Tabo by Helga Weber

Taboo down under

This is a revised version of Tales of the Travelling Tabo, which I adapted for the Australian Filipina, and it always gets people talking.

Tabo by Helga Weber

Source: Helga Weber

There’s one thing I never leave home without, and it’s not my American Express. On a recent trip to Melbourne, disaster struck. I stared at my open suitcase in horror. I looked at my husband. ‘Oh, my god!’ I panicked, ‘WHERE IS MY TABO?’ The prospect of cleaning my bum with nothing but a flimsy bit of paper leaves me … insecure.

For many Filipino expats and travellers, the tabo is taboo—a secret tucked in the corner of the bathroom—but nevertheless essential. Worried about being caught out when you’re away from home? Fear not. There are alternatives.

#1 Paper versus plastic
My husband, who grew up in Australia, has no tabo technique and finds it unusable. For him, paper reigns supreme. He assures me he can guarantee top hygiene with his wiping system. But I’m skeptical. What about chafing? Dry cleaning may be acceptable to some people, but I’ll take a rinse cycle any day.

#2 Function over form
My husband finds my obsession with the tabo hilarious, and he’s fascinated by stories of how I cope with the lack of, uh, facilities. As I’ve learned over the years, there are ways to simulate the effect of the tabo. At school retreats, I used the toilet late at night then ran straight for the showers after I’d done my business. At home, an innocuous plastic measuring jug takes pride of place beside every toilet. In public … well, I just don’t go. Sorry, kidneys, but my dignity wins this battle. For dire emergencies, I carry a pack of flushable wipes. Some people prefer the intricate ritual of moistening sheets of toilet paper. If you’re desperate, just take a bottle of water in with you.

#3 Affluent effluence
What Filipinos take for granted in the lowly tabo is a luxury in many parts of the world. Economics plays a part in the tabo psychology with the rise of the bidet. In Europe, my husband discovered these dedicated appliances for Extremely Personal Hygiene. He lovingly labelled them his ‘bum washers’. At the end of our trip, my husband sadly contemplated the bidet-less world to which he was about to return. I smirked, the ancient knowledge of the tabo leaving me unfazed.

Living in Australia, land of three-ply toilet paper, has left me feeling marginalised. So imagine my delight when, at a Bangladeshi-Australian home, I discovered a small, red tabo with a long, pointy handle. ‘How authentic!’ I marvelled to my husband, who was clearly disturbed to learn that I’d found international allies.

Some Filipino Australians have discarded the tabo in favour of pulp friction. But this is one aspect of my culture I refuse to surrender. The tabo is part of my Filipino identity. When I visit friends’ homes and see that ubiquitous plastic water jug hiding meekly beside the toilet seat, I feel a primitive bond. It’s not just a question of hygiene; it’s a matter of pride.

My son starts toilet training in a few months. Guess what I’ll be teaching him?

This article was published in the May/June 2007 issue of the Australian Filipina. The accompanying photo is by Helga Weber via Flickr.

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