The Great Expat Toilet Paper Debate

I’ve travelled a lot over the past twenty-odd years. I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing sights, taste foods the like I could never have imagined, experience things that most people will only ever dream of, and meet an endless array of the most amazing, wonderful, strange and in some instances simply outright weird people you could ever hope to meet. But I can honestly say that I don’t think anything has bewildered me more than The Great Toilet Paper Debate that seems to have its epicentre amongst the expat population in South America.

It seems a pretty simple concept to me: you arrive in a new country or region in the world, take a look around you and take onboard what people are doing, any information that might guide you on the rules and/or cultural and social practices of the place, and where necessary adapt your behaviour as appropriate. When heading to the US for the first time I had to learn to drive on the right hand side of the road. In Sweden it was going to special stores to buy alcohol, taking your ticket and then waiting in line for your turn to buy from the menu. In Kenya it was learning to eat roasted goat every second night.

When I travelled through Egypt, I discovered that in many places toilet paper was an unknown entity, with water being utilised as the cleansing tool of choice. And many will argue a much more hygienic cleaning method too. Think about it: what other part of your body, smeared with shit, would you clean by merely wiping with a few pieces of paper?

And squatting, who likes doing that after a lifetime of sitting comfortably on a seat? And for those with sports-aged knees… but you do what you have to do, I certainly don’t lose any sleep over these regional cultural and practical norms.

So heading to South America four years ago, and finding out – unsurprisingly – that the norm here was the place your used paper into a rubbish bin beside the toilet, I altered my behaviour without a second’s thought. I mean, seriously, what is the big deal?

Well apparently for some people, it is.

A small amount of logic and the reasons why toilet paper isn’t flushed in most places in Latin America (and many less developed regions or places with antiquated sewer systems) is blatantly obvious. Old systems utilise ceramic, clay or concrete pipes, which are obviously very rough along the sides, and have joints with small gaps and/or ridges. Particles of toilet paper travelling through the pipes cling to these rough sides, gaps and ridges, and over time build up causing blockages and eventually cracks and breakages due to the build up of pressure.

“Oh, but toilet paper dissolves in water!”

Let’s go back to that logic idea again for the moment. Toilet paper doesn’t suddenly become liquid just because it’s immersed in water. What it does do is break down into small particles, particles that are SOLID and that still become stuck on those before-mentioned gaps and ridges. These “tiny” particles gradually build up over time, forming much larger clumps of… well, I’m sure you don’t need me to describe what these clumps would consist of. Bleh!!

“Oh, but my building is new so we can flush paper there!”

Is the sewer system leading from your building to the sewerage plant new as well? If so great, then maybe you can flush paper, lucky you! And this may be the case in a select few areas in some of the more developed cities in Latin America and other places, but you really should confirm this to be the case rather than just a selling point that some building’s owner is using to attract customers. And it is HIGHLY unlikely to be the case for most new buildings.

So tell me, what’s more important to you, that it’s a little bit “yucky”, or that you’re helping to fuck up and potentially damage the sewer system in the area you’re staying in?

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