How to Use a Squat Toilet

How To: Frank Bures blows the lid off one of the most taboo subjects in travel: how to squat and wipe.

09.25.06 | 12:44 PM ET

imageWarning: This article contains language that some will find offensive, but that others will find refreshingly honest.

The Situation: You’re sitting at a bar in the middle of Nigeria when you feel a rumble below your ribcage: the ominous tremors before the eruption. It’s the distant roar of a train coming down the intestinal tract. Ain’t nothing gonna stop it.

You look in your bag and see a cardboard tube that used to have white paper rolled around it, paper that suddenly seems to a have had a magical quality, paper that has been your friend and companion since you were a wee one, paper you learned how to use years ago, and which hasn’t been mentioned since.

But you’re a long way from Kansas and with no idea how people do it here sans paper. This is information that can be extremely hard to come by. It doesn’t come up at dinner. It’s about the last thing anyone wants to talk about at a bar. And it’s a little too weird to ask your host family about it. Besides, there wouldn’t be time for the conversation, even if you could figure out how to bring it up. 

Now, of course, is the worst time to try to acquire this valuable bit of data. But now is when you usually start to think about it. Now is when you grasp the wonder of toilet paper. And now is when you realize you aren’t nearly as culturally immersed as you thought you were. 

Now is when you wish you knew how to wipe like most people on the planet. 

Background: Squatting is an ancient practice, but knowledge of it has recently been lost in the West. The flush toilet wasn’t even invented until 1596. And toilet paper didn’t become popular until the 1900s. According to the Toilet Paper Encyclopedia, pre-TP, humans used corn cobs, Sears Roebuck catalogs, mussel shells, newspaper, leaves, sand, hayballs, gompf sticks and the end of old anchor cables on ships. Ouch!

But the good folks at the TPE seem blissfully unaware that most of the world’s people still use neither toilet paper, nor western sit-down crappers. Nor do they use corn cobs, gompf sticks or anchor cables. Because, while most of us in North America and Europe sit, people on just about every other continent squat, using water and their left hand. In much of Africa and Asia you can be hard-pressed to find anything else besides the squatter.

Beginning Squatting: I called Doug Lansky, a traveler and travel writer who knows the hardships of squatting. “It’s difficult,” said Lansky, who edited a book called, There’s No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled.

“There aren’t any helpful directions, like a seatback pocket, that show you how to use a squat toilet. You have to sort of find your own technique, whether you’re up more on the balls of your feet, or whether you get a little more comfortable and put your heels down. And if you get advanced, you can even bring the newspaper in with you. That’s sort of the double black diamond mogul run of squatting.” 

World Hum travel advice guru and Vagabonding author Rolf Potts has also seen a few squatters in his day. “In places like India, and many parts of Asia,” he told me, “a bathroom won’t have toilet paper. It will have a little cup of water. Basically, after you’ve done your business, you take your left hand and wash the exit hole of fecal matter, then wash your hand. That’s why nobody shakes hands with their left hand in most of Asia and the Middle East, because that’s your ass-wiping hand.”

Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth is probably the world’s foremost expert on excretion, a real Buddha of Bowel Movements, and she’s not afraid to get into the details. “My technique when I’m teaching volunteers about to go abroad,” said the author of How to Shit Around the World from her UK office, “is that when you’re learning, you need to take everything off below your waist: socks, shoes, pants, underwear. Then squat over the toilet. Pour water over your bum, and with your left hand, just whittle away with your fingers and try to dislodge any lumpy bits while pouring water. And that’s actually not too unaesthetic, because any mess that goes onto your fingers comes off in the water.”

Advanced Squatting: Do above. Read The Wall Street Journal Asia.

What to do: Most important: Cultivate the right mindset. Relax, pretend like you’ve been doing this for years. Remember, using your hand is (according Wilson-Howarth) actually more hygienic, not less, than using toilet paper. “You get good bacteriological cleaning with just rubbing your hands together with soap under running water four times,” she says, and cites a study which says you don’t even need soap. “It can be ash or mud, just rubbing your hands together under water with some kind of washing agent. Even dirt from the river bank will give you good bacteriological cleaning.”

In other words, the dirtiness is primarily in your mind, as Potts found out one day on the road. “I think it was when I was traveling through Southeast Asia that I eventually got caught out,” he told me, “and was forced into this mental power situation where I just willed myself to use the water. It was very strange. We’re not culturally conditioned to have that kind of intimacy with our butthole. So I just sort of had to—it’s sort of like riding a bike, or having sex for the first time—I just had to figure out what I was doing. Then, of course, I washed my hands extensively afterwards. But that’s when I realized it’s not that big of a deal.”

What not to do:

* Don’t ignore your pockets mid-squat. “Don’t lose your wallet, cell phone or passport,” cautioned Dean Visser, who has lived in Asia for more than 15 years. “If you do, chances are you’ll have to tell someone how it happened. I speak from hard-won experience, Little Grasshopper.”

* Don’t use glossy magazine pages. (See: Smearing)

* Don’t be afraid to ask questions. “It’s a difficult topic,” said Howarth-Wilson “Just because they’re embarrassed about it, people don’t even know where to have a shit sometimes, so they won’t ask where the right place is to defecate. They do a dump and run, then everyone is ending up encountering this stuff.”

* Don’t lean back too far.

* Don’t forget to pour a little water in, if it’s a porcelain/metal squatter, before you go, to help wash it all down afterward.

Preparation: It’s a good idea to get a few, er, dry runs in while still at home. Because with practice, you can get it down. After all, as Lanksy and others pointed out, we are biologically designed to squat. It’s the fine tuning we lack.

“The technique,” said Wilson-Howarth, “is to use a lot of water so you’re not actually scraping shit off your ass. What you’re doing is facilitating washing it off. But if you’re a learner at this, and you don’t take your bottoms off, it splashes onto your pants and you look as if you had an accident, and everyone laughs at you when you come out.”

Traveling benefits: Mastering the squatter will save you tons of heartache, stomachache, time, comfort and embarrassment. It works; it’s clean; and it will give you the fearlessness to travel anywhere.

Besides, you’ll never step out of the toilet in that Nigerian bar looking like you just stepped out of the shower.

Photo taken at Angkor Wat, Cambodia by Mariann Lawrence

Frank Bures is no longer baffled by bidets, stumped by squatters or a prisoner of paper. He is free to go wherever, or however, the road takes him. "How to Use a Squat Toilet" earned Bures the silver Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award 2007.

No comments for How to Use a Squat Toilet.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.