Other Cultures and Bathroom Etiquette: Do I Bring Toilet Paper?

Patient Expert

As I write this blog I'm sitting surrounded by a large backpack, various items of clothing strewn about the floor, and assorted medications of every kind. I am packing: this afternoon I leave for India where I will be traveling for nearly three weeks. This much-anticipated trip will be part vacation with my fiancée, and part research for a nonprofit I founded that provides families and student groups with international volunteer opportunities (www.imaginethedifference.org).

While my head is swirling with concerns regarding my travel plans, accommodations, language barriers, and dietary restrictions, I have to admit that one of the things I am most concerned with at the moment is toilet paper - to bring, or not to bring: that is the question. I'll be spending a few days trekking in the Himalayas, and the rest of the trip I'll be in a different town nearly every night, so with ease of travel in mind I decided to go light, bringing only a single backpack. It's a large backpack, but a backpack none the less. I've already reduced myself to a single hotel-sample-size bottle of shampoo, not a single hairbrush, and embarrassingly I even admit to not having enough pairs of socks to last me the entire trip (I hope to wash them in a sink at some point). I've done all this in the name of reducing the weight of my home-away-from-home that I'll be carrying on my back for the next 20 days. And yet, I am considering bringing toilet paper.

I know all too well from my previous travel experiences in Costa Rica and China that not all the world's citizens share our necessity for toilet paper. I truly enjoy traveling, and for the most part I much prefer to experience life as a local (as close as possible, at least) rather than as a tourist while on vacation. That's why I prefer to stay in my host's home rather than a 5 star hotel, and I prefer to eat at a shack off an alley-way rather than the local branch of TGI Friday's. I feel that it's a great way to learn about other cultures, and in seeing these differences I realize more often than not the commonalities we all share regardless of race, language, or class. But the lack of toilet paper I simply cannot seem to grow accustomed to.

The more I travel, the more I do feel that people generally share the same values in life: finding happiness, sharing time with those we love, realizing a sense of accomplishment. There are also certain customary staples in every culture: food, shelter, careers, and families. However, the toilet situation is almost always different from country to country. In Mexico and Costa Rica (and in most of Central America - I'd venture to guess) flushing toilets are often available, and toilet paper is sometimes provided also - but it is never to be flushed down the toilet: instead there is a trash receptacle available for its disposal. In China the "toilets" are often holes in the ground - and toilet paper is rarely, if ever, provided. In more "upscale" establishments catering to a business clientele the bathrooms will sometimes provide the Chinese "hole" toilets, as well as actual ceramic toilets that Americans are accustomed to - often the door to the stall will even feature a diagram of the style of toilet available.

I find myself wondering why it is that different cultures have such vastly different approaches to toileting. The need to use a bathroom is - without exception - universal, and yet, some cultures provide public toilets on every corner for free, others provide them on every corner for an entrance fee, still others provide no public toilets at all. So I just don't know what to expect in India, mostly because - as with all things toilet-related - no one will talk about it. The guide books warn you not to drink the water, which scams to be aware of, and where to find Internet cafes on every corner. But they don't say a thing about the toilet situation.

I believe that life is ultimately about learning. So I ask myself what I have to learn from the assorted toilets of the world, and my reluctance to conform. I think what I'm learning in this situation is a truth that I am forever struggling with - we are each ultimately responsible for our own happiness and well-being. I can't expect anyone else to provide for my personal comfort needs - even something as basic as toilet paper. And so I will leave behind yet another pair of socks, swapping it out for a roll of toilet paper. I realize that I can't bring enough toilet paper for the entire trip, but I'm hoping that one roll will get me through the first few days until I can find some more to purchase once I'm settled.

And finally - how does this story translate to incontinence? Why, it's the moral of the story, of course - the Boy Scout motto - be prepared The fear of being without toilet paper, although potentially very embarrassing, doesn't keep me from traveling, exploring other cultures, and living my life the way I'd like. Instead, I choose to adjust - I adjust my expectations, I adjust my packing, and I adjust my attitude. Likewise, incontinence, and the fear of being "found out" or being wet in public, doesn't have to keep you from the experiences that you treasure in life. You can't always make the world around you meet your needs, but you always have the choice to adjust yourself to fit into that world a little more comfortably. Adjust your expectations, adjust your preparations, and adjust your attitude.

I'll be gone for the next three weeks, but while I'm away my weekly blogs will still be posted, so keep checking back in with me and I'll update you about the trip once I return.