WTF Weds: Don’t Flush Toilet Paper in Peru

Posted on
Oct 12, 2011

Can't we all just be adults here?

When I left for Peru, I took a small pack of tissues with me. I’d read that in more rural areas, we might not find toilet paper in public bathrooms. This didn’t really phase me: one time in Italy I’d peed in little more than a hole in the ground. A place not offering toilet paper isn’t that big an offense.

While the tissues came in handy, what was far more difficult to get used to, and what I discovered immediately upon arriving in Lima, is that in Peru (and, indeed, in many parts of the world) it’s not customary to toss your toilet paper into the bowl to dispose of it. Instead of flushing it down, you throw it in a trash can that’s conveniently placed next to the bowl. I’ve read a variety of reasons why this might be the case (everything from the drainage pipes being narrower to septic tanks being designed differently, and even one account that it might just all be an Old Wives’ tale) but the bottom (heh) line? You toss your t.p. in the trash. It’s just understood.

The pristine toilet bowl and trash can in our hotel in Lima.

(Interestingly, this now makes one of the things Philip mentioned in his “Toilets of Japan” post a while back make sense. They were clearly catering to visitors who were accustomed to not flushing their used paper.)

I, unfortunately, had trouble following the rules. Even after I read a sign and comprehended it (in both Spanish and English! Hooray for bilingual bathroom etiquette!) I still kept tossing my paper in the bowl. It’s really a reflex – I did it without thinking (next time you’re in the bathroom, you’ll find the same is true. Tossing paper into the bowl is not something to ruminate over. And if you do decide to get pensive over some soiled Charmin … Sigh. Well, whatever. I’ve found inspiration in weird places, too.)

I figured I’d never get the hang of peeing in Peru. I probably ruined several septic tanks across Lima and Cuzco, and I started to feel guilty about it. A few times I remembered to use the trash can, but that didn’t make things better. I felt … unclean, knowing my paper will still around. I may have gone a little Lady MacBeth while washing my hands a few times as a result.

Seriously – where is a nice hole in the ground when you need it?

I finally did get the hang of things, you’ll be pleased to know. I used an airport bathroom and tossed my toilet paper discretely in the small trash can in my stall. The only problem? I was in Los Angeles.



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Leave a Comment

  • I feel your pain…This is actually pretty common here in the poorer areas of the U.S., as well. At a previous job, I did home visits with people who lived in true poverty, and they asked that I throw toilet paper in the trashcan, as well.

    Other problems included no running water, no heat or air, and on at least two occasions, chickens in the house. I couldn’t feel too badly for them though, since they managed to have the latest in high-tech computers and cellphones. No running water, but high-speed internet access? WTF?

    Oh, and thanks for the remark about cooking shows – you reminded me to put the ribs in the crockpot, lol.

  • catcat

    Old. Wives. Tale.
    Unless you’re calling old magazine pages or something similar TP.

  • Janine

    I probably ruined septic tanks throughout Argentina. I could just not get the hang of it. And then right before you leave, you do. It doesn’t matter how many times you read the signs, your reflexes win. Then the guilt sets in. Totally get it. Been there and done that. And probably about to, in my soon visit to Peru.

  • Personal hygiene reflexes are powerful things. One of the things I really hate about using porta potties is the lack of flushing (although I actually used one that flushed at the Pittsburgh Half Marathon) – I just don’t feel like I’m done unless I can flush.
    I also distinctly remember a day when I got all mixed up and, after brushing my teeth, spit into the toilet instead of the sink for some reason. It haunts me to this day.

    • Everywhereist

      Once, while I was brushing my teeth, Rand opened up a drawer right next to the sink, and I nearly spit inside it. THAT was my reflex. Open drawer, spit inside.

      It was my drawer that he opened by accident, too, so I’d have spat on all my toiletries and cosmetics. Like you, I’m haunted by this.

  • Oh dude, not only did I forget to do this, but most of the time I didn’t even have toilet paper with me. Instead I’d just linger for a bit longer, waiting to “drip-dry,” and praying my quads were able to withstand the strain of squatting. I have muscles of steel now.

  • I have a question regarding “solids” that I am too genteel to ask.

  • JulieBab

    Well, forget about toilets and drip-drying techniques, if it’s not to haunt any sensitive and other genteel souls, who would think of flushing handy to use and made on the spot nappies (paper, cloth, large leaf) down a toilet? No training, no memory needed, no pollution.

  • Connie

    Thats how it is in Mexico, too. In fact, it was one of the reasons I didn’t want to go there…it seemed so “uncivilized”. But once I went, I got the hang of it pretty quickly. I don’t want to be the one who trashes the septic system at my favorite beach bar, I guess. Now before we go on vacation, I’ll actually start practicing at home a day or so before we leave, lol! Just one of those things that I find endearing now…

  • kokopuff

    For those of us who hang out on boats, this is fairly common. Most marine toilets can’t handle anything except what comes out of you.

  • I was so bad at remembering to do this. Like you, I usually didn’t remember until I returned back to the U.S.

  • Shhh…don’t talk about this too loudly! They’ll start thinking about “flush taxes” and turning in your used TP to prove your compliance…lol

  • Newsflash: NOTHING HAPPENS IF YOU FLUSH THE PAPER!! Here in Chile there are some places that have the sign and I do not regret to confess that it grosses me out to do that (not to speak of leaving used toilet paper in the bin all dy on a hot day…) AND I NEVER DO. Nothing has ever happened to me, no paper has refused to leave and none has come back. I guess they do it out of precaution so no one puts too much paper in it… But rest in peace and disregard at will. Nothing happens.

  • That’s happened to me too, more than once! It always seems to take me a day or two to adjust when I travel back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico. 😉

  • Joy

    I ran in to this same issue in Greece, especially on the islands. No matter how many signs reminded me to do so, I just couldn’t remember to go against this law of (American?) nature! I kept panicking that somewhere, pipes were bursting as a result of my neglect. Then I started thinking, surely, there has to be some sort of screening method to keep this from happeneing. I mean, there had to be other stupid Americans like me and I couldn’t imagaine that they hadn’t come up with some method for correcting our stupidity. Then I just panicked that somewhere there was some poor little old man cursing at me in Greek for the toilet paper he was fishing out the water before I ruined the island. Damn that Italian guilt! And yet, still, I continued to flush the paper and nearly dive into the bowl as it was flushing and I had remembered what I was not supposed to do…

  • Oh, the dear wastebasket by the toilet. After coming back to the US from Chile and Peru, I had to REMOVE the trash can from my bathroom to stop my natural reflexes. Just so my family didn’t think I was a filthy child raised in the jungle by monkeys. (Their words, not mine.)

  • That came as a shock to me too when I was in El Salvador and Guatemala. I couldn’t get used to it. Los Angeles, that’s hilarious.

  • Wurst

    At least the bathrooms had walls, which is different in some places in China. The toilet paper becomes the smallest challenge in these moments…

  • I only seem to be tp-flush-deprived in hot, humid countries, so the worst part is the unmistakable smell coming from my bathroom by the end of the day. I’m obsessed with leaving the bathroom door closed and the window open (despite the scary insects that are inevitably drawn by the smell). And even if the cleaning person empties the trash every day, walking into the bathroom is like walking into a toilet-scented steam room.

    As far as whether or not it’s a wives’ tale, I’d rather play it safe and not be the jerk American who ruined the whole town’s sewage system! I’ve forgotten to use the trash can from time-to-time as well, and nothing happened when I flushed. But I’m sure it’s a capacity thing: if 1 or 2 people flush their tp a day it’s probably fine. But if everyone did it, THAT’s when trouble would start brewing!

    Thanks for the funny post which brought back some memories – especially of those stinky, steamy bathrooms!

  • hmm is dualflush or eco flush each country has different toilet hygiene 🙂

  • Laura

    Too funny. The same was true in Thailand. I’m starting to feel funny about the state of flushing in the US based on how many countries seem not to flush the paper. The guilt regarding the reflex flinging of paper into the bowl produced more than one ‘fishing’ trip on our most recent out-of-US adventure. Not fun I might add and I was very grateful for the carry-on hand sanitizer. Definitely a must-pack item.

  • Kathe

    I have lived in Mexico for many years. We put TP in the trash. My understanding of the reasoning makes good sense to me. Homes that are not in large cities are not connected to a sewer system. Instead, they have the old fashioned septic tanks or even cesspools. When a septic tank or cesspool fills up, it is the portion of the flushed waste that the bacteria cannot digest that fills it. And TP is mostly cellulose and cellulose is undigestible fiber. The outcome is having to have the septic tanks or cesspools pumped more often.

    Mostly, in homes, the trash can has a swinging lid. And for the fellow who was too discreet to ask…yes, even TP with solids adhered thereon go into the trash bin. Mine gets emptied once a week when the house is cleaned, and even though I live in the tropics of the Yucatan Peninsula, it rarely gets stinky.

  • natashia

    You have finally helped me SEE THE LIGHT!! As a flight attendant, i could NEVER understand why the lavs get so filthy and disgusting on some int’l flights. (And contrary to popular belief, it is NOT my job to clean them.) Do you think it is all the people that are used to not flushing their TP that are shoving it into the teeny airplane trashcan or just throwing it on the floor when they can’t find the um…trash hole?
    I kind of feel better now because I used to think they had just been raised by wolves.
    Thank you, Everywhereist. Thank you.

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