Just a warning that this story is kindof gross. I have no idea why I remembered this story today. For just-moving-into-a-new-house reasons I had to stay home all day, so I took the opportunity to “mentally unwind”, which means I let my brain go wherever it wants and I take notes along the way. I must have been thinking of weird things that have happened to me while traveling.
My first trip to a developing country (other than weekend escapades to Tijuana with my friends in high school) was about ten years ago when I visited Peru. My sheltered first-world self was surprised to discover that access to a toilet at your preferred time is not an absolute right. In other words, when you take a ten hour bus ride across the country, you will probably be given bathroom breaks (same as everyone else and the driver) periodically, but there may be a few hours at a time when you have no choice in the matter. I was lucky on my Peruvian bus rides and never had an uncomfortable time, but I worried about it anyway.
I grapple with anxiety a fair amount, and so not having access to a bathroom freaked me out so much so that when I traveled in Mexico the following summer, I made sure to take a “first class” bus, essentially the equivalent of a Greyhound, which does contain a bathroom. (Over the years, realizing I have never actually had a problem, that it’s only my anxiety, I’ve gotten over it. My advice: just stay a little dehydrated on travel days, and don’t travel too many days in a row!).
My friend Leah and I were traveling from Puerto Escondido up to Zihuatanejo along the Pacific coast. It was 2004, and this bus ride would take us at least 12 hours. For some reason, we were regularly taking overnight buses, probably to save time, and this particular one had a disaster going on in the bathroom.
You could smell it all over the bus. But, since there was a bathroom, the bus wasn’t going to stop all night for any bathroom breaks. At some point, as naturally happens, I had to pee. I waited. And waited. I finally couldn’t take it anymore, so I went into the disaster bathroom. It was gross to say the least. The toilet was backed up and people had been using it anyway. The floor was atrocious. I grew up in a really filthy household, and I’m not particularly squeamish, but, even this was unacceptable for me.
I went back to my seat and dozed off. (My ability to sleep in such situations is likely a huge part of the reason that I can travel in the first place.) A few hours later I woke up: a lightbulb had went off in my brain. I thought to myself, what if it’s just that after the first person failed to flush the toilet for no good reason, no one has tried since? It’s NOT broken!
Do you know what I mean, reader, when I say that something popped into my mind, without my even really consciously thinking about it, and that I knew the odds of it being true were really high? I have this experience with my work, as do many math people I know: one deals with a frustrating problem by going to sleep, and upon waking, the rested brain suddenly knows how to solve it.
I walked back toward the bathroom. Everyone was sleeping and I felt horrible for opening the bathroom door and subjecting their dreams to the awful smell. I reached in and pushed the button that flushes the closed and disgusting toilet. Indeed, it flushed, taking away the smell and allowing us to complete our night bus ride in peace.
What on earth made my mind figure out how to fix the problem? Of course, no one really noticed, but I felt like a little hero on that night bus for restoring normality. But what I really remember nine years later, is the feeling of the lightbulb going off in my head. Perhaps next time I’m traveling, if I’m lucky, it will be about something more important.