Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Deconstruction of Normal OR, The Search for a Clean Washroom

The muddy footprints coming from the men's washroom in the Cuzco airport boarding area allowed ready interpretation to the sign in Spanish outside the door.  Obviously, men were at work. A new concrete and tile floor was being constructed and I was in somewhat of an anxious search for an alternative facility. Despite having arrived two hours early, leaving no concern about catching the plane from Cuzco to Lima, my inquiries confirmed that there was no other boarding area washroom, and I would have to go back through security.

Immediately across the store-lined hallway from security I located the “banos” [pronounced, "ban yos”]. As is often the case in airports there is a need to protect the security, and ensure the sanitary nature, of these amenities utilized by thousands of travelers each day. Not surprisingly, an attendant with his mop and bucket was standing just inside the doorway. He was young, and anything but diligent-looking. But when the interior of the men's washroom came into view, my skepticism evolved into certainty about any usefulness the young man may have had.

WARNING.  This blog is rated PG-14.  No pictures were taken by me to make this blog so your imagination may be required.  The men's room was small with one wall lined with three wash basins (all but one of which were occupied), one wall lined with three urinals (all of which were occupied), and one wall comprised of two stalls (both of which were occupied). I stood patiently, at least at first, beside the washroom guard, who as I then noticed had something of a glazed, faraway look in his eyes.

Now for reasons I need not go into, I was interested in the availability of a stall, which I began to study more closely, having no real alternative in my "wait next in line" position. The construction of the toilet enclosures was peculiar to say the least. They were both built out of odd pieces of plywood, two by fours and other lumber assembled and then painted in somewhat of a haphazard manner. It appeared that the normal metal cubicles have not been in place for some time.  I found myself wondering whether someone like me had been hired to build the homemade versions [not a compliment] and how long they had been standing, not that it mattered to me.

Fortunately, I had to wait as the current cubicle occupants had arrived just before me. I say that because I saw both gentlemen struggling to secure the doors after entering. But, in short order I was relieved when the closest cubicle door opened. However, I immediately realized the apparently departing occupant had only temporarily exited, his cubicle, carefully holding his unbuckled pants up. Looking frustrated, he took an allotment of sturdy toilet paper from a single large roll of the stuff that hung on a spike piercing the upright between the two stalls. Expressionless, the attendant’s eyes shifted to watch the gentleman retreat into his cubicle.
As if on cue, a curiously dressed, disheveled fellow pushed by me, apparently not noticing my "first in line" stance. Obviously, he was not at traveler (at least not by air) and I suspect that had I not lost my sense of smell years ago due to Parkinson's disease I would've noticed his odor before I saw him. Wearing an oversized, tattered, faux leather coat, with the bundled look underneath, the man bustled into the center of the room and peered into the mirror over the shoulder of a traveler who was busily washing his hands in the sink. In short order, the ragamuffin removed his toque, looked intently into the mirror, rubbed his upheaval of black hair, shrugged and replaced his stocking cap.  The man who had been washing briskly deserted the sink, which the scruffy fellow then occupied. With a little flourish he pulled from his pocket a 2 blade safety shaver and a bar of soap.  Somehow he successfully stopped up the sink, filled it up with water, lathered his grubby beard with the bar of soap and proceeded to shave.  The caretaker looked on, apparently unconcerned. 

It was then that I noticed the man at the sink next to the shaver. A worker, complete with safety glasses and orange safety overalls and vest was putting water in a liter-sized container and dumping that in a 25 liter pail on the floor.  He was one of the workers from the boarding area washroom project ferrying water from this bathroom to that.  

The frustrated man from compartment number one finally left, and I walked into the cubicle with my estimate of needed TP from the roll on the nail. Surprisingly, the stall sported a sink, but a quick test proved there was no water, not to mention the lack of any drying material.  However, the most disconcerting part was the absence a toilet seat.  This circumstance left me mentally anticipating the choices.  I quickly realized that there were no particularly graceful or sanitary alternatives.
On my return to the boarding lounge, passing classy shops selling expensive merchandise, I found myself smiling, even chuckling out loud. Yes, the bathroom scene might have been laughable, but only when viewed from a specific cultural norm. I grew up with outhouses being common (with catalogues instead of TP).  Had I fallen victim to an ignorant or arrogant definition of "normal"? Had I brought my North American expectations on this journey around the world? Had I proven to myself that I, too, was prone to see other countries and cultures through my own seriously myopic perspective?

Having Parkinson's disease is teaching me that "normal" is written in sand. A diagnosis, a wrong turn, a harsh word or a financial misstep can eradicate one's idea of what is normal. I expect that the days to come may well erase, or at least further challenge, my concept of "normal". That is probably a good thing.


  1. Oh man, this makes me think of all the wild bathroom experiences we have had with this disease, though none as colourful as yours - one of the many reasons we no longer travel. I love your line about normal being written in sand with Parkinson's. AMEN. May the rest of your travels be relatively problem- free in the bathroom department.

  2. I wonder how the worker from the other wash room got in and out of security with his bucket of water operation? where do the workers in the "classy shops" go for their necessary relief? thanks for a well-written peek into an interesting slice of your trip and for the thoughtful observation. I just checked the dictionary definition of normal "...conforming to a standard; typical or expected." ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (in the sense [right-angled] ): from Latin normalis, from norma ‘carpenter's square’ (see norm ). Vaya Con Dios!