Dear past, present, and future employers: Please continue to take me seriously even after reading this post entirely dedicated to poop. I swear I am a mature adult.
One Saturday during PST a few volunteers invited me to go to a festival with them in Gjilan, a nearby city. I was tempted, but I decided to stay in Kamenicë for the day. I walked home, feeling totally healthy, but as I entered the house I felt something… the stomach gurgle of doom. You know the one.
It’s your body’s single warning sign that something catastrophic is about to happen. You know that if you don’t get to a bathroom soon you will traumatize everyone in the vicinity.
Thank goodness I was a mere 10 meters from the toilet. Crisis averted.
As I sat on the toilet for the next 15 minutes I pondered what would have happened if I had agreed to go to Gjilan. I would have been on a crowded bus when the gurgle happened. Sudden-onset diarrhea plus public transportation… An experience like that would have forever altered my sense of self.
Peace Corps Volunteers have said that everyone will poop their pants at least once during their service. It’s like a rite of passage. I’m hoping that this doesn’t apply to volunteers in countries like Kosovo. But if it ever does happen I promise to write a post about it. (But maybe I’ll wait a year or so for the embarrassment to wear off.)
Even though the Kosovo volunteers have not had many health issues, we’ve still been able to swap some poop stories. Allow me to present the unique challenges that volunteers face when needing to use the toilet:
Challenge #1: Poop Stalkers
We all have a certain bathroom etiquette. For example, if there are several open stalls and only one is taken, you never sit in a stall adjacent to the occupied one. If a guest uses your bathroom, and then you walk in and it stinks to high heaven, you pretend not to notice. If you are out at a restaurant and someone spends a suspiciously long amount of time using the restroom, you don’t comment on the fact that they were likely pooping. You just don’t.
But when you join the Peace Corps the rules change.
During my first 24 hours at my host home, I obviously used the bathroom a few times. The first time my host mother followed me in to make sure I knew how to use everything. Yup, pretty sure I’ve mastered using a toilet. Thanks for checking, host mom.
Each time I used the bathroom I was in there for less than two minutes. But after a couple Turkish coffees it was time for the inevitable bowel movement. I entered the bathroom, did my business, and washed my hands. There were no concerning noises and the entire process took less than 5 minutes. But I opened the bathroom door and found my host mother standing right there. She immediately asked, “Is everything okay? Are you healthy? You were in the bathroom for a long time!” She says this while pointing to my lower abdomen and the toilet.
I felt so violated knowing that someone was listening. I should have turned on the faucet to mask the plops of shame.
This was not an isolated incident. Almost every time I use the bathroom, if I’m in there for more than a minute or two, someone comes by and begins knocking and jiggling the door knob. I say, “I’m here- I’m good!” but they continue to linger nearby and try the door every minute or so. My host grandmother has even followed me into the bathroom a few times. Several volunteers have had the exact same experience. I guess our families are very concerned with our digestive health. I call it poop stalking.
Challenge #2: NEVER flush the toilet paper… that is, assuming you even have toilet paper.
I’ve used the squatty potty during my travels more times that I care to remember, so I’m thankful that Kosovo has an abundance of toilets. I’ve run into numerous squatties in Kosovo, but toilets are definitely the norm.
However, most people in this part of the world do not use toilet paper. During PST I bought my own TP. I have also gotten used to carrying it with me wherever I go, because bathrooms rarely provide it.
My first night with my host family began with my Kosovar mother leading me to the bathroom and explaining in rapid Albanian that I must NEVER flush toilet paper (or anything else) down the drain. Instead I need to throw it away. After explaining this a couple times using dramatic hand gestures, she asked, “Do you understand?”
I assured her that I did, but she decided to act out the scenario one final time, just to drive home the fact that flushing toilet paper is bad news. If I understood her charades correctly, flushing toilet paper would not only clog the septic system, but also trigger the end of the world.
I have yet to mistakenly drop the TP in the toilet. But I’m sure it’ll happen eventually… and then what do you do?! Do you try to flush it, knowing that it will clog the pipes? Or do you reach in and fish it out??
I just hope I never have to make that decision.
Challenge #3: Power Outages and Water Shortages
I was lucky during my summer in Kosovo. I only got diarrhea twice. You’ve already read about the first time it happened. Allow me to tell you about the second time.
Because my family becomes very concerned whenever I’m in the bathroom, I began strategically timing my poops. I would wait until everyone was outside, watering the plants or gathering vegetables or something. Then I would hurry silently to the bathroom and do my business.
One Saturday the entire family was home, including extended family from Switzerland. This made trips to the bathroom extra challenging, because at least one person was always inside. I was also feeling a little sick, so I knew that things would be unpleasant. Finally the moment came when the coast was clear. I didn’t know how much time I had, so I quickly ran to the bathroom and locked the door.
I checked the lights: Power was on. (This is important, because the electricity & water goes out frequently. Some outages last an hour, some for several hours.)
Anyways, I sat down and let it all out. It was pretty bad. I’ll refrain from further description so that my friends can still make eye-contact with me tomorrow.
I finished up and attempted to flush the toilet. Nothing happened. I tried again… nothing.
I then tried the sink and realized that the water was totally out. Not even a drop. I realized that there was only one solution: Run away. I immediately left the house and didn’t return until several hours later, pretending like nothing happened.
Challenge #4: New Diet
When you join the Peace Corps the drastic change in diet is bound to cause problems for at least some of the volunteers. My body adjusted pretty quickly and I went all of PST without major issues. However, when I moved to my permanent site my body betrayed me. I had diarrhea on-and-off for over a month, in varying stages of severity. On a couple of the worst days I was nearly pooping my pants every hour.
One random item I packed ended up being very useful: Poo-pourri. (If you don’t know what it is, look up the ridiculous commercial for it on YouTube.) It ended up being the thing that helped me preserve a shred of dignity as I trekked to the bathroom every hour under the watchful eyes of my host family.
I am happy to report that my prayers on the porcelain throne were finally answered and my diarrhea days have ended.
During a chat with other PCVs about this, a fellow volunteer sympathized by sharing her experience. She struggled with alternating constipation and diarrhea for a few weeks of Pre-Service Training. She even went for a week without pooping, causing intense cramping and bloating. One night she had explosive diarrhea strike at 4:00 AM. She quietly hurried to the bathroom, her host family sound asleep, and unleashed the unholy flood of feces.
When she finished and opened the door, she found her host mom standing by the door looking concerned. She said, “Are you okay?? We all woke up to the sound of you throwing up.”
Advice to future volunteers: Prepare yourself for some shameful situations and awkward bathroom stories. You must learn to laugh at them… because crying will just make the dehydration from diarrhea worse.