The stomach-tightening threat of the dreaded toilet ladies20 april 2011, 12:02
A quiet danger lurks in the bowels of many cities in Kazakhstan.
It's not corruption or the mafia. It's the dreaded toilet ladies.
These, of course, are the women who nick you for 50 tenge when you need to answer nature’s call.
An American like me resents the dreaded toilet ladies. I don’t have anything against any of them personally, you understand. They’re only doing their job. And I know it’s not an easy job.
It's just that Americans have long believed that answering nature's call ought to be free -- like breathing the air.
I remember as a kid taking a bus from my home in Omaha, Nebraska, to my aunt's home in Albany, Georgia -- halfway across the United States. The Greyhound bus stopped several times during the two-day trip.
Late on the first day, the bus stopped at a station in Tennessee to pick up passengers, which gave me a chance to duck into a restroom.
To my great surprise, I encountered the first pay toilet I had ever seen. The stall door had a sign saying that if I wanted to use the toilet, I would have to put a quarter in a slot on the door.
There was a way around spending my money. I could either slip my skinny body through a six-inch gap between the bottom of the stall door and the floor, or I could shinny up the toilet door and drop down inside, like Spiderman.
An old man stood with a bemused look on his face as he saw me considering my dilemma: "Save your money," he sniffed. "Climb over it." I did.
But in Kazakhstan and the rest of the former Soviet Union there are dreaded toilet ladies instead of coin slots. So you don’t have the options of climbing over or going under the stall door for a freebie. That’s because the dreaded toilet ladies shake you down for cash before you can even enter the restroom.
Invariably, I never have the 50-tenge tribute when nature calls. I’ve usually just left a bank, so the smallest amount in my pocket is a 5,000-tenge note.
I learned quickly never to offer a 5,000-tenge note to a dreaded toilet lady. She will begin baying like a steppe wolf during a full moon. If you get one on a bad day, she may even chase you out the door, swinging her toilet scrub brush wildly after you.
There are times when you have the 50 tenge, but nature’s call is so urgent that you have trouble extracting the coin from your pocket. As you’re bouncing back and forth from one foot to the other, trying to find the toll before it’s too late, the dreaded toilet lady is either scowling or chuckling at you, depending on her mood.
My Russian is poor, but once I thought I heard a Russian-speaking dreaded toilet lady say to another, as I was bouncing from one foot to the other: "This guy does a pretty good Cossack dance, don't you think?" And then the two proceeded to clap their hands and yell: "Hey, hey, hey!" to encourage me.
At one point I considered storming Kazakhstan’s tribute-system toilets by force. After all, I'm 188 centimeters tall, weigh about 85 kilos and used to play American football.
But I took a closer look at the ranks of the dreaded toilet ladies. Some are formidable. I’ve come across a few who were about 160 centimeters tall and weighed 100 kilos.
They could come in low on you, like an American football linebacker, and cut your legs out from under you, crippling your knees forever. I decided that the risk of physical injury wasn’t worth trying to take a toilet by force.
The great hope for those of us who are activists in the Global Free Toilets Movement is that there will come a day in the near future when the last dreaded toilet lady hangs up her brush in Kazakhstan.
It will be a great moment for us, one flush with victory.