The Smallest Room

The Smallest Room

One of the delights of living in Bali is the opportunity to build a house. This is beyond the wildest dreams of most of us and still would be for me if I hadn’t arrived before land prices spiraled skyward. Unconfined by pesky building regulations we can (and do) climb right out of the box when designing unique abodes, with sometimes mixed results.

When I built my first house here in 2002 I had, of course, no experience and an architect was not in the budget. So yes, errors were made. For example, I never thought about how people would enter the house or where they would sit when they got there. There is still no proper front door. Visitors used to come in through the kitchen but passing the parrot, who is socially unreliable, became so hazardous that I eventually opened up the wall further down and out of harm’s way.

Once inside, there is no living room. One guest fits nicely sitting on the daybed with me along with the tea tray, but more company requires sitting around the dining table, which is cosy but unorthodox.

Wayan Manis, already my trusty housekeeper, raised no eyebrows at these eccentricities. Balinese compounds are built according to strict protocols with each building having a dedicated function. We foreigners were on another planet as far as housing design was concerned. But she did demonstrate concern that the kitchen could not be locked up at night. It took awhile to get her to explain why this might be necessary and in time I learned that Balinese women traditionally kept the kitchen well secured after dark. “Someone might poison the food,” she intoned darkly. When pressed, she admitted that this had never actually occurred as far as she was aware, but you couldn’t be too careful.

Balinese bedrooms are usually tightly closed up at night, doors and windows secured against wandering ghosts and the dreaded and mysterious masuk angin. Balinese houses don’t have dining rooms. The food for the day is purchased and cooked early in the morning and left under covers; the family members help themselves when they’re hungry. Mealtimes are not usually social, people take a plate of food and eat it quickly by themselves. And there’s no living room as such in a Balinese compound. Several generations live together and there are numerous porches, bales and steps where people hang out, sitting on the cool tile floors.

So our concept of having everything under one roof is already a little odd. But to the Balinese our bathrooms are the strangest rooms in our homes, not just in placement but in the amount of thought and money we put into designing the kamar kecil (small room). They are astonished when we fuss about the colour of the tile in our bathroom; we spend so little time there, and its function is so inherently distasteful.

Because bathrooms in the west tend not to be very interesting, in Bali we often see the bathroom as a blank slate for our creativity. I know that in Canada all interiors are invariably painted some shade of beige, possibly decreed by an Act of Parliament. Bathrooms, especially in apartments, are windowless, unventilated and colourless. For many of us, designing a bathroom in Bali inspires our imagination. Granted we only spend a few minutes a day there, but at least they could be interesting minutes.

Why have a porcelain basin when it could be terracotta, glass, granite or petrified wood? Why settle for a ho-hum tile or plastered wall instead of bamboo, stone or pressed glass? In fact, why have any enclosure at all, when we can celebrate the lush tropical environment with open walls and roofs, allowing easy access to transient reptiles and burglars? Some folk even have bathtubs, although I have never understood the charm of sitting in hot water in this climate.

I probably had more fun designing my bathroom than any other part of the house. It has lots of light and ventilation, the walls are pale pink, the towels dark rose and the countertop is rosy marble. Because I don’t have a living room as such, I’ve turned the bathroom into a small gallery. Since people are going to sit there thoughtfully, they might as well have nice things to look at. So I’ve hung the walls with a Rajasthani portrait, winsome farmyard paintings and prints and an old silk kimono. Glass shelves hold objets d’art and the toilet roll holder is a carved wooden lizard. It’s a pleasure to sit there, if I do say so myself.

According to Balinese cosmology, the bathroom is located in the southwest of the family compound, out there by itself. Toilets within the family compound are a fairly new feature, provided with government funding over the past few decades. The typical Balinese compound kamar kecil is very far from fancy. But for about 12% of Balinese, post-digestive functions still take place in the river or in the great outdoors. In Karangasem regency, only 61% of people have access to toilets, the lowest number in Bali. Bangli follows with 76%.
And my decision about the colour of paint and tile in my bathroom would be beyond superfluous for the 63 million Indonesians who have no bathroom at all.

Open defecation is a polite term for using an irrigation canal, river, field or the back of the compound instead of a toilet. Indonesian has the highest rate of open defecation in the world after India, chiefly but not exclusively in rural areas. This practice, of course, leads to lots of disagreeable diseases as well as high infant and child mortality rates. There’s quite a big international buzz about open defecation (OD) these days. There’s even a World Toilet Day (November 19). Bill Gates launched the ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’ to develop a solution to deliver safe and sustainable sanitation to the 2.5 billion people in the world who have no toilets. Universities were invited to design affordable toilets that could capture and process human waste without piped water, sewer or electricity and transform the waste into energy and safe water. See more information on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website.

About 15 years ago, an innovative methodology called Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) was launched with the goal of mobilising communities to completely eliminate OD. Today this internationally endorsed system is in place in over 40 developing countries, supported by Plan International, WaterAid and UNICEF.

It’s been demonstrated many times that merely providing a toilet doesn’t mean people will use it. It can be quite a leap from habits ingrained over millennia to that porcelain foot-rest. As successfully married people will tell you, the best way to have someone accept a new concept is to get them to think it was their own idea.

CLTS works on a similar philosophy, focusing on changing behaviours to inspire the community to achieve open defecation-free (ODF) villages. By raising awareness that as long as even a minority continues to defecate in the open everyone is at risk of disease, CLTS triggers the community’s desire for change and action. It encourages innovation, mutual support and appropriate local solutions, ideally leading to greater ownership and sustainability. And, really, there’s nothing like peer pressure to get things moving in this part of the world. As of mid-2014, there were 2,867 ODF villages in Indonesia and over 16,000 in the process of becoming so.

I seem to have digressed slightly from the subject of bathroom décor. I guess the bottom line is that we should be grateful for that kamar, however kecil. At least we have one.

Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze – – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail is available from :
– Ganesha Books in Ubud, Sanur and Seminyak
– Amazon downloadable for Kindle

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