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Ryan’s Great Adventures

Volume 14: Sat Jul 6, 2002

One of the many parades marching through the town of Xela—as usual, I have no idea what it is in celebration of, but it must have been important since these folks were actually dressed in uniform!

Another week gone, and nothing particularly adventurous to mention this time around, but there's still plenty to write about....

You may THINK I write about every tiny detail or observation that I notice (sure seems like it, doesn't it?!), but I don't. Only a fraction of those tiny little details I notice ever make it into one of my e-mails. For instance: The toilet situation.

You're probably thinking, "What do you mean, a toilet SITUATION? How do toilets have situations?!" Good question! And I'm happy to report I've learned a lot about toilets while on this expedition, and not just about those in Central America. It's a frequent topic of discussion among tourists and students such as myself, with tangents that run off into toilet experiences in other countries around the world, but I'll limit my discussion to the toilet situation in Central America.

This here is a fairly typical showerhead in Central America. Noticed the exposed wires leading to the heating element in the nozzle to heat the water as necessary. If you touch the showerhead while it is running, you could be eletrocuted.

First, the toilets here generally work in the established 'western' method that we're used to. (I bet you didn't even know there was such a thing as a 'western-style' toilet!) I've learned from other travelers that the 'western-style' toilet is far better than the alternatives. However, in Central America, the big catch is that you can't flush toilet paper down them.

It seems the plumbing here has trouble handling such objects, and unless there's a sign explicitly stating you may flush toilet paper, you're expected to deposit all used toilet paper in a receptible usually provided next to the toilet. If there is no receptacle, most people generally leave their paper on the ground at the base of the toilet. This tends to also happen when the receptacles aren't emptied frequently and trash bin begins to overflow. That's right, folks. I haven't flushed toilet paper in months now. It's not really the type of thing I like to brag about, though.

While the standard here requires not flushing used toilet paper, many tourists have trouble with this concept so most high-impact tourist restaurants usually provide signs telling you NOT to flush the paper. Who would have guessed that tourists would need directions before using toilets?

In addition, you should not expect any public restroom to actually contain toilet paper. Heaven forbid if you find yourself having serious digestive problems and discover yourself in a restroom without a toilet paper supply. If there's ever a time to think outside the box, this would be a good one.

Some of the animals for sale on market day in San Francisco

In addition, toilets generally aren't kept up as much as we're used to in the United States. Many toilets I've discovered are missing seats, which makes sitting on them something of a challenge. When checking hotel rooms, make sure you not only get hot water with that shower, but make sure that the toilet actually has a seat to sit on.

One strange toilet I met while in Copan was obviously designed by a woman, because the seat was just an extension of the base. There was no hinge to make it possible to lift the seat for any man that happened along that wanted to do their thing while standing up. For you woman out here, this is NOT a great idea. It may sound like it on the surface since men will never be able to leave that toilet seat in the up position. However, this will NOT stop a man from peeing into the toilet while standing up. As a result, it usually has messy consequences for the next person that decides they actually want to use the seat—usually a woman.

Mi professora in Xela is the girl on the left, Flor, while the girl on the right is the director of the school, Ruth

Other restroom fixtures have their own quirks. Showers in Honduras were quite simple: You took them cold, or not at all. In Guatemala, the showers are generally hot. Kind of. Sort of. Except for the rare hotel, all showers I've come face-to-face with do not use hot water heaters. Instead, the shower head itself heats the water just before coming out. This isn't terribly uncommon throughout the world, I believe, since I've experienced a similar situation while traveling in Africa and heard that's the norm in Italy. But for those non-travelers in my audience, such showers have some interesting quirks you should know about before using them.

First, don't touch the showerhead while the water is running. You can get quite an electric shock.

Second, if the power goes out suddenly (not an uncommon thing to happen in Central America), the water will get very cold, very fast. Very likely, shreeks will be heard coming out of the shower.

Finally, there's a trick to actually get HOT water. It requires turning on the water full blast. This 'turns on' the water heater element of the shower head. But then the water is running through the shower head so quickly, it doesn't have a chance to heat up and the water is still cold. Once this heater element is on, you turn the water flow all the way down to a trickle. Now the water will flow through the shower head slow enough to actually warm up—quite hot if you do it just right. It does take some experience and practice, though. In fact, this is how you adjust the water temperature: By adjusting the water flow. The faster the flow, the colder the water.

Produce stands line this alleyway during market day

Most sinks have a hot and cold water knob to wash your hands with. However, I have yet to meet a sink where the hot water knob is actually connected to anything, so don't ever expect that to work. You can tell the hot water knob from the cold water knob, because the cold water knob will be all dirty and grimy from all the people using it while the hot water knob will be sparkling clean since it's not actually hooked up to anything so never gets used.

And finally, since I'm discussing bathroom matters, it's not uncommon for the shower to BE the bathroom. There's a drain in the middle of the bathroom where all the water flows into. If you have anything you don't want to get wet, it might be a good idea to take it out of the bathroom first. If you've seen any pictures or heard me talk of the bathroom-shower on my Black Sea Cruise adventure, you know what I'm talking about. While I wouldn't go so far as to say this situation is normal (it's not!), it's not THAT uncommon either.

Yep, everything you wanted to know about bathrooms in Central America and then some. =)

The locals often wore clothing with bright, festive colors

In other news, I heard the United States celebrated Independence Day this past week. I kind of forgot about it myself until fairly late in the day when one of the teachers at my school reminded me of it. While it's not too surprising July 4th isn't a big holiday out in Central America, I am kind of surprised that more people didn't use that as an excuse to party anyhow. Kind of like people from the United States using Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to get drunk, even though it's really a Mexican holiday. (Not even their independence day, I might add!)

To celebrate, I thought I'd do something distinctly American. I went to Taco Bell and shopped at the Mega Mall. It was a blast! =) I considered going to see Attack of the Clones at the theater there, but it was dubbed in Spanish which didn't seem very American of them.... Instead, I walked back to my room and listened to a radio station playing songs by Neil Diamond and such while eating a very American bag of Doritos and Jolly Ranchers. (For those who know of my love of Starbursts, they are NON-EXISTENT in this country, so I've had to settle on Jolly Ranches as a second best.) The radio station was in Spanish, but all the songs were English, and that was the best I figured I could do under the circumstances to celebrate the Forth of July.

Market day in San Francisco has all sorts of aninals available for purchase. I was told the guy on the right was opening the pig's mouth so a potential buyer could check the health of the pig.

The population of the school I'm attending grew dramatically this past week with the addition of five beautiful Swedish women (I might want to visit that country next....), a cute-looking girl from Belgium, and another cute-looking girl from the United States. There's also some other guys from England and Canada. Sadly, I've spent more time with the Brit than any of the beautiful women, but he is quite amusing so it's not a total loss. =) Overall, I can't really complain too much!

For class on Friday, we headed off to the nearby little town of San Francisco. Friday is market day—allegedly the largest in Guatemala. It was pretty amazing. It made the market of Antigua look second-rate in comparison. In one area, you could buy just about any domesticated or farm animal known to man: pigs, dogs, ducks, chickens, goats, cats, horses, cattle, rabbits, and—I'll happily admit—it was somewhat gratifying to see a few roosters in a position of insuperiority. I'm sure in the United States there would be protesters complaining about animal cruelty at this place based on some of the stuff I saw, but the locals seemed to take in the experience like they were eating dinner. I also have new questions about why my mom would have ever wanted to raise a huge hog as a pet, but I can discuss that matter directly with her.

Cotton candy was one thing I did not expect to be available for purchase, but sure enough, it is!

The rest of the market was wall-to-wall people negotiating for clothes, cloth, batteries, eggs, and just about anything else you could imagine. Speaking of eggs, if you're like me, you'd be surprised to learn that eggs are NOT refrigerated in this country. Ever. Even in the supermarket, they're set on shelves next to the bread section. The family I'm with doesn't store them in the frig. None of the families of other students I've talked to do either. None of the markets or supermarkets. I always thought they HAD to be refrigerated, but that does not appear to be the case. At least I haven't suffered any bad experiences eating the eggs out here as of yet, so I guess eating them is safe enough.

This is allegedly the oldest church in Central America dating back to the 1500s

Earlier in the week, we made an after-class field trip to a small town with a large name. We checked out what is allegedly the first and oldest church in Central America, a squat, ugly little building that doesn't inspire much religion, and could possibly get some converts to other religions. Even the locals admit they can't be absolutely positive that it's the first or oldest church in Central America, but it does date back to the 1500s, if I recall correctly.

Afterwards, we went to a nearby residence where they manufacture some of the beautiful clothes on sale all over Guatemala. I always imagined young women made the stuff, laboring under horrible conditions, and totally by hand. Stories of sweatshops come to mind. In fact, it seemed like a very normal home similar to that which I'm living in. There were two large looms on the third level, with two men working on them. Yep, men. It's a fascinating process to watch, although for them it's probably about as exciting as watching their hair grow. They said they can whip out an amazing five meters of cloth in an eight hour day. Then we rode the chicken buses back to Quetzaltenango just in time for dinner.

Delivery from restaurants is pretty common out here, except they use little scooters to deliver food. It's really kind of cute, but I was absolutely amazed to see one with the prominent McDonalds label on it. Yep, McDonalds will deliver, right to your front door. Heaven forbid if that idea ever catches on in the United States. I may have to move to Sweden if it does! =) First Internet access, and now home delivery. What will they think of next?

And with that depressing thought, I'll sign off on my latest great adventures. Farewell! =)

— Ryan

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