There are few things more daunting than taking a hot shower in Latin America. Rather than use a large tank-style water heater as we do in the US, the heater here is built into the shower head and usually appears to have been installed by a drunken monkey. But fear not — it is possible to de-stinkify yourself without a shocking surprise.
Although the heaters look like something you’d find for sale late at night on one of those shopping channels, they are a common sight in many parts of the world. In Asia, I found similar setups, but there the heater is a sealed, waterproof unit mounted on the wall and I never really worried about being shocked.
Here, it’s a large electrical time bomb hanging above your head, often with visible bare wires (count yourself lucky if you find electrical tape or wire nuts).
The first step to using a shower like this is to give it a good visual inspection. Is it mounted high enough that you can shower without bumping your head? Are bare wires visible where they could possibly contact water? If it’s just too sketchy, ask the management for a bucket, fill it with hot water and clean off with a washcloth.
Looking closer, you’ll see the ‘temperature selector’ which has three settings: high, medium and off. Don’t touch it. It doesn’t really work anyway and most likely the last tourist left it set at its optimum setting. Or else he died trying.
In fact, it’s best just not to look at the heater from this point on. It really makes things easier. Trust me. Try not to think about it. Keep your head down, do your business and get the hell out of there.
You’ll probably notice a small bulb with holes in it hanging off the side of the shower head — this is a pressure blow-off valve. If for some reason the shower head becomes clogged, this will –theoretically– pop off and allow the water to pour downwards rather than spray up into the wiring. I’ve found that they have a tendency to pop off at random times and scare the hell out of you for no reason.
With no true temperature control, the only way to adjust the temp is to adjust the flow of water through the heater. Turning it on full blast will produce a fairly cold shower. Turning down the volume gives the water more time to heat up on the way through. Turn it down too low and the heater will turn off — it’s a bit of a dance.
Basically, you have the choice of a stiff, cold shower or a warm, drizzly one. Your call.
But wait! There’s one last detail. I often find that the stall has a metal shower knob (if it’s plastic, praise your favorite deity). And since no one seems to believe in grounding their wiring around here, there’s a good chance that the knob will be slightly electrified once the heater comes on. And believe me, there’s nothing like tweaking the water temperature during a shower to make you nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnever want to do it again.
So here’s my technique: Bring two towels to the shower. While still dry, adjust the water pressure to get a decently warm temperature. Hop in the shower, do your thang and avoid thinking about things like wills, funerals and barbecues. And for God’s sake, don’t touch anything.
When finished, step out, dry yourself off with one towel, and then use the other dry towel to turn off the water. Or wear a thick pair of flip flops.
If any of that is too daunting, just skip the shower. Everyone expects backpackers to be a bit smelly anyway.