Tackling the Yuck Factor

Real Travel

From the January/February 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Our personal attitudes about cleanliness are truly tested when we travel.

It was my fourth trip to India, and I felt that I could handle anything. Invited to attend a dance performance in a village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, I'd managed to successfully wrap and tuck myself into a heavy silk sari, earning compliments from my local hosts. At the intermission, I rose from my cross-legged position on the floor—pretty gracefully, considering how tightly I had wound my skirt—and headed to the ladies' room. I was not surprised to find the ubiquitous Indian fixture there: a squat toilet. "Madam, we are so sorry, we don't have a Western style," said the attendant apologetically.

"No problem whatsoever," I answered, waving my hand breezily. After my trips to India and other parts of Asia, I'd had plenty of practice. I considered myself an expert at what some believe to be a more natural and healthy toilet routine.

But that afternoon my sari was tight and my legs were crampy from sitting so long on the floor. Alone in the tiny cubicle, my knees buckled, I lost my balance, and I fell backward. Only by frantically reaching out to grasp the door handle did I manage to stay on my feet. But the sudden, jerky movement sent the sunglasses perched on my head flying through the air. I heard them land behind me with a clack and a splat! My sunglasses—my prescription sunglasses—were now resting inside the bowl of a public squat toilet.

They were my only pair. I probably could have replaced them in the state capital, Chennai, but I wasn't due to arrive there for several days. And the sunshine in Tamil Nadu can be blinding. Was I willing to plunge my hand into the murky unknown in order to retrieve my customized shades?

Our personal attitudes about cleanliness—or what I call the "yuck factor"—are tested when we're on the road. As travelers, we're using public facilities more often than not. We jam ourselves for hours into crowded trains, buses, and planes and sleep in rented rooms, resting from our grimy journeys in beds where strangers have sweatily tossed and turned just nights, or hours, before.

Under these circumstances it is little wonder that many travelers who wouldn't hesitate to, say, share one restaurant dessert with four friends using four spoons, find themselves turning into hygiene-obsessed compulsives when journeying. You know these travelers: They are the ones who carry their own cutlery, pull out their hand sanitizer every 20 minutes, and sleep on top of fully sheeted hotel beds cocooned in their own personal sleep sacks.

On my first trip to Mexico, 25 years ago, I dutifully followed the suggested health precautions, from wiping the mouth of my Coca-Cola bottle with a tissue before drinking it, to refusing ice and uncooked vegetables. The constant awareness spoiled my fun, and when I ended up getting turista anyway, I decided that on my next trip I would ditch the guidebook suggestions. Of course I didn't want to expose myself recklessly to germs that could ruin my trip, or my health. But neither did I want to travel feeling I was isolated in quarantine.

Striking a balance between these extremes isn't easy, especially when you add in your own personal yuck factor. While I have never been a hand-sanitizer type (plain old soap and water at restrooms and before and after meals seems sufficient to me), I do have my own idiosyncratic repertoire of cleanliness quirks. For instance, ever since I read somewhere that the average American chain hotel only launders its bedspreads once every 60 days, I always shove hotel bedspreads to the bottom of the bed before retiring. When it turns cold at night and I need the bedspread for warmth, I pull it up but fold the sheet over the top of it so it won't touch my face. This, I know, seems crazy, especially for a person who happily eats yogurt bought from street vendors in Calcutta and has been known to plunge her hand enthusiastically into the communal pilaf dish in Karachi.

There is method to my madness, though. I really have no way of knowing when or even if the hotel bedspread was cleaned. But I can see that the Calcutta yogurt vendor is serving a long line of regular customers and that the small earthenware jars from which he dispenses his wares are broken as soon as they are used (so there is no chance of picking up a bug from a dish poorly washed). The diners digging their hands into the pile of rice in Pakistan very carefully use only their right hands, which everyone washed before dinner at the nearby communal sink. Verification is my barometer: When I travel, I trust the clean that I can see.

Travel has taught me something else that is very important about cleanliness: Clean means different things in different places, and no single culture has the final word on it. My hand-sanitizer-using friends would be astonished to learn that in Japan they'd be considered yucky for keeping their street shoes on while walking around their hotel room or not wearing the designated "WC" slippers in the bathroom. While I would never think of washing cutlery presented to me in a restaurant, many of my Hong Kong friends begin their restaurant meals by rewashing all of their chopsticks, bowls, and plates with hot tea.

Over the years I have adopted some of these unfamiliar clean customs, such as removing my shoes at the door. But I have also learned the harder lesson, which is to relax and let go of the idea that I can control the cooties of my environment wherever I am. I can't. And that's why I reached into the squat toilet in India without hesitation and scooped out my sunglasses.

In the end, travel—good travel—is about being open to getting your hands dirty. Sooner or later, wherever you are in the world, you surely will.

Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in distant lands on her blog,

Travel's ultimate thrill may be that one special discovery—and sharing it with kindred souls

So, where are we going for dinner tonight?" I ask. My friend Mariko smiles. "It's a little place. I hope you will like it." We jump into a Toyota taxi with spotless slipcovered seats. Mariko instructs the driver in Japanese, and we zoom off.

I kind of know my way around Tokyo. I can ride the subway without getting lost, and I can tell when I'm in Shinjuku or Asakusa. But not tonight. Two or three turns into a labyrinth of side streets, and I have no idea what neighborhood we are in. Or even if we are still in Tokyo.

"Stop here," Mariko says after a bit. We face a shadowy, empty-looking building illuminated by a dim blue light over the entry door.

Suddenly that door slides open, revealing a warmly lit wood-paneled eatery. A woman in a perfectly wrapped kimono appears, bows, and motions us inside. As we settle ourselves, I notice there are no tables, only a bar. A very, very small bar. I count the seats: One, two, three, four.

That's when I realize what is up. Mariko, a new friend I've made through a mutual acquaintance, is honoring this occasion of our first meeting by presenting me with something special. Something that, as ardent travelers, we both can understand and appreciate, even though we come from very different parts of the world. What Mariko is offering me is the greatest travel gift of all: a secret place.

I've collected secret places since I could crawl—the cabinet under the bathroom sink, the quiet space beneath my bed. Of course my standard for specialness has become a little more sophisticated over the decades; what hasn't changed is the urge to discover marvelous and mysterious nooks around the world that somehow will "belong" to me, finds that I come across spontaneously or after a long and concerted quest.

Most travelers I know share this passion in some form. My friend Laura, for instance, keeps a stack of worn Moleskine books filled with scribbled notes: the address of the tiny café in Budapest where she tasted the ultimate walnut-cream pastry; the telephone number of the unlisted guesthouse in Cartagena, Colombia, where she fell asleep every night to the rolling murmur of the Caribbean sea.

I'm not much of a diarist, so I tend to keep my secret places in my head. To jog my memory, I hold onto pieces of travel ephemera: maps of Ljubljana, menus from restaurants in Shanghai, business cards, café con leche-stained paper napkins that I saved from out-of-the-way Buenos Aires confiterias.

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In a world where everyone can—and does—blog about their favorite obscure noodle stall in Macau, collecting secret places may feel sometimes as obsolete as steamship travel. And yet I continue to make discoveries of places unknown to tourists, guidebook writers, and bloggers, and sometimes even to the people who live in the place I'm exploring. The reason: My definition for a "secret place" has an important qualifier. To get a spot on my list a secret place has to be special—to me.

Ko Samui, in Thailand, is a beach resort that is filled with tourists year-round; the Buddhist temple near the center of town is marked on every map. Yet it became my secret place early one morning when I wandered in and noticed, off to the side of the main altar, a device that looked like a pinball machine. Its main feature was an electrically illuminated statue of Buddha inside the glass case.

I stood in wonder before this pinball Buddha, then noticed a coin slot that read "10 Baht." I had some Thai change in my pocket, so I dropped a 10-baht coin in the slot. Instantly the Buddha's eyes began flashing red, blue, and green as a recorded voice thundered forth in rapid-fire Thai. Then, in a frenzy of flashing, whizzing, and whirring, the machine spit out a piece of paper: my fortune.

What did it say? That remains secret (even to me—most of the text is in Thai). But the next time any friends of mine go to Ko Samui they will certainly be carrying directions to my special pinball Buddha, along with operating instructions. Once you've found that secret place and added it to your collection, there is only one thing you can do to make the experience of it even better: Share it with special friends.

Tokyo is practically ground zero for secret places. There seems to be something about Japanese culture that maintains, even safeguards, a reverence for the hidden, for the spontaneous discovery. At Mariko's secret restaurant, we—along with the lucky patrons in those other two seats—eat one of the best meals I have ever had: course after course of the freshest fish, followed by servings of exquisitely shaped and perfectly steamed vegetables that I'd never heard of. The chef personally presents and explains each dish to Mariko, his regular customer.

Full of heady sake and delight, I ask Mariko if the restaurant has a business card, so I will be able to find it again some day. She laughs.

"It doesn't even have a name."

This secret place, I realize, "belongs" to her. Her traveler's gift is not the place itself, but the sharing of it with me, a like-minded new friend.

Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in distant lands on her blog, www.therealtravelblog.com .

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