Hands down, Toilets of the Wild Frontier is the most unusual travel-related book you will read this year, or perhaps any year.
It’s also one of the most enjoyable and fascinating, taking us on a tour of 10 rarely-visited countries dotted across Asia and Africa to view that most ubiquitous of facilities: the bathroom.
Primarily, the book is a satirical work, poking fun at the worst lavatories that author and seasoned traveller Graham Askey, a dedicated ‘squatter spotter’, has come across over the years, replete with a photo (thankfully, not scratch and sniff) of each offender.
The book encompasses toilets in 10 countries—Tajikistan, China, Indonesia, Sudan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Benin, and Burkina Faso—and is jokingly attributed to the fictional Toilet & Urinal Restoration & Design Society (work out the acronym for yourself!).
The society, it is claimed, views the humble bog as “the pinnacle of mankind’s architectural achievements” and since 1973 has been running the annual International Toilet Design Awards “to celebrate the art form and spread awareness of the underappreciated aspects of this globe-spanning mode of cultural expression”.
The ‘entries’, broken down by country, are sights to behold. Here you will find a range of toilets that give new meaning to the terms ‘disgusting’ and ‘decrepit’.
All of them lack proper facilities, with many just having a hole cut in the floor leading to a cess pit, while many look like the users have mistaken the bathroom for the cess pit itself.
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The user’s privacy is shielded with huts made of widely varying materials ranging from crumbling bricks, decaying wood or rusty corrugated iron sheets—typically in an advanced state of collapse—to ragged fabrics, asbestos sheeting or, in some cases, nothing but air.
Some can be found on snow-capped mountains, where your nearest neighbour is more likely a goat than person, by the riverside—with the flowing water doing the job of the flush—or in the jungle, perhaps on stilts for that added thrill.
Each entry is accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek description praising the flaws of each latrine, of which there are many, as if they were deliberate architectural flourishes.
For example, a stone-built rest room in Tajikistan used by shepherds is said to be a “noble shrine” with a “classic, minimalist, whitewashed design” that is part of a larger “unique, vibrant set of traditions, largely unencumbered by plumbing”.
Another entry from the same region, this time being little more than a hole surrounded by rags on poles, is hailed as a “triumph of ventilation over thermal efficiency” with a “fine view of the neighbour’s dining area and a challenging, rocky exit slope for disabled users”.
It’s all very droll and you can imagine just how horrendous it would be to have to use such toilets—where you could only hope that the fetid stench might scare off the cockroaches—but the humour is centred squarely on the sorry state of the toilets themselves as opposed to the communities they serve.
These communities are based in developing countries and as Askey, dubbed “King of the Porcelain”, notes, these people are just as concerned with hygiene as we are. It is only because of poverty and a lack of resources and infrastructure that they have to do their best with what’s readily to hand.
Yet despite their shabby appearance, these pathetic privies provide many interesting insights into the local cultures, customs and daily lives of their builders.
And this is what I love so much about Toilets of the Wild Frontier—that it gives us a fresh perspective on travel, with each WC having its own character and charm reflective of those who made it.
For instance, you come to understand that the concept of privacy differs from place to place, with countries such as China favouring a more communal approach to ablutions than we, perhaps, would be comfortable with.
You also come to admire the ingenuity of these communities, even if the execution—and aim, based on the filthy interiors of some toilets—is sometimes a little off.
The fact that Askey has visited these remote, unusual loos—and used them—is something I found as intriguing as the toilets themselves.
Then again, he is no normal traveller content with easy offerings and tourist luxuries.In fact, the retired builder has deliberately ventured far from the beaten track to find authentic modes (or should that be ‘commodes’?) of living.
And he doesn’t just sweep into communities, his camera flashing. Instead, he immerses himself in local life, often living and eating with locals to get to know them.
Most importantly, he also cares about them and has written Toilets of the Wild Frontier to highlight the struggles they face, not least in terms of poor sanitation and the serious, sometimes fatal, diseases that can spring from this.
So, then, we have an important documentation of poverty beneath the (literal) toilet humour. The book brings together 36 toilets and you can see more on Askey’s website, www.insideotherplaces.com.
It’s well worth a visit as you will get to learn about issues rarely covered in the British media, such as the shocking state of drinking water in certain African countries or what developing nations think about Covid.
It would have been very easy for the author to have just made a book that smirks at atrocious toilets but instead we get a thoughtful examination of other realities, which makes clear just how privileged we are.
Independent publisher Eleusinian Press Ltd—which specialises in the fields of music, mental health, poetry and arts—should also get a special credit for taking on Toilets of the Wild Frontier.
It’s not their typical release but it would be fantastic to see more such left-field travelogues from them in the future.
Toilets of the Wild Frontier by Graham Askey (Eleusinian Press Ltd) is out now, published in hardcover and available through Amazon or Eleusinian Press Ltd in hardcover, priced at £13.99. For more information about author Graham Askey, visit www.insideotherplaces.com.
Q&A Interview With Graham Askey
What drives someone to travel the world to find toilets that others would run a mile from? We spoke to Toilets of the Wild Frontier author Graham Askey to find out.
Q. You started chronicling the world’s worst toilets over a decade ago. Are you surprised that it has become such a hit with the public?
A. The British fascination, or should I say obsession, with all toiletry matters will always guarantee a certain amount of interest in the subject. An Englishman doesn’t have to go very far from our shores before encountering a perplexing array of different toilet habits, which are invariably met with complete horror. Being confronted with a change in routine, particularly one so well established as going for a dump, can never be left without comment or discussion, particularly down the pub after a few beers.
Q. What’s the worst toilet you have ever seen, and why?
A. Although the book looks at toilets in the developing world, I can honestly say that it’s only been at an English music festival that I’ve ever encountered a toilet whose contents were higher than the seat!
Q. Your book reference’s World Toilet Day, which takes place in November. Why should we be aware of other nations’ toilet facilities?
A. Given that the world over everyone is intimately familiar with the call of nature, I like to think that toilets offer a little bit of insight into other cultures that we can all relate to. Perhaps more importantly, they are a major source of health hazards such as cholera, though even diarrhoea can be fatal to children in poor societies deprived of decent health facilities. Better sanitation is a vital and often relatively cheap way of saving lives and improving the health of poor communities.
Q. What do you hope readers will get most from reading your book?
A. Most importantly, I want people to have a good laugh but if they pick up a little insight into the daily reality of people’s lives in the developing world that can only be a good thing.
Q. Now that you know how bad toilets can be, do you make any special preparations when you travel?
A. Dealing with such challenging facilities is much more of a psychological battle than a practical one, but like a seasoned war reporter I have become hardened to these crimes against humanity.
Q. Aside from the toilet facilities of developing nations, what’s the strangest travel experience you have had?
A. Purely by chance, I ran into a voodoo ceremony in northern Benin and ended up getting blessed by some spirits of the dead, which was pretty weird.
Q. What is your advice to travellers planning to go to countries off the beaten track?
A. Leave any preconceptions at home. Unless you’ve done a lot of research, they will almost certainly be wrong and even then, there’s no guarantee. This is particularly true if your understanding comes from news events. Media coverage of places outside the West is often riddled with propaganda and ill-informed reporting. Do learn, at least, the basics of the culture and language—it will always be appreciated and will open up more possibilities of interaction with local people.
Although being a bit streetwise is definitely important, you’ll find that most of these places are nothing like as scary as you might imagine, so don’t travel in a state of paranoia as you’ll only end up missing out on some amazing experiences by meeting local people.
Q. You note in Toilets of the Wild Frontier that the toilets of a country tell a bigger story about that particular culture. Can you explain more?
A. Often just the design and construction of toilets reflects architectural traditions or even changing tastes with influences from the wider world. However, I think the key aspect is that because going to the toilet is something we all relate to, it’s easy to see when people are doing something different. Ideas about privacy, hygiene or differing roles for men and women in society are often clearly on display if you spend an inappropriate amount of time hanging around strange toilets like I do. You really need to spend more time in a place to pick up the finer points of these cultural differences. If your idea of travel is rushing around between tourist sights, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to ask questions and learn from experience.
As an example, in the Far East, the idea of physical contact with seats or door handles can be viewed with disgust, which makes open, squat toilets a logical choice. People are fully aware that dirty hands spread germs so if there’s nothing to touch until you get the opportunity to wash your hands, you’re safe.
Q. You have visited countries where toilets are communal. Do you find people in non-Western countries to be less self-conscious about their ablutions?
A. Some are certainly, China in particular, when sometimes the toilet would simply be a trench in a shed that you all squatted over. Some places in Azerbaijan only had a low wall screening each user, even though you could see guys opposite cheerfully straining out a log. Some degree of privacy is common almost everywhere and I suspect to some extent even more so as countries develop. There’s little to terrify a Western visitor to the many modern parts of China for instance.
Some degree of privacy for women seems almost universal even if there might be a few men who don’t always respect the practice.
Q. Having had to deal with toilets from hell, why do you keep heading off into countries without great sanitation?
A. The main reason is that people in less-visited places are almost always more friendly than many Western cultures or locations that have well-developed tourist industries. Mass tourism doesn’t always show much respect for local culture, which only exacerbates the urge for the unscrupulous to exploit relatively rich foreigners. This creates a vicious spiral of negative interaction. However, off the beaten track, it rarely occurs to people with little experience of foreigners to rip them off and so they then apply their cultures of hospitality to us as they would their fellows, which are often far more developed than our own. I’ve experienced some of the most generous hospitality from some of the poorest people on the planet, which is truly humbling.
As much as I love visiting locations of historical, cultural or geographic interest, it is the interactions with people that create the fondest memories. As a result I have made genuine friends whom I now go back to visit, even staying in their homes. I find that I get a far deeper insight into local cultures this way and the minutiae of everyday life is fascinating to me. While this be uncommon among travellers, travelling in this way allows me to expand my toilet experiences far more than through conventional holidays.