Barefoot and Stagnant

By Amy Chavez
For The Bali Times

There’s nothing wrong with wearing your shoes in the house. There are no germs on the bottom of your shoes,” trumpeted my doctor when I was home in the United States. But after living in Indonesia, the mere thought of trodding across the clean white tiles in my house with my shoes on makes my stomach turn. Yuck! Besides, what would the ants think?

I’ve always wondered why those ubiquitous white tiles used in Indonesian houses and shops aren’t non-slip. Many a tourist has fallen on their ass while attempting to walk on these floors in wet feet. Talk about a tourist trap. While it would be so easy to put in non-slip tile floors, there must be a reason they don’t. And I think I know the reason. These glossy white tiles are the Indonesian version of ice. It just adds just the right element of danger to their lives.

When you are confronted with clean white tiles every time you walk into your house, it’s no wonder you take your shoes off first. Have you ever really considered what is on the bottom of your shoes? It varies from place to place but if you’re in Bali, your soles will surely have traces of cigarette butts, squashed Hindu offerings, durian and maybe even men’s urine. It’s no wonder women wear heels. It’s not merely fashion; it’s a statement: Keep us away from the cesspool!

If you’re in the US, you’re likely tracking around someone else’s food: chewed gum, ice-cream drippings, an entire McDonald’s french fry.

There’s definitely germ warfare going on under your shoes. Yet every time I see an American show on TV, there’s always a scene where someone puts his shod foot on a table, desk or bed. Indonesians must wonder why we use floors at all – we may as well just walk around on the furniture.

In Indonesia, they admit that the ground is filthy. Therefore, daily life requires a separation between floor and ground. When crossing the barrier into your house (and if it’s a Balinese-style house, you step up into it) you take off your dirty shoes and leave them on the step, or in front of the step. This results in piles of shoes left outside the door to my house. I’m glad Imelda Marcos doesn’t live in Bali. Can you imagine over 4,000 pairs of shoes in front of her house? The newspaper man would have to toss the paper up through the second-floor window. And with so many shoes, she wouldn’t even be able to leave her house to go anywhere. As the saying goes, “You can dress her up, but…”

Many a foreigner in Indonesia has marveled as the movers, carrying huge handmade furniture in and out of the house, deftly take off their shoes at the steps before walking in, despite their heavy load. No one is exempt from the obligatory unveiling of shoes or slippers. What if one of the movers was a horse? Do you think he’d have to take off his shoes too?

Most Indonesians wear sandals instead of shoes as it’s too hot to walk around in shoes. This sandal culture in Indonesia has given way to a new gait I had never seen before I came here. First, I learned that you never walk in sandals; you shuffle. You drag your heels as casually as possible so they make that swish-swish sound across the ground. To complete the sandal walk, rock slightly back onto your heels and bring the shoulders back. If you are male, you can do a Clint Eastwood swagger and accompany it with a cigarette hanging out of your mouth. If you have tattoos, by all means this is the time to take off your shirt and expose them. But whatever you do, look casual!

Of course there are exceptions to where you can wear sandals, even in Indonesia. Government offices in Bali, for example, instruct people to dress respectfully. Posters show how to dress properly: no sandals, shorts or tank tops. And you don’t take off your shoes.

But I’ll never wear shoes in my house again, even if I live in the US. It’s hard for me to believe that in elementary school I used to go to school in the same shoes I put on that morning. You see, I used to have a horse. Before school every morning, I had to feed him and clean his stall. Sometimes, later on in the afternoon during class, the smell of horse manure would permeate the classroom. I’d look over at my friends, who also had horses, and we’d begin to giggle as we wondered which one of us had forgotten to clean off her shoes before leaving for school.

Don’t look so disgusted. Like my American doctor says, “There are no germs on the bottom of your shoes.”

Amy Chavez, who is hardly the sole of discretion, is going on vacation and will return the week after next. She can be contacted at

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