“Lemonade” is a series by Brandon Schultz chronicling his misadventures abroad, and how he turns his lemons into lemonade. Read the rest here.
We had spent a couple days in Chiang Rai, a remote and slow-paced city in Northern Thailand, feeding and bathing elephants at a sanctuary in the early hours and dodging blue- and red-spotted tokay geckos by night as they hunted moths by lamps with their beady yellow-green eyes.
When it was time to leave, four fellow travellers and I got an early start to spend one last morning in the region, visiting some of its most famous temples before working our way down to Chiang Mai. From trekking the sprawling park of unusual structures and collected artworks known as the Black House (more an outdoor art museum than temple) to exploring the intricate carvings of the much more modern yet traditionally inspired dazzler that is the White Temple, our attempt at beating the heat by starting early was a fool’s errand.
Already exhausted from hours of gawking at glittering temples under an oppressive sun, we snagged a quick lunch (green curry chicken for me, as usual), used the a bathroom of pure gold—golden walls, sinks, toilets, floors and ceilings—and continued on our sweaty sojourn southward.
It was going to be a four-hour drive through the winding countryside, and a great opportunity for a nap, as if we had any energy left to do anything but sleep anyway. I estimate it took 20 to 30 seconds before I passed out in the back seat of our van. Two hours into our adventure, I woke suddenly with a horrendous pain in my bowels, and a very clear awareness that I was going to be sick within minutes.
A testament to the power of the Southeast Asian sun, I was so wiped by our simple morning of temple touring that I must have slept through these painful warnings for some time. I awoke in a very different position than the one I zonked out in, with both knees pulled toward my chest and one leg inexplicably extended upward, so that my foot braced against the window and roof of the van, all in a subconscious attempt to survive the stinging sensations in my stomach.
There was no way this was going to stave off what was coming for another two hours, though. I panicked. I needed to get to a bathroom immediately.
Miraculously, we came to a gas station quickly. Like many highway gas stations in Thailand, there were public restroom facilities, a convenience store and some food and gift shops attached. Without explaining much, I requested a stop and ran to the restroom stalls, clutching my stomach, while my friends stumbled out to stretch their legs.
I made it back to them before they crossed half of the parking lot toward the convenience store.
“Finished already?” asked my closest friend on the trip, Alex.
Actually, I hadn’t even begun. I knew I was coming from a more rural part of Thailand, but it never occurred to me that toilets weren’t an obligatory feature of bathrooms, and that, consequently, toilet paper was also considered a convenience—not a staple. Instead of the bathroom I had in mind, I was greeted with a series of wooden closets, many without doors, each containing a single hole in the ground and a hose for rinsing, all at a slight incline so that the waste water from the top stall drained toward the end, sweeping through each on its way.
I wasn’t deep in the jungle or in some abandoned village—this was a fully modern gas station packed with weary travellers, much like any rest station in the West, making it all the more alarming and difficult to accept. If I had to do anything other than let loose the brutal effects of food-related illness, I would have been fine, and found the restroom humorous, even endearing.
But this was no scenario for humour or patience—I really had to go, and it wasn’t going to be pretty.
I ran back to Alex, tired from the heat, in terrible pain from my stomach and now upset by my own inability to do what needed to be done, and what was coming imminently whether I liked it or not. Deep down, knew I was going to have to do it without any of the “conveniences,” I expected, but I wasn’t ready to face that reality without being told so, even so close to eruption.
I told Alex what was happening. He asked if I could wait another minute, and then said the one simple thing that we tend to forget in panic situations: “It’ll be fine. You don’t need to worry about this.”
We never need to worry. What’s bad is bad and will exist whether we worry or not—there’s no need to add to the pain by worrying. What’s most helpful is finding solutions, but sometimes we can’t see them on our own. And sometimes our problems seem excessively personal and we don’t want to explain what’s wrong, but the reality is that, once we do, we often find that our friends aren’t grossed out by our human needs, because they’re human, too.
Alex returned from the convenience store with a roll of toilet paper. It never dawned on me that it might be for sale somewhere nearby. In my doomsday state of mind, it seemed to me that if it didn’t exist in the restroom, it didn’t exist at all. But onlookers tend to see more clearly than we sufferers do, our minds clouded by irrational judgment.
Though I’d never been able to do my business in public, I suddenly realized I would get through it. It wasn’t about the toilet paper; I could have survived without it. It was about support in an upsetting situation, and knowing that someone had my back, even in a situation most of us consider grossly personal (and just plain gross).
Incidentally, while running to grab the toilet paper from Alex, I learned another quirk of Thai gas stations. Nearly all have a handicap stall, separate from the other restrooms and usually attached to the store. It’s a private room, with four walls, a door that locks, a sink and a toilet. So I never did have to use a hole in the ground, surrounded by the shuffle of strangers.
Like nearly everything else in life, it was fine in the end. I didn’t have to worry. But I wouldn’t have remembered that if I hadn’t asked Alex for support, even when I was sure the situation was hopeless. The unexpected physical resolutions were godsends, but what I was really after were his emotional comforts. That’s often all we really need to get by another day.
He also taught to me take Imodium when travelling in Asia.