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Culture Shock in Public Restrooms – Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca is a paradise in many ways…beautiful valleys, delicious cuisine, exciting tours, ancient Zapotec ruins, colorful traditions, and warm, friendly people…but ultimately you’ll have to go to the bathroom!
Now, if you’re in places that cater to international tourism, there’s no culture shock involved when you 1 and 2. You go to the bathroom like you would in any other place in the United States. United, the only difference being the small figures usually used to distinguish between the men’s room and the ladies’ room are a sombrero and traditional dress, (not always in that order). Still, if you’re in Oaxaca, you’re probably looking to experience the real Mexico. If it wasn’t, you’d go somewhere like Cancun or Acapulco where everyone speaks English and you can pay in dollars. But if you’re going to be here in Oaxaca, you have to accept the “trabas“, (the obstacles), here. Let me tell you a little story:
A few years ago, I was sitting at the ADO bus station in Oaxaca en route to the airport in Mexico City where I was to catch a flight to Miami to visit my father. (Flying from Mexico City instead of Oaxaca is a good idea if you’re on a budget and want to save some money.) Anyway… I was sitting in the terminal on the train snacking on a Twix bar, when I saw a tall, thin, blonde-haired woman rushing beside me to the bathroom – obviously in a hurry to get there. Blowing completely on the woman who was sitting behind a desk in front of the bathrooms, she rushed into the women’s room. Caught off guard, the short, chubby, dark-skinned woman behind the desk stood up and shouted to the stranger, “Señorita! Señorita! SEÑOOORRRIIITTTAAA!!!!
Half-frightened, the blonde-haired woman peeked through the bathroom door, but before she could say anything, the attendant said firmly, “5 pesos por favor! “. Coming completely out of the bathroom now, the foreign woman approached the desk where the attendant then sat down and pointed to a sign over her right shoulder that read, in English, “YOU MUST PAY 5 PESOS TO USE THESE FACILITIES”. Reading this sign, obviously unseen due to the urgency of the situation, the foreign woman got angry, said something uncomplimentary to the lavatory attendant, and returned to her place in the terminal. I watched as she threw herself in her chair and started mumbling, her lips tight, to a gentleman next to her who could have been her brother because he looked like her male version.
I just sat watching the show because I forgot to bring a book or buy a magazine and was horribly bored. After about 20 grueling minutes of watching the stranger lady’s face gradually turn redder and redder, she got up, reluctantly, and stomped towards the bathroom. Arriving at the attendant’s desk where the attendant, obviously aware of the situation the foreign woman was in, gave a triumphant half-smile as she slammed the 5 pesos on the desk and stormed into the bathroom without even receiving the toilet paper that the attendant hands at the door.
I just shook my head and recognized the difficulties many foreigners face when they come to partake in Mexican culture for a period of time. I know it’s not always easy, but you CANNOT come here and be inflexible in situations like this. It takes patience, understanding and even more patience if you want to enjoy Oaxaca or Mexico in general. You have to accept these cultural differences if you want to enjoy the culture and trust me the pros outweigh the cons 100 to 1. Now let me let you in on some other “inconsistencies” when going to the bathroom at Oaxaca just to save you the trauma:
Besides the fact that you may have to pay between 2 and 5 pesos to enter a “public” bathroom, you may also receive a moderate amount of toilet paper at the entrance as there are no toilet rolls. toilet paper in the cabins themselves, in most cases. Now let me tell you they do this to save money, so sometimes they give you a very, very small amount of toilet paper which is of no real help if Montezuma visits you. So please learn from my not so pleasant experiences… Always carry extra toilet paper with you wherever you go. You may notice that many bus and taxi drivers in Oaxaca have toilet paper stuck between the dashboard and the windshield. Well…that’s why!
Now, upon entering a bathroom and closing the door behind you (which may or may not have a lock), you may notice that there is no bathroom seat. That’s right! You will have to sit directly on the china if you want to sit down. If you do, you need to hurry because the edge of the toilet is going to cut off circulation to you pretty quickly, making it difficult to walk when you’re done, believe me. Ohhhh…and when you’re done and try to rinse out the bowl, there might be no water left. In these cases, the toilet attendants leave buckets outside the stalls and provide you with a place to dip your bucket and flush water down the toilet.
When you’re done using the necessities and you go to wash your hands and…oooopppssss….forgot…no water! That’s when you get the “jicara“, (plastic bowl), and return to where you collected the water to empty into the toilet. Fill your jicara and go back to the sink and wash your hands the old fashioned way.
Now I don’t want to scare you. If you’re just coming to Oaxaca to sightsee for a week or two, you won’t encounter too many. But if you’re going down for more than a month or to live, like me, you’ll definitely have to deal with this at some point. After a while, believe it or not, everything becomes quite natural. So natural in fact that when I return to the States I’m sure I’ll be sitting on the china, leaving 5 pesos outside the bathroom door, washing my hands with a bowl of water and filling my bucket in the shower 🙂
Hope you enjoyed this article. Keep an eye out for more who are sure to come.
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