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The Toilet: Always Room for Cultural Misinterpretation

The Toilet: Always Room for Inter-Cultural MisinterpretationRabat, MoroccoSeptember 11, 2007http://canciondelvagabundo.googlepages.com/The toilet. Everywhere in the world there are toilets of some kind. But the designs of which often differ slightly, and in these slight variations I have found that there is a lot of room for cultural misinterpretation.As part of the acculturation process of nearly everyone [...]

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The Toilet: Always Room for Inter-Cultural Misinterpretation
Rabat, Morocco
September 11, 2007

The toilet. Everywhere in the world there are toilets of some kind. But the designs of which often differ slightly, and in these slight variations I have found that there is a lot of room for cultural misinterpretation.

As part of the acculturation process of nearly everyone on the planet, we are taught how to dispose of our personal waste. Whether we dump it in a “sit down” style western toilet, a “squatter” style Asian toilet, or in those bushes over there, we all learn a set ritual of defecation that is difficult to alter or change.

Typical toilet in Morocco.

Henceforth, I come to the Muslim toilet, which is a “squatter” style that has a very similar design to toilets in the far east. The idea is simple: you place your feet on the platform, squat down, and let ‘er rip. This seems very straight forward until you realize that there is neither toilet paper nor a basket to dispose of it. What do you do now? I just asked myself this question a couple of minutes ago.

Well, there are two options:

First, you can hold true to your western values, carry paper in with you, and wipe away in complete disregard for the fact that there is no place in the bathroom to dispose of the soiled paper. To drop it down the toilet hole would be completely blasphemous, as the plumbing systems of most countries in the world cannot handle paper waste- and nobody, I am sure, would want to return to find their hotel room flooded with backed up human excrement. So what do you do? Well, the only option that seems to be available would be to wipe, stand up, buttoned up, and then walk around with a handful of poopy paper until you happen to come upon a wastepaper basket. Sound appealing?

Second, you can suck it up and delve deep into the local culture and use the knee-high spigot that sticks out of the wall near the toilet as the water supply necessary to wipe with your bare hand. For obvious reasons, a westerner may find this option to be a little disturbing, but that is just the way that it is done in many corners of the world.

So take your pick. You have two options: walk around with a handful/ pocketful/bagful of used toilet paper or wipe your arse with your own bare hand.

But despair not, my western friends, as the North Africans and those as far east as China seem to have an equally complicated time with our western “sit-down” style toilet. Yes, from the evidence left upon the rear of toilet seats across Africa, Asia Minor, India, and the East, it seems as if many people utilize the western “sit-down” toilet as if it were a “squatter.” Perhaps those who were acculturated with the “squatter” toilet simply find it revolting to sit down with their naked rear ends making physical contact with the toilet? Whatever the case, from the evidence that is left behind it is apparent that, rather than sitting down, they stand upon the seat, squat down, and, often times, completely miss the big hole and defile the entire back area of the toilet. What else could be done? It is probably pretty scary hovering precariously over such a big, open, cess-pool.

I remember riding in a plane from India to London, that was predominantly full of Indians. As the flight went on I used the bathroom intermittently and was amused by what I observed. I noticed foot prints on the western style toilet seat and that the floors of the stalls were continuously becoming more and more flooded with water as the flight went on. By the time we arrived in London the bathrooms were overflowing with water. In point, it was obvious that the Indians on the plane either did not understand how, or, more likely, did not want to use a western toilet in accordance with its designed use. They were standing and squatting on the seat and then washing off with the water from the sink, and thereby splashing water onto a floor that had no drain.

By the end of the flight the bathroom water was seeping down the aisles of the plane, and I had to laugh as a group of Cockney London cleaners walked off their jobs because they refused to clean up the mess. “These people [the Indians] are fuckin‘ animals,” they yelled.

But I wonder how they would fare using the facilities in India? Would they not also degrade themselves to the station of ‘animals’ because of their unfamiliarity with the Indian bathroom procedure?

Cultural differences, confusions, and misinterpretations are for everybody. Fellow travellers, old habits die hard regardless of your culture. My only advice is to not be afraid or intimidated about the bathroom habits that are different from your own- just do what is comfortable for you. If you feel better carting around a supply of soiled paper, then, by all means, go for it. If you want to go with the flow and do things as the locals, then reach for the spigot and scrub your undercarriage like a champ. Being shocked, disturbed, and confused is all part of the travelling experience- so enjoy it.

What ever option you choose, just be sure to wash your hands afterwards . . . but this is a whole other story.


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Filed under: Africa, Culture and Society, Morocco

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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7 comments… add one

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  • Anonymous July 5, 2009, 2:56 pm

    It is nasty not to wipe with paper and then wash your hands with soap and water. Feces is composed of primarily live or dead bacteria, undigested fats and oils, and fiber. Its the fats and oils part that makes just splashing a little water or rinsing with water unsanitary. You just smear or spread e. coli and other waste born pathogens all over yourself, your hand and public surfaces. Also, the thin film of feces that remains on your hand gives a food and shelter source to the bugs when depositing them on doorknobs, faucets, and other hand friendly locations making them longer lived and more dangerous.

    It would be better for everyone if you just didn't wipe and took care of cleaning once a day in your own home.

    White guilt doesn't make me cradle and coo at the concept and give it a carte blanc room for acceptance. Its nasty, unsanitary, and contributes to societal disease. Soap is not that expensive. Its rather cheap compared to health care in undeveloped worlds.

    Your Fellow Vagabond – Year 1

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    • stanley May 24, 2010, 2:09 am

      to anonymous, i don’t think that the person that wrote this ever said that people don’t wash their hands in other places.

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  • stanley May 24, 2010, 2:07 am

    This was very fun to read. I had a proffessor describe his experience with a Japanese toilet that shoots water into your bum, and the feelings i got from him were very similar as to what i got from this page. I hope to have the courage to try the way of the locals if i find a scenario like this.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 25, 2010, 2:33 pm

      It is my impression that toilets are suppose to do the same thing everywhere, but they are tricky to find out how to use them sometimes. Yes, should definitely try to use those awesome Japanese toilets! Real cool. It is like going for a ride, the seats are even heated.

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      • Bob L May 25, 2010, 8:58 pm

        John Spartan: How’s that damn three seashell thing work?
        –Demolition man.

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  • Ariane January 13, 2011, 1:35 pm

    Wade, your second picture single handedly saved my class. I teach an hour long anthropology course and this particular day, the class was very listless. I had tried to capture their attention by asking different questions, but nothing seemed to work. This went on for about 25 minutes until I put up your 2cnd picture (the Moroccan toilet). As soon as I put it up and asked my students to guess what it was, the students started buzzing. The picture completely piqued their interest and we actually spent 20 minutes speaking about the finer details of the Moroccan plumbing/sewage system.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 13, 2011, 5:12 pm

      Thanks for sending me this note. It made me and my wife laugh. Sent you another photo via email, maybe your class would like that as well haha.

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