Comes Out in the Wash: Flashbacks

The laundry is done.

In 48 hours, I’ll be on a plane, waiting for lift-off, en route to my final European landing – London. Then, a couple nights with friends, a trip up to Edinburgh and the Highlands, back to London, then off to Vancouver by way of an overnight layover in Toronto.

With that, it’s the end of the “abroad” portion of my nomadic life. But it’s still 134 days after that, at least, until I have an apartment of my own. Not until I turn that key in MY door, enter into that blank canvas apartment I’ll furnish and outfit from scratch, will I cease to be a nomad.

I’ll still be “location independent” – not tied to a place out of obligation, free to work where I like – and I’ll still be in a place new to me, Ottawa, where it won’t be my permanent home. It’ll just be a long, long layover on my continuing journey, one I hope eventually ends with me finding where I feel I really belong, or want to belong to, for an extended period.

But, right now, even something as stupid as hanging my laundry on my drying rack, as I just did, is enough to make me emotional.

It seems even the laundry comes loaded with nostalgia in the last hours of nomad life.

Santitham was the neighbourhood I first stayed in, in Chiang Mai, and I really liked it. The laundry joint was a block or so from here.

Spin-Cycle Vignettes 

Among my earliest travelling laundry experiences was the dog-hair-filled washer in Porto, Portugal that so disgusted me that I went to a laundromat. That place had pre-soaped machines with so much fabric softener that I spent my first Christmas abroad with a yeast infection while eating shawarma and watching Trading Places as hard rains fell.

That experience left me feeling so alone. Much later, I’d be far more isolated when I spent seven weeks in rural Thailand on the Mekong River, where I strung up my travel line between the front deck and a banana tree. My big social encounters came from local kids cycling past, laughing, waving, and shouting the only English word they knew – Hello!

Later in Mexico. Guanajuato, a city of hills, former silver mines in the high Mexican Plateau. It’s where the Mexicans visit for a getaway, compared to San Miguel de Allende, 60 miles away, which is one of the world travel hot spots right now.

The year before, I recall hearing elderly expat Ronald’s operas playing in the courtyard below in Oaxaca, Mexico, as I laid out my hand-washed laundry on the balcony railing, later discovering its paint had transferred onto all my clothes and I’d need to do the wash again. Usually, though, my eight-week Oaxaca adventure meant walking in blistering heat a few blocks to drop my load off to be washed, sun-dried, and folded, all on the same day for $4. I couldn’t speak Spanish, but knew the proprietor was both amused and impressed by my savvy as I pulled out my yoga strap to fashion a carrying handle. A necessity, because otherwise I’d get so sweaty that the plastic-wrapped bag of folded laundry would slip out of my damp hands and arms.

Another laundry annoyance will be unforgettable, from Palermo, Italy, where the machine was wedged in so tight that the door would slam against the bidet and I’d have to crane myself to reach in and remove everything through an 8” opening in the widest part of the doorway, nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process. But with that memory comes the bathtub to its left, where I’d stand showering, not giving a damn if anyone saw me as I left the chest-high window open so I could take in that jaw-dropping view of Palermo’s ancient cityscape, including its 1,000-year-old cathedral and the distant mountains framing the horizon of that complicated, enchanting place.

My view from my bath tub, next to the washing machine, in Palermo, Sicily.

It was on another Mediterranean island, Crete, where I stayed in a studio apartment without a washer. One day, I took my laundry into a service for cleaning, where the lazy woman never even folded my clothes fresh from the dryer, so they were completely wrinkled and for the most expensive service fee I’d yet paid for laundry. So, when I booked a road trip weekend there, I brought my dirty clothes with me to wash in the in-suite machine in Chania, a beautiful little town worth getting lost in. Except the first night was so wet, with pounding Mediterranean rains, I found myself contriving to hang my jeans near the open oven door, so they’d bake dry and I could wear them the next morning.

And I remember Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I went to pick up my laundry on a night with floral scents hanging heavily in the thick humid air. While I was on time, my laundry was not, thanks to a random afternoon shower that was short but long enough to set the laundry back in drying time. The owners had to transfer it from the rooftop lines to a dryer, and I was to wait it out. I fetched a pineapple smoothie and came back to bide time, as the owners’ daughter giggled and ran around me, being as toddler as a toddler can be, reminding me that silliness and fun and innocence has no nationality.

Chania, Crete, when I came home on that very rainy night to still-soaked jeans and had to Plan B things by cranking up the oven and hanging my jeans off a chair in front.

Then there’s Morocco, my only stay at a coworking place, where laundry was a couple euros to wash, then had to be hung on the roof, overlooking where the slopes of the Western Sahara meet the Atlantic Ocean and the town of Taghazout below. That conjures memories of my favourite eatery in town – a shitty little joint with rickety benches and a battered red awning, a chalkboard menu of tajines, no walls, and where one of my all-time favourite travel meals cost me $1.20 Canadian for a bowl of beautiful lentils with puffy bread, which I’d chase with a large pot of traditional sweet mint tea. And then I remember the street cart selling tasty fresh-fried beignets. Morocco, ever full of surprises.

How could I possibly forget one of my favourite laundry-inspired travel memories? Two neighbourhood boys in Cappadocia, Turkey, bribed me with a ridiculous sum to do my laundry the old-fashioned way, stomping it underfoot in wash basins. They exchanged glances as they “duped me” into overpaying. I laughed at how they clearly thought they were brilliant. And maybe they were, since I later discovered there was a washing machine and a hostess perfectly happy to have done my laundry for me. (But then I wouldn’t have had so much fun watching the boys!)

Getting my laundry done the environmentally-friendly way! Ahmet and his buddy robbed me blind then laughed the whole way through in Cappadocia, Turkey. But it was worth every penny.

The opposite of that joyful experience was the weekly apprehensive dread in Siam Reap, where I’d drop my load off across the street from my guest house in a place that looked ripe for food poisoning and chaos. Yet I still managed to get everything back clean and folded and pressed, despite the hoarder environs of the back room where the family of five lived in one or two small rooms, sacrificing the lion’s share of their home for a small eatery and convenience store along with their laundry services for what I’m sure they perceived to be well-monied backpackers.

But there are so many other memories.

Rinse and Repeat

As I stare down the final 48 hours in Albania, I realize this is my life now – one filled with strange flashbacks. Odd memories triggered by mundane activities, because I was never just a traveller – I had to do basic day-to-day stuff while being abroad, so everything from cleaning the refrigerator to making bread comes with sudden-recall memories of being in places from Italy to Poland to Laos.

And as time slows down and “boring” becomes my delightful routine in Canada, perhaps I’ll finally have time to share more and more of these vignettes.

The reality is, every day was filled with little experiences like this, for 1,300 days. To you, they’re stories of adventure, but to me, they’re simply another day as a nomad, moments I cherished and loved until, well, it all got a little old. Like when I went to do the laundry on my first day in this apartment, then was horrified when the not-quite-locked door sprang open and the hall, living room, and bedroom all flooded with water and I had to use all the towels and a blanket to undo the chaos, then had to do three more loads after my flood control efforts.

So, today I look forward to laundry machines where the instructions are printed in English, where it doesn’t take three hours to do a load, and where machines won’t even turn on if the door isn’t locked.

There’ll come a time, I’m sure, when I long for the experience of clutching a plastic-wrapped bag of just-cleaned laundry in sweaty, tropical night air, making my way home along dusty streets, past wafting aromas from street-food hawkers amid the din of diners chattering away under bamboo or tin roofs under rickety fans rattling as they cool folks down and ward off ever-present mosquitos. And when that pull gets too strong again, I’ll pack my bags and opt into the madness of another chapter – albeit far shorter – of travel.

For now, though… I’m going home.

I’ve had a lot of things go badly and go sideways over my 3.5 years as a nomad, most of which I’ve never shared with folks back home, but I’ll never regret the sacrifices I made to take this gamble. It’s not just a life I’ll remember, it’s a life that was worth the prices I’ve paid.

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    A beautiful piece, Steff, and – as always – love the photos!

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