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:
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
What's your best piece of laundry kung fu?