Atop a riprap along Marcos National Road last Tuesday watching traffic, Noble Gilad, 81, from the lowlands, said, “Ah Kong, now that I’ve personally met you – which in the future I may not be able to do so again – I’d like to request if you write a merry piece about those who wash things for us, like our clothes, dirty dishes, dirty rubber shoes, dirty toilet and the like – the labandera/labandero, in short – in the merry way you pen about articles in your column, please, apok?”
“Yes Sir, I’ll do what I can, Sir, to what you want me to do,” Ah answered the venerable old man.
In watching traffic that Tuesday along Marcos Road, the two discerned domestic and foreign motorists on their way to Baguio to see the city’s Panagbenga celebration.
Noble removed his old tobacco pipe from his mouth, tapped it gently against the riprap, gingerly felt for the “tabako” embedded in the pipe, found there was still ember in it and replaced the pipe between his lips and puffed.
Noble’s tabako pipe had seen much use, by the looks of it, and probably as old as the genteel Noble. Ah thought. Cripes! Noble’s tabako pipe could even be older than Ah!
Then Noble said, “Have you, or your family, ever acquired the services of a labandera?”
“No, Sir, we never had that luxury; when we were kids, mother did the washing; when we grew up, we did our clothes washing. We didn’t have money for acquiring services of a labandera,” Ah answered Noble.
For a moment, Noble kept silent, satisfied puffing on his pipe, then said, “Long before I was even able to catch a dudon (grasshopper), my “Inang” (mother) was already a “labandera” (washerwoman), then continued to narrate about his life.
“Inang became a labandera to help my “Tatang”” (father) who did odd jobs so our family can scrape by. I have a brother and sister and we were three children, I, the eldest.”
When Noble was a kid, he was already a farmhand. Together with his Tatang, they clung to it tenaciously. “Farming life had never been easy. Those were the tough times. But I still pine for those times na sabi sa Tagalog na sa panahon noon,” Noble fondly recalled.
But op kors, many of us pine of “noon” or old times, Ah thought. Like, noon: tayo long hair, ngayon, longing for hair. Noon, we enjoyed staying in beer joints, ngayon, we suffer from aching joints. Noon, we enjoyed songs like music of the Rolling Stones, ngayon, we suffer from kidney stones. Noon, we often enjoyed drinking in beer gardens, ngayon, we are surveying memorial gardens.
But Ah shook his head from his “noon” thoughts and forced his attention to Noble, who continued recounting:
“Through it all, my Inang, named Lipa, felt giving up. But our their Tatang, taught by my Lolo the values of faith, hard work and family, said, “Lipa, you can’t get any place by being like that. Sometimes, what we want, we don’t get. We have to pick the pieces and go from there. . .”
And Noble’s Inang understood what her husband meant: that for one to get ahead, he/she must work twice as hard and twice as good as everybody else.
So she became a labandera. That was in the 60’s.
It happened Noble lived in Rosario, la Union and near Bued River, that traverses its course towards Pangasinan. During the 60’s, Bued River still retained its cleanness.
With plenty of water, Noble’s Inang had no problem in her labandera work.
It, too happened his Tatang, a farmer, was good in tinkering. One day, watching his wife do the laundry in the river, he thought to himself, “How can I make rinsing of clothes easier so my wife can launder twice as fast?”
He closely studied Bued River, steady, and in some parts, its current strong. An idea formed in his mind.
If he constructed a ramp of wooden slats, strategically put it in the river where the current is strong, the water will climb up the slant then cascade like a waterfall towards its course.
Then Tatang would create a tub or trap or what he called a tub trap made of stones around the man-made fall. The falling water would create a roil in the tub trap before escaping towards its destination.
He built the ramp, placed it in the river, created the trap, then tested his odd invention: he got the soaped up clothes and plunged them into the tub trap.
Viola! His invention worked. The man-made waterfall roiled so much in the trap, in the process rinsing the clothes. Lipa didn’t have to rinse using her hands. The tub trap made sure no clothes got washed away by escaping water.
News about Lipa being a fast labandera spread. Many wanted her their labandera, but due to sheer volume of request, she often turned down requests. Point was, she understood what her husband said before, of working hard and working twice as good. Now, at least they got what they needed most, after having picked the pieces and having gone from there. . .
“And Inang, being a labandera, we were able sometimes to buy chicken in the wet market for viand,” Noble recaptured his memory. Noble having said that, it made Ah recall of a Chinese friend who went to a supermarket wanting to buy chicken. Unable to speak fluent English but inventively resourceful, he grabbed an egg from a tray, went straight to the cashier, pointed to the egg and asked, “Where mother?”
On the one hand, Noble’s Tatang, a simple fellow but inventive, began gaining from farming by refusing to follow in the heels of his many co-farmers. They called him odd.
When most farmers planted, say, corn, peanuts or string beans, Noble’s Tatang instead dove into the unknown, and planted flowers that withstood warm weather, like geranium or petunia or other vegetables, instead.
With all farmers selling the same kind of product, they get low prices. As for Noble’s Tatang, his products sold high.
That was how Noble’s parents were able to send their children to school. The parents now lie peacefully together in their hometown, Rosario.
But this story is really about the labandera that Lipa represented and still represents, as Noble wants merrily depicted.
The smart and spotless clothes of many who do not wash their clothes derive their cleanly beauty from the dexterous and spongy hands of a washer person, be a he or she.
As Noble pointed out, let no one, especially any who delights in adorning himself/herself in all the luxury of clean linen, or clothes, if you want it said that way, cast a low look on the presiding priestess (or labandera) of the wash tub.
Drab a labandera may look or appear to be, it’s to the exercise of her soapy cleansing that we owe the major part of our attraction. For our sake, she patiently resigns herself “in the suds and water,” that the labandera’s work is of so ancient a date the commencement of her toilsome art is lost in the vanishing point in time, extending far, far beyond mortal’s memory.
Remember your elementary song titled “Sing a Song of Sixpence?” Some of the lyrics go this way: “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye. . .” And the last stanza says, “The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes, etc.”
That “maid” mentioned in the song is none other than our labandera. For although nowadays, majority of labandera are composed of wives, widows, widowers and house bands, there is no objection out there that the original labandera was that person hired exclusively to do clothes washing.
Bless the labandera, for she is undeniably a practical chemist, thoroughly initiated in the knowledge in the various soap solutions and compounds suited to the garments submitted before her for washing.
The sorting of the clothes into white and colored portions is the labandera’s primary care. So discerning is a labandera’s vision, that she can spot a speck of dirt even in the whitest of clothes.
Nowadays, washing of clothes form a considerable portion of rising domestic expense. Nowadays, too, the labandera has the option to bid her day’s salary for a day of washing. If you won’t agree to her bid, she can always walk out from you. She can be like a construction contractor.
Being a work contractor reminds of Donald Trump. You know Trump? No? He’s the incumbent President of the United States of America (USA). One day he wanted all the linens in the White House thoroughly washed and hung out to dry.
A Mexican laundress came and quoted 1 million dollars for the washing. An American quoted 2 million dollars and a Filipino quoted 4 million dollars.
Trump asked the Mexican why she quoted 1 million dollars, to which the Mexican laundress said, “500 thousand for soap, 250 thousand for labor and 250 thousand for profit.”
Trump asked the American why she quoted 2 million. The American laundress said, “1 million for soap, 500 thousand for labor and 500 thousand for profit.”
Trump asked the Filipino laundress why she quoted 4 million, and she said, “2 million for you, 1 million for me and we will give 1 million for the Mexican laundress and tell her to do the washing.”
But back to our labandera. The labandera, par excellence, is generally sort of amiable person one you know in the neighborhood. She can be a chronicle of domestic intelligence, which she can ingeniously works “this” and “that” and “about” a subject, something or somebody both the mistress of the house and the labandera would like to dwell talking on.
Generally speaking, your labandera can be as faithful and realistic like those embellished romantic stories you read in pocketbooks, and can be an adviser to you in the humble shape of how she sees life.
Your labandera is one who is a much more welcome visitor in the house, as you whip for her a dish of cake, tell her to take her coffee or tea first, before commencing her washing operations. For she gives a harmony in your kitchen with her presence, never mind how cluttered the sink is with dirty dishes.
For looking at the dirty dishes, your labandera would say, “All in good time, the clothes first, then I’ll clean up the sink.”