Hygiene and Its Discontents

Up to my eyeballs in preparations for Monday’s start of the new semester, so I’m re-posting a bit I initially published on 6/22/04 at http://rattlebrain.com/~apegrrl/blog040622.htm

Hygiene and Its Discontents

While doing as Nature intended this morning, I began to think about a conversation I had in Indonesia a few years ago.  My Indonesian friend pointed out that Westerners are so wasteful they even throw paper away every time they take a crap.

You must understand that in Indonesia (and much of Asia, I believe), standard practice involves no toilet paper.

squatting vs. sitting - the changes to the rectum and puborectalis muscle

Instead of sitting on a throne, one squats over a hole (this has the benefit of being a bit more natural of a position for this task, supposedly improving the expelling function and
perhaps making things a bit more tidy – not to mention the extra muscle tone you develop in your legs as you incorporate such squatting in your daily routine).

Indonesian Kamar Mandi
Indonesian Kamar Mandi

To cleanse afterward, one scoops water out of the adjacent basin (or bucket in more rustic settings) with a dipper (holding the dipper in the right hand) and pours some water onto the left hand, which can then be used to clean oneself (this is why it’s considered rude to use the left hand for eating, touching others or passing items to others).   Then you wash your hands off (over the toilet, ideally, though in nicer places there’s another drain on the floor, or even an honest-ta-god sink), and use the remaining water in your dipper to flush your effluents down the hole.  Just like in Western plumbing, an S-curve just below the drain hole allows for water to make a barrier between your restroom and the raw sewage and its odors further down the line.  In fairly posh arrangements, there are hand holds to help you get in and out of position, little foot-rests to keep your feet above the potentially wet floor, flip-flops just for bathroom use located conveniently at the door, and everything is beautifully tiled up to about three feet high.

There are several advantages to this commode-use technique.  Unlike Western flush toilets, you determine exactly how much water is required to get everything flushed.  And of course, you don’t use toilet paper (also makes it less prone to irritation of your sensitive spots).  Having attempted similar procedures where there was a sit-down semi-Western toilet, but a basin and no TP, I can tell you that it doesn’t work as well in this arrangement.

kamar kecil in Padangbai (note soggy TP)

It seems that Asian-style restroom arrangements are actually much more efficient with water, and infinitely less wasteful when it comes to trees.  Even those of us who buy 100% recycled, unbleached, and otherwise innocuous TP are still throwing away paper pulp that might better be used for printing political screeds and bumper stickers.  The water and energy that goes into (even recycled) paper production is substantial, and then there’s the fuel cost of transporting all those rolls of fluffy, white tree pulp from the factory to your bum.  The lack of TP in the process could be a boon to those using septic tanks or composting toilets.

Could us decadent Westerners make the switch?  All the European and American researchers working where I was managed to get reasonably comfortable with it in a couple weeks, though most of us considered it a great luxury to go in a Western-style bathroom when we got back to town and stayed at a hotel.  Just like learning a language, or learning how to carry heavy loads on your head (something women in Central Africa do without any strain or wobbling), voiding one’s waste Asian-style is probably best learned in childhood, but you can develop some proficiency as an adult.  The biggest barrier (after overcoming irrational squeamishness at using a non-paper-protected hand to wipe your ass) is the architecture of all our bathrooms.  Oh, and just like with composting toilets and straw-bale houses, there might be some building and health codes to work around.  Of course, there’d be huge materials cost/waste issues in remodeling existing bathrooms, but if all new buildings and otherwise-planned remodels included making this switch, what a difference that could make.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent post!
    Imagine the potential savings in health and elder care with the increased latter-life mobility.


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