There is something about not having achieved a Modern Western Society that requires a developing country to invent weird plumbing.
We in the West must have stood at such a juncture once - somewhere in the early Middle Ages. But we've gotten things pretty well under control since then.Most of our bathtubs and showers are connected to water heaters and our toilets aren't. Most of the time our plumbing flushes when it's supposed to and stops running when it's done, and in between we all rest easily.
Go two steps out of the United States and Canada, however, and you'd better pack a tool kit.
"There be devils in my toilet," one of my fellow vacationers once announced in his brand-new Spanish to our hostess in Acapulco.
He meant that it wouldn't flush, which is a lot harder to phrase. I'd been trying to say that for years all over South America and it never worked. Devils were a lot more effective. Everybody understood right off.
Not that toilets are that hard. Even I have learned how to fix one. It's kind of amazing that so much of the world hasn't.
This, of course, is extreme Western hubris - of the worst, culture-biased kind. I'd be ashamed of it if I weren't talking to my closest friends. When I talk about travel in public, I always say sweet things like, "Other people's ways aren't wrong, they're just different. And differences are what we travel for, right?"
My favorite difference is the Ring of Fire.
Scientists think that's a chain of live volcanoes that encircles the Pacific Ocean. Country-western fans think it's a Johnny Cash song. Travelers who've spent much time in the Third World know better. That's the nickname of the weirdest shower attachment in the universe.
I encountered it in a cheap hotel on the edge of Lake Titicaca after a long, dusty bus ride some years ago, and it was well worth the quarter I had to pay for it. I had picked the hotel because it advertised hot showers, and none of the others in its price range did.
As soon as I'd put my luggage upstairs, I went back to the desk clerk - who was also the porter, the night manager and the resident plumber - and plunked down my extra money and asked for my shower.
"Sure," he said, "just let me get the towel and the kerosene."
Sentences like that make you regret not having studied harder in language school.
Carrying a red jerrycan and a worn white towel, he led me into an empty concrete room with a changing stall on one side and what looked like an old round lawn sprinkler fastened to the ceiling.
"Take off your clothes," he said, "and I'll get this ready." It had been a really dusty bus ride. "OK," I said.
I emerged from the changing room, wrapped in the towel, in time to see the guy pour the kerosene into the lawn sprinkler.
Then he tossed a match at it and turned on the water. Whooomp! it went, sounding very much like a gas stove when you light it wrong.
"Get in, get in," he urged as he went out the door.
But I couldn't move - I stood frozen in my towel, watching gobs of blue flame drip off the fixture, mingle with a thin drizzle of cold water and bounce onto the concrete floor, where they kept on burning.
I felt kind of like fruit about to be turned into Cherries Jubilee.
Then the shower burned itself out.
I leaned out the bathroom door and shouted after the guy. "It went out! It didn't even get warm!"
He shrugged. "But that's all you get for a quarter."
First runner-up in the plumbing category is the Electrocution Shower, much more common than the Ring of Fire but just as thrilling.
This attempt to avoid buying a water heater involves a knife-switch - you know, the kind they always use in Frankenstein movies - and a couple of raw wires that connect directly to the shower head. The water runs over some gizmo in there and gets heated up.
People who own these showers believe them to be safe and highly efficient. Really.
This is how locals use one:
1. Turn on the water.
2. Flip the switch.
3. Get in the shower.
4. Believe that hearing water sizzle as it passes over the electric heating element is absolutely normal.
And this is how tourists use one:
1. Go into the shower your first morning in Country X.
2. Scream "Wires? Wires? Why are there wires?"
3. Go back out and ask somebody in your host culture if they're kidding. (Pronunciation guide: "Haaave yooooo peeeeple got aaaaaany sense?")
4. Decide you really weren't all that dirty anyway.
5. Wait a week. If it's rainy season, wait two. ("Oh, gee, no, Americans don't like to use umbrellas. No, hey, really! Ask anybody.")
6. Get so dirty you don't want to live anymore.
7. Turn on the water, take a deep breath, flip the switch and wait for the lights to dim in the Big House.
8. Get in the shower.
9. Be amazed you didn't die. If you didn't.
10. Go home. It's time.