The first time I’ve found myself in the squat-like position was on day one of the Fish River Canyon hike; a five day hike in Namibia with no huts, no beds and no bathroom facilities.
I positioned myself behind a rock, firmly planted my feet on the Namib sand and hung around patiently, bum in the air, as a shrub tickled me into a giggle. The business on that fine day didn’t go as planned. My hiking boots and pants got into the deal and the only solution a 13-year could think of for the remaining four days of the hike was: Imodiums. Lots and lots of Imodiums.
I had four glorious days of zero business deals.
But a decade or so later I ended up in South Korea; quite clueless, slightly uncultured, somewhat uninformed about the customs and to top it off, not Asian squat toilet potty-trained at all.
After the millionth bow and awkward “I don’t understand Korean” smile, I walked into the bathroom on my first day of work. I looked for a porcelain throne but only weirdly-shaped squat bowls leveled with the floor appeared behind every door. I made a U-turn, walked out of the bathroom and only returned about two and a half years later.
I became an expert in waiting. When the need for a business deal became too big I quickly slipped away from work, walked as fast as I could to the nearest hospital, paraded past nurses and doctors who gave me the “ahh foreigner”-stare and went to the nearest bathroom with a porcelain throne.
What made Korean toilets even a tad, no…a wee bit, more interesting is that putting toilet paper down the drain was a no-go. Next to each toilet there was a bin to deposit your business deals’ papers; if you had manners you would put the “printed side” face down, if you were a foreigner you would just throw that contract with the business deal in the toilet, flush it and run away because behind every clogged Korean toilet stood a proud foreigner rebelliously flushing toilet paper down the drain.
While it might sound weird, it is actually totally understandable why toilet paper can’t be flushed in Korea. The plumbing system just can’t handle it. It is completely understandable why a country with a state-of-the-art metro rail system, a country with internet faster than light, where technological wonders, geniuses and Gangnam Style hail from, can’t handle toilet paper.
One day, after a bit of Soju and after living in South Korea for two and a half years already, I got brave. I placed my scarf and coat on a hook, carefully made sure nothing on me made contact with the wet floor and I squatted down. Namib memories came rushing back to me but this time, a decade or what later, I succeeded; my clothes and shoes stayed clean and I proudly tapped the flush lever with my foot and the toilet paper rebelliously twirled down the drain.
I was officially potty-trained the Asian way and the last six months in South Korea was a breeze with less visits to the hospital and more visits to the bathroom.
After three South Korean years I arrived in Indonesia and as soon as I ventured away from the tourist destinations I found myself in a rural village with no porcelain thrones.
I squatted down, signed a business deal and while my eyes scouted for a piece of white gold I remembered reading in some guidebook that every so often, toilet paper is not used and that all you’ll have is a water bucket, a scoop and your trusty left hand.
And there I was, hanging around in a rural Indonesian village, bum in the air, no toilet paper and all I could say was, “SHIT”.
This article first appeared in Traveller24 on the 6th of May 2016.