Any expatriate eventually has to assimilate into the local culture, regardless of how low you feel you must stoop. The following is a conversation I had at a futsal (5 a side football) tournament in Bali, Indonesia recently.

Bule: (teammate of mine): “This is a pretty nasty story, but I just took my first Bali shit.”

Me: (fearing the worst): “What do you mean?”

Bule: “Like there wasn’t any toilet paper in the bathroom, so I had to use the spray thing. Never used that before so I had to ask one of the kids how to use it. [Insert attempted demonstration] I’m not sure I did it right but it did the job.”

It went on from there with me recovering from my initial concerns and surprised that this was his first “Bali shit”. He’s been here longer than me, but I guess has been able to time his moments better than me. Still, I could relate. When there are drastic alterations to something as personally mundane as visiting the restroom and when you are unfamiliar with the apparatus in front of, or underneath you, there is a certain amount of fear.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Indonesian toilets is in their variety. In my limited experience, there are at least seven or eight different articulations of receptacle, each with its own accouterments and cleansing devices. For someone raised on the simple urinal-toilet dichotomy, with the rare trough thrown in during more public scenarios, this variety and complexity can lead to awkwardly long visits and even more uncomfortable questions to Indonesian friends and/or significant others.

Equally confounding is the frequent insistence, in the not uncommon occurrence of the standard western apparatus, that toilet paper not be flushed down the bowl. This is often communicated through a conveniently placed sign, which – in the case of more solid events – is met with the following line of reasoning; “Doesn’t toilet paper disintegrate in water?” and since one doesn’t want to take that chance, “Ok then what do I do with it? Surely not in the wastepaper basket in the corner…” To which on sees no alternative and comes to the conclusion, “Yes, in the wastepaper basket in the corner.”

There are a few things that I have yet to crack and one of them is the bucket full of water and accompanied by a floating ladle. I have a good idea about its purpose but won’t begin to contemplate the specifics let alone take it for a test drive. There’s also the hose with spray nozzle that is strategically placed in most restrooms. The hose’s fundamental use is undeniable, but its very existence raises the conundrum of spray direction (from the front or back), the debate of which was included in the extended version of the conversation that began this post.

Many of these confusions revolve around a simple but fundamental difference between the way westerners and Indonesians understand sanitation. While for the bule, a wipe is sufficient to feel clean and comfy, for the Indonesian, a wash is needed. When it’s put like that, things start to fall into place and one realizes that they honestly have a point.

Indonesian food is delicious but is often dangerously spicy, even to the point of infamy. Here on the Island of the Gods, it’s been given a name: “Bali Belly”. I’ll forgo the details but say only that when afflicted, bathrooms that one can comprehend and feel comfortable in are a valuable resource. And this is where fear can very quickly turn to loathing.

This story first appeared in Semawang Stories, an expat journal from the heart of Indonesia