While washing

Tomorrow my two week vacation begins. It’s been a long and tiring 8 weeks- usually by dinner I am so exhausted from writing notes and asking questions and listening all day long I have to collapse. Some days after transcribing interviews my right arm blocks up and I can’t type anymore.

Last night was my last night in Maite, and it was a perfect one. The weather was calm, the water flat enough for a sunset snorkel in the sanctuary. A quiet dinner after a raucous fiesta with Evelyn (the president of the association managing the sanctuary) and her husband Susano, my hosts for the last month. It was bittersweet.

Truth be told, I have had a hard time getting perspective on this all some days. I have been so wrapped up in the daily life- wake up at 3 am to the rooster’s cock-a-doodling competition, put in ear plugs and roll over, wake up ‘late’- at 6:30 everyone else seems to have been up for an hour or two. They have already bathed for the day and begun their work.

I have a coffee and breakfast. Maybe write some notes that had percolated while I was sleeping. I sit on a small stool next to the fire with Evelyn as she makes yet another treat, or continues the one she was working on until midnight the previous day. Wiping the dripping sweat from her forehead, she stirs a pot of rice and coconut milk to make a treat to sell at the local school. As the morning progresses, the other women she employs bustle about around her, and she hops from one task to the next all morning long. Cooking, cleaning, making business transactions, making phone calls, receiving visitors.

Back in the yard in the afternoon, we sit on the stools. The wash tubs are full of dirty laundry. Evelyn bleaches the whites and soaps the rest. She alternates dunking them in the soapy water and rubbing them between her hands. No wash board here, just a stiff bristled brush if you need it. And here is where she tells me stories. Here is where I learn about her life.

My eyes follow where she dumps the water underfoot on the concrete to where the drainage ditch around her house goes. It empties right under the sanctuary guardhouse, and the soapy water is dribbling from a bright orange pipe. The words are turning over in my head- I’ve spent more time inside the English speaking school systems than out, so it is a challenge sometimes to communicate complex ideas with non-native speakers. I have to think it through. Evelyn has a degree in aquaculture, and is intensely observant about the world around her. But can I have this conversation without being offensive? Without being judgmental? How do I find out what she knows and then communicate what I know?

“Do you have biodegradable soaps here?” I ask.
She looks up at me from her washing and her hands stop. “What?”
“Biodegradable soap… or washing powder. Are those available here?”
“Biodegradable- I do not know what is that.” She begins washing again as she listens.
“Um… because most soaps are chemicals.” (How do I find the easiest words for this?) And they don’t… um, they could damage the corals because they are not natural. Biodegradable soaps are made from… natural things so they do not hurt the marine animals.”
“No, we do not have.” Her face scrunches up a bit in a look of dissatisfaction. She lives on a small island that doesn’t have a proper supermarket.
“Oh. I was just wondering.”
“Maybe- they are expensive?”
“Yeah. Maybe.”

And that’s where it ends sometimes. Another note for the notebook- lack of education about how to conserve the environment and lack of access to biodegradable products can degrade the very reef the community depends on. The reef starts here at just the edge of low tide.  The entire community here is dependent on fishing as their primary source of protein, and the other primary source of livelihood is farming. Even though this is the island’s biggest spot for tourism, it’s not enough to employ everyone. So, what to do? For now, it’s just another concern to go on the list. For the future, it’s something that will float in the back of my mind when I approve a project proposal or run a workshop… or wherever life takes me. It’s one more piece of the puzzle.