Travel Story Bathtime in Bali: a real soap opera

Photo of Niall McIlroy

No matter how many times you visit Bali, there are still customs that can be misunderstood, meanings lost in translation. At bathtime, this can get you in a real lather.

I’ve visited Indonesia perhaps a dozen times, travelling in both Java and Bali — not just Kuta and Seminyak, but cities and small villages; Singaraja and Lovina on the hot northern coast, the market town of Bedugul set high in the hills, the former kingdom of Karangasem out to the east, the town of Sidemen ringed with emerald rice terraces.

The road-trips have been numerous and exciting, guided by the imagination of long-time Balinese friends, led by the ceremony-studded calendar of the Balinese Hindus, frequent weddings of friends or sometimes just to meet someone’s family.

There has always been a warm welcome. My functional Bahasa Indonesian and my hosts’ far better English have meant that jokes and pleasantries have been pretty well understood, but there’s usually been at least one incident that would leave me slightly baffled.

And it's fair to say the waters were well and truly muddied on the most embarrassing of these episodes until relatively recently.

One of my very best friends, Made “Baba” Haryana, invited me to his home town of Singaraja, where his father, mother and younger brother lived, to stay the night.

We spent the evening with a group of friends, enjoying a live band until the early hours. I was woken by dogs and ducks and tropical heat early the next morning. After a breakfast of fruit, Baba put his copy of Queen Greatest Hits I on the family CD player and turned the volume up.

He motioned for me to sit and listen. Baba’s father, Mr Haryana, joined us. He spoke no English, except the word “good”, which he’d say with a smile at the end of each of the 17 tracks before Baba pressed play and the album started again. Mr Haryana, a carpenter, bobbed his head and smiled, usually during a complicated guitar riff and I felt he was enjoying the workmanship of the music. He had other things to do, but clearly wanted me to know that he was pleased I had visited, that he knew I had been friends with his son for years and that we could share something, even if it was just music, smiles and the word “good”.

Then came the confusion.

It was bath time before our journey south to Seminyak. Baba went first, heading out the back while I continued to listen and say “good” with Mr Haryana.

My turn came and Baba handed me the bottle from which he had rubbed scented cream on his dried skin and showed me out to a concrete trough where a cracked red bucket bobbed on water more than waist high. A small hand towel hung from a hook. Left to undress, I struggled to climb into the trough and gingerly tipped buckets of the freezing water over myself.

Later, as I farewelled his parents, Baba looked uncomfortable. “Can you give them money, ” he hissed urgently in my ear.

At first I felt confused and sad. We’d been friends for years, bought each other meals, birthday presents and the odd gift from our travels as good friends do. I thought I was being exploited.

But I gathered myself “How much is right, ” I asked.

“Maybe 80 (80,000 rupiah or about $8), ” he whispered edgily.

I handed over 100,000 and the man and woman seemed overjoyed and somewhat relieved.

Baba was quiet on the long drive home. I wasn’t sure why but I realised that it had been only fair to give the Haryanas something for letting me stay and for feeding me when the man of the house probably earned a single figure wage (in dollar terms) each day.

Still, something nagged at me although Baba was fine the next day and didn’t mention the episode again.

But it would be another three years before I fully understood what had happened as I sat at my desk leafing through the Culture Smart Indonesia pocket guidebook by Graham Saunders.

Full of useful phrases, important dates, tips on etiquette, dress standards and customs, it was when I reached the section Bathrooms that memories of that morning came flooding back.

As baffled as I’d been, the book couldn’t be clearer. It explains that the traditional method of bathing is to use a container to pour water from the tank over the body. “Do not mistake the tank for a bath and get into it!”

I felt amused, embarrassed and a little bit sorry for the Haryanas. My innocent error caused them a real dilemma.

As a guest, I was to be treated with the utmost respect. But the absence of water outside the tank must have alerted them to my unconventional bathing methods.

They would have worried about the cost of replacing the water and maybe feeling “malu” (roughly translated as embarrassed) at the thought of having to ask me for money to refill the tank.

I respected Baba for his bravery. He’d handled a tricky situation as tactfully as he could and managed to maintain his family’s pride in front of a foreigner — an important social concept across Indonesia. 

I felt strangely freed by understanding the misunderstanding. I texted a mutual friend who confirmed that it had been my bath-time blunder that had caused a ripple.

“Yeah, Baba say you wreck the bath, ” Nyoman replied, adding that our circle of friends laugh hysterically about the incident after a few drinks.

It’s been years since the bath but I felt it was time to come clean to Baba. I told him how I realised what had happened, that I was dreadfully sorry and meant no offence. The reply came quickly — perhaps he was also relieved. “Ha! Apa kabar? (what’s news). It’s OK, bli (brother). No problem. When you come to Bali? My parent also ask.”

And then a smiley face — a universal 21st century symbol — a message that’s hard to misunderstand.

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