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My search for the perfect bathroom

Stan Gotlieb

Refugees from Loxicha, near Huatulco, brought their animals with them to the zocalo in Oaxaca. They set up a tarpaulin over a sewer grate for use as a bathroom. The governor did not invite them to use the facilities in the statehouse across the street.

When I first came to Oaxaca in 1973, public facilities paid precious little attention to sanitation. It was the rare toilet that had a seat, and most flushing was done with a bucket of water filled from a faucet outside. The floor was, typically, a moist and rather ripe slab of rough concrete, and if you wanted light you left the door open. Toilet paper was unheard of.

The most interesting facilities I ever encountered were high atop a mountain pass on the road from Oaxaca city to Puerto Angel. There, in a village named San Jose del Pacifico, the buses parked for an hour or so while the passengers and drivers stretched their legs, got a bite to eat, and relieved themselves of excess wastes.

Just across from the restaurant, there were two cubicles with doors. Upon entering, you discovered that there was no back wall. The view was spectacular, but made less captivating by the smell. There was a hole in the middle of the floor, with a cracked and seatless toilet stool mounted over it. No water closet. If you looked into the toilet, the view was endless: you were hit by the realization that you were on a wooden platform, suspended out in space above a very sharp dropoff; that the entire hillside was a living monument to the proposition that certain elements do indeed roll down hill -- but not far enough...

Since then, during many a sojourn south of the US border, I have marked -- and remarked upon -- the slow but sure march of porcelain progress. Partly, this has been the result of a generally higher standard of living (even while, for the poorest Mexicans, real income has deteriorated). Partly, like so much else in life, everywhere, TV takes some credit.

Whatever the reason, there has been a vast expansion in the number of stores selling fixtures, and in plumbers specializing in throne rooms. In fact, in the homes of the middle class, the bathroom has become a clear status symbol. In new homes, there is one for almost every bedroom, even if, as in some I have seen, the two are separated by quite a distance. Colored, European fixtures including a bidet repose in rooms that rival the sala (living room) in size.

Seats are de riguer.The march to ceramic sensitivity has been a little slower in the restaurants and bars, and it is still unwise to go around without your own supply of papel higienico, but some improvements are being noted and commented upon by the gringo community in Oaxaca, my home town.

It used to be that only the first class hotels were truly worthy of the seal of elite elimination. Always supplied with paper, and frequently attended to by staff, they were stations along the track from home to zocalo and back. You were just as likely to run into old pals going in and out of the Hotel Presidente (until recently the perennial first choice in the secretion sweepstakes) as in the Library.

Nowadays, the tourist class hotels and restaurants are adequate refuge for those who can not or do not wish to seek the haut monde.The only place to avoid is the 2d floor bathroom at the Plaza Santo Domingo, where some enterprising ripoff has gone into the bathroom business: 5 pesos per visit, and damn little paper to go with it.If small, incremental improvements do not suffice for you, then allow me to recommend the penultimate bathroom experience.

This place is so clean, so well lighted, so modern and so well-functioning that only the pickiest of critics would fail to award it the palm leaf (gold plated: not to be used as some have traditionally done). But mark ye, this paragon of porcelainia is not ensconsed in some fancy hotel. It is not located in a five star restaurant, an embassy, or a private club. Oh, no.

This particular facility is all the more amazing for where it is: the TAPO bus station in Mexico City! Really, folks, I'm not kidding here. Check it out for yourself, it's worth the trip. It's located on the corridor leading from the ADO arrivals hall to the "Authorized taxi" stand, on the left just as you leave ADO. It's not perfect, but at only 2 pesos, it's a bargain.

You'll never be in a McDonald's this clean.

Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: October 1, 1997 by Stan Gotlieb © 1997
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