as a plumber, parenting a toddler, or sliding down the backside of 70 – against discussing bowel movements in excruciating, aurally augmented detail in public. What is quickly discovered during the initial weeks of training is that when input changes, output follows suit. When diet changes, colons have been known to protest. Ergo, the physical condition of one’s toilet grows in importance as one spends increasingly more time hanging out in there.
I have been incredibly lucky in my site placements: all three have been furnished with indoor toilets complete with 24 hour running water. Not so for many of my compatriots, who have to time their flushes to coincide with the daily water schedule – if they are fortunate enough to have an indoor bathroom – or become adept at the “poop and scoop” method, shall we say, if they are using one of the village’s anachronistic outdoor veceu’s which typically (inexplicably) lack any sort of seat. But even when they do have seats, problems abound. Take, for example, a recent (anonymous) posting in the “Moldovan Moments” section of our Peace Corps weekly newsletter:
“Even though my host family has a really nice porcelain toilet in their outhouse, I don’t like to sit on it. No particular reason why, I’ve just always been a hover-er. With that in mind, one really cold morning in January I went outside to take care of business but my aim was a little off. I didn’t completely miss the hole but the poop pile got stuck on the side of the toilet….and then it froze. There was no water in the outhouse so I took the toilet brush outside, used it like a shovel to scoop up some snow and then put the snow on the turd until it softened enough for me to push it off into the hole.”
Probably not the fare you’re used to finding in your casual perusal of commercial media, but life is a bit off kilter in the Peace Corps. Different voyeuristic interests assert themselves and begin to take precedence over politics, sports, and entertainment. This piece elicited actual fan mail.
Not only have I struck gold with my site placements, I have actually been able to completely avoid pooping in a hole since I set foot in Moldova. (This is a stroke of luck so far out of statistical range that I should be calling up the Guinness Book of World Records to establish my claim.) Through a series of fortuitous circumstances indoor flushing toilets have been available at all the places I’ve worked, visited, or stayed.
To further clarify how atypical my experience has been vis-à-vis bathroom conditions here in Moldova, I must divulge that I have an on-going bet with another volunteer who – when she learned about my track record – vociferously argued that I COULD NOT go for 27 months of service without popping a squat in a veceu. In fact, she was willing to spring for dinner at the most expensive restaurant in Monterrey (we both are from California) if I returned in 2014 having never entered into intimate relations with an outhouse. I stood her bet.
This commitment to completing my service without having to subject myself to some of the more distasteful aspects of living in a developing country has become increasingly steadfast over time. It has precluded me visiting some of my very dearest friends here – sorry, you don’t have an indoor toilet and I’m going to win this bet! It has narrowed my options for outdoor activities: afraid I’ll have to pass on camping in Orhei Veche next weekend – no bathrooms! And entertainment: sure the festival looks fun, but there won’t be indoor plumbing…
Well, Odessa did me in, folks. Never did I think that the third biggest city in Ukraine – granted, a Peace Corps country, but still a travel destination –would be the first place that I suffered the indignity of lowering my drawers in fetid squalor.
[Fair warning: turn back now if you are possessed of a weak stomach or delicate sensibilities!]
Throughout the whole nighttime bus ride I gamely declined from debarking to wander off into the pitch dark night to relieve myself in one of the fields abutting the border stations where we waited for hours to have our passports examined and processed. I am one of those regular souls whose elimination occurs precisely within a two hour window every morning as the dawn breaks. I figured I could make it to Odessa with no problem. Besides, while I didn’t think peeing on the grass really counted the same as pooping in a hole, I wasn’t going to take any chances with my winning streak.
What I didn’t count on was our bus driver detouring into a stadium-sized parking lot and killing the engine just as the sun was surfacing over the horizon. What???? My bowels had been rumbling into life, excited by the first peeking rays. But this was not our destination (was it?) Where were the buildings, the restaurants, the shops, the markets- the BATHROOMS????
Oh my. This was not good. My fellow (Moldovan) passengers were blithely gathering tissues in apparent preparation for relieving themselves in whatever accommodations they could find in this vast desert landscaped in asphalt. Apparently we were going to be here awhile. Past my two hour window. My bowels immediately froze, attentive. We Peace Corps volunteers exchange meaningful looks: dare we dream of an actual building? Or do you think it’s a veceu? Perhaps with no seat?
Not only was there no seat, there was no roof or doors, either. A cement slab with oval cutouts above an open sewer with waist high walls. People had been missing the holes for years. Urine and feces literally lapped in waves. Cardboard boxes containing weeks’ – if not months’ – worth of used tissue paper overflowed, creating paper mache floats that bobbed at your feet. Used tampons? Check? Dirty diapers? Check. Condoms? I don’t know, I didn’t get close enough to verify.
I should’ve peed on the grass.
My bowels were so unsettled by this experience that they refused to void until I arrived back at site more than 24 hours later. Unfortunately, I could not hold my bladder, however. One of my friends was so traumatized that she boarded the bus, pale as death, trembling, cheeks moistened with tears, to lie with eyes closed for a full 10 minutes before she could speak again. (She is possessed of delicate sensibilities.)
What we attempt most to avoid is going to hunt us down and assail us when we least expect it.
You can bet on it.