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.
(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.