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Short trip to ban'os Short trip to ban'os
by Alexander Mikhaylov
2009-05-11 10:36:43
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Sometimes I grow frustrated with my pathological laziness. Consider this: to live in a Spanish speaking country for a year and never learn to speak Spanish properly – just how lazy can you be? I have gained knowledge of a number of words though. One of them is ‘ba’nos’ (spelled differently, of course).

‘Ban’os’ means a restroom, a toilet, a bathroom and accidentally it is also the name of a small resort town high up in Andes, famous for its natural hot springs.

A trek to ‘ban’os’ (here I mean simply a convenience and not the town) is normally short but it is surely always exciting. It is something we do every day. So, why talk about? Here is why…

We love to classify everything: chemical elements, food, plants etc.  We also classify countries. We classify them by language, political and economical system, race, religion, geographical location and so on. It is just that one day an idea occurred to me: why don’t we classify counties by their attitudes towards … you know what. In fact, this thought crossed my mind after my wife and I had undertaken a round bus trip to the above mentioned resort town (but I am not going to talk about the place here). It was a memorable bus ride. I had never seen Andes before and to watch them from a bus window (while the vehicle itself was slowly climbing a rather narrow and badly paved road well above the clouds) had been a breathtaking experience. It was like watching the Earth from a window of an airplane. But once again, it is not my point. We had chosen a ‘luxury’ bus with video and a toilet. Only when I asked the attendant to unlock the toilet and let me use it, he said ‘Senor, it is only for women.’ Ouch! It is impossible to describe a dramatic next hour during which I tried to calm myself while waiting for the bus to make a short stop along the route. To be perfectly honest, I stopped paying attention to the spectacular landscape. I did not watch the movie. I kept shifting in my seat. Finally, the bus stopped. I ran. Soon I was myself again.  Once we returned home, I started thinking. I began to recall my childhood (and later years as well). This essay is the result.  

As I remember, the general attitude towards conveniences in the place of my birth – the Soviet Union was a rather peculiar one, to say at least. For instance, it was a sign of a bad taste to talk about it, meaning that if you hoped to appear a well brought up person, you had to act as if you never felt the need. My elementary school teacher, the die-hard Stalinist and a lady of ‘an old-school’ who believed that seven year olds should be treated as ‘little soldiers’, used to punish kids by loudly ridiculing them in front of their classmates every time they asked to be excused to go to the toilet during the class.

On the other hand, it was the source of endless jokes, such as a certain story of a famous stand up comedian, who had given a dramatic description of what happened to a pair of lovers: the guy was taking stroll with his girl in the park, and everything was wonderful except …he needed to piss badly but he pretended that he was not. The story went to some length in describing his suffering (in a humorous light) with a rather unclear end. Such stories made everyone laugh.

Personally, I can summon up a few train rides to the country. The train (and all the stations along the route) lacked the facilities altogether. The ride itself was five hours long. The train cars were packed with passengers so solidly that you could hardly raise a hand. Despite the summer heat, all the windows were shut. It took some guts and an enormous will power to reach your destination, since it felt as a gas chamber and a bladderless society as well. And everybody pretended it was OK. It began to look funny when the train reached its final stop - a provincial town, where the station was equipped with precious conveniences (without running water through) - and people began to run towards them, oblivious of shame and manners.

In any case, the number of public toilets in the former Leningrad was scandalously limited, hence the staircases of every old apartment building reeked of urine. It is also worth mentioning that toilet paper was a luxury item, or a so-called ‘deficit’ (which meant that you could not buy it whenever you damn please).  I recall long lines of people, standing in front of a drugstore, where the sale of toilet paper suddenly occurred – a rare moment! – and it meant that if you wished to wipe your behind with something more agreeable than a crumbled newspaper for the next month or two, you had to grab as many rolls as you were allowed to (I might add here that for the sake of fairness you were not allowed to grab no more than say, ten rolls per a pair of hands). If, at this moment you could summon all members of your household and tell them to gather close to you, while you were making purchase, you were in enormous luck. As the result, departing customers presented an almost surreal picture – imagine a family of three or four, small kids included - each wearing ten or so rolls, tied around the neck on a thin cord in a manner of oversized necklace. Oh, those were wild times! Speaking of the psychological barriers and taboos that surrounded the whole issue: my wife once admitted to me the strangest thing, namely that she did not remember her first sexual encounter with such vividness as a certain episode - when she was sitting in her fiancé home, talking to his parents for the very first time, while dying to go to the toilet, but feeling shy to ask these people the location of the house facilities.

My later, international experience regarding this issue varies greatly.  

I do not think there were (and still are) public facilities in San Francisco (public safety measure, I assume). Of course, you could pop into a restaurant but what if you weren’t planning to place any orders afterwards? Or you weren’t in the vicinity of any restaurant? (I know that in this respect McDonald enjoys enormous popularity). 

Once, I spent three months working as a delivery boy for a copy shop. The shop was situated in the heart of the business district, off Market Street .  The job was not fun, and the pay was even worse but it gave me a handy knowledge of the assessable facilities, situated in a handful of the downtown office buildings, so even after I had quit my job I knew what to do and where to go in the downtown, should an emergency arise.

I never figured out what all the homeless people did in similar situations though. At least, I was dressed appropriately and no security guard ever tried to stop me, but the homeless… San Francisco was and probably still is, the city of the deepest mysteries.

On the other hand, such city as Prague is a toilet heaven. You can pop into any pub or restaurant and no one would expect you to make orders, or give you a second glance. Every metro station is also equipped with (paying) facilities. As to the general attitude towards these things: such a crime as ‘indecent exposure’ was not punishable by law. Nowadays the law is on the book but they say police is going just fine offenders – providing of course, that they have money. ( Well, these days the Czech authorities use every pretext to persecute the homeless population of Prague – by prohibiting drinking in public, sleeping on benches and perhaps pissing in the parks). Only a few years ago, nobody seemed greatly perturbed by the sign of some drunken fellow, standing with his face averted discreetly to some shrubbery and with his back turned to the crowd. After all, Prague was and still is an unofficial capital of beer drinkers although, due to the sexism, these easy-going manners have never included women. (Speaking of gender issues - as far as I know, women in Western societies were always getting the short end of a stick, including not only double standards of morals, but even uncomfortable and anatomically incorrect toilet technology). 

In Ecuador , the availability of conveniences is clearly a class thing (the more posh the house is, the more toilets it contains – including the one on a roof patio). By contrast, dwellings of the poor people often lack running water; hence, there might be just a hole in the ground. For instance, I was greatly astonished when one of my local acquaintances (the young guy who lives in a notoriously poor part of the city) invited me to his house: after sitting in their tiny and unbelievably cramped living room, I asked his permission to use the facility and he suddenly grew embarrassed. It turned out that they had toilet in the house, and I mean it had everything the regular toilet contains – everything except running water.

As I have mention before, expensive long distant busses are equipped with facilities (and oh yeah, on some routes men can also use them!). Poorer folks who travel a long distance in ramshackle busses, have their own way – the bus stops on highway shoulder and all male passengers line up with they back to the highway. I do not know, if this includes women – in Soviet Union people employed similar practice, only women crossed the highway and stepped into the nearest forest (if a forest was available). 

I wish to end my essay on some positive note but alas, I cannot. Personally, I learned a long time ago that such seemingly natural issue, as the use of facilities, might be a hot moralizing ground, and even a tool for deliberately making lives of people miserable. I wish there were less taboos and a bit more culture, more respect for the human needs and of course… better toilets!

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