Photos: Eli Driu

I Stayed in the Freezing Romanian Countryside to See How Millions Live Without Indoor Toilets

Around 60 percent of rural Romania doesn't have a public sewage system.

by Adina Florea; photos by Eli Driu
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Mar 4 2019, 4:24pm

Photos: Eli Driu

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania

"It's fun when you get the urge to go at night," laughs Petruta as we walk through the village of Hulubești, some 20 miles north of Bucharest. "As soon as you sit your ass down on that cold seat, your shit goes straight back up inside you."

Petruta has lived in Hulubești – a village that sits between hills and forests – for 58 years, and has always done her business in the dedicated outhouse at the back of her yard. Be it freezing cold or swelteringly hot, her feet trudge the same path through the garden, to the hole dug in the ground. She's not the only one; Petruța says she can count on one hand the number of people in this 3,500-strong village who have an indoor toilet.

Romania is the undisputed European champion of poor plumbing. According to Eurostat, nearly a third of all households use an outhouse, but the proportion is much larger in the countryside. Last year, the National Statistics Institute found that about 6 percent of city-dwellers don't have an indoor toilet, compared to 58 percent of those living in Romania's rural areas.

Of the 41 counties in Romania, Giurgiu – where Hulubești is located – has the worst public plumbing infrastructure; only two of its 51 towns and villages have public sewage systems. In Petruta's village, the infrastructure does exist, but the local council is still looking for a private company to manage the sewage system.

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Inside Paula's outhouse.

It's not just homes that are lacking proper toilets. A year ago, the Romanian education minister promised to do something about the 2,418 schools around the country that use outhouses. Apart from the appointment of two different education ministers in that time, nothing has changed. Until the issue is fixed, school kids will continue to slip and fall into the shit pits outside their classrooms.

Though most Romanians find it shameful that the government is unable to deal with a public health crisis, there are those who simply prefer using outhouses, even in places with adequate plumbing. Some can't afford to buy a septic tank and have it regularly emptied, others like the idea of keeping their home a human-waste-free space, while a few are just used to it. My grandfather, for example, would always head to the outhouse even though he had a functioning toilet inside. He withdrew into his old world, the one he grew up in.

Since it's easy to whine about all this from the comfort of an office, I decided to bunk with my friend's parents in Hulubești for four days to see what the daily reality of no indoor plumbing is like.

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Keeping a freezing house warm with just firewood is harder than I thought.

No time for social media

"Everything clams up in this cold," Paula warns me as we walk into the yard she grew up in. It's a simple house, with a white porch, small pantry, a woodshed and a latrine concealed in the corner of the garden.

The outhouse contains a hole in the ground, bordered by wooden slats, pieces of prefabricated wood and a fairly dodgy door. On my first day I make it through five hours of mulled brandy and stories before I feel the call of nature. Evening has already descended on the village as I drag my feet through the snow. The door to the toilet is blocked shut with a piece of wood so the wind doesn't get in and uproot the rickety old structure.

My steps are guided by the flashlight on my phone, and as I approach I'm thinking I could put in some decent social media time here, since this spot has the best 4G reception. This fantasy doesn't last long. Compared to using a modern toilet, this situation requires a fair amount of balance. There's no time to scroll through stories while you're focusing on hovering over a hole.

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Making my way to the outhouse for the first time.

I do my thing quickly, pull up my pants and return to the warm kitchen, but not before throwing some freezing cold water from the fountain over my hands.

Earlier, Paula's neighbour Petruța had warned me that I should do everything I could to avoid going out in the middle of night. "Climbing out from under your duvet and going outside?" she said. "It's no laughing matter, girl."

I sleep through the night and think I've gotten away with it – but soon after waking up, I realise that there's also nothing fun about your first act of the day being a trip out into the freezing snow. As much as I try to fix my mind on the task at hand, my body doesn't seem to be on the same wavelength. Before I left Bucharest, my mum – who once spent a winter of her childhood using an outhouse – reminded me over and over again that the first effect the cold will have on my organs is constipation. She wasn't wrong.

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A bricked outhouse.

Over the time I'm here, things do start to gradually get easier, but that probably has to do with the fact I've taken to putting on an extra layer every time I step outside.

There are, of course, better ways to making the experience somewhat bearable. A few of Paula's neighbours have managed to modernise their outdoor setup. Strolling through Hulubești, I've seen everything from bricked outhouses to ones fitted with double-glazed windows and walls decorated with posters and banners.

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My host, Paula (middle) and her neighbour Petruta (right).

After a couple of days, I've resigned myself to the idea of using a latrine, but no one had prepared me for the other trappings of Romanian country life. Most of my days are spent carrying and breaking firewood to keep the house warm. You have no idea how much wood it actually takes to keep you from freezing to death until you're almost freezing to death.

Then there are the trips to source water from the well, which takes me back to my childhood and the time I drank water that tasted like petrol at my grandparents' place – for good reason: the well had been contaminated by the local petrol station. Thankfully, the water in Hulubești doesn't have that problem.

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To be honest, there isn't too much going on in the village streets during the winter, so it's nice to have some housework to keep me busy. As hard as I think I'm working, Petruța tells me that in the summer, when there are animals to look after, they barely have time to breathe. She assures me that she would be up milking her buffalo before my first outhouse excursion of the day.

After four days in the countryside, besides getting constipated, I gained an immense amount of respect for the millions of Romanians forced to poo outside simply because local authorities don't care enough about their welfare. And I learned that if there is ever a sewage crisis in Bucharest, as long as I can make my way to an outhouse, I'll be just fine.

This article originally appeared on VICE RO.