04 Apr An Ode to Mexican Bathrooms
The sun is bright and delicate. The early morning shades of gold and yellow flow through the window and flood our entire room. The breeze is crisp and lingering, the kind that tickles your arms and tightens the skin on your face. The sound of birds chirping, the smell of bloomed flowers, and a tinge of salt water float into the room reminding me that I am near the beach. The air is warm. The constant breeze is a welcome break from yesterday’s stagnant heat. I am lying on top of the faded blue and gold sheets of our queen size bed. It’s 6:45 in the morning. I am waking up in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
The pages of my journal lift slightly in the breeze and make a faint fluttering sound. This is enough to lure me out of bed. I will attempt to chronicle last night’s adventures before we begin our day. I grab my toiletries bag, a change of clothes, and open our door which lands me directly in the communal area of the hostel. There is only one small bathroom on our floor. It doesn’t have a shower. I start my newly adopted daily routine. I brush my teeth with the remnants of last night’s bottled water, wash my hands with cold cistern water that starts and stops sporadically, I splash the cool water on my face and leave quickly, knowing there will soon be a line outside the door. I fill a white mug with instant coffee and walk outside to the long picnic tables along the pool. A laptop plays Alexi Murdoch’s All My Days from the speakers behind the bar. The temperature is rising quickly. The morning breeze is beginning to settle and the piercing sun is already too intense for direct exposure.
A few minutes later the rest of the hostel begins to wake and tanned bodies fill the yard holding plates of this morning’s breakfast; refried beans and scrambled eggs. After the rest of our group has a chance to stumble outside and take a few swigs of lukewarm coffee, we gather our belongings and pile into our silver Chevy Aveo. It is day seven on the road. We have a six hour drive back to Oaxaca City. We have settled in to our assigned seats. Driver and navigator in the front, tasked with avoiding the occasional cow, maneuvering around hairpin turns, and swerving around massive sections of missing road. The two anxious riders are tucked safely in the back.
This morning’s caffeine and last night’s mezcal demand that we pitstop for a bathroom break. An hour or so into our drive we pull off at a roadside comedor. The front of a small home opens up to a wooden patio filled with plastic lawn tables. There is a large white sign hung from the edge of a dilapidated wooden shed. It reads BAÑOS in faded red paint. We make our way over to the barely standing contraption. A piece of corrugated tin functions as a roof and a thin piece of wood stands in the middle creating two small stalls. Each room has a lopsided light blue door that is hinged to one side. It costs five pesos to enter.
A young boy collects our coins as we take turns in the rotted outhouses. The door doesn’t latch, so it must be held shut by the bottom of the decayed and rotted wood planks. There is no toilet seat and the porcelain is stained black and brown. A light coat of red dirt covers everything. It’s a balancing act trying to hold yourself and the door. There is no light except for the streams of sun that make their way through the cracks and holes in the wood. The corrugated roof creates small holes for the heat to escape; a strategy that sounds better than it works. The air in the stall is thick, hot, and muggy. The toilet is not attached to the ground. It leans a little to the left, there is no water in the tank, and it rocks slightly. The floor is dirt, gravel, and small bits of garbage. Mosquitos and gnats buzz in the shadows.
Once finished, the protocol is to walk over to a large drum perched directly on the edge of the grassy mountain. A small plastic bucket floats on the surface. We use it to scoop the collected rain water, walk back to the outhouse, then pour it into the toilet bowl. Manual flushing. There is no way to wash your hands, no sink and no soap. An elderly woman in a floral print dress and a ruffled pink apron scoops and flattens fresh tortillas on a wood burning stove just to our left. We order quesadillas.
We are four curious and intrepid individuals traveling the beautiful back roads of Mexico. Four people repeatedly eating questionable roadside food from front porches and rolling carts. Four people drinking coffee, beer, and tequila. Bathroom breaks have become a frequent ritual during our days on the road. We learned very quickly that bathroom in the back country of the Mexican desert really only equates to a semi-upright and stained toilet. What it does not mean is convenience, comfort, or relief. It’s a humbling experience when you are forced to walk into the toilet sauna, paperless, and regretting last night’s street tacos and Negra Modelo. I can say with certainty, it only takes one round of restroom roulette before you buy your own roll of toilet paper.
We quickly fell into a routine each time we stopped. Stretch, remind each other to lock our doors and roll up our windows, take a minute to admire the landscape, exchange the obligatory remarks on the size and beauty of the mountains. Then I pull a roll of convince store toilet paper out of my backpack and tear off a handful for each person. I’m forced to ration in these situations, an awkward but necessary duty. Then, almost on queue, someone else from our group would hand each of us five pesos. We would walk to the outhouses with our wad of paper and necessary sense of adventure. Sometimes, the facilities would be comically dangling off the edge of a cliff and other times they would be down a dirt path behind a small home. Stray dogs, small children, and fresh tortillas are always nearby. The bathrooms themselves became a novel attraction along our route. Each one with a personality. Each one teaching us a new lesson in survival and tightening the bond of road side baño survivors.
A few days later, as I sat down in the Houston Hobby airport bathroom preparing for the second leg of our flight home, I realized that I had developed toilet anxiety. Instinctually, I reached in my pocket for toilet paper. For a split second, I was transported back to the dark stalls from the week prior. Then I looked around and appreciated where I was. The bathroom was bright, the door shut and locked, there was a seat, extra rolls of toilet paper were stuffed into the dispenser, there was a shiny silver handle for flushing, soap dispensers at every sink, and running water––hot water––that gushed out automatically. I didn’t have to swat at insects or avoid rusty nails sticking out of the walls. There was no inherent fear that a strong gust of wind might send me soaring over the Sierra Sur mountains with my pants down. The bathroom had regressed to a quiet and predictable place.
It’s easy to forget that the most basic amenities are actually luxuries. My emotional scars from roadside outhouses will soon disappear and I will once again expect bathrooms to provide a certain level of convenience. In the meantime, I check my pockets for pesos and paper.