March 29, 2014

by Paul Rosenthal in

The saying, “expect the unexpected” always seemed pretty silly to me. How can something be unexpected if you’re expecting it?

But, after months on the road, I’ve learned that there are, in fact, varying degrees of unexpected.

When you head to unfamiliar lands, you expect to come across surprising ways of doing everything from shopping at a fruit stand to paying for bus rides. You don’t know what those surprises will be, but you know they’re lurking out there, and you’re on the alert. That’s the expected unexpected.

But then, there’s also the unexpected unexpected. The stuff that never occurred to you might be different, but which swoops in and smacks you on the noggin from out of the blue.

The abundance of “love motels” in relatively conservative societies from Guatemala to Ecuador falls in this category. These openly advertised tryst spots — frequently ballyhooed with posters of scantily clad girls smiling giddily amid an abundance of gaudy red hearts — crop up in small towns or remote rural areas, where you’d least imagine them being accepted. They generally feature a row of garages and rooms – with the room entrances inside the garages so that guests can park and slip into a boudoir comfortably hidden from prying eyes.

We’ve stayed in a couple of these spicy spots. Although, in our case, they’re somewhat less romantic when you squeeze six people into the room — particularly six people who have been recycling their socks and underwear during a three-month driving trip.

The most astonishing love motel we encountered was in Ecuador, near the Colombian border. To ensure guests’ privacy there were no windows in the suite. But there was a karaoke system, plenty of DVDs, three televisions, two bottles of beer on the house, heart-shaped pillows, and mirrors artfully arranged around—and above—the beds. Yet the truly astonishing part was that once we’d piled into the room the staff locked us in for the night. If we wanted get something from the car we phoned the front desk and a guard unlocked the garage door, then stood sentry until we returned. We theorized that this rigmarole was to prevent folks from stealing the TVs. I just prayed that there wouldn’t be a fire in the night, and slept fitfully with visions of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory dancing in my head.

Another example of the unexpected unexpected was Latin America’s love-hate relationship with toilet paper. On the one hand, people here seem to cherish it, judging by the parsimonious way they parcel it out. On the other hand, many restrooms seem to encourage waste. Often, individual toilet stalls in a baño don’t have their own rolls of paper. Instead, theres a master roll by the bathroom entry, and patrons must stock up before they enter a stall. Since it’s always wise to err on the side of too much rather than too little toilet paper, this system flagrantly encouragers taking more than you actually need.

Yet, the most notable aspect of the Latin American toilet paper phenomenon is that, despite the stuff being called “toilet” paper, it’s never actually allowed in a toilet. Instead, you’re supposed to toss the used tissue into the little waste can beside the fixture. And, to be clear, that’s not a practice confined to small towns or sketchy establishments; it’s universal. The used paper bin (and signs reminding you that toilet paper isn’t for toilets) awaits you at posh hotels and humble hostels, at roadside lunch stands and expensive restaurants, at American chains like KFC or McDonalds and highway gas stations alike.

Having previously sampled a wide array of toilets — from high-tech automated lavatories in Japan to the little ceramic footprints that show you where to squat in rural Italy — I thought I was thoroughly prepared for all variations on the bathroom theme, fully prepared to expect the unexpected.

I was wrong.