On Housekeeping, Hygiene, and the Medio Ambiente

The most difficult adjustment upon changing places from Latin America to the United States is that here, we are expected to flush toilet paper. It is sacrilege. You could ruin your plumbing system from here to Kingdom Come, and you can abandon all hope of ever decontaminating your waterways.

I was shocked in IAH to find that the Tampax waste container in the bathroom was so small – where were you to put toilet paper? I am practicing flushing it in the privacy of my home but I am very concerned about what I might be doing to my pipes and to our fisheries.

When I travel from here to the West Coast or to Mexico, I am always amazed by the opulence of everything, and by how relaxed everyone is because of this. Coming from Peru to Panama I experienced the same shock once, and it doubled upon arrival in Louisiana.


I should stop being amazed, however. My student from New Jersey pointed out all the reasons why Louisiana is an inferior state, and he has me quite well convinced. Meanwhile, I looked up some information on Zimbabwe, one of the world’s most ruined countries with a lot of pollution, unemployment above 80%, and life expectancy in the mid thirties.

By these standards I should be more critical of Louisiana, which I have been painting as a paradise for several days, and less so of Peru, about which I have expressed horror for two months. On the world scale they are quite close together. In life expectancy, for example, the United States and Peru are only about 25 percentage points apart, in the middle and high middle of the world range.

And Lousiana ranks #49 in life expectancy among our disparate states, followed only by Mississippi and the District of Columbia. This brings us closer to Peru, where life lasts 68 years compared to our 74. And the official unemployment rate in Peru is less than twice ours (7.2% vs. 4.8% (U.S.) and 3.9% (LA), although much Peruvian employment is underemployment, and is severely underpaid).


I went to Wal*Mart, where despite the horror of this company I sometimes go as an alternative when horrified by other stores and their prices. I always forget how long the lines are, and how slow. I realized again how efficient the old fashioned markets in Peru are, and how upscale my supermarket really was, with its well stocked shelves and checkout stands manned at all times.

While shopping and waiting in line I was observing people, who in especially this Wal*Mart are quite rough. My experience with the speech and mannerisms of prisoners suggested to me that some of these customers had done time. I thought back. I decided that a comparable group in Peru would look about the same. Slightly more hard bitten, but healthier. And they would be less raucous, because this is, after all, the United States, land of raucousness.

I did not understand all the in jokes being made. I remembered that one never understands everything, even in one’s native language.


13 thoughts on “On Housekeeping, Hygiene, and the Medio Ambiente

  1. My daughter remembers the toilet paper waste containers from her trip to Costa Rica.

    When I go to the Wal Mart I see everyone, rich, middle, and poor, because there is nowhere else to shop.

    A lot of people have what I have, “metabolic syndrome,” but it hits them young instead of at my age. It’s pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. The diet is so bad, so full of refined sugar and salt, which is even worse than fat for your health, that it’s killing people. That and the cancer.

    We’re being pacified by stuff, but really we aren’t in as good shape as we think.

  2. 95%! And soldiers, then, are literally working for food (I am assuming they get meals).

    Toilet paper waste – they have (or had) these in Morocco too, so that means everywhere I’ve been except the U.S., Canada, and Europe – I assume it’s Africa and Asia too?

    Yes, that’s how it’s getting in some places – nowhere but Wal*Mart to shop.

    Metabolic syndrome, that has to be what it is. They have this and also bad skin. The Peruvian diet is *so* much better.

  3. Too much of the wrong kind of food. It’s almost to be expected in people of my age, but to see such symptoms in young people is very sad.

  4. The ideology of consumerism will do that to you. I’m trying to relate to some guy, “zimbabwe image”, who doesn’t understand my cultural analyses on points like this. Society is hardly a rational fare. Rather, entrenched values, which may be very irrational indeed, can start to take hold of other cultures.

  5. The thing seems to be that everyone has been sold on this awful food. Also the food you can buy here that’s cheap is industrial and full of hormones and things, even if you don’t buy “junk.” So much of the Peruvian food still isn’t genetically modified, hormonized, and all. And I guess you’re right, poisonous food has been so heavily marketed. Although the other thing is that in Peru there is still someone in the kitchen and this is virtually impossible for many U.S. households. I saw the Zim blog – the writer is very earnest.

  6. See! And THAT is the food which will flood into Zim if they get aid. Next step, they will try to get them hooked. However, consumerism is worse than starving to death.

    Zim Image puzzles me a little because his rhetoric has certain similarities to the rhetoric that I encountered when I was investigating on the list of disgruntled white, mostly male ex-colonials. There is this kind of masterly pronouncement: “Tell me who you are — whether you are x or y in my own schema of ideas, or whether you are just speaking gobblidigook like a scurrilous idiot!” So I find that approach quite problematic in terms of conducting a dialogue.

    I understand, however, that we all speak in the cultural voice that we are culturally conditioned to — so a lot of the time even “liberationists” adopt the tone of the white colonial master.

  7. Well, he’s definitely a man and a cursory glance suggests he’s part of the global guys’ club. Food, yes that’s what they fly in, but I wonder if there’s the right infrastructure there to get them hooked on all of it. I suppose: if the agriculture is destroyed already, then it’s a problem. It is NAFTA which has destroyed the food in Mexico, they flood the markets with industrialized U.S. stuff at “dumping” prices, and the landscape with Wal*Marts, so local producers and sellers just can’t compete. Across the border in Guatemala, a poorer country, the fruit still has a taste and people look less toxified (if also less prosperous). [These being my subjective impressions, of course.]

  8. ideology could get them hooked on it. it’s the old lure of “eat this kind of food and you will be considered up and coming in the world of affluence”. But that is symbolism, not reality. And what you describe happened in Mexico could happen in Zimbabwe – up to a point.

    I remember when I first migrated –and, obviously there are a few complexities — but food just didn’t taste as tasty here. Now I have since realised that food always seems to taste better when accompanied by familiar and reassuring feelings coming from the other senses — especially when accompanied by familiar environmental smells, such as (in my case) wood burning, grass being mowed, the autumnal smell of leaves dieing — but the food here tasted like very little.

    When I looked at a tub of icecream, however, I understood, how I had been cheated: The contents were anything but natural. Perhaps only 25%.

  9. Yes. And for the ideological maneuver to work you have to have the infrastructure to deliver and sell the stuff. That’s why it would take a while for junk food to invade Zim that way, or so I theorize. Whereas, if it’s all that’s available…

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