A Toilet, A Hose and A Confused Moment Alone

by Matt | 1 Year Sabbatical on November 11, 2010

Indonesian BathroomIn the movie Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone plays a cop (John Spartan) living in a violent age who manages to apprehend one of the worst criminals of the time, Phoenix, but was then ultimately convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and cryogenically frozen (what a plot!).  Then well into the 21st century Phoenix somehow escapes his own cryogenic deep freeze and wages a war on a society that knows nothing but peace.  So John Spartan was thawed out to try and once again apprehend his nemesis Phoenix.  But he awakens to a world that has significantly changed (culture shock).  In one scene he goes to use the bathroom and when he comes out the following dialog results.

John Spartan: [whispering to Lenina] Look, I don’t know if you guys know it, but uh… you’re out of toilet paper.
Alfredo Garcia: [confused] Did… did you say toilet *paper*?
Lenina Huxley: Um… they used handfuls of wadded paper back in the 20th…
[Lenina, Alfredo, and Erwin all laugh]
John Spartan: I’m happy that you’re happy, but the place where you’re supposed to have the toilet paper, you’ve got this little shelf with three seashells on it.
Erwin: He doesn’t know how to use the three seashells!   

It’s a funny scene and reminiscent of my first experience using the bathroom in Indonesia (for the record they don’t have sea shells at least non that I saw).  My first exposure to the “hole in the ground” toilet was stopping at a small roadside restaurant near Puncak between Jakarta and Bandung.  I had just arrived in Indonesia for the very first time and while jet lagged and tired I was still quite hungry.  We sat out on this deck that had this beautiful expansive view of the surrounding countryside of mostly tea plantations.  You could look way down into the valley and see the traffic snaking along this twisty road.  It was just an incredible experience.  Of course after a meal of ayam and nasi goreng and a few Teh Botol’s and my bladder is indicating that it has reached maximum capacity.

Bathroom Test #1

Now I have a public bathroom phobia.  I don’t like doing my business in a public facility. It’s not like I have a wide stance or anything but I do like my privacy.  I’ll go to great lengths and put my bowels through periods of intense gyrations all to avoid using a public toilet.  But at this point I knew I wasn’t going to make another 2 hours of bouncing along the road without causing irreparable damage to an organ.  So I walked on over to where the bathrooms were and discovered I needed to make a choice about which door to enter.  One said Pria and the other Wanita.  Not wanting to create an International incident my first 2 hours of being in the country I sent a questioning look toward my fiancée.  She pointed to the Pria door so I went inside.

Upon entry I discovered that the bathroom was made for incredibly short people as the seat was flush with the floor.  Welcome to squat toilet 101 folks.  Secretly I was hoping to spot a button that when pushed would raise the seat up on hydraulics but no such luck.  Next to the squat toilet was a bucket and a scoop (thankfully there wasn’t a shelf with 3 sea shells) positioned under a water spigot.  OK, this was going to be interesting.  I was tempted to peak around to the other stall to see what other people were doing but thought that might be taken the wrong way.  Thankfully my business only involved a #1 crisis so I completed my mission and exited as quickly as possible.  Yes, I know what you are thinking.  I did indeed abide by the saying “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown flush it down.”  But seriously, does one take the scoop of water from the bucket and splash it all down?  It turns out this is exactly what one is supposed to do and also explains why the floor was completely soaking wet.

Bathroom Test #2

Indonesian BathroomSo I didn’t handle that situation with grace but I was soon to be tested with business #2 (the chicken and fried rice were attempting a quick exit).  After arriving at my in-laws house after hours of bouncing on roads my guts were ready to pop.  I excused myself and made my way to the royal throne hoping that I wouldn’t find a squat toilet.  I opened the door and saw a regular western style seat.  YES!!  I was finally back in my element.  Game on!  As I completed my handiwork I looked around for the convenient roll of paper on the wall.  Nothing!  I frantically looked around but didn’t see paper anywhere.  I started to panic a bit and worry that I was going to have to use my shirt or some other piece of clothing and I certainly couldn’t flush that. Then I spotted a little hose next to the toilet with a handle on the end; the kind that you generally see at the kitchen sink for washing dishes.  Since I wasn’t seeing any paper maybe this thing worked like a bidet and I was supposed to spray myself clean.  So with no paper in sight that is exactly what I did.  At first it was a bit startling and slightly unnerving to be spraying myself with a hose.  But I will admit that after a few weeks of this I actually preferred it to paper.  Just do your business, spray yourself clean and wave your ass around to air dry it.

Cold Shower With A Bucket

Then I decided to freshen up a bit by taking a shower. I noticed this container that looked like a really small bathtub filled with water.  How the heck are you supposed to get into that I wondered?  Then I saw a small bucket sitting next to it and surmised that one was not to get into the container but rather scoop water from it and pour it over oneself. Now I really prefer a super hot shower.  I like to come out of the shower with bright red skin that is borderline burned.  This water was on the other end of the spectrum.  Despite it being 90 degrees and high humidity that water felt cold.  It sent a shock through my body but after a few buckets it just felt plain refreshing.  Afterwards I did notice that there was a shower head but I ended up preferring the polar bear method as it left me feeling more refreshed.  It was only afterwards that my fiancee gave me the full tour and operational manual for proper bathroom use.  What I like about the bathroom there is that there is a drain in the floor so you are free to splash as much water as you like.  I’m constantly telling my kids at home “Don’t splash in the tub!!”  But it’s so warm in Indonesia that in 30 minutes or less the bathroom is dry and clean.  If I ever build a house it’s going to have a bathroom like this so my kids can splash all they want.

We take a lot of things for granted when we travel to new places.  I’m interested in hearing about your experiences overseas, be it in a bathroom or elsewhere.  Did you have a time when you were totally confused and didn’t know what to do or what the proper protocol was?  Don’t be shy…let’s hear it below.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Gillian November 11, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Bathroom etiquette around the world definitely took some getting used to! I have to say I am not a fan of squat toilets. I struggled with keeping my pant hems off the floor and the seat of my pants out of the way every time. And stuff would fall out of my pockets and…well, you get the idea. But…when in Rome…
Gillian recently posted..Lest We Forget

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matt November 12, 2010 at 11:16 am

Hi Gillian! I’m not much of a fan of squatty potty either and alot of that has to do with my bad back. Squatting in such a position is difficult to say the least. I think the worst toilet however, which I didn’t mention, was on the train between Bandung and Yogyakarta. It was so small that had I really had to use it I would have had to leave the door open (I’m 6’2″). Now that would have been an experience.

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Heather November 12, 2010 at 9:25 am

I too encountered the squat toilet in Singapore. I walked into a public restroom in a shopping center, opened one of the stalls and stopped in my tracks. What in the world!? I investigated for a second, and then backed out praying that at least one of the other stalls had western toilets! Thankfully, they did! I’d never seen or heard of the squat toilets, and was just shocked by it. I’ve not yet had to use one, and I’m nervous to, cause I’m a klutz!
Heather recently posted..Volunteering

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matt November 12, 2010 at 11:19 am

Hi Heather! I haven’t had to use them that much because thankfully most places I have gone have had a western style seat. I always wonder how you keep from getting your pants wet. I guess taking your pants off might be the best option. I’m always afraid of dropping something in the toilet.

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Srinivas Rao November 12, 2010 at 6:59 pm

LOL, I can totally relate. The squatter is quite common in India. I remember when I was in the Singapore airport in 9th grade I went into the batrhoom and I saw a squatter and thought “damn it,there has to be a regular one around here.” Luckily there was. As far as taking care of business in public, I feel ya on that. It really has to be a clean place and it’s something we really do take for granted living here in the US.

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matt November 13, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Hey Srini, I totally agree with you. There are times when I can hold out for a clean bathroom and other times nature’s call is just too much. A clean bathroom, or even having a bathroom is something we do take for granted here in the US. When my wife lived in Bali she rented a room and there was no bathroom. You had to walk outside the building to a small outhouse. I also get the feeling that in other parts of the world bodily functions are not looked at the same way as in the US. I would imagine that if we were to align our feelings with the culture we are visiting we might look at the whole situation in a new light.

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Mary R November 13, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Dear Matt,
Very funny and appropriate post! I think we can all remember well our first experience with one of those toilets! You know it’s weird but they don’t freak me out anymore… they strangely actually make a sort of sense to me now.
Mary R recently posted..Technicolor Island Culture

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matt November 13, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Hi Mary, are the squatty potties something that is common in Japan? I need to learn a way to use them without getting my pants totally wet or spilling everything out of my pockets. One thing I have noticed is that unlike here in the US where we have stalls that are like little private rooms, there is not the same privacy in many countries so unless you are lucky enough to be the only one in there you better enjoy having neighbors.

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Phil November 14, 2010 at 7:06 am

Hi Matt, Like your site! I have come to love all of these things in this post. Hoses, bidets are great. They are way more efficient. You can also get super efficient with bucket showers. I’ve found they help me concentrate on cleaning, rather than just standing around getting sprayed by hot water. B well, Phil
Phil recently posted..Timbuktu and Back

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matt November 15, 2010 at 11:29 am

Hi Phil! Appreciate you commenting. I came across your site a week ago thanks to a comment left on my blog. So I hopped on over and checked it out. The first post I saw was “Shitting Blood in Timbuktu” and I thought “Now this has got to be a fascinating blog”. And it is. You have a great way of writing about your experiences. I’ll definitely be following. Take care!

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Erica November 16, 2010 at 2:20 am

With all the drinking I did in Japan I became a pro with the squat toilets. While most hotels and such had Western toilets (complete with a heated bidet spray and flush noise), most train stations did not.
Erica recently posted..Road Trip to Burning Man- Pacific Coast Highway

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matt November 16, 2010 at 2:55 am

Wow! Heated bidet spray. Now that is classic style all the way. 🙂 We definitely did not have heated spray water but then after eating all that spicy Indonesian food somehow cool water was a relief. It will be interesting to see how our kids react to the squat toilets.

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Erica November 16, 2010 at 4:02 am

Indeedy-o sir. [Here is a Southern colloquialism for you] Like sh*tting in high cotton.
Erica recently posted..Road Trip to Burning Man- Pacific Coast Highway

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Kristin December 1, 2010 at 3:13 pm

so great! Using WCs while traveling is its own sort of adventure. After being in India for 2 months, I actually felt more comfortable with a bucket shower. When I got home, I felt the whole ‘shower from above’ thing was so excessive.

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matt December 1, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Hi Kristin! Yes when you think about it we really do waste quite a bit of water taking a typical shower. I enjoyed the photos of India on your website. I’ve got a friend currently in Vrindavan and want to go visit maybe this next year.

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Kristin Lacy December 20, 2010 at 11:56 pm

I saw some fancy squat toilets in Germany, they even had little porcelain ridges on either side so one doesn’t slip. Have you heard of humanure? It’s like a poo compost. I tried to talk my mother into trying it when ever she was building her house. She didn’t have any plumbing. We had this big orange storage bucket to bathe in, it just wasn’t quite wide enough to sit in, so you had to fill it up to your knees then use a cup to pour the water. Nothing more invigorating than an ice cold bucket of water in a cold house lol.

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matt December 21, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Hi Kristin! I never thought I would see the words “fancy” and “squat toilets” together. I have never heard of humanure but I gather it’s like a composting toilet? We have lots of composting toilets at most of the campgrounds around here. A cold shower in a cold house isn’t nearly as appealing as a cold shower in 90 degrees. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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