Travel Horrors: The World : Going Places : Recalling bathrooms from Paris to Tegucigalpa, and why dealing with foreign plumbing is sometimes not a pretty picture

I have been traveling internationally for more than 30 years now, and have endured just about everything, from 11-hour Icelandic flights with my knees jammed into my chest, to a chronic back ailment I like to call Duffel-bag Shoulder, to the bite of a scorpion in Central America (a neat substitute for major surgery, in case you ever get nostalgic for why they give you morphine). None of that has done me in.

What will, I fear, is something more subtly fiendish: foreign plumbing. I have known this, deep in my heart, since age 19, when I encountered my first so-called "Turkish toilet" in a cheap restaurant in Paris. When it was all over and I was reassembling my clothing, I was left with one nagging question:

"How do little old ladies do this?" (After 30 years on the road, I have an uneasy suspicion that I may get to find out that answer firsthand.)

But Europe is plumbing heaven in comparison to the Third World, where bathroom horrors reach their creative zenith. After long contemplation, I think it's because a few steps in technological evolution got skipped.

You kind of had to be there as the toilet and shower evolved from buckets of water to shiny chrome and tile miracles. At least, your culture had to be there. When the future springs fully clad in porcelain from the mind of Zeus, you've missed out on the process.

Which means you think plumbing is magic. Or, as a desperate friend once whined to his hotel staff in Mexico, having exhausted all the other explanations his meager Spanish could supply, "There are devils in my toilet!" Everybody nodded: They agreed.

My plumbing experiences have taught me a few things--chiefly, how to fix toilets. If I am ever marooned on the proverbial desert island, as long as it has something marked W.C., I'll have a career. I stop short of carrying my own tool kit, but I know how to bend the float arm in a toilet tank so that it stops running, to jury-rig chains and pins from paper clips, to stop water spraying out of the fill pipe. (Plunk a beer can over it. Drink the beer first.)

To be fair, you can also underestimate foreign plumbing, but it's rare. I remember doing that only once, when I was trying to be cross-culturally tolerant. (You know: "Differences aren't bad, just different.")

I carefully but mistakenly peed in the floor drain of a washroom of a train crossing northern France.

It was a simple enough mistake. When I entered the "bathroom" at the end of my car and saw a cubicle bare but for a sink and a small grill in the floor, I didn't think "This can't be the toilet." I just thought, "Ah, those French!" and got to work.

I rolled up the hems of my jeans, unzipped, braced against the walls of the rollicking train and aimed. Not well, I might add. As I opened the "bathroom" door, I could see across the coupling and into the next car. There was a door that matched mine, labeled W.C.

Startled, I looked at the letters on my door: LAVABO. Until then, I had not known they were different.

Worse than toilets, for me, are showers. It's a matter of expectations, really: I don't expect foreign toilets to work right, so when they don't I'm not disappointed. But when a foreign shower looks normal, I start to hope pathetically.

For example, I had no expectations for the temperature of a tuna-fish-can shower in a ratty shed of a hotel in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (How ratty? You could see through the cracks in the walls.) Somebody had taken a nail and punched the tuna-fish can full of holes, then wired it to the end of a single pipe. It could only have carried cold water, so when it did, I wasn't shocked. I have been shocked by three main categories of Third-World showers. Consider yourselves warned:

1) The "Lights Dim in the Big House" shower: This clever little disaster is ubiquitous in Latin America. It's called a knife switch, and you can see close-ups of it in old Jimmy Cagney prison movies--right before the governor's pardon comes through.

In real life, it's on the shower wall and wires run from it to the shower head. I first saw one of these in La Paz and elected not to bathe for a week. I didn't risk using one until a much longer stay in Costa Rica, where I couldn't avoid a shower, and somebody finally explained the rationale: It's a simple way of saving energy. Way too simple. You enter the shower (naked). You turn on the water (cold). You forget everything your parents ever told you about the hazards of electricity and wet feet (instant death). Then you take a deep breath, close your eyes and throw the switch.

When it works properly, you'll hear the shower head sizzle, and the water will get warm. The (presumably grounded) wires get hot in there, and the water is heated by running over them. Ergo, there's no need for an expensive hot-water tank.

When it doesn't work, there's no need for anything. Ever again. (And, no, wearing Keds or rubber flip-flops won't make the shower safer because they get wet inside too, and--as your parents told you--water conducts.)

2) The "Bait-and-Switch" shower: The original bait-and-switch--there have been many since--was in a modest but well-run hotel in a middle-class neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The place was alleged to have hot water, a major reason for choosing it. But by then I'd learned to be suspicious.

*

The bathroom was clean and shiny, with soft green tile walls and color-coordinated fixtures. Good sign. The sink had two pipes running to it. Better sign.

Both sink and shower had a normal-looking pair of faucets. Terrific sign. I let down my guard.

Even allowing for the confusion between C and H in Spanish-speaking countries--where plumbers apparently translate the letters on imported faucets as caliente and "hmmm"--the water in this one had to be hot.

Nope. I nearly wept. Why would there be two pipes if both were going to be cold?

The management kept insisting that there really was hot water, but morning after cringing morning, I would try it, and it was always cold.

I assumed other travelers were exhausting the hot water before I got there, so morning after morning, I got up earlier and earlier, trying to beat them to it. Finally, one dawn, I traced the hot water pipe down to the still-dark kitchen and found a handsome Honduran woman in braids, building a meticulous fire under a cook stove. "When will there be hot water?" I asked, in my best cross-culturally-aware tone.

"First, I have to build the fire in the cook stove," she said. "Then I build the fire for the hot water."

"But water takes a long time to warm up. Couldn't you build the fire under the hot water first, then build the fire in the cook stove?"

"No. First, I build the fire in the cook stove. Then I build the fire under the hot water." If she had stopped there, I'd have retreated, cowed. But she added this little health reflection: "Americans take too many hot showers, anyway. Hot water isn't good for you. That's why Americans get so many colds."

My cocoon of cross-cultural wisdom shattered.

"Don't tell me about hot water!" I shrieked. "We invented hot water!"

I was instantly mortified. Had I really said that? Yes. It could mean only one thing: Time to towel off, Yankee, and go home.

3) The Burning Ring of Fire: This one is unique, the result of an inspired mind. In another era, the inventor might have been Edison. Or at least Johnny Cash. Instead, he's the innkeeper at a bare-bones hotel in Copacabana, Bolivia.

I stayed there after a complicated argument with my brother and some of our backpacking fellow travelers. We'd been on the road for a couple of months, usually staying in 50-cent-a-night dives. In Copacabana, with its fabulous Mediterranean light, we fanned out to look for lodgings, and I found a spotless gem: scrubbed wood floors, big rooms, French doors onto tiny balconies and--guaranteed--hot water. True, you had to pay for it: Rooms were a dollar, the shower 25 cents more.

My brother and companion locked in on yet another 50-center that looked like a concrete bunker--one light bulb, rows of dingy beds and what I remember as dripping walls. Cold showers, of course.

I couldn't face it, so I stalked off to splurge alone. I signed the lengthy register--name, address, nationality, coming from, going to, passport number, philosophy of life--and asked hopefully whether I could have a shower right now. Sure, the innkeeper said, pointing to the shower room, a kind of free-standing closet in the middle of the courtyard. "You get undressed," he said. "I'll get the kerosene."

My Spanish is pretty good, but I have trouble with surprises. I went into the cubicle, stripped, wrapped a small thread-bare towel around me and kept trying to translate his last word: Kerosene? Had I heard right? The man came back carrying a ladder and a red can with a spout. For a moment, I felt uneasy about being nearly naked in a windowless shower with this stranger. Then he climbed on the ladder, poured the kerosene into a kind of upside-down circular lawn sprinkler suspended near the ceiling, and I switched to feeling uneasy about burning to death.

He turned on the water, tossed a match at the ceiling thing, and watched the kerosene erupt on the top of the shower head. "You can get in now," he said, and left. But I couldn't move. The shower was raining fire. I just kept standing there, flattened against the farthest wall, watching as blue flames turned the sprinkler into an unearthly chandelier. Fist-sized gobbets of fiery sapphire kept detaching themselves and riding the water down to the floor, where they kept on burning like napalm. It may be memory that has added the sound effects: a kind of zoom-plop-hiss as they fell.

Aghast in my towel, I waited until the flames finally burned out on the ceiling and around my toes. Then I dashed under the stream of water. It was cold.

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