A Refined, Gentlemanly Discussion on the Delicate Etiquette of Travel Diarrhea


The bathroom of our guesthouse was spacious and was home to a perfectly reasonable number of dragonflies. It had a bathtub, though I don’t think anyone had ever used it, as I’m fairly certain a wild boar had lived in it at some point. Still, we were in the middle of the jungle, and it was the nicest bathroom we had seen in a while. There were four of us using it, and even that wasn’t a problem: after long enough together, you form a mutual, unspoken agreement that bathing is a suckers’ game. The real issue was that it was kind of an echo chamber.

Indonesian food, as it turned out, was a wonder: delicious, spicy, cheap, and plentiful. Our favoured hobby in Bali was eating, and our other activities for the day took on an air of going through the motions before we could engage in our next round of local delicacies. We hiked and toured and photographed, but our minds were always fixed on curried tunas and goat meat dripping with blood-red oils. Travel is food, and food is travel.

But eating that often, and that cheaply, did not come without risk. Every time you entered a restaurant was a gamble you decided to make, a game of southeast Asian roulette. (In this metaphor, “terrifying intestinal parasites” takes the place of the traditional bullets in a game of Russian roulette.)

We came off lucky, and mostly escaped with just a few tummy rumbles. When the time came to deal with those tummy rumbles, though, we developed some embarrassment. Due to the acoustic qualities of our bathroom, and a poorly-thought vent affixed directly above the bathroom door, all other humans in the vicinity were likely to hear an amplified, Dolby digital performance of whatever was happening within the sacred confines of the toilet.

Worse yet, they became warped and mutated by the tiles, by the dimensions of this hallowed abode: a mild dalliance with stomach problems suddenly became a trumpet solo. A middling encounter of stomach sickness sounded like a battle fought with Gatling guns. And an actual, terrifying, “Did I drink the water?” episode sounded like all the gods and great beasts of old marching down from Asgard itself, a Wild Hunt occurring within the confines of our little guesthouse in the middle of the Balinese jungle. You would exit the bathroom and paramedics would already be waiting, your compatriots having assumed that you died, that most of your body weight had left your person, that you probably needed a full torso transplant.

In time, an unspoken code of conduct emerged. If someone was going to the bathroom, everyone decided to go for a walk. The radius between travelling companion and active bathroom user was at least 20 metres, though less if you were willing to put in your earphones. No one had to ask for the privacy or indicate that they wished for a blast zone to be cleared: everyone understood the necessity and drifted away peacefully.

Travelling with other people is all about these subliminal compromises, the quiet deals you make with one another to ignore the embarrassing aspects of one another’s biological reality. It can be mortifying to confront even the closest of friends with the vicissitudes of your bowels. And thus a strata of rules emerges, a codified rulebook of bathroom etiquette. All parties come together in utter silence and agree on these mystical bonds, to protect the innocence of some, and to protect the undying shame of others.

Of course, no one wants to directly address the frequency and consistency of their bowel movements with people they need to face across a dinner table. And thus, you also develop a kind of polite language, a dainty Victorian bourgeois tongue to cover all of the issues you might be enduring. You need to communicate the exact nature and urgency of your intestinal calamity, but you need to do it with finesse, with a nod to the mores and rules of fine society. It is a finishing school composed entirely of designing elegant metaphors for shitting your pants.

In practice, this lower abdominal morphology must be subtle and cleverly crafted. Outsiders should ideally never be alerted to the nature of the communiqué, but those on the inside should be absolutely clear on the direness of the situation. When I first arrived in Korea, my roommate and I took heed from a pamphlet on Korean war history and referred to all of our bathroom shenanigans under the broad category of “disturbances.” Other journeys with friends have featured a graduated warning system, composed of animals or varying colours to imply different levels of severity. Work the word “green” into a sentence to give the all clear, and utter the word “red” to signal that you are hitting the eject button on whatever situation you are currently in.

A regiment of action similarly emerges among those bonded together by gastronomic distress. When one of your travel partners indicates a need for bathroom time, whether through coded linguistic signals or via physically fleeing for the nearest toilet, one must follow certain protocols.

For one, get away. Provide enough distance that none of your sense organs can possibly detect what is occurring within the bathroom, but provide just enough leeway that you can sprint back to the scene if the situation grows hospital-worthy. Begin carrying around earphones. Develop cover stories for your compatriot, to explain that they are simply off filing their nails or crocheting booties for local orphan chimpanzees. Prepare smelling salts and a dehydration pack for when they finally emerge, chafed and withered and falling to their knees.

As the bathroom user, you too have responsibilities to your companions. Make use of agreed-upon signals to secure a reasonable soundproof zone, and perhaps grade your current probability of explosion to communicate likely need for earplugs. Time your expulsions for when your travel buddies are not in the room, or preferably even within the confines of a different city. Pack a scented candle with you at all times.

We are all human, and we all face toilet quagmires from time to time. But with care and pre-planning, one can safely coexist with your road buddies without anyone having to deal with anyone else’s poop. And isn’t that the kind of world we all want to live in?

21 thoughts on “A Refined, Gentlemanly Discussion on the Delicate Etiquette of Travel Diarrhea

      • If you’re going to use a mosquito coil then try to use it in an open aired bathroom. Depending on the substance the coil is made of, it can be detrimental to the health of your lungs to inhale the smoke. Especially if you use it repeatedly or in a confining space.

        • Haha, yes, we discovered this. One of our hostels in India was regularly swarming with mosquitoes, and my friends left a mosquito coil burning one night in a room that was too closed in… they woke up coughing and their eyeballs burning.

  1. Embarrasment surrounding toilet visits seems so long ago these days! Once you’ve had a bout of bad food poisoning in a toilet like that one, you just no longer care. I remember staying in these bamboo huts in the south west of China. The toilet was just a grubby hole in the floor (standard), but the main problem was that it was a three sided U shape made of breeze blocks with no roof and a door that had a 3 inch gap under the bottom. As you can imagine, we became very familiar with all of the movements of each others bowel symphonies. Well, I got a case of ‘Which side do I aim with first’ food poisoning there, and after about two visits to the toilet I no longer gave a shit (pun intended). Haha

    • I am sufficiently impressed. I guy I knew similarly told of a toilet in China which was most just a trough with 2-foot tall booths built atop it. You could both see and interact with your neighbours, and their leavings would likely travel through your section of trough anyway.

  2. this is the most polite, well written piece i’ve ever written about toilet etiquette. props!

    i wish my friends were as considerate as you are rather than being so straightforward and crude about their bowel habits.

  3. Most of my compatriots here are Peace Corps Volunteers, and their training process thoroughly desensitizes them to any discussion of bowel movements. There’s no delicacy about the matter here; ger-dwellers (and other outhouse-users) boast of the size of their “stalagshites.” Justly so, I’d say, given the discomfort involved in using the facilities when the temperature in said facilities is -30.

    As for scent control – unnecessary in frozen outhouses, but very necessary in unventilated bathrooms. The Mongolians keep matches on their toilets for this reason. No candles, just matches. Not an ideal solution, but much more helpful than you’d think.

    • “Stalagshites.” Stupendous! I was never forced into any outdoorsy type situations, though plenty of crapholes (pun intended). I have dealt with some mighty cold bathrooms. (Korean schools are largely unheated through brutal winters, and many janitors will leave allll bathroom windows open.)

      • What it gives up in crudeness it more than makes up for in brilliance.

        Yikes. Mongolian schools are heated, but not out of luxury; it’s because if they weren’t we would all die. Re: the bathrooms, is it cold enough to freeze running water (if there is any)? I’m a lucky apartment-dweller, but Govi-friend with an outhouse told me how he considered building a seat for his – until he realized the very real possibility that he would freeze to it.

  4. Just getting caught up after returning from Calgary (where the toilets are modern and fine) and I still can’t stop laughing; once again you brought back memories both good and bad from my own travels!

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