Monday, March 19, 2007

Story Jar - Tandas

Story Jar - a biweekly column published in the Patriot and Free Press, Cuba, New Yorki

Published November 1, 2006, copyright Elaine Hardman


While it might seem indelicate to discuss, I think that Malaysian rest rooms are interesting. Tandas is the word. Saying that to anyone will result in their pointing toward a public toilet, using a thumb. (One always points with the thumb in Malaysia.)

Now, if you stay in the regular tourists areas, your western toilet knowledge will be fine, but if you go where the people live and work, you need some instruction. First, there is generally an attendant seated at a table near the entry. There may or may not be a sign posted but it is common knowledge that one pays to use the toilet. If there is no attendant, there is generally a slotted box or can. Deposit 20 sen (5 cents) and enter.

The stall partitions are commonly close to the floor for privacy. I consider this a bonus since awkward doesn’t begin to describe what I am with an Asian toilet. In the stall is a step up and a porcelain toilet-rim with foot areas on either side, level with the floor. The toilet is straddled, the body squats quite low and the business is done.

Before getting comfy it is necessary to check the lay of the land. Generally there isn’t any provision for toilet paper in these stalls. One was supposed to have purchase tissues from the attendant when the fee-for-use was paid or to have planned ahead and be carrying such tissues. Packets of tissue are an additional 20 sen.

Next, is there a sign? Sometimes toilet tissue cannot be put into the toilet bowl. There may be a sign in which a fine of up to MR500 (over $100 US) is threatened for the crime of putting tissue in the toilet bowl, though I don't know how that would be enforced.

If there is such a sign, there will also be a covered trash can in the stall. This is the proper place to put used tissue, a presumably clean item since one has washed with the nearby hose and used the tissue only to dry.

While a good, robust flush can take away the tissue (or whatever) many toilets don’t have a flushing mechanism. Instead, they have a faucet with a flexible rubber hose. This hose can be directed at areas to be cleaned but such hoses generally don’t have a particularly forceful flow of water so washing or flushing is a struggle.

Also, squatting can be awkward. Sometimes the knees complain about the bending or the body protests the effort of maintaining balance while straddling the tandas with feet placed on slick, damp, porcelain pads.

After the experience of the stall, one might look forward to washing hands. This will be easily accomplished if in personal possession of soap. Soap is neither provided nor sold. I generally carried a small container of shampoo from the hotel and kept it handy, ready for the grand finale of my tandas visit.

There was one particularly memorable tandas experience. We were going to the Bako National Park. After a long car trip, and before embarking on a one-hour boat ride, I visited the public tandas. I put my money in the slotted box and walked in. I wasn’t aware that the whole building was sliding into the South China Sea so, when my foot landed on the slippery, wet tile just a bit below the floor level expected, the rest of my body followed rapidly until I smacked into the lower wall, feet splashing in two inches of water of questionable purity.

The building wasn’t actively falling, just a bit off. I pushes back from the wall and entered the stall where I had to straddle a skewed, Asian toilet while wearing a heavy backpack. I was sort of fighting around with things and trying to hurry because people were waiting for me in the boat when I noticed the sign. Written in Bahasa but with symbols, I realized that this was one of the instances where the tissue wouldn’t flush. There was a blue, plastic container on the right of the bowl for used tissue and a once-pink, rubber hose for washing on the left. The sign was clear. There was a heavy penalty for putting tissue in the bowl.

I meant to follow the directions but there are some movements that are just automatic. To try to erase my mistake, I aimed that hose at the toilet bowl, this way and that. I contributed somewhat to the puddle in the corner but the tissue continued to float, imaginary $$ appearing on its wrinkled surface. I gave up and left, hoping not to be pursued by an angry attendant, jumped into the waiting boat and skimmed away from the scene of my crime.

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