Thursday, 15 May 2014

Toilets - The last bastion of culture

Having travelled a good bit I can’t help but notice that the world is becoming more and more homogenised - I’m sure it won’t be long before they install a Starbucks at the top of Everest or a McD’s inside the pyramids. However, there is one area that seems to resist cultural pressure more than any other and that’s the good old toilet.


I guess most people are familiar with the western toilet. It’s made inroads in pretty much all parts of the world. I climbed a mountain in Sichuan once. At the top there was a set of toilets, one of which was western. The foreign toilet had a sign outside that said “Aliens shit here” – google translate has a lot to answer for. However, you really have to go to Japan to see toilets pushed to the technological limits.
In Japan, some – not all – Japanese toilets have the typical western style, but on the side they have add a whole new level of servicing.

For a first timer, the Japanese toilet experience can be pretty daunting. The desire to experiment, crossed with not being able to read Japanese can lead to some surprising, but not unpleasant effects, including “auto washing” and seat heating. Sadly, I didn’t have a toilet like this in my home when I lived in Japan or I would have been more inclined to experiment.  I doubt the full joy of Japanese toilet could be experience in a one night stay at a hotel, but if anyone cares to elaborate on their own experiences I would love to know more.

Not far across the water in China (and in many places in Asia), the Western toilet is still something of a novelty and the squatter toilet is king.

For western folk, this one can be a challenge. Frankly, most of us just don’t have the balance and flexibility to use these comfortably, but with a bit of practice you soon get the hang of it and find a technique that works for you – a sturdy wall is your friend.

Like the western toilet, the Asian toilet comes in many varieties from the ultra-modern to ultra-disgusting. While I got used to the Asian toilet itself in general, what I personally could never get use to, were the country and service station toilets in China.  Most of these amount to little more than a rectangular hole in concrete floor looking down onto a mountain of well … you know - One place I went to had a couple of pigs on the other side tucking into the mountain.

Another thing with the Chinese toilets was that a lot of the time, especially in more rural areas, there is no divider between any of the holes meaning you would be squatting next to, and sometimes face to face with, someone else. The most impressive thing about this is that the Chinese are totally nonplussed at the idea of taking a dump in front of someone else and will often be take a bit of extra time to have some and read a newspaper. For myself though, I couldn’t manage such “openness” – curse my Britishness – and found myself waiting another three hours or so until the next stop.
Indonesians also have some interesting toilet habits. They tend to have a good mix of western and Asian toilets (although I think the western ones are more for the rich types, but I could be wrong). The special addition to the Indo toilet is the lack of toilet paper and the inclusion of a hose or water bucket (the hose is a sign that you are making in life as well, I guess).

The idea, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is that you use the hose/bucket and your hand to clean things out -  A much cleaner finish than paper most will admit. However, it also means that in Indonesia you should never use your left hand to give people anything, as this is your “poo hand”. This can be very tricky for a lefty like me to get used to.

I’m curious what other toilet habits are out there that I have yet to discover. When I travelled in South America it seemed that all public toilets had no seats. Does anyone know why? Is there some trick in desert countries involving sand? Did anyone ever explain the shell thing in “Demolition man”?

Enquiring minds want to know.

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