Culture Shock in Public Restrooms – Oaxaca, Mexico

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Oaxaca is a haven in many rights… beautiful valleys, delicious food, exciting tours, ancient Zapotec ruins, colorful traditions and warm, friendly people… but eventually you’re gonna need to go to the bathroom!

Now if you are in places that cater to international tourism, there is no culture shock involved when you 1 and 2. You go to the bathroom like you would in any other place in the states, the only difference being the little figures usually used to distinguish between the men’s room and the ladies room are a sombrero and a traditional dress, (not always in that order). Yet, if you’re in Oaxaca, then you are most likely looking to experience the real Mexico. If it weren’t so, you would go to a place 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 gotta accept the “trabas“, (the obstacles), here. Let me tell you a little story:

A few years ago I was sitting in the ADO bus station in Oaxaca on my way to the airport in Mexico City where I needed to catch a flight to Miami to visit my dad. (Flying out of Mexico city instead of flying out of Oaxaca is a good idea if you’re on a budget and want to save money.) Anyways… I was sitting in the terminal munching on a Twix bar, when I saw a tall, thin, blond-haired woman rush by me towards the bathrooms – obviously in a hurry to get there. Completely blowing off the woman who was sitting behind a desk in front of the bathrooms, she hurried into the women’s room. Caught off guard, the short, chubby, dark complexioned woman behind the desk stood up and yelled out to the foreigner, “Señorita! Señorita! SEÑOOORRRIIITTTAAA!!!!”

Half scared out of her wits, the blond haired woman peeked her head out of the bathroom door, but before she could say anything, the attendant firmly said, “5 pesos por favor!”. Stepping 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 said, in English, “YOU MUST PAY 5 PESOS TO USE THESE FACILITIES”. Reading that sign, obviously not seen due to the urgency of the situation, the foreign woman got angry, she said something not very complimentary to the bathroom attendant and went back to her seat in the terminal. I watched her as she threw herself into her chair and started to mumble, with tight lips, to a gentleman next to her that could have been her brother because he looked like the male version of her.

I just sat observing the spectacle because I had forgotten to bring a book or to buy a magazine and was horribly bored. After about 20 grueling minutes where I could observe the foreign lady’s face getting progressively redder and redder, she stood up, unwillingly, and stomped towards the bathroom. Arriving at the attendant’s desk where the attendant, obviously privy to the situation the foreign woman was in, cracked a half smile triumphantly as she slammed down the 5 pesos on the desk and stormed in the bathroom without even receiving the toilet paper that the attendant hands out at the door.

I just kind of shook my head and acknowledged the difficulties that many foreigners encounter when they come and partake in the Mexican culture for a while. I know that it’s not always easy but you CANNOT come down here and be inflexible in situations like this. Patience, understanding and then more patience is needed if you want to enjoy Oaxaca or Mexico in general. You must accept these cultural differences if you want to enjoy the culture at all and believe me, the pros outweigh the cons 100 to 1. Now let me make you privy to other “inconsistencies” when going to the bathroom in Oaxaca just to save you the trauma:

Aside from the fact that you might have to pay between 2 to 5 pesos for entrance into a “public” bathroom, you may also be given a moderate quantity of toilet paper as you enter because there are no toilet paper rolls in the stalls themselves, in most cases. Now let me tell you, they do this to save money, so sometimes they give you a very, very small quantity of toilet paper that is of no real help if Montezuma is paying you a visit. So please learn from my not-so-pleasant experiences… Always take extra toilet paper with you wherever you go. You might notice that many bus and taxi drivers in Oaxaca have toilet paper nudged between the dashboard and the windshield. Well… this is why!

Now upon entering a bathroom stall and closing the door behind you, (that may or may not have a lock), you may notice that there isn’t a bathroom seat. That’s right! You gonna have to sit directly on the porcelain if you’re gonna sit at all. If you do, you have to hurry up because the edge of the toilet is going to cut off your circulation pretty fast which makes it hard to walk when you finish, believe me. Ohhhh… and when you do finish and try to flush the bowl, there may not be any water. In these cases, the bathroom attendants leave buckets outside the stalls and provide a place for you to dip your bucket in and get water to dump into the toilet.

When you are finished using the necessities and go to wash your hands and… oooopppssss…. forgot… no water! That’s when you get the “jicara“, (plastic bowl), and go back to where you got the water to dump into the toilet. Fill your jicara and go back to the sink and wash your hands the old fashion way.

Now I don’t want to scare you. If you are just coming to Oaxaca to tourist around for a week or two, you won’t come across too much of this. But if you are coming down for more than a month or to live, like I did, you will definitely have to deal with this at one point or another. After a while, believe it or not, it all becomes quite natural. So natural in fact that when I do go back to the states, I’m sure I`ll be sitting on the porcelain, leaving 5 pesos outside the bathroom door, washing my hands with a bowl of water and filling up my bucket in the shower:)

Hope you enjoyed this article. Keep an eye out for more that are sure to come.

See you next write!

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