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As the World Poops…You’ll Find it in Turkey: A Guide to the Perplexed

Around the world, you’ll find all sorts of configurations for the humble loo—and we found most of them in Turkey: Middle East squat toilets, European dual flush in several variations, American-style single-mode sitting toilets, each in both fee and free variations. Here’s a quick primer to help you on your journey, save your hotelkeepers some water, and keep other people from being mad at you.

The Until Further Notice Toilet

This is one I’ve only seen in Turkey. Press the right hand side of the big flush button to start, and when it’s done the job, press the left side to instantly shut the flow. A great water saver if you know how to use it; a horrible waste if you don’t.

The Pasha’s Palace Plumbing

For westerners, the first exposure to a Middle East-style toilet is a shock. You look at this platform with a hole in the middle of one end and think, how do I even do this? In other countries, I’ve seen them made of nondescript porcelain, or occasionally, metal; in Turkey, many seem to be made of the same gorgeous marble that lines the floors and walls of the various pashas’ palaces of antiquity.

Despite previous exposures all the way back to my first trip overseas in 1973, it took me until this trip to actually figure out the best way. Plant your feet on the ridged platforms on the outsides of the hole, squat, and aim your butt as close to the hole as possible. In Turkish bathrooms of this type, there will be a pitcher under a spigot. Use water from the pitcher to flow the waste into the hole, and then flush.

And if it’s one where you have to pay 1 lira for the privilege, be grateful—because in most cases, that means someone is paid to clean it frequently.

One if By Sea, Two if By Land

While they’re becoming more common in the U.S., the water-conserving European dual-flush toilets still may be unfamiliar to American travelers. The flush will have either a large and a small button or a lever that can go in two different directions (and usually an icon showing which is which). Either way, there will be a setting for a small flow of water or a larger one. The smaller one is for liquid wastes.

I do WHAT with the Paper?

Even Latin America-style is here. With either an eastern or western style toilet, you’ll occasionally encounter a sign instructing you NOT to throw the used paper in the toilet. So, you wonder, just what am I supposed to do with it? The answer: throw it in the garbage can that’s always adjacent. And be nice to the next person: fold a clean part of your paper over the dirty part and roll it tightly, so it doesn’t smell. In Turkey, the bathrooms that I encountered with this preference were all fine (sometimes in Latin America, I’ve wanted to gag).

Toilet as Social Club

Finally, if you tour any Greek ruins in western Turkey and listen to a guide, you’ll probably hear about bathroom customs of 2000 years ago. Back then, the men’s public latrine was a big social gathering place, serving as a café does today. You’d hear all the latest gossip, argue politics, and maybe even plot a coup. I didn’t find any bathrooms of that sort still in use in today’s Turkey, but it does make interesting speculation.

Shel Horowitz, editor of Global Travel Review, is working on ways business can solve problems of hunger and poverty, war and violence, and catastrophic climate change:

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