In 2008 I was living in Paraguay. I had just started my two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer and I was in charge of procuring my own work. Arts and crafts projects would have been a simple way to improve the community while I adjusted to an entirely new diet and language. But I had little patience and thought I was a bad ass. I finagled my way into a job teaching at the prison. An obvious note on prisons in Paraguay: they're overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous.
I started my morning by taking a big swig of water out of the plastic coke bottle I'd refill several times a day from the tap in my yard. I knew all about water parasites. I knew I was supposed to be treating my drinking water by boiling it, but I didn't. I wasn't lazy, hell no, if anything I probably needed to tone down my enthusiasm. Paraguayans didn't treat their drinking water, so I didn't either. I ate some oatmeal, put on a pair of ill-fitting capri pants that made me look and feel like a soccer mom, and got on my bike.
The prison was located a few miles outside of the town center. From the highway, the building looked exactly like a Third World prison. One original brick building with years of additions hastily added on as more people got caught smuggling cocaine to Brazil. Inside, the place continued to look like a Third World prison. No cafeteria, library, or laundry room. Sidenote: prostitutes are allowed if the prisoner can pay for them. I approached the guardhouse and showed my photocopied ID to a heavily armed employee at the entrance. I am not an expert on weapon or names of weapons, but the two guns hanging from his belt seemed excessively large.
I was escorted with the other teachers to the back of the prison. The school had it's own small wing of classrooms locked behind an actual gate with another armed guard. The paint peeled off the walls and a few desks were scattered around in front of a chalkboard. I'd thought to bring chalk, but not toilet paper.
About 20 students showed up that morning. As a group, they were very clean, polite, and shy, just like their Paraguayan brethren outside the prison walls. I'd prepared a lesson on goal setting, because I was naive and thought goal setting was an appropriate thing to talk about with men who were looking at life for murdering a cop. I passed out worksheets and pencils. Then I felt a rumbling in my stomach. Not the typical, my diet consists mostly of oatmeal and fried chicken rumble, but something far more urgent. Something evil that wanted out-now.
Anyone who has ever been struck with sudden diarrhea knows the telltale signs that trouble is brewing: sweat broke out on my forehead and palms, my butt clenched, my mouth got dry. Nightmarishly, I realized I hadn't seen anything resembling a toilet since I'd turned over my cellphone and keys an hour ago. Panic set in.
"I'll be right back," I said too loudly.
Trying to remain calm and pretending I had control of my bowels, I walked/ran out of the classroom. I made a beeline for the end of the hall where a dungeonesque locked gate and prison guard separated me from what I hoped was a toilet.
"Bano?" I tried to control the pitch of my voice.
"Si." Not understanding the necessity of my situation, he slowly stood up from his chair, thumbing through his keys, occasionally adjusting his shotgun. I thought I would scream as he unlocked me from my personal prison.
Trying to focus completely on not shitting my pants, I followed the guard through another wing, past prisoners sitting in their unlocked cells. I envied them. They knew where the bathroom was. I weighed the pros and cons of relieving myself in my capris in my head:
- Sweet, sweet relief
- Prisoners had surely seen worse
- I didn't like my pants anyway
- I had nothing to clean myself up with
- My only way home was on my bike
- The students could start referring to me as Senorita Caca
And then, as I was about to choose the pros, we stopped walking.
"In there," he gestured.
"Where?" I asked, looking for a toilet, a sink, toilet paper, some sign of a bathroom.
"There," he said, gently ushering me into a filthy room, the size of a closet, with two drains in the floor. And no door.
"I'll guard you," he said, making a show of putting his back to the non door and positioning his gun in front of his body, ready to fire at anyone who chose to riot or escape while I lost my oatmeal from the back end in a men's prison in Paraguay.
I have no idea what that guard heard going on behind his back. He was a complete gentleman; he did not turn around or talk to me after I worked up the courage to leave the room with the drains in the floor. I still refuse to call it a bathroom. We didn't make eye contact when he locked me back in the classroom.
If Peace Corps is supposed to be about learning life lessons abroad, I learned two. Always carry toilet paper. And, no matter how bad life gets, at least you don't have explosive diarrhea in a Third World prison.
Megan L. Wood has written for numerous publications and is at work on a memoir. She learns her lessons the hard way.
Image via K13 ART/Shutterstock.