5 minutes of zen

Today is Thursday, which means it’s dog washing day in Lilongwe. Once a week the city streets fill with purposeful individuals leading one, two, sometimes four dogs at a time down the road into Area 18 where the doggie dipping station is located. It’s mostly house staff that carry out this weekly routine – guards and gardeners, mostly men, wearing the unofficial uniform you see around here: Royal blue jumpsuits or brown work trousers tucked into big black mud-rucker boots, all walking or jogging along side Malawian mutts that look as though they must have been cloned from the same little beast ages and ages ago. And it’s the same once a week, every week; rain or shine, hot or cold. Dogs will be washed come hell or high water.

I’ve been observing this odd, collective morning ritual every Thursday now for the past year and despite the fact that I don’t have a wee pup of my own, I realized this morning that somewhere along the way this quirky, quintessentially Malawian routine became my routine as well. In a world where the everyday mundane is grounded in disarray, missed deadlines, delayed appointments, and spinny bureaucratic mania, Thursdays are the sentinels of order and peace, as if the whole of Lilongwe had been, up to that very moment, holding its breath until it finally has the chance to let out a great big pleasant “sigh” of relief. No matter what the day is about to bring and no matter how crazy you know things are about to get, there is always a moment on these mornings where I get a little mini moment of Zen, a few minutes of giddy bliss as we head north through the city towards the camp. Warm early morning sun. Streets dotted with pops of royal blue. Reddish-brown dogs proudly walking down the sidewalk as they show off their clean coats and shake off the water from their early morning baths.

It’s a beautiful part of my week but it is the absurdity of the scene that makes it kind of amazing. We are basically talking about a once per week canine pilgrimage in search of cleaner fur, maybe some kind of pound-puppy enlightenment. I asked one of my coworkers why dogs only get washed on Thursdays, as if there might be some secret meaning behind this weekly ritual I now find myself looking forward to every week: Dogs get washed on Thursdays, he said, because that’s when the dog washing basin is open – most people go in the morning because by the afternoon, the water has become dirty and unusable. And that is that. Make a mental note the next time a stinky dog crosses your path.

I think one reaches a point while living abroad where the bizarre becomes more normal than strange as our social paradigms start to shift from the far West to some murky in between space that straddles our past and our present. Last weekend I sat on a porch drinking box wine and watching a hippo eat grass 10 ft. away from our chalet. On Tuesday I walked through camp and watched kids play soccer with no shoes and balls made from plastic bags. Two Saturdays ago we stumbled upon a head-on collision on the M1 freeway – no one was killed but those who stopped to help injured passengers also happened to be on their way to a “jorts” (jean shorts) themed party. Because hauling bleeding, concussed people out of cars while wearing denim-on-denim mini-shorts in the middle of Lilongwe is bizarrely kind of your average Saturday night around here.

I don’t know what normal is anymore, or if there was ever a baseline for “normal” to begin with. In a final example of this mish-mashed mosaic of mundane and peculiar, our housekeeper was sick last week with Malaria and so went back to her village for 7 days to recover. Our housekeeper basically keeps the house in operational order – if you fuss up the system or fail to maintain the House 33 status quo, soft words of passive annoyance will be spoken, and it’s pretty fair to say that you’ll end up feeling like a badly behaved 12 year old all over again which, let’s be honest, is a pretty accurate description of the two of us who live there.

So it was about day 4 was when my housemate and I realized 1. We had no clean clothes, 2. No clean dishes, and 3. We have regressed to the point where we can no longer take care of ourselves. It’s not that we couldn’t sweep up the house or wash our own clothes, because that can and did happen when the two of us ran out of underwear…literally. It was more the realization that we live in an environment where having house staff is so the norm (shades of 20th century colonialism, much?) that we have forgotten what it’s like to deal with the day-to-day business of our lives even in our own homes. Abnormal would be not having a housekeeper or a gardener, or security guards at the gate of your house every night – it would mean having to deal with your messy house and grubby garden just like you would back at home in the States, Ireland, Canada, wherever. Just like zillions of people do everyday.

I can see eyes rolling from across the globe right now, like, “Jesus Christ, get a friggin’ grip and do your own damn laundry.” I agree – it’s ridiculous for sure. But normalcy is all just a matter of perspective of time and space. Wild hippos and warthogs are a stone’s throw away from your porch in Malawi just as squirrels and blue jays are at home. Housekeepers clean clothes on one side of the globe while millions of people trek out to the Laundromat every week on the other. Social life revolves around theme parties in one place and sophisticated cultural activities rule the scene everywhere else. Potato, potahto. Tomato, tomahto. Who’s to say what’s normal in the end, anyway?

Life here may be strange and unkempt, and a little bit off the rails, but it is a life and everyday of it is meaningful in some way. And who knows, in 20 years things may be different – perhaps the bizarre will become normal and visa versa. Maybe one day the stodgy limitations of this one-doggie-bath-per-week society will be lifted and Malawian pups everywhere will have access to clean bath water 24/7.

But for now, I hope it doesn’t change; I hope this one piece of life here remains the same. Because silly as it may seem, sometimes it’s the only thing that makes sense. Clean, happy dogs and a big bright blue sky. Seems pretty normal to me.