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#57 Talking about poop

May 18, 2011

Combined posts, by Carly who blogs at Chasing Carly; and tweets @chasingcarly, Katie Seward who blogs at Eating Stuff Everywhere, and UXO.

There exists a subject that would not constitute polite dinner table conversation at home, but that becomes a favourite mealtime topic over which to bond as soon as one enters the magical realm of Expat Aid Workerness. This topic never gets old because it affects each and every EAW at some point. It’s known as gut rot, running stomach, the shits, two bob bits, Montezuma’s revenge, Delhi belly and other fine euphemisms. And EAWs find it to be one of the most interesting topics on earth.

When home, EAWs greet their coworkers with a friendly, “Good morning.” They engage in congenial neighborhood competition over the tidiness of their lawn. But out in the field, everything is different: asking “How is your pooping going?” is a common way to start the day, and bragging rights are earned by descriptions of bowel movements so graphic they would be considered TMI for even an appointment with a gastroenterologist. When the EAW is jetting around the world, communing with local, impoverished people, a spice that doesn’t sit right or a parasite that wreaks havoc is bound to make its way into the EAW’s intestinal tract on an almost daily basis. And that spice or parasite must be discussed—in detail. Because if there is one thing EAWs love more than sharing hints on the best kebab stand in town, it’s talking about their legendary experiences with the after-effects of a meal there.

Nothing says I am a hard core, badass EAW than a good, hard core case of gut rot. Now we are not talking about the kind of ‘upset stomach’ that M & E missions from HQ get when coming for 5 days, after eating salad that wasn’t washed in filtered water. We are talking about the kind that has you bent over double with cramps and limping politely out of coordination meetings hoping to find a WC nearby that 1) has water 2) has a loo roll 3) flushes. EAW scales on which to measure the bad-ass-ness of your latest bout have been created for such situations;  ten being liquid and one being bloody impossible to do anything. A number 5 is a cause for celebration.

Trying to pin point the cause of the problem can provide endless fun, particularly if it was local food.Maybe it was that plastic bag full of batunda, or the chicken kebab from the lady outside the bus station or a dodgy bit of crab in that matapa last night. Discussing the finer points of Cipro (used so often its name gets shortened, like an old friend) verses Amoxicillin and the miraculous properties of Buscopan as an excellent anti spasmodic become the norm. Self medication is particularly welcomed, however even better is being sent to a “regional center of excellence” like Nairobi or Johannesburg for treatment. Ordinary food poisoning is enough to garner some attention if the symptoms were severe enough and the situation extreme enough, but to contract an actual named disease on which to blame the diarrhea is much more of a point of pride. If it can be diagnosed professionally as giardia (bronze) or amoebic dysentery (silver) then this is good, but if it’s so bad that the cause mystifies even the doctors in JBG, and it’s put down to “Africa crud” (gold) then this is even better.

Stories that in normal company would be seen as humiliating are worn as a badge of honor among the EAW community. “Once I almost didn’t make it through customs in Tunis because I kept running out of line to go to the toilet and customs officials thought I was up to suspicious activity” and  “Once an entire compound in an African village watched me shit on their pit latrine and then wipe my ass with my hand” are both totally acceptable dinnertime stories at EAW gatherings.

In no other workplace in the world is it more common to hear about someone’s toilet exploits than it is in an EAW field office. There’s no shame in discussing the hours spent cramped in the bathroom, in fact, the longer an EAW has suffered, the more impressive they become to their colleagues. Levels of field cred can be increased by the way you handle various types of lavatories. There’s your sit down, your squat and aim and then your balance and pray that the square of wood you’re hovering over doesn’t collapse. There are the make shift long drops which seem to attract every fly or buzzing insect in the area, with your only protection from the other members of your team being a UNCHR plastic blue sheet. And then there are the moments on the road from somewhere to somewhere, where you know that the verges could be riddled with AP landmines, and so bang goes the option of privacy behind a bush; you just have to suck it up and deal with going alongside the road, behind the back wheel of your trusty Toyota 13-seater hardtop and hope that a pickup full of locals does not zoom past before you’ve got your trousers up again. (Now you realize why local women prefer skirts!)

Setting aside the pain, discomfort and downright shittines of the situation, a good case of gut rot does have its benefits. Not only does an EAW already have one advantage over their friends at home or HQ colleagues — they are a damn sight more tanned — but a good case of gut rot now and again makes them svelte and even more attractive. Need to drop 7kg? Don’t go to the gym!! Become an EAW and the weight just drops off.

The only bummer about these amazing and exotic stories (aside from the dire intestinal pain and the ruined pairs of underwear) is that EAWs know they can’t use them to impress all their Facebook friends back home. As a status update, “Just shat my pants,” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Just stepped off a helicopter.”

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Ruairi permalink
    May 18, 2011 9:15 am

    Love it. The fun part in Rwanda – a country of eleven million people which is the size of Munster/New Hampshire/slightly bigger than Wales and where 92% of the population live in the countryside – was finding a spot to drop your pants where you were being observed by fewer than ten people. Thank God I am blessed with external genitalia …..

  2. May 18, 2011 9:35 am

    Love it. Every word true. In fact was just sitting at breakfast this morning with another EAW discussing his utter constipation.

    Do be sure to check out the Bristol Stool Scale for an essential reference for these sorts of EAW conversations:

    You’ll find the chart is incomplete (could do with at least 2 degrees of constipation at the top end, and at least one further down past 7 relating to explosivity, and the ratio of high-pressure gas to liquid droplets). However the diagram is particularly charming.

  3. Darkwing Duck permalink
    May 18, 2011 11:05 am

    About four years ago I learned that if you invite Americans who work in Africa to dinner, you cannot invite ‘civilians.’ The Africa workers invariably tell horrific stories about poop. Some of my best travel stories involve hilarious poop incidents. However, my civilian friends generally turned green and passed on desserts containing chocolate.

    I am less interested in “how sick I got” than “the amusing circumstances caused by my sickness.” Top two (because, hey, I’m an EAW): Almost running over a leopard in Kruger National Park because I was trying to make it to a bathroom that did NOT include fresh elephant dung. Spending four hours at a border crossing into Mozambique shitting my brains out while simultaneously considering that damn, these toilets are REALLY NICE, even by American standards!

  4. Colonel Tusker permalink
    May 18, 2011 5:46 pm

    Should point out that most locals have extremely convoluted and polite circumlocutions so that they never have to mention the toilet.

    Eg, ‘Yuko nyuma: he is out the back’, ‘Anasindikiza mgeni: he is escorting a guest.’ etc, etc.

    In maasai culture it is considered bad taste if anyone even sees you going to the loo. So walking straight across the compound with a loo roll in your hand and all of your friends making smart-alec remarks, is generally enough to get you thrown out of the village as serious bad news.

    Actually, even among Westerners, it is only Americans who carry on like this about poo. And that, only young Americans who haven’t been there long enough to know better.

    I well recall the Peace Corps fat-boy called Brad who fell down the choo, and then came back to show us all, and ask what he should do…

  5. May 18, 2011 7:33 pm

    hilarious, and oh so true…

    I’ll spare you my top ten, but do have to disagree on the assumption that “local” EAWs are more exposed than passing through ones from HQ, (another thing EAWs love to discriminate on.)

    Having done both the years in the field and the M&E visits, I can confirm that both can produce equal quality top honours on the crap front, HQ people having the added benefit of then having to deal with drs back home who THINK they know what parasites are, insist you don’t have any, and end up diagnosing and medicating randomly

    ok, just checked and I have like THREE posts on poop in my blog.. embarrassing, one even has montezuma in the title. but I’ll share only the not so funny one …

  6. May 19, 2011 2:13 pm

    if you still go into loos with the hope that you will find toilet paper… then you’re probably on a M&E mission from HQ. every self-respecting EAW carries toilet paper around with him/her! :)

  7. Jacqueline permalink
    May 23, 2011 11:48 am

    Love this post but it does not address the other discussion which is around “KAP” or other lab tests which involves us capturing a sample of our stool which we bring in for analysis. What fun that is! There is a joke around this which only expats will get I think. It goes like this: “An expat goes to a lab and deposits a small vial on the counter. He tells the lab worker: I would like a stool analysis on this done, please. The lab worker responds: But sir, the container is empty. The expat replies: Yes, indeed, I am constipated and I want to know why!”. I roared with laughter the first time I heard this.

  8. Heddo permalink
    May 27, 2011 9:40 am

    There should be a new acronym – EAWBAH (…Back at Home). Just think of all those short-termers (M&E and hq management chew downs) returning home in the full flower of their discontent. Not to even talk about the flight home! No longer do the EAWBAHs have the opportunity to openly discuss their problem(s) in polite or any society but the doctors office, but they get to use toilets that sit among others in the communal rest rooms with tiled walls that echo all noises. At least in the field you are entertainment for someone, at hq you are subject to pity and disgust. Note to self … re-remember to stay away from USAID hq restrooms. Oh the inhumanity!


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