A lot of people have been asking me about this, so I’m dedicating an entire post to “bahkawahlw” (work that one out), aka LAUNDRY, in Kmai literally “throwing down shirts”.
I do laundry two or three times a week, usually in small loads that I try to spread out so I’m not doing it for two hours straight on my day off (Sunday) like a lot of the boys are. My host mom seems to try to do some of the family laundry with me, so I’m not entirely by myself. Or her sister will come sleep in the hammock next to me while I’m scrubbing furiously. The very first time I did laundry, which my family does in back of the house on a cement pad, several neighbors and family friends came over to watch. w00t. They got a real kick out of it apparently, because they laughed and laughed (and told me I have a beautiful nose), which was fine. I laughed too. Laundry time is especially good for practicing colour words and clothing words, and all the neighbors are totally into helping me with pronunciation! It was all good ’til some boys around my age came over; I looked at them, I looked at the underwear I was currently washing, I looked at my host mom, and she made this tsk tsking sound she makes at our dog and they left. Haha.
The mechanics of laundry are probably pretty straightforward to most people, unless you’re like me and have never done laundry by hand. In Cambodia, there are four main tools you need to do laundry: a washtub, a bag of soap (about 50 cents, and boy do I haggle over that), a scrubby brush (preferably soft-bristled) and what I consider to be a more or less useless stool. The stool is three small pieces of wood that are only good for squatting on if you are as low to the ground as Kmai women, which even I am not. I usually pretend to use one out of politeness and give up halfway through my load.
First thing to do: get water from the nearby cistern, fill up the tub. Add soap and swirl it around, and wash one or two articles at a time. Sometimes I soak really dirty stuff on the side. The water gets brown quick. Scrubby scrubby scrubby with the brush (there is a real art to this, which I’ve not figure out yet). Peace Corps’ rule is “wash once, rinse twice”. So you wring out your clothes like mad and transfer them to an empty tub, rinse and wring again and transfer one more time, rinse, wring, and hang on a bamboo drying rack. One of the first things I learned to say here is “I do NOT like ants,” which I mutter to myself as I hang up my clothes to dry, because these crazy red ants are always marching back and forth across the pole, and therefore my laundry. When they are dry (I usually take them in a night and leave them out ’til lunchtime the next day for good measure), I shake my clothes out like crazy so I am not wearing red ants later. And ta da, you’re done! Clean clothes for the next three days. ^_^
There is a lot to be said for washing machines, which some people have here but are few and far between (and way, way more compact than American ones); I can tell the clothes I brought here will probably not be going home with me. Scrubbing them by hand and wringing them out really takes its toll. Fortunately clothes here are pretty inexpensive even by Cambodian standards, and every other person is a tailor (I exaggerate), so people dress pretty nicely in my village. In bigger towns there is a ridiculous trend of wearing obnoxiously coloured Japanese cartoon character pajamas, covered in broken English phrases (“Don’t you just love this weather?! The sunny is nice!”); I can’t fathom wearing something so hot, but this fad is rampant in towns bigger than Prey Chur where I live. Thank goodness it hasn’t spread to my town. I will probably have more to say on this later.
It’s weird that there is an obsessive taboo over females exposing too much skin in this country, yet no one is shy about hanging all manner of clothing and undergarments out to dry where everyone driving, biking, and walking by can see. This skin taboo becomes more apparent and more stringently followed the more rural a place is. People dress “scandalously” in the capital Phnom Penh, but in villages it is exceedingly rare to see a girl wearing shorts or skirts or anything above the knee. I’ve not noticed people staring particularly hard at those who do venture outside the norms in my town, but my fellow trainees and I (most especially the girls) are constantly scrutinized. More to say on this later as well.