Searching for Toilet Paper (and Its Meaning) in Cuba

In an effort to conserve toilet paper, my father-in-law began pulling apart the plies of our toilet paper. 

In an effort to conserve toilet paper, my father-in-law began pulling apart the plies of our toilet paper. 

Havana, Cuba — We were starting to feel a little desperate when an American friend of ours, who was leaving Havana to move back home, bequeathed us with a parting gift: a couple dozen rolls of toilet paper from the United States, each roll shrink-wrapped in glimmering plastic. 

Since moving to Cuba, I’ve become obsessed with toilet paper. I'd never thought I was particularly fussy about it. But before moving to the island, we had been warned that toilet paper in Cuba was terrible and expensive —when it was available — or simply non-existent. We heard horror stories of people having to resort to newspaper while squatting over toilets without toilet seats. (Toilet seats, which we also shipped, are also in short supply.) So the night before we moved to Cuba, I found myself breaking into a sweat as I stuffed roll after roll of toilet paper into the nooks and crannies of our luggage. 

The "bath tissue" our friend gifted us on her departure from Havana. 

The "bath tissue" our friend gifted us on her departure from Havana. 

The next morning, as my cousin Ray drove us to the airport, I asked him if he thought I was crazy to devote my final moments in the United States to toilet paper.

“No,” he said. “On my last trip, to Paris, I brought toilet paper with me. Just in case. I didn’t end up needing it, but it was comforting to have.” 

The toilet paper arrived in Cuba crushed and wrinkled, a result of our luggage having been wrapped and compressed with many layers of plastic, deterring any would-be thieves from opening our bags in transit. After seeing just a couple of rolls in the welcome kit that greeted us at our new home, I was glad that I’d packed the paper. And after a week or so, I’d wished I’d brought more — the dozen rolls barely lasted until our container, carrying all our possessions, arrived two months later. 

I’d bought what I’d thought was an ample supply for two years, but I had deeply underestimated. It turns out that the average American uses more than 50 squares of toilet paper per day, according to an expat friend in Cuba who actually researched the subject. And so, as part of adjusting to life in Cuba, I began to learn how to conserve it. Every time I had a call of nature, I carefully proportioned out my ration: two squares at a time — gone were the days of slapping the roll and letting an endless length tumble out. 

I contemplated a BYOTP (bring-your-own-toilet-paper) policy for friends and family who visited, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. When my father-in-law visited and learned of our crisis, he came to our aid. He noticed that our rolls were a particularly thick, two-ply variety. With the paper still on the spool, he pulled the plies apart, doubling the quantity of squares of each roll.  As the plies no longer were neatly etched together, the roll was now a messy cascade of paper hanging from our bathroom wall. But it did help us conserve.  (My mother-in-law, after reading this before posting, commented that she and my father-in-law refined their technique over their visit; rather than separating a bunch of the paper at one time, they began pulling more apart after each use, to keep it neater. “So it looked rather normal,” she said.)

Even with such inventiveness, after a year or so into our time in Cuba, we began to get down to our last rolls. I counted them down one by one until just four sat on the shelf of the master bath (the most out-of-the-way bathroom in the house and thus the most secure place for the paper). 

The Cuban Costco on a day when it did not have toilet paper.

The Cuban Costco on a day when it did not have toilet paper.

With just a few rolls left, I had no choice but to explore the options that were available in Havana. There turned out to be several options: the first was the “second-quality” grade paper, in which you can still see recycled candy wrappers etched into it. I passed. Then in a small, scantily stocked market, I encountered first-quality grade paper, which is light gray and brittle. I bought some but put it in reserve, as if the rolls were a fire extinguisher behind “break this in case of emergency” glass; they would eventually be used for paper-mache projects. Then finally, I visited the new Cuban “Costco” — a store that contains aisles of products stacked to the ceiling, but just three aisles and maybe just a dozen products. One of those products was toilet paper from Vietnam. Though the rolls were more compact and a little firmer than the American variety, they did the job. But then, as with many things in Cuba, it suddenly disappeared from the store shelves, leaving me wishing that I had bought many more rolls. 

As I searched the city high and low, I began to wonder if my obsession with toilet paper actually said more about me and American culture than it did about Cuba. Did I really need a certain grade of toilet paper? Why did my cousin feel the need to bring toilet paper with him to Paris, of all places? I felt especially embarrassed after I talked with a Cuban friend, who told me that toilet paper truly is a luxury in Cuba. A lot of times, when it ran out in her household, they resorted to Indian-style techniques. 

 I was spared any more meditation on the subject as, just around this time, our friend donated the remaining American toilet paper in her stockpile. But one thing is certain, after our two years here on this island; I will never look at toilet paper the same way.