Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Diving In


What a day this has been! After not one but three enormous meals, my belly is completely stuffed with food, but that doesn’t half compare to the amount of information stuffed into my head!

The day started slowly enough. I went down for breakfast earlier than yesterday so that I had time to sample what turned out to be deep fried shrimp and vegetables. I figured on spending most of the day working on research and then wandering over to the summit exhibition later in the day, but by 11 after skyping home and re-doing my hair umpteen times I decided my inability to focus was probably my brain telling me ‘you’re in Indonesia! What are you doing sitting around in your hotel? Scardy cat!’

So off I went… by bycicle rickshaw again today. I have decided this is the decent compromise between walking and taxi.

The trainers were just heading off for their field visits, so I waded through the hordes of people in their world toilet summit t-shirts to get to the exhibition room. It was somewhat smaller than I expected, with no more than 20 exhibitors, but I started making the rounds. It was a striking mix of everything from sturdy concrete squat slabs to top of the market toilets with heated seats and adjustable bidet sprays. Beside that there were stands for Indonesian tourism and culture and a variety of cleaning products.

My first conversation was with a rep from EcoLoos AK who told me about liquid compost. The fertalizer can then be sold on, or sold back to the company, so that the toilet becomes a sustainable source of income for the user as well as the company (again that subtle double meaning of 'eco'.)

On the opposite side of the room I came to Toto- the giants of the asian toilet industry (and pretty significant in the rest of the world.) Their stand featured a row of their latest models which salute you by lifting the lid as you walk past (somewhat alarming the first time, but a nice feature for the forgetful… I have heard it jokingly referred to as ‘the marriage saver’). The highest end model has a stunning array of buttons to control temperature water flow (you can even make it gyrate and give your bum a sort of hydro massage), scent and flush. 

In the Toto stand was a small green lawn with a display of taps and shower heads, and when I had finished ogling the amazing-smarter-than-me toilets I turned my attention to these these in the company of Armin, the vice president of Neoperl fittings to regulate water flow to desired standards. They are really amazing little gadgets. Each one looks something like what you get when your headphones fall apart, and can be inserted into a faucet or tap. The genius is that you don't loose the water pressure with the lower flow.

He also told me about the frustrations of getting people to adopt... while institutions may like the idea of going green, many of them are reluctant to make the investment to fit out every tap. One work around for this is going straight to the manufacturers and getting the taps fitted from installation so that the end use doesn't have to think too much about it. 

By the time we had finished with the taps the toto crew were heading off to lunch, and generously invited me along. So I found myself in a taxi with thirteen business men, mostly speaking Indonesian. We went for Chinese in a rather posh place. The courses just kept coming and coming. Soup, duck, beef and chips(?), eggplant, fish, prawns, and a couple other things I couldn't identify. Over lunch th conversation ranged over quite a few topics... though not toilets. Most memorable was the conversation around cell phones and status. Apparently having more than three phones is a symbol of status. In which case I do not think I have ever been in a room with so much power! 

That set me thinking about the statistic that more people in the world have access to a mobile phone than a toilet. And similarly that more people have access to a television than a toilet. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have thought of this, but surely there ought to be some way of harnessing that technology  to spread information about sanitation? 

Back to reality with a pudding that was something like buttered toast with layers of chocolate and peanut butter with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Definitely an overindulgance, but delicious none the less. 

Back at the hotel I settled in the lobby to try to journal some thoughts, but was interrupted by Juliet who was ready to have a more in-depth conversation about sanitation. She was full of suggestions as to who might fund projects, and how to pitch them. She usefully described sanitation as a balance between hardware and software: the infrastructure and the cultural awareness. 

Then came the high point of my say, when she introduced me to Jack Sim, better known as Mr. Toilet and the founder of the World Toilet Organiation. I had had that nervous self-consciosness one often gets before meeting a personal hero, but I needn't have worried. He took one look at my business card and proclaimed "we need to take this world wide!" He is as friendly and down to earth as can be, and absolutely bubbling with energy. He introduced me to the head of the Russian Toilet Organisation, who speaks only a small amount of English, but is equally enthusiastic and charming. I sat next to him on the bus journey to Benteng Vastenberg where our welcome diner was held. He chatted most of the way, getting out his phone and showing me pictures of toilets he had inspected, proclaiming "Good!" or "bad!" accordingly. My personal favorite was a series in which there were lots of people running a marathon ("many people. No toilet") and a lonely roadside toilet ("toilet- no people").

Many people, no toilet pretty well describes the evening. The government of Solo had planned a spectacular cultural night, with traditional song and dances, speeches, and yet more elaborate traditional food. There was an appearance from the past three years worth of 'Miss Indonesia' winners, and a pair of presenters who my table agreed were worthy of Eurovision. But when the amount of water we had drunk started striking about half way through our enquiries about the facilities fell on confused ears. "No toilets here." 

Was it possible? No toilets at the toilet summit?

Not quite. At last a toilet was located at the far end of a darkened field. A steep set of steps lead up to four cubicles, two ladies and two men. Each contained a squat toilet, and a bucket of rather used looking water. The floor was about two inches deep in a liquid that I can only hope was more water. So there, at what was meant to be a celebration of Solo's commitment to improved sanitary conditions I had my first squat toilet experience. 

My loo-going companion was furious about the situation, but I think it's all the more reason that Solo is the right place for this event to be taking place. They have probably come a long way, but have a long way to go. They're still learning and this gives them the chance to get feedback. What they do with it and whether they act on it is up to them in the long-run. And follow-through is certainly yet another large sanitation challenge, as NGOs discover over and over again. The ideal situation is to make yourself redundant by implementing changes that get internalised in a society and run independently. Eavesdropped on the way home on conversations about inventivising good sanitary practices in schools. 

Make it fun. 
Make it rewarding. 
Make it entertaining. 
Lots to continue to think about!

The summit proper begins at 7:30 tomorrow (Indonesians, it seems, are morning people) so, though I haven't processed half of what I'd like to I have got six hours to catch some sleep before another full day of toilets begins. 

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