Potty Talk

IMG_9039Let’s talk toilets.

After three years of marathon travel, we are here to tell you that all toilets are not created equal worldwide, and we are not just talking about how they look and flush.

They are housed differently and decorated differently. Toilet paper is provided differently (or not at all) and flushed/tossed differently. Some cultures take their bathrooms seriously; others find them a source of humor. Toilets are not only universal and functional, it turns out. Toilets are photo opps.

For today’s Partout, we interrupt our South American idyll to plumb potties we have known and shot.


Teaching Toilets, Pretty Potties

In some locations, public toilets are treated as canvases for public art.

Surely that is the case in Groningen, the Netherlands. What else would explain these athletes eternally cavorting around this public potty along one of the city’s main canals? (Speak up, Dutch readers!)
Amsterdam december 2015Meanwhile, in Colombia’s coffee country on the other side of the pond, the blank wall of this public toilet obviously proved irresistible for extending the splendors of the Andes and its bird life.
IMG_0227Toilets can be educational, too.

During its dire water shortage, Cape Town, South Africa, offered many water conservation lessons, including a potty ditty plastered in toilet stalls.
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For its part, the United Arab Emerates WC supplied some little-known nuggets to enlighten stall-sitters. (Thank you, IML Group, for making the difference.)
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Speaking of Chinese emperors, Louis captured this helpful lesson years ago in Chendu.

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Greek island restrooms won the sweepstakes with us for consistently providing more fashionable interiors than any we had ever seen elsewhere. In three weeks on more islands than we can remember, it seemed no head was too humble for a flourish of art, greenery or decorate style.

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This is not a particularly good example but take our word for it: In the Greek islands, public restrooms are a thing of beauty

Some loos even offer views. That selfie at the top of the blog? It was taken of us at the mirror of a washroom in Mexico City where a restaurant strategically positioned the glass to provide a reflected view of the skyline to handwashers.
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Amusing Loos, Confusing Loos

Who would have thought of a potty stop as a comedic interlude to travel? And yet they do.

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The comic sign designers invariably seem to be women. These were in Ecuador.

They also baffle.

Doris spent her first week in Oman trying to figure out what to do with the faucet and hose that hung from the walls of public bathrooms. Only when she got the courage to ask another tourist in the opera house in Muscat did she learn the contraption was a “bum gun” to be used for … well, the words speak for themselves.
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And then there was the WC decor in a prominent Cuenca restaurant we visited last week with visiting Debbie and Barry of Long Island.

Louis emerged for a posprandial potty stop with this photo from the men’s room.
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Doris emerged with this one.
IMG_0367We don’t even want to begin plumbing the thinking behind gasoline nozzels in the men’s room and sewing machines in the women’s, but it definitely illustrates why it is important never to leave your cell phone at the table when heading to the toilet.


Let’s Talk Toilet Paper

Nothing but nothing, however, gets the creative juices of toilet owners going like the task of instructing/warning/admonishing and otherwise begging visitors to their porcelain gods to please, please, please not flush the toilet paper.

We cannot begin to do justice to their creativity, but here are a few illustrations.

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(Top): “There was a drunk on a bus…. Now that I have your attention, deposit the toilet paper in the wastebasket.” (Bottom) “Gentlemen: Please stand closer to the urinal. Your thingy is no doubt shorter than you like to believe” (Thanks to Robert Verge for that  translation. Google did not want us to know quite so much!)

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Even the normally reserved Provençal French get into the act with goldfish and telephone bills, bilingually no less.
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No Place Like Home

Alas, there is a sad PS to our globe-trotting washroom tours.

In all our travels, no matter how far and no matter how underdeveloped or poverty-stricken the destination, we never, ever, anywhere, encounter public bathrooms as dirty and derelict as the ones we routinely find back home. It is the rare water closet abroad that is not a model of good hygiene, pride of place, respect for customers and plain old good taste. Whether amused, bemused, educated or simply relieved, we leave them thinking well of our foreign hosts. Coming home, we often shudder at the impressions visitors to the United States must take home from their potty stops.

Toilets talk. America’s could use a language lesson!


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Hand-crafted toilet paper holder in Cuenca


Tips from the Partout toolbox: Speaking of the multi-purposes of cell phones, ours hold scans of our passport photo pages. The scans are as good as the real thing for  identification purposes other than flights, which enables us to leave the essential documents themselves safely behind in hotel safes or locked suitcases in our AirBnBs.

COMING SOON! On the Trail of Incas

Culture Shocked (Again)

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We’ve all seen the cartoons featuring hairless little space aliens freshly landed on earth trying to figure out earthling civilization based on artifacts like a set of giant golden arches.

In Cuenca, we sometimes feel like space aliens.

This was driven home most recently attending our third winter revel in three weeks. The latest (and last for a while) was on January 6, Epiphany on most Christian calendars but Day of the Innocents in Cuenca even though Christian churches normally commemorate King Herod’s legendary butchery of little boys on December 28.

Got that? No matter. The point is that any correspondence between any religious observance and what went on in the streets of Cuenca on January 6 was purely coincidental. This was Halloween meets Stephen Colbert. In drag. An exercise in public satire in which thousands of citizens dress up to skewer the absurdities of the past year and tens of thousands more citizens line the streets to cheer the action. Imagine a Macy’s Parade with nothing but balloons on the order of the UK’s baby Trump send-up and you get the picture.

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A sliver of the crowd on hand for the very serious Day of the Innocents fun

With three holiday celebrations and many hours of grilling locals now under our belts, we are here to tell you that Ecuadorians take their holiday revelry seriously, by which we mean they embrace the festivities in high spirits but also as an opportunity for informed and civil political commentary.

Right. Informed and civil political commentary, paraded in the streets. We are definitely on another planet.


Even as space aliens, we found some of the satire on parade broad and universal enough to be understandable.

There were, for example, the barefoot and pregnant paraders marching behind a banner that read “The ‘Privileges’ of Being a Woman” (emphasis on the quotes around “privileges”) while men with bullhorns wove among them bellowing, “What’s the problem, ladies? You get to go to work! Take care of the children! Cook for your husbands!”

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Note the Christian cross in this parody of women’s privileges

Even without the label “Tele Mentira” (“TV Lies”), Pinocchio with a car-length nose and the message, “Ecuadorians! Everything is good!” was only too recognizable as a lampoon of post-fact journalism. To reinforce the fakery theme, fake TV reporters ran into the crowds with fake TV cameras and microphones to conduct inane fake interviews with the very real spectators.
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Police violence (against students and indigenous populations) was another readily recognizable theme and, along with anti-IMF sentiments, proof perfect that Cuencanos take their parade of ideas to heart.

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Even nice Canada came under fire.


Other exhibitions were a bit more inscrutable.

We understood the sarcasm about natural gas providers who failed to deliver gas during last autumn’s civil unrest (“Muchas Gracias, Gaseros,” the banner read). After all, they left the country without hot water or cooking fuel for weeks.

But what was the connection with the gringa flashing her nether regions in the same “Gringitos Locos” (“crazy little gringos”) entry?

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Whatever the connection, this gringa was very popular with the crowd

Likewise, we could get the connection of “Caballeros de la Noche” (Dark Knights) ahead of a bunch of Batmen and Jokers, but why were they followed by Batwomen sweeping the streets with push brooms?
moldiv-003-copy.jpgIt wasn’t hard to figure out the link between indigenous dancers and the Spanish sailing ship float accompanied by conquistadors (“invaders” in these parts).

But what was the significance of native Americans (“indigenous North Americans” around here)?

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Doris’s efforts to connect with her indigenous American roots did not go so well.

Also befuddling: a dazzling golden goddess (unless she was something else) and fabulous feathered birds. No matter, they provided Louis with some very happy clicks.
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Crowd control and conduct were also a bit other-worldly to us. Essentially, anything went. Louis could stand in the middle of the street busily shooting to his heart’s content while spectators of all ages dashed into the action and the photos.IMG_7592

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Definitely a Yankees fan


Being in Spanish school the last couple weeks has given us easy access to native interpreters to cu through our alien fog. On New Year’s Eve, for example, we were surprised and curious about the complete lack of public drinking. The answer: New Year’s is a family celebration. If grandparents are alive, it is specifically a celebration that they lived another year. What’s more, Ecuador has strict laws against public drinking. End result: New Year celebrations that are not only serious but sober.

In the end, confusion and its resolution have been part of the holiday fun for us. Doris never wanted to come to South America. Her stock answer to Louis’s relentless prodding that she “needed” to see SA was: “I grew up and lived in Spanish colonies! I don’t need to travel to them to know what they are like!” Being culture shocked is evidence that she (and we) are learning better. South America is no more Spain than New York City is Amsterdam or Massachusetts is England.

For us space aliens, that makes every day a new inter-planetary landing.

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A reveler at sunset on the Day of the Innocents with the Church of San Blas in the background


From the Partout toolbox: Pop quiz time, fellow travelers! Do you know the three-digit emergency number for the foreign country you most recently visited? You know, the 9-1-1 of, say, France or Australia or Qatar? Those three little numbers can be the literal difference between life and death on the road, but we have yet to stay in an AirBnB and  house exchange where the number is front and center in the hosting notes. Solution? Look up your destination’s emergency code before you hit the road and, like the Mastercard of old, don’t leave home without it.

COMING SOON! Let’s Talk Toilets

 

Lunch in a Field of Dreams

DSC02202Seven kilometers from the heart of Cuenca, then a kilometer east on San Miguel de Putushi and finally a couple hundred meters up a dirt lane, past a tethered llama, at the end of the road, lives and works a happy man.

Edwin Giovani Combizaca Salinas is the man, and Le Petit Jardin is his restaurant at the end Calle de las Brevas, as unlikely a success as the ghostly ballpark in Field of Dreams.

This is Giovani’s story and how we came to eat frog legs in the Andes.

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Our starters and dessert. In between was a trout almondine.


Giovani Combizaca was born in an Amazonian village of 3,000 where his parents had to walk two days to get to their paying jobs. When he reached school age, his family moved to a larger town so he could get an education, but the family went back to the jungle on weekends to farm, and the children were expected to work in the fields.

Giovani found the work hard. When he fell and broke his leg at 10, he was not sorry that his father said he would have to stay home with his grandmother and contribute to the family support by cooking the meals and cleaning the house.

“I knew little things,” he says, “like how to cook and clean a chicken and cook it in some onions and garlic, fresh thyme and tomatoes.” Giovani found he liked cooking and cleaning, foreshadowing if ever there was any.

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Giovani (near right) still likes cooking but the kitchen has improved since his Amazonian youth.


At about the same time, Giovani first saw Cuenca on a family trip. He was so taken with the city that he chose the University of Cuenca when it came time for college. After he decided law studies were not for him, he dropped out, got married and fathered a son. Working around town in hotels and restaurants, he worried he would never make anything of his life. When his younger brother announced he was going to the United States to find his future, Giovani asked his wife for five years to do the same. She agreed. At 25, Giovani headed north.

The passage was harrowing: two nights on an island off the coast of Nicaragua living off coconuts and sand crabs, 25 hours riding on a wooden platform between the wheels of semi to Guatemala, jail and a shakedown for a $5,000 ransom in Mexico, a foot race from INS agents in New Mexico.

“Always you say, ‘I shouldn’t do this,’ but you keep going,” Giovani told us between meal services on our Sunday afternoon at Le Petit Jardin. His brother Luis was caught and sent back; Giovani pushed on to New York City, where a sister lived, and then to Baltimore when New York proved too intense after tranquil Cuenca.

Thinking of himself as a cook because of his work in Cuenca, he applied for a job in a restaurant where perennial James Beard finalist Cindy Wolf was chef. Despite a less than stellar trial night at the grill, he was hired. In time and with nurturing in the culinary house of Wolf, he learned and rose to became sous chef of Petit Louis Bistro, eventually cooking, too, at Wolf’s highly acclaimed Charleston on the waterfront.

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A souvenir of Giovani’s Petit Louis Bistro days in Baltimore


Five years passed. One night in Cuenca, Giovani’s wife and son went to a mass where the priest asked worshippers to come forward to share their prayers with the congregation. His young son went forward and said, “I want my father to come home.”

Wolf had just offered Giovani a position of executive chef earning a princely sum by Ecuadorian (and a lot of American) standards. When his wife relayed their son’s prayer, he says, “It was a choice between money and my family.”

Giovani chose family.

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Giovani and his wife Maria Eliza outside Le Petit Jardin


Back in Cuenca, the couple bought a piece of bare land on the outskirts of the city and Giovani supported his family selling tacos and burritos from a claptrap vehicle he drove between villages. When the contraption broke down one hot afternoon, he retreated to his empty land, studied the landscape and thought, “Maybe I could have a restaurant here.”

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We all have to start somewhere. Giovani started with this.

Today, Giovani’s Le Petit Jardin at the end of the road is often Trip Advisor’s #1 of 617 restaurants in Cuenca. With another brother, he built everything in the restaurant with his own hands – the building, the kitchen, the light fixtures, the tables and chairs, the intricate working machines he crafts from trash rescued from the dump and never sells because “they are part of my heart.”

Le Petit Jardin is open only Saturdays and Sundays, from noon to 9 pm, where business is brisk enough that Giovani can afford to spend the rest of the week meeting with the locals who grow his farm-to-table heirloom tomatoes and lettuces and crafting the light fixtures and furniture and décor that come from his heart.

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Giovani makes the tables and chairs where diners eat his food.

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He is fond of turning discarded sewing machine bodies into working toys like this fire engine.


The menu changes every weekend to feature the most seasonal ingredients. One item that never leaves the menu is an appetizer called Eggplant Petit Louis, the little tower of eggplant, tapenade, goat cheese and tomato floating in the lightest of pesto sauces that appears in the collage above. Giovani considered Cindy Wolf’s eggplant dish in Baltimore “beautiful.” His interpretation, named for the restaurant where he was sous chef, is his culinary tribute to her excellence and the chance her restaurant gave him.

“She was my school. She is part of everything here.”

Giovanni recruits his own staff from among Cuenca’s poorest residents – all his female cooks are single mothers – and trains them to cook. When they are ready, they leave and open their own restaurants.

“I came from nothing,” he says. “I have more than I ever expected, and I want to inspire people. I want them to know that if they do the right thing, amazing things are going to happen.”

At Le Petit Jardin, amazing dishes, too.


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From the Partout toolbox: We use Uber whenever we can in South America because it is vastly safer (and cheaper) and because it solves one of the trickiest ground transportation challenges we routinely encounter: giving a driver the address of an AirBnB apartment in a language we don’t speak as they do. Leaving the address to Uber saves everyone a lot of head-scratching, but the app is not always available or practical. To simplify things for all involved, we now save our temporary address in a cell phone note before we move to any new destination. Getting into taxis, we can answer the globally understood question of “Where to?” by handing a phone to the driver so he can see it in his language. Works every time.

COMING SOON! Reaching the End of the Line

Related link: Le Petit Jardin website

 

 

 

The New Year that Popped and Fizzled

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Sometimes our plans pop, sometimes they fizzle. Our New Year’s eve was a little of both.

One of the reasons Partout ended up in Cuenca over New Year’s eve was Doris’s seduction by accounts of the city’s spectacularly fiery and colorful celebration.

At least as old as the Spanish invasion, the festivities famously star human, animal and fantasy effigies called monigotes that are built by families and neighborhoods, carried into the streets more or less on New Year’s eve and – at the stroke of midnight or thereabouts – set on fire to burn away the bad juju of the old year and make way for good new stuff. For maximum effect, celebrants jump over the bonfires they set and throw fireworks into them, though ideally not at the same moment.

For a woman who has been known to sleep in the gutter of Colorado Boulevard to get a good seat for the Rose Parade, irresistible, right?

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Veteran roadies that we are, we scoured the internet ahead of time for tips on when, where and how to see the traditions at their most traditional. We read about the way the celebration starts at home when generations gather for dinner and to share rituals like eating 12 grapes one at a time (one for each month) washed down with champagne or running around the block pulling a suitcase to bring travel in the year ahead. We queried locals and expats and grilled the teachers at our Spanish school so as not to miss a thing.

At 7 pm, we set out to see in 2020, prepped and dressed for the occasion.
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Crossing the Rio Tombebamba, making our way through El Vado and along the city’s biggest boulevards, we gawked at masked revelers.
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We noted the range of monigotes, from simple stuffed figures (the easier for burning) . . .
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. . . to elaborate tableaux.
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We admired the the vehicle-borne manigotes and the various ways they were attached to cars and trucks.
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The bike rack for monigote transportation seemed particularly inspired.

We joked with men in drag who play the role of viudas (“widows” of the old year) on the eve of the new year, vamping as they collect money for the city’s poor children.
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IMG_7463And we were startled and impressed to discover that the neighborhood displays were not all about fun and frivolity. Like the cross-dressing viudas, they were delivery vehicles for social messages. Mineral exploitation, substance addiction, discrimination against indigenous peoples. Profound purposes were cloaked in costumes and papier mache.

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The skeleton above left evokes a song about why safety practices are important for miners, while the downcast man at a substance addiction tableaux asks, “Will it be that everything was my fault?” Below left, the question about the landscape ahead of the jolly biker is whether nature will all be lost to “absurd mining. The monigote youth demands that the president stop harassing  the indigenous.


We were equally startled but dismayed to find . . . we ran out of gas before the first fires were lit. The miles of walking, gawking and ogling, interviewing and photographing, rendered us too pooped to party. For all our strategizing and positioning, we had fizzled out. By midnight, we were home and in bed, too exhausted to be too disappointed.

And that’s when things began to pop. We had heard about the fireworks of Cuenca’s New Year’s eve and the way every block if not family ignites rockets that turn the whole city into a 360-degree aerial show. A few moments before midnight, we were jolted from our fizzle by the booms. We ran onto our AirBnB balcony. North, south, east, west. In every direction, the sky was ablaze. What looked like burning kites floated into the heavens.

The show went on for hours, or what seemed like it (probably more like 30-45 minutes) and only when it ended did the city, and we, finally go to sleep.


On the first day of 2020, Cuencanos were still sleeping off the celebration. The city was dead, far deader than on Christmas in the States. The nearby McDonald’s was doing a land office business, perhaps because not another eatery was open.

Possibly more refreshed than our host citizens as a result of fizzling rather than sizzling, we had the streets to ourselves on New Year’s day and wandered about enjoying the architecture in a way we can’t when they are full. Not a monigote was to be seen but, here and there on the sidewalks were their remains, piles of ashes that marked a spot where one had ended its brief colorful career, taking the bad of 2019 with it.
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Tips from the Partout toolbox return after we have fully recovered from seeing in the new year. In the meantime, a healthy, happy and peaceful 2020 to one and all.

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We never figured out what this traveling troupe was about but they sure were colorful


COMING SOON! A Happy Man