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Doing the washing, Filipina-style

Monday November 20, 2006

Keith Warren

Totong says today she must do some washing and she will do it by hand. It seems that the stupid machine doesn?t do it properly. I express surprise: after all, it's a new front-loading Whirlpool bought at an expense sufficient here to buy a simple village house. It was selected in preference to a 1950s type twin-tub ? the kind you see in films starring Ava Gardner. Here they are still popular. Furthermore, I remind her, the reconditioned, cheap Indesit at home causes few complaints and is used daily. 

I am given a scathing look. Evidently, today is not the day for logic or comparisons; today is the day for doing the washing by hand. She will go to her parents' house ? where there is no tap ? and do it there. It seems that I have missed a fundamental point: the laundry done this way is not a chore but a social gathering.

Champion effort

She takes the large plastic bowl. It has a circumference of about 75cm and is much wider than it is deep, the better to immerse the laundry and move it around. She squats down on her haunches outside the kitchen door. Using the cut-off bottom of an old juice bottle, she fills the bowl with cold water, pailed from a nearby bulbous, crudely glazed container that looks just like an ancient Greek urn. It is her brother's job to keep the urn supplied with water from the well. I covet it as a potential jardinière for the terrace.

She attacks the clothing with her hands, a small brush and a bar of soap called Champion. This product, which I do not believe I have ever seen in England, is available widely. It seems that whole supermarket aisles are devoted to it ? entire shops, maybe. There must be all manner of subtly different brands and varieties available. Even in cold water, it seems to work up quite a good lather.

Cold water emanating easily from a tap has been something of a rarity in the houses of our village, although in the last three years the number of families connected has risen considerably. Of course, this is an improvement for all, but with every connection, the overall pressure seems to drop a little more. To take a shower with good pressure, you now need to be up and at it by five in the morning. A hot water tap is the stuff of fantasy. As far as I know, there is none in the village at all. They will say they are not necessary in this climate. Maybe. When I attempted a discussion with our talented and knowledgeable young builder four years ago about a simple hot and cold direct feed system for our bathroom, he looked as apprehensive and startled as if I had proposed a helicopter pad on the roof. Instead, I insisted he install an electric water heater connected to the bathroom washbasin and the shower. It worked for about a month and then began to leak. Frequent attempts at repairs were abortive. In the end, I gave up.

Shooting the breeze

Doing the laundry is not a solitary affair. Not much is done here in silence: even on an emergency visit to the small room in her parents' house, Totong is likely to yell a conversation over the top of the breeze block wall to whoever may care to respond, be they family, friend or mere passerby. So, while the clothes are pummelled, she chats with two of her six sisters.

But it seems there may be some disagreement about the laundry. They seem to be arguing. Certainly, the exchanges are loud, fast and furious in pace. Or perhaps they are just very surprised as the topic unravels, for their voices rise one after the other until it seems that no higher pitch is humanly possible. No, there is no argument: they are simply ?engaged in dialogue?. This is the excitable Filipina way. It takes some adjusting to: until one's quieter and more retiring British ear has done so, it seems that every conversation presages open warfare.

The lathering, scrubbing, squeezing and wringing complete, Totong needs to rinse the soapy items. In the absence of running tap water, she will take her bowl up to the well. I offer to help with the weighty load and my offer is accepted, although my participation involves me in something that is not really a man?s work.

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