Bathrooms I Have Known

(by Mike Resnick, for Challenger)

Back in the days when Carol and I were breeding and exhibiting collies — for the record, we had 23 champions, most of them named after science fiction stories and characters — we encountered some unusual bathrooms.

At the Springfield, Missouri Fair Grounds, the men’s room consisted of a small building with a concrete floor. No matter where you stood, it sloped to a drain in the very center of the building. And that was it, in its entirety.

At the Wheaton, Illinois Kennel Club, the only way for 3,000 exhibitors to get from the parking lot was through — not around, not next to, but through — the women’s bathroom.

There were a lot of bathrooms like that on the show circuit. We used to joke about them.

Then we started traveling around the world, and realized just how good we had it in Springfield, Wheaton, and the other show sites. One day, just for the hell of it, I put our experiences in a Toastmaster speech at Midwestcon, and it was so popular that I was flown to a number of other cons expressly to talk about bathrooms. Guy Lillian heard it at some con or other, and has prevailed upon me to resurrect the memories one last time.

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The Matthews Range, Kenya. This is a mountain range in Northern Kenya that was only recently opened for tourism, and we were among the first to show up there. The tented camp’s notion of a bathroom was a “long drop” (a toilet over a 30-foot-deep hole, common on the safari trail), and a shower consisting of a 5-gallon canvas bag that would be filled with hot water by what our guide liked to call “dusky handmaidens”.

There were no car tracks in the Matthews Range — it was too newly opened for them — so all our sightseeing had to be done on foot. In the mountains. At 7,500 feet altitude. In the heat of the day. When we got back from a four-hour trek I was so exhausted I skipped the shower and went right to my cot for a nap. I awoke just after sunset and decided to bathe before dinner. So I duly removed my clothes, stood under the canvas bag, and pulled the cord that opened it — and let out such a scream that I scared away all the leopards they’d laid out bait for. Seems I’d forgotten what happens to hot water when it’s left out for hours at 7,500 feet at nightfall — except that it wasn’t hot water any more. I don’t think I could have been any colder if you’d covered me with ice cubes.

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Jedibe Island, Botswana. It’s not generally known, but hippos kill more tourists than any other animal in Africa. The reason’s simple enough. Hippos have incredibly sensitive skin, so they protect it by staying in the water all day — but they don’t eat in the water. After dark they climb ashore and forage inland for up to two miles to down their daily ration of 300 pounds of choice vegetation.

When they’re in the water, all you can usually see are their eye sockets, their ears, and their nostrils, so naturally the tourist much prefers to photograph them on land, and the best time to do it is when they’re coming back from a night’s feeding.

Only one problem. Get between a hippo and water, and he panics. Every instinct tells him the water is safe, and he’ll take the shortest route to it—which means he’ll go through you, not around you.

So one day we’re on Jedibe Island in the middle of the Okavango Swamp (I know, I know, I’m supposed to call it a Delta, but what it is is a swamp). Now, the more sophisticated tented camps usually supply a private bathroom, no matter how primitive, attached to each tent. Jedibe did not possess one of the more sophisticated tented camps. What it had was an ablution block, an area perhaps 30 feet on a side, surrounded by a 6-foot-high reed fence. Inside the block was a toilet (the long drop variety, of course) and a shower (the canvas bag variety, natch.)

At midnight I decide to use the facilities, so I wander over to the ablution block, maybe 40 yards from our tent — we were the only people in the camp that night, other than the couple who ran it—and in the fullness of time I prepare to unlatch the ablution block’s door and return to my tent.

But just then a 3-ton hippo who’d been grazing in the area got an itch, and decided to scratch it by rubbing against the reed fence. And he rubbed, and he rubbed, and he rubbed, and that damned itch just wouldn’t go away, and I knew how he felt, because I was being eaten alive by insects.

So I got to thinking, and I figured: Jedibe is a small island, maybe 300 yards in circumference, so if he sees me and he’s got normal intelligence, he’ll realize that all he has to do is turn around and trot off to the safety of the water.

Then I think a little more, and I figure: if, on the other hand, he’s an exceptionally stupid hippo, wherever I stand he’ll decide I’m between him and the water and will just lower his head and charge.

The scratching didn’t sound very intelligent, and I decided not to chance it. Three hours later he satisfied his itch, grunted a few times, and went off for a swim. I got to the tent just in time to catch an hour of sleep before the sun came up and we were off to watch the very animal I’d been avoiding all night long.

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Mana Pools, Zimbabwe. Another tented camp, this one on the Zambezi River. We arrived in late morning, were shown to our tent, and were left alone to unpack. Carol saw a movement overhead, looked up, and found that we were sharing the tent with a 5-foot long spotted bush snake. Of course, we didn’t know what the hell kind of snake it was, so I sought out the camp manager, who explained that it was harmless to people, but would hold the tent’s lizard and insect population down to zero.

I didn’t think any more of it until we came in all hot and dusty from the afternoon game run. Carol decided to take a shower before dinner. It turns out that the snake had the same idea and got there first. She took a look at the snake. The snake took a look at her. She screamed in surprise. The snake hissed in terror. She took off to the east. The snake took off to the west.

Eventually Carol came back. The snake, poor distraught fellow, never did.

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The Osiris. The Osiris is a ship, owned by the Hilton hotel chain, that travels the Nile from Cairo to Aswan and back again. We were visiting Egypt with Pat and Roger Sims, my father, and my agent, Eleanor Wood, and her kids.

Since I was the African expert, I did the booking. I choose the Ramses Hilton, because it was the only 5-star hotel in Cairo that had never had a reported case of botulism. I booked the tour company, which had enough clout to make a plane turn around and come back for us when we were late getting to the airport. And I booked the Osiris, supposedly the most luxurious ship on the Nile.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Pat and Roger had the room right above us. Every time Roger took a shower we had a driving rain in our cabin.

And Roger likes to shower.

I never saw a desert in Egypt, but I saw a lot of rain. All of it inside.

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Malindi, Kenya. Malindi is a charming little town on the Kenya coast, halfway between Mombasa and Lamu. After touring the Gedi ruins, we checked in at the Sindbad Hotel, which looked exactly like something out of Road to Morocco, with its arched doorways and enclosed gardens and such. We had a nice dinner, watched some vigorous native dancers, and went to bed.

We awoke at six in the morning to find that our toilet, which had worked the previous day, was not functioning. We went down to the desk to complain, and the manager explained that there was nothing wrong with the toilet. To conserve water, he turned the toilets off at midnight and reactivated them at nine in the morning.

“But the shower and the sink worked,” I said. “I tried them, just to see if the water had been shut off.”

“Of course they work.”

“Then why shut off the toilet?” I demanded.

He smiled. “Who takes a shower at four in the morning?” he responded.

Kenya may belong to the Third World. The Sindbad Hotel belonged to a world all its own.

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The Sheraton Skyline Hotel, London. I’m including this just so you’ll know that not all our bathroom experiences took place in Africa.

Carol suffers from jet lag, so we usually spend a day in London on our way to and from Africa, to give her system a chance to adjust. And the hotel we usually stay at by Heathrow Airport is the Skyline Sheraton.

So we land, and check in at the Skyline, and while I’m unpacking Carol walks into the bathroom. And a minute later I hear her calling me.

“What is it?” I ask.

“There’s no knob or handle on this side of the door,” she says. “Could you open it, please?”

I reach for the knob, and realize there’s no knob or handle on my side of the door either. The entire mechanism is missing.

So I phone down to the desk, they send up a mechanic, he uses some tool or other to let her out, and admits that he has no idea what happened to the missing knobs.

Before we move our stuff to a new room, I look inside the bathroom.

No windows. No phone.

If Carol had been traveling alone, she’d have been stuck there for maybe 22 hours until the maid came to clean the room the next morning.

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Maralal, Kenya. The Maralal Lodge is a convenient halfway point between the Samburu/Buffalo Springs reserves and the lakes of the Rift Valley. (It’s also the town where Jomo Kenyatta was imprisoned for 7 long years.)

The lodge has the most beautiful flower gardens. They’re an odd sight in the middle of the arid Northern Frontier District.

It’s a little less odd when you see the signs outside every cabin and in every bathroom, urging you not to drain the bathtub when you’re through with it. With water at such a premium, they send a couple of attendants around every morning and afternoon. They fill buckets with dirty water from the tubs and empty them on the flower gardens.

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The Mount Soche Hotel, Malawi. The best hotel in Blantyre, the former capitol of Malawi back when it was Nyasaland, is the Mount Soche Hotel, so that’s where we stayed. The elevators semi-worked, which is to say they went up and down, but they never once stopped at our floor. That’s a really trivial problem for African accommodations, so we paid it no attention.

While we were in Blantyre we went to the local museum, where the college-educated curator tried to convince us that witchcraft was a valid science, and we drove and climbed Mount Mulanje, which at 9,000 feet isn’t much of a mountain, but it’s the tallest one they’ve got.

And then we went back to the hotel. And I blew my nose, and tossed the tissue in the toilet, and forgot about it. And as Carol passed by,, she saw it and decided to flush it away. And couldn’t find the flushing mechanism. Finally she saw a little button on the wall, and realized that was it. And she pushed. And it didn’t budge.

She pushed again. Nothing happened. Finally she braced her feet, threw her whole weight into it, and flushed the toilet just before her thumb was due to break.

Her comment: “I’ve walked maybe 20 miles yesterday, and today I climbed the tallest mountain in the country. And flushing that damned toilet is the most exercise I’ve had since we’ve been here.”

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The Maasai Mara, Kenya. So we’re staying in a tented camp in the Mara, and after dinner we watch some dancing, and finally it’s about ten o’clock, and it’s time to go to bed, since we’ll be getting up at six to go on a game run. (I’d much prefer to get up at a civilized hour, but in Africa the animals lay up in the heat of the day, and you tend to take your game runs from 6:00 to 9:00 AM, and again from 3:30 to 6:00 PM. In between, everyone sleeps.

Anyway, we get to our tent, and sure enough, the toilet in the attached bathroom isn’t working. I report it to the camp manager, he sends a fellow over to repair it, and five minutes later it’s working.

He announces that he’s going to walk home now. I offer to hunt up the manager and get him a ride.

“I am a Maasai,” he says with proper arrogance. “I have lived here all my life. I have no fear of animals.”

Twenty minutes later a helicopter is rushing him to the Nairobi hospital a couple of hundred miles away. It seems he ran into an equally arrogant elephant who had lived there all her life and had no fear of Maasai.

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Linyati Camp, Botswana. So we’re in the Linyati area of Botswana, and it’s another camp with an ablution block. And just before I turn off my reading lamp to go to sleep, I decide to pay the ablution block a visit.

I get out of the tent and take two steps toward the block.

“Hi, Mike,” say three hyenas, who are posted halfway to the block. “We’re so glad you came out to play with us.”

They grin to show me how happy they are.

I go back into the tent.

–==|||==–

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. If you could spend only one day in Africa, you’d be well-advised to spend it in the Crater, a caldara (collapsed volcano) about 10 miles in diameter, with an enormous concentration of large mammals—and the walls are so steep and high that they have almost no poachers.

What they do have on the floor of the Crater is a lovely little lake where our party—Pat and Roger Sims, Carol and myself, and my father—all stopped to enjoy a box lunch. And about thirty yards away was an old-fashioned outhouse with an honest-to-ghod half-moon carved on the door.

My father announced his intention to pay it a visit. Moro, our native guide, recommended against it. My father decided he couldn’t wait, so off to the outhouse he went.

“He is a very brave man, your father,” said Moro.

“How brave do you have to be to enter an outhouse?” I said, assuming he had warned us off because it was filthy.

“Very,” he said. “A black mamba”—the most poisonous snake in Africa—”lives beneath the little hole you sit on.”

I had raced halfway to the outhouse to pull my father out of there when he emerged, looking much relieved and totally unbitten.

–==|||==–

There are so many others. There was Island Camp on Lake Barringo, which seemed to have established an ant farm in our shower stall. There was another tented camp in the Rift Valley where we shared our bathroom with a pet waterbuck who came running every time he heard the shower going. There was a hotel in Nancy, France where every time you flushed the toilet the bidet shot water up to the ceiling.

But I’m going to close by telling you about the most memorable bathroom of all. The wild part is that I couldn’t find it again if you paid me.

–==|||==–

Maasai Mara, Kenya. It’s 1986, our first trip to Kenya, and we’re in the Mara, which is overflowing with animals and looks exactly like Hollywood’s idea of Africa. We’ve been driving around watching them for a few hours, and Perry, our guide, and I decide that we have to answer a call of Nature. Carol, who has a bladder of steel, waits in the Land Rover while Perry and I go behind a likely bush.

And as we are doing what comes naturally, I look over, and there, about 20 yards away, is a 2,000-pound Cape buffalo doing exactly the same thing, and glaring at me as if I, and I alone, am responsible for his prostate problems.

So I alert Perry to our situation and ask him what to do.

His logical answer: “Finish before he does and run like hell.”

We finished about ten seconds ahead of him, and beat him to the car by about three feet. The car proudly sported its scar from the buffalo’s horns on our next two trips to Kenya, until it was replaced by a new Land Cruiser that soon displayed the gouge from a rhino’s horn, which is an interesting story but has nothing to do with bathrooms, so I’ll save it for another time and place.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 36 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 41 anthologies. My work has been translated into 26 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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