How do you flush this thing anyway?

Hi all,

You would think that by 2015 designers and engineers around the world would have met and agreed upon the best design for something as basic as the toilet. But of course toilets still exist in a wide variety of styles. You’ll find several here in Brazil.

Often toilets in Brazil are quite basic, even in a place frequented by tourists, such as Copacabana in Rio. If you are in a botch (a kind of neighborhood bar/luncheonette), and need to relieve yourself, you’ll need to work yourself to the back of the establishment, probably squeezing between an overweight customer on the one side, and a stack of crates of empty beer bottles on the other. Once you arrive at the toilet, you are likely to be greeted by a trough of sheet tin that looks like it was made by a 13-year-old in shop class.

There may also be a door leading to a small closet with a toilet, which almost invariably lacks a seat. There will be a plastic tank above the toilet, and a pull cord, a la the 1930s. Remember the scene in The Godfather when Al Pacino’s character retrieves a stashed pistol from behind the toilet tank in the restaurant? Like that.

Of course, the better the establishment, the better the facilities. Upscale restaurants and clubs can have very nice restrooms (“washrooms” for our Canadian readers). Still, the flushing mechanisms come in a bewildering variety of forms.  In the U.S., we are used to a lever on the front of the tank, or occasionally on the side. You’ll find those styles here, but you may also encounter a button on the front, or on the top of the tank, or on the side, where it may either protrude, so you can see it, or it may sit flush (haha, unintentional) with the side of the tank, hiding it pretty effectively, especially if you’ve had a few beers. And of course, there’s our old  friend the pull cord, although you won’t see him in the nicer places.

By the way, public toilets are relatively rare in Brazil. If you find yourself out and about and in need of relief, you can look for a shopping mall. As back home, there will be public toilets – usually well tended – near the food court. Also, U.S.-based fast-food chains like McDonald’s and KFC will also have toilets open to the public, which are generally pretty decent, though often they are stashed upstairs in the back.

You'll see  these signs wherever gringos are found

You’ll see these signs wherever gringos are found

Around Brazil, even in the upscale spots, you are likely to see a sign which says something like: “Por favor, não jogue papel higiênico denture do vaso.” This means “Please don’t throw the toilet paper into the bowl.” What, you might reasonably ask, are you supposed to do with it? You should find a trash can, sometimes large, sometimes small, next to the toilet. Used TP goes there. Ladies, ditto for your hygiene products.

And folks, I understand that you may find this arrangement embarrassing and/or disgusting, and may want to disregard the sign. However, doing so may cause a backup of the toilet – which by the way is a routine event at many hostels, where foreigners refuse to observe the rule. And you don’t want to have to explain, and possibly pay for, that! So, when in Rome!

At least you won’t encounter squat toilets like you find in Asia. I never quite mastered those. But that’s another story!


Still in Brazil

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7 responses to “How do you flush this thing anyway?”

  1. David says:

    Hi John. Me again.

    I can totally relate!

    A few comments about the toilet paper issue. I’ve never been able to bring myself to use the waste bin. I know that they’re there for a reason and I’ve clogged more than one toilet down there as a result of my obstinacy, but I just haven’t been able to bring myself to use it…and I don’t even consider myself to be a particularly squeamish person! There’s just something fundamentally unsanitary about it that I haven’t been able to reconcile with. As a mechanical engineer, I’ve determined that the toilet paper issue is not caused by the toilets per se, but rather by sewer pipes that are not sloped for proper drainage (perhaps due to lax or nonexistent building codes). So it’s really an infrastructure issue. Unfortunately, replacing every toilet in Brazil still would not remedy the problem.

    But you’re absolutely right about the bizarre variation in commodes down there. The toilets in Brazil – and in Latin America in general – still flummox me. I feel compelled at this point to share an anecdote about how I once sprayed myself with the bidet when I mistakenly pulled the cord to activate the bidet, assuming that the bidet cord was what flushed the toilet. Unfortunately for me, those electric shower heads in Brazil don’t get hot enough to wash away the feeling of disgust I was left with afterward. True story. Beware the bidet!!!

  2. Fernanda Carvalho says:

    Actually, not only foreigners neglect this rule, but also Brazilians. It causes so much trouble in public facilities, including schools. Some women even flush their tampons!
    I don’t know, maybe our pipeline system is not made to handle this amount of garbage on a daily basis, that’s why it causes a backup of the toilet.
    By the way, things get much worse for women, for practical reasons. It is really disgusting using public toilets during Carnival, for example.
    As you said, it is better to find the nearest shopping mall to relief yourself.

  3. walyssson says:

    Jhon, the biggest problem with our toilets system is not made to handle this amount of garbage on a daily basis.The pipe system is different from others country, I think.But this is very cutural. Size I was a child my mom sayes to I don’t throw the toilet paper into the bowl.

  4. Miguel Perez says:

    Hi John
    My Brazilian girlfriend and I were making dinner last night and she started reading a facebook post from her friends in Brazil (were in the US) about what Americans think of Brazilian customs… the usual list of bathing, forks and knoves etc. But this, toilet paper in the trash, came up for the first time. I thought “when i go to Brazil, what am i going to do!??” I went to Brazil 10 years ago and dont remember this being a regular thing.. how did you learn to adapt? I dont want to be disrespectful, but much like the mechanical engineer, i cant wrap my head around doing that and feeling comfortable. Im glad to read it from other sources and hear peoples thoughts, thanks!

  5. Sil says:

    It’s amazing some times how people talk about the toilette paper issue , reminding all of you i’m not trying to be rude, Brazil it’s a beautiful country and was colonized by Europeans, most of their buildings are and still being old constructions, many parts still don’t even have clean drinkable water for the its people, the pipes are not designed, made, build to throw anything inside besides number 1 and 2 , the Electric shower head it’s one of the best thing you can have to clean your body and get your dignity back after a hot dirty day :), IF the water is not hot enough, usually have one little knob on top of the shower head so you can control the water temperature(no reason to take a cold shower, unless you really need one to cool your mood )
    The bidet it’s used to wash your self if you don;t want to take a shower at that moment and need to refresh your self,or clean up after you take number 2 😉 also another European thing and it is very outstanding for those who like to keep their hygienic needs , Brazil it’s a very hot country ;
    well… if you’re in someone else’s home, you should follow their rules, no matter if you’re paying to stay or not 🙂 no matter if you like or not 🙂
    The whole idea of go to a different country is to have new experiences … not to battle against ,
    In here we have the trash barrel inside the restrooms to throw paper towel and people throw needles and other things. How clean is that?

  6. Marcelo says:

    I am Brazilian, I have a university degree in law and electrical engineering and know many countries of the world, including the USA (it’s the country that I know). I try to elucidate the mystery of the basket next to the toilet. It is known that Brazil is in a stage of development with at least 50 years for USA. Do not be impressed here have MacDonalds, Burger King (who is now an American multinational Brazilian) cell and etc ..
    It is known that despite having a population of approximately 200 milões inhabitants, almost, but only a very small portion of people have cultural, financial and etc. allowing themselves as civilized as defined found in the USA. Exclarecidos these facts, explain that the basket is a legacy of the days when the tampons were monstrously large (about the size of a Hot dog, believe me) and to avoid clogging these should, in case of emergency only, discarded in the baskets. It is not true that I have read the information on your page that the tilt angle of the sewer system is small. In Brazil following the standards applied in the USA. Therefore, the amount of people without culture is so great that they end up interpreting that the basket is next to the toilet is to launch paper used in it. But this is really anti hygienic and should not be done. You may even understand the cultural level of the residents of a Brazilian residence verifying the use of this little basket next to the toilet. If he has used in toilet paper, is a sign that the culture of the residents is low.
    In the most developed cities in Brazil such as Sao Paulo (do not think the Rio de Janeiro is an evolved city only as a famous name) you will see that the baskets contain razor blades discarded, makeup removal cotton used, empty bottle Shampu and etc …

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