I had only been back in the UK for a day and already I was in a public lavatory watching another man’s vigorous actions. After some rubbing and squirting, he invited me to have a go. I had never seen an automatic hand-washing machine before. When I was last in the UK ten years earlier they hadn’t existed – it had been push-button liquid soap dispensers and roller towels that made a resounding clunk – and I wasn’t sure how to operate it (or indeed what it was at first). Hence, I had stood back to allow the other man to proceed, then copied him.
This is not to imply that all lavatories in Indonesia lack high-tech features (indeed the lad who hands out the paper towels might be wearing a digital watch), nor that they are spartan or grubby. There are lavatorial jewels to be found in Jakarta. My short walk home at night in the city, for instance, used to take me past a plush five-star hotel, and, despite my being more accustomed to backpacker hostels, I popped in to use the hotel’s toilet whenever I was caught short.
It was a grand and palatial privy – all shiny ornate chrome and black and white marble, that made me feel I was urinating like a king. I felt I should really be carried in and out on a bejewelled sedan chair, with silver-clad toilet attendants prostrating before me. The music was nice. It relaxed the bladder. The place smelled of flowers. Even so I always felt that I shouldn’t really be there. Can you imagine the doorman at the Dorchester Hotel in London letting you nip inside to use the toilet?
Expect no hint of such opulence in a traditional Indonesian lavatory, which features a sort of truncated toilet bowl at ground level above which you squat, or, in my case, awkwardly balance. Ablution and flushing are normally facilitated by a bucket of water full of mosquito larvae, and a plastic scoop. A spray gun at the end of a hose might be on hand, but this always shoots water at unpredictable angles. I always emerge from one of these places with a strained back and wet patches all over my clothes. Furthermore, I feel dishevelled and besmirched for the rest of the day.
By far the worst lavatory I’ve ever used was, perhaps naturally, in the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in, on the Indonesian island of Bintan. My friend and I booked in to a room that had two bunk beds either side of an abrasive concrete floor with a puddle in the middle. This puddle was not the aforementioned toilet, though it could imaginably have been evidence that this room had been used to waterboard suspected terrorists – it was that grim. We both chose top bunks and settled down for the night on mattresses so old and sagging that it was like sleeping in hammocks.
At around three o’clock in the morning we were awoken by clanking and rattling. I jumped off the bed with a splash and turned on the dim light. Peering in through the wire mesh which made up the upper half of our bedroom wall were two men of Arab appearance. They indicated that they
wished to enter. After making reasonably sure that their purpose for coming in was not to murder us, and that they had in fact also booked the room without our knowledge, we released the provided padlock and they rolled into the empty lower bunks. I can’t speak for my friend, but my sleep wasn’t quite so sound after that.
Perhaps the most repellent lavatory in a different sense was at a well-known cafe in Fatahillah, Jakarta. The men’s room had a trough-style urinal made entirely of mirrored glass, which meant that a row of men urinating shoulder-to-shoulder had an uninhibited view of each other’s manhood,
a view only slightly distorted by urine flowing down the reflection. However, people tended to avoid this urinal and use the stalls instead. That was the thing. It was like expecting a pack of dogs – from Chihuahua to Labrador to Great Dane – to mark the same spot simultaneously. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Something shared by British and Indonesian public conveniences is that it’s increasingly difficult to find one you don’t have to pay to use. Again, the UK trumps Indonesia in terms of technology in this department. Whereas on exiting a lavatory in, say, Jakarta’s Monas park, you simply drop a couple of crumpled low-denomination rupiah notes into a cardboard box, in London you need to slot a fifty-pence piece into an electronic turnstile before even being allowed in.
This minor technological challenge reminds me that the incident with the hand washing machine at the beginning of this article could have been worse. Imagine me in a modern supermarket in England, again observing another man, this time as he bagged his spuds. Once he’d finished, I boldly took my turn at the self-service check-out that he’d used. Now I’m no technology ignoramus. I’ve built my own computers. But in no time at all this machine was urgently beeping and flashing and signalling for assistance. To me the clamour sounded like a store-wide red alert.
Other shoppers looked at me and tutted. I imagined some nearby staff member remarking to another, ‘Ay up, idiot alert. I’ll sort it’. And then I suffered the humiliation of being shown, step-by-step, like a child being taught how to place coloured blocks on top of one other, everything I did wrong. I hurriedly left the store clutching my packet of condoms. I also had two dozen plastic carrier bags, at 10p each, which I had mistakenly purchased when repeatedly stabbing a button in an attempt to silence the check-out.