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Don’t Flush the Toilet Paper in South America

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“Dropping my used toilet paper straight into the toilet!” That was the first thing I blurted out when my brother asked me, three months into my trek across South America, what I missed most about being away from home.

I recently came across a Quora thread titled “What facts about the United States do foreigners not believe until they come to America?“. It got me thinking about the cultural differences I encountered while I was away so I decided to make a list.

  • Going back to the topic of toilets – due to poor sewage systems, toilet paper was dropped in a trash bin by the sink whether it was #1 or #2. It took me a while to get used to this even with the signs hotels put up. Related, I didn’t see automated toilets or sinks anywhere.
  • As you may expect, hot showers were a luxury. This includes shower heads with good water pressure. Getting used to taking cold showers is something I never want to do.
  • In Ecuador and Bolivia, most locals washed their clothes by hand. I remember coming across a public watering hole with partitions where women gathered to do the wash. For travelers, there were laundromats that washed and folded clothes for $1 a pound.
  • Going to McDonald’s is considered a fancy date in Ecuador. On my last day in Quito, 3 classmates and I went to McDonald’s (I ate there every time I missed home – 4 times total throughout the trip). We saw a teenage couple walk in and the guy give his girlfriend a rose, then go up and order for the both of them. It was adorable.
  • Getting used to water not being free. In fact, bottled water is more expensive than soda and juice in most places. I even discovered glasses of wine in Mendoza that were cheaper. (P.S. I discovered two places where it’s safe to drink the tap water – Medellin & Valparaiso).
  • Coffee shops are popular in Chile, especially cafe con piernas (coffee shops with legs). Businessmen go to ogle women dressed in short skirts or dresses serving coffee. They also have what’s called a “Happy Minute,” where the women close the blinds, lock the doors, and strip dance for 60 seconds.
  • Coca-Cola has the South American market cornered. They are literally everywhere. Ah, and in glass bottles they tasted soooo good. There was one time where the cashier tried to explain to me that I had to drink it inside so they could recycle the bottle. I was running late to class so I bolted when she turned around. I explained what happened to my Spanish teacher and he returned it for me.
  • Bread, potatoes, and rice were stables in almost every country. In Ecuador, bread was served with every meal and sometimes I was served both rice and potatoes for dinner.
  • The speciality dish in Ecuador and Peru is cuy, or Guinea pig. It’s served whole with the head and everything. I didn’t have the guts to try it. Those who did said it wasn’t bad at all.
  • Despite what you would think, finding good pizza and Mexican food was difficult.
  • How the dead were memorialized. Talking about death wasn’t considered a taboo subject and locals (rich and poor) spent a lot of money on the gravestones. Some of the cemeteries I visited in Buenos Aires and Valparasio were like small villages.
  • Sex and nudity are also not considered a big deal. In Spanish school, I was shown a clip of a man biting a women’s nipple off. My teacher didn’t even blink.
  • In Ecuador and Bolivia, seeing farm animals in the streets was a common occurrence.
  • Also, in Ecuador kids played soccers on the streets when cars were not on the road.
  • Children accompanied the mothers to work, whether they carried them on their backs, had them hang out their kiosk/store or put them in a cardboard box (this really happened in Ecuador).
  • There are no such things as car seats for kids. Seeing families traveling by motorcycle in Colombia with a mother carrying an infant or toddler was a common sight.
  • The number of women and men police officers is almost 50/50 in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru. Most don’t carry guns.
  • In fact, gun violence is virtually non-existent. According to the locals I talked to, those who want to carry must provide a valid reason and pass a criminal background check.
  • How religious the people are and how even the biggest cities shut down on Sundays.
  • How warm and open locals were in every one of the six countries I visited. Whether I asked for directions or recommendations on places to go, people were genuinely concerned and it was easy to see they really cared. Also, while we consider questions like “How old are you?” and “Are you married?” within the first few minutes forward and nosy, they are quite frequent.
  • Houses were mostly made of cement, brick and other durable material – not wood.
  • The concept of time in South America is very different. A store could say they open at 10am but not come in til after 11am. I waited for an hour and a half at post office in Bolivia once and no one showed up at the counter.
  • There are no such things are disclaimers to go horseback riding, paragliding, bungee jumping, etc. You just go at your own risk.
  • American music is played everywhere, especially in Argentina and Chile. I was surprised at how prevalent it was, even when people don’t understand English.
  • People drive like maniacs and either don’t obey traffic laws or they don’t exist. In fact, vehicular homicide is the #1 cause of death in South America.
  • Air pollution isn’t regulated and it’s noticeably bad in some places like Quito, Lima & Santiago.
  • It’s a credit card less society and cash is the common form of currency.
  • It’s not customary to tip taxi drivers – it’s just a flat rate. Also, some taxis didn’t have meters so I had to negotiate a rate up front.
  • Universal health care in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru were standard.
  • Free college education in countries like Ecuador and Argentina. In Argentina, you don’t even have to be a citizen. You can live in Chile and commute to school in Argentina without paying a dime.
  • Poor people tend to live in the mountains among beautiful scenery while the rich reside in the polluted city center.
  • Food portions are smaller and most places serve combo meals with soup, an entree, dessert and even a drink. I liked it a lot.
  • Young people don’t typically have their own apartments, they live with their family or roommates.
  • I barely saw African Americans even among the travelers. I’m still unsure why to this day. 
  • I encountered many protests with people on the streets waving signs related to their cause, singing or parading around town. The levels of political unrest in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru especially.
  • The sex hotels in Colombia and Argentina. Because it’s typical for young people to live at home until their 30s, they sneak to pay by the hour motels. I read that some even provide themed rooms with free drinks, toys and contraceptives.
  • The colonial architecture in Argentina and Peru were especially stunning and not just churches or public spaces. The details, colors, garygoyles, and Spanish balconies were a sight to behold.
  • Every major city had a main plaza named after a war hero. The commonality of public spaces was also clear. In Mendoza, they were purposely designed after a major earthquake to give residents a place to go to and inhabit if needed.
  • The way the environment was preserved in every country was also noticeable. The scenery in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia especially was utterly breathtaking.
  • Unlike the U.S., it’s not controversial when women breast feed in public. No one bats an eye except for the American tourists.
  • Stray dogs are commonplace in parts of Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. In most of those places, locals tended to them with care.
  • When I asked locals which states they wanted to visit, New York, California or Florida were the most common answers unless they had family elsewhere.

Which of those surprise you? Are there other things you noticed in South America not listed above?