Why Are Gringos So Obsessed With Shit Paper?

Guest Post by Colin Post, Expat Chronilces – This installment of When Readers Attack! addresses a more moderate “attack” compared to others in the series, mostly free of condescension. But patently false nonetheless and grossly misleading to the point where I thought for a couple hours about all the ways Martin has his head up his ass, despite probably being a nice enough guy.

So here’s a full-fledged response to Martin’s comment on The Latin American Bathroom Orientation:

Hey, I grew up in Nicaragua in the 60’s and 70’s, traveled through several Latin countries and everyone flushes their used tissues in the toilet! Apparently though it’s become a tradition in some overpopulated cities like Mexico City, Bogota or Lima but smaller cities like Managua, San Jose or Montevideo don’t have that problem. It could also be that many expats love to stay in the crappiest hotels or boarding houses that they can find to save a couple of bucks. So chill out about judging all of Latin America because I see nasty, stinky restrooms in the States all the time. That goes for dance clubs, grocery stores, fast food joints, Irish pubs, or any place that serves food! The irony of it is that’s in the so called “richest country in the Americas”!

As you can see, there’s a lot there. And the biggest nugget comes right at the beginning with the “I’m an authority because…” card:

I grew up in Nicaragua in the 60’s and 70’s…

So we know Martin is an older guy, over 50 years old and probably 60, given he lived under the mercantilist dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty. During that time Nicaragua was just as much of a shithole as it is today. The inequality and squalor conditions especially for the rural poor inspired the Sandinistas, the quasi-Marxists who overthrew Somoza in 1979. Nicaragua’s economy under the Sandinistas would not do much better. It’s still a hereditary autocracy, and shithole on both gringo and Latin American standards.

Given Martin “grew up in Nicaragua” at the time, we can assume he was brought there by his gringo parents. Maybe he is the son of Nicaraguans, but his comment is written in such native English and so American in its assumptions, that it’s safe to assume he’s a bona fide gringo.

Before the Sandinistas took over, when Martin lived there, Nicaragua was a much friendlier country to gringos. And at that time, the only gringos were either the banana colony and the diplomats. The smart money says Martin’s parents worked in the banana colonies of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or they worked for the U.S. embassy. Gabo paints a vivid picture of an upscale village dedicated to banana production, completely segregated by razor wire from the local population of poverty-stricken peasants.

To go on a deeper dive, read about Sam Zemurray, the banana gringo who ran Central America in the early 20th century.

Long story short, Martin grew up in what contemporary expats in Latin America deride as “the bubble.” The expat bubble, the embassy-AmCham bubble, whatever you want to call it. It’s the upper crust of the local upper class, and many gringos live in it. Back then it was the only place for gringos to live, but in the 21st century you get all types of expats.

It is possible that Martin grew up under parents making a go with a small business catering to Nicaragua’s growing middle class … STOP, I’m going to shit my pants laughing! There was no Nicaraguan middle class then. There is hardly any now. Statistical data beyond population size doesn’t even exist before the 1980s. Maybe Martin’s parents weren’t in bananas or diplomacy, but they definitely lived in the bubble.

I have nothing against the bubble, and I’m not that guy deriding the gringos who live in it. I have friends in the bubble and I have visited them in the bubble (although I’d have to think hard to remember if I’ve ever taken a shit in their houses). But as I said, the expat scene in Latin America has changed. For every bubble gringo, there is another gringo living in the low-income peripheral districts (Comas for example), which are just as much not my style as the bubble.

While I’m not hating on those who live in the bubble, I have to insist for the sake of accuracy and the war on fake news that bubble gringos like Martin have the environmental awareness to recognize that they live in the fucking bubble. And that a single-digit percentage of the population at large lives like that, while over 90% of the locals live a very different reality.

We don’t want any innocent twentysomething gringos with no savings thinking they’re going to make the leap into LatAm and land in a modern house in a gated community with a car. Because they’re not. In fact, they’re going to throw the shit paper in the trash for as long as it takes them to get their money right.

For accuracy I consulted our man on the ground in Nicaragua, who will remain anonymous until the end of the current repression (wartime report coming soon!). He estimates that 98% of Nicaraguans throw their shit paper in the trash, and the only ones who flush it are “the gringo hotels and the rich folk who have lived abroad and then returned to build their own houses.”

And he adds this gem: “Sometimes I feel like I should shit directly into the garbage because the plumbing here is so fragile.”

This has been a long rebuttal to a partial sentence, but you get the point. Martin’s a bubble creature. His input applies only if you’re coming with a hundred grand in cash to a shithole like Nicaragua, or $300K for rich-as-fuck countries like Peru.

[And I’ve] traveled through several Latin countries and everyone flushes their used tissues in the toilet

“used tissues” — I’ve read that 10 times now, still hilarious!

I have also traveled through Latin America, and that’s how I know that NOT everyone flushes their shit paper in the toilet. If I had ever encountered a toilet without a bin for the shit paper next to it, I would have been amazed. It would have been so noteworthy that I would have mentioned it in my write-ups on, for example, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and all the cities of Colombia and Peru.

The only toilets in Latin America I have ever seen without the bin were in two Americans’ apartment in Medellin (noted in original LatAm Bathrooms article) and the U.S. embassy in Lima (read that story). But granted, I don’t stay in the multinational chain hotels. Nothing against the bubble, mind you, just not my style.

Apparently though it’s become a tradition in some overpopulated cities like Mexico City, Bogota or Lima

This is partly true. Throwing your shit paper in the trash has in fact become a tradition in these cities. It started with the advent of toilets. When Mexicans, Colombians and Peruvians began shitting in their homes instead of outhouses, it became tradition to put a bin for the shit paper next to their new toilets.

but smaller cities like Managua, San Jose or Montevideo don’t have that problem.

I have lived in one small city in Latin America: Arequipa, Peru. And compared to Lima and Bogota, it is the least likely to have toilets that flush the shit paper even in the gringo hotels. In fact Arequipa is the one city where I still find toilets with the seat removed (to prevent theft).

I never actually confirmed if the seats are actually removed, or if the toilet was installed without a seat to begin with. But you get used to that too. In urgent circumstances, I’d have a pony on the cold porcelain bowl. And of course I’d have brought my own toilet paper to throw in the bin. You get used to all of it, no sweat.

The only thing I don’t get used to, and I’m not sure this is any more Latin American than anywhere else, is when you run out of shit paper and use the roll to do a little more wiping. I tear the soft cardboard along its seams into three pieces and kind of dab / wipe with that.

I wasn’t sure about what they do in San Jose or Montevideo, the capitals of two of Latin America’s richest countries along with Chile, so I asked around among longtime readers and pals in the region for their countries’ local shit-paper customs.

According to longtime reader Chili, who has over 20 years in Costa Rica, “You can flush everything in the homes built in the last 10 years, since a building boom of new construction that is all up to U.S. standards. That EXCLUDES low-income new housing, basically stuff that is financed by the government for single mothers. But everything else, you can flush a roll of Bounty paper towels down the toilet.

“If I had to guess, I’d say 30% of ticos have plumbing that can take a flush. Anyone who makes less than $2,000 per month can’t flush, and that 70% is decreasing.”

I don’t know any expats in Uruguay, which can probably be attributed to the fact that Uruguay sucks. But I have a few Uruguayan friends living here in Lima (further proof that Uruguay sucks). One of them told me that, yes, all Uruguayans flush the shit paper. He added that the upper-middle and upper-class homes also have bidets.

We’re waiting on word from Chile. When I visited the border town of Arica, it was definitely not a flush market. I also asked a couple permanent travelers in the region if they found anywhere that didn’t throw the shit paper in the trash. Vance at My Latin Life and the travel-blogging eminence himself Dave Lee can’t remember any city that flushes the shit paper.

It could also be that many expats love to stay in the crappiest hotels or boarding houses that they can find to save a couple of bucks.

Here Martin has confused Expat Chronicles with a different website, and the word “expat” with a different word. You could make that statement about “tourists” or “backpackers,” but not “expats.” There is debate about who is and who is not an “expat,” but there is not debate that expats live on at least a semi-permanent basis down here.

While there are tourists and backpackers who read this site, the bread and butter of the Expat Chronicles community are expats living in apartments and houses. Some are immigrants (under my lofty definition) and even citizens.

So chill out about judging all of Latin America

Now you really have the wrong blog! Expat Chronicles is ground zero for ugly Americans, Canadians and Anglo/Celts living in Latin America to judge, condescend to and talk shit about Latin America and Latin Americans. Don’t like it? Find another blog.

But back up a little. “Used Tissues” Martin again betrays his inherent gringo-ness by assuming that I’m judging Latin America. The original article never says throwing your shit paper in the trash is good or bad. It doesn’t say either way because I don’t have an opinion. I’m so used to it, I have even caught myself throwing it in the trash in the bathrooms of family and friends back in the States. I never tell them about my mistake, if I even realize it.

But if you gave me a choice on whether I flush or pitch the shit paper for the rest of my life, I could go either way. Flip a coin. I would ask environmental scientists which option is more sustainable for the planet, the water and the land.

Granted, I’m not responsible for emptying the bin since I married a Peruvian. Maybe if I were single I’d prefer to flush.

And all this talk about shit paper is diverting attention from the real problem, and that’s the little box above the shower head. I haven’t lived with an electric water heater since 2013, but I’d take shit paper in the trash over that fuckin thing any day. You touch anything metallic or even remotely metallic and get a shock. One day I’m going to look up how many people die each year from slipping in the shower after getting a dose of electric-water-heater voltage. And then even without a shock, if it’s a cold night you can only have hot water at a low pressure. No way to live!

For the definitive post on “judging Latin America,” see Never Underestimate the Feet Vote.

because I see nasty, stinky restrooms in the States all the time. That goes for dance clubs, grocery stores, fast food joints, Irish pubs, or any place that serves food!

Bathrooms are dirty everywhere – very informative. But if we’re comparing apples to apples I’ll tell you something all those disgusting gas-station bathrooms in the United States that the vast majority of Latin American bathrooms don’t have – free toilet paper!

You have to bring your own toilet paper if you’re going to take a shit in most public restrooms of Latin America. Of course each toilet stall comes with toilet paper in the restaurants and establishments of the upper-class bubble, and free toilet paper is starting to make its way into the middle-class. Especially the practice of having just one toilet paper roll located outside the stalls, so you have to stock up before you sit down to have a dump. Better than nothing!

But expats in Latin America learn sooner or later that if they’re going to be out and about for a long day, it may come in handy to put a good load of shit paper in your pocket or briefcase before you leave the house. Just in case… That way you don’t have to find a tienda and buy a whole roll before going back to whatever public bathroom you’re going to use.

The irony of it is that’s in the so called “richest country in the Americas”!

Martin, I know you’re new here. But here’s an easy rule to remember: don’t fuck with me on anything that could be deemed economics. That goes for anybody who is not, in fact, an economist. Or maybe an Econ major, but not even all of them!

Because the United States is not the “so called” richest country in the Americas. It is the richest country in the Americas. By total GDP it is the richest country by about a factor of 10 (Brazil’s GDP is 10% of America’s). By the more commonly used GDP per capita, the U.S. has a ~20% edge over Canada depending on the methodology.

I would go further and declare the United States the richest country in the world by using a modified definition of “country.” And I’ll modify the definition to exclude petrostates, tax shelters and city-states. Petrostates and tax shelters are obvious. I would define a city state as any state with a population less than 10 million.

All of the countries which technically have a higher GDP per capita than the U.S. are at least one of those (petrostate, tax shelter, city state), and most are a combination. For example, Qatar is a petrostate and a city state (population 2.5 million). Switzerland is both a tax shelter and a city state (population 8 million). Some of the countries wouldn’t even be city states, but administrative villages (Luxembourg at 500,000 or Liechtenstein with 40,000!).

So yeah, it’s not fair to compare the powerful flushing and free toilet paper of the United States, the mightiest economy in the world, to anywhere in Latin America.

The Resistance

In asking around, I was surprised how many of my fellow gringos make up part of the Resistance. I mentioned old forum character and contributor Zac in Medellin. He had no bin when I stayed with him in 2010. But I assumed he was an anomaly in the region, just one stubborn gringo.

But when I started asking around, I found loads of gringos refuse to throw the shit paper in the trash despite it being the national custom. As in the case with Zac, the plumbing wasn’t necessarily strong enough to take a shit and all the paper used to wipe ass. But he just continued flushing it until it all went down. Hence the term, “Resistance.” It looks to me like he’s kind of going out of his way, or expending extra effort, in a kind of cultural disobedience.

Others in the Resistance included Will in BA, Jeremy in CDMX and Nomadic Jake (nomad-ing). Here’s to you guys … good luck with that!

Article When Readers Attack! ‘Chill Out about Judging Latin America originally appeared in Expat-Chronicles.

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