By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES – In Havana, a densely populated city, finding a public restroom is an odyssey. There aren’t enough for the constant stream of people who are either wandering about, going to or coming home from work. I met Rita Carmona Solis, 54, one day that she was desperately looking a place to empty her bladder.
Rita Carmona: Yes, I’ve been in this situation quite a few times. I recently discovered a rented restroom on Monte Street. It’s in a terrible condition, not only for the person in charge of cleaning it, who has to go in with a bucket of water and flush it after someone comes out, but for customers too. And, in addition to being very unhygienic, it’s really narrow. If you look at the wall, dirty and not completely plastered in some parts, you feel like someone is watching you. And on top of that, men use the same restroom as women do.
HT: Do you know about any other public restroom?
RC: Until I discovered the one I’ve just told you about, I only knew about two restrooms in Vedado, both of which are really close to Coppelia. Although they are also rented, the conditions of these are completely different, as is the price.
HT: Do you think people are aware of the health risks involved when using a restroom that doesn’t meet even the basic standards of hygiene?
RC: Cubans are ready to go to war, and by that I mean that when you are in a hurry, you don’t really care whether a restroom is hygienic or not. When I’ve had to use them, I’ve done everything I can to urinate standing up, I have kidney problems and have to take furosemide twice a day.
Every time I have to go about my daily business, it’s the same thing all over again. I don’t have time to go home because I live in Esquina de Tejas and I only get a hold of most of our food or cleaning products in Central and Old Havana.
With regard to diseases, I know many young people who have caught vaginal or urinary infections by sitting on a toilet in their workplace, so just imagine what happens when they go to a public restroom.
HT: Is there any precautionary measure you can take if you need to sit down on the toilet?
RC: I always put newspaper down on the seat when I need to defecate. Luckily, I’ve only had to do that a few times; I just need to urinate most of the time.
HT: Are their lines to go to a public restroom too?
RC: I’ve had to wait in line at the restroom in the parking lot in front of Coppelia. There are many young people who wander about here. They might be coming out of university, or pre-university, the movie theater or work even. The reality is that even though this service has opened up to the private sector, there aren’t enough restrooms.
HT: And, what about prices?
RC: The one on Monte Street costs one peso, the one in the parking lot in front of Coppelia costs two. The reality is that the self-employed have to provide this service and pay for a license which costs 70 pesos per month.
Sometimes, you don’t always have a peso on you, once I didn’t have a single peso and I needed to pee. The caretaker let me go that day, I don’t know whether it was because of the expression on my face or because she put herself in my shoes. I am sure that not everyone is the same, I’ve been at hospitals sometimes and I haven’t been able to go to the restroom because I didn’t have a peso.
HT: Do you believe that it’s better to pay a little more and have a better service?
RC: Of course, Cubans have got used to living with little. I believe that a restroom that meets the basic standards of hygiene would make some people suspicious, we’ve lost our ability to understand that defecating is a basic need just like eating and sleeping are. The State needs to be able to resolve any social problem that arises, and the scarce existence of restrooms in Havana is a great social problem that leads people to commit a number of indisciplinary actions.
HT: Tell me about this social indiscipline.
RC: Social indiscipline is writing on walls, breaking public phones and of course, urinating or defecating in public spaces. I have seen many men urinating behind a tree, others against a wall, in corridors and stairways. I imagine that women do the same. I’m sure that many don’t care at all about being fined by the police, but I don’t believe that many people are fined for this even though it’s banned.
I believe that it’s the government’s job to make public restrooms available so the population are able to use them. They also need to open their eyes to the countless cases of restrooms in heath centers and some state services, where people are denied access and told that they are out of service.
Many of these people are patients at these places. Other times, they shamefully ask you if you are going to “pee or shit”, or “do a number one or two”, and when you go in it’s almost always dirty; Cubans have had to learn to even pee on someone else’s shit.