Monday, September 30, 2013

Authentic Tourism or Authentic Tourist

The official World Toilet Summit doesn’t start until Wednesday, but the ‘Training on trainers’ portion of the event began today. This part of the summit is geared specifically at those in the culture and tourism industries who are looking for practical training on running toilet facilities. 

The timing of my arrival (on the eve of this event) must have caused some confusion, because I got a call at 8 in the morning saying as I had missed the official transport I should get a taxi to the Sunan Hotel where the conference is being held.

I had a hasty shower (cold… but I suppose the weather is warm enough here that a hot shower is almost never really necessary.) and stopped by the cafĂ© for breakfast. There was a baffling array of foods I wouldn’t normally associate with a morning meal (mostly noodles and meat), but aware that I was already late for the start of the conference I played it safe with toast and pineapple jam.

I can see the Sunan from my window, so it seemed quite silly to take a taxi. Instead I set out to walk. The first and greatest challenge was getting across the road. Crosswalks here are pretty much non-existant. One simply plunges into the road, weaving through cars and motorcycles, which don’t seem to ever slow down. Or, in my case one stands helplessly on the side of the road until a nice escort appears to get me across, blowing a whistle and dodging with me in tow between the vehicles. 

From the main road I walked along a much narrower and quieter street with mostly squat houses in a hodgepodge of different styles and materials. It took about ten minutes to find my way to the hotel. I went to check in, and they handed me a training manual and directed me towards the conference room. I tried to explain I hadn’t signed up to the sessions, but they just smiled and nodded at me and continued to direct me into the conference room, so in I went. I got in about half way through the welcoming speeches. Everything was in Indonesian, with the odd English phrase here and there.

The first training unit was also in Indonesian, though a lot of the slides were in English, so I had some clue as to what was going on. The topic was ‘Restroom Service Quality’ and it was largely about customer service and representation. Restrooms should be high quality both functionally and aesthetically (‘look, feel, sound and smell’… all the five senses save for taste, which is probably not one you want to have to think about in the context of toilets.)

Probably the most useful element of the day was chatting with Juliet from the World Toilet Organization at the break. She was particularly keen to talk about the importance of toilets in schools. I tried to explain very briefly what I was doing there and my own interest in sanitation and she seemed mildly amused by my business card (which has my title as ‘The Loo Tour Lady’. I had debated something with more gravity, but decided, for better or worse that ‘gravity’ is not the USP of what I do, so I may as well keep the amusement factor right from the outset.

She made the connection that story telling and performance are a particularly important way of spreading messages in Africa (and so another piece of my MA in Applied Theatre falls into place… why the use of Theatre for Development is particularly important in certain cultures.)

I left after the coffee break, figuring I would do some exploring. There was nothing of particular tourist interest of note nearby, so I just wandered and soaked in the atmosphere. The atmosphere involves a lot of honking. With an apparent lack of traffic signals or rules it seems to be the general practice to honk at every opportunity. It also turns out Solo is very much not a walking city. I couldn’t go more than two minutes without being offered a taxi. After wandering for about a half hour I finally accepted the offer of a bicycle rickshaw to get back to the hotel (which was 20,000 rupees- or about £2.)

I’d give quite a lot to have a local guide. It’s very hard (especially when jetlagged) to be on your own in a completely foreign country.

Flipping through the remainder of the ‘Trainers on training’ handbook back in my room I fount the experience I would most like to have: a unit on Tourism Villages. A tourism village is ‘a destination where the tourist can experience living in a village’ and participate in home-stays, local jobs (plowing, farming), learning traditional dance and crafts and cooking traditional food.

The concept is developed by the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy and has been running since 2008. And of course toilets come into play. The improvement of toilets in villages is important to make tourists comfortable. ‘The number of homestays has increased … after “the clean toilet program.”’ The village of Penting Sari had 9 international tourists in 2008, and 511 in 2012.

A closely related concept is Eco Tourism. The main emphasis of the ‘eco’ here is not only ‘ecological’ but ‘economic’. It is tourism which is meant to boost economic development and political empowerment of local communities. 

In 2011 Habitat for Humanity partnered with Asia Pulp and paper to bring the struggling village of Soran to its feet by making it a tourist destination by capitalizing on its traditions of song and dance.

Anthropologically there’s lots of ethical debate about this. Arguments abound that turning culture into commodity somehow defiles it and makes it ‘staged’ instead of ‘authentic.’ An article by Cathering Allerton outlines it pretty well, describing the tensions between the gaze of the outsider and the invisible but perhaps much more important rituals and mentalities that make up a culture. She notes a villages use of the term ‘authentic tourist’ as a village’s description of that ilk of tourists who don’t speak the language or have any particular academic interest in the culture.

Other arguments aside, from a sanitary point of view I am sure that most people (tourists and villagers alike) would be perfectly happy to forgo an authentic experience of diarrhea, and any other experiences that come with poor sanitation.

I suppose it’s not as simple as that though, because sanitary reform involves re-training one aspect of culture both architecturally and psychologically, so back round again the arguments of preservation verses progress. It’s not the question of whether toilets should be done, but of how they should be done that sparks heated debate.

Back in the hotel my intentions to study and work were sabotaged by a three hour nap attack. When I had regained consciousness I wandered down to the hotel's nearly vacant restaurant. The lovely man who served me was quite insistant that a burger was what I should order, and I was too tired at this point to argue that I wanted to sample Indonesia cuisine, so a burger I had. My eating was supervised by the large iconic portrait of Audrey Hepburn on the opposite wall and accompanied by a Jessie J singing that ‘it isn’t ‘bout the money money money…’ singularly appropriate to my musings of late.

On many levels it is about the ‘money money money’… but the money is only a superficial sign of a wide range of deeper motives. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Salam Solo!

I’m lounging in my rather nice hotel in Solo. It’s quite a stark contrast to what I was able to see of the streets outside with single story wooden shops (mostly closed by nine o-clock) as we drove here. Feels a bit like I am doing the whole thing wrong. I’m acting and being treated as the outside westerner… the country catering to me rather than me to them. But then again, that is why they have chosen to host the summit. To attract tourists who want to feel at home abroad. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the conference.

The flight from London to Dubai was uneventful. I watched a movie in Indonesian (not that I learned any of the language, but it helped put a nicer picture in my head than crime and drugs) an episode of Sherlock (quite a good crime drama actually, except that Watson probably ought to be sacked for completely unprofessional behaviour as a social worker. Correct me if I’m wrong, but none of my social worker friends have in their job description hanging around the client’s house in sexy-ish pajamas, snooping on his stuff without permission and giving their number out to any distressed teenager they meet. Still she’s very good.) I sat next to the most delightful child, who can’t have been more than one and a half. I also tried to watch World War Z, but too many rabid zombies in the first twenty minutes sort of put me off, so I just stole glances at the rest on the screen of the guy next to me. I may never know the fine details, but maybe that’s for the best. I gather Brad Pitt managed to find a vaccine, save the world and be reunited with his very pretty family, so that’s nice.

Landed in Dubai and made a bee-line for the toilets, not because I was in a particular rush to use them, but because I wanted to see if anything would be different. To my delight, though they were mostly western style there was a bidet hose on the wall. I managed to make a bit of a mess in the process of picking it up (very sensitive on-button!!!) so left the loo slightly sheepishly with damp patches on my trousers and bag.

The airport is otherwise pretty much like any other airport I’ve ever been in though there is a prayer room which is a cool concept (I didn’t intrude on it though.) I bought an overpriced hot chocolate and settled down to write the first part of this blog post.

The second leg of the journey was the longest: an 8 hour stretch from Dubai to Jakarta. I had vaguely considered the option of staying in Dubai for 11 hours and actually going beyond the airport, but after landing in Jakarta with 19 hours of traveling completed and several more to go I think I made the right choice for this time around.

When I was picking up my tourist visa ($25 and I can stay for up to 30 days) the woman asked if she could take my picture. I assumed it was some sort of formal thing, so politely said ‘of course’ and she whipped our her pink i-phone. I like to think that it’s because, as the only American in sight I was suitably exotic, but it could equally be that the was astounded by the state of my hair (I put my hairbrush in checked baggage you see… or at least I hoped I did!). Then came an interminable queue for to get through border control. Once I got to the front it all went pretty smoothly.

Jakarta was lovely. The airport has a lot more character than any other I have been in. The big picture windows look out on well kept gardens in full bloom. The bathrooms have a mixture of seats and squats (which I still haven’t braved.)

 Final stop: Solo where I was met by two of the tourist hosts for the summit.

Here there was a sign on the wall, detailing the toilet standards, including such points as:

1. the floor is always dry and clean

4. No smelly things, and the room’s fregrance is available

10. Covered from outsider

11. Room isn’t lack of fresh air and exhaust fan is available

12. Clothes hanger is available.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Final preparations: Indonesian Adventure

I will be heading off to the World Toilet Summit tomorrow! It's a scary and exciting new adventure. My first trip to Asia, my first big conference, and certainly the first time I have had to take this many pills to go anywhere (felt slightly queasy after the first malaria dose this morning, but, as my friends pointed out it's much better than actually getting Malaria!)

I have done some minimal preparations for what to expect from traveling abroad. Most notably I have been warned that they are quite serious about the death penalty for drug trafficking (I can only assume my malaria tablets are exempt) that the country is predominantly muslim so conservative dress is advised, but head coverings are not required, and that the people are generally hospitable.

Then there's the all-important question about toilets.

I have, thus far in my 24 years never traveled outside the realm of comfortable western plumbing. I've used dirty toilets, composting toilets, outhouses of various descriptions, but all along the seated throne model and all, at least theoretically, catering to those with a preference for toilet paper.

Indonesia (like most places) is reported to have an eclectic mix of toilets, from holes in the ground, to western-style seats. They seem, from what I have read to be a predominantly washing rather than wiping culture. Whether or not there will be toilet paper is, though I hate to admit it, one of the things I am going with most trepidation about.

The differences will likely be made even more interesting by the fact that I am at a conference that deals with sanitation, and that Solo's particular goal in hosting this event is to increase their attractiveness as a tourist destination. Their press release states:
Nowadays,  looking for clean and hygiene toilet is a problem  when people travel and being out of the house. Not only in Indonesia, but all over the world, awareness of public facilities is  so  minor, very few nation who provide excellent public service what called TOILET. The awareness of the need of these facilities is not there yet, even though we all know the mobillities and the travelers are increasing. Clean toilet become a marketing tools and competition among  tourists business, hospitals, airport  etc. With the damage of the environment of course  a better toilet in rural and urban become very important to prevent diseases.
So off I go, armed with my camera, an ipad, a couple million rupees, and a lot of curiosity.

Despite feeling terribly under-prepared, there is one phrase of Indonesian I have made sure to learn:

Di mana kamar kecil?
(Where is the toilet?)

Monday, September 16, 2013

The politics of privatized peeing

The UK premiere of Urinetown: The Musical was officially announced today. After a couple months of biting my tongue and desperately wanting to talk about the mysterious show billed as 'UGCLondon' I'm finally allowed.

I had written to the author, Greg Kotis, awhile back to ask about his inspiration and research for the musical. He very sweetly got back to me (putting him in the minority of people I e-mail about toilets!) to say that it was inspired by a backpacking trip in Europe in the mid 90-s when he tried to save money by avoiding pay-per-use toilets, but that other than that the concept was entirely metaphorical.

What intrigues me is how many issues he managed to touch on anyway. The privetisation of toilets is actually a big important question to which there are many pros and cons. The Good Loo Guide of the 1980's argues strongly for it, saying
"... I submit we need a man of vision (Richard Branson, are you listening?) to set up a chain of loos in every high street, a branch in every street of consequence to the toileteer." 
The thing is, the privatisation of Loos necessitates loos running as a business, and therefore charging a fee for use. And this is the point where a lot of us get hung up.

My own thinking on this subject has changed vastly over the last six months since I have researched the subject. The whole thing really began for a similar reason to the birth of Urinetown... I did not appreciate having to pay to pee. I was a poor student, and the 30p it cost to use the loo in a train station could buy me a chocolate bar at Sainsbury's. I remember spending over an hour with my sister in Venice trying to find a toilet that didn't cost a Euro. In the end we failed and got desperate enough to cough up.

The first thing to shift my thinking was a sign in St Martin’s in the Field. This was one of my favorite free haunts, but one day I noticed a little sign on the mirror of the Ladies asking for donations to keep them ‘The church of ever open toilet doors’. To keep the toilet running costs approximately £32,000 a year (or about 14p a visitor based on their claim of 250,000 visitors! Presumably somewhat subsidized by their other income.) That planted the seed in my mind that maybe companies who charged for toilet use weren’t so extortionate after all.

But the real pivot point came when I interviewed Ajay.

I met Ajay because a rather special toilet came to my attention. The Jubiloo is a relatively recent addition to the landscape of the South Bank. It is designed by architect Mark Powers and has been nominated for several architectural awards.

It also costs 50p a go, which at the time seemed an unthinkable fortune.

I met Ajay in the Southbank Centre (incidentally the nearest free toilet to the Jubiloo). He was incredibly friendly, intrigued by my project and not too surprised by the fact that I had a toilet plunger in my bag. He launched straight into telling me about the company, Healthmatic, and showing me pictures and demographics on the various toilets they manage.

Chances are if you have spent any significant amount of time in the UK you have used one of Healthmatic's toilets. They are one of the leading providers of public toilets and associated services in the UK. Ajay had been with them for about a year having come from a background in business development. He now spends his days talking to councils, businesses, transport hubs and shopping centers about what their options are for toilet provision. “I don’t like to call it sales” he told me. “… city relations me and Mal would call it.”

A major problem at the moment is that, in the spirit of Camron’s Big Society, public toilet provision is increasingly localized, and each local authority does their own thing.  Many of them hand it further down to town councils aren’t aware of the need for public toilet provision until it lands in their laps. And because there is no statutory obligation to keep them open closures often result when the responsibility is handed down. It’s “a quick win.”

He told me it’s difficult to make money out of toilets. The Jubiloo have a ten year lease on the Southbank space, and despite the fact that they are not paying any rent the toilet still costs approximately half-a-million a year to run with staffing and cleaning, water and electricity, not to mention recouping the cost of building the structure in the first place. 

Overall it has been a success. Looking at the toilet’s facebook page reveals far more compliments than complaints. Partly this is due to its focus on customer service. As a business the keepers of the Jubiloo understand that people who pay should get quality. The toilet is staffed by fulltime attendants and the stalls are cleaned after every use.

Still, the system does have its detractors. Complaints are usually responded to with a considerate “thank you for your feedback and here are the facts of why we charge what we do.” 

Towards the end of the interview I asked Ajay what he wished people thought about more. “People are really… how to put it… ignorant about why public loos need to charge," he told me. "People don’t understand the mechanics.”

I can now count myself among the enlightened. That doesn’t mean I don’t still use the free toilet. I admit (having shifted from poor student to poor entrepreneur) I still look for ways to avoid toilet fees, though I growl slightly less when I do find myself paying. And I still show fee-dodgers how to find them on my tour. But I also pass on what I have learned.

In the end it all comes down to education and freedom of choice. Should our tax-dollars (or pounds) give us the right to demand access to loos? Or are we better off with privatized solutions that might cost us a bit more, but deliver quality of service? And who should decide? 

Back to the problem of education. Most people want the freedom to pee, but they don't want to take the action of campaigning for better toilets or privatization. In fact, most people probably don't think about who is behind the toilet they are using. And it would perhaps be a strange thing for people to think about that all the time (though it has done me a world of good!)

In the ideal world that Hope and Bobby imagine "people could pee for free wherever they like as long as they like with whomever they like."(though this brings us dangerously close to the subject of open defecation, which is a whole other issue. And one that Urinetown gracefully avoids.) 

Urinetown will be at the St James Theatre from 22 February- 3 May. Go see it if you can!