Wash your hands…with soap

I’m a hand-washer. What can I say? I like to wash my handsoften. I don’t go all Jack Nicholson about it or anything, but I confess that as I make my way among Santiago’s other 6 million people every day, I really try not to think about how many hands have gone before mine, gliding along the handrails, caressing the door knobs, clutching the subway grab-poles, counting out their money, and pinching, poking, and otherwise fondling the products in the grocery store… Y’know, if you let your imagination get away from you, the whole Howard Hughes angle starts to come right into focus—No! Stop that! Get a grip…

I’m exaggerating, of course, but all this recent talk about swine flu with its corresponding and constant “wash your hands with soap” message has had me extra aware of the issue these days… Here are a few things that have gone through my mind on the subject:

Euphemism:
When someone in Chile says Quiero lavarme las manos, (I want to wash my hands)and they will almost always show you their hands while they say itwhat that really means is that they want to powder their nose…

Hot water:
I was at one of Santiago’s spiffy new medical centers today and had a big surprise when I went to lavarme las manosthe water was hot! As in deliciously, wonderfully warm. So what, you ask? What’s the big deal? Hot water is rare in public places.

For that matter, most homes don’t have the hot water turned on during the day either. Instead of those big 30- or 40- or 50-gallon round-the-clock water heaters we all use in the States, Chileans, like Europeans, use something called a calefont that hangs on the wall in the kitchen or bathroom and heats the water as you use it. Most people turn it on in the morning to take showers and then turn it off for the rest of the day. So naturally, handwashing (and, it seems quite often dishwashing as well) is done with cold water.

In fact, I remember one man (educated, well-to-do) telling me he couldn’t stand washing his hands with hot water, that it was very weird, like brushing your teeth with hot water… just not done! (Others tell me they only shower with cold water, but that story’s for another day).

Did you know:
…that there is actually a Global Handwashing Day? The GHD folks (honest, I swear they really use the acronym!) are pretty worked up about it and provide all kinds of information about correct technique  (ex: use soap and wash for as long as it takes to sing happy birthday) Check out the site, they’ll be happy to explain far more than you ever imagined needing to know about the fine art of handwashing.  And, if this gets you excited, you too can revel with the GHD crew on Thursday, October 15, 2009.

On a more serious note (remove tongue from cheek), the folks at GHD seem to be doing wonderful work on educating people on basic health issues. Thankfully, Chile is not on the list of 73 target countries where diseases that are controllable by washing with soap, but then again neither is Mexico, the epicenter of the swine flu outbreak.

13 responses to “Wash your hands…with soap

  1. I remember we used to tease a classmate in primary school because he claimed not to wash his hands.

    Now, most modern apartments have round-the-clock water heaters (“calderas”).

    Regarding Chile and personal hygiene, I’ve been reading lots of texts for one of my classes about mapuche customs. One of the things they most bring out is the fact that “mapuches” were very clean (they washed themselves in rivers and using quillay). According to my professors, it drove the Spaniards wild.

  2. Yes, modern buildings have calderas (and central heat), but most of us still live with calefonts (and “estufas” or space heaters)…
    I’d never heard that about the Mapuches, although it doesn’t surprise me. People in Chile are generally very fastidious about hygiene, and it surprises foreigners that many employers provide showers for laborers who would normally get dirty on the job… for example, you rarely see a dirty construction worker on his way home from work, like you would in the States.

  3. I didn’t know we had calefonts in Europe. I live in Sweden and I’ve never seen one here. Maybe in Spain? I hate calefonts. When I’m visiting my parents’ relatives in Chile I’m always afraid it will explode. I once heard about a girl who died in such an explosion. It was on the TV news, but I noticed none of my relatives present reacted…

  4. Oh! Sorry, I thought calefonts were pretty common throughout Europe, but come to think of it, I was just in Germany and did not see one… maybe I’ve watched too many old movies… but the first time I ever saw one (in the States, actually), was in the home of someone who had just come back from Europe and she had one installed because they are so much more fuel efficient… you only heat the water as you use it…. then on the other hand, the part I really love, is that you never run out of hot water! In my house in the States, the last person to get up always got a cold shower!

  5. By the way, I love your blog. It’s very well written and entertaining.

  6. Calefonts are the norm in England (called boilers), dual use with the central heating. Much more efficient.

    Problem in Chile is that they’re often dangerously installed in bathrooms and indoors without proper venting…and then people die from carbon monoxide poisoning. It used to be like that in Spain in the 80s and early 90s, quite a few foreign travellers (most of them British) died in bathtubs and while sleeping and there was a huge campaign to ensure that travellers were extra careful and to demand certified installation in hotels and holiday homes. It worked.

    Given the number of unvented gas heaters and calefonts in homes in Chile, I’m surprised more people here don’t die. Most flats and houses over 10 years old are heated like that and the gas smell as you walk in is unbearable. It gives me a headache within minutes. The carbon monoxide is actually destroying brain cells… Maybe that’s why no one realises what’s going on, they’re all already half brain dead from years of gas poisoning🙂

  7. I remember all the problems a few years ago with carbon monoxide deaths… haven’t heard anything drastic lately, so it seems to be getting better, but I still see some pretty scary looking calefonts out there!

  8. I’m one of few Santiaguinas (hey, am I a Santiaguina now, I wonder?) who has a termo, or a giant hot water heater in my apartment. This because there’s no way to vent a calefont from my bathroom, but I have my sello verde rechazado for my kitchen, so I’m probably not long for this world anyway, regardless of the calefont angle.

    It’s nice to have hot water but a) it’s terribly expensive to keep on all the time so b) I don’t and c) I luxuriate in the awesome showers at the gym, which must be run through the caldera system of which you speak.

    And washing your hands with water being unpleasant is as bizarre to me as washing you hair with warm water being unpleasant. This friend of yours and I will just have to agree to disagree. Tell him I also like soap.

    Love the blog, as always.

  9. Ah- the whole sello verde business! THERE’S fodder for another post!
    Y’know… since I wrote this, I started asking people about what kind of water they use for handwashing, and cold is actually winning! Try it! Ask around… people look at me like it’s a strange question, one they’ve never considered, then say, hmmm, cold.
    Soap, well, everyone loves soap… (don’t they?)

  10. Coincidence that you wrote about hand washing before la gripe porcina scare?

  11. Like I’m a jinx or something? Haha…
    No, actually, I had been listening to NPR all that morning as the story broke and heard the “wash your hands” warning about 9 zillion times… it was kinda hard NOT to think about it!

  12. Pingback: BYOTP in Chile « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

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