Peruvian Culture Shock

We have been in our Cusco apartment for three months now and have gotten used to its idiosyncrasies. There are many pluses to living in Cusco, but not many of them reside in the bathroom. Most of the inconveniences are minor, such as having to put the used toilet paper in the trash instead of the toilet bowl (Peruvian toilets can’t process anything but human waste and water). Another inconvenience is not being able to swallow the tap water while brushing your teeth (Peruvian tap water is not potable). In our San Blas apartment, water often explodes out of the taps after a second or two, causing it to splash everywhere. In our kids’ bathroom there is also a strange smell to the toilet water; the kids say it "smells like crap."

The biggest adjustment has been getting used to the electric shower heads. Most of Latin America uses them as it is a very economical way to heat water. They work by taking water as it passes from the (cold) water supply and heating it with electric coils located in the shower head. In our bathrooms, the shower system has the additional feature of a wall switch where the electricity can be turned on and off. The first time my son got in to take a shower, he got a pretty good shock from the metal knob, such that he would not use it for weeks afterward. When my sister-in-law visited us from Los Angeles for two weeks, we looked forward to visiting the Sacred Valley if for no other reason than to stay in a hotel with a functioning hot shower. Half the reason we scheduled massages after hiking the Inca Trail was for the hot showers that came with it. For the first few weeks we just avoided the showers. My wife would boil water and pour it into a plastic tub and take an Indonesian-style mandi, sluicing the water over herself in the shower basin. Likewise, when I needed to shave for work, I boiled water. I began to wonder if the people at work noticed my lack of hygiene.

We talked to our landlord about it several times and he eventually got around to looking at the showers. Our landlord and his family are great people but they definitely lack a sense of urgency. As soon as he walked in to one of the bathrooms he looked at the shower head and said “no tierra” (not grounded). Evidently, the electrical mechanism was not properly installed. He came by the next day and fixed it. With the showers now properly grounded, our family slowly started to take showers again, but the water was just not hot enough. Since water is heated inside the shower head, the water is hotter if there is less of it passing through. My wife and kids gradually found the right amount of water flow that would provide optimal heating.

While the rest of the family was beginning to accept the electric shower heads, I still had trepidations, as I was sure that I felt a slight buzzing sensation when touching the knob. As a result, I had a convoluted set of steps to follow when I took a shower. Making sure the wall switch was off, I would turn on the cold water to the desired flow from outside the shower, dry my hands, turn the wall switch on, and wait until the water got warm. If it was not warm enough, I would dry my hands, turn off the wall switch, turn down the water pressure slightly and try again. Sometimes I did this four or five times before I got the temperature right.

After a month or so of lightly tapping the knob while showering and convincing myself that I did not feel a buzzing sensation, I was able to enjoy hot showers like the rest of the family. Additionally, we have come to appreciate the water and energy conservation benefits of heating water only when you need it (instead of heating a large water tank continously). We've become accustomed to our electric shower heads and no longer dread a trip to the shower. We are also a lot cleaner.

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