The day after Joey’s first night in Bogota, we were at my house hanging out with my Irish roommate. Joey wanted to shower. I gave him a towel and showed him to the bathroom. After five or ten minutes, he came back to the room in just a towel to ask: “Hey dude, I can’t figure it out. How do you get the water hot?”
My Irish buddy and I looked at each other and broke out laughing. In showing him the bathroom, I completely forgot the Latin American Bathroom Orientation.
1) Don’t flush the shit paper.
This is the main thing gringos complain about, or just find weird, but it’s standard across the developing world. The plumbing isn’t strong enough to flush all the toilet paper you wipe poop with. That dirty paper goes in the small trash can next to the toilet.
I’ve met Latinos who throw all the shit paper in the trash. I, however, follow the advice I got from an upper-class Brazilian the first time I visited South America. I drop the first piece of paper – usually the shittiest – in the toilet. So one piece of paper gets flushed with the shit. MAX two, but that’s only on a really shitty day. The rest goes in the trash. For what goes in the trash, I fold the paper so that no shit is visible to someone looking in or emptying the trash. A tell-tale sign of lower estrato is immediately throwing the shit paper in the trash without folding it, leaving a streak of poop for all to see.
Putting shit paper in the trash has never bothered me, but it never ceases to amaze me how many gringos are repulsed by it. I know a couple gringos in Medellin – they live there – who refuse to adopt this practice. They throw all the shit paper in the toilet and flush it three or four times until it all goes down.
2) The box above the shower head.
In Gringolandia there are two water knobs: hot and cold. Upper class homes in Latin America have this luxury, but the vast majority don’t. Most have the box above the shower head. Most houses still have two knobs, but both spit cold water through the box. Inside this box, the water is heated. The more time the water spends in the box, the hotter it gets. Hence you have your trade off: heat vs. pressure. The more you open the water knob for more water pressure, the faster the water enters and leaves the box, the colder the water. The less you open the knob, the lower the pressure, the more time the water spends in the box, the hotter the water.
The least enjoyable showers are those where the water pressure is barely a trickle for the water temperature to be warm enough. But because it’s so little water, you body’s still cold while showering. This kind of shower was Joey’s first experience.
If there is any metal in your shower fixtures, don’t touch it while showering. You may get a shock. See Ward’s piece on his shower head for more on the shock, voltage, etc.
The box above the shower head is by far the most common, but I’ve seen other variants. I’ve stayed at a hostel that had a solar water heater. So you could only take hot showers when the sun was up. And in one of my apartments we had a proper water heater, but it had to be turned on at least an hour before showering. I had two roommates, so occasionally the hot water would run out. But the last guy to shower would just wait 10-15 minutes.
Never expect public bathrooms to have shit paper. They usually don’t. Expats-on-the-go bring shit paper everywhere.
In Colombia (Bogota and Medellin anyway), contrary to what most believe about Latin America, tap water is safe to drink.
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