Sunday, April 17, 2011

Scrubbings and Drubbings

Women in my town have a time-consuming trifecta of tasks that take up the bulk of their day: cooking, cleaning, and weaving. These are in addition to ongoing childcare, which is no small thing in any family, and is particularly impressive where families with upwards of 10 children are not uncommon. In this post I'll tackle Cleaning.


I'm pleased to introduce you to the pila. It is the main water source in any home or family compound, and thus the hub of cleanliness. A pila is usually made of concrete, has one large, deep basin in the middle where water is stored and two shallow basins on the sides. Often times one will be ribbed to form a washboard texture for scrubbing laundry, while the other will remain smooth to be used for dishes. In practice, the sides don't remain segregated for their intended tasks, however.

My site family has their pila out in the middle of the patio.
Dishwashing here is generally done with the cold water straight from the tap. The water out of the middle basin is accessed with a (relatively) clean guacal or palangana, which is a plastic bowl-like container with a lip around the edge for easy gripping without getting fingers in the water. The dish soap I usually see is a green bar that gets scraped at with a scrubbie of some kind, which is then applied to clean up the dishes. At the end the guacal gives the soapy dishes a quick rinse in the chorro water. Used water drains out the side basin. Since the water we use to clean with isn't pure, I make sure the dishes are fully dry before using them again. 

My training family had a tarp shelter over and around the pila, to help keep debris from falling into the water.
Since indoor plumbing is all rare to nonexistant where I am, children are sent outside to the pila to wash their hands before meals. With the latrine being outdoors as well, it's a quick stop off by the pila on the way back in.

Many homes where I've used latrines don't store their toilet paper out in the out house, so I've developed a skill of washing my hands with a roll of t.p. under my arm, then placing the roll safely on its designated table without wetting the paper with my still dripping hands. The things I'm learning here, I tell you. I've actually adopted the same practice with my latrine in anticipation of a leaky outhouse in the rainy season (also there's not a good storage location out there, and I don't want to be worried about stowaway bugs in my t.p., thank you).

I have a mini pila, with just one side for washing.  My guacal is sitting in the washing basin in this shot.  You can see the whole thing is balanced a bit precariously on rocks.  There are cracks in the main basin, so I can't store water in it.  I use a big black plastic bucket to keep water handy.
Clothes washing is a variation on the dishwashing routine. Clothes are usually soaked in a large basin of some kind to get them wet. My site family dissolves a powdered soap in with theirs, but my training family used liquid soap. After letting the clothes sit a little, they are taken out one by one to be scrubbed by hand along the washboard. We have round balls of soap that are then scrubbed into particularly dirty clothing, often cleaning both the exterior and interior of thick clothing (like jeans or the traditional clothing which is quite durable). Then, the guacal comes back out to use clean water to rinse out the item of clothing... along with a bunch of squeezing and wringing.  Finally we turn the clothing inside out and hang it to dry, after doing our best to remove the excess moisture.

My grandparents have assured me that we in Guatemala are crazy for not having any crank wringers like those they used back in their pre-clothes washer and dryer days. Such things matter less at the moment while I'm in the dry season and I can allow clothing to hang out for as long as it takes to dry all the way through.  Once afternoon rainstorms start becoming regular again I may have to try to improvise something along those lines, though. During training I would have to put out and take down my laundry several times over the course of a few days to get the bulkier items like sweaters and jeans completely dry.


For me, doing my laundry has developed into being a pretty enjoyable task. It's satisfying to see things go from dirty to clean, and I've loved that fresh, sunny smell when I take the clothes down off the line since childhood. The process can be pretty cathartic on days I'm frustrated about something. One particular day that backfired, however, when upon reaching my last item of clothing the wooden pole holding up my laundry line broke and dropped the bulk of my fresh clean wet clothing down into the dust, leaving it far dirtier than it had begun. There was nothing to do but to pick it all up and restart the soaking and scrubbing.

In my time here I've seen people wash their shoes at the pila, their hair, bedspreads, even a dog once (the only dog I've seen cleaned in this country). But of course, cleaning does happen inside the house, too. The floors get swept, if they are packed earth. If they are cement or tile and can withstand mopping, a wet towel is wrapped around the end of the broom. Colorful disinfectant (that perhaps has more coloring than cleaning product inside it) is splashed on the floor and the whole area is wiped down.  


  1. I assume those are wet clotes laid out on the rusty metal roof to dry. Hmmmmm. Doesn't seem like the best for either the roof OR the clothing in terms of the combo of water and metal. Yet I note that these people make good use of their roofs for a variety of purposes, which makes the square footage of their house seem larger, I'd guess.

  2. You're right... those are clothes on the rooftop. You work with what you have, I suppose. I haven't notices any strange roof-shaped stains on anyone's outfits so far.