The Water Closet

Also known as the cho, the john, the can, the loo, and the long drop, depending on where you are. In Mozambique they call it the “house of baths.” (But then again, Portuguese is a language that still refers to people respectfully as “Your Excellency,” if that gives you some idea…) If you don’t know how to find it, you’d better ask. If you don’t know how to ask for it, you might get by with some creative charades. But if you’re somewhere like Mozambique, there just might not be one around anyway.

In the “formerly” Communist countries I’ve visited, it seems inordinately difficult to find a public restroom in the city. You either sacrifice your dignity and go against the wall like far too many others, or in Russia you can just duck into the nearest McDonald’s or find a port-a-potty operated by a babushka who will let you in for about $0.25. You see that’s the great thing about Russia and the reason why Soyuz rockets are still the escape vessel for the International Space Station: they make a solution, it’s cheap, and it works, it just may not be pretty. But Beira has neither McDonald’s nor babushki, and thus began my journey while downtown to find that holy of holies, the porcelain palace.

So what’s a guy to do? Ask the locals. The shoeshiner boy on the corner gave me some vague directions to turn into that dimly-lit commercial arcade over there (whose shops were mostly closed and boarded), then to take the first flight of stairs up. Surprisingly, I found the stairs. This place was really creepy. As I ascended, there was blood-red graffiti and plenty of broken glass. One flickering light, nobody around, and a lone white guy looking lost makes a formula for getting mugged. I was just glad I didn’t have my camera with me…and yet part of me wished I’d brought at least the Olympus PEN to capture this place. I followed the stairs two flights up to the top, where there was natural daylight flooding in again from the left. Text painted on the wall proclaimed that to the left one could find the “Social Center of the 4th of October.” That’s the date the peace accords were signed to end the Mozambican Civil War in ’92. “Social Center” is a euphemism for drinking club.

I walked in and sidled up to the bar, vacant but for one red-eyed tottering patron to my left who at 1400 hours looked like he’d had about as many mL of liquor already. Feeling goofy, I asked if they had a “house of baths.” He nodded yes of course and went rummaging under the bar to get something. A moment later he surfaced with an enormous rasp carrying various rusty small keys on different chains and rings. He pointed to one, then another, and said (I’m translating here), “This one’s for littles, and thiiiis one, for bigs. The bathroom’s out the way you came.”

On the other side of the landing, the only available door was marked, “WC House of bath.” I used the “littles” key to unlock it, and as soon as it creaked open I wished it hadn’t. I will spare you the olfactory sensations that bombarded me; suffice to say this was gonna be a quick visit with breath held. The problem was, once inside, all the walls proclaimed “Prohibited to piss here” and a seemingly endless series of red arrows promised that the WC was in fact that way, back there, somewhere…eventually. It was like a cruel joke. It also seemed like the line between what was once wash basin and what was urinal was not so clear, so the locals had press-ganged the former into use as the latter. But I wanted to find the right spot if possible. So, with reluctance I followed the red arrows deeper inside this urban cavern.

Every step echoed off the uneven walls. Some sort of fluid covered the floors, reflected in the sickly yellow light. Water was drip-dripping somewhere, voices filtered in from who knows where (but seemingly from deeper inside), and something living (animals I assume, or hope) rustled around in the farther chambers. I was sure there must be other entrances leading in here, and was also sure I’d never seen a bathroom this labyrinthian. Escher’s paradise. The whole place reminded me of some level out of the old pc game “Doom.” Snarly noises and all. I realized why they’d had to write on the outer walls–everyone who ventured further probably got lost or eaten, so the rest resorted to using the outer room for their business. No way was I going further…at least for now. I followed suit, did my business, returned the rasp with a “Much obliged!” and headed for home. Beira’s salty street air had never smelled so sweet.

On the way, I realized little encounters like that one are what makes the city fun. A mundane trip to the loo wouldn’t be so memorable! In fact this visit put me in a jolly good mood. So just for kicks, I stopped in at an auto parts shop along the way and asked nonchalantly if they had any flux capacitors in stock, much to the confusion of the staff. (They conferred with the Indian owner who told them to tell me they were fresh out, maybe try again next week…) Oh, the world is full of colorful everyday places!

Some time later, just before leaving Beira, I found my way back to this unreal little spot. And for your entertainment, I brought a camera this time. Hope you enjoy the creepy photos and the little video I shot. Sorry I didn’t go further in…I think we’ve all seen enough already! (If the video doesn’t appear, you can download it using the link)
Some pop song blasting from the “social center” across the way provided a strange background soundtrack. Maybe someone will know what song it is… I’ve included two street shots from that day just so you get a sense of the city. Bonus: wait for the moment when I almost slip in the…uh…fluids.

The Water Closet

Download Video:
Download “The Water Closet”

no comments

Your email is never published or shared.

There was an error submitting your comment. Please try again.