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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

The Magic Washing Machine

How often do you think about doing laundry? Do you plan washing your clothes around the weather, or the time of day, or what you have on your schedule for the next five hours? How much of your time do you designate for doing laundry? Five minutes? Five hours? Do you think about the cost of cleaning your clothing? How much money and energy go into doing your laundry every week?

Had you asked me these questions seven weeks ago, my answer would´ve been yes. Once. In my senior history class last year, we watched Hans Rosling´s TED Talk “The Magic Washing Machine” (the link is at the bottom of the page if you feel like checking it out). An environmentalist and statistician, Rosling declares that it is not environmentally/ecologically possible for everyone in the world without a washing machine to suddenly have one. But then he does something different. He shows images of people–women, because laundry is usually a woman´s job–around the world doing laundry by hand. Do you know how long it takes to do laundry by hand? He asks, what right do we Westerners, with our airplanes and our cars, our cell phones and our microwaves, our houses full of unnecessary technology we´ve convinced ourselves we need, what right do we have to tell these women they don´t deserve a washing machine?

When I watched Rosling´s TED Talk for the first time last spring, I fell in love. This is what it means to be globally aware, I thought. To consider the balance between the value of the earth and the people that live here. But I was wrong. Because within a month of first viewing the speech, I forgot all about it, and I didn´t remember until about two weeks ago, when I did laundry for the first time in my host family here in Urubamba. Stepping over the hand washing buckets in order to deposit my armload of clothing in the machine, I realized for the first time how lucky I am. We´re learning on this trip to isolate what we need from what we want, and one of my needs is to have clean clothing. I´ve done laundry countless times over the past almost-two-months, paying for it (20 Bolivianos in Bolivia, sometimes up to 30 Soles in Peru), having it done by my host mom in El Alto, and doing it myself here in Urubamba. But my laundry has never been done by hand. It´s easy to say as a budding environmentalist that it is not environmentally sound for the roughly four billion people in the world who lack washing machines to suddenly have washing machines–imagine the energy expenditure! But sometimes it takes more than statistics to solve a problem as big as the looming demise of our planet. Because two weeks ago, while my laundry was in the machine, what was I doing? Reading. And that´s when I remembered the real message of the TED Talk: the one thing that matters more than the environmental impact of the washing machine is what comes out of having a washing machine–books. Because books have the power to change the world. Instead of spending five hours a week doing laundry, women around the world can spend those five hours learning. If many hands make light work, imagine how much faster the world´s problems can be solved with the addition of one, two, even three billion minds to the mix. If climate change is the problem, could washing machines be the answer?

Every time I do laundry here, I take a look around me. I think about my house in the U.S., with my pristine white washing machine and dryer neatly lined up, just waiting for me to do another round of laundry. I see the large plastic buckets at my feet where one day soon, I may find myself washing my clothes. I think of all the things I will do during the next hour while my clothes are being cleaned. I ask myself the questions I wrote at the top of this post. And I appreciate the power of the magic washing machine.