When my friend Corry studied in India, she had to ask her her host sister how to do laundry. “You don’t know how to wash your clothes?” the sister asked, bewildered. When Corry explained that in America we have machines that do the washing for us, her host sister was even more amazed. After doing my laundry by hand for over a year, I began to comprehend that feeling. Just think of all the things you can do while a machine washes your clothes for you!
Mongolia is a little more advanced when it comes to time-saving gadgets. Washing machines are common in the big cities, and even out in the soums, they’re not unheard of. Most of them are manual: you’re the one who does the filling and the draining and the rinsing. All the machine really does is agitate your clothes. The attached dryer, if there is one, is little more than a centrifuge that spins most of the water out of your clothes.
While we had such a machine in my apartment, I would classify it as mostly nonfunctional. It didn’t drain properly and always smells like mold, and my clothes often came out of it more worn and wet but no less dirty. The dryer didn’t spin at all unless you leaned most of your weight on the (broken) lid, and even then, it was too weak to handle a single wet sheet or towel. Even with lighter items, all it usually did was clunk about half-heartedly (and without appreciable results).
So I didn’t use it. Bulky items like sheets, towels, and sweatshirts I schlepped to the homes of friends with functional machines, who were kind enough to let me use them. But everything else I did the old-fashioned way. Mostly, I didn’t mind, as long as I was good about doing the laundry regularly. I’m not saying I would have wanted to be a laundress (in the days when such people existed), but there’s something peaceful about staring into a bucket of suds.
I would venture a guess that most Americans, excepting those who have gone on long camping trips, have never done laundry by hand. The process isn’t especially difficult, but it’s certainly time-consuming. Here are some tips on how best to accomplish it.
1. Make sure you’ve got everything on hand before you start and that the box of soap you plan on using isn’t actually empty. Mongolians typically use two types of soap when hand-washing: the powdered detergent (to create suds) and the ordinary bar kind (for scrubbing). You can do the wash in the bathtub, but that requires a lot of water, so I usually just use the tumpin. I acquired a small plastic washboard from the Korean home supply store shortly after I moved into my apartment (thank heavens for the Koreans!)
2. Use hot water. Hand-washing is not super-efficient, and it’s unlikely you’ll actually scrub most of whatever garment you’re washing. This means that you need hot water if you’re going to do any serious odor removal. Cold water doesn’t remove grease, either. So either pick a day when the hot water’s working or get that kettle going.
3. Everything your mother told you about sorting according to colors? I’m sure you all forgot it as soon as you got to college, relying on cold water and dye-absorbent sheets to keep everything from turning the same color as everything else. Well, dredge that knowledge up again, because it counts double here. Your clothes will leach out a truly amazing amount of dye, and the dirt… let’s not think about the dirt.
4. Reuse the wash water. Chances are, you can clean more clothes with it than you can manage at one time in a little tumpin. Just remember to wash your lightest clothes first, and your dirtiest clothes last.
5. WASH YOUR SOCKS LAST. You will be disgusted at how much dirt they pick up. Unless you wear slippers, like the Mongolians; then they might not be quite so bad.
6. Handkerchiefs are unimaginably gross to hand-wash. Do not attempt without a washboard. Do not reuse the wash-water.
7. Baking soda is a surprisingly effective stain remover.
8. Wring out the soapy water before rinsing. You probably had to use a lot of soap to get the suds going, and it’ll take more water than you think to get it all out.
9. Wring as much water as possible out of cotton before hanging it to dry. Wet cotton stretches like you wouldn’t believe.
10. Stuff socks in the spaces of your radiator to make more efficient use of your precious drying space.
11. Wash right-side out; dry inside-out. The dirt’s on the outside, so that’s what you want to scrub, but if you’re drying clothes on old metal radiators, you want any rust stains incurred to be on the inside.
12. Do not forget your clothes on the laundry line, or it will rain and they will get wet and you will have to leave them out even longer. If you’re really unlucky, the wind will blow them off the line onto the filthy porch, and you’ll have to wash them all over again.
13. Laundry mountain is not fun to scale. By the time I’ve gotten one tumpin’s worth of laundry washed, rinsed, and hung to dry, my laundry zen is pretty much exhausted – as is the available space to hang my clothes to dry. So for most of my time in Mongolia, I did one “load” a day, 2-3 days per week.
14. You don’t have to wash your clothes as often as you think. A good airing-out (hung up, and not in an enclosed space like a closet) will remove most of the odor from clothes that aren’t sweat-soaked or spilled-upon. I re-wore most garments several times before washing them, especially work clothes, which I swapped out and hung up as soon as I got home.
15. Wool is your friend. It’s warm, it’s durable, and it’s remarkably odor-resistant. I have one yak-wool dress that I’ve owned for over a year and never washed. It’s not sweat-stained, and it doesn’t smell; why would I wash it?
Makes you grateful for washing machines, don’t it?