Toilets Of South America

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If there’s one unavoidable fact that unites all of humankind regardless of colour, creed, class affiliation, gender, sexual preference, political perspective or socio-economic status, it’s this…

Everybody craps.

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But consider for a moment the variety of receptacles that people the world over crap in to…

Argentina ToiletsNot everybody has fruits of the forest pot pourri sitting on top of the cistern. Quadruple ply paper is not considered a basic human right in some countries. Matching shag pile rugs and lid covers are not the norm in many far flung corners of the globe.

Paradigm shattering epiphanies like these were forced upon me and my girlfriend every single time we sampled the local latrines during our six month trek across South America.

Here is a selection of the toilets found along our route…

Brazil

If you ever set foot in a Brazilian restroom, the first thing you will likely notice is an overflowing bin brimming with used toilet paper.

Toilet paper binSimply put, most Brazilian plumbing is ill equipped to deal with heavy loads and toilet blockages are common.

On the basis that an odour of faeces wafting through the air is better than overflowed effluent seeping between the toes, Brazilians have taken to binning their bogroll rather than flushing it.

Common practise seems to be to wrap each used sheet of bogroll in yet more bogroll before placing it in the bin, thus shielding the next user from the offending smear (visually, not olfactically).

For tourists unfamiliar with Brazilian restroom etiquette, most Brazilian restrooms also come furnished with many signs in many languages informing patrons of the dire consequences of improper paper disposal…

When the bin gets too full, Brazilians don’t stop stacking. The resulting bogroll mountain is easily toppled, often by draught winds in the toilet cubicle or perhaps the overly enthusiastic toss of a used sheet by a patron…

Overflowing bin

Padded toilet seats are also a popular fixture in Brazilian bathrooms. Whilst the buttock cushioning properties of a padded toilet seat may at first seem like a futuristic development in latrine technology, any advantages are largely negated at the conclusion of each usage. Human skin has a tendency to stick to faux leather – prizing oneself off a padded toilet seat in the heat and humidity of a Brazilian summer is a sensation akin to ripping off a soggy plaster…

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It’s hard to imagine what benefits to the user could possibly have been intended with the below ‘Scoop’ toilet design. The low front edge of the bowl means anyone with a tendency to pee forward whilst sitting down may end up spraying the backs of their knees…

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Also note the thin rimmed seat – it makes for an extra wide target for men who like to pee whilst standing but a tricky balancing act for sitters with a normal sized derrière.

Brazilians are well known for their love of large arses – this unique take on toilet seat design is perhaps pitched at the country’s porkiest posteriors. Anyone with less than colossal hindquarters is unlikely to be able to straddle the chasm between the seat’s two sides.

Argentina

By the time my girlfriend and I had made it past the immigration desk and on to Argentinean soil, our bladders were full to bursting. Noticing that there was no paper in the hotel room’s en suite bathroom, we politely asked the man behind the reception desk where best to put our used toilet tissue.

“Oh…” he chuckled. “You put it in the toilet bowl and flush it.”

Argentinean toilet“Right, of course, it’s just that in Brazil you have to use a trash can,” we replied with the bullishness of a now well seasoned South American toilet aficionado.

“I know, I know…” his voice became girlishly high pitched as he strained to comprehend our savagery. “We don’t do that here. It’s not nice. In Argentina we have wide sewage pipes. Everything gets flushed.”

He was right. Over the next month and a half, our travels through Argentina revealed toilet after toilet indistinguishable from a classic Western-style commode. Even in the deepest, darkest wastes of Patagonia you can count on robust drainage.

It fits with Argentina’s self-perception as an oasis of civilisation in a continent otherwise populated by barbarians – so much so that Argentineans feel they have to furnish their restrooms with many signs in many languages politely asking patrons to NOT put their used toilet paper in the bin…

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Also of note on the Argentinean toilet scene is the below loo located in the former childhood home of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. The mind boggles when considering how much socialist dogma must have been concocted upon this throne…

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The sign on top of the seat tells visitors that the toilet is a museum exhibit and not for use by the general public. If Guevara were alive today he would no doubt be disappointed that his toilet has been not appropriated by the state for the good of ‘The People’.

Chile

As the wealthiest and most Westernised country in the whole of South America, one could be forgiven for expecting Chilean toilets to effortlessly cope with used toilet paper. The reality is quite different.

Some toilets in Chile can handle toilet paper, others can’t, but for whatever reason, Chileans do not feel they need to denote a toilet’s drainage capabilities by way of signage. Patrons are just ‘supposed to know’ whether flushing paper is an OK thing to do. There are however a few tell tale signs which may help guide users navigate this sanitary minefield…

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If there is no bin within easy reach, it’s probably safe to assume your toilet is good to flush whatever you can throw at it, but do not discount the possibility that the bin has been temporarily removed from the cubicle for cleaning…

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If a toilet has a particularly thin u-bend (say, smaller than an unskinned plantain), it’s probably safer to bin your paper than flush it. If your toilet comes armed with a plunger, you’d be wise to avoid flushing anything tougher than a finger of shortbread.

Bolivia

There are so many peculiar privies for the niche toilet enthusiast to sample in Bolivia that it’s difficult to know where to start. Take, for instance, the below dual compartment khazi found in a café in the city of Sucre…

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According to the pictogram instructions, number ones should go in the front section and number twos (plus toilet paper!) should go in the rear. As the toilet has no cistern or flush, users are then required to fill a bucket with water from the sink and then pour that water in to the toilet bowl, forcing the bowl’s contents around the u-bend…

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This dual compartment toilet works in a similar manner to the one above. Whilst at first glance it looks like the brown stains smeared all over the bowl and floor and walls are excrement, they are in fact sand. Upon completion of the dirty deed, patrons heap sand on to the bowl’s contents from the bin on the right side of the loo using a scoop made from a halved empty coke bottle…

Sandy toilet

This roofless toilet in the middle of the Uyuni salt flats offers fantastic views as far as the eye can see…

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This ‘stand up’ toilet evokes the majesty of French campsites of the 1980s…

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This toilet offers little privacy…

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This restroom has no windows, light or light switch, offering patrons the chance to experience toilets in a manner similar to blind people…

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Perhaps though the most thoroughly Bolivian toilet experience on offer to visitors is what became euphemistically known as ‘baño natural’ during our time there. Just because Bolivia lacks facilities in some areas of the country does not mean that people are expected to ignore calls of nature. In lieu of actual toilets, the landscape becomes the toilet.

Crags and crevices, boulders and bushes, trees and trenches – these are the natural nooks and crannies that Bolivians have no qualms about toiletifying…

Baño Natural

Waste disposal is fairly low down on the list of infrastructural problems challenging Bolivia, and criticising Bolivians for that is probably regarded as ignorant. The result is areas of stunning natural beauty littered with scraps of bright white bogroll to the edge of the horizon.

Peru

Toilet seats seem to be a premium feature in Peruvian restrooms. We never did find out why. Sitters are advised to hover over the toilet bowl unless they prefer the feeling of cold, clammy porcelain against their buttocks…

Ecuador Toilets-5      Seatless toilet      Seatless toilet

This seatless Peruvian toilet found in a bus station in the city of Ica is situated in a cubicle with a door that opens the wrong way. As a result, the door only opens about 45 degrees from closed before getting jammed on the toilet bowl. In order to get some privacy, users have to shimmy in to the cubicle sideways, squeeze themselves in to the corner between the bowl and the wall, then push the door shut…

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Some Peruvian toilets come furnished with odd signage. This sign above a urinal in a shopping centre in Cusco shows patrons exactly where to pee…

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This sign prevents patrons from sitting on the loo…

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Ecuador

Ecuadorian toilets are, in the main, very welcoming…

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When I was a boy I was led to believe that toilets in the southern hemisphere flushed in the opposite direction to those in the north. If this was the case then water swirling down northern hemisphere toilets should spin clockwise, and in the southern hemisphere it should spin anti-clockwise.

Seeing as Ecuador lies on the equator, I decided to put this theory to the test. The below three toilets were all photographed in north Ecuador (above the equator), in Mindo, Otavalo and Tulcan. As you can see, the water swirls anti-clockwise…

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These three toilets were all photographed in south Ecuador (below the equator), two in Quito and one in Banos.

Southern hemisphere toilets   Southern hemisphere toilets   Northern hemisphere toilets

As you can see, the water in these toilets also swirls anti-clockwise. Hmmm…

I googled this phenomenon, known as the ‘Coriolis effect’, to find out why my investigation in to toilet water swirling hadn’t panned out as expected. In short, it turns out that toilet bowl design has a far greater effect on the direction of swirl than the rotation of the Earth.

The disappointing result of my experiment was that Ecuadorian toilet manufacturers have a preference for an anti-clockwise flush. Other than that, and a strict no paper flushing policy, Ecuadorian toilets seemed to be completely unremarkable.

Colombia

Like Colombia itself, you could be forgiven for expecting Colombian restrooms to be a scary and dangerous place. The reality is that a surprising amount of thought and effort seems to have gone in to toilet design.

The tendency seems to be towards quirky rather than grand. Designers are resourceful rather than ostentatious. This cistern at a restaurant just outside Bogotá adds a colourful splash to the act of excretion…

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This sink filled with rusty bolts found in a steakhouse in Medellin gives hand washing an air of proto-industrialism…

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Whoever installed these urinal separators in this café in Cali was clearly a Rolling Stones fan…

Rolling stones urinal

As Colombia emerges from the world’s longest civil war and decades of narcoterrorism, Colombians seem ever more determined to create for themselves pleasant cities in which to work, rest, play and pee. It is only when you get off the beaten track, in those rural areas where Colombia’s pushback against barbarism has not yet reached, that danger still lurks…

This toilet in a beachside café just outside Cartagena was the scene of our most perilous toilet visit throughout our entire six month trek across South America. If you read this blog regularly you may also remember this café as the location of an attempted financial scam against my girlfriend and me, narrowly avoided after police intervention.

Colombian danger toilet

The toilet functioned in a manner similar to the Bolivian dual compartment khazis we had found some three months earlier. Without a cistern or a flush, users must force the bowl’s contents around the u-bend by pouring a bucketful of water directly on top.

As I went to pick up the bucket, I felt a tingling along my arm. Thousands, and I mean thousands, of fire ants were crawling up it. They had been hiding under the bucket.

Colombia Toilets

Utilising classic British stiff upper lip and resolve, I manfully pressed through the pain, tipping the water in to the bowl, before sprinting out of the cubicle to shake off the beasties.

The arm was covered in red blotches. It was an agonizing end to a fascinating journey in to South America’s lavatorial underbelly. The sheer diversity of toilets we had discovered had not just been an eye opening insight in to what can constitute an acceptable place to pee and poo – each toilet was an anthropological goldmine, a microcosm of native life and a window in to the soul of every host nation.

But what about the toilets of Paraguay, Uruguay, El Salvador, Suriname, French Guiana and the Falkland Islands?

We boarded a flight to the land of good plumbing – the United States of America – and realised that the secrets of the outhouse culture in those South American countries still eluded us. We resolved to one day return to this foreign land to flush them out.

 

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