Friday, March 12, 2010

All Washed Up

One of the things I like about traveling is leaving behind personal paraphernalia (clothes and various other possessions) and all the various problems, deadlines, appointments, etc. They are still there, but I seem to be able to stuff them into a portion of my brain where they stay submerged until I head home again. Then they start popping back into my consciousness like rising bubbles—usually not until the flight home, if I’m lucky. In the meantime, however, I enjoy brief (if delusional) freedom from the daily grind.

I tend to travel light these days, taking only a few changes of clothes and washing things out as necessary. Husband ALWAYS takes advantage of the hotel laundry service—sometimes quite expensive. We once got a bill for about $70 (he failed to check the prices first).

I prefer to do my own. This is especially true when traveling in places where the “laundry service” is a person scrubbing your laundry by hand in a basin. I just can’t imagine making someone else wash out my underwear; whereas Husband says, “What’s so terrible about that?”

On our last trip to a remote region, I was amused to see that the hotel refused to wash people’s underwear (there was a prominent sign to that effect in our bathroom). Husband apparently didn’t see it and put all of his dirty clothes, underwear included, in the provided bag. The staff, apparently fully aware of the male aversion to washing underwear, sorted through the laundry bag before leaving our room. They left my husband’s skivvies in our sink with the provided container of wash powder resting jauntily on top of them.

I immediately started snickering upon spotting this, clearly envisioning the women who cleaned our room shaking their heads and saying, “Another spoiled man. We’ll show him.”

When my husband came in to see what was so funny, he couldn’t believe his eyes and glanced at me with a horrified, yet hopeful, look. My response was, “Don’t even think about it.”

I find this male aversion to doing hand laundry pretty widespread. At a field station I frequent, there is a rustic laundry area set up outside next to the cistern with a hose, large shallow washbasin, an authentic washboard, and stiff-bristled brush (for those hard-to-remove stains). You can pay the field station cook to do your laundry, but in my 25 years of fieldwork there I’ve never availed myself of this service. In contrast, most of the male scientists have her do their laundry.

There are a few who solve the problem by simply not doing any wash and just wear the same clothes over and over (until they get home and their wives do it for them).

Sometimes, though, if a male scientist (on their first trip) happens to ask me about the laundry, I’ll point them in the direction of the washbasin and even give them a lesson in the proper use of the washboard. Then I retire to the shade to be entertained by their tentative poking, dipping, and splashing. I’ve even gotten a few good photos that are useful at later seminars.

All too soon, though, the fun ends when the station manager walks past and says, “Hey, man. What the heck are you thinkin’? The cook’ll do your skivvies for ya!”

By the way, the term “skivvies” is nautical slang for “underwear”--of unknown origin, but was once London slang for “female domestic servant”. Hmmmm….

I have to admit, though, that I did once meet an aberrant male scientist who falsified my Male Aversion to Laundry Hypothesis. A plant biochemist I encountered years ago, who was staying at the same field station, had me beaten in both the laundry and the streamlined travel categories. He had brought for a three-week trip only a briefcase containing his critical laboratory chemicals and one change of clothes. He had two polo shirts (a red one and a green one) and two pairs each of slacks, socks, and underwear. Every evening he would wash out the set he had worn that day. I would pass his cabin each morning, and there on the clothesline would be his daily wash waving in the breeze.

I was so impressed at how diligently he performed this ritual, that I cooked him an old-fashioned Southern meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and cornbread (and I don’t fry chicken for just anyone). When he admitted he could barely boil water, I realized that he was practically starving to death (we were 40 km from the nearest restaurant and without transportation).

I’m not sure if he was an outlier (in the male population) or if his behavior was somehow associated with the field of biochemistry. My sample size is just too small to say.

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