On a visit to Santiago, Chile, several years ago, I kept popping into the swank Hotel Plaza San Francisco Kempinski, not because I was staying there but because it had one of the nicest, cleanest ladies' rooms in the city. As women travelers know, a good bathroom is hard to find.
It's different for men, who can enter a restroom, do their business and get out fast. And they can go anywhere in a pinch. But visits to the facilities take longer for women, even when we don't stop to comb our hair or powder our noses. As the gender gap closes, this remains one of the fundamental differences between the sexes, I think, and is the reason for long lines in ladies' rooms. Because the problem hasn't been remedied in most places, I deal with it by using the men's (if it's a one-person facility with a lock) when there's a line at the ladies' room.
The urinals always take me aback (suddenly I realize I'm not in the women's room anymore), and I've noticed that men's bathrooms tend to be messier than women's.
Charles Gerba, a professor of soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who has been studying public bathrooms for the last 30 years, found that men's restrooms are, indeed, dirtier and smellier than women's. On the other hand, Gerba's studies showed that women's rooms have twice as many infectious germs, which can cause diarrhea, colds and hepatitis A (though washing your hands assiduously can help ward these off).
Looking back on some of the repugnant bathrooms I've used in my travels--like the one in a mud-floored hut at an archeological dig in northern Egypt, where a dead snake lay next to the squat toilet--it's a wonder I haven't contracted a disease. Marybeth Bond, author of, among other books on travel, "Gutsy Women: Travel Tips and Wisdom for the Road" (Travelers' Tales, $7.95), recently returned from a trip to Tanzania with stories about the squat toilet at Ngorongoro National Park, which she doubted had ever been cleaned.
Almost as soon as I was potty-trained, my mother taught me to put paper on the toilet seat in public bathrooms and even then, never to sit. But when I started traveling in the Third World, I faced the challenges of squat toilets. Some people claim they're cleaner than sit-down toilets, because your skin never touches a dirty surface. Nevertheless, using them requires strong thighs and careful attention to the disposition of your clothes. In facilities like these, wearing a skirt instead of trousers is a boon. Only a foolish traveler would fail to carry tissues or toilet paper, and to cut the putrid odor common in squat toilets, I put the spicy-smelling Chinese unguent Tiger Balm (available in most health food stores) around my nose.
In Africa, author Bond discovered another peril: mosquitoes, to which a woman's exposed backside is vulnerable and which sometimes carry such diseases as malaria and dengue fever. So Bond takes insect repellent with her into Third World squat toilets, along with antibacterial gel for washing up before and after.
According to Eva Newman, author of "Going Abroad: The Bathroom Survival Guide" (Marlor Press, $12.95), the modern flush toilet was invented by Englishman John Harrington in 1589. It's come a long way since then, especially in Japan, where state-of-the-art toilets blow-dry your privates, do chemical analyses of your urine and make sounds to disguise whatever socially unacceptable noises you may emit. Advances almost as striking as these have come to public Johnny-on-the-spots in Paris, says Sandra Gustafson, author of the "Cheap Eats" and "Cheap Sleeps" series (published by Chronicle Books). They wash themselves out after you leave.
Still, I've used plenty of hellish bathrooms in places like Paris, London and New York, especially in cafes and coffee shops, where seeing the ladies' room made me wish I hadn't eaten there. Bathrooms in big-city monuments, subways, gas stations and train, bus and airport terminals are often just as bad, which is why my well-traveled sister says she never uses public restrooms anywhere.
Instead, she seeks out ladies' rooms in museums, hotels and department stores. So does my Montecito friend Margaret Fleetwood, who says, "It is handy to have a collection of powder rooms in one's repertoire." She likes the loo at the Ritz in London; my sister gives high marks to the one at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. My New York friend Linda Yellin recently introduced me to the elegant facilities at the Japanese department store Takashimaya on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Such restrooms really aren't public facilities. The key to using them without being turned back in the foyer is dressing well and pushing through the revolving door with confidence. Author Gustafson adds that it's easier to avoid the guards at big hotels than at small ones.
Here are some rules that those who would be ladies in ladies' rooms should follow:
* Wash your hands whenever you see a sink to avoid germs.
* For your own good, keep a wad of toilet paper or tissue in your pocket or purse.
* Use the men's when the occasion calls for it.
* Give the attendant a few coins; no doubt she needs them.
* Leave the bathroom tidier than you found it, especially on airplanes.
* And when you're traveling, never pass up a good bathroom, even if you're not sure you need it.