I took my daughter to a gourmet popcorn store the other night. It’s nice and well-decorated but very small, with just two tiny tables inside. It’s the kind of place where most people order their fancy popcorn to go (our favorite is “Cookie Monster” – it’s blue and has actual cookies and M&M-type candies made to look like googly eyes!), but my daughter couldn’t wait that long. She had to have some of that popcorn right then and there.
My problem was that I needed to pee. Bad. Actually, I often have to pee pretty badly, which means if I’ve gone to an establishment with a bathroom, I’ve probably used it.
This was hardly a sit-down restaurant, so I don’t think the bathroom was really considered for client-use when they moved in. The tiny space was stocked with cleaning supplies, and it was so small that my knees knocked against the sliding door in front of me when I sat down (try getting that image out of your head!).
But I was grateful that they’d let me use it, and for the fact that there was both toilet paper and soap. There were paper towels for hand-drying too, a bonus! I smiled to myself and remembered an old friend’s silly idea, born of a veritable smorgasbord of bathroom experiences in Mexico: a bathroom star-rating system.
Behold, here it is, my unscientific rating system for Mexican baños has arrived!
A five-star bathroom has to not only contain everything you might want and need, but it must also be a well-decorated space, without any kind of awkward, misplaced items (like cleaning supplies); it cannot double as an additional space for something else, and it must be spotless. Bonus points for an essential oil diffuser or similar, and extra bonus points for music that gives you auditory privacy. Climate control gets that bathroom into Heaven.
Other features of a five-star bathroom:
- The basic necessities: toilet paper, soap, paper towels or electric dryer.
- Visually-pleasing, large-enough mirrors (above the sink and full-length).
- Functioning and easy-to-use locks on the door or stalls.
- Toilet seats.
- A place to hang one’s bag or purse.
A four-star bathroom is one that’s almost as nice and pleasant as a five-star, but that might be missing a couple of features: perhaps it’s very nice overall, but lacks toilet seats (I cannot figure out why so many bathrooms lack toilet seats around here). Maybe it’s otherwise lovely, but has a moldy-looking corner of the ceiling or terrible lighting that makes you look just ghastly in the mirror, or terrible water pressure that means you have to hold the flusher down until all the water’s drained from the bowl: one or two things will need to be noticeably off.
Three-star bathrooms are those in which the experience of using them starts to become quality entertainment, if you’re looking at it the right way.
It will still have the essentials, like toilet paper, soap, and (maybe) paper towels for hand-drying, but plenty of other things could be either comically missing (like a mirror or a toilet paper holder) or comically present (like the establishment’s entire collection of cleaning supplies bunched up in a corner, or an old calendar from 1998 on the wall). A bathroom gets three stars in my book if it doesn’t have a toilet seat, OR if it’s one of those spaces that’s so tiny you can barely turn around. This would include those kinds of triangle-shaped bathrooms that are underneath stairs, or spaces in which inserting a toilet and sink seemed to have been an afterthought, something done hastily without having first taken measurements.
Two-star bathrooms are those that officially have what you need – usually because you’ve had to pay five pesos to get in – but that are strictly no-frills. Most pay-to-use bathrooms in public parks and similar places count as two-stars. Don’t even think about toilet seats this time.
The toilet-paper dispenser will typically be public, meaning you’ll need to either be handed your allotted squares from the person charging to get in out front or “serve yourself” from a large dispenser outside the stalls before going into a stall, which may or may not close and lock all the way. Soap will be available at the sinks, though you might need to scoop it in powder form from a plastic container, or squeeze a liquid that smells like grape candy out of a recycled dish detergent dispenser. Paper towels are not usually on the menu (though there’s usually an empty dispenser).
One-star bathrooms are not for the faint of heart. There might be a toilet, but there’s no counting on toilet paper, soap, or even a door, for that matter. To get one star, the toilet can only be flushable by pouring a bucket of water into the bowl.
One-star toilets are often found (around here, anyway) on public beaches. There might be a door with a latch, or there might simply be a curtain. If there’s a sink for washing one’s hands, it’s outside of the actual bathroom, and the soap and mirror situation could be dodgy.
I wish you the wisdom to appreciate five-star bathrooms, the grace to accept one-star bathrooms, and an absurd enough disposition to, like me, spend your bathroom trips thinking about how many stars you might give the one you’re in.
Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com.