Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cultural Differences #2, or, The Bathroom Post

This one's a little scatological. If you're not interested in reading about developing-country plumbing, I recommend closing the window.

Don't say I didn't warn you...

This is an appropriate moment to write this one, since for the past few days I've been suffering from a nasty case of Gajah Mada's Revenge. (Gajah Mada: military hero of the Majapahit Empire, circa 1364. Not to be confused with kaca mata, or 'sunglasses'.) I think of it as the Indonesia Diet: eat what you want, 'cause it's not staying in you long. Lucky for me, I've yet to have to use a squat toilet; everywhere I've been has either a choice of that or western-style (school, the airport), or just western (home). Not all my fellow-students are so lucky: at least one or two have squat toilets at their host family's houses. The catch for me, of course, is that the upstairs toilet at least stops looking so western when you put down the lid – there's no tank, no flush lever, no chain to pull. I first realized this, of course, after I'd used it the first time, and had to go ask my host sister what to do next. Welcome to Indonesia, now how the hell does this thing flush? With a bucket, it turns out. In the corner of the bathroom is a tile cistern filled with water. Two bucketfuls in the bowl usually does the trick. The downstairs toilet flushes normally, but (tradeoff time!) there's no toilet paper, just the Indonesian-style water sprayer & soap. Which makes a certain amount of sense – if you accidentally got crap on the floor, would you clean it up with a little toilet paper or would you use soap and water and probably bleach? So why is your skin any different? Still, old habits and aversions die hard, and I generally take the tissue/bucket option at home. The toilet at school is perennially out of paper, since the staff there can't seem to fathom that we actually use the stuff. 'Tissue-minded people', as Pak Peter likes to say.

So you've used the loo, now you want to wash your hands. Catch: there's no sink. Or rather, there is, you're standing in it. The whole room is tiled, with an ever-so-slightly sloped floor and a drain in the corner. To wash your hands, get water from the cistern with the plastic dipper/jug/thing, pour it over your hands onto the floor, soap, repeat. Some places have a little spigot coming out of the wall, if you want running water. It's impossible to step into the kamar mandi here without getting your feet wet. I recommend foregoing socks.

And to shower? You were standing in the sink; you're standing in the shower. Again: get a dipper full of water from the cistern, pour it over your head, lather, rinse, repeat. And while you're at it, wash your underwear. The pembantu does laundry twice a week, but you're expected to wash your own socks & underthings, generally in the shower every day. Naked laundry! It was an awkward moment when I found this out: on the first day, my host sister pointed to a hamper in the hallway and said, your dirty clothes go in here. A few days later my peer tutor timidly explained to me that 'dirty clothes' meant shirts, pants, and skirts only, and nobody was going to touch that hamper until I took out the underwear and washed it myself. So that night before dinner she came over, the pembantu gave me a wash basin and laundry soap (for the larger load, more than a single day's worth), and she and my host sister sat around the bathroom and chatted while I washed my delicates. This was the same day that it was explained to me that I needed to use more water to flush (still the occasional little bit of paper in the bowl!); that it's customary to ask permission from the ibu before getting up from the table, leaving the room, or going to school; and that while going over to friends' houses is encouraged, it is not entirely acceptable if that friend happens to be a guy, so 'a bunch of us are going over to Mas Wyatt's after school' was maybe not the best request to make. Call it Emily is a Big Fat Rude American Idiot Day. Whoops.

But back to the mandi. The cistern, naturally, has cold water only; it sits out all day and gets used for several functions. It took me about a week to discover that the downstairs bathroom, the one with the flush toilet but no paper, has hot water too, so warm showers are possible. There the bathtub functions as a cistern. Don't even think about sitting/standing/laying in it though – you take the water from it with a dipper and pour it over yourself standing on the bathroom floor. That's one mistake at least I haven't managed to make. And unlike in Italy, where they thought we Americans were crazy for wanting to shower every day, here you mandi twice a day, usually once in the morning and once before dinner. Which, in an equatorial climate like this one, makes sense – you can get awfully sweaty by dinnertime, water is abundant, and the Javanese are an exceptionally neat and clean people. ('I'll be cleaning your room' on the first day meant 'I'll be going through your luggage and folding all your plastic bags into neat little triangles.' Really.)

That's all I've got for the moment. Between starting this post last night and finishing it now I decided that several days of barely being able to eat qualifies as 'severe' and started on the Cipro the health center gave me for the trip, which seems to be helping enormously. Pardon the anachronism here, but sorry, Gajah Mada: score one for the Dutch.

1 comment:

  1. This vaguely reminds me of the greenjohns, with worse plumbing: not by any means terrible, but takes some getting used to.