The bathroom is a great place to find contrasts between America and Indonesia. Besides using the squatty potty, Indonesians don’t take showers. At least, not showers as most Americans know them. In the stead of shower they mandi. Mandi literally means bath or shower, though what they actually do is better described as a bucket bath.
Indonesia being a particularly hot and humid country means that it doesn’t take much physical exertion before one generates a significant amount of sweat in attempt to regulate body temperature. To counteract the swiftness and frequency that Indonesians become sweaty they mandi a lot. Usually at least three times a day.
The frequent mandi is so central and fundamental to how Indonesians believe people should go about their day that it is surprising to hear about Americans bathe maybe only once a day, if at all. My host sister, upon hearing that there was a trainee in my village who went a day without a mandi, said she was “kaget,” or “shocked,” someone could do such a thing.
Most Indonesians will also believe that if you mandi too late at night then you are likely to become sick. When I first heard this I thought of it as a superstition similar to the Victorian-era belief that if you go out in the rain you’ll catch pneumonia. One time I did not heed the advice and warnings of my host family and I mandied late. For whatever reason, the next day I had a lot of congestion and exhibited several cold-like symptoms. My ill-timed lapse in health couldn’t have been more poetic. The next day my host family went on and on about the dangers of mandi-ing late.
The act of mandi-ing isn’t a very difficult one. The adjustment to not having hot water is a little difficult at first, but now I just think of it as if every day is the ice bucket challenge except I don’t have to post a silly video to Facebook afterwards. Some Indonesians do heat water for mandi but it is not common. Heating a gallon of water is time consuming every time you want to bathe and a gallon won’t get you very far.
Typically, in the mandi room there is a large basin of water. Not a good idea to climb into the basin. That is the mandi water and it is what everyone uses to bathe. There will also be a gayung (small bucket with a handle) exactly like the one from the kamar kecil. The kamar kecil and the mandi can be in the same room, though in my experience they are more often than not in separate rooms. I have said that mandi-ing isn’t difficult but to be honest: I’m still not totally clear on the traditional technique used here.
When I mandi I use the gayung to scoop water from the basin and pour atop my head as needed. I am essentially imposing my American expectations about the experience of bathing onto this very different set of bathing tools and trying retain said expectations. However, when my bapak mandis, it sounds much different. From what I have gathered by speaking to people-in-the-know is that Indonesians generally fill their gayung with water and fling the water onto their bodies as hard as they can and then repeat as quickly as possible. You can tell when an Indonesian is mandi-ing by the rapid series of loud splashing sounds that emanate from the mandi room. It sounds almost violent. Not sure how that strategy stacks up to the old washcloth standard but it seems to work well for all the Indonesians I know.
The mandi is just one of many differences about Indonesian culture that took some adjustment. I wasn’t thrilled about it at first, but now I can say that I fully enjoy my mandis. After a long day of classes in the torrid Indonesian clime not much beats a cool and fresh mandi to start a relaxing evening at home. And on those cool early mornings the mandi is just as effective an invigorator as a cup of coffee.