By Elizabeth Stanis
We all do it. It is completely natural. We learn early on to accept that it is part of life. We all go to the bathroom… Right? I have always assumed there was no humanly possible way to get around having to go to the bathroom throughout the day. No matter our race, culture, religion, we all have to go at some point. In every country I have traveled to, the bathrooms are all a little different. Some you even have to pay to use. Having to use the bathroom is not something I have ever thought deeply about or thought of as a self-conscious experience . . . until traveling to a rural village in Sāmoa.
I had been in Sāmoa for some time and had grown to love the country. Sāmoa was by far the greenest place I had even seen. Standing in Apia, the capital, one could see forest covered mountains on three sides and on the fourth the ocean waves broke at the reef and then slowly rolled to the shore. Apia felt familiar and different all at the same time. Like the city I lived in back home, Apia had a movie theater and store, and even the golden arches of McDonalds. However, city life really occurred in the open-air markets full of food, clothes, and other trinkets. I had grown accustomed to living in Apia, grown comfortable. But, after finally settling in, it was time to pack up some of my belongings and venture across the island to a rural village, Amalie.
The village was set back off the main road. In the center there was an open field for playing cricket or large gatherings. The field lay in the shadow of the towering Catholic church. I walked past the church and an open fale, where some women were sitting on mats playing bingo, heading towards a small tin building, a convenience store my host family owned and ran. Behind it sat their house, a long concrete structure with large windows to allow the breeze to pass through. My host family was waiting to greet me: my host parents, Tupuloa, Sophia, and their daughter Apolonia, their son Simon, and his wife and children Kusa, Lorretta, and Toa. They welcomed me into their home. Once inside, I realized the house was one long room where eating, sleeping, and entertaining all happened in the same place. The only thing done in private was using the bathroom.
The village does not have access to the national water lines. Villagers typically get their water piped in from the top of the mountains. However, there was a drought leading up to my arrival, so the pipes sat empty. The villagers had to gather water from large tanks that collected rainwater or from a nearby freshwater pool. Three freshwater pools around the village were used to bathe, do laundry, gather drinking water, play and relax. There was a system to how these events took place and which pools were used when, a system based on the bordering ocean tide. To use the shower in the house, there was a system of buckets. To flush the toilet, the tank had to be filled by hand first. I eased into this system fairly quickly. Each day, water would be brought up the hillside from the pool to the house and stored in barrels. Some of the water went to the kitchen, some was set aside for drinking, and the rest went to the bathroom.
During my stay, I slowly started to realize that I was the only one using the water in the bathroom. Each morning I would wake up and head to the bathroom to relieve myself, brush my teeth, and get dressed for the day. Somewhere around mid-day, I would use the bathroom again. Before bed, I would make another quick trip. I thought nothing of it until it became clear to me that I was the only one going. Paranoia crept over me. I sat and watched, observing my hosts’ every movement. They never went to the bathroom: the door stood open, the toilet went unused. Each day I felt myself growing more and more self-conscious about my natural bodily functions. Was I using the bathroom too often? Was I taking too long each time? I watched everyone else drink water. Where did it go, was I the only one who peed? I laid out the facts: my hosts were Sāmoan; Sāmoans are human just like me; humans have to use the bathroom at some point. But as time went by, I was left pondering the same question: am I the only one who goes?
This went on for my entire stay in the village. The question even followed me back to Apia. I would sit and ponder: I knew there was a Sāmoan word for bathroom, fale le taua. . . so if they have a word for it, it must be a part of their life, right?
Finally, I realized I needed to get over my new-found insecurity. Life continued back in Apia. I kept in touch with my host family and started to miss the slower pace of life. I missed my new family too, so I decided to go back to the village for a short stay. I arrived bringing gifts and food to thank my hosts for allowing me to visit again. Little did they know I was also on a mission to answer the question that had haunted me since my last visit. I spent more time around my host family this time; I was with one member of the family almost all the time—and still, I was the only one who ever walked into the bathroom. My confusion continued to grow until the moment I realized that I had created my own paranoia.
In Sāmoa, it is not uncommon, especially for families that have some money, to have more than one bathroom. Typically, there is a bathroom inside the house for guests to use, and the family also, if need be. But there is also a secondary bathroom outside, behind the house, that the family generally uses, especially when guests are around. I stumbled upon this discovery while sitting in the kitchen with Kusa while she was cooking lunch. The kitchen is an attached structure, with a large window into the main house to allow air flow and for food and dishes to be passed easily from the kitchen to the table, but it can only be accessed from outside. While preparing some soup and bread, I noticed a door that was part of a small, shallow shed. Moments after noticing this structure, I saw my host father walk out, and not long after, Toa, my little brother, walked in carrying a roll of toilet paper. There was a second bathroom outside!
I had the answer to the question plaguing me since the start of my first visit. And here I had convinced myself that I was the only one using the bathroom, simply because I did not understand the cultural politics of bathrooms. I sighed. I suddenly felt more comfortable, more at home.
But there is a larger issue here: Instead of being paranoid, I could just have asked my hosts more about their lives, their house, and their everyday habits. In my own ignorance, I had allowed myself to get wrapped up in the possibility that in a house of eight people, I, the outsider, was the only one ever using the bathroom. Despite our gender, race, religion, or culture, we are all human. We are all living things. We all have basic similarities, and going to the bathroom is something none of us can avoid.