Doing the Laundry and Learning a New Way of Life

When our family first moved to St. Louis, Missouri from California in 2001 there were several new things we had to learn and experience. The one that stands out the most to me were the tornadoes. We had heard that air raid sirens would sound when a tornado may be coming, and that that was a signal to get to the safety of the basement. I asked as many questions as I could so to prepare for when it happened. I remember clearly the first time the sirens went off. It was in the afternoon. Ray was at his window washing job. Our three young children were off playing (or maybe sleeping, I don’t remember). I was in the kitchen baking bread. I heard the sirens, and wondered if it was really what I thought it was. I was in an awkward place in baking, and reasoned that I could just take a few minutes more kneading the dough and the bread could be efficiently rising while we huddled down in the basement for safety. But then something unexpected happened–the sirens stopped. Well, I reasoned that the tornado danger must have passed quickly, and I went on with my day. But sirens went off again a while later and I was just confused. Later on I discussed my experience with a new friend I had made in my area. She informed that, in fact, I should have dropped everything I was doing, grabbed my children and ran down to the basement, and that the sirens always stop after a few minutes–when it is safe to return upstairs, they would sound for a second time. Even though I had asked a lot of questions and tried to be prepared, it really took going through the experience to genuinely learn how to navigate it.

In moving to a new country, there are a great many experiences like this.  Thankfully the country of Uruguay is very peaceful, with no natural disasters to worry about. However, there is often a learning curve with whatever we do, large and small. So as Ray and our teammate Mark Richline have been busy each day working on the church plant (and making amazing progress) I have been learning the domestic routine. One example has been laundry. I have been successfully been washing and drying my own clothes for 30 years. But there is nothing like moving to a new place to throw me a curve ball! When we moved into our house in December, it was still under construction and had no washer/dryer hook ups. So for the first several months here we took our laundry to a laundry service. I was excited when it finally came time for us to hook up the used washer and dryer that we had bought so many months earlier. I thought I had the washer down pat, but using the dryer/drying on the line was presenting a challenge. Most people here don’t use dryers. They dry on a line, even though the weather is very humid. In the winter it is even more difficult, since high humidity and low temperatures mean clothes might take a few days to dry. The dryer we have is also very small; it would handle maybe half a load from our small washer, and the electricity won’t allow us to run both the washer and the dryer at the same time.  I found that sometimes it would take 3-4 days for the clothes to dry on the line. I spent a month or two trying new things, with laundry always on my mind. Then one day I noticed a button on my washer that seemed like it was an “extra” spin. I had noticed that the clothes came out of the washer a bit wetter than I would expect. So I tried the “extra” spin button. The clothes seemed to come out dryer; it was hard to say for sure because just then our dryer broke down completely. Thus we began doing all our drying on a line; the humidity was low that week and everything was drying within a day and a half, allowing us to put the laundry out one morning and take it in the following evening. Since the dryer came back from being fixed it has been able to dry a full load from the washer, either  because clothes aren’t quite as wet, or because it is working better, or both. But during the seven days straight of rain that we had last week, I have been very thankful for my dryer, even though my ultimate goal will be to dry at least half the loads on the line. And we aren’t really sure about how the dryer might affect our electric bill, since the electric company was having trouble with reading our meter, and sent us one big, estimated bill covering 3 months. Our first real bill was huge, but that might also have been caused by us overusing our heaters…yes, we still have so much to learn about “doing life” here in Uruguay. But it is good. I enjoy the challenges and learning new ways of doing things. Our friends here are very helpful, even if it is difficult to problem-solve when neither we nor they can predict what exactly is going wrong (like the button on the washer). Asking questions helps us get to know our neighbors and stretches our language. I am currently learning to mop like the locals…ideally I would just sit in a woman’s home and watch as she mops her own floor, but short of that I ask questions. We are also learning how to get the mold which grows on the walls under control; and we are trying to learn the electricity as well, which doesn’t flow quite as freely or cheaply here as we are used to, while learning how to stay warm. Indeed one of the most important lessons I have learned is to NOT try to take what I do in the US and just transfer it over. If they don’t do it like that here, there is probably a good reason. One of the funniest examples is all of the laundry hampers and baskets I brought over. I thought I had big family laundry down to a science…but the big US-style baskets have a lot of trouble fitting through our narrow doorways, and since the washing load is much smaller, their large size gives no advantage. The rhythm of laundry is just different, and learning it means finding out what the locals do rather than trying to import what I used to do.

I hope hearing a little bit about of domestic life can help you get an idea of what life is like for missionaries on a new field. And if you have the privilege to talk to any recent immigrants where you live, I hope you will go out of your way to be helpful as they try to navigate the new and different experiences they are facing.