After two weeks of volunteer teaching attired in respectful shoulder-covering shirts in the 35C humidity of rural Nepal, I finally felt clean and presentable. My aromatically pleasing state was due to the fact that after countless observations, I had finally gathered the courage to tackle the demanding art of public bathing.
Each visit to the only tap in the village, I had carefully observed women bathing unselfconsciously wearing only a Nepali sarong, or lungi. Desperate for a wash, I bought a lungi and decided to give it a try. In my tent I wrangled the slippery fabric into a double wrap around my chest, hitched it up under my armpits and tied it securely. The pink and black polished cotton lungi draped my body perfectly, armpits to toes.
A bottle of Campsuds, biodegradable backpacker’s soap, and a few bras and panties in a metal laundry bowl, I wandered, in what I considered an inconspicuous stroll, to the tap. There was a lineup. A woman my age and a younger man finished their laundry. I waited for them to leave. They moved slightly aside, busying themselves with wringing out their clothing.
I stepped forward, cupped my hands under the crystal spring water, grabbed my soap then suds away at my neck, arms and armpits. Icy water dribbled down my back. I washed as far up my legs as seemed modest. I caught the surreptitious glances of the spectators. Bina and Sharu, two little girls from the school where I was a volunteer teacher, arrived with buckets in baskets on their backs, waiting to fetch water.
Above: Villagers of all ages appear at the town's lone tap to fetch water and bath.
Unsure of tap etiquette I motioned them forward. They shook their heads no. Apparently they found it more fun to stand and watch. I stuck my head under the tap and squirted a generous dose of Campsuds into my hair. Suds exploded everywhere. When I tried to wipe my eyes, I raised my head too quickly and whacked my head on the faucet. Dizzy and disoriented, I lost my balance. One foot skidded on the slippery rocks in a spectacular grand jete ballet move I hadn’t attempted since ballet class at age 5. I landed in a soggy heap.
Eyes open again, I was greeted by astonished expressions. The young man extended his hand. Upright again I massaged my bruised hip. I had two choices. Cry at this humiliating incident or laugh. I chose the latter. The others stared and then, one by one, joined in the hilarity.
One last maneuver remained. The young man had wandered off. We were all girls. My underwear was soaked anyway. As slyly as possible I reached under my lungi to remove my underpants. Village women often demonstrated this contortion, so why not me?
My back to the kids, I pulled and tugged. I dropped my cotton underpants in the bowl, turned and bowed. My audience smiled appreciatively. I almost expected applause.
These kids had witnessed my spectacularly clumsy tumble, my inept washing technique and had seen me at my worst in class, but they waited patiently to accompany me back to my campsite. Sharu insisted on carrying the bowl of wet laundry. Bina’s small hand grasped mine.
Lessons learned. Use fewer suds and stay low while backing away from the tap. I was one slippery step closer to understanding the complexities of village life.