Whether you are living in the slums of Kolkata or walking the Camino, when nature calls, the answer is best given in a clean toilet. This b[og]log takes its cue from World Toilet Day, earlier this week, on Monday 19 November, a day on which the United Nations asks us to contemplate the importance of the water closet.
First, the big picture: the number of people walking the Camino is rising every year. In 2017, 278,498 souls arrived in Santiago on foot. Doubtless those numbers will be higher again this year. Every walker would have traipsed through the last 100 kms in the Spanish province of Galicia. But even in distant parts of the route, the numbers are large. On a Monday in late August, we started from Le Puy in France, along with 60 or more other pilgrims. More pilgrims joined in at several towns further along the Way – every one of them with mortal bodies and a UN acknowledged right to a clean toilet.
Over the next two weeks, as this gypsy village moved along France’s GR 65, through the Upper Loir Valley, the mercury regularly breached 30 degrees centigrade (see ‘Blogging the Slog’). Thankfully this early section was flush with loos, though I should note, with an apology for the pun, that many were dry toilets, i.e. without flushes. Usually located just before the entry to a village and sometimes in the middle of nowhere, they deserve the gratitude not just of the travellers, But also the householders on the periphery of the villages, whose secluded yards might otherwise be too inviting for walkers with over-full bladders.
Once we reached the Lot Valley, however, such facilities got thinner on the ground and progressively, how shall I put it, more rudimentary in their design. Some ‘composting toilets’ don’t really bear discussion in polite company.
Past Condom, not a prophylactic but a beautiful town in the Gers district of France, public loos appear so rarely and so erratically, that the walkers, no longer able to confidently predict the distance to the next WC, have to take their business wherever they can, if you get my drift. The problem is aggravated when the village cafes are shut at weekends or Mondays or Thursdays or any other days a particular French commune or village chooses to shut down; it becomes diabolical when, in addition, large chunks of the day are spent walking through vineyards, which are mostly pretty shorn after the autumn harvest, or pasture after pasture of burnt out sunflower. Nowhere to hide!
I was keen to investigate the unequal distribution of public toilets in France when one Sunday morning, we arrived in Commune Flamerans, in the Department of Gers in the Region of Occitanie. Market stalls were being set up in the square but not one open cafe in sight. Barely 11, it was already hot as hades and having drunk a litre of water in the last hour, I was busting to go!
Here’s how my first conversation in the village started:
Me: ‘Excuse me, do you speak English?’
He: (with appropriate gesture): ‘A little’
Me: ‘Do you know if there is a public toilet near by?’
He (with authority): ‘I should know. I am Mayor, of here.’
So there I was, personally escorted by the Mayor, to the spiffing new commune toilet, just before he was due to open the fete and unveil a painted portrait of himself.
Duly relieved, I was profoundly grateful for the very well-equipped lavatory but was too polite to mention that some strategically placed signage would be really helpful to walkers on GR 65. The Mayor was keen to explain the role of his administration in the toilet stakes. It turns out that in France the building and maintenance of toilets is split between the ‘commune’ level of government, which sits somewhere below the ‘department’ level, and the ‘village’, which sits below the commune. Some of the prosperous communes maintain public facilities as a matter of course. Others see no reason to invest in the comfort of walkers who are marginal to their economies. On the other hand, some of the less prosperous communes have started building loos, recognising the income the Camino walkers generate for the tiny hamlets. But then again the really backward areas can’t afford such initiatives.
Gratifying though it was to get a lesson in ‘French Provincial Political Economy of Latrines 101’, it offered no practical solutions for those desperately seeking toilets in France.
Once in Spain, things got much simpler, though not necessarily better – there simply are NO public toilets in provincial Spain. On the other hand, village cafes stay predictably open and where there is coffee, there is, usually, a ‘servicio’. Beware, though, as beautifully manicured parklands which lead you in an out of the largest cities have their loos carefully hidden away from the prying eyes of long distance walkers! The 8 kms along the city’s green-belt into Burgos ceases to be a walk-in-the-park, when an hour in you realise there is not a loo in sight and the place is teeming with dog-walkers, children, and an assortment of exercise junkies! To put it in Australian vernacular: ‘Ya’ got Buckley’s and None of a pee in peace here’ – unless, that is, you are a mongrel dog, in which case go right ahead, and wee around every second tree.
And then there is that notorious stretch on the Meseta, 17 kms of straight flat path through open fields. In autumn, after the crops have been cut, nothing grows here, except a few spindly trees, sparse and irregular, on the sides of the track. Try crouching down behind one skinny trunk, with knees swollen, and calves hard as rock from a thousand kilometres of walking!
But I have no choice. So, I get to the thickest trunk in miles. The ground under the tree is covered in used toilet paper, evidence that this is no virgin territory! Many, many others, have gone here, right here, before me. Hallowed though this Camino soil might be, I am not brave enough to put my back pack down. I wrap my arms around the tree and squirm slowly into position, unsteady from the weight on my back. That’s when I realise that penis-envy is a real thing. I so so so wish I could do this standing up!
[NB: this is not the spot on the Meseta. There are many such spots along the Way]
Seriously though, the WHO says more than 2 billion people around the world don’t have clean toilets <http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sanitation>. So I guess, it will be a while before we can legitimately ask the UN to turn its attention to our piddling little needs on the Camino de Santiago! But for the hundreds of thousands who walk (and pee) here, it might be worth contemplating whether we really want to turn this UNESCO world heritage site into a used toilet-paper trail.