ha noi squater
Vietnamese 3 squatter. Photo Joanne Bretzer

As a woman who frequently needs to find a loo and travels a lot, in Asia, I have seen toilets. There is actually only one I haven’t used; against all of my better judgement, my bladder prevailed against the evidence of the rest.

Actually, the state of a state’s toilets can be a deal breaker for some women for traveling. I do understand that, and sympathize. But once you have broken the spell of the perfect loo, you may realize that everyone everywhere relieves themselves, well, anywhere.

(By the way, don’t google “best toilets in the world” unless you are ready for a rude surprise.)

I remember when a friend of mine  went to China many years ago. For want of facilities, she had to squat in a field. With lots of people watching. This poor young New Englander brought this back as her most interesting moment, at least the most impressive, judging from how she spoke of it.

Heeding “the call of nature” is something westerners prefer to do in the privacy of a very clean bathroom, of course with hot and cold running water and a flush function. Bidet is optional, but lovely.

I met my first squatter in Alaska, and also my first outhouse. Squatters can be better than outhouses in the far north. The first outhouse I used was right after I arrived one evening in the dead of winter. -40 F and the need for facilities at an Alaskan cabin is a lesson and a test. My friend went before me, and came back with the seat firmly frozen on her bum. The last person to use it before her had forgotten to bring the unattached plastic ring in with him and put it near the wood stove. I learned to prefer styrofoam seats for this reason.

An outhouse in Aaska often has a baseball bat, or some equivalent, stashed in the corner. No, it is not to drive off wolves or bears, but to knock down the pile that accumulates as everything freezes pretty  immediately. In the summer the underside of the platform in the outhouse attracts paper wasps which build their nests their. There are incidents.

You can see why squatters may be preferable.

French Loos

The first time I traveled to France I encountered a lot of squatters. Er, squat toilets, aka toilettes à la turque. I’m amused at how many people blanch at traveling in Asia because of the facilities, but are eager to go to Paris. In Provence, the main old town wall functioned as a pissoire when I was there 30 years ago.

Then there are those who hail squatters as healthier. I suppose, but they can be hard on the knees for westerners. That is beside the point. They are what you will encounter outside the west, and if you wish to travel in Asia and Latin America on a non-5 star itinerary, you have to adjust.

The worst loo ever for me was in India. I was in a local park with a friend and needed to go. He suggested we wait, but, tiny bladder, too much liquid, and so on, I needed to go. The bathroom was inside a small eatery, and a group of blokes were sitting outside the women’s room door. When I went in, riotous laughter followed me. On opening the door I saw why. The  bad boys had smeared every surface with excrement. I decided I could actually wait.

I experienced the second worst in Ho Chi Minh when I went to the Chinese market with a student. She had offered to take me on a tour of Chalon, which took hours. In the market I again had to go. She strongly advised against it. I prevailed. The bathroom was large with doored stalls, including western toilets and sinks with flowing water. No, that was all good. The problem was that all of the women, and there were many, were squatted on the floor doing all of their business. Squeezed right up against each other. There was a woman at the back with a hose who was spraying the leavings into the gutter. I crossed carefully and used one of the stalls. You would never have thought it ever had been used.

But most squatters are clean and well tended to. One good way to think about them is that you don’t make physical contact. They  can be safe and clean, and necessary. Oh, and be sure to always bring your own paper.


Pick Yourself Up, Brush Yourself Off

Start all over again. Well, it feels that way.

After a busy week of not getting to the pool enough, perhaps drinking more red wine than I ought, and generally keeping my feet up and my eyes on the internet, I woke up Monday with severe pain in my left heel. The ankle and even the leg weren’t feeling so great. I used my hiking stick just to get around the house. Standing up was painful, sitting down wasn’t much better. Time for panadol with codeine and ice packs. Added to that grief was pain in my cheek from recent dental surgery. I was a painful mess.

Now one thing I know about getting older, or at least I am learning about it, is that there are times when we entertain pain, or are occupied by pain. Certainly distracted by it. I plan to get a lot older, and I figure I have to make my peace with this aspect of life. Some suffer pain all of their lives, many suffer more pain than I can imagine. I’m grateful that I can manage my pain. Pain management and fitness go hand in hand, and usually if I am in pain it is because I have slacked off on exercise.

My plan for 2016 is to do a lot of walking and hiking, hence the hiking sticks. So I need strategies and patience. I bought myself some good orthotic insoles, and iced and exercised my feet and ankles. Counterintuitively, laying down with feet elevated is not the solution for planter’s faschitis, which by process of elimination and internet research I am fairly sure I have. Exercise is difficult because walking is painful.

I hobbled with my walking stick to the pool on Monday and got in the pool for a good workout. I also have some seriously bad knees from sports injuries, so the pool is my haven for working out. I continued to ice the foot and used the walking stick for the rest of Monday. Tuesday morning I woke up with the foot and mouth still in pain, but a bit better. I went on with my routine, including shopping, with the new insoles and without the walking stick.

So, it is Wednesday today, and things are so much better. There is still a bit of pain in the foot, but no need for the stick at all, nor panadol. The real victory, though, was that I went to the pool and swam a mile. I was moaning on Monday that I would not be able to swim my New Year Mile this year. I swim a mile for my birthday in July, and at the New Year. I really feared that I would miss that milestone, so to speak, this time.

The pain in my foot is practically gone now, as is the pain in my mouth. I’ve not been drinking red wine (but that will most likely change, as I am not a penitent) and I”m paying better attention to my diet. My joints benefit from less weight, so even though it isn’t otherwise a problem, losing 10K is just a good idea from a longevity and pain perspective.

Happy New Year to everyone, and keep on moving!KeepOnTruckin.png




Source: A Noob’s Guide To Affordable Travel

I just came across this excellent post about travel on a budget. Mostly it focuses on North America, but the advice is strong and applies most places.

Traveling on a budget isn’t difficult. The method is a simple combination of knowledge, geography, and timing. By placing a trickle down emphasis from the most expensive aspect of travel to the least, any American should be able to afford a memorable vacation, even those on a teacher’s salary.

Source: A Noob’s Guide To Affordable Travel

New Year Dreams, Plans and Wishes

Christmas Excess


It doesn’t seem to matter how secular/cynical I get. It always hits me at this time of the year; that magical thinking about the New Year. Christmas is over, along with its attendant joys, disappointments, gastric distress and weight-shame, and guilt, of course, guilt. What would a privileged 21st century first-worlder be after the binge of Christmas be if not guilty?  As if suffering through the period of time between the gastro-excesses of Thanksgiving and that of Christmas weren’t enough, for most of us there is the hustle of shopping. By hustle, I don’t mean the bustle. I mean the commercial hustle snake-oil sales pitches of advertising, driving us to leave work early, jam the malls all weekend, and over-use every bit of plastic in our wallets. And then there is Christmas morning, when most are disappointed that their dreams were not, again, fulfilled. Yes, it hits me that I need to Make Changes.


The new year is simply a continuation of the old year, yet that Day, that magic partition between the old and the new, the gone and the yet to come, feels liminal. We sense that there is an opportunity here to make life changes. A day 1, followed by 364 more, when we can Become Something or Someone better. Such expectations!

My dream for this new year is to find a home. Yikes. Not much pressure, huh? Am I asking too much? Probably. But that is it. I’ll debark from Australia in January and set out for The New World in search of a New Life. Of course I have been doing research. I have already traveled a bit, so I have a general sense of places. I even study Spanish every day. I know it will be a process of work and some disappointments. But this doesn’t stop me from fantasizing someplace Perfect. Of course, I’ll have wonderful, enlightened neighbors, the climate will be perfect, and I will not be the ass that pisses off others that I have been elsewhere. Life will be grand. Cafes and little bars will be interspersed with fresh produce markets and razor sharp butcher shops. With perfect food abounding, I will definitely lose weight, and walking everywhere will render me fit.

Perfect Village

My plan is to fly to the States, unencumbered myself of all but a backpack, and head south. I’ll fly into either Mexico or Ecuador, and go to some of the places I’ve been researching; Ecuador, Columbia, Bolivia, Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala. I will try to spend some time in each country and do some more on the ground research, and actually learn some Spanish. I’ve been reading all of the online “expat in in a perfect place” magazines, so I know what the ideal is. My job is to suss out the real.

My wish and hope is that I will find a place that feels right. I really want, more than anything else, to find community and purpose in a place. I want a kitchen and people to cook for. A little garden spot would be nice. A cafe might even be necessary. I’d love to do a little teaching, both volunteer and for a little cash or trade.

Failing to find the ideal is of course expected. I will probably look back on these days, and this post, and again recognize my naivete and unrealistic optimism. But I am happy where I am now, I like where I was a year ago, and then before that, so I hold out hope. I wonder what magical things I will want and expect of myself next year; Probably at a minimum, the loss of weight and optimal fitness, and a few other unreasonable things, like not being a jerk sometimes and always being kind.



A Christmas in Morocco

Nine years ago, when I was living in Saudi Arabia, Eid al Hasa arrived at the same time as Christmas, and I took advantage of the break to go to Morocco with a friend. The entire trip is worthy of a post of its own, but this is about Christmas day, in a little cold ryad inside the old city walls of Marrakesh.

We arrived in Marrakesh a few days before Christmas and found the little ryad almost empty. Locals hadn’t returned from their Eid holidays in the countryside, and it wasn’t high season for westerners. My image of Morocco, being in Africa after all, was that it would be hot. Instead I ended up buying and then wearing layer after layer of woolens all day and all night, as no place had any heat. In the morning we would crawl up to the roof and situate ourselves in whatever sunny spot we could find and warm ourselves like frozen lizards. Sometimes we had to nudge mewling cats or put them on our laps. And doze a bit more after a cold fitful night.



Picture Joanne Bretzer

The ryad was being run by a couple of young people, and by Christmas day it was them and us. They were doing their best, but we were really on our own in the drafty cold place. Breakfast on the sunny windy rooftop got us through the day.

Sometime in the afternoon I sought out an internet cafe. Email from my sister was to be expected on the holiday. This one was urgent though. Call her immediately, she said. Not much else. My gut told me what to expect, but the call had to be made, which meant a phone had to be found, as well as the coinage to pay for it. I have no smart phone today, and this was 9 years ago. I needed something like a public phone. The people at the internet cafe set me up with their phone and I called to get the news. My father had died.

It hadn’t been a nice death, and I do think there is such a thing, but this was a western death in a cold hospital, alone, with equipment, bells and alarms and people prodding in his open chest, desperately trying to keep a heart going that had long ago given all but its last beats. It was a hard death, hardest because it was alone. I had left him 5 months before and he said he was doing fine. I had returned from Korea the previous year to care for him and help a friend with his business, but then I needed to return to work. I needed income and I needed to stay employed. I’m good, he said, go back to work and come see me next year. He said. I left him, standing at his door crying in his heart as his caretaker took her leave. I spoke with him one evening from Al Khobar, and he loved hearing about cheap bananas and lovely little cucumbers, and life at 130 degrees. That was our last conversation. Now he was gone. He had just learned how to do email, and I had a last note from him in huge script, like he was yelling to me because he couldn’t hear well.

The afternoon somehow faded to another cold evening. The four of us in the ryad, distracted by my pain the attendant necessary caring, at a late point realized that the breakfast had been too many hours earlier, and now we were hungry. But everything was closed. In the kitchen there was some bread and eggs and a few other things. A valiant attempt was made to marry them together into a one plate dinner which we all pretty silently sat around in the cold and dark and ate with out fingers.

I wanted to go to my father’s funeral, though I knew it would be emotionally wrenching with family politics and ancient wounds dominating, but I was his daughter who took care of him. I wrote to my boss in Saudi Arabia and asked for permission to not return to school immediately, but to go to the funeral first. Permission is needed to leave Saudi Arabia, an exit visa has to be obtained. And without one, even if you are already out on holiday, you won’t get back into the country. My boss wrote back: “Be at work on the 28th”. Fogged by emotion and lack of sleep, I did as I was told. I went back to work. My father would have understood. He had told me to always see him when I could, but don’t worry about returning for his funeral, it wouldn’t matter to him then.

The Year that Was, in Photos

Here is my 2015 in Photos. I traveled to: Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Australia, USA, Mexico and back to the US and Australia. Whew! I’ll post later about the adventures, but here are some of the pics.

Chittagong, BangladeshDSC00278

Photo Joanne Bretzer



Sihanoukville, Cambodia


Siem Reap, CambodiaDSC09159

DSC09117Siem Reap, Cambodia


DSC09484 (1)
Photo Joanne Bretzer

Luang Prabang

Photo Joanne Bretzer


Bangkok, Thailand

Photo Joanne Bretzer


Melbourne, AustraliaDSC00596


Seattle, Washington, USADSC00649DSC00642DSC00624DSC00677Mazatlan, MexicoDSC00846

Durango, MexicoDSC00785DSC00781


Photo Joanne Bretzer
El Fuerte

Copper Canyon/ El Fuerte


Photo Joanne Bretzer Creel Railroad Station

Hollywood, CaliforniaDSC01228DSC01223

The incredible shrinking middle class: Half the country is either living in poverty or damn near close to it –

New reports indicate two thirds of Americans can no longer afford to fix their cars. Our Congress should be ashamed

Source: The incredible shrinking middle class: Half the country is either living in poverty or damn near close to it –

Homeless people are not cockroaches or vermin – they are human and have rights | Housing Network | The Guardian

The most glaring violation of human rights is at a doorstep near you. The global stigma surrounding homeless people sees them treated like illegally parked cars

Source: Homeless people are not cockroaches or vermin – they are human and have rights | Housing Network | The Guardian

‘I got deported from Mexico!’ Country expels hundreds of U.S. citizens every year | Fox News Latino

I’ve written about visa laws. Sometimes we forget that by retiring abroad we are immigrants. We have to meet the laws the same way migrants to our own countries do. Check the laws and be sure to stay legal. As  the article shows, getting deported at 70 is possible. Personally, this sounds quite disruptive and painful.

“Not only can U.S. citizens get deported from Mexico, they do. Repatriated, deported and extradited Americans account for more than 2,000 cases a year, or five a day on average. Sometimes more.”

Source: ‘I got deported from Mexico!’ Country expels hundreds of U.S. citizens every year | Fox News Latino