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Colombia's Bizarre Bathrooms

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Colombia is an amazing country, full of mountains as stunning as the Swiss Alps and people as sweet and welcoming as the people I met in the Northeast of Brazil. It's also full of strange and hilarious bathrooms. Well, two anyway, that I have spotted in three weeks of travel. Bathrooms are not exactly my first point of anthropological interest as a traveler-observer. But the bathrooms in Colombia have been impossible to ignore.

Bizarre Bathroom Number 1: The Mystery of Miami and Chicago. I had just stepped off my flight into the steamy heat of Santa Marta, Colombia, and my friend Catherine and I took a van to Taganga, a nearby fishing-village-turned-cheap-scuba-diving-hub on the Caribbean coast. Our restaurant didn't have a bathroom so I asked our waiter where to go. He pointed me to a concrete shack 100 or so yards away. A woman was working inside, handing out little wads of toilet paper.

When I emerged from the stall I read her sign more closely so I could figure out what I owed. A Miami cost 500 pesos (about 30 cents) and a Chicago cost 1000 (60 cents). So had I done a Miami or a Chicago? "Chicago" she pantomimed for me with a giggle was a "shit." Why she had chosen "Miami" to represent number one remained completely mysterious.

Why Miami and why Chicago? The question gnawed at me for two full weeks until I remembered I could ask real, live Colombians. I was couchsurfing with some young fashion students in Medellin. I showed them the photo and they died laughing. The verb for pee in Colombia is "miar." The verb to shit is "cagar." They marveled at this woman's creativity in adapting these Spanish verbs into American cities.

I was very glad to finally understand the roots of her verbiage, but still don't quite understand the distinction in pricing. Why is a Chicago double the price of a Miami? She didn't ask first and accordingly give more toilet paper. No one else managing Colombia's paid bathrooms makes this distinction! Would anyone tell the truth if they had done a Chicago and pay double the price of a Miami? It's all such intimate information to share with a bathroom attendant.

Bizarre Bathroom Number Two: The Locked Toilet. Colombians seem to have a lot of anxiety about their bathrooms. Not only are they often locked and cost money to use (from 400 to 1000 pesos), toilet paper is scarce, as if it is the most precious of commodities. But this toilet in San Gil, Colombia took the inchoate anxiety to a whole new level.

My friend Iracema and I were in San Gil, adventure sports capital of Colombia, where we were going to go paragliding for the afternoon. Before our appointment, we went to a café that served aromaticas (delicious fruity or herbal beverages similar to tea). When I asked about a bathroom, our waitress told me there was a key hanging by the bathroom door. I expected the key would unlock the door. But the door was open. The key was to unlock the locked toilet!

Why such overzealous toilet security? Why not just lock the door? Maybe they didn't have a latch or a lock on the door and decided to install one on the toilet. But I think it took more effort to drill the hole into the toilet seat. Maybe the proprietors are just insane. Or maybe they were trying to direct men to use the urinal, figuring they would be too lazy to unlock the toilet. I wish I had had the chutzpah to ask the woman why they locked the toilet. Next time.

Sasha Cagen is traveling through South America in Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina in 2010. Read more of her adventures and observations at quirkyalone.net. She is also the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics.