Soaked in Sewage, Rinsed in Dirty Water: Doin’ the Laundry in Nepal — By Jennifer Shipp
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Soaked in Sewage, Rinsed in Dirty Water: Doin’ the Laundry in Nepal — By Jennifer Shipp

River people built little huts along the Basmati River in Kathmandu. These people lived without electricity or running water. Their waste collects in the river along with waste from the local hospitals, etc.

In some parts of Kathmandu, there are women who can be hired to do laundry. I don’t know the specifics of how the women go about doing the laundry, but their services are advertised with a sign and they promise the laundry will be returned within a specified period of time. I’d like to think there are washing machines in a back room somewhere, but somehow, I doubt it.

I knew before we arrived that our vacation rental didn’t have a washing machine, but I figured that our laundry would either be hand-washed by me, or I would hire someone else to do it for us while we were here. Laundry is always an issue when we travel for six weeks or longer. It’s one of those Daily Life rituals that varies from country-to-country and in short doses, I enjoy experiencing how other people in other places do it. As a general rule, I hate doing laundry, even with my big fancy washing machine and super-efficient dryer at home, but in many foreign countries, I’m just grateful just to be able to wash our clothes and smell pretty.  After walking through trash and mud all day, I just like to know that I can come home and thoroughly wash our socks and the bottoms of our pant-legs, even if I have to do it by hand.

Just outside our apartment complex is a small vegetable stand that we frequent to buy potatoes, peppers, and mangos. The first day that we went to the stand, we bought our food from a soft-spoken man who gave us a tiny extra lemon as a “thank you” for having shopped with him. We took our bags up to our apartment, removed our shoes at the doorway (because the sidewalks are just gross) and went to the kitchen to wash the fruits and vegetables in chlorinated water.

Trash heap in Kathmandu. After walking through it, it’s hard to feel good about my pant legs until they’ve been thoroughly laundered.

Someone knocked at our door.

It was the vegetable stand man.

John answered the door and the man told him that he could get him anything he wanted at his little stand. “Just ask.” He said. His wife stood at the top of the stairs. He pointed at her and made some gestures that John somehow interpreted to mean “she does laundry”. She was a kindly-looking woman all wrapped up in colorful layers of saris from head to foot.

I was open to this proposition. Having more work would be positive for this family and having someone to do our laundry would be positive for us. In Mexico, I went to a laundry lady who had several washing machines in her back room. I would lug a big bag of our clothes over to her once a week and then return within 24 hours to pick up a floral bouquet of white-whites and matching socks all folded neatly in a pristine plastic bag with our name on it. I loved this arrangement. I didn’t even have to fold our clothes and it cost me only a couple of bucks each week.

The following Monday, Lydian and I gathered up our laundry in plastic shopping bags we’d gotten from grocery stores (there are no trash bags for sale here because of littering issues–see above photo and we went downstairs to deposit them with the vegetable man.

I could see from across the street that the soft-spoken man wasn’t there. In his place was a teenaged boy. I looked down at our bags filled with “girl things” and decided against leaving our laundry with him. Lydian and I stood together, debating about what we should do. As we stood there, the guard from our apartment complex approached us. He didn’t speak English but he was always eager to help us as long as we could communicate using charades. I knew a couple of Nepali words and I decided to just go for it and see if he could understand me.

I said, “wife” in Nepali and then pointed to the vegetable stall and then to my bag of dirty underwear. He furrowed his brow. I said it again, “wife” and then pointed over there and then to my bags. The guard tried to put all this together, but bless-his-heart it just didn’t make sense. He called to the teenage boy across the street.

The boy came over to us, sucking on a piece of straw. The guard and the boy exchanged words in Nepali. Lydian and I stood by silently waiting. They talked for a while. Then, the boy pointed toward the apartments and said something. The guard then said to us, very carefully, in broken English, “8 o’clock tomorrow…here”. We understood this to mean that we should return the next day at 8 AM to drop off our clothes.

Simple enough. The next day, John took the clothes down to the guard’s post to drop them off. The laundry lady told him that they would be ready for us after 5:00 PM.

We went out for the day to explore Kathmandu before the side effects from our rabies shots kicked in. Sometime after 5:00 PM, the vegetable man arrived on our doorstep. He was trying to tell John something, presumably about our laundry, but we couldn’t understand just what. The man urged John to go with him and we figured that our laundry was done and John was going to retrieve it.

John followed the man downstairs. I heard his feet on the stairwell. He was gone for a long time and I started to get worried about him. Around the time that I crawled over our couch (which is too big for our living room and sits right in front of the balcony door) to look outside, he started coming up the stairs to our apartment. When he arrived, John had laundry clips, but no laundry.

“Where’s our laundry?” I asked him.

“I…Don’t…Know…” John said.

“Well, where were you then?”

“I was downstairs standing there with my thumb up my ass talking to some guy about printing presses….Oh….and I got these.” He held up the laundry clips.

“What are you supposed to do with those?” I asked.

He looked at me incredulous that I was even asking him, “I don’t KNOW!” He said. “I stood there for fifteen minutes waiting and this is what they brought me.”

Presently, there was another knock at our door. Another man waved to John to go with him again. John looked at me, smiled and rolled his eyes as he disappeared once again through the door. I heard the feet on the stairs again.

Again, I waited.

Ten minutes later, John arrived back at the apartment, still without our clothes.

“I don’t understand.” I said while John stood in the doorway. We stood there looking at each other, not sure what to do.

Again, someone knocked at our door. “Come, come…” a new and different man said, waving to John one last time. This time, John went upstairs with the man instead of down.

The laundry lady was upstairs, on top of our building, hanging clothes on a line, ours included. John had to carefully select our clothes from the pile and hang up each item himself one-by-one.

Later, we wondered about her methods.

“Her son told me that on Sundays, she’s willing to come to our apartment and wash our clothes for us in our bathroom.”

“Really?” I said, “That sounds tempting, but I think we’ll pass on that.”

“I know.” John said.

We were both silent for a moment.

“Where do you think she washes the clothes when it’s not Sunday?” I asked.

Again, we were both silent.

“Do you think she washed our clothes in the river?” I said.

“I don’t know…”

Note the lack of a shower. Actually, the shower is just a showerhead that sprays all over everything in the bathroom. I use the shower head to wash our clothes in a collapsible bucket.
Note the lack of a shower. Actually, the shower is just a showerhead that sprays all over everything in the bathroom. I use the shower head to wash our clothes in a collapsible bucket.
Thank God I made this last minute purchase at REI! It's a collapsible bucket that packs into about a 5" x 5" space.
Thank God I made this last minute purchase at REI! It’s a collapsible bucket that packs into about a 5″ x 5″ space.

The river is where all the sewage from Kathmandu goes. When we flush our toilet, it dumps right into the water. The water problems are so bad here that we keep our lips pinched when we shower and don’t even brush our teeth in untreated water. When it rains, all the trash from all over the city ends up in the river. We’d seen women washing clothes under the bridge and men in their skimpies bathing publicly down there.

John and I looked at each other and grimaced. Then, John said, “That t-shirt I brought along from Mexico was like, Hell-YEAH! I’m goin’ to the U.S.!…”John said, “But today, I bet it was thinking, What the hell? I’m goin’ back to Mexico!

We laughed at this, but when our clothes were dry and we brought them back to our apartment, I sniffed at them carefully just to see if they had the leftover stench of sewage still clinging to them. For the rest of our days here, I’ll be handwashing our clothes in a collapsible Sea and Summit bucket that I bought before we left.

Related Posts:

The Laundry Lady vs. My Mexican Washing Machine — By Jennifer Shipp

Traffic in Nepal: Crossing the Dotted Line at Home vs. Abroad — By Jennifer Shipp

On Being Hungry… — By Jennifer Shipp

Straight Men Holding Hands in Kathmandu — By Jennifer Shipp

Nepali Visa Ordeal: Electrical Outages and ATM’s in Kathmandu — By Jennifer Shipp

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