Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Meditation through Laundry

Everyone laments when it’s time to do laundry.  Usually when the pile of dirty clothes has piled up and spilled over the laundry basket, you’ll hear a long sigh by the owner of those articles of clothing, followed by the sorting and washing of clothes in a grudging manner.  Although most Westerners have clothes washers and dryers, apparently the act of putting the clothing and detergent into the washer and pressing a few buttons causes thoughts of dread and incites laziness.  I’ll admit, in college I was one of these people as well.  In my on-campus apartment, to access the laundry facilities, we had to walk outside a hundred feet or so in the snow and cold to change laundry loads.  And don’t even get me started on those infamous missing socks…
In Nicaragua however, I am without the modern amenities of a washer and dryer and instead use my lavandero or washboard and hang clothes out to dry on a few lines of twine strung between trees in the backyard.  Several other Peace Corps volunteers pay people to wash their clothes for them ($0.50/dozen items), but for some reason I have never felt the need to do this.  Maybe it’s because I’m just one person, and with regular washing throughout the week, the quantity or burden of laundry never piles up too much.  I’ve also realized, as I begin to think about ending my time here in Nicaragua (my service will be complete in two months), that washing clothes is a relaxing activity for me – almost meditative.
In a slow-moving country like Nicaragua, washing clothes makes me feel like I’ve had a productive day.  Talking with other volunteers about their average Sunday, you often hear something along the lines of “Well, I woke up, read a book for a while, watched a DVD on my laptop, and just sort of sat around…  But, I did do some laundry!”  The last part is said with a markedly positive tone, as if to point out that, yes, although I reclined in a hammock for six hours of this day, at least two of them were spent doing something productive, honest and with visible results.  Believe me, when working as a Peace Corps volunteer, you live for these little, visible results from your efforts.
I have always read articles on meditation in magazines and online that recommend that every healthy adult should engage in this rewarding, solo activity.  I however am not the meditative type.  My friends know that I can barely sit still to watch a movie or have a conversation; I have to be doing something with my hands, or in some other way be accomplishing something.  This is something that many Americans have in common, but it is also something that has slowly been toned down for me after living in Nicaragua for two years.  I am much more content to just sit on the side of the road for an unlimited period of time simply waiting for the next chicken bus to come along, or to just sit and talk about the weather and the recent town gossip at a friend’s house for hours on end. 
I do enjoy yoga and can relax when I’m being instructed to by the teacher – as if simply by participating in the class, I am “accomplishing” something valuable.  But simply sitting in my house with my eyes closed and legs crossed, “blanking” my mind is not possible.  Washing clothes however, is – and it’s something that I need to do on a regular basis (or else the townspeople will call me cochina, basically a dirty little piggy).
I like to think that I’ve become a sort of expert in the art of washing clothes by hand, and will proceed to explain the process which I find so relaxing and satisfying.  First, I fill up my large outdoor sink, or pila with water (usually first thing in the morning before 8 AM when the running water usually stops working in the town).  

Filling up the pila

If my clothes are extra dirty, I will have had them soaking in water with detergent for a few hours beforehand.  Then, I use a bar of laundry soap (sold in a variety of colors and smells – my favorites are the blue antibacterial or the purple, lavender-scented ones).  I rub this bar all over the item of clothing and then proceed to rub it back and forth vigorously over the stone ridges of my washboard (which also serves as my all-purpose sink for washing dishes, brushing my teeth, etc.)  After I’ve worked up a good lather and rubbed most of the dirt (and color) out of the piece of clothing, I pour clean water over it using a small bowl, taking water from the pila.   

Working up a lather

After squeezing out all the extra water, I hang it on the line, securing it from the gusts of wind with a few clothespins.  On a sunny, hot day, the clothes could dry in an hour or two.  In the rainy season, clothes would go days without drying – being hung indoors to avoid the endless rain.  Mold would even form on some of the hard-to-dry items, causing a lot of headaches for Nicaraguan housewives (myself included).  Every once in a while, a bird will decide to leave a little “gift” on some of my drying laundry, making me have to return to wash it all over again. 

My backyard - pila, washboard, outhouse and clothing lines

 Sometimes I listen to my iPod while I wash clothes, but usually I just zone out and let myself be carried away by the simple act that I am performing.  I can look at the trees, enjoy the breeze and eavesdrop in on my neighbors talking or to their radio.  I watch the pigeons and doves flutter in and out, trying to drink water out of my pila and sometimes the neighbor’s cat come and sits with me; the skittish thing watching me from a safe distance sitting in the dirt.
As I begin to think about ending my Peace Corps service, I am increasingly realizing the things that I will miss about Nicaragua and my daily, simple life here.  Washing clothes has become my meditative time and my moment to relax and enjoy being outside without expectations or requirements.  Although sometimes, this activity isn’t the most relaxing (try washing bed sheets by hand, for example), I will definitely miss it once I’m back in the U.S.  Although, nothing beats the feeling of putting on a hooded sweatshirt or wrapping yourself in a towel that is fresh out of the clothes’ dryer…


Alana Peterson said...

nice post, I just washed my bed sheets though (by hand, u'll be proud I didn't take them to the laundry mat), so I've recently not been feeling too keen on the idea of laundry by hand ;)

Xochitl said...

Hey, I am taking one of your pictures to ilustrate something on my blog, I promise I will credit you : )