A Coffee Shop Too Far

If you were only reading my posts about this trip, you might assume I was having terrible time. This is because the things I enjoy writing about are the disasters and near-disasters of travel; you can only write so much about a pretty view. So read on with the understanding that for every misfortune there are a dozen positive experiences (okay, maybe not a dozen, but a lot more than the misfortunes, especially if you count ice cream cones). And before you go any further, you should also know this post deals with an area of digestive misfortune that is not for the faint of heart or stomach. It’s a story that happens in some form or another to every international traveler. As my late friend Steve Salter put it in his favorite travel story, “I thought it was a fart, but it was a mudpie.” This is my version of that story. You’ve been warned.

We were in Salta, a beautiful city in northern Argentina. One morning, we strolled by a health food store and I decided to pick up something to help with the constipation that had been dogging me since a twelve-hour bus ride over the Andes from Chile. Not to dwell too much on my colon, but I will say this: It’s a delicate flower.

So I tried this new health-food supplement and didn’t think any more about it. That afternoon we had lunch at one of the best restaurants of the trip, a famous steakhouse. I luxuriated in a sirloin and a couple robust glasses of wine. After Ecuador, Peru and northern Chile, the wine and meat of Argentina was a revelation. My enjoyment of this meal will prove to be, as you will see, pride going before the fall, or, in other words, the dramatically ironic moments of bliss before the protagonist is tested by a cruel turn of fate.

No one in this photo has any idea what's about to happen.
No one in this photo has any idea what’s about to happen.

On the walk back to the apartment where we were staying, I noted that the supplement I tried that morning seemed to be having an effect, though for almost the entire walk I remained confident that I would be able to arrive back at our apartment before matters spun out of my control. As the walk progressed, however, my confidence waned. The sirloin steak seemed to have transformed into a Maserati racing around the track of my intestines. I informed my family of these developments and we found a nice coffee shop that looked like the kind of place that would have a toilet with a seat and toilet paper (not givens in South America). I strode confidently into the small bathroom — just a sink and a toilet — which was everything I hoped it would be, clean and outfitted not just with toilet paper but paper towels as well. I had just closed the door when I was betrayed by my body in a most unseemly way. Calling it an explosion seems almost an understatement; for a split second, part of my body seemed to turn inside out. Suffice it to say that I was overtaken by a river of my own making, and the deluge, in a few surreal moments, filled my underwear, then shot out of the cuffs of my pants and covered the bathroom floor.

My first reaction to this disaster was, paradoxically, relief. But this was quickly overtaken by panic at having destroyed a restroom. I pulled off my shoes, socks, pants, and underwear. Everything was absolutely covered. Naked from the waist down, I desperately used clumps of toilet paper to gather the human filth into some piles that could be ladled into the toilet. I use the word “gather” advisedly; it was more like trying to move mud around a hockey rink using a wet noodle. There was a moment in this chapter of the ordeal when I felt a sense of success; with an extreme application of paper products, I seemed to have cleaned up the mess. Then I saw, to my horror, a puddle under the sink that heretofore had escaped detection, and the fight almost went out of me. At this point, I could only laugh. I was a 58-year-old foreigner, unkempt even under the best of circumstances, half naked, pushing his own waste around a bathroom floor while his family waited outside. What else could I do?

There was a knock on the door. Oh Jesus, I thought, someone on the staff of the coffee house was coming to evict me. I answered through a small crack. It was Julian, wondering how I was doing. What do you say to your nine-year-old son at this point that won’t haunt him forever and provide some future therapist with hours of income? Certainly not “Daddy’s ass just exploded and he’s covered everything with poopy.”

“Get Mommy,” I said.

During my toil in the bathroom, Sarah and the kids had been stalling for time, pretending to peruse the menu of the coffee house and peppering the baristas with questions, hoping that this might distract them from the disagreeable smell that suddenly overwhelmed their shop. Sarah ordered the kids juices and came to see me. After expressing disbelief at my predicament, she quickly withdrew, returning later with cleaning supplies that she managed to find in another part of the cafe. These were a big help, as my supply of toilet paper and paper towels was now wadded up in the overflowing wastebasket, and I still needed to clean my clothes. I did this with a sort of “Who cares at this point?” approach in the sink, rinsing everything out as best I could. My underwear and socks were beyond help; I stuck those in a plastic bag and, gritting my teeth, pulled on my damp pants and stuck my feet into wet shoes. Steeling myself, I exited the bathroom and walked purposefully to the exit of the coffee house, my pants slapping and shoes squishing with every stride, making no eye contact with anyone. “I’ll meet you across the street,” I told my family through gritted teeth.

I made it out to the street and crossed it. There was fortuitously a nice square where I could find a bench on which to sit and wait for my family to pay their tab and leave the coffee house. I was sitting there for twenty seconds before two stray dogs wandered over, eagerly sniffing the air. I looked down and, to my horror, saw that the back of one of my shoes was still caked with my filth. Standing from the bench, I scowled at the dogs. “No!” I shouted at them, but I might as well have been shouting to the world, to this day, to this situation.

My wife and kids walked toward me, but I hadn’t yet achieved enough distance from the traumatic events to look them in the eye. The smiles of disbelief on their faces were in no way muted by seeing my disarrayed and pathetic countenance in person. “Oh my God!” Cleo said. “Are you okay?”

“No,” I said. “And I never will be again.” But I was wrong. By the time we’d made it to the apartment, we were laughing about it.

I left the supplement in Argentina, though.