The Shawshank Redemption’s Andy Dufresne crawled “through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side”. You, dear reader, are about to have a similar experience. Although you may not come out clean. In most of my trips down to brown town, I’ve walked away from the experience distinctly sullied.
Everyone has the occasional alcohol-fueled toilet mishap. We’ve all been there, right? You’re staying at a Mexico City hostel, where the food doesn’t quite agree with you as well as El Jimador does. So you walk into the hostel’s bathroom, where the showers are lined up in a row facing the stalls. Standing in the shower, fading in and out of consciousness, a tequila-lubricated, ossified cylinder of frijoles plops out and bounces a few times on top of the drain. What to do, what to do… leave it there for the cleaning lady? No, no, you’ve got to keep up appearances. You can’t be labeled as One of Those Unsophisticated American Travelers. The only gentlemanly thing to do is pick it up and heave it over the shower curtain in the general direction of the stalls, hoping to hear the telltale splash indicating that your “foul” shot swished into a porcelain net. But it doesn’t land in – or even near – the stalls. Nope, it hits the stall door, bounces off, and returns like a slimy brown boomerang, coming to a stop just visible under the shower curtain. We’ve all been there, right?
Or maybe you were up a little too late drinking red wine the night before an early shift at the deli. So you’re standing there, talking to your boss, and you think you can shift your weight to one leg and discreetly pass some morning gas. At first you think that the act happened so smooth and so silently that it was imperceptible… The perfect crime! And then you feel the damp heat. It’s a white-hot torrent, in fact. And you’re wearing white chinos. And you’re not wearing underwear. You’ve just pooped your pants at work.
No? You’re saying that hasn’t happened to you? Well shit, this post might be a bit unpleasant then, because I’m just getting warmed up.
After the deli incident, one would think that I would have learned my lesson about late-night drinking preceding early-morning engagements. But one is not always visiting old friends in Beijing. I was on a grand Asia tour, so of course I was going to see the Great Wall. It was icing on the cake that Jeff, an old college buddy, lived in Beijing and offered to put me up for a week. We didn’t see each other often during the day, and when we saw each other in the evening, our language of choice was alcohol. We spoke it fluently.
Towards the end of my stay, Jeff’s German roommate began hosting a gaggle of friends from the Fatherland. It was a packed apartment, but the energy was palpable. One night, we all went out drinking at a rooftop bar. I was a bit preoccupied with how I was going to squeeze a visit to the Great Wall into my last few days in the city. Jeff had already been, and in any case had to work the next two days, so he couldn’t take me. As it happened, the Germans were going the following morning and kindly offered to let me join their chartered bus. They were party animals, so I figured it would be fun. Jeff and I left the bar early, taking an elevator down to the street. As we were turning a corner, we heard distant chanting from above: “Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land! DEUTSCH-LAND!”
The next morning, less than four hours later, I was groggily getting ready for the bus, throwing things into my bookbag with squinted eyes. I shuffled to the bus with my six German compatriots, each of whom also looked bleary-eyed. A driver and a tour guide, both Chinese, welcomed us aboard. The tour guide, named Kong, spoke decent English and was a happy fellow, chatting away as the bus wheeled onto a highway towards the Great Wall. The ride started out jovial, but my mood soured as my stomach did the same. My colon was always a ticking time bomb, and the hangover had lit the fuse. I certainly wouldn’t make it to the wall before I exploded. Clutching my belly, I moved slowly to the bus’s frontmost seat, next to Kong.
“Kong,” I mumbled, “I think I’m going to be sick. Can you pull over?”
He said something in quick Chinese to the driver, who looked irritated but put on his blinkers and started to slow the bus. Then, like a New York panhandler soliciting on the subway, Kong thoughtfully went up and down the aisle of the bus collecting napkins and tissues from the Germans while I clawed the seat in front of me in a white-knuckle grip, hoping nothing spilled out before the bus came to a stop. My European friends didn’t appear to understand what was going on and that was fine with me; for my own pride, I was hoping for a bit of discretion.
The bus lurched to a stop, Kong handed me the makeshift toilet paper, and I lurched out onto the trash-strewn highway. It was elevated fifty feet above the congested ground-level streets below and surrounded by tall apartment buildings, so the whooshing and honking and beeping and blaring of the traffic all around was reverberated, amplified, deafening. I dropped my pants, followed mere milliseconds later by other droppings. It came out nice and easy, like maple syrup over concrete pancakes. I caught glimpses of horrified, amused, and furious faces shot in my direction by motorists speeding past the parked bus.
As the syrupy sediment tapered to a trickle, I started to wonder what the Germans thought of my predicament. One or two had peeked quickly out the bus window at me without saying a word. At first I thought they were treating the embarrassing situation with respectful delicacy, in deference to my pride. Then, suddenly, six smiling German faces appeared through the glass on the right side of the bus. Sliding down six windows in unison, they each stuck out a pumping fist, beginning a screaming chant as I squatted on the roadside:
“U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
Kong emailed me that Christmas, wishing me happy holidays and asking for a Yelp review; if I could have given six stars, I would have. “If you have a weak stomach and a week in Beijing, call Kong. He’s resourceful and won’t leave you high and dry. Well, maybe dry.”
What is one to do with such a weak stomach but a penchant for vivacious adventures abroad? It’s unrealistic to think I would ease up on the drinking. But I do, believe it or not, take my more professional international engagements seriously. Thus, since the deli mishap, I’ve attempted to modify my drinking so that I do not risk a fecal infraction during working hours. I started taking pharmaceutical precautions as well, tucking an emergency anti-diarrheal tablet in my wallet, like a Cold War-era CIA spy might carry a false tooth full with a cyanide capsule to bite down upon when The Jig Is Up and those dirty Red bastards are closing in and quick death is preferable to a Spetsnaz meat hook mastectomy. I’m happy to report that – with the exception of the time in which I had a bit too much to drink the night before a United Nations internship and almost threw up on a Korean ambassador – I’ve been relatively successful in my quest for excremental refuge.
But my digestive system is not robust. Some people brag about having “cast iron stomachs.” I, on the other hand, will meekly admit to having a stomach of limpest tissue paper. It therefore is not simply alcohol that causes my fecal fluctuations; sometimes accidents cannot be avoided, despite all the dietary planning and pharmacy fail-safes in the world.
In Mexico, after my trip to the capital, I traveled west to the dusty desert town of Hermosillo to start a summer internship at a U.S. consulate. I had made the change from tequila to Pepto-Bismol, yet Mexican cuisine still jangled my hinterland. Most of my intern duties were tedious, but I was seeing cool things and meeting cool people. Towards the end of my stay, I received an exciting project: conducting outreach to American expats living in a nearby beach town called Bahía Kino. After weeks of phone calls and emails, I’d arranged to give a short speech on the opening day of a local fishing tournament, which many of the expats would be attending, on the services the consulate could perform for Americans. For security reasons, a consulate employee would drive me there and back. The only one available on the afternoon of the tournament was a staff lawyer. I cannot remember his name, but he resembled a middle-aged, Mexican Matt Lauer, so I shall call him Mr. L. I cannot emphasize enough how dignified and professional this man was (hence the “Mister”). Which is why I feel, to this day, all the more ridiculous for what I put him through.
Mr. L was dressed in a suit and tie. I was dressed more shabbily, in a polo and khakis. En route to Bahía in a big black consulate SUV, things were going well. He was telling me about his daughters and the precocious things they said. He told me about his career in private practice before deciding to make the switch over to government work. His English was impeccable and he was soft-spoken but engaging in a fatherly way. He was one of the few people at the consulate who spoke to me like an equal rather than merely a lowly intern, which is what made it all the more sad when I asked him to pull over so I could shit on the side of the road.
Well, I didn’t phrase it quite like that. We were on a spartan desert freeway midway between the consulate and our destination. There were no towns, no gas stations, no human presence for miles. Curiously, alongside the freeway we saw the occasional cluster of abandoned one-story houses in states of total disrepair. They looked like bombed-out dwellings in Afghanistan, or perhaps Harry Potter’s family home at Godric’s Hollow. Their roofs were either full of gaping holes or missing completely, and broken furniture and debris were strewn about the vicinity. I told Mr. L. that I had a stomach virus and that I wouldn’t be able to make it to Bahía for a bathroom, asking that he pull off to the side of the road near one of the houses. Without a word, he nodded and complied with a stern face that told me we’d probably be losing any professional rapport we’d hence established.
I stepped out of the SUV and wandered up to a house with no roof whatsoever. I figured that would help with the ventilation of the pungent present I was about to leave like a shameful Santa under the tree. In their prime, these houses could have supported a small family, but clearly no one had lived there for some time. From the random wrappers and bottles covering the floor, however, I gathered that people squatted here occasionally. (I’d soon be squatting too.) After scouting out the house, I realized that I had nothing for the post-mess cleanup, so I returned to the car. On the dashboard lay a paperback book that Mr. L. had been reading: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
I’m sure many of you are disinclined to believe that I was able to clean my posterior with pages torn from a book. You’d be partly right; in fact I merely used the pages to stem the tide, as it were, before switching to a crumpled-up napkin I found under the passenger seat for the detail work. I did the deed while hovering over what had once been the living room and gazing up through the lack of ceiling at the clear blue sky above. In contrast to the Beijing highway, it was eerily quiet. However, the air was hot and still within the confines of the house’s four walls and I was sweating profusely. When the job was done, I clambered back into the SUV, put 75% of Mr. L.’s book back on the dashboard, and we continued our journey in silence.
Incidentally, Heart of Darkness is about a man who, in search of ivory, plods through the brown continent of Africa (Conrad’s words, not mine). I saw parallels in my own journey through brown incontinence. I, too, was forever seeking something white in faraway lands: toilet paper.
Which brings me back to the earlier story about the wine-shits in the white pants in the deli. You may be wondering how I extricated myself from the situation given that I looked like I had commuted to work that morning via mudslide. I’m fairly proud of my solution: I walked backwards to a maintenance hallway, sprinted to the employee restroom, camouflaged the poo on my white pants by wrapping my legs in toilet paper like a mummy, and snuck out the loading dock with the stealth of Solid Snake. Only from the safety of my car did I call my boss and tell her that I was struck spontaneously with the flu and needed the rest of the day off.
If only the rest of my poopy parables had ended so cleanly.