Monday, July 21, 2008

Life in Mexico - Where's the Toilet Paper?

I received a very kind email from a reader in Canada who "accidentally" happened upon my column. She's married to a Mexican and has lived in Mexico for a while. She immediately identified with my writing since most of what I write is about living in Mexico.

She thought I was funny-imagine that.

She asked that I write a column on the issue of public restrooms (or the lack thereof) in Mexico. So, it is to the lady in Canada, married to a Mexican, I dedicate this column.

Do you recall public rest stop bathrooms on the highways of America? Since flying has become so common in the U.S. I am not sure anyone drives on vacation anymore. But you know what I mean. The kids bug the "you know what" out of you to stop for a potty break along the highway. There are those roadside "rest stops" conveniently located in the middle of nowhere where every serial killer in America visits at least once.

I honestly cannot recall one decent roadside rest stop bathroom potty that didn't cause me insufferable and unremitting nightmares. Maybe they've cleaned these places up since I've been out of the country but I sincerely doubt it. I mean, you would walk into these "facilities" and never know exactly what had died and was left there to rot. That, of course, explains the smell.

(I've often speculated the smell had to be attributed to the countless janitors the state would hire to clean the dumps, and then forget about them, leaving them to die in the line of duty.)

Another feature of these horror houses trying to pass as bathrooms was that there was never one trace of toilet paper. There were never any toilet seats. The sinks were always a nice shade of inky black, indicating they had never once been cleaned since they were installed (that's because all attempts to do so were met with instant but very agonizing death).

Public restrooms in Mexico are actually marginally (marginally being the operative word) better. You can find ones in which you can relieve yourself without having to hold your breath the entire time or having medical respiratory equipment to survive the event. Sometimes there are real toilet seats, and some sinks look like you can use them without contracting flesh-eating bacteria.

However, there is a ritual one must follow when going potty in Mexico. In most public restrooms, you have to pay three pesos to get in the door. You are then given three, if you are lucky, squares of toilet paper and they send off you to do your business.

It is not wise to argue the point that three squares of tissue is adequate for a Barbie doll and not a human being. They may summarily rescind what they deem a generous offer of tissue and confiscate what they gave you. Bring your own tissue!

I've seen Mexican women whip out an entire roll of toilet paper (maybe two) from shopping bags when the family is in tow. Men, of course, cannot be seen carrying a roll of toilet paper, so they have huge wads in their pockets or in their mochilas (backpacks).

Here's another bathroom treat that you men will no doubt find very special. You will never find a man cleaning public restrooms-at least I haven't. Maybe because cleaning in Mexico is still suppose to be "women's work." I don't know. I've only seen women bathroom janitors.

More than once, when I've had a bladder disaster on the verge of exploding, I've walked into the men's room to find women swabbing the deck or cleaning sinks and mirrors. And, here's the thing. Though they turn and notice your presence, THEY WILL NOT LEAVE.

The woman janitor will stay at her cleaning post (God bless her) no matter what. If you want to go potty, you'd better hope you can do it with someone your Grandmother's age watching. I mean, really!

In a local department store here in Guanajuato, the janitor's closet is in the men's room. That's where they store all their cleaning stuff. Each time I go in there, there is a covey of women janitors having a girl's chat session that is always about the drinking habits of their husbands and boyfriends. You have to tap a bladder while they are having a hen session.

They don't even bat an eye when you walk in. To make it worse, they always are so polite and greet you. They even point to the urinal and say something like, "Adelante." This means, "Go right ahead." Can you believe this?

Once, in Leon, Guanajuato (this is where we all go when we want to risk our lives in a traffic accident), I had to use the men's room in a restaurant in which we were eating. There were two ladies cleaning the place while all 10 urinals were occupied. There the men were, doing their duty, with one of the Grannies mopping the floor directly behind them.

Everyone acted as though this was as normal as life itself while I stood there mouth agape, legs crossed, and dying.

I ditched it into a stall because I felt bladder-lock coming on me and felt sure I would have to be taken away in an ambulance or something.

So, after securing a stall, and making sure it was locked, what did I hear but a woman talking in the stall next to me on her cell phone. Apparently, the ladies powder room was too full so she availed herself to the men's room. After she finished her duty, she saw some guy at a urinal whom she knew. They stood there chatting (I could see this through the cracks in the stall's door where the hinges are) until he finished and they left the men's room together.

Now, how's that, my Canadian reader friend?


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