Pilgrims carry the World Youth Day cross as Pope Francis joins them in the Way of the Cross at Santa Maria la Antigua Field in Panama City Jan. 25, 2019. CNS photo/Carlos Jasso, Reuters

Jean Ko Din in Panama: Our pilgrimage to the bathrooms at Cinta Costera

By 
  • January 26, 2019

World Youth Day pilgrims can tell you many stories about the adventures we all had at Cinta Costera these last few days but none are more harrowing than my adventure to find a bathroom.

The first two days were fine but yesterday’s trip for the Way of the Cross gathering was a particularly hot and sticky one.

In order to get a spot at the site — not just a good spot but any spot — pilgrims begin arriving to claim their patch of grass around 1 p.m. They would camp out there until the event started around 5:30 or 6 p.m. because volunteers will turn you away once they’ve seen that the site is at capacity. This happens at around 2:30 or 3 p.m.

Anyway, I was tagging along with the pilgrim group from Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) and everyone was drinking a lot of water to keep cool.

When we arrived at the site of the gathering, we quickly found out that there were a total of five porta-potties for the thousands in the A, B and T sections at Cinta Costera. The plumbing in the washrooms in the nearby community centre were not working and had to be closed. Wonderful.

Most of the group decided they were just going to tough it out and hold it until they can get back home after the Way of the Cross. While waiting for the ceremonies to start, one of the girls I was talking to started talking about the washrooms again. She was trying to tough it out like everyone else, but then she said, “If I don’t think about it, I’ll be fine.” I knew that wouldn’t last long, so I told her I needed to go, too, so that we can start looking for washroom options while we can still control our bladder.

We went to the row of five porta-potties and asked some of the people in the front. They have been waiting in line for about an hour and a half to two hours. Clearly, that wasn’t going to be an option.

We walked about 10 minutes to the community centre to hope against all hope that they’ve fixed the plumbing. No dice. We heard rumours that there was another row of porta-potties in the C section, further from the stage and about 20 minutes away from our A2 section.

At this point, my bathroom buddy began to feel discouraged and wanted to try her luck in the line of porta-potties but I assured her that looking for the fabled C section bathrooms is the better investment of our time.

At this point, the sun has gone down and the Way of the Cross was already in full swing. We went back to our patch of grass where I told the group that I was going to bring my semi-functional phone and that we were going to look for washrooms. Another one of the girls decided to come along, too. And now, there were three on this quest.

I heard to fifth station announced through the speakers — Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross. Take from that what you will.

We walked for about 10 minutes through thick crowds to the edge of the B section where we discovered a human chain of volunteers turning people away from the site. We explained that we’re looking for bathrooms and asked if they could let as back in when we come back. They were going to turn us down but I showed them my press badge. They said press is fine because we get full access but the pilgrims will not be allowed. We took a risk and decided as a group that the bathroom will have to take the priority.

We crossed through the human chain and I think we were at the seventh or eight station at this point. We walked about five minutes further when we found a group of volunteers and asked them for the nearest bathroom. They told us they didn’t think there were any but to also ask the Red Cross Panama volunteers.

We found the Red Cross tent five minutes later and she said there were a row of a dozen porta-potties just outside the site. We have to go out through the security check and into the city for two blocks. At last, there is hope!

At this point, my original bathroom buddy was really feeling it so we speed-walked the last leg of our journey to the promise land. All this talk of bathrooms really encouraged my own bladder, too.

You will never see three women more happy to use porta-potties, even if they were marked for males.

The end of the story is that we missed most of the Way of the Cross because of our quest for bathroom facilities but I think our small pilgrimage tested our patience, our resourcefulness and our stamina. It’s just as much a pilgrimage as any.