American toilets are boring.
Staring up at the rectangle of ceiling framed by the four walls of the stall, my mind counts each tile for the fourth time. My jaw unhinges, letting out an airy yawn, as my mind slowly drifts off.
I was thankful that the night air remained untouched by the moonlight—I was not keen on discovering that the sludge that slowly crept up my ankles was anything other than mud. I continued forward, further into the blackness. I inhaled sharply as the floor ahead suddenly plunged into a yawning abyss, immediately regretting it as the smell pierced my nostrils.
We were guests in a small countryside village for the weekend. Upon our arrival, the entire village convened outside the lone restaurant in town, a small mud room with two tables and four plastic chairs. We shared a meal of fresh injera and shiro, exchanging fragments of English and Amharic with the locals as we ate. Dusk fell, and the mosquitos began settling in, swarming the lone dangling lightbulb that lit the space.
We asked around for the shintebait, wanting to relieve ourselves before bed. A tall, gaunt man with hollow eyes, cloaked in a pink child’s blanket that barely concealed his shoulders, took control. The cartoon bunnies on the blanket stared ominously at me as he pointed a knobby finger towards a muddy path that cut through the low brush and disappeared into the darkness.
I was the last in our group to go. As the rest of the group headed toward our home for the night, I ventured back along the narrow trail. The dim light of the bulb back at the restaurant quickly faded, leaving me fumbling through the nearly-opaque night air. Squinting through the darkness, a sagging shadowy structure suddenly loomed before me. Around one side I found a dilapidated door hanging ajar from a single battered hinge. The rusted bolt lock did not promise much protection if someone endeavored to intrude.
As I stepped through the black doorway, I felt the mire encase my threadbare hiking shoes, and I grimaced as my socks drank up the cool moisture. My second step took me further into the dark, when the entire floor shifted beneath me, catching me off balance. I paused for a moment to recompose then continued, feeling for the spots where the deteriorating branches and palm leaves were absent. The thatched floor suddenly slumped into a gaping hole. I edged towards the pit, the juddering bamboo support poles beneath me threatening to spill me in. I found a foothold and feverishly went about my business, unbarring the floodgates while shuddering within at the thought of tumbling into the sewage below. A brisk draft swept through the broad slits in the structure’s walls. A steady stream echoed throughout the sprawling chasm beneath me, a tinkling, maniacal chortle of a serial killer, zeroing in on its next victim. Eyelids clenched, I prayed that I would not be this fetid maw’s next fatality. I told myself that I was being ridiculous and began to loosen up. That is, until the macabre shriek of a goat tore through the night air. My fly was up, and my feet were pounding back toward the village before the last drop reached the bottom.
Coming back to the U.S. after eight years in Ethiopia, the bathrooms were one of the biggest changes. It was glorious to have running water, electricity, toilet paper, entire walls with locking doors, an actual toilet to sit on…Yet as I assume my Thinker pose on my pristine white ceramic throne in an American bathroom stall, suffocating on the aroma of lemon and bleach, I think back to and long for the days when life was unpredictable—when something so simple as using the bathroom gave cause to fear for my life.
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