‘Not wanting to do reputational damage to my country I told them I was English and made a hasty exit from the toilet’

This Meath man has lived in Bogotá Colombia since 1991 and loves to travel in South America – even if the toilet situation is a challenge

I have lived in Bogotá, Colombia since 1991. A few years ago, I travelled to Peru and Bolivia with my now ex-wife and two daughters for a month to spend Christmas.

Looking back now, one of the most enduring memories of what turned out to be a great trip must be the toilet facilities.

I’ll restrict myself to describing one experience.

We were travelling through the desert in Bolivia in a 4x4 – the Bolivian driver, the four Rosses and three other tourists. There were lots of other 4x4s travelling the same route, mostly full of German tourists. We got to a dusty village after racing across some pretty rough terrain, and if there’s anything that is going to encourage an enthusiastic bowel movement, it is “racing across rough terrain”.


We got out of the truck, and I immediately looked for the nearest toilet.

Okay, no problem. It was just metres from where we stopped. No sign of the Germans as we were first in town. I walked towards the loo, but then realised that I didn’t have paper, so went back to the girls to get some. (Loo paper had become something similar to cigarettes in prison, a kind of currency).

By the time the girls had dug out their secret supply and handed it over with that familiar, “you owe me” look, on their sweet faces, the Germans were arriving. I made a dash for the toilet, only to find one cubicle. Just one cubicle with a rusty metal door that wouldn’t close fully. There was no seat and a toilet-bowl already full to the brim.

I lowered my jeans and tried to position myself over the bowl, legs trembling, my brow a little sweaty, clutching the paper in my right hand, holding the door closed with my left, while the rumbling in my stomach was not auguring well for an “unshared” experience.

I’m there trying to focus, anticipating the blessed relief, when who should barrel in? Yes, the Germans! They were right up against the door, all babbling away . . . in German. Don´t get me wrong, I have great respect and admiration for the Germans as a race. My only gripe is the language.

You know the theory that the sound of running water might encourage a desire to urinate? Well, I can tell you that the sound of German does not have a similar effect when it comes to a much-needed bowel movement.

I mean, it wasn’t only that, obviously. The presence of several strangers, literally inches away, all focussed intently on the space I was occupying did not help. I promise you, I really needed privacy!

Well, I just couldn’t do what nature was demanding of me, so pulled up my jeans again, used the paper to wipe the film of sweat from my brow, and left the cubicle.

The first person in the queue was leaning against the cubicle door, and almost fell over when I pushed it open. He glanced at the bowl and a look of understandable disgust invaded his face. I felt guilty, almost apologising, though I quickly turned defensive, and wanted to explain that their presence had made it impossible for me to do anything. I didn’t of course, but not wanting to do reputational damage to my country I told them I was English and made a hasty exit.

Another standout memory was arriving in the town of Uyuni (in south-west Bolivia) after a 12-hour overnight bus ride from La Paz.

The bus journey itself was something of an unusual experience. There were no toilets on the bus, so we had to stop at about 1.30am in the proverbial “middle of nowhere” for a break. I was sitting at the back of the bus, and being Bolivia, about four or five men were standing in the aisle all the way. Twelve hours standing!

Anyway, we stopped and I pushed my way up to the door and got off. I went to the loo and was standing by the bus admiring the strange landscape, almost moonscape around me, when another long-distance bus pulled up. (I should mention that these were Bolivian buses, I mean they were not tourist buses. The quality of the service is markedly inferior, and they are used primarily by the locals).

This other bus pulls up, and the passengers piled off. In the midst of this crowd of “bladderly-challenged” people, I could hear someone speaking English. She was the only English speaker on the bus and seemed to be in distress. Actually, she was crying hysterically and pleading for help.

I tried to step into the shadows a little more, as you do, but she spotted me, which wasn’t difficult I guess, as even in the dark I don’t look particularly Bolivian, and screamed: “Do you speak English?” right in my face.

I have to admit I thought twice about replying, as she seemed a little unstable, but admitted that I did.

This was a mistake. Turns out she was Australian, and she regaled me with the story of how she´d been begging the driver to stop for a loo break for the previous nine hours, and all he’d done was laugh at her.

Of course, I’m not sure how she’d expressed this need, as she didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Anyway, she said that she could be dying of toxic shock syndrome, which meant nothing to me, though the word “dying” led me to deduce that it must be quite serious.

I was looking quite blank, and not reacting in the way she had hoped, so she followed up with: “Do you know what toxic shock syndrome is!?”

I obviously didn’t, but tried my best not to appear an ignoramus, and muttered something like “urine retention?”, which I still consider, with the information available to me at the time, a reasonably intelligent guess.

Again, this was a big mistake on my part.

She looked at me with a mixture of fear and contempt and went into great and very unwelcome detail about how it was caused by having a tampon “in there” for too long. She said that she didn’t have a replacement tampon, and asked what were the possibilities of me finding a fresh one for her.

She asked me if I could imagine what it felt like. Again, I failed to answer. My single-sex Catholic education with the Christian Brothers hadn’t prepared me for moments like this. What made this situation worse was the fact that the Bolivian passengers from her bus had made a circle around us, no doubt wondering why the freckly man didn’t appear to understand English.

I finally disentangled myself from this lady and climbed back on my bus, which was in complete darkness. As I made my way down the aisle to my seat, I inadvertently stood on the head of a man who had been standing all the way from La Paz.

There was total darkness of course, so how was I to know that this poor man would decide to get 40 winks on the floor of the bus while I was fielding questions on my medical knowledge.

I arrived back to my seat a much older man.

  • Cormac Ross was born in Trim, Co Meath, and moved to Colombia after living in England for five years. He worked for the British Council as an English teacher during the 1990s and started his own company, Study Agency in 2000. He has two daughters, Erin and Aislinn, who were born in Colombia. He met his former wife, Adie, who is from Bogotá, in Oxford in 1989.
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1: Cormac Ross with one foot in Chile, the other in Bolivia

2: Adie, Erin and Aislinn, their daughters, with travelling companions in Laguna Colorada

3 and 4:

Cormac Ross on his travels during a month-long trip to Peru and Bolivia a few years ago

Cormac Ross

Anthea McTeirnan | The Irish Times

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