Toilet Paper Nation
I kick my feet against the base of the ceramic bowl that I'm sitting on, contemplating my current predicament. I'm not seeing any sign of a niche for where a roll of toilet paper would go, and I'm not liking the look of this slightly rusted hose mounted to the toilet. Or the beat-up old rag in the small pail of dirty water next to me. Or the fact that this is the first time in my life where I'm actually going to have to wash myself rather than use the comfortable soft paper I've been using for the past twenty-three years of my life.
But that's what you get when you're way out in the provinces. When you're over 7,000 miles away from home in a flooded third-world land, and your worldly comforts are stripped right out from underneath you. I breathe in the stagnant aromas of the overflowing river in the backyard as I try to swat the mosquitoes that are having the time of their lives gorging on my foreign blood. They leave behind delectable bright red tattoos across the lengths of my hairy legs—fat old welts that are destined to itch for weeks upon weeks. I find it fascinating watching a trail of ants, capillaries seeping through the cracks of the flooded house, as they feast upon the bacteria left behind on my toothbrush. It's as if the entire room was moving, crawling, alive. “Welcome to the Philippines,” I joke to myself, imagining all of those postcards of crystal clear beaches with sunburnt Americans and Europeans vacationing and wondering what country they were in. Certainly they aren't where I'm at.
The silence is interrupted with a rude knock on the door accompanied with a bit of Tagalog, Kapampangan, or whatever is being slung my way (they all sound the same: loud and choppy river dialects). I'm assuming along the lines of “Are you OK in there?!” Too embarrassed and proud to admit my defeat to these children I frantically look for something, anything, other than that hose and rag. My bag and sketchbook seem like they are miles away from me at the moment, along with it any hope to desperately tear out some empty pages to wipe with. I hear more knocking and giggling on the other side of the door. I finally cave into the dire hopes for the soft smooth paper I desire and reach for the hose attached to the toilet.
I wince as I squeeze the handle.
A couple more minutes later and I'm walking out of the bathroom with my head hung low and red, with an indiscreet wet blotch on my bottom. I may as well have produced a flag and shoved it into my shorts marking my surrender as I made my way into the bedroom to shove my face into the hard pillow to hide the redness of embarrassment. My girlfriend Jeleen follows me into the room while trying to coax me into telling her what's wrong, deeply concerned on why I would just take off so quickly from the household. I roll onto my back to hide the wet spot and face the ceiling of the stiflingly hot room, as I'm confessing my humiliation from moments ago. I don't even get through half of my actual conversation before she's on the ground rolling from laughter.
“Why do American's use toilet paper anyways? Thats disgusting,” the Filipina native tells me. “It's not like it cleans everything completely.” I'm sitting there nodding my head at her lengthy detailed explanation on how it always leaves traces of something on you, even after you wipe completely, and why soap and water is the best way to go. I sit there impatiently ready to pounce on her with the biggest smart-ass reply I can think of and show her how much of an idiot she is—that washing yourself completely with water is...well...clean?
“Well have you ever tried using the stuff?” I say to her, “How would you know it doesn't get rid of everything?” Trying to defend my argument without much success, I'm stumbling over my own words even as it's apparent who's winning this conversation.
Jeleen really gets me thinking about how our ethnocentric view on culture dilutes our perceived vision of what is right and what is wrong; all those sort of things that you learn in your cultural anthropology class in college. I realize I've been a proprietor of cultural ethnocentrism, nice going Erik. It's almost comical when you think about it, we pay money just so that we can wipe ourselves with wasteful paper and not even become completely clean? Maybe this entire time we've been brainwashed by these invisible toilet paper mega-conglomerates, devising ways to trick the American public in order to push their products onto shelves and into the bathrooms of every household in the nation. My entire childhood TV past has been destroyed in an instant with all that remains are these blatant lies of bastard teddy bears who slide fine heavenly clouds across their derrière and toss it off to the environment to rot.
Over the course of a few weeks that I’m in the Philippines, I become somewhat of a self-proclaimed “expert” in the art of washing. I'm walking into bathrooms of other homes that are more decrepit than the last and winning matches like a graceful bullfighter. There is no toilet I can't conquer in any part of the world. My tossing away the chains of proliferated paper feels like I'm tossing away my matador red cape and grabbing the bull by the horns, a euphoria of empowerment. Best part of all, I'm no longer walking around with the large soaked stain in my shorts.
Eventually I find myself back in the States in one of our “modern” bathrooms doing my business on the pot again. The bathroom itself, save for some trimmings of mold on the shower door, is everything that you'd expect out of a middle-class American home. Shiny tile floor, brightly strung lights over the bathroom mirror, no ants or any other critters roaming around the cracks, and especially hot water. It's like that same feeling that Tom Hanks must have felt when he experienced ice for the first time in so many years after coming back to civilization in the movie “Castaway.” Where you suddenly are shocked to have all the luxuries that you left behind. Culture shock aside, you tend to fall back into the American lifestyle and get comfortable with it surprisingly quick. There's only one matter of business left to attend to—the one only thing that has been disturbing me ever since I have gotten back to the States—and its rolled up right in front of me.
How the hell am I going to clean myself now that I'm back here since I don't have any access to a pail and rag near me? I'm trying to think of creative ways of maybe using the bathtub or the sink to maybe rinse myself off, but then trying to climb up on the counter would just be too awkward. The idea of my landlord coming in on me with my pants to my ankles up on the sink is almost as terrifying as my first experience with the hose. All I have in front of me is this disgusting paper I'm supposed to wipe myself with and how these fine heavenly clouds are to erode all traces of feces. I stare at it like its some contract with the devil, doubtful of its use and knowing full well of its empty promises towards cleanliness. Almost as if I am willingly condemning myself to an eternity of buying high-priced toilet paper when I know there are better options.
My Vietnamese landlord ends up interrupting my interlude through the door, “Are you done in there?!” he shouts. He's most likely been squeezing his legs outside for quite some time and is just trying to be kind to the stranger he's renting to. But at the same time, he's blocking my only path to make it to my room to grab a rag that I can wash later. I have everything else that I could ever need in this bathroom; toothpaste, actually sharp razors, a mop, plenty of soap to go around, but not a rag in sight. I kick the porcelain-colored bowl and stare at the roll of toilet paper right in front of me like if I was some kid staring down a nagging parent for being told to do something that they really didn't want to do. Welcome back to America, where the resources are overpriced and plentiful and everyone has the opportunity for success, to achieve anything they want. Yet it's a complete surprise that anything happens to get done around here because of how everything is completely backwards and inefficient.
I wince as I unravel the cheap dollar store roll and succumb to my conflicted reality back here in America, waiting for the day which I own property so I can install a better toilet.