Monday, January 24, 2011


Among the comforts of home that I will never again take for granted are washers and dryers. While a rather mundane topic to discuss, this has proven to be yet another learning experience for me here.

In my time in Armenia, my laundry conditions have improved in tandem with my other living conditions. In Solak, the entire process was done by hand. In my Gyumri host house, there was an “agitator” but the rest was manual. In my current apartment, I have a “washing machine” but still no dryer.

In New York, my building has a laundry room with a bunch of washing machines and large dryers. You put the stuff in, wait an hour, put the clothes in the dryer, wait 40 minutes, fold and you’re done. About two and a half hours, start to finish with some reading in between. It is even less effort when you have someone do it for you. In Armenia, men typically do not touch laundry (I spoke to someone a few days ago who told me he has no idea how to do laundry and he is 34) but our host families are told to let us do our own (thanks Peace Corps – I would have preferred to culturally assimilate). Although some of host mothers wouldn’t hear of a man washing his clothes in their houses, my host mothers were happy to comply with the Peace Corps suggestion. And, for me, the process here has been anywhere between six hours and two and a half days.

In Solak, Gohar gave me a quick lesson and left me to it. Light the stove in the shower/laundry room (use a wrench to turn on the gas, light a match and stand back). Fill a pot with water from one of the buckets filled during the two hours when the water is on.

After 20 minutes, put the water in one of the washtubs (along with some Barf).

Wash the whites and lighter clothes first and rub them together to get the dirt out (since the water is limited, you use the same water for everything and want to use it on whites while it is cleanest). Wring everything by hand and put them into the second wash tub filled with cold water to rinse. Wring everything by hand again. Hang everything on one of the clotheslines in the backyard or on the second floor terrace. If using the terrace, be careful not to fall through the gaping hole.

The shower / laundry room had a drain in the floor so you dump all the used water there when you are done.

The process is time consuming and not too difficult until you try to wring out a pair of pants (wringing a pair of Levi’s typically gave me blisters on my hands). The altitude and the summer heat in Solak were such that the clothes still didn’t take long to dry even if you didn’t wring them too well.

In Gyumri, I got a similar lesson from Emma. We had running water all day so I could wash clothes whenever I wanted, but since we only had cold water the wash water needed to be heated up. After she heated the water on the stove for 20 minutes, you put it in the agitator, a machine that looks like it fell from Sputnik, and set the timer for five minutes (I should note that the agitator doesn’t really move things around a lot but it makes a great industrial noise while it’s running).

The rinsing was done in the bathtub which I could fill from the tap. All wringing still done by hand (more blisters) but the terrace with the clotheslines was solid. Again, the strong sun made the drying process pretty straightforward. And, again, the bathroom had a drain in the floor and a hose on the agitator to empty the water into the drain.

When I moved, I hit the big time in a way – I have a washing machine in my apartment - but the process is almost the same and my landlady gave me the requisite lesson.

I run a hose from the sink to fill the agitator part of the machine (no more heating necessary) and let the clothes churn in there for a while (again not much movement and no industrial churning). I then rinse everything in cold water in the bathtub. The beautiful part of the machine is that it has a spinner so nothing has to be wrung by hand. After I am done, a hose from the machine allows me to empty the water to the ever-present drain in the floor.

Now, however, drying is the tricky part since (a) the temperature outside is below freezing (b) there is not much sunlight hitting the yard in the winter months and (c) my landlord doesn’t want me drying laundry indoors (the prior tenant had a mold problem and they attribute it to the drying of laundry and plastic over the windows in winter). So now, that part takes about two days and the clothes literally freeze on the line.

As with everything I have taken for granted, I learn something once I do without it. With my laundry room at home, I never see what is coming out in the wash. In this case, what I have learned is just how much I pick up in my travels along the unpaved roads of Armenia and I recently read that Gyumri is one of the dustiest places here (even when clothes look clean, they can be absolutely filthy and when they look dirty, forget it). Below you can see before and after pictures of the water one typical laundry day.

Because of the scarcity of water in many places and the manual nature of the process, you fall out of the habit of different water temperatures for different groups of clothes - you start with hot and stick with it. Because everything is line dried, nothing shrinks and the clothes tend to get stretched out easily. I brought a lot of clothes with me and very little of it is likely to make the return trip to the US next year.

The norm here is also to wear clothes a lot between washings and it is easy to get into that habit. Things will be much easier in the summer but suffice it to say that my time between washings has been growing steadily.

So what is the big deal about all of this? From the perspective of those of us here temporarily it is all a big pain in the ass. For those living here their whole lives, it is part of the daily routine. My host mothers routinely did all the family laundry, but also cleaned the house, made all the meals from scratch, and in Gohar’s case took care of the animals and worked half the day in the post office. And I am sure they both would have wanted to smack me around for complaining about it. As well they should.


As to what else is new, I have been keeping pretty busy work wise. I am helping my main site with how to develop and document a fund raising strategy and a plan for the year. I am working with a cultural organization in editing English translations for their web site. Another volunteer and I will be teaching a business English class so that the students in one of the universities can participate in a tourism based project. I am working with yet another volunteer in running an English conversation club and we are trying out an English language debate club. I have another English club starting next week. I am working on a few other projects related to human rights, HIV/AIDS education and ways to increase volunteerism in Armenia. And this summer, I will be among a group walking the length of the country to promote children's health (see more about it here). And, as predicted, as I get settled in and people hear about volunteers here, requests for help start rolling in from different places. It is good to be busy.

As to the weather, for all the warnings about how brutal the winter would be here, we have been pretty lucky so far (only about two inches of snow on New Year's Eve and nothing since, temperatures in the 30s and maybe the 40s some days). Since my apartment isn't insulated, I have had to develop a system to rotate the heaters based on what rooms I need to use but that seems to be working. I probably just jinxed it, but so far so good.

And so it goes.