“¿Puedo lavar mi ropa?” I sheepishly held up my jeans, filthy from a long day cleaning up tree limbs outside for my apprenticeship at El Parque Amazónico. It was 5:30 on Friday afternoon, and my host mother was lounging with my baby brother, Aron, in the evening light. She glanced at my displayed garment and smiled easily. “¡Por supuesto! Of course!”
In a traditional American house, this would have finished the conversation; I would have thrown my clothes in a laundry basket, lugged them to the basement, and tossed them in the machine with some of that magic soap that leaves every last sock smelling faintly of detergent when the cycle is done. In rural Ecuador, however, the laundry situation is just a little bit different—and about a thousand times more intimidating for someone whose mother did all of her laundry up until just over a month ago.
I could see the concrete washing contraption in the corner of my eye as I watched my mother Isabel rocking back and forth in the hammock. “I’ve never done laundry by hand before,” I said—the translation of which was really: “HELP ME, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO!”
My 9 year-old sister Maria turned on the water faucet near the washing station and I yelped at the high-pitched noise it made. Isabel and Maria laughed as I put my jeans beneath the cool stream, and I’m sure my uncertainty was written all over my face. “Jabon, con jabon,” Isabel was still rocking away in that hammock.
I picked up a small white and blue slab of soap and pressed it hesitantly on to the now-sopping jeans. “El cepillo,” came mami’s next instructions. Immediately I began to use the brush to scrub away at all of that jungle dirt, marveling at how the water turned a kind of greyish, brownish blue as it ran into the drain. I was beginning to think that my washing was going rather well when Isabel was suddenly next to me. “Asi, asi,” she said. “Like this.” She took the brush from me and easily cleaned one whole pant leg in a few deft strokes. My little brother was strapped to her back as she worked. She handed me back the brush and observed my much slower motion with a skeptical look, before giving me a slight nod and smile of approval. In my head, I couldn’t help counting: One down, how many more to go?
It was nearly dark out by the time I finished three items of clothing. I looked up at the clothes line before me to see that Isabel has filled it completely—and grimly tried to picture myself washing all of those clothes. I may as well just give up now, I caught myself thinking. Then I remembered that everything has to have a first time, and this was it for me. And I had to admit, there was something wholesome about washing away the day’s grime with my own two hands.
As I stood at our washing station, clumsily but methodically cleaning each garment, I came to an important realization; coming to Ecuador, I was unconsciously expecting to teach nearly as much as I was expecting to learn—how to play music, how to speak English, how to do yoga. How wrong I was to assume that I wouldn’t be learning twice as much as I could possibly teach others! Where I can read the staff on a piece of music, my host mother knows not only exactly the best way to wash the clothes, but also which tropical fruits are best for the day’s juice. I can speak English, but she can speak Kichwa. I can cook a successful meal when given a good recipe, but she can cook one on a makeshift wood-fired stove, by heart. In the United States, I have reached the voting age, but here I am still like a child, just barely beginning to understand a whole host of new and important life skills.
By the time I finished scrubbing all of my clothes, the stars were bright overhead, and the monte (jungle) was humming with the evening serenade of insects. I stood there for a moment in the dark next to the washing “machine”, feeling humbled, wondering what other surprises Ecuador has in store for me. Whatever new and unexpected challenges I may face, I feel better prepared to face the challenge with my own two hands, and an open heart.