In North America, washroom attendants are found in only the haughtiest restaurants, clubs and hotels - someone handing you a fresh linen towel at the sinks is synonymous with luxury and indulgence. Not so in other parts of the world.
Travelling through Mexico and Cuba, I quickly learned that attendants can also guard the grungiest of grungy toilets. And there's a solid routine to a washroom stop: I soon found myself giving dirty looks to uninitiated touristas who failed to drop a coin in the attendant's hand on their way to the stalls.
Still, it can sometimes be a challenge to keep the appropriate small change on hand, unaccustomed as we are to paying for entry to the loo. Which is why my boyfriend and I found ourselves on the streets of Havana, both eyeing a public washroom, and conferring to see whether we had any coins: We did, but only 10 convertible pesos, worth about $12.50 at the time.
We decided to approach the woman seated in front of the washrooms and, in broken Spanish, ask if she had any change. She didn't have enough, but she waved us in, appreciating, perhaps, that while we were clearly silly tourists, at least we had made an attempt at propriety. Or so we assumed.
I walked into the ladies' room and into a stall. When I tried to flush the toilet, nothing happened. For a public washroom in Havana, this wasn't a shock, so I didn't think much about it and went to the sink to wash my hands. I turned the faucet on, and no water came out. I tried the next faucet, and again, no water. Glad I had remembered to carry my wet wipes (never, ever travel without wet wipes), I made my towards the exit.
That's when I realized the water was shut off on purpose - and the woman who'd forgiven our lack of change was only on watch for the men's washroom.
At the exit to the women's toilets, I found myself face-to-face with a very angry attendant, enraged that I had dared to sneak in and use her facilities without paying while she had been getting cleaning supplies from a closet next door. In extremely broken Spanish ( No comprendo; no peso) I tried to plead my case.
She was having none of it. Which was a problem, since my boyfriend was carrying our money belt and I had not a peso on me. My only hope: Shooting frantic looks at my boyfriend, who jumped into action and did some quick wheeling and dealing with the more forgiving attendant on his side (who didn't want listen to the yelling going on any more than we did).
His attendant grabbed his money and ran off to get change from someone she knew down the street. When she returned and gave my boyfriend change for the bill, the attendant on my side finally let me slide past, knowing she would get her share of the loot.
I was relieved, of course, to be sprung from my washroom prison. I also emerged onto the sunny Havana street having learned an important lesson. When travelling, look both ways before entering the washroom, and always carry a pocketful of change.