Potty Talk

If you’ve never left highly modernized societies and have eschewed the gas station bathrooms within those societies, you may be in for a shocker when you first encounter a restroom in the Philippines.

When I say you are in for a shock, you may well be surprised at how swanky and well kept they are. In most of the malls and attractions that expats visit, in the metro area, anyway, the bathrooms are quite nice. They tend to have a modern Asian style to them, along with an attendant who constantly cleans the stalls out all day long. Check out the doors to the stalls and you’ll see something that even the Americans haven’t mastered yet: no gap between the panels. You can do your business in public in actual privacy.

First, know that they are referred to as CRs here, short for Comfort Room. If you ask for a restroom or bathroom, though, most people will know what you are on about, so don’t be too worried.

They may have toilet paper in the stalls, but look around before you go into the stall and see if there is a massive roll of toilet tissue hanging on the wall somewhere. If there is, chances are there won’t be any paper in the stall, so grab a handful before you enter. Some mid-quality and below bathrooms may not offer paper at all, or may only have it for sale in a wall dispenser. (Usually a small packet of tissue for P5.) So, always be prepared and keep a small pouch of tissue in your bag, just in case. It’s not a bad idea to keep a small container of hand soap or sanitizer in your bag as well.

Next, you need to learn how to stand in line. Unless the layout of the bathroom prevents it (and sometimes even then) rather than standing in one long line, people tend to line up in front of each individual stall. So, if you don’t see the single line, pick the stall with the shortest line and line up. This can put a little pressure on the person inside. If you are suffering from a little GI distress, too bad. You’ve got a line of people who picked that stall to wait for and they will start knocking insistently after a certain amount of time.

In nicer malls, stores, and attractions, water pressure should not be an issue, but keep your ears open to the sounds of the flushing around you. If it doesn’t sound forceful, do NOT put your tissue in the toilet. Likewise, if there is a sign asking you not to flush your paper, don’t risk it There will be a trash can in the stall with you. Use that instead. Once you’ve been here for a while, you will come to know which bathrooms can be trusted to flush properly and which can’t.

Mid-quality and poorer restrooms may not have a toilet seat. In many areas of the country, people still squat to do their business, and when they are faced with a western-style toilet, they climb up on the toilet seat and squat over the bowl. This tends to result in broken toilet seats. I’ve known some public bathrooms that have started with seats, only to have them disappear one by one as they are broken and not replaced. Some just don’t ever have seats to begin with. If you have very young children who are too short to “hover” over a non-seated toilet rim, you may want to invest in one of those portable, fold-up seats. (It’s not a bad idea to start doing some squats to prepare yourself for having to hover, too!)

The poorer quality bathrooms can be a sight to behold. Along motorways and in the provinces, you may encounter some that are truly skin crawling. Others, are clean enough, you just need to know how to work everything. The good news is that most fall into the latter category. I’ve had moments when I’ve gone into bathrooms I’ve refused to use, thought I was doomed to hold it for hours until we got back to a more settled area, and then found a perfectly acceptable bathroom a few minutes later. So, don’t freak out, and if you can hold it, just move on.

In these lower quality bathrooms, you will still find a toilet, but it may not flush manually at all. Sometimes, the water just runs continually in the bowl. If that is the case, you are in luck. Just do your business, put your paper in the trash, and move on. If the water is still, though, you need to take care of it. Somewhere in the bathroom, maybe in your stall, or maybe in the larger room, there will be a bucket with a smaller bucket with a long handle in it. It will likely already have water in it, but if it doesn’t, there should be a spigot somewhere where you can fill it. Take the bucket and the scoop to your stall, dump a few scoops of water into the toilet until the water looks clear again, and you’re done. It should go without saying that you definitely don’t want to put your tissue into the toilet in these bathrooms, and you should avoid doing a #2. If you really need to, though, instead of using the scoop, fill the bucket, and pour it slowly from waist high and it will hopefully flush the bowl for you. If it doesn’t, I don’t know what you should do, to be honest. I’d suggest pretending everything is fine and running away.

Occasionally, you will encounter an attendant in rural areas who insist there is a charge for the bathrooms. I honestly do not know if these people have been hired by someone to maintain the bathroom, or if they have found a way to earn money themselves. Either way, the charge should be P10 or less. (There is a bathroom like this in the heart of Manila in one of the parks, even. Maybe just keep some change in your pouch of tissue.) Either way, the bathrooms with attendants seem to be a little better than those without, so I don’t get too grumpy about it. There are still some of the nicer bathrooms in the Manila area that charge a fee, sometimes up to P20, but I encounter those less and less. In this case, there is usually a desk where you pay and are given a ticket. No one takes the ticket from you. You are just free to use the bathroom at that point.

Keep in mind that both paper napkins and toilet paper are referred to as tissue here. Do not ask for a napkin in a restaurant, as that is used to refer to a feminine hygiene product. Most waiters and cashiers in places frequented by expats will know what you mean if you do ask for a napkin, but every now and then you will deeply embarrass some poor fellow or trigger a giggle fit in the teenager taking your order if you ask for a napkin, so do try to retrain yourself to say tissue.

In some public bathrooms and in some private homes, you will see a sprayer hose to the side of the toilet. Many people didn’t/aren’t growing up with toilet paper. Instead, they use the water to clean themselves off. (In some households, they use a small bucket with a handle rather than a sprayer.) Do what you like. Feel free to try out the experience yourself. Just be aware as you send your youngsters into the stall that it could be in there and they may come out soaking wet if you haven’t warned them not to touch it.

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