Monday, October 21, 2013

Men of Worth: Why your toilet matters!

From flowers to jewelry, there’s a bribe for everyone’s budget. 
You can have anyone! All you have to do is dangle the right carrot.
Carrot dating.
Carrot dating? 
Carrot dating is now a thing. 

What has it got to do with anything else I blog about?

More than you think.

Well, three things, at least.

There are plenty of online rants about the absurdity of the selling point (that bribery is the best way to a girl's heart... or whatever bit of her anatomy you're after) so I'll leave you to browse those for yourselves. Instead I'll offer up a bit of insight into why this is of any relevance at all to my world.

1) Entrepreneurship

When I was in the early stages of my Entrepreneur adventures almost a year ago, I suffered through an appalling series of hard-sells to get rich quick at an event called Entrepreneurs 2013. Imagine the smarmiest gathering of annoyingly good salesmen lulling you into the belief that if you spend a couple thousand quid on their seminars you too can become an internet millionaire, and you have some idea.

As disgusting as the event was overall I am glad I went. Under the sales pitches were some fairly interesting lessons... and in fact the inspiration for this blog (and the book I eventually plan to write one day...)

The speaker was Simon Coulson. I detested him. He told us about the up-sells he got on his ferrari in one breath, and the benefits of a low-cost virtual assistant in the next. But he also said something that has stuck with me to this day. I paraphrase:
If you want to make a fortune online you need to tap into a market that will never go away.     Good areas to go into are Property, Weightloss, Wealth Gain, Gambling, Dating...
Toilets were not on the list. And at the time I hadn't yet plunged into that strange and wonderful world. But several months later it occurred to me that if you're looking for a need that every man, woman and child will have from the day they are born to the day they die, then you can't find a better market than toilets. The need is as certain as death and taxes, and comes around considerably more often than either.

The problem (and the reason that they weren't on the list) is that toilets usually hold a living rather than a fortune. The sort of Entrepreneurs who make a business out of them are probably not the ones driving a ferrari that cost more than my five years of private University education and my thoracic surgery put together.  They are the ones who spend half the year in developing countries, are willing to take a financial hit for the greater social good.

This is what actually started my interest in toilet entrepreneurship, and really gave me the final push to attend the World Toilet Summit. Which is where I met the good kind of Entrepreneurs. And learned that there can actually be positive connotations to the phrase "Shitripreneur".  So, Mr. Coulson, thank you for that in any case.

2) Empowered Women

One somewhat more socially conscious version of a carrot struck me (and this really is only very tangentially related, and more a stream of consciousness)

In 2007 India launched a campaign which I have heard referred to by various names, from "No Loo? No I Do" "no toilet, no bride." (Details Here) The idea was to encourage women not to marry into families that didn't have a toilet. With a surplus of available men it was a social pressure that could easily be put on, giving newly educated women more control over their own futures.

In this case it's not about objectification, but empowerment. It's a demand the women make for their own personal safety and dignity. The dangers of not having a toilet in the home range from disease to rape or assault on the way to and from dark fields where open defecation is practiced.

If you were going to push the online dating concept you could always make a website for eligible gentlemen to show off their amenities.

3) Online Dating- The toilet dating phenomenon 

I hadn't had much awareness or interest in online dating (or pre-arranged dating generally) until I started my singles tours with Doing Something. So it's only recently that this sort of thing has even been on my radar. But like with most things, once you've seen it you start noticing it everywhere. So now I've seen (and been on) a range of adventures into that world... with probably a more than usual percentage involving loos or sewage. 

Toilet Dating: Where our carrot is a good sense of humour
and a bit of mutual weirdness. 
It all started when they found my tour and asked if I would do a singles night. I had never been to a pub crawl or a singles night. Suddenly I found myself leading one. When it went viral the press branded it Toilet Dating, and misnomer though it may be it stuck.

The amusing thing is, "Toilet Dating" was probably actually better received by the press than Carrot Dating (which even the Daily Mail takes a skeptical view of). Those that weren't fixated on meeting people over disgusting urinals (which we don't actually do on the tour, I hasten to add!)  recognised it as a potentially quirky and fun thing.

I suppose with any dating platform you'll attract the sort of people you market to. I have said before, but it remains true, that the sort of person who is up for spending three hours thinking about toilets is probably fairly classy. Classy in the toilet? Oh yes! Anyone can take the piss and give you shit and all the classic puns. But the ones who will actually come out for a three hour event have looked deeper... (Okay... we'll nip that metaphor in the bud!)

Furthermore, the people who come probably aren't desperate.  I mean, is that really where they would look if they were? No... they are relaxed and confident enough to have a laugh, a strange night out, and meet some other cool people. Takes the pressure off a bit (no... that wasn't a pun. Shush!)

Last thing, because I'm single and can't resist temptation... 

Boys: Offer me a toilet I can't refuse and this could be your lucky day! (No toilet selfies please. Even I think those are tacky!) 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Art in the Loo

For the last few months as I took the 159 to and from Central London an underground toilet in Kennington caught my eye. I notice toilets in any case, but this one was special because of the bright red sign outside reading 'Artslav'.

The local community has taken on the project of restoring it as a community arts and exhibition space, and I have been waiting to find out what it would be like. This weekend was their opening event, with an exhibition by Ryszard Rybiki. So this morning, after a fairly late start I headed down the ivy covered staircase to see what the space had in store.

Even as underground loos go ArtsLav is relatively small. All the original fixtures have been left in and it still has a grungy newly opened look about it (I mean this in a good way... it's a sense of history and connection to what was once there.)

Potted flowers were placed at the base of each urinal, and candles places on the countertop that has been installed over them (the only significant change to the sanitary fittings)

Equally interesting was talking with Ryszard, who is an absolute bundle of energy. I had come in at the same time as another woman, and as I looked around he was interrogating her about her own art. When she said that she was an amateur, he said "nonsense! There are two types of people! There are artists and not artists." With all this in mind I probably should have known better to answer "On occasion" when asked if I too was an artist. He bounced up and down and said "You are either pregnant or not pregnant. You can't be sort of pregnant." I couldn't help pointing out that you aren't always pregnant. "Yes, thank goodness!" We were saved from beating the metaphor to death by the appearance of some pigeons on the screen projecting images from the camera obscura. This excited him too, and he spent a couple minutes filming the screen. 

When the pigeons had gone conversation turned to the benefits of the space. He told us about deleting facebook friends earlier that week. "She said 'I hope you find better space for next time. 'I thought... 'I have known you so many years. I never knew you were stupid'" he told us cheerfully. 

He went on to discuss philosophy on doctors and art. He believes that doctors are out to get us. While I am not quite as extreme in my beliefs about doctors (when push came to shove I was quite happy to choose being sliced open in a clinical environment over letting a tumor swallow my heart like an Octopus) I do see his point that we should spend more money on champaign and art if we want people to live longer and be happier. "And toilets" I added. He laughed and agreed. 

Quite serious on that point, actually, as poor sanitation costs countries up to 7.2% of their GDP annually. Read a statistic just this morning that access to better toilets would clear about half the hospital beds in Africa (

I left him with my business card, a quick explanation of my interest in the history of Loos and a promise to do some morris dancing at his next charity auction. 

One thing I learned from talking to Ryszard is that the venue still deals with issues of people thinking it is an abandoned toilet and throwing rubbish down the steps. In this sense it represents both the best and worst of what a public toilet can be. Ideally it is a communal space where people can come together to fulfill basic life functions. A sanctuary and a retreat. We have a lot of words to express this: 'restroom', 'retiring room', 'powder room' 'convenience.' Unfortunately many people simply see toilets as a place for waste (human or otherwise)... an outcast undesirable place worthy of little to no respect. It's a self-perpetuating mentality, as people learn not to respect them, and they are closed down due to vandalism, crime and lack of public will to keep them open. 

Maybe the arts are another way into re-training people? If we treated toilets with the reverence we treat our art galleries we might be on to something. Make it welcoming, even participatory (what if we celebrate graffiti as shared expression rather than an annoyance to be periodically cleaned up)

Probably, like the never ending search for perfection in art, the search for perfection in a public toilet has no real end. It is always shifting, subject to time and taste. But it is fun to think about, and experimenting with it might just touch a few lives and make them more fulfilled in some way. 

It's a thought worth considering. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A visit to Crapper & Co.

What happens to the middle of the toilet seat?

Though I have wondered many strange things in my time, this was not a question I had ever thought to ask. But I found out anyway.

I was in the front room of Thomas Crapper & Co in Stratford-Upon-Avon on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. A charming wooden sign with gold lettering above the door caught my attention.  


Of course I had to take a picture. As I was riveted on the sign a voice behind me said “That’s the center of the toilet seat.”

The speaker was Simon Kirby, Chairman of the company. As with so many I have met in the industry he was incredibly pleasant and happy to tell me all about his work. His journey started with antiques and history. As a child, he told me his bedroom was a museum of antiques. His mother’s copy of Temples of Convenience sent the interest in a sanitary wares direction, and he began dealing in antique fittings.

He thought of opening his own reproduction company, and found out that Thomas Crapper and Co. was still in existence. It had been fallow for years after having been sold to a rival company in 1963. Thanks to Simon  and a “a small band of enthusiasts” Crapper & Co is once again an independent name, producing reproductions of Crapper’s original designs including the pride in quality.

Quality is all important. There are plenty of replicas on the market that take the external form and look vintage but are, in fact, modern fittings. The vintage plumbing is only skin deep.

In addition to the factory, Simon continues to collect, and took me on a tour of the impressive array of pieces in his showroom.

Outside he showed me two urinals, which stand like sentinels on either side of the door. They had the apis (get it?) Having only seen pictures of these particular pieces I commented that I was surprised by how low the target was. He said “well, you’re not going to be aiming up!” Goes to show my grasp of the mechanics of male anatomy is minimal in that respect. Probably just as well. Although they do seem to have a lot more fun when it comes to sanitary wares!
famous insect target: the

The discussion of lack of provision for ladies lead us to the bookshelf, full of catalogues of the fathers of our modern toilet. Crapper, Twyford, and even a rare Jennings. These are not your average modern day bathroom catalogue, but large volumes of beautiful colour-print illustration. They would have been sent to architects or perhaps those with very important addresses. Most impressive catalogue was Twyford’s with its gold embossed pages.

The Jennings catalogue also contained maps of the various underground toilets he had installed. Usually there is at least twice as much floor space allocated to men as two women, and many more toilets when you consider that Urinals take up considerably less space.

The most amazing adventure was the upstairs store-room. The small attic was covered in pieces of cisterns, basins, handles. He had a chamber pot with the famous slogan “Use me well and keep me clean, and I’ll not tell what I have seen.” and another with a caricature of Hitler printed on the bottom. On that theme he also had some art-deco taps, which he told me had been removed from the Savoy in the last remodel because it was felt they too closely resembled swastikas.

A less popular invention by Thomas Crapper: the Bottom Slapper! Today the cry of women everywhere is that men to not put the toilet seat down. The Victorians, it seems had the opposite problem: getting men to lift it up! (Sorry boys… you just can’t win. But give us ladies some slack: We get few enough chances to assert our authority in matters of the loo!) Crapper’s solution was a spring-loaded seat, which went down when sat upon, and then returned to its upright position when done. The invention had one unfortunate flaw. The rubber buffets on the bottom of the seat would become tacky over time and cause it to stick to the bowl for a brief time after the pressure had been released. This caused it to leap up and smack the bare bottom of whatever poor soul had just finished their business.

There was a very early composting toilet: the earthenware closet, with a wooden seat and a pan of dirt underneath.

Possibly my favorite gadget in the whole place was the Edwardian musical loo role. Wind it up and it plays Wurlitzer’s Skaters Waltz as you dispense your paper. That should give those Japanese toilets a run for their money any day!

Most of their sales are through agents and showrooms, so they very rarely get to see where their toilets actually end up. They do supply Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurants though, with specially branded loos. They also do restoration. They did the underground loos in Cardiff just a couple of years ago, which are sadly currently shut (you can sign the petition to re-open them here) Their products are good enough that they have been mistaken for originals.

I left with a goody-bag full of treats. No toilets. But  two loo rolls in wonderful boxes, a stack of postcards, the current Crapper catalogue and two editions of Flushed with Pride: The Story if Thomas Crapper (The original one and the updated 2010 version with an intro and epilogue by Simon  himself)

In the epilogue Simon tells the story similar to the one he told me in the show room: the childhood interest, finding out the company was still in existence, slowly and carefully acquiring it (There are lots of juicy details in that... but you should really read the book yourself!) Near the end he says:

“A critic could argue that Mr. Crapper was a forward-looking inventor and we should therefore eschew  reproductions and instead produce modern and progressive wears, but we believe the name is now synonymous with the glories of the past. However our long-term plans are to complete our ‘Victorian’ range, then introduce and Edwardian-to-1920’s set, followed by a choice of 1930’s-1950’s Art Deco fittings. After that perhaps we will give the late-twentieth-century designs a wide berth and leap excitedly headlong into the twenty-first century with some truly futuristic innovations. Perhaps.”

I hope they do, as I would love to see what they would come up with. I imagine something with all the grace and beauty of Crapper’s toilets, but an eye to the advances in sanitary reform and plumbing technology. Or microwaves or whatever we have by then.

Having spent the last week discussing very real and often heart-wrenching concerns about the state of toilets world-wide and focused largely on easily implemented low-tech solutions it can sometimes be hard to reconcile this with an interest in the luxury that is a Crapper toilet. What are the ethics of investing in luxury when 2.5 billion people haven’t a pot to piss in?

To me it is this: Thomas Crapper & Co. are a tribute to the original innovators and are keeping a tradition of function and beauty alive. There are few enough of us who are excited about toilets. Perhaps that’s one reason we’re all so friendly: find a fellow sanitarian and it’s like long-lost-family. Toilets like these give us one more thing to get excited about, and open up new markets of people to talk to about the subject. With so much talk about celebrating the toilet and making toilets a sought-after item we need our heroes! And who better to commemorate and hold up as an example of fine plumbing than Crapper who created a brand that is widely admired and respected one-hundred-and-fifty-three years later?

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Final Flush

Closing Day of the world toilet summit was rather more laid back than the others. I didn’t see anyone in the lobby of my hotel when I came down this morning, so bee-lined for the bicycles. A small victory.

There were three talks to start things off. The most interesting was surprisingly the one I had dreaded the most: on toilet tissue by a rep from Asia Pulp and Paper. The first few minutes weren’t particularly promising. He started by listing all the products the company makes (toilet rolls, tissues, napkins, paper towels) and that you could use different products for different things. I was sitting there all judgmental. Then he started to get into the chemistry of why different types of paper products are important, and the engineering behind them. Which turns out to be more complicated than one thinks about on a daily basis (is there anything that isn’t?)

My favorite bit was a simple science experiment that you can try at home to determine whether a particular brand of loo paper is ‘RV safe’ (Meaning that it won’t clog up you camper van toilets… though the test can put more generally to see how the paper is going to behave in your sewers). Here’s the game: Take a jar half full of water. Drop in a couple sheets of loo paper. Screw the lid on tight. Shake the jar for a minute or so. RV safe toilet paper will have turned to pulp by this time. It is made to break down when wet.

This is the sort of thing that would have kept me happy for hours when I was younger. Mucking about and making a mess, but with a scientific excuse of sorts. It’s a game that would appeal to quite a lot of age ranges, and it wouldn’t take too much of a stretch of imagination to turn it into a pretty decent science lesson: Give out a range of paper products and test them for flushability. Take it a step further and dump all the jars into a model drain to see how it effects the flow.

The loo lady in schools may need to become a thing. Like Mz. Frizzle, minus the magic bus, but with all the fun and games and wacky outfits. 

The other two speeches were more statistics and Entrepreneurial catch-phrases. We heard about how the Rotary Club can effect local change backed by a global network, and about the merits of their bottom-up approach (I smile every time I hear that phrase in toilets, even though it doesn’t commonly get the recognition it deserves as an excellent pun.

Brief coffee break in which I arm wrestled a giant germ in the exhibition hall and won a bottle of toilet cleaner.

Back in the final session Jack Sim mentioned me in his closing speech! The plan is to write a handbook for anyone interested in running their own Loo Tour, so that we can clone me and make it go world wide! So there’s another exciting thing to start thinking about.

Finally the Solo Declaration was read out loud.

To close there was a cover of ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ which got us all dancing up to the stage where we took a group photo.

After lunch there were trips to see toilets in the city. My bus stopped first at a school toilet in a Christian School. The whole place was clean and white and lovely. The toilets they showed us were for 6th Grade and up. Four squats, with buckets of water to wash.

The last toilet was a village toilet which recycled the bio-gas. An old lady was in front making cups of tea with it. This one was used by a village of 77 houses, most of whom don’t have toilets of their own. As with most British Toilets there is a charge to use. Up on the roof we could see the river running behind it, a section of which doubled as the village’s garbage dump. I asked one of our guides about it, but instead of giving details he wanted to tell me about a memorable occasion when a Garuda Indonesia flight crash-landed in that very river.

After toileting we were taken to a batik market and let loose to shop. As we were walking down the street a group of fearsome dancers with horns headed towards us. They formed an alley which we walked through. “Was this arranged just for us?” someone asked. Yes. It was.

The first Batik Shop was fun. We were taken back to see the fabric being hand stamped. Unfortunately an over-attentive sales girl latched onto me and refused to let me browse, but kept handing me things. When she went back to the storeroom I fled to the street where a photo-session was going on with the horned dancers. Ice cream and then a second Batik shop where I finally managed to buy a couple presents. I’m afraid the rest of my shopping is going to have to happen in the airport.

In the evening one of the girls who had worked hospitality at the Summit took me out… on her motorcycle! I nearly chickened out and pretended to be asleep when she came by, but I’m very glad I didn’t. We met her friend and the three of us went to an antique market, which was closed but the guards let us through anyway. They helped be choose a mask, and then there was a long telephone conversation with the owner of the shop in which they bargained the price by half.

We went for dinner in a very hip café called Tiga Tjeret (‘Three Kettles’ which is the symbol for the arts.) All the decorations in the café are made from recycled materials (plastic cups and cans) and the walls are covered in pictures of the artists that have been there. Dinner for three cost R. 42.000 (about $4).

Over chicken intestines on a stick (another first, and surprisingly okay) I heard all the gossip from the staff-side of the conference. Everybody idolizes the South African delegates because they are very genteng (Handsome).Clara is known as the Purple Lady (after the coulour she always wears.) We also talked about England and they wanted to know what you could buy for the price of our dinner (not much!) They declared that I was probably the richest person in the café (another first!)

The motorcycle ride back to the hotel ended far too soon. We said goodbye and took some photos and then I set about to write but fell asleep on the computer until about 3am, when I decided I may as well just go to bed properly.

So now it is time to head back to London. Goodbye to warm weather, and taxies, and police escorts and gifts at every turn, and hello to business plans and visa renewals.

It has been an amazing adventure. Can't wait until next year (though Bangladesh 2014 will be very different!)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Celebrity Status

I keep thinking my life in toilet-land can get no stranger. Happily, I keep being proven wrong.

It started relatively normally. I woke up late-ish with a full intention to miss the bus, but they waited for me, bless them, so no rickshaw for me this morning.

The morning agenda was three concurrent tracks, so one of those deals where all the talks you most want to see were scheduled at the same time. I learned about toilets in Russia that generate their power through Urine,  Green buildings in Italy that reduce the need for air conditioning through being covered in foliage, a former banker who now trains toilet entrepreneurs in India, and the five pillars of Indonesia’s toilet initiatives.

A lot of the presentations contained a lot of wordy slides, statistics, and goals that are outside the realm of what I, as an amateur, could understand competently on the fly. Two presentations particularly stood out for their clarity, polish and engagement: The ones presented by Toilet Hackers.

I identify with Toilet Hackers for a lot of reasons. They are young, hip, nerdy, and interested in finding creative ways to address the global sanitation crisis. The premise is that decentralization is key- there are so many places with so many unique challenges that no one set of regulations or recommendations can cover them all. So they create tool kits to help people invent their own initiatives. They run on the idea of open space- bringing people together with only a very broad agenda, and creating room for dialogue and action to happen. 

The first presentation was entitled ‘Girls helping Girls.’ 23% of girls in India drop out of school by the age of 13. Other developing countries have similar statistics. The problem is largely due to inadequate toilets and a culture of shame around the menstrual cycle. Their project Girls For Girls aims to address this by empowering school girls in the US with a tool kit to fundraise and raise awareness, creating a safe space to talk about the issues.

After tea the co-founder Michael Lindenmayer spoke on a completely different topic: How to see tourists as potential contributors to society. Over the course of the conference there has been a lot of talk about clean toilets leading to more tourists. But he went deeper into the question of how to engage tourists not only as sight-seers, but as potential investors, philanthropists and collaborators. Don't show tourists only the good things and hide the bad. Let them see the whole picture, tell them stories, inspire them to get involved. 

An observation he made in the Q&A session stuck with me. No solution is eternally stable or sustainable. There will be new technologies and inventions for as long as man exits (and longer for all we know). Companies and agendas will shift. But the one sure thing is that all 7 billion people in it will need to do their business. Making it one of the surest markets out there! 

After the speeches had finished for the day there was to be a carnival, and those who were interested were invited to borrow traditional costumes and join the parade. I’m always one for an adventure, so I was in the group of about 20 who were bundled into a bus with packed lunches.

We were driven to the Mayor’s house to get changed. It was a stunning, absolutely palatial building (or rather set of buildings.) We were brought to a room round the back, where everyone was dressed. We had been hoping for something elegant like the dancers we had seen, but it was more military than anything else. The girls were given white trousers and shirts, red jackets, and a sarong with a belt that went round and round (and round and round and round….)

The outfit was finished off with black caps which were a bit like jockey caps, but with a few extra spikes and bulges. We were told we all looked a bit like Princess Anne. My head was far too large for any of the hats, so it was balanced rather precariously on top of my head.

After we were dressed we had a brief photo shoot with the mayor and some other important looking people. We were then packed back onto the bus, where we had to wait for some time, getting quite fidgety and hot and sticky. Finally when the diplomats had finished being photographed we followed a police escort out the gate to a large football field where all the rest of the Carnival Participants were waiting.

That’s when we started to realize the scale of the thing. There were 4000 participants including dance troupes, school groups, military, brands who were selling at the conference and a large toilet flotilla surrounded by rodents and cockroach puppets. And among all these people we were the guests of honour… which meant we got to ride in open top horse drawn carriages.

It was, for all the world, like being royalty. Everyone wanted pictures with us while we were waiting. They were also delighted when we took pictures of them. When the procession started the streets were lined with people waving and taking pictures. We crawled along for over an hour and must have passed at least a ten thousand people along the street (much more if you count the cars and motorcycles that got held up as we passed.)

We smiles and waved all the way until our wrists were cramped and our jaw ached. But it was impossible not to smile! Whether people were waving because they were impressed or the westerners in ill-fitting outfits was a bit of a joke we may never know, but either way it was a most memorable experience. One of the most incredible parts was the eye contact. I’m not sure I’ve ever looked directly at so many people. I remember a fair few too. Sometimes they would smile back, sometimes burst into giggles or hide behind their friends, but they all acknowledged the moment of connection in their own way.

At the end of the parade we were escorted off the carriages to listen to a special ‘Mister Toilet’ song and watch a performance in which all the rodents were vanquished by the introduction of good sanitary practices. This involved quite a lot of acrobatics.

The city had been working on this event for over a year. What better example of using spectacle to get an audience for your cause? The main purpose of the exercise was to make sure that the toilet Summit wasn’t just a thing that happened in the city, but an event that connected back to the community. It was not only a show to impress the visitors, but, as Michael suggested in his talk a chance to get potential leverage the power of tourists to be connected to the city in a more meaningful way than just coming to experience culture. For that day we became a unique part of the culture, in an experience that couldn’t have happened without that unique mix of people and interests.

The only sad part of the day was starting to say goodbyes, as various people are starting to trickle away. But I have made so many amazing connections from all over the world, so hopefully it won’t be goodbye forever. There is a real community in the toilet world, and people who have known each other for decades. I even met a couple who met working on toilets (I guess there’s hope for me after all!) As Jack Sim said on the bus back, when we were all flush with the success of the carnival: “Shit is sticky… The people that shit together stick together.”

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Make 'em laugh

Are you able to laugh at yourself?
Are you able to make other people laugh?
Are you able to talk seriously when you make them laugh?

Jack Sim is a veritable guru. These are the three questions he told us been asked by Mister Condom, in his introduction speech this morning. And so Mr. Condom became the Kung Fu master, as it were, for Mr. Toilet. But it’s not kung fu the two were studying. It was how to make the un-talkable talkable (I do hope there is a film made one day! Jackie Chan, or whoever the big action heroes of the day are. Maybe Matt Damon, since he does a lot of work around sanitation already. But I digress.)

“We must turn poop culture into pop culture” Sim told us. This means making toilets sexy, turning going to the toilet into a news story, and, most importantly, talking about it in language that’s accessible to everyone. Often people shroud toilet talk in acceptable academic terms and “although it’s correct it is not effective… it’s very difficult for ordinary people to understand.

This is why instead of talking about 'fecal matter' we talk about 'shit'.

The World Toilet Summit 2013 is quite possibly one of the classiest places shit has ever been talked about. Since the conference has officially started there were snazzy VIP cars waiting in front of the hotel to take us to the conference (To be honest I would have preferred my rickshaw. Going to try to sneak past those friendly hosts tomorrow.)

The welcoming ceremony involved, besides the speech mentioned above, several dance performances, some singing (they have a lovely national anthem!) and the rather amusingly dramatic unveiling of a toilet with flashing lights and dramatic theme music (the toilet itself didn’t look to be anything exceptional… I was half expecting a Dalak to roll up and plunge it. That’s all it was wanting to complete the bizarreness of the moment. When it's my turn to stage the summit...

After two hours of pomp and circumstance the World Toilet Summit was declared open by the Mayor of Solo, which meant we could go for tea and coffee before launching into the series of “talks by 45 reputable and proficient speakers.” I adore the Indonesian way of phrasing things. It’s usually correct, just not the way most native English speakers would say it. For example on the airplane the English safety video began “Let us enlighten you as to the safety features of this aircraft.”

A subject that came up several times across the course of the day was the state of last night’s toilets. The first speaker asked who had visited them, and then asked me of all the people there to comment. It was a suitably awkward moment which confirmed that my public speaking skills still have a long way to go.

The second speech was by Dr. Clara Greed, who began by laying into the toilets pretty fiercely (so fiercely in fact that others who hadn’t been to the toilets kept coming to me for the rest of the day to confirm ‘was it really that bad?’) She actually had a go at quite a few other things as well: urilifts, pay-per-use-toilets, and unisex cubicles all got black marks.

She talks in much the same way she writes: passionately and logically, but bordering on the extremist. Pay gates she called ‘false economy’ and made the valid point that a lot of tourists aren’t familiar with British coinage, and, anyway, use their credit cards when traveling because it’s easier than changing money, so they won’t necessarily have the means to pay. Unisex cubicles she considers ‘an assault to modesty’ and pointed out that it is prohibitive to certain cultures where there are taboos about men and women sharing the same facilities. The Jubiloo consequently was flagged as the epitome of both these evils, at which point it got personal for me. It may not be an ideal situation to charge, but at the same time Healthmatic are doing a remarkable job providing a quality service in the current climate of un-subsidized toilet provision. It’s a free market, so users can always go to the South Bank Centre if they object that strongly. What makes it wrong is when there isn’t freedom of choice.

Talking about her lecture over lunch my dining companions were shocked that I was pro-unisex cubicle… and I equally surprised that they were so solidly against. I suppose that’s my cultural naivite showing (and I know it’s there. I think I’m reasonably open minded and accepting, but there is a lot I haven’t seen…) They cited fear of shame and rape as an argument against sharing, even when I pointed out that the toilet is attended whenever it is open. I know it’s too culturally ingrained to argue that people should get over it, because unisex toilets reduce queuing times and make good sense in an environment where you can’t predict the gender ratio on any given day.

Cultural exchange and learning works both ways.

Another presenter questioned whether it is better for tourist destinations to cater to the western market by providing seat toilets, or to push to educate their visitors on the health benefits of a good squat (which are many.)

The speeches after lunch may have been good, but I can’t say for sure. It’s always that point in any conference that makes you start to question the purpose of life, and wasn’t helped by the fact that one was mostly in Indonesian. To be fair though, I can only imagine what it’s like for the majority of the people at the conference to whom English isn’t a native language. We westerners are spoiled in more ways than our toilets.

The last speaker blew all the others out of the water for sheer polish and engagement. Victoria Bollam of Lixil came on strong with a pop quiz;

How much waste will be produced by humans in 2025?

Taking the average length of a poo as 20cm it will be enough to stretch to the sun and back… twice! She didn’t get into how we account for diarrhea which doesn’t really have a measurable length, but then I guess if we hit those millennium development goals there will be a lot less diarrhea to worry about.)

Her speech was about the importance of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and branding, and Lixil’s brand new social contribution programme ISIS, which aims to provide sanitation in schools for 2,018,000 school children by 2018. The programme is named Isis after the Egyptian Goddess because her hat resembles a throne which resembles a western toilet.

All this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of my 20 pages of notes, let alone the conversations I had during the day and the people I met. But I will leave you for now with empty promises to dig deeper into the other stuff.

I was so wiped out by the end of the day, that I hardly dared network at the cultural dinner (which was in the stunning Mangkunegaran Palace) for fear I would start spouting worse nonsense than usual. So I ate yet more peculiarly delicious Indonesian food (new favorite is coconut ice cream) watched the dancers and smiled a lot.

Happily there were toilet facilities provided at the palace. Seats and toilet paper and everything. They even came complete with rather pretty lizards! 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Diving In

What a day this has been! After not one but three enormous meals, my belly is completely stuffed with food, but that doesn’t half compare to the amount of information stuffed into my head!

The day started slowly enough. I went down for breakfast earlier than yesterday so that I had time to sample what turned out to be deep fried shrimp and vegetables. I figured on spending most of the day working on research and then wandering over to the summit exhibition later in the day, but by 11 after skyping home and re-doing my hair umpteen times I decided my inability to focus was probably my brain telling me ‘you’re in Indonesia! What are you doing sitting around in your hotel? Scardy cat!’

So off I went… by bycicle rickshaw again today. I have decided this is the decent compromise between walking and taxi.

The trainers were just heading off for their field visits, so I waded through the hordes of people in their world toilet summit t-shirts to get to the exhibition room. It was somewhat smaller than I expected, with no more than 20 exhibitors, but I started making the rounds. It was a striking mix of everything from sturdy concrete squat slabs to top of the market toilets with heated seats and adjustable bidet sprays. Beside that there were stands for Indonesian tourism and culture and a variety of cleaning products.

My first conversation was with a rep from EcoLoos AK who told me about liquid compost. The fertalizer can then be sold on, or sold back to the company, so that the toilet becomes a sustainable source of income for the user as well as the company (again that subtle double meaning of 'eco'.)

On the opposite side of the room I came to Toto- the giants of the asian toilet industry (and pretty significant in the rest of the world.) Their stand featured a row of their latest models which salute you by lifting the lid as you walk past (somewhat alarming the first time, but a nice feature for the forgetful… I have heard it jokingly referred to as ‘the marriage saver’). The highest end model has a stunning array of buttons to control temperature water flow (you can even make it gyrate and give your bum a sort of hydro massage), scent and flush. 

In the Toto stand was a small green lawn with a display of taps and shower heads, and when I had finished ogling the amazing-smarter-than-me toilets I turned my attention to these these in the company of Armin, the vice president of Neoperl fittings to regulate water flow to desired standards. They are really amazing little gadgets. Each one looks something like what you get when your headphones fall apart, and can be inserted into a faucet or tap. The genius is that you don't loose the water pressure with the lower flow.

He also told me about the frustrations of getting people to adopt... while institutions may like the idea of going green, many of them are reluctant to make the investment to fit out every tap. One work around for this is going straight to the manufacturers and getting the taps fitted from installation so that the end use doesn't have to think too much about it. 

By the time we had finished with the taps the toto crew were heading off to lunch, and generously invited me along. So I found myself in a taxi with thirteen business men, mostly speaking Indonesian. We went for Chinese in a rather posh place. The courses just kept coming and coming. Soup, duck, beef and chips(?), eggplant, fish, prawns, and a couple other things I couldn't identify. Over lunch th conversation ranged over quite a few topics... though not toilets. Most memorable was the conversation around cell phones and status. Apparently having more than three phones is a symbol of status. In which case I do not think I have ever been in a room with so much power! 

That set me thinking about the statistic that more people in the world have access to a mobile phone than a toilet. And similarly that more people have access to a television than a toilet. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have thought of this, but surely there ought to be some way of harnessing that technology  to spread information about sanitation? 

Back to reality with a pudding that was something like buttered toast with layers of chocolate and peanut butter with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Definitely an overindulgance, but delicious none the less. 

Back at the hotel I settled in the lobby to try to journal some thoughts, but was interrupted by Juliet who was ready to have a more in-depth conversation about sanitation. She was full of suggestions as to who might fund projects, and how to pitch them. She usefully described sanitation as a balance between hardware and software: the infrastructure and the cultural awareness. 

Then came the high point of my say, when she introduced me to Jack Sim, better known as Mr. Toilet and the founder of the World Toilet Organiation. I had had that nervous self-consciosness one often gets before meeting a personal hero, but I needn't have worried. He took one look at my business card and proclaimed "we need to take this world wide!" He is as friendly and down to earth as can be, and absolutely bubbling with energy. He introduced me to the head of the Russian Toilet Organisation, who speaks only a small amount of English, but is equally enthusiastic and charming. I sat next to him on the bus journey to Benteng Vastenberg where our welcome diner was held. He chatted most of the way, getting out his phone and showing me pictures of toilets he had inspected, proclaiming "Good!" or "bad!" accordingly. My personal favorite was a series in which there were lots of people running a marathon ("many people. No toilet") and a lonely roadside toilet ("toilet- no people").

Many people, no toilet pretty well describes the evening. The government of Solo had planned a spectacular cultural night, with traditional song and dances, speeches, and yet more elaborate traditional food. There was an appearance from the past three years worth of 'Miss Indonesia' winners, and a pair of presenters who my table agreed were worthy of Eurovision. But when the amount of water we had drunk started striking about half way through our enquiries about the facilities fell on confused ears. "No toilets here." 

Was it possible? No toilets at the toilet summit?

Not quite. At last a toilet was located at the far end of a darkened field. A steep set of steps lead up to four cubicles, two ladies and two men. Each contained a squat toilet, and a bucket of rather used looking water. The floor was about two inches deep in a liquid that I can only hope was more water. So there, at what was meant to be a celebration of Solo's commitment to improved sanitary conditions I had my first squat toilet experience. 

My loo-going companion was furious about the situation, but I think it's all the more reason that Solo is the right place for this event to be taking place. They have probably come a long way, but have a long way to go. They're still learning and this gives them the chance to get feedback. What they do with it and whether they act on it is up to them in the long-run. And follow-through is certainly yet another large sanitation challenge, as NGOs discover over and over again. The ideal situation is to make yourself redundant by implementing changes that get internalised in a society and run independently. Eavesdropped on the way home on conversations about inventivising good sanitary practices in schools. 

Make it fun. 
Make it rewarding. 
Make it entertaining. 
Lots to continue to think about!

The summit proper begins at 7:30 tomorrow (Indonesians, it seems, are morning people) so, though I haven't processed half of what I'd like to I have got six hours to catch some sleep before another full day of toilets begins.