I followed the guard through the Ugandan heat. Although undeniably hot, the heat is more than a temperature — it’s a smell. That day, its heaviness was laced with fumes of diesel, ripe fruit and the smoke of burning trash.
Our crawling pace left a shallow trail in the red dirt. In her left hand, the guard twirled a baton, occasionally pointing it as a form of hello at passerby’s moving along the main street. In her right hand jingled the keys that would take me to meet my fate.
We turned two corners: the first, off the street and into a small, dirt parking lot. From there, a final turn into a rather dark and secluded ally. My knees tried to lock in place and halt my steps as every instinct in me screamed no, don’t follow! But I had no choice.
Two boys sat in the ally and stared as the twirling baton and I walked past. I wanted to wave hello, but found I was too embarrassed by my escorted walk to do so.
The guard’s unhurried pace only heightened my anxiety of the situation, which was this: I had dammed up my bladder for far too long and needed to pee. Badly.
We were waiting in line at an ATM when I realized I just couldn’t wait any longer. I leaned over to Gabriel and whispered the predicament in his ear. He, in turn, walked over to where the bank’s security guards stood. Fortunately, he addressed the one with the baton — not the AK 47 — so I wouldn’t feel 100 percent incriminated during my escort.
“Excuse me, is there a bathroom nearby?”
“Yes, my wife needs to use a bathroom.”
[Que a stream of chuckles from the guard]
“Oh, toilet [chuckle]. Yes, please follow [chuckle].”
I looked nervously over my shoulder at Gabriel as he returned to the line and faded out of sight. I might have imagined it, but I believe the AK 47 also released a small chuckle before covering the baton’s post.
As the two of us marched on, I contemplated the chuckles, guessing that a squatty-potty waited for me at the end of my walk.
But I am no stranger to the squatty-potty.
My first encounter with one was a cho in Kenya. It went off without a hitch.
The second encounter occurred in Tanzania, on Mt. Kilimanjaro. I embraced the opportunity to practice my technique but found it difficult to concentrate — the hole-in-the-dirt potty had no door, only a partial wall separating my shy bladder from other hikers moving up the mountain’s trail. After I finally willed my shy bladder to just get on with it, I prepared to straighten my stance and tidy my clothes when I lost balance and the bottom of my pants' leg grazed the floor beside the hole. I examined the clothing carefully and decided it remained unscathed. But it was a close call.
When we made camp that evening, I was fortunate enough to find a squatty-potty with a door. Comforted by the wall of privacy, I hovered over the hole. But midstream, the lock on the door gave way and the partition, caught in the wind, blew open to expose me to the line of campers waiting to use the facility. The only positive of the situation was that I had a beautiful view from the top of the hill where I squatted.
It was during our year in Japan that I finally perfected my squatty-potty technique. This relieved me (no pun intended), because I felt I had two strikes against me (Tanzania squatty-potties: 2; Sarah: 0). The strikes progressively got worse in nature, and I didn’t want the third strike to throw me out — or rather, in. Because the only thing worse than squatting over a potty in front of 15+ people would be to fall into a squatty-potty. And that’s exactly what I imagine strike three to be.
And that’s also why, when the twirling baton and I rounded the last corner and she unlocked the toilet room for me, my bladder decided it actually could wait a little longer before releasing its contents.
She was still chuckling as she held the door open for me to go inside. There were no windows in the cinderblock walls. Unidentified fluids saturated the ground, and I didn’t want to know what they were or where they came from. A sink resembling a urinal hung catawampus in the corner.
I schooled my features, not wanting to offend and not wanting to give her anything else to chuckle about. And then I took one last gulp of fresh air, stepped through the open door and waited as she closed it behind me.
I fumbled around, grasping at the walls and hoping to find a light. I refused to take my phone out of my bag (to use as a flashlight). Knowing me, I would have dropped it in the hole and would have had to dig halfway to China to retrieve it. After a few seconds, my hand found a string attached to what felt like a naked light bulb. I pulled it, but nothing happened.
Giving up on the light, I unzipped my pants, thinking I might still attempt the squatty-potty after going through the trouble of getting to it. Then I waited for my eyes to adjust. Ten seconds passed. Then twenty. Then forty-five. After a full minute was gone and I thought I might faint from the smell and truly fall into the hole, I zipped my pants back up and knocked on the door so the guard could let me out of the can.
Back in the blinding sunlight, I thanked her for assisting me and we completed the return leg to the ATM together. Gabriel was waiting for me as I turned the corner.
“Did you go?”
“I went to a bathroom, yes.”
“That’s a funny way to answer that question.”
“I didn’t use the bathroom.”
“Oh, why not?”
“It was pitch black and I was afraid of strike three and that I would fall in.”
He resisted the urge to roll his eyes and instead found me a toilet with a light, 15 minutes later at a restaurant where we grabbed lunch.
That was during our first day in Jinja. I’m happy to report that since then, I’ve used countless squatty-potties here. The rest have all had working light fixtures (and some even windows!). And most importantly, there have been no further “strikes” against me.