A woven basket with a shoulder strap is packed with dirty laundry, washing powder, a sarong and a change of clothes, a bar of soap, a metal bucket and a bowl. We set off, descending downhill on a long, thin, well-trodden dusty path.
In the mountains of Shan state, Burma, a tribal Palong family has taken me in for the week. Mae Suay, my Palong grandmother, is my portal to local life. I follow her like her shadow, and now it is time for me to learn how to shower as she does.
After a 20-minute mini-trek, we arrive at a large deep well cut out between the rocks. I see Mae Suay changing from her pink striped Palong sarong into her purple one, so I begin to change too, having dilemmas of whether I’m supposed to leave my undies on or not. To make the situation worse, I have accidently purchased a male longyi (sarong) at the market and so must endure the embarrassment of my mistake and withstand the laughter that is definitely at me, not with me.
The longyi is secured with a tight knot at my chest, but the minute I take a few steps forward the knot gives way and a lucky catch is made in time before it drops past my waist. This is not nearly as easy as the graceful sarong-clad woman I’ve seen bathe by the rivers make it out to be.
Mae Suay has some rope attached to her metal bucket and lowers it a few metres into the well, pulling it up to fill the small metal bowls and soak our pile of dirty laundry.
With a sprinkle of washing powder, we squat on the rocks attacking our dirty laundry. We violently scrub with hard-bristled brushes, throwing freezing cold water over, and then beat it with sticks before strangling it dry.
Once I understand the process, I get up to help Mae Suay with the water gathering duties, as I am about half her age and double her size. I grab the bucket and throw it in the water. Nothing happens. It just bobs up and down on the surface not collecting anything. Mae Suay takes the bucket from my hands and shows me how to lower it into the water so the side dips, breaking contact with the surface and allowing the bucket to fill. I don’t think she has ever met anyone who can’t fill a bucket of water and is bemused at my stupidity. I manage to get the bucket full and pull on the rope to lift it. In a moment of utter surprise, I realise how heavy the full bucket of water is and how weak my arms actually are. I grab the rope with both hands, and in a bicep-curl-lift I nearly slide right off the wet rocks and envision a more than likely tumble into the deep pool.
I shamefully allow this little Palong lady to do all of the heavy lifting and we finish our laundry. She grabs the scrubbing brush that was used on the clothes, and starts scouring the hard skin of her heels removing all the embedded dirt. She hands the brush to me. Both alarmed and disgusted at what I have to do, I shrug it off and think to myself ‘when in Rome...’ and do a quick brush-over of my feet.
School must have just finished, because a crowd of kids has arrived for their afternoon bath. They tiptoe around me, strip-off and begin throwing water over themselves whilst watching me from the corner of their eyes, waiting to see what the foreigner does. I now have an audience.
Still squatting on the rocks, I lift the small metal bowl filled with water over my head. My hands are stinging from washing the clothes in the icy water and I can’t bring myself to do it, so lamely splash the water on the bottom half of my legs.
Mae Suay sees my cowardly behavior and decides to help me out. She stands over me with a full bucket and begins to pour. Stone cold water gushes down my back, filling all the crevices in my longyi. I let out a silent scream, but before I can recover another bucket is being released over me. The stream of water over my body is so cold that it becomes numbing, and before long it doesn’t bother me anymore. I even manage to throw a few buckets over myself, redeeming my Palong street cred.
Towels don’t really exist in this village, so I pat myself dry with my clean t-shirt and get dressed. I haven’t done a great job as dry clothes stick to the unfavourable semi-dry parts of my body….but, I feel refreshingly clean which somehow equates to overwhelming happiness. I’m no longer wearing a layer of dirt road over my self, and the chilly water seems to have kick-started my blood circulation as a warmth returns to my body.
The afternoon air smells different, the low sunlight casts a golden glow over the rolling hills and as I walk back with Mae Suay, I wonder what will be involved in cooking a Palong dinner tonight.