The first time I saw it there, the toilet paper on the table, it seemed like an accident. The casera (market woman) was making us a breakfast of olives, egg, cheese, and avocado on bread. A second after I noticed the roll, she quivered for a second and then whisked it off the table, placing it beneath her stall. What had it been doing there in the first place? Was its presence merely an accident, a faux pas?
I kept the incident in the back of my mind, struck by the strange sense that toilet paper would never be allowed near food in the area I come from. The association between ingestion and elimination had to be kept far separate, and the mere thought of toilet paper on the dinner table is just about impossible. Toilet paper is hurried into hiding spaces the minute it is brought home from the supermarket. Being seen in public with toilet paper is shameful. People buy them in the largest quantities possible to put as much time between these walks of shame. Even hidden beneath a shopping cart, other customers politely look away.
On the road to Puerto Maldonado we stopped at a small restaurant on top of the world at 14,000 feet. On the table was a purple, plastic enclosure. The label read “Decorativa,” somehow insinuating it was merely a decoration. It housed a roll of toilet paper. The fact that companies could imagine a product that put toilet paper front and center means it is thought of in a completely different manner than in the States. In fact, I soon learned that they did not even call it toilet paper. It is “sanitary paper,” and it is used for any type of cleanup.
But why did I sense a tension? Why was the “sanitary paper” whisked off the table? Why, after all, was it disguised in purple plastic? Elsewhere I had noticed that there was something toilet-papery about the serviettes at restaurants. They were often folded in half into triangles. These seemed like actual napkins, ply separated manually, but it was hard to tell. The stiff boundaries that distinguish the place and use for these items are simply blurred. There is not so much of a clear line between the papers designated for the bathroom and those on the table. Lines exist, of course. It’s not as if they put diapers next to your plate so you can wipe your greasy hands.
I kept noticing toilet paper in markets or on tables at houses where I would visit and eat. There clearly was a sense that the presence of toilet paper related to the informality of a space. I would see toilet paper more often in informal settings. In one incident, I was at a gastronomy fair in the San Blas district. This was an event of showcasing skills and wowing audiences with culinary masterpieces. Students were dressed in clean chef’s aprons and making impressions. It was an active and lively social scene.
I spied toilet paper on a table next to some gorgeous displays of glazed pears. Quickly I snapped a few photos. But just as quickly, the student – realizing her creations were becoming the object of a camera’s gaze – guided the toilet paper out of the way in order to help me make a more aesthetic photograph. She hid the signs that hinted at unprofessionalism.
Although the pears and their production that day had been preceded by years of training, multiple discussions, and decisions by many people, the display booth had probably been thrown together at the last minute. And now, all of a sudden, the informal was awkward and out of place.
The paper that wipes your butt can also be used to wipe your mouth. Also, you are frequently alerted that it should not be flushed. Instead, you are instructed to toss used paper in a bin next to the toilet rather than flushing it down. It stays with you. It stays near you. It is not immediately pushed out of sight and mind.
The very fact that the term is not “toilet paper” but “sanitary” allows it to be general and multi-functional. At the same time, toilet paper is a signal of sanitation, cleanliness, and class. There are many people who do not have any. Unattended, rolls are stolen from public toilets. Because of this, people have to carry it with them if they want the luxury. This means that toilet paper is on the body and around the body much more often and in many different circumstances. Rather than being rushed from the car to the cupboard, T.P. is not so easily confined to just one space, one act, and one way out.