dragonfly painting

Photo by Dominic AZ Bonuccelli

Ground-in mud, bright orange passion fruit juice, and layers of ground in sweat are what laundry detergent advertisements are based on. Here in the Dominican Republic, washing clothes is a time consuming physical challenge, not only because the Caribbean grime clings to everything, but also because the wash methods require more labor.

To use a machine, there must be electricity---which comes and goes unpredictably. The machines are compact and transportable, which is necessary for moving them outside next to water faucets. They are easily transported on the back of a horse or motorcycle without too much risk. These little machinitas can handle a wash load the size of four pairs of pants or two queen sheets.

One never knows when there will be power to perform chores with greater ease. This inconvenience has people waiting hours for the electricity to return so they can complete the entire wash cycle. Women waste no time getting to work when the electricity snaps on. Even at midnight, I hear my neighbors get up to do laundry, taking advantage of the electricity while it cooperates.

To begin a load of wash with the machine, water has to be dumped into the wash side of the machine by hand. This may come from a hose or ready-filled buckets the kids have prepared. When there isn’t much water available, one-bucket will have to do for several loads, despite its loss of freshness load after load. Powdered detergent can be bought in bulk for ten pesos at the local colmado and it doesn’t take more than a handful. The tiny lid shuts to keep dust and bugs out. Ah, the beauty and ease of washing machines! But the work is just beginning…

After washing and before rinsing, the clothes are stuffed into the “dryer.” It is tiny side compartment with a spinner that flings off the wetness. When all the soapy suds are spun off, the clothes are passed through two basins of water, by hand. This is the rinse cycle; all of it is manual, but easier now that most of detergent has been spun off. Lastly, clothes are stuffed back into the spinner to give them a final fling before they are put on the clothesline.

In the scorching Caribbean sun, it takes only a few minutes for clothes to bake themselves dry. However, one must be conscientious about how clothes are hung on the line. Dark clothes must hang separate from whites, because colors can seep onto other hanging garments by running down the line. Women’s under graments should never be hung outside. Don’t skimp on the clothespins, as the dirt below hosts parasites that require fallen articles to go through a thorough washing all over again.

If it looks like rain, there are strategies to enable quick removal off the line. Pinning socks and other small items onto hangers makes it possible to save many drying clothes in one swoop. Neighbors lend a helping hand by taking note of whose clothes are in the rain. It is a team effort to rush out to unpin them.

“Come; the rain!” they call out to one another the moment a drop of rain hits the ground.

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When the power fails, washing by hand is the only option.

“Diablo (the devil)!” shouts a lady when the power switches off in the middle of the wash cycle.

There are also many people in the pueblo who don’t own an electric washer, and others who wash in the river, which runs more dependably. Kristina, a good friend of mine, exemplifies what it means to be a real laundry trooper. She enthusiastically responds to the call of duty when her children and husband need clean clothes.

“Now it must be done, with or without electricity,” she states with conviction, setting up the buckets and basins. She tells me to go get any clothes I have to wash and add them to her gigantic mound of sheets, towels, and jeans.

“No, no, there is way too much to do already,” I say, thinking I’d rather wait for electric agitation than bother her with more work. She laughs as she pours stored water from a huge barrel into a yellow plastic wash tub.

“Andrea, this is nothing!” she shouts.

I go and get a few things that need to be washed. Keeping it simple, I grab only whites. My mosquito net from above my bed and two shirts get tossed onto her pile. I want to help her and decide to buck up and spend the day learning the art of wash with Kristina, an amazing laundry artist. We begin with whites, preparing a special bath of bleach and detergent, letting the clothes soak. The mosquito net gets it’s own tub as it is extra dirty. She tells me I needed to bring it to her weekly to wash it so it doesn’t get so filthy.

After resting in the bleach, it is time for us to begin to scrub. Kristina shows me over and over again how, but insists I’m not doing it right. She wants me to let her to do it. She utilizes the suds to their maximum, creating a foaming tub of thick bubbles, muscling out the dirt. After closer observation, I realize that the trick is to use the friction of the cloth against your hand like it’s a washboard, instead of rubbing cloth against cloth, which destroys the fabric. A few minutes of this and the skin on my hand is throbbing and red, nearly raw. Plus, my arms are tired!

Kristina keeps on, unaffected after years of washing in this manner. I decide to concentrate on other tasks I can do well to help the process along, and leave the scrubbing to her. I manage the water, collecting the used, milky gray liquid to reuse for toilet flushing or mopping. I arrange the clothes on the line under Kristina’s direct instruction.

Rinsing and wringing she does like a dance, moving swiftly and easily from one step to the next. While I stumble and work up a sweat, she sings and works with grace. I become fascinated with the level of skill she possesses in an area I considered everyone more or less equal. She takes well-deserved pride in being an expert.

Before my eyes she has transformed this chore to an art. A sheet is lifted triumphantly from the rinse basin as if it is a newly baptized child. Her face is full of satisfaction and love. She treats my white cotton Gap shirt like it is made with fine silk from China. After it is bleached white as bone and scrubbed to a never seen purity, she places it on a hanger. For several minutes she shapes it with dedication to find its intended form, once lost in the wash.

As it twirls on the hanger in the sunlight she calls to me to verify its fresh beauty, “Look, how pretty, eh Andrea!”

She touches the tips of the sleeves, the collar and the hem once more, carefully ensuring it will be perfect when it’s dry.

My mosquito net is handled as delicately as a wedding veil. Like a bride and a bride’s maid, we move it though the wash and rinse basins, and onto the line so it never touches the ground. This is tricky, as the mosquito net is wide and awkward, with many hard to find corners and hanging hooks. Once on the line, she continues to fluff and admire it. She comments on its refreshing smell and whiteness.

I still prefer using a machine, though I benefited from assisting with the hand washing process. Kristina reminds me that life is more meaningful when mundane tasks are approached with the intent to enjoy the process. An artist to me is someone who paints, fixes cars, cooks, or washes clothes devoted to finding happiness in each moment. Kristina’s work as a laundry artist reflects her ability to do this. Her clean laundry is love made visible and you can see her work exhibited weekly (unless it’s raining) on Louis Molina Street, the third house on the left, in Villa Riva, La Republica Dominicana.