Zen and the Art of Laundry on the Road

Little Girl Scrubbing Clothes - Battambang, Cambodia
Cambodian girl and her laundry. A kindred spirit?

This is story about five-sided underwear, a laundry detergent named BARF, socks that smell like goat cheese, and jeans that have never been washed. Oh, and it’s an answer to “What do you do about laundry while traveling?”

The other day, Audrey and I walked into a laundry service here in Oaxaca, Mexico and after a confounding exchange we discovered that they don’t accept underwear.

You heard right: NO UNDERWEAR!

Now try to imagine the charades that yielded that understanding, before we read the sign:

First underwear rejection in 5 years of travel. #oaxaca #Mexico #laundry
No underwear allowed.

It has been said that the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. Allow me one more: laundry.

Maybe you do it yourself, maybe you have someone do it for you, but you gotta’ do it. In fact, laundry is so integral to today’s human existence that “What do you do about laundry while traveling?” is easily among the top five frequently asked questions readers have about our around-the-world travels.

So the intersection of the “no underwear” episode and the general importance of laundry to the human condition got me to thinking about my own complicated relationship with laundry. As I thought deeply about my duds, a few themes and questions emerged.

Laundry As Meditation, Laundry As Martial Art

When things are busy and my mind is crowded (almost always), I sometimes escape to the sink for a little meditative laundry. While the opportunity to dump my duds into a washing machine might satisfy an occasional compulsion for everything to be clean at once, working my duds by hand brings me to higher ground.

Hand washing my clothes is like the martial art I never learned when I was a kid. Wash your skivvies, get into the zone. Sometimes when I scrub the ends together (like they used to do in those liquid detergent commercials), I hear Miyagi from the Karate Kid, “Wax on, wax off.

I keep thinking that if I wash enough pairs of underwear by hand, I will eventually become one with the universe.

Blue = Clean Laundry?

Since when in the world of wash and laundry does blue equal clean? And when and who on high made this decision?

If you do your own laundry by hand, I suppose you have two ways to go in the way of a formal cleaning agent (I say “formal” because it is entirely possible to wash one’s clothes with a bar of bath soap, something I have resorted to more times than I’d like to admit.) The first is a tiny bag of detergent (remember we pack light, sort of).

Barf Detergent Powder - Turkmenistan
Fine print: BARF means snow. International marketing fail.

The second is a bar of laundry soap. Laundry bars come in all flavors and colors, but it’s those universal chalky bright blue bars that make me wonder.

Can anyone explain to me how a bar of soap dyed a horror show dark blue makes everything appear cleaner?

Washing Clothes by Hand - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
How does that magic blue bar work?

Two Birds, One Stone: Laundry in the Shower

Sometimes I like to kill two birds with one stone and do my laundry in the shower. I find this is a little bizarre. And I figured you might, too. It’s my little concession, my little confession.

The broader story? Family and old roommates all know that if I could spend the rest of my life in the shower under a stream of warm water, I just might. Sometimes I use the need to do my laundry as an excuse to get a few more minutes closer to that nirvana.

Aside: I once fell asleep doing my laundry in the shower (a shower rather bizarrely in the shape of a bank vault, turn-lock and all) in Cordoba, Argentina.

The Magic Dryer You Never Knew You Had

Our marriage almost ended over this disagreement, but I finally came around. I’m here to tell you that the quickest way to dry clothes (especially those t-shirts) is to wrap and ring them inside a towel, thereby transferring their moisture to the towel.

Hang your clothes up in your favorite sunny, dry spot and you’ll be ready to go in no time.

I know this is probably an age-old trick that Audrey was wise enough to divine on her own without searching the internet. But I’m a guy. And sometimes I’m stubborn.

OK Audrey, all the time.

Know Thy Laundry, Know Thyself

Laundry can also be a path to self-knowledge.

When you only have a couple pairs of underwear, a few shirts and two pairs of pants, you develop a pretty close relationship with them all. You might even say “intimate” even though that word sounds like it should always be whispered. You know their ins and outs.

Speaking of ins and outs, “turn ‘em inside-out,” you say? Cool, but what happens when my five-sided pair of underwear can’t take it anymore?

Coincidentally, this reminds me of the guy who did a science experiment with his jeans by wearing them continuously without washing them for 15 months. His solution to beating back the stink — which, by the way, jeans resist like nothing else — was to occasionally freeze them.

Well, I know myself and I don’t freeze my clothes. Ever.

You also become familiar with your own stink. That is, if you stink. Which, by the way, I do not.

OK, I kid.

Familiarity with self-stink is double-edged. I will say no more.

Oh, except that when Audrey and I ate southern France out of cheese and decided to sweat it all out in a sauna across the border in Switzerland. I won’t belabor this story except to say that you know you’re in trouble when your wife’s socks begin to smell like crottin de chèvre.

Laundry By the Pound

Sometimes I like to have someone else do my laundry.

When it’s cheap, that is. Because I am cheap. (Ah, there I’ve said it. I feel so much better now. Laundry is also cathartic, apparently.)

Laundry services effectively come in two pricing models: by the pound and per piece.

Per piece laundries are usually a heist. By the time a few t-shirts and underwear are rung up, I’m taking out a mortgage. Unless someone else is paying for it or I’m on business and I need to look like a champ, I don’t do per piece.

I go by the pound (or kilo). Many countries and cultures around the world have laundry shops where you can drop off your laundry and have it returned to you, washed, dried and folded for anywhere between $0.50 – $2 per kilo. Southeast Asia, Nepal, and places in Central and South America come to mind.

Chinese Scale - Chengdu, China
Time to weigh the laundry…

Launderer beware: Some laundry joints feature rigged scales. Be sure that the scale actually balances at 0 and doesn’t somehow mysteriously register your little bag of laundry at 10 kilos (22 pounds). If ever you’re in doubt, take your bag down the street and get a second or third opinion.

Zen and the Art of Lost Laundry

We travelers are a funny lot. We’re all about minimalism and doing without, but god forbid our favorite pair of underwear vanishes at the laundry.

When you hand your laundry over to someone, you must do so with a Zen-like willingness to accept that you may never see any of it ever again. Ever. Sometimes pieces get lifted, most times they get lost to your neighbor, and sometimes they go to the great laundry graveyard in the sky.

That favorite t-shirt. I’ve lost it.

Favorite underwear. Check.

I’m over it. (Sort of.)

On second thought, I’ll never forgive that laundromat in Kyrgyzstan that vanished my Land Mine Museum shirt from Cambodia.

Washing Machines: Of Hummers and Minis

When we’re traveling and we happen upon a guest house or apartment that features a washing machine (I use that word “features” rather deliberately), Audrey reacts like she’s won the lottery. Her eyes light up similarly to the sight of artichokes and avocados.

Here’s the scoop: European homes favor small washers, American ones big washers. No surprise there, but the difference is like that between a Mini Cooper and a Hummer.

American washers are so large I’m certain Audrey and I could live in one if it came to that. (It just may one day.)
Laundry Traveling

But here’s the curious thing about European wash cycles: they go forever. Not sure what’s going on in those small machines, but I’d like to think our clothes come out all the cleaner for it.

European washers are also curious because they usually offer a built-in drying function in the same machine. Not a gas dryer, but an electric dryer without an exhaust. It’s akin to roasting your clothes in a convection oven. When we lived in Prague, we had one. We called it the clothes cooker. Clothes never quite dried. They were warmed, like a pre-dinner face towel at a fine sushi bar.

—-

And when you have neither a large washer or small, you get lazy and wait until your clothes are about to walk out the door on their own in protest of their own stink. Then you go next door only to find that they don’t accept underwear. And finally, you go to the sink, whip out that dark blue bar of soap, throw on some tunes and scrub away.

Wax on. Wax off.

Ommm.

——-

What’s your best piece of laundry kung fu?

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Comments

  1. says

    This is by far the most comprehensive article I’ve ever seen on laundry…I thought it would be quite boring but I actually enjoyed it very much! I’ve never heard of that towel trick, I’ll have to give it a try. Thanks for sharing.

  2. says

    Great post, the travelers dilemma. I usually resort to bring light, quick dry clothes and resort to the old sink or shower laundry and hope its dry by morning.

  3. says

    @John: Glad we didn’t bore you. That’s the goal. That, and maybe to make you laugh a bit. The towel trick for drying is key to drying kung fu.

    @Kurt: That’s generally our approach. Sometimes, our clothes are thicker (for colder weather) and the air not exceptionally dry. In those cases, it’s usually a matter of wearing things more than a few times until you find a washer/laundromat. Now that I think of it, the trick is to keep underclothes (the stuff at your skin) clean.

    @Margaret: You’re welcome. By the way, we’ll continue to maintain a few mysteries. Keeps life interesting.

  4. Barbara says

    While in Costa Rica recently, I apparently sat on some mysterious berries while wearing my favorite shorts; the shorts I’d planned to wear almost constantly throughout the trip. No time to bring it to the laundry lady because we were leaving for a new city the next morning, but I found that my Aussie shampoo and the sink worked swimmingly. Couldn’t believe it completely took out small purple stains.

  5. says

    @Barbara: Oooh, berries on the bum. Aussie shampoo to the rescue! Terrific reaction, and a great guerrilla laundry anecdote.

    I suspect there are a couple of travel laundry tips at work here: get to it quickly. Even if all you have is water or a bar of soap (or shampoo), the faster you attack the spill, the more likely it won’t stain. The other: I also wonder whether your shorts are stain resistant. If so, that helps a lot.

    Happy trails, and glad to hear you beat the berries!

  6. says

    In central america I used to loop the undies on the ceiling fan (it was like a table fan, with the grille) and let them sway all night in the breeze. Tried a similar thing in Suriname with draping things over the fan with a hanger. Oh! the laundry we’ve done. You know you are always welcome to come here and do laundry. I have the fastest dryer in the world (in summertime). The blazing, unforgiving sun.

    And for what it’s worth, that laundry soap is called jabón gringo here sometimes. No one knows why. and ours is green and popeye brand. Double no one knows why. Or maybe triple.

    Entertaining post. Though you do sound maybe a touch like you’ve lost your minds. Which I like, so long as you’re having fun.

  7. says

    @eileen: Excellent point. Fans are hugely important for laundry whether you are traveling or not. When we lived in Prague, we would wash, hang out laundry on a rack, then set up a fan or two to blow all day and night to get things dry.

    Jabón gringo — good to know. Terrific name.

    Glad you were entertained. We lost our minds long ago, by the way. I just happened to write this piece the other day, with the censor off. We had fun and laughed. Good times.

    And no, I don’t do laundry house calls.

  8. Heather Caliri says

    Another key: figuring out which outfit to wear (and not wash) while you await your laundry. It’s kind of the sacrificial lamb of clothing.

  9. Sutapa says

    Funniest uncornered wisdom so far! By the way, I have an explanation for ‘Barf’ being a “good” name for laundry detergent. Remember, in India, you get a sweet called ‘Barfi’ and it tastes great! Well, then, why would ‘Barf’ have negative connotations? :)

    Also, my son told me, that at the height of the recession here, he could get his clothes cleaned by the pound in NY. And it cost him almost as much as cleaning it himself using a coin-operated machine in the basement of his apartment. People were desperate enough for the work, to do it..although not sure he can get that level of service now.

  10. says

    @Kiran: Let us know how it works. Actually, I know it already…should be a charm. Enjoy!

    @Sutapa: Glad you enjoyed it.

    That’s real honest-to-goodness laundry detergent, that BARF. Apparently it means “snow” in Persian. The box in the photo appeared on the shelves somewhere in the Republic of Georgia, apparently home to some Iranian household product exports.

    As for barfi, I have no problem eating it!

    Wow, laundry service in New York City whose cost rivals doing it yourself at the coin-op in the basement. Who knew!

  11. Ja So says

    Liquid Bluing was used to make whites look whiter back in the day, that and blue is associated with refreshing water and clear skies may just be why blue is associated with clean laundry.

  12. says

    @Ja So: I remember liquid bluing. By the time I arrived (in the early 1970s), it was out of fashion for laundry. It was, however, a requirement for my chemistry set to make a manmade volcano.

    Your comment makes me think further: blue as a marketing tool. To your point, blue suggests refreshing, clean (water) and open skies. Hmmm. Subconscious messaging at its best.

  13. says

    Washing clothes with you in the shower…check.

    The towel trick…check. Works even better with super-light nylon clothing. In fact, it’ll be dry enough to wear by the time you take it out of the towel. And I don’t mean damp-but-bearable; i mean DRY.

    As for Europe, had one of those washer-dryer combo machines in Paris. Pretty small, but the clothes came out not only dry, but HOT! Great for Paris in winter.

  14. says

    @Greg: You were washing clothes with me in the shower?

    Kidding aside, all things being equal, the lighter weight the fabric and the less cotton, the faster it’s all going to dry. The down-side to synthetic fabrics though: they tend to retain odor, which of course brings you back to having to do laundry.

    Hats off to the little clothes cookers in Paris.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  15. says

    You are very funny – just love your writing style truth/humor – someday you may have a career in stand-up comedy. You’ll have plenty of bits to start you off. :)

  16. says

    @Phyllis: Glad you enjoyed the piece. This was the desired effect, for sure. As much I wanted to share details and tips about doing laundry, I wanted it to be funny. Because the mundane in life, laundry included, is just funny.

  17. Diana says

    Thank you for this funny post. Reminded me of taking care of my laundry while traveling in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico for 3 1/2 months…way back when. My tip, Vodka or even Tequila work well for refreshing(just spray on and let dry) or before the wash – for ‘spot cleaning’ – you don’t have to soak the whole garment in gallons and gallons and gallons :)
    Safe travels!

  18. says

    @Diana: Glad you liked it. Vodka or tequila on a stain…now that is incredible! Had no idea, never would have thought of it. But alcohol as a stain-lifter (or to prevent stain setting) makes sense. I’m almost tempted to try it now as one of our shirts was the victim of a lunchtime empanada attack. Tomato sauce on white. I’m thinking vodka for this one. Thank you for a fabulous tip and comment.

  19. Dee Dee says

    Really cute article, Dan. Very funny!!
    Maybe the laundries in Oaxaca don’t take underwear ’cause they’re afraid what they’ll find );-()

  20. says

    “If I could spend the rest of my life in the shower under a stream of warm water, I just might.”

    Seriously. SERIOUSLY. I have perpetually dry skin and cracked nails due to too much hot water, yet I refuse to change my ways. Scalding hot showers are my zen.

    I’ve never tried doing laundry in there, though. ;)

  21. sara says

    Thank you thank you….for making me feel normal. I have been keeping some laundry stats and was beginning to think I was losing it. Showering in clothes…totally do it (thanks here as well for I know I’m not alone again). Hmm laundry bars of soap? Well I’m afraid to admit we did not know of such things and have been using (gulp) bars of body soap for six months now. Is that bad? We average 3 weeks between official loads of laundry. That sounds really long now that I go public with it. Of course we do daily hand wash–err, I mean shower washing. Enjoy Mexico, and creatively dangling your clean underwear around the room to dry!

  22. says

    @Christy: You must Laundry in the shower will take you even higher ;)

    @sara: Thanks for your comment — made me laugh. I too enjoy reading articles that reinforce the fact that my crazy ways don’t make me crazy. I enjoy it even more when readers validate and vindicate me!

    Washing your clothes with bath soap or body soap isn’t bad. That soap just may not be as effective as removing dirt, stains and goo as the “jabon gringo” or a good bag of laundry detergent. Laundry detergent, I’ve noticed, is not normal. The lather is gritty and viscous. I’ve appreciated this when I’ve soiled my clothes beyond recognition.

    3 weeks between official loads of laundry — very impressive. We probably average about every two weeks or so, depending on our travel circumstances.

    “Creatively dangling your clean underwear” — isn’t that the truth!

    @Jim: Will do. After you’ve traveled so long (and readers have asked you so many questions), you begin to find beauty and wisdom in even the most mundane of daily chores.

  23. Madhu Bhardwaj says

    Barf (pronounced brf not bArf)) means ice/snow in Hindi and Urdu too. The brand name may have been selected to suggest cleanliness and also cool, clean snow, or snowy white or something like that.
    I can understand why BARF pronounced with the long ‘Aa’ is horrifying (in America) for a product that is supposed to clean. :)
    You did make me smile.
    I love the sink and bar/shampoo idea. Never fails. You do need to pick up the dried clothes before room service arrives though.:)

  24. says

    @Chris: Wow, the laundry dance. You must really enjoy laundry. I only do a dance when it’s all done.

    @Madhu: “Snow” as a name for a laundry detergent makes sense. I even think we had “Ivory Snow” in the U.S. (may still do). Barf, especially with a long ‘Aa” is a little funny for English speakers. Having said that, I think we used the stuff when we traveled through the Republic of Georgia. So I can get beyond the name when I must.

    Glad I made you smile.

    Room service? What’s that? ;)

  25. Lisa Zurles says

    My favorite laundry memory was washing my family’s clothes in Lake Malawi then laying them out on the sand to dry. It was washing day at the lake for the whole village and my participation in the age old ritual linked me to the other women in a way I had not experienced before in my travels. We laughed together comparing the size of our children’s clothing and the stench of our husbands’ t-shirts. Score one for the common bonds of domestic labor!

  26. says

    @Lisa: Beautiful image. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    I’m laughing and love this:

    “comparing…the stench of our husbands’ t-shirts. Score one for the common bonds of domestic labor!”

  27. says

    Since this is our first long term travel experience, I wasn’t prepared for the laundry conundrum. Right now I’m walking around Puno, Peru in flip flops because half of my socks are now missing, have holes, or the one pair I’ve already worn multiple times is beyond shower washing.

    /sigh

  28. says

    @Erica: Puno, fun town. Enjoy. On the laundry front, I feel for you. Socks are the quickest item to wear out. I just dumped a bunch of holey (not holy) socks. Sometimes it feels good just to start over.

  29. Jay Kane says

    As a vacation homeowner that lists homes for rent, I make sure to always provide laundry facilities to my renters. Still, I suppose knowing how to hand wash your laundry is a good skill to have!

  30. says

    Uff, I can totally identify with handwashing. While travelling through India, there was this period of time I stayed in an ashram where we had to wash every single garment by hand. I totally learned what meditative laundry was in that moment.
    I learned a lot from laundry, especially to understand how more than 3/4 of the population in India really survives.

  31. says

    @Jay: A washer is a nice to have, particularly when you happen to be somewhere for more than a few days. But it’s not always quite practical when you are on the road or in the hills.

    If you want to travel like we do, getting used to doing laundry by hand is a must!

    @Anji: So long as the clothes aren’t too heavy, I don’t mind. When it comes to winter gear, that’s when hand washing can become maddening.

    The comment and connection between laundry and 3/4 of the population in India…that can be read a lot of ways. I guess I just think of the statistic that over 400 million people live along the Ganges river basin. When I hear that, all I can think of is all those people pounding their laundry on the banks of the river.

  32. Sonja says

    I’ve been reading your blog on and off for probably about a year now but have never commented. But this post reminded me of detergent you can by in Germany especially for handwashing/travelling. You may know it http://www.germangoodies4u.com/beauty/518-rei-in-der-tube.html
    It comes in a little tube and is SO practical. I thought being able to buy this sort of thing was completely normal until I travelled to New Zealand and was shocked to discover you couldn’t get it there. I’ve been living in England for almost three years now and you can’t get it here either…so I will make sure to stock up on it next time I’m in Germany!

    When I was in Guatemala I worked for a sea turtle project in a remote little village, so for 5 weeks I was hand-washing my clothes with biodegradable Dr. Bronner soap…which also doubled as shower gel and shampoo haha. Then I spend a week at Lake Atitlan and had my clothes machine washed for the first time. Heaven!

    Keep up the great blog! :)

  33. says

    @ACNM: I’m even ready with a few more :)

    @Jade: Pre-soaking your travel laundry in the shower — I like it. I won’t hold it against you that you don’t do your laundry start to finish.

    Drip dry, TMI. Kidding, kidding. This whole thing is about sharing, after all.

    @Sonja: Thanks for tip on REI detergent. I feel like I’ve seen it. When we return to Berlin, I’ll have to look for it. (By the way, we thoroughly appreciate products that you can depend on, assuming they are available anywhere, then finding out the hard way they’re not.)

    I love the story of Guatemala, watching turtles and the Dr. Bronner soap — shower gel, shampoo and laundry detergent. 3-way…I’m laughing. Oh and Lake Atitlan, now that’s civilization. I remember landing there after hiking and camping our way there from Xela.

    Thanks for making me laugh…and bringing back some good memories.

  34. Dan says

    I used to be a shower clothes washer, mainly because I hate paying for laundry when travelling (around eastern Europe last year most hostels were charging 5-8 Euro per load!) so I can relate to the points in your blog. I also agree with the other comments, that you have made a mundane topic really interesting (well done).

    I said above that I “used” to be a shower clothes washer. That was until I met a guy last year in Poland. He has invented a travel device (Scrubba wash bag) for washing clothes and I was lucky enough to be given a prototype to use for the rest of my travels. It is essentially a sealable bag with an internal washboard and it made washing clothes really easy. He recently sent me a link to a video he shot using the Scrubba on a train, somewhere I never contemplated doing laundry. Thought you may find it interesting: http://youtu.be/a8-vUN8nJT0

  35. says

    @Dan: I’m glad that I did a decent job making interesting hay of the travel laundry process. However, I feel bad saying this but the Scrubba looks no more sophisticated than my dry bag. I’m also not convinced that it would handle particularly heavy clothes, which are notoriously the most difficult to wash on the road.

  36. says

    So true about European washing machines – you just about have to wait all day for them to finish! It seems to me as though Rome was built quicker than it takes an Italian washing machine to do one load.

  37. says

    @Ali: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it…and glad it brought you back.

    @Simon: “Rome was built quicker than it takes an Italian washing machine to do one load.” — am laughing.

  38. says

    Audrey, I’m right there with you. During our multi-year Trans-Americas Journey through North, Central and South America very few things make my eyes light up like the use of washer and dryer (or avacados or artichokes). Guess travel really does help you pare your priorities down…

  39. says

    @Karen: I’m laughing as I write this. Just as I was about to respond to this comment I realized we had laundry waiting at the lavanderia and it was closing in 30 minutes so I went running out the door to rescue our precious laundry as tomorrow is a holiday :) Yes, travel really does make you appreciate the small things :)

  40. says

    When it comes to washing items 1 at a time by hand, laundry detergents (which were made to overcome the ineffectiveness of machine washing a load in a large volume of water) have no advantage over ordinary skin-washing soap. The laundry bars they sell for that purpose might be better than SOME skin soaps that are particularly mild, but chances are you’d never notice.

    The tricky thing about drying while traveling can be finding the SPACE and TIME to hang things up.

  41. says

    @Robert: Blue laundry bars sometimes have a little more grit, which might make them marginally more effective than bars of hand soap. Outside of that, agreed. That’s why we used them. Drying, totally agreed. Space and air, dry air. That’s to say that Turkmenistan was an easier place to dry laundry than say El Salvador in the rainy season.

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