CLEANLINESS AMONG THE IMPOVERISHED
HOW DO THEY MANAGE IT?
Here I am, the American with a suitcase filled with a variety of clothes for any occasion. I have my capris and short sleeved and 3/4 sleeved tops for casual travel; my sundresses for formal interviews or dinners; my raincoat, etc. I’m at a loss if I have no hairdryer or curling iron.
It doesn’t matter what I choose to wear; every day I show up looking disheveled in a mass of wrinkles. I normally wouldn’t feel so bad. Hey, I’m traveling, and that is to be expected, right?
Except when I am greeted by Santiago, our driver and translator, this particular week. We’ve been to his house, which is along the side of the road in the country. It is a simple cement block structure with the typical packed dirt floors, no electricity, no plumbing.
Yet Santiago appears every single day, not only with impeccable personal hygiene, but also with clothes that are clean and long-sleeved shirts that have a perfect crease down each sleeve. I can’t even do that at home with my electric iron!
HOW DO THEY DO IT? I’ve spent time out in some of these communities, and I know how they have to wash; it is not easy. There is a pila -“tub” outdoors from which you scoop water to drizzle over yourself to sponge bathe. It may be gathered cistern water or water from plastic jugs carried by women atop their heads from a local spring miles down the road.
I’ve watched them scrub their clothing by hand, wring it out, and hang it over fences or lay it flat to dry. But I don’t know what kind of soap they use to get things so clean. The school children all wear uniforms of white shirts and white socks, and they are an immaculate WHITE–even on the kids living amid the omnipresent mud. I spend each evening washing MY white things out in the sink of the guest house using my Tide packets, and my garments turn out a dingy gray, at best.
I wanted to ask Santiago how his wife got his shirts ironed like that, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. I was just in awe with admiration.
[Two years after I wrote this reflection, I read this passage in Joseph B. Frazier’s El Salvador Could Be Like That: “On any given morning a boy in an immaculate pressed white shirt (how did they do that?) might surface over the barranca rim and head, maybe barefoot . . . . . .” (p. 13) I had to smile realizing others are also in awe.]
Salvadorans’ thick textured hair looks so gorgeous just being air dried after being washed; the women either let it hang naturally or tie it up so effortlessly. They don’t even need a hair clip. By the end of the first week, I find myself letting my thin, straggly hair air dry and tuck it behind my ears. When in El Salvador . . . .