* I am only speaking from experience regarding the country of Colombia, but from what I understand, these things apply to much of Central and South America, if not a much wider swath of the world.
This isn’t the sexiest topic I could blog about, but I’m doing it anyway: bathrooms. As someone who consumes a lot of liquids and also has a notoriously small bladder, I’ve been known to have major bathroom anxiety. That has only grown exponentially during my time in Colombia. In the United States, if you are away from your home and suddenly need to use the restroom, it’s easy to find a public one to use. They are easily accessible in every gas station, restaurant, coffee shop, store, etc.
That is not at all the case here. Gas stations are few and far between, for starters. Plus, a large number of restaurants and “coffee shops” are actually just set up outside of people’s homes. Many of the schools that my colleagues work in don’t have working teacher restrooms. Even at the new stadium in town, a place equipped for hundreds (if not thousands) of people to gather, there is no public restroom. So. Yes, I have major bathroom anxiety here.
First thing’s first. If you are planning to visit, it’s very important to know that toilet paper is discarded in the waste basket by the toilet, not flushed down. The septic system simply isn’t designed to deal with waste of that makeup. Fortunately, it’s a pretty easy habit to get into (actually, it was harder for me to remember when I was back home that toilet paper doesn’t go in the garbage). And at least in the touristy areas, most restrooms have reminders on the walls.
It’s also very important to carry toilet paper/wipes/Kleenex and hand sanitizer. Most public restrooms are not equipped with either toilet paper or soap. I think for at least toilet paper, it is a cost thing. For soap, I assume it has to do with a historic lack of consistent running water – what good is soap if you can’t rinse it off?
Side note: if you’re in a larger public restroom and there is no TP in the stall, check out in the common area. Sometimes bathrooms like that have dispensers hanging on the wall where paper towel might otherwise be.
Often bathroom access will cost you. I’ve paid to use the toilet at a bar in my town, at a shopping center in the main commerce area of Barranquilla, at festivals (and then you’re paying to use a porta-potty on top of your ticket fee), and at bus terminals. Yes, even at bus stations, where you obviously should use the restroom because you’re about to be trapped on a bus for hours. The fee is usually 700-1,000 pesos, and at least comes with a bundle of toilet paper to use.
I’ve asked my friends before why there aren’t public restrooms by the parks/stadiums in town, which are spaces frequently used by masses of people. They said the bathrooms would just get destroyed. (When I asked why, they didn’t know why. It’s just what happens to stuff here.) That is why so many restrooms are pay-to-use. That fee a) restricts who enters and b) covers the salary of the person who takes your money and takes care of the restroom. It’s also why in every public school that I know of, the water in the students’ bathrooms is turned off.
Toilet seats are a bonus, not a standard. According to Toilet Guru (yep, that’s real), toilet seats can be very porous therefore “nearly impossible to get…completely clean.” While that could be, I actually have a couple of other theories as to why they aren’t used here:
1. Lack of public health awareness leads people to think seats could pass diseases that they statistically just don’t.
2. Fear of it being stolen or damaged, and therefore being a waste of money.
If the water’s out or the toilet is clogged, you just dump a bucket of water in the toilet really fast. Every home has a big tank of water ready for these occasions (except apparently my friend’s; last weekend I had to run home from her birthday party to use my own bathroom because of this).
If you’re a man here, though, feel free to pee anywhere. At least, it is culturally acceptable. I couldn’t begin to guess how many times I’ve either seen men up against a wall or walking away from their pee stain zipping up their pants. Just last week, I saw it three days in a row. Each time was on the busiest road in town; once across the street from the new stadium, once on the wall of the older sand stadium, and once on a school wall. I also once saw a small girl, probably 3 years old, drop trou on the sidewalk and pee right next to someone’s house and just a block away from a grocery store. No matter the situation, public urination is huge day-ruiner for me.
Maybe it’s just jealousy because I don’t have that same ease of access. I’m just stuck here with my anxiety, and – more frequently than I want to admit – running home from certain places to pee in the comfort of my own clean bathroom.
I just purchased watercolors! I am definitely no artist, but they allow me to post on certain topics I otherwise wouldn’t for a lack of imagery. Sorry in advance for all the crappy graphics.