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

October 29, 1995|CATHERINE WATSON | Watson is travel editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. and

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.)

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