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On the Road, a Soap Opera Really Is About Laundry

January 24, 1988|BETTY MARTINSON | Martinson is a free-lance writer living in Bishop, Calif

A traveler's laundry problems give a whole new meaning to the words soap opera. They range from triumph--washing three pairs of socks in a liter of bottled water--to tragedy--the bra that sparked an international incident.

Forget all this fuss about laundering Contra funds or drug millions. That's a breeze compared to the laundering problems a traveler encounters on an overseas jaunt.

I have a friend who saves up all her old clothes for traveling, packs them, and then sheds each item along her route as it gets soiled.

I've tried that, but guilt and the Puritan ethic always do me in. Will the maid brand all Americans as wastrels when she empties the wastebasket? Will undarned socks create an international incident? I just might need this later?

The Real Problem

Washing is not the real problem, drying is. Never sign up for a tour that stays less than two days in the same spot. Nothing dries overnight, and a plastic bag full of damp underwear in your suitcase adds nothing to your savoir-faire at border crossing customs inspections.

Chambermaids rate hand laundering as several steps below stealing ashtrays. When you return from your city tour, expect to find your carefully spread out washing hanging in one damp clump at the end of the shower rod, or even at the bottom of the tub.

One austere Rome hotel even had a sign saying: "It is forbidden to hang laundry in this room." Interestingly enough, the sign was in English only, unlike fire escape directions in Italian, German and Japanese. Does this tell us something about how we are perceived on the international scene?

It was a classic conflict of conscience versus the law. In the best tradition of Antigone, I hung up the shirts. We weren't thrown out on the Via Veneto, but then we didn't get our sheets changed for three days, either.

An Escaped Bra

I once draped some garments over a balustrade in Thessalonika. A guest of wind sent my best bra fluttering down into a small, locked service yard six floors below.

Try explaining that predicament to the management in traveler's Greek. We discovered a bartender whose English was up to the problem and spent the rest of the evening trying to repay him.

Someone will probably wish you bon voyage with little packets of detergent and a clothesline. Watch out for that line, especially if it's one that looks like braided rubber spaghetti with suction cups on each end. At a strategic moment the suction cup will blow, the line will snap back and you'll have an international black eye.

What you really should take is a stopper for drains, especially in Eastern Europe. It will turn out to be the wrong size, of course, but roughing it will really make us appreciate those comforts back home.

Speaking of drains, below the Equator there's always the opportunity to find out if water really does swirl out clockwise. I spent a sudsy hour contemplating this question once in Cuzco, chiefly because I couldn't remember whether it ran clockwise or counterclockwise at home.

That was right after they gave us the coca tea and told us to lie down and adjust to the altitude.

The Finest Hour

Laundry as a character builder? Possibly my finest hour came in Morocco, during Ramadan, when the faucets were not working--in Morocco during Ramadan many things do not work. I washed three pair of socks in a liter of bottled water. One does what one must.

The water supply is also a perennial problem in the Virgin Islands, thanks to the "Wahpah Jumbie."

Mischievous sprites called jumbies regularly attack the St. Thomas Water and Power Authority. During one lengthy shutoff an enterprising hotel guest was seen using a wastebasket to bail water out of the swimming pool, and we all know what drove him.

Is it better to come clean every night or save up for one big splash? I favor the former because it makes me feel pleasantly self-righteous and helps my fingernails grow. The big splashers, however, will sooner or later start searching for a laundromat.

A little-known European Economic Community regulation prohibits the establishment of laundromats within a five-kilometer radius of any tourist accommodation.

You should also know that taking a cab to a laundromat is "simply not done." Pack your dirty clothes in a shopping bag (host countries like to see Americans carrying shopping bags) and set out on your little adventure.

Real Meet Markets

Laundromats, once found, are better places for mingling than sidewalk cafes. Once the locals have carefully scrutinized each item as you drop it into the washer (better leave your really soiled things at the hotel), the ice is broken.

They'll practice their English, you'll gesticulate, everyone will beam, and you may even end up, as we did, baby-sitting a 2-year-old while his mother goes for soap.

The ads don't tell the truth about New Zealand. The biggest tourist attractions are not sheep stations, thermal areas or even fiords. They are in-house laundromats. Almost all the hotels and motels have them; some are even free.

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