I spent Spring semester of 1997 living with a family in Cuenca, Ecuador. This story happened during my first week with the family.
We had been coached on many facets of Ecuadorian life prior to the trip. For example they told us, in most places, you weren’t allowed to flush toilet paper. The pipes just couldn’t handle it. Instead, there would be a garbage can next to the commode.
We spent a week in the capital city of Quito before heading south to meet our families. Numerous restaurants, hotel rooms, and other lavatories confirmed the whole paper-goes-in-the-garbage thing. It was odd and a little gross but, hey, I also ate guinea pig and that wasn’t so bad.
And, sure enough, there was a garbage can conveniently placed in the bathroom I used at my host family’s house.
But one day I noticed the garbage can had been moved to the far side of the room. I thought it was odd but I used it anyway.
The next day, the garbage can was gone.
I decided I was going to have to break down and just ask my host mom about it. What followed was one of the most bizarre and awkward conversations of my life including learning how to say toilet paper (papel higiénico) and a healthy dose of pantomime.
The look on my host mom’s face when she realized what I was asking was first horror, then cautious politeness. The way you might answer the question of a mentally ill person who may possibly be dangerous.
With utmost calm, she replied (in Spanish) “You can put the paper in the garbage can if you want to.” With great effort, I managed explained that it wasn’t a matter of my wanting. It was just that we had been told that we must.
She was visibly relieved when she told me that it wasn’t necessary in their house. Her husband was an architect and everything was very well designed.
Despite this terrible encounter at the beginning, I came to be very close to her. I had coffee with her almost every afternoon during the siesta and I loved hearing her talk about her life.
She is an amazing woman and I’m grateful for the time I had with her.