Travel Writers’ Most Memorable Bummers

outhouseBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Tim Cahill is an adventure travel writer who has visited about 100 countries and won a National Magazine Award, among other tributes. One of the founders of Outside magazine, he’s also seen his work appear in National Geographic, the New York Times Book Review, and many other places. One of those other places is The Titanic Awards, a humor-laden online complaint department where Cahill and others with stories to tell gather ’round and reveal their all-time least delightful travel experiences. We quote his unfond memories of the world’s worst outhouse:

The Throne of Terror, built at an archeological dig near Lake Paytexbatun, Guatemala. Archeologists are not biologists and constructed the two holer over an existing vertical cave populated by bats. Visitors are obliged to deal the common travelers’ ailment while angry bats swoop and dive about in a maelstrom of rage.

By strange coincidence, a bat-infested privy is also described by Paul Theroux, only his brush with the phenomenon took place in a leper colony in Malawi. It’s in his book Fresh Air Fiend.

Grant Thatcher, publisher of the LUXE city guides, mentions the toilet in a certain train in India. He says, “The image charred into my retina will forever be the benchmark against which I judge all conveniences.” But we mustn’t get the idea that American travel writers find fault with what Voltaire called “the smallest room in the house” only if that room is located in another principality. For instance, Mike Richard, editor at Vagabondish.com, recalls a public restroom in Portland, Maine, as the worst of the worst. “It was like someone let a pack of methed-up children loose on a poo pinata,” is his vivid description.

Now, here’s a fellow who should know something about bad. He’s the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places. We’re talking about Robert Young Pelton, who reminisces about his worst toilet, which was none, in Mali. He says you just “wander out into the sand and find a spot,” observed, more likely than not, by indigenous people, who are curious to know if a white guy does it different somehow. Well, fair’s fair. Isn’t that what white guys go over there to find out? The question, “Do the natives do it different somehow?” is the very essence of the entire field of anthropology and several others.

But potties infested by airborne mammals, or latrines in general, or even the absence of amenities entirely — these are not the only focus of the Titanic Awards. For instance, there’s the Worst Buskers category. And the Worst Tourism Slogans, Worst Theme Park Attraction, and many, many more. And by the way, visit WorldHum and check out Eva Holland’s contribution, “Adventures in Unfortunate Place Names.”

There’s another whole category of bummer, the kind made up of war zones and other apocalyptic locales typically explored by P.J. O’Rourke, as in his books All the Trouble in the World and Holidays in Hell. In Parliament of Whores, he gives examples:

I’ve been to Beirut, where people were living in holes scooped out of rubble. I’ve been to the Manila city dump, where people were living in holes scooped out of garbage.

Yet, somehow, it always comes back to the jakes. As O’Rourke told interviewer Chris Mitchell, “I am a little tired of the Third World travel, part of it’s just age, it’s tough on the system, tough on the gastro-intestinal tract…”

photo courtesy of WKHarmon, used under this Creative Commons license

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