Some areas of the world have particular things that define them, and although a good idea they are only found in one continent or region and nowhere else. This even applies to electrical appliances and for Central and South America one of the defining bathroom fixtures is the Suicide Shower. I was first told about them by some American friends in London who told me to watch out for a contraption that fits over the shower head and is plugged into the electric mains. Pretty scary until you get used to them, I was told.
The idea behind suicide showers is to provide hot water where the plumbing system does not run to a hot water boiler, which is the norm in most of tropical America. The water is heated inside the shower head and usually provides a constant and dependable stream of hot water. Getting the stream of water right is something of an art that comes with practice, if the water flow is low it will come out boiling hot, too high and it’s only lukewarm. Controlling the flow to the optimum level can take some time and in some hotels there are detailed instructions on the back of the bathroom door.
Of course the really scary thing about suicide showers is that they combine that lethal combination of water and electricity. They need a lot of power in order to work and so are wired straight into the mains; you know they are working because when you turn on the water all the lights go dim. Being South America you can buy one of these things in any hardware store and simply wire it up yourself using a few bits of insulation tape. Some of the bodge jobs I’ve seen have been truly terrifying, like you really feel you are taking your life in your hands. Do I really want to be clean that much? Sometimes when you turn the water up too quickly, an electric blue flash comes out of the side of the shower head and you really feel - this is it. One of the guide books says that they are perfectly safe as long as you don’t fiddle with them and I have only ever experienced a mild shock off one, so this does seem to be true.
Of course some suicide showers are better than others, with most of the best made in Brazil. South of the tropic and the Rio/San Paulo area they are no longer found as its cold enough in winter here for hotels to install real heating and hot water systems. As I am leaving South America soon it is farewell to the suicide shower, a part of the Latin experience.
Update October 2010
It seems I’m mistaken that suicide showers are only found in
Latin America. I’ve just returned from East Africa and in some countries like
Kenya, they are found in a few places. The altitude is high which makes the
climate cooler, cool enough to want a hot shower, but not cool enough to warrant
expensive heating systems. Importing these heaters is a cheap and practical