The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Washing Machines

Washing machines are strange beasts. They adapted to a wide range of habitats, with the species showing local variations at certain geographic areas. Despite their resilience to the environment, they failed to conquer many places on the planet. These places can be tiny microclimates that do not tolerate large entities very well, such as an apartment that I happen to rent, or as big as a subcontinent, the most notable example being India.

I knew nothing of the above when I first moved to Bangalore. My first days were spent on collecting signatures from various departments at the university where I was to work, and obtaining the permits from the Government of India to dwell, feed, and breath. The country really loves bureaucracy. Eventually I obtained a room in the male student hall, and a few days after settling in, my clothes were filthy enough to prompt a desire to wash them.

A city of bosonic dust

A city of bosonic dust

Bangalore is high up on the Deccan Plateau and temperatures range from freezing to almost pleasant, so sweating never is a problem. Dust is. If you do not blink frequently enough, a layer of dust will coat your eyeballs. The city is one of the dustiest places in the world. Bangalorean dust particles are particularly abominable as they have the size of a boson, penetrating absolutely everything. Once they are in the fabric of your clothes, they consider themselves at their lowest energy state and refuse to budge. This was the problem I was facing. So I set off on an adventure in the student hall to find the laundry room. I peeped in to all the bathrooms where I met suspicious eyes, but no washing machines. I figured that the female student hall must have had them all, by the order of the Government of India.

The very thing that women were separated from men in a different hall puzzled me, but at that point of time my understanding of conservative societies was even more limited than now. So I ventured forth to the female dorms, keeping my hopes high for a chance encounter with a washing machine. My access, however, was denied. The janitor, a sizable woman of considerable physical strength, blocked my way and emitted a long rant in what I assumed to be Kannada. My tolerance for being scolded in a language I do not understand is extraordinary, so I presented my case calmly and briefly. Her rant continued. In the meantime, female residents kept going in and out, giving me scared glimpses as they passed. I had to conclude that the janitor doubled as the preserver of virtue and I was not allowed to enter the sacred grounds of the female dormitory. I was not ready to wrestle with a woman four times my size just to check the availability of washing machines, and I left it there.

I made some inquiries with fellow students who were mildly amused and moderately frustrated by the stupid foreigner’s retarded question. There were in fact no washing machines, but I was directed towards a point on the campus where I had a high chance of coming across a dhobi. Given that the campus was forested with buildings here and there, the task of locating the dhobi was daunting. The great thing about India is that irrespective of where you are, there will always, always be fellow humans within a two meter radius. I kept inquiring and eventually found the establishment.

Municipal dhobi

The place where clothes take a long time not to get clean

A bloke outside was ironing a shirt with a charcoal iron. A goat was grazing under the ironing board. A good introduction to the art. I entered the ‘office’, where mountains of clothes were piled up in an orderly fashion. I wondered how they kept track of which belonged to whom. I handed over my laundry, the dhobi told me I would get them back in two weeks. I made him repeat that, first I thought it was a mistake. It was not. This was exactly what a monopoly meant. I had a clothing crisis for a fortnight.

When I finally got my clothes back, they were not clean. They were cleaner than before, but not entirely clean. To their credit, I must mention that the shirts were meticulously ironed, and the goat did not sample the taste of any of my clothes. I also noticed how they kept track of the clothes. They used a marker to put tiny signs at places they perceived them to be invisible. Which also explained why nobody in India wore their shirts with the collar up.

No collar up

None of these fellows has his collar up. There is a reason why.

After the dhobi adventures, hand washing became the norm. I got a bucket and learned the strange science of washing, rinsing, washing, rinsing, and doing it over again a hundred times until the water is less black than in the beginning. Trying to get the bosonic Bangalore dust out of my clothes made me hate cotton with a passion. Any other natural fabric is easier to clean and more comfortable to wear than cotton. Over the years that followed, I reduced the number of my clothes to a small number of low-maintenance garments, primarily made of merino wool and bamboo. I experimented with other fabrics as well, but even these two are quite hard to get, others are completely hopeless. Look around in the men’s department in any store, and you will realize that men are enslaved to cotton.

When I lived in Uzbekistan, I rented a room from a cheerful Russian teacher and her daughter. Washing machines were also absent in this corner of the universe. Upon my first night or so as I was showering, I figured that it was time to wash my underwear, and I proceeded with the first object that I could reach for, a bottle of shampoo. It was an unusually strongly scented shampoo. I left the bathroom, and soon heard the mother giggling. I peeked out, and she, pointing at my shaven skull, asked why on earth I used so much shampoo. My Russian was insufficient to convey the idea that I had to do some laundry, and detergent and shampoo worked much the same way, at least as far as I was concerned.

View from Pico Duarte

Washing machines may also be difficult to find in the Dominican Republic

Once I accidentally cooked my jeans due to the lack of washing machines. I lived in the Dominican Republic, renting a fabulous semi-serviced apartment in Santo Domingo. There were, of course, no washing machines available. I was trying to hint to the lady who was cleaning my room that I had a desire to get my laundry done in exchange of monetary services. Her Dominican accent was so thick that I never managed to understand her reply. My beloved jeans attained a level of such filth that hand-washing in luke-warm water that came out of the pipes no longer helped the cause. I am not much of a chemist, but I came up with this idea that hot water would be beneficial. So I put my jeans in a pot, filled it with water, and started warming it on slow fire. I was also generous with the shampoo. Then, knowing all too well that the process of getting the water boiling would take forever, I started working. I got really involved with a problem relating to the evolution of a fake quantum system, and I took a break only about four hours later. At that point my jeans were perfectly cooked. They were certainly clean, the colour had also changed, and the fabric showed local topological variations. I kept wearing them, nevertheless, they became even more comfortable than before.

Japanese washing machine with many buttons

Seriously, just give me a command line.

Even if I have access to one or more washing machines, they have been a perennial source of frustration. There are usually dials and pictograms that have a tendency for peeling off. Since the pictograms are not particularly meaningful anyway, they might as well peel off. Three sets of concentric circles intersecting, what is that supposed to mean? I do not want to wash concentric circles. Then there are all sorts of temperatures to choose from, also a range of spinning options, and some weird buttons with rectangles above them, some are filled, some are not. This is how the control panel of a starship looked like in 1930s sci-fi movies. We live in the 21st century. Put a damn wifi adapter in the washing machine and allow me to connect with ssh and log in as root. Then I could write a few scripts to automate parameter testing and I would be able to derive the optimal settings in a few years. I would publish the results in Science. These pictograms belong to the Baroque era when people hoped to achieve spiritual enlightenment by staring at gaudy images of the saviour and at groups of naked, winged infants cast in stone. That sort of stuff is not only outdated these days, but might also be illegal in certain jurisdictions. And we do not want outlaw washing machines, do we?


  1. Driving says:

    […] with letters that did not make any sense: N, D, L, 2? This could have been the control panel of a washing machine. I had faint recollections that if I pressed one of the pedals, held my breath, put the gear shift […]

  2. […] stains, small dust particles, and generally anything it comes in contact with. Your efforts to clean cotton fabric by hand or by machine are destined to fail. Both the chemical and physical […]

  3. […] were gigantic. Hours passed by, I was cooking the intimidating giant beans forever. I successfully cooked my jeans on the very same stove, but the wicked mutant beans never cooked. I was eating half-cooked giant […]