You may have recently discovered your personal level of gratitude and appreciation for toilet paper. And I’m happy for you. I really am. Because I learned that lesson, back in June when I made my first trip to Colombia. In my now-favorite country, you often have to pay to use public restrooms and TP isn’t standard. Actually, it’s a rare luxury in most bathrooms outside a home setting. In fact, you’ll consider yourself lucky if you get a toilet seat. You’ll be REALLY excited if you get a toilet seat AND toilet paper. And if you get a toilet seat, AND toilet paper, AND soap at the sink afterward, you’ve hit the jackpot and might want to consider flagging the location on your map app. Just a thought.
Often you also have pay to use a public bathroom. But at least when that’s the case they give you a little cardboard box with way more tissue than you should need. Which is how I came to begin carrying toilet paper in my purse. It makes for awkward conversation when I mistake the package for gum while rummaging through my bag in a checkout line, but has proven to come in handy.
Case in point.
I’d spent the last three days in Villa de Lleyva, a stunningly beautiful historic town a couple of hours outside of Bogota. But the time had come to get back to the thronging city so I could catch a flight to Baranquilla for the next leg of my journey. I had spent the morning drinking coffee and saying good bye to friends new and old, and arrived at the bus station a little before 11am. I’d ridden this line often enough to know the schedule, but when I approached the desk there was a thick piece of metallic colored tape over my departure time. And the next option was 1:00pm.
“No, no. No bien.” I pleaded in broken spanish to the woman at the counter. “Yo necesito en el aeropuerto en Bogota a las tres y media.” (“I have to be at the airport in Bogota at 3:30” is what I meant to say. That isn’t quite what came out, but I think she got it.) In truth, I needed to get to the city earlier than that. All my luggage for the next leg of my journey was in my friend’s apartment.
Her eyes were kind when she shook her head. It would take “Tres horas” by bus. I felt fingers of panic crawl into my stomach. My flight was lifting off at 4pm. And I’d still have to get from the bus station to the airport. I’d never make it.
No, no… there has to be a way. There’s always a way. And there was: I could hire a private car at a stomach-tightening cost. “Dos horas.” He could get me there in two hours.
It’s cheaper than another airline ticket, I rationalized as I handed over the last of my pesos to a kind looking gentleman who spoke no English, but drove a state licensed yellow taxi. I paid to use the bathroom one last time before shoving my backpack full of dirty clothes into his car and falling into the seat next to it.
The now-familiar countryside passed beautifully outside my window as I rode. My driver attempted to speak to me, and I understood enough to get the most basic information across, but soon we were out of words and enjoyed the trip in silence.
An hour or so in, that last cup of coffee with my new friends in Villa de Lleyva was catching up with me and I mentioned to my driver that I would need to find a bathroom soon. “Closer to Bogota” was what I understood of his response. It’s only an hour. I can wait. And then we came to a complete stop on the highway.
That’s not uncommon in Colombia. Traffic is a nightmare near the city. Always. Lines painted on pavement are taken merely as suggestion and what should be four lanes of traffic can easily be six. Generally the congestion clears after 10 or 15 minutes so I pleaded with my body to just hang in there and distracted myself from the impending horror of watching my plane lift off as I chased it down the runway by marveling – again – at the scene around me. Motos (motorcycles) are permitted to split-lanes in Colombia, meaning that at any moment, a cycle can scream up next to you, in the already-too-narrow space between your vehicle and the one next to you. Which is an impressive feat even in moving traffic but when cars, trucks and buses are nearly standing still, it’s truly a performance. Helmets bob as moto drivers and their passengers (sometimes more than one) navigate rearview mirrors and overflowing flat-beds and the occasional rider on horseback as though they were plastic cones on an agility course. It’s WILD out there.
And just as a family of three (I presume) sped past my window on a bike, my driver announced his map app was telling him we had two more hours to go. There was a massive political demonstration in the streets of the city and traffic was jammed up solidly into, through, and well into the areas surrounding Bogota.
My stomach would have sunk but there wasn’t space for it. I squirmed in my seat and scanned the landscape outside the vehicle. Nothing. Not a restaurant or gas station… nothing except vehicles as far as I could see.
I can make it. It’s only two more hours. I could still make my flight if I ignored my need of a shower and pretended my clothes were clean. But that wasn’t even kind of the top priority in my mind.
I distracted myself with forced-calm, calling my friend in Bogota to tell her I wouldn’t make it to her apartment. She’d have to bring my clean clothes with her and meet me at the airport. We made arrangements, I shut off my phone to save the waning battery, and returned my attention to the clogged street before me. We’d crawled forward about another 50 feet.
I’m not going to make it. And despite my newly-adopted habit of carrying a water bottle with me at all times, I also knew I couldn’t hit that mark. Even holding still and in the privacy of a bathroom. I explored other options. Perhaps he could pull over and I could run down the hill and pee behind a tree. But we were in the thick of the traffic and getting to the should and back could take a half hour or more. Plus, there were no trees. Just acres and acres of farmland. I ruled out several other horrifyingly bad options – including sitting on the hood and just letting it run down onto the ground – before I let my voice squeak with the desperation I was now feeling.
“NECESITO el bano.”
He shook his head and shrugged. Vacant. Almost disinterested in my ever-more-serious situation. Then he pointed to a bus stop on the side of the road.
It’s a uniquely startling moment, when you realize that your basic bodily functions take precedence over everything else in your life. When you understand in a profoundly real way that you will go to extreme measures, do things you NEVER imagined you might do, in the name of necessity.
I considered it for a long moment as we inched closer. Maybe I could do it. Better than peeing in my pants, I supposed. But I would quite literally be on display for all the traffic passing in the nearest two lanes. And then I realized that PEEING IN MY PANTS had become my next best option.
In a stroke of what I can only guess to be magic, in my thousandth scan of the area around me, I spotted a port-a-potty. A narrow, blue plastic pod in a roped-off construction site on the hillside just in front of us, in the median between the two sides of the interstate. Could I do that? Could I trespass on an interstate construction site in a foreign country just to use a bathroom? Um, yes. Yes I could.
I gestured at the thing in explanation to my driver, mumbled something about leaving my backpack behind and checked the space behind us and between the gridlock of vehicles. All clear. I clutched my purse to my distended belly and launched myself from the cab. Was I really doing this? The instant my feet hit the ground I thought my bladder might tear like a threadbare t-shirt. Yep. I was doing this. I was sure I could feel the fissures starting when I attempted to pull myself to upright. So I didn’t. Which is how I found myself half hunched over and waddle-running through and around six lanes of traffic, my purse swinging wildly at my side, dodging motos and the shocked expressions of innumerable drivers and passengers somewhere outside of Bogota, Colombia.
And then the wheels of the vehicles began to roll. My heart thumped with anxiety but there was no turning back now. I was panting by the time I scaled the steep embankment, sure I was sweating urine. I paused just long enough to hide from the last construction worker on the site before finally squeezing myself and my purse into the blue plastic capsule. Ahhhh, sweet relief. And, bonus! I found a tiny cardboard box with some leftover toilet paper in my purse.
I veritably swaggered down the embankment afterward. And it only took another 5 or ten minutes to locate my cab among the hundreds crowding the roadway. I wandered through the crawling line of vehicles from one side of the road to the other, and down each lane, squatting briefly every so often to see the numbers painted on the sides and I didn’t care at all about the horrified faces staring at me.
I did make my flight. Only barely. And only because my incredibly kind and generous friend packed my things and hauled BOTH our luggage to the airport. Thank god for good friends, toilet paper, and port-a-potties.