Going to the bathroom in Brazil, especially if you are a woman, is not for the faint of heart. I know a thing or two about primitive plumbing having spent many of my formative years in a 100 year old farmhouse, but the rules here are constricting and just plain gross. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to them.
At vovozinha’s house, One and I are usually given the big room downstairs with an en suite bathroom, so it’s not so bad. Once we’re out in the world, it’s a different story. Public restrooms, by definition, are usually not impeccable, desirable places in which to spend much time. En masse, the public seems to have a hard time adhering to a standard of cleanliness. For an evolved germophobe like me, this presents a host of shudder-inducing problems.
First, the smell of teeming bacteria assaults my olfactory system. No matter how “clean” the surface might be, the pipes seep the reminders of generations of poo-gone-before. Gingerly, I tiptoe over suspicious puddles that encircle soggy blobs of toilet paper and, shrinking into myself as much as possible, I enter a stall and try not to brush against any walls. With the tips of two careful fingers I latch the door. Sometimes the latch is broken, and I have to balance on the balls of my feet as I hold the door closed. Usually there is nowhere to hang my purse, and so I sling it over my shoulder where it rests precariously on my back.
I know. So far, this doesn’t sound much different from public restrooms everywhere, but as I hover over the toilet, I see a sign like this one.*
It is a lot of rules, including the one that disgusts me the most, and explains why the stinkiest bathrooms stink so badly.
You may not throw your toilet paper into the bowl here, and so there is an overflowing waste receptacle in the corner. I won’t paint a picture with words. Just imagine what’s on that paper. Sometimes the receptacle has a lid and a foot pedal, but then you have to touch it with your foot. I am usually wearing open-toed shoes because high heels are part of the national dress code for women in Brazil. In more casual places, Havaianas are commonly seen, but not a practical choice for traversing swampy bathroom floors. The admonishment not to pee on the floor is there for a reason.
So there I teeter on my high heels, hovering over the seatless toilet with my purse balanced on my back, my fingertips braced against the door, holding my breath against the stench, and hoping to completely empty my bladder so I don’t need to return to this place again before we go home. It’s a lot of pressure.
Assuming the toilet paper dispenser isn’t empty (if it is, I perform another delicate ballet and extricate a paper napkin from my purse), there’s one final gauntlet to overcome before I leave the stall. To flush the toilet, it is necessary to press hard on a large square button embedded in the wall above the toilet — with your fingers. It’s worse when the button is a two-parter on top of the tank. Which to push? One? Both? Important, tricky questions. A mistake could mean catastrophic overflow or merely a wimpy influx of water and no suction.
After all this, I turn myself in a tiny circle, taking care to avoid the shifting mountain of filthy toilet paper, try to calculate which edge of the door has been touched least frequently by bacteria-laden fingers, and pray that there’s soap in the dispenser.
The whole experience becomes considerably less traumatic after a caipirinha or two.
* Rules for Using the Bathroom Politely in Brazil
- Do not climb on the toilet.
- Do not pee on the floor.
- Throw the toilet paper in the basket.
- After use, discharge (flush).
- Remember: after you, others use this bathroom.