Why Restrooms are the Best Windows Into a Place

And how to procure mini Lifebuoy bars on a road trip.  
Photo by ALEXANDER JOE/Staff/getty images.
Photo by ALEXANDER JOE/Staff/getty images.

Restrooms fascinate me in lands both foreign and my own. I speak of women’s loos of course. They confine backpackers, entrepreneurs, students, mothers and nannies to one room. Marbled or basic, fragrant or stinky, little girls and grown women congregate here to perform similar tasks. Besides the obvious, washrooms are where touch-ups are done, hair tamed, perfumes sprayed and selfies taken. Diapers are changed, bras adjusted and babies pacified. Some women avoid eye contact, others seek it. When two tourists hit it off, pocket maps pop out. Must-visit bars and must-see sights are animatedly discussed.

Between doing your deed and drying your hands, if you observe the women around you and what they do or they don’t, you’ll notice there’s a lot to read between the lines. Readings that sometimes help you discover something new about a place or see it in a different light. Washrooms, in that sense, unite people across cultures and latitudes. This aspect is what fascinates me. So much so that I often skip my turn to allow the more desperate ladies behind me go first. Courtesy apart, I do so because I’m curious to peek into a place’s culture through the prism of its public restrooms. It’s my own little social experiment. My readings, filtered by my own subjectivity then, have also sometimes been my most cherished souvenirs. Because when that fridge magnet chips, the postcard yellows and keychain breaks, what stays with me is a city’s washroom culture.

Last December, for instance, on a Thursday night in Cairo’s Sequoia, an upscale Grecian lounge cradling the Nile, women kept waltzing in and out of the restroom. Lavatories, though, remained unoccupied. Mirrors are where the crowd was. Lipsticks and hairbrushes came out. Mouth fresheners were sprayed to mask the shisha on their breaths. The see-through stockings between their leather boots and trendy trench coats showed how Cairo’s cold didn’t dampen these women’s partying spirit one bit. Outside the loo, some stood humming Egyptian numbers as they lit their Marlboros. Now most cloak rooms on a Saturday night in Mumbai look much the same. To see this in Egypt, though, did surprise me marginally. In the two days I had been there, I had noticed more women in headscarves than without, especially in the public squares, and in the touristy quarters of Giza and the Khan el-Khalili souk. Inside Sequoia’s washroom and in the al fresco section though, only a handful wore hijabs. The point was not the hijabs. In that moment what mattered was that I saw some Egyptian ladies unwind the way I would in Mumbai. Washrooms, I learnt, are where cities can shed layers like onion peels.

In another instance about two years ago, when the flashing in Pattaya’s Walking Street became insufferable, my husband and I sauntered into a pub, drawn to the beats of Metallica’s “Fade to Black.” A local band was singing it in a heavy Thai accent. There was no mosh pit but a Thai woman standing beside the stage seemed to think otherwise. She head-banged and air-guitar-ed all night to Rammstein’s “Ich Will” and RATM’s “Killing in the Name Of.” Later, I bumped into her in the restroom. Kneeled over the pot, she was throwing up copiously. I held her hair, waited for her to get through and helped her up; things we do for that friend who always has one too many drinks. She looked better once she was done. “You Indian?” she asked whilst cleaning up. I nodded and smiled. She then related in broken English how she has been living in Moscow and misses Bangkok. She didn’t tell me why she moved. I didn’t ask why. That night, like us, she too was drawn in by the music but then she “forgot to draw a line.” “I haven’t let myself loose like this in a long time, lady,” she said. Washrooms, I realised, are where cathartic releases take place in front of tourists who don’t share your language or history.

The book, Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, features essays about how our attitudes towards gender and class play out inside public restrooms. In India, dhaba washrooms are where class fissures get cemented, out of sheer urgency. Because when nature calls, whether you’ve stepped out of an ST bus or an SUV, everyone squats in the same Indian toilet, with creaking doors and latches. Taps here are mere embellishments. On a road trip to Baroda, however, I discovered how a mini Lifebuoy bar and a bottle of water can be procured: tip the loo attendant. I realised that day how washrooms, especially the ones along highways, teach you jugaad.

  • Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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