Bolsa Blues: Adventures in Cuban Plumbing

This is half of a narrative written about my raucous New Year’s in Havana. The first, less-gnarly half is being considered for publication (fingers crossed and breath held), but I’ve decided that this side of the story is far too raunchy to get accepted anywhere. So, I’ll inflicted you all with it…

Bolsa Blues or The Other Reason You Should Always Carry a Plastic Bag in Cuba

I waken to a pale face in half-light. It looks down at me, desperate and pleading-eyed, washed in a light sweat and slashed by the stripe of sun that invades through the crack in the wooden shutters.

“Dude,” I croak. “What the—“

A tight-throat urgency cuts me off. “The toilet’s busted,” my boyfriend declares. “And I gotta crap.”

It’s New Year’s Day, and we’re stark naked in our tiny casa particular room, somewhere near the crumbling heart of Havana. The cigars, Rumba and rum of the previous night rumbles in our stomachs.

It’s the cardinal rule of Latin American traveling: never flush the toilet paper. A continent-and-a-half held together by a rattling grid of rusty old pipes, the Western traveler is beseeched by earnest signs Scotch-taped to the walls of restrooms: “Dear Mr. Customer, Please to not put paper in the toilet.”

It’s a hard-to-break habit of ours, this depositing of smeared bundles into the toilet bowl; it takes a couple days to train the hand to shift, move, not drop the paper straight down but into a wastebasket beside the toilet. It was only our third day; we had a couple slips. But surely, I assured Adam the night before, nothing extreme enough to reek pipe-wrecking havoc.

But the plumbing gods were watching, laughing, and struck swiftly with their reprisal. And my boyfriend, beset with hangover bowels, is paying the price.

I leap from the tangled sheets, hair sticking straight up and nude. I peer in at the toilet from the doorway. “There’s no way,” Adam answers before I can ask.

He’s right—the mess inside has disintegrated into a thick, gurgling stew at the bottom of the bowl, streaks running down the sides. I glance back at Adam, hunched over and leaning against the wall. “It’s bad,” he tells me.

“Let’s get dressed and go somewhere.”

“Yeah, but where?”

Attempting to smoke a cigar, the previous night

He’s right again—all shops and restaurants in walking distance have less-than passable, if any, facilities. I suggest taking a cab to the fancy hotels in Centro and using their lobby bathrooms, a tactic we employed earlier during our outings. Adam shakes his head, “I don’t think I can make it. I’ve been holding it all night.”

I suggest trying to use the casa owners’ bathroom. I then consider the vocabulary necessary to construct a plausible explanation, and nix the idea. “You could go in the trash can,” I laugh. He chuckles, grimacing slightly. “Or in a plastic bag.” We laugh harder.

Our laugh gives way to silence. We look each other in the eye and nod. “Lemme see if we have one.”

I begin rummaging through our piles of clothes, books, snacks, while Adam sits on the rim of the tub, mentally preparing. “Got it!” I exclaim, waving like a flag the small plastic bag that carried the crackers we’d bought during our layover in Mexico. I hand it to him with a reassuring smile.

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

I shut the door behind me. I intend to go wait politely on the edge of the bed, but the camera appears in my hands. I creep towards the door, inch it open. He’s squatting in the middle of the room, veins bulged in concentration, with the black bag clutched under him. I get him in the frame; the camera clicks.

“Oh, come on! What the fuck!” he shouts. I giggle and slam the door.

“Really, Lauren,” he says from the other side. “Is that necessary?”

“Yes.” I laugh hysterically as I examine the view finder. “Yes, it is.”

He emerges from the bathroom a couple minutes later, eyes down. “Well?” I ask. He looks at me, nods. I peer in the bathroom; he’s neatly tied the handles of the bag and set the bundle on the edge of the tub.

“What do we do with it now?”

It seems wrong to leave it there, in plain view, when the poor owners will have deal with the mess in the toilet already. I picture us sneaking into the kitchen and throwing it in the trash, but that doesn’t seem right either. Nor does our sheepishly handing them the bag and running out of the apartment. “We could hide it in a drawer and flush it when the toilet’s working again,” I offer half-assedly.

“Do you have any idea how awful it’ll smell in here when a bag of shit’s been festering all day?” Adam, always the practical one, retorts.

“We could smuggle out in my bag.” It seems like a viable option.

Adam gets off the bed, moving towards the window. “I wonder if we could open these shutters.” He runs his hands down the solid wood covering the windows.

“You wouldn’t really throw it out of the window, would you?”

“You wanna carry my shit in your bag?”

We pry the latch open and groan the hinges open. Daylight blasts into the room; our pupils wince.

Adam stands on a chair, craning his neck to see as far out the window as the wrought-iron bars will allow. “What’s out there?”

He steps off the chair, defeated. “It’s one of those air shafts. People have all their laundry hanging up. And someone’s got a garden down at the bottom.” I refrain from a bad joke about fertilizer.

We collapse on the bed and stare at the ceiling. “Well,” I venture, “we could just put it in the bathroom trash can. I mean, it’s already got our used toilet paper in it, so I doubt they’d really look.”

“I guess you’re right.”

We get dressed quickly. I gingerly bury the plastic bag beneath the top layer of used toilet paper in the wastebasket. I put the lid down on the toilet before we leave the room.

“Bueno dia,” our casa owner greets us warmly, looking up from the newspaper.

“Bueno dia,” we mumble (we’ve learned to drop our “s”s, just not our toilet paper).

“Quieren desayuno?” his amicable, aproned wife asks.

“Um, no, no gracia.” We stand there for a moment, awkwardly. I take a step towards the owner. “Um, pardon, senor.” I fidget, look down. “Hay un problema en el bano.” He nods earnestly at me. “Lo siento.”

Maybe it’s a situation he’s encountered before—poor plumbing meets the foreigner’s paper-flushing habit, topped off with a rocking drinker’s shit. We exchange helpless smiles, and Adam and I scuttle out the front door as fast as we can.

Down on the street, we feel relieved. Neither one of us can stop laughing.

“I think,” Adam declares, “that you’re the best person to be in a bad poo situation with.”

“Really?” I beam at the compliment.

Malecon

“Well, yeah. I mean, anyone can be practical. That’s not really what you need in a bad poo situation. What you need is someone who will find it absolutely hilarious.”

I take his hand. “I’m honored.”

We continue down the street, holding hands under the half-clouded Cuban sky, towards the Malecon, and a new year.

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9 Responses to “Bolsa Blues: Adventures in Cuban Plumbing”


  1. 1 Candice January 17, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    LOL! Wow, that’s quite a crappy situation to be in. Harrr..really bad pun. You’re hilarious.

  2. 2 Fly Girl January 18, 2010 at 8:55 am

    This is a fantastically funny adventure that I think you should pitch separately. I’ve had bathroom mishaps in Latin America as well but nothing like this. It’s gross and enthralling and I think you should publish it!

  3. 3 Ekua January 18, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Ah, toilets in Latin America. Takes me so long to get used to not flushing the toilet paper, then when I come home, I have to stop myself from putting it into the trash 😉

  4. 5 Kanitha January 20, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    This is hilarious, and I love it, yet I kind of want to vomit at the same time. I think if you published it, there is definitely an audience who would throughly enjoy it.

  5. 6 Marie January 22, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    There really aren’t enough poo stories in the world. What would travelling be without them! I’ve got a handful of Asian-based ones. Shall we get a group of people with poo stories together and make a book? You just know the world is waiting for it.

  6. 7 Ari February 3, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Having had similar shared bodily function experiences with my own boyfriend, it always warms my heart when I think of just how intimate and accepting we can be towards each other. Nothing says lovin’ like sharing something personal and gross and getting through it together!

  7. 8 Jessie Kwak March 21, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    How hysterical! I agree with Ari–we’ve had plenty of our own similar situations, and it’s amazing how quickly awkward body functions can really bond you together. 🙂 I love how you tell the story–really brilliant!

  8. 9 phillegitimate February 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    When I was living in Korea a family friend (minister of the family church no less) came to stay with me in my studio for a few days. First morning, after a night of heavy kimchi and soju, he got up to take a shower. Seconds after he locks the door, I realise that one way or another that kimchi is going to explode out of me before he’s even got the water running hot.

    So yes, I know what it is to crap in a bag and then hide the evidence. Like your story a lot. Did part one get published?


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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