Unless you are one of the millions of people throughout history who have had only two washes in their lives (at birth and at death), the issue of how to wash while travelling will eventually come up. So what are your favourite ways of washing on the road? The easiest is of course not to wash at all. As the old Dutch saying puts it: where it smells, it is warm. Leaving that aside, my own preferences boil down to three: in the sea, while in motion, and with barely a trickle.
At the end of a long day on the bicycle, with sweat flowing in streams on a stinker of a day, with road dirt stuck to greasy skin, with a brain threatening to explode from an overheated climb or two, with the caked on grime from setting up camp and lighting a cooking fire, I relish a beach to myself. A naked dip in the ocean, washing away the dirt and sweat and grime and soot, and then drying by the fire afterwards – the pleasure is almost indescribable. As is the feeling of drying salt in my hair and on my skin.
Apart from bicycles, my preferred modes of travel are ships and trains. For some perverse reason, I always seek out the places to wash whether on the rails or at sea. Ships usually have a shower, although that applies only to some trains in their sleeper carriages. Here is a veritable world of difference to explore – given that the more interesting experiences on train journeys are not outside, through the windows, but inside.
It may be the small shower cubicle in a long-distance Amtrak train in the USA. The shower is usually at the back of a storage area stacked high with bags of cups, garbage, linen or whatever. Having waded through these bulging bags, you find an under-used cubicle. A pile of small soaps, perhaps a towel, a button to press – again and again, for it gives you one minute of hot water on each thump. A lurch of the speeding train on a corner, a sudden slosh of gathered water to one side of the cubicle and you suddenly realise why so many handholds festoon the mouldy walls.
Or on an Australian long-haul train you find an amazing invention: the fold-out stainless steel toilet-washbasin-shower – all in a space in which it is well-nigh impossible to turn without risking a dislocated shoulder or cracked knee-cap. Still you find surprises: the toilet-roll holder tucked away in a corner, the fold-out mini-bin, the waterproof drawer for dry storage and then the shower curtain across the door to cover your hanging clothes and towel.
A piss on your toes and the floor to frighten off any tinea that may be lurking and the shower is under way. The train may rock and shake, tip and rattle; the whistle may blow to remind you exactly where you are having a shower; someone may knock in that strangely urgent way that signals an ageing bladder. But I always feel a curious satisfaction at finishing the shower a good distance from where I began.
Yet not all trains have one of these seven wonders of the world. Older trains in China and Eastern Europe may have a samovar and a lever-toilet, opening out onto the rails, and, if one is lucky, a trickle of water in the toilet cubicle. Many would despair and be content to wallow in travel grime. But I prefer to fill a bottle from the coal-fired samovar, let it cool for a while and then slip into the toilet cubicle with a bar of soap. Or, if a trickle still flows from the toilet tap, I set myself for a thrilling experience.
Mind you, the cubicle is a wonder to behold. Ice may be forming blocks in the toilet chute if one is travelling through Siberia in winter; the drain on the floor may be clogged by hair, toilet paper, ice or unidentifiable substances; that bucket of hot water thrown into the room in the morning, by way of cleaning, may have blended with whatever else is on the floor. My only defence is a pair of thongs (aka flip-flops or jandals), which valiantly try to keep my feet out of the swill.
So it begins. A cup or three slowly, filled under the trickle the temperature of snow melt-water, are tossed over body and hair. Goose bumps form and shivers begin as my body suddenly focuses of keeping its core constituents warm. A rapid soap lather, all over, in order to reach the point of no return. And then the patient filling of the cup and careful discharging of its contents over each part of my body in order to rinse off the soap (careful attention to the crotch). Now for my feet: one at a time I place one in the washbasin, washing it under the trickle, while I balance delicately and desperately on the other one. Finally my hair and face, the easy parts, while what is left of my body temperature tries to dry the moisture on my skin.
Triumphantly I emerge, a piece of clothing over my crotch, in order to make my way back to my cabin. Nothing is more refreshing and satisfying than having completed such a travel wash.