Dueling Baños

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico
painting by Mary Lou


It's a truism that a dog will never point at another dog and sneer at its choice of lavatory. But then dogs have not erected a barrier between themselves and Nature (they leave people to do that for them). If they had, they would be fussy about where they squat and, like the rest of us, they'd call their barrier a culture or civilization.

Unlike every other mammal on the planet, we humans are supremely unequipped to survive without our barrier. Left in the open to experience Nature's spontaneous embrace, we would die within days. We would starve or freeze or boil or become ragged comestibles for the nearest red-in-tooth-and-claw carnivore.

We need our barrier. We need to be discriminating about our environment. The fussier we are, the wider the barrier becomes and the further away we reside from panting carnivores. Which brings me to bathrooms and how we need to feed the barrier by paying more consideration to them.

The bathroom is usually the smallest room in a house and perhaps because of this, receives the least amount of aesthetic attention. This is a serious oversight. After all, in terms of keeping our body in a state of balance, bathrooms deserve to hold our interest more than they do.

In exchange for ignoring the adornment-potential of the bathroom, which we expend on kitchens and living rooms, we award the smallest room with a large bouquet of epithets. A kitchen is always just called a kitchen, a bedroom always a bedroom. But the bathroom wears a multicolor coat of names such as a restroom, washroom, water-closet, toilet, head, can, biffy, privy, lavatory, WC, convenience, powder room, john, dunny, loo, shitter, throne, crapper, bog, and even the place where you go to give birth to lawyers. The list is endless. I'm sure most home bathrooms would gladly trade their entire roster of pet names for an Hommage vanity or a single Zuccetti waterfall faucet.

Leaving domestic bathrooms aside, let's focus our attention on public facilities, in particular, San Felipe's restaurant restroom.

Restroom is a strange name for it, don't you think? I can't imagine anyone falling asleep while performing a principle body function, can you? And there's nothing very restful about a cubicle crammed with porcelain appliances, all of which possess amazing skills at magnifying echoes. The chances of nodding off are as likely as cat napping next to the tuba at a Wagnerian concert.

The baños of our local restaurants and cafes have a wide range of aesthetics, if one can use that word in this context. Some of them are quite picturesque, in a Picasso-cum-plumber kind of way. Others are completely incomprehensible and need labels for everything in the room. Nothing says restroom like stepping into a four-by-four booth that uses the same five gallon pail for both toilet and sink, offers an in-line ball valve fitting instead of a faucet, and sports a mirror whose last address was the windshield of a '62 Chevy pickup.

Perhaps because the inevitability of petty thievery is taken for granted by the owners of public establishments in the Baja, encounters with bathroom staples that one habitually finds in any restroom north of the border are relatively rare. In many public restrooms here you are likely to notice the nonattendance of toilet paper, waste bins, hand towels, soap, urinals, sinks (often a stand-in for the urinal), water, roof or walls. Of course, the absence of the restaurant itself often makes these matters a moot point.

Irony and plastic plumbing are frequently combined to create an alloy found only south of the border. The one faucet sink has not yet been invented but is something that would help downsize the decision-making process for the hygienic few who are constantly duped by the presence of a hot water tap. These taps are never connected to anything. Untwisting their chrome crowns only adds insult to the affront of calling the place a 'washroom', especially on a cold morning. The cold water tap (on the other hand) is a different story. The water will either drip out at Chinese torture intervals or hose the entire room down in one efficient blast. And when you reach for paper towels, there is an empty space on the wall with no forwarding address. Right above the space is a plastic sign that reads in Spanish (translated):

You are required by law to wash your hands
before leaving this room and resuming work.

The establishment has cleverly saved a few dollars by noting you are not required by law to dry your hands. One can only assume the owner does not eat at his own diner, given the unlikelihood the employees bother to wash their hands when they are not provided a means to dry them. And the cook is left to wonder why the bread has a problem rising.

Hygiene has a long history which, like most of mankind’s accrued patterns of behavior, finds its nursery in the behavior of other animals.  Cats, squirrels, and rabbits use their forepaws and saliva to bathe themselves.  Snakes, frogs and lizards shed their outer skin.  Monkeys and lemurs have their fur groomed by close friends and relatives.  Some chimpanzees wash their face with cold water every day.  Bats, moles and hedge hogs comb themselves with their nails.  Bears, elephants, hogs, and many types of birds make ample use of water to clean themselves, when the opportunity arises.

When man is unable to take his cue from Nature, he is content to follow the precepts of the local holy book.  Here is what the Old Testament advises:

“And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee.” (Deuteronomy 23:13-14) Of course, this may just have been a transcribed observation of the hygienic behavior of cats.  Cats were sacred in ancient Egypt and according to some scholars, the Old Testament is a record of specific Egyptian dynasties.

My first experience at a south-of-the-border baño was forty years ago in San Luis. I had transported my rumbling stomach to a bus depot in a search of a restroom. The only candidates appeared to be two open doorways, one labeled Dames, the other Caballeros. The first was easy enough to translate and by a shrewd process of elimination, so was the second (although I was intimidated by the thought of performing intimate body functions while on horseback).

When I stepped through the appropriate opening, I was alarmed to discover there was no toilet paper residing in any of the cubicles. I searched my pockets for any papers softened by age or copious deposits of lint then retreated, suspecting I had been thwarted by bad timing. Yet I had not seen any discarded cardboard cylinders anywhere in the bathroom. I decided to stand back and watch the door, expecting to see patrons ferrying their own hygienic essentials into the banos. Instead I witnessed a woman stop at the door entrance, reach over to a roll of toilet paper hanging on the wall between the two bathroom doors, unreel a length, tear it off and disappear inside.

I was astonished. Even though I had walked past the roll, was only inches from it, I never saw it. It must be a cultural thing, but I apparently have a blind spot where a roll of toilet paper can hang from a wall in the lobby of a bus depot.

A few days later I was at a bar in Puerto Penasco. It was New Year's Eve. I had imbibed several beers and was once again in a position to avail myself of a public utility. After a semaphore exchange with the bar tender (the universal language), I found myself in a dark cinder block cave that reeked of urine and a sundry other human mulch products. It was immediately obvious this place was rudimentary, to the point of being of interest to Amnesty International. The bank of expected urinals was homogenized into a single trench etched into the concrete floor. The gutter slanted across the room and exited through a scupper in the opposite wall. Beside the entrance, a bank of stained tiles rose up from the canal, as a kind of target range for the drunks. The place had the aesthetics of a Turkish prison.

The broadening of the barrier that separates us from Nature is intimately related to the flow of money in any culture. San Felipe enjoyed a period of prosperity when a flock of realtors descended on it during the last decade. The vein of aesthetics doesn't carry much blood when its source derives from the real estate industry (unless you consider metal coyotes and cement fountains artistic triumphs). Yet somehow a small dribble of lucre found its way into the collective restrooms of San Felipe. True, almost none of it went into aesthetics, but at least these days when you turn a faucet, water will flow into porcelain catchments and after you push a toilet handle, the contents will be expelled in the correct direction.

The barrier south of the border is gaunt, compared to its counterpart north of the border. Aesthetics takes a back seat to perceived necessities (it appears the two come together in the iphone). Transportation and entertainment are high on the list of local priorities. Bathroom furniture is a distant prerogative.

In countries where the barrier is thin, hygiene is an abstract word, as meaningless as terms like 'million' or 'frost-free' or "high-definition". What isn't visible to the eye is unimportant. Visual opiates like satellite TVs and cell phones with texting abilities help keep the attention way from trenches that flow through scuppers in walls. Besides, after the entertainment bills are paid, there's no money left for plumbing anyway.

So until the culture widens to embrace the potential aesthetics of the domestic bathroom, with all its hygienic permutations, be aware that when you stand and turn toward the restaurant biffy, you are not in a land that enjoys a comfortable barrier. When you push that handle, you are metaphorically in Vegas. You take your chances.