Over the past four decades, seasoned traveller Graham Askey has visited nearly 100 countries, including many far off the beaten track where poverty and a lack of basic amenities such as running water mean that, when it comes to building toilets, the locals have to get creative.
Graham has just published a new book, Toilets of the Wild Frontier, which brings together more than 30 of the worst toilets he has ever encountered, located in developing countries across Asia and Africa. From insect-infested huts and bathrooms baked in filth to latrines on stilts and communal crappers, this book captures them in all their glory.
To mark its publication, we spoke to Graham to learn more about his quest to document the far-flung public conveniences that take your breath away (for all the wrong reasons), and why his book, while a work of humour, provides important insights into poverty.
Q. Why focus a book on toilet facilities (or lack thereof)?
A. I was initially inspired by a visit to Tajikistan, which had a wonderful variety of primitive, ramshackle toilets that were worth taking photos of, purely for amusement's sake. It made me keep a lookout for how other countries dealt with the subject. Of course, being English, I share our culture’s unhealthy obsession with toiletry matters, which provides an endless source of amusement. We seem to have an inner turmoil, where ideas of dignity and propriety are fighting with a compulsive urge to talk about a subject that ought to remain private. Or is that just me?
Also, it’s a subject that everyone can relate to, wherever you are in the world.
Q. If someone wants to encounter the world’s worst toilets, where should they go?
A. The answer depends on whether you are more repulsed by the sights and smells of the facilities or the cultural differences in their design and use. In the first instance, you can rely on almost anywhere in tropical Africa, where the combination of heat and humidity in pit latrines is the ideal environment for excremental fermentation. As for the cultural issues, many would be horrified by some of the communal toilets in China—the idea of squatting over a trench beside a load of strangers could be more of a deterrent than biochemical disgust. Azerbaijan toilet culture didn't seem to be particularly phased by having to sit next to someone else's poor attempt at aiming your arse in the appropriate direction. In fact, at times I failed to see the point of paying the toilet attendant, as cleaning up often didn’t appear to be a part of their job description, unlike smoking fags and talking with their mates.
Q. The British are known for their love of toilet humour. Do people of other countries share this taste for scatological smirks?
A. Whilst I’ve got the impression that many wouldn't regard it as a subject completely out of bounds for humour, I doubt that many societies raise it to the British level of obsession. Admittedly you’d need a high degree of fluency in a language to fully appreciate any nuances in toilet humour.
An Egyptian woman friend told me that women will joke about such things among themselves in private but it’s not appropriate in public. Men don't regard it as lady-like and one man even ended his engagement when his intended refused to apologise for farting in bed. Her family found farting as amusing as we do in Britain, but others might be horrified.
Q. Toilets of the Wild Frontier is a work of humour but it also makes clear how poverty, poor sanitation and disease go hand-in-hand. Why was it important to you to highlight this issue?
A. Poor sanitation is a major health hazard because it can result in many serious diseases, such as cholera. For children in poor communities and deprived of decent health care, even a brief spell of diarrhoea can tragically prove fatal. The toilets featured in Toilets of the Wild Frontier are, generally speaking, a reflection of the poverty of the places they’re located in. My hope is that by taking a common subject that people across the world are familiar with, I can use humour to give a little insight into the everyday, lived realities of poverty.
Q. Being a seasoned traveller, do you still get surprised by the state of some toilets?
A. It’s impossible to get completely hardened to the worst examples but surprise is more reserved for people’s inability to master the art of directing the results of your efforts into the hole provided rather than in its general vicinity.
Q. Tell us a toilet encounter that still makes you shudder …
A. Although Toilets of the Wild Frontier 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. Do you need a strong stomach to travel off the beaten track?
A. It certainly helps, and a poor sense of smell can be useful as well. Given the poor hygiene and different cuisine, you may find yourself getting more familiar with the toilets than you’d like. Over the years I've definitely built up some resistance to strange microbes so I am happy to tuck into whatever obscure animal parts are on offer at street stalls.
Q. Given the somewhat unusual content, what do you think the appeal of your book is?
A. The most important thing is that people get a good laugh out of it. If they get a little insight into the realities of everyday life in poorer places then that can only be a good thing.
I ought to say that the point of the book is not to go into all the gory details as such—I would like the average person to enjoy it.
Q. Your book documents some truly unpleasant toilets around the world. Does the rest of the travel experience make up for them?
A. Absolutely. Places off the beaten track are almost always more friendly than popular destinations or much of the West. People are often genuinely interested in meeting foreign visitors. Traditions of hospitality usually far exceed our own. In some of the poorest places on earth I’ve been treated to such incredible hospitality that it's a truly humbling experience. In places like Burkina Faso, in West Africa, people with little more than a bowl of rice to eat will want you to share their meal. I’ve made genuine friends in the region and now go back to stay with them and their families. Having to squat over a rancid hole in the ground in a cockroach-infested shack is a small price to pay for such experiences.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. Up until recent events I had planned to go to Russia, which may not be so practical now, as visas are usually the first thing to be blocked in times of conflict. Even so, I’d still like to go as I long ago learnt that it’s foolish to judge a people by their government. After all, I imagine many Britons wouldn’t want to be judged by the current lot running our country. Failing that I’m tempted by Mongolia and North Korea, both of which should be good for some challenging toilet action.
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
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