Coming Clean

Real Travel

From the July/August 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Can washing and drying really be the stuff of lasting travel memories?

Every day at just around noon, the little budget resort in Thailand's jungle-covered hills above Ko Samui's Lamai Beach fell silent in tropical torpor. An unforgiving, white-hot sun turned the corrugated iron rooftops of the resort's wooden huts into barbecue grills as guests fled to their porch hammocks to read or snooze off lunch. Everybody except me. The sizzle of midday is my cue to dig deep into the pocket of my suitcase to fetch the ten-foot length of shocking pink plastic twine that I picked up for about 25 cents at some street market in the Chinese countryside.

With practiced eye, I sized up my hut's balcony, carefully noting the position of the sun's rays, structural posts, and—most important—conveniently protruding nails. A couple of knots later, I was all set. I filled the sink and tore the top off a small cellophane packet of soap powder with Hindi lettering on the label.

The flowery smelling bubbles floating up from the bowl transported me back to another trip and another place—Rajasthan, where I'd traveled in 2006 (and where, for a couple of rupees, I'd bought some single-use packets of detergent from a roadside-stall vendor).

Ahhh. Every time I travel, there comes a moment when the stress of planning, of anticipation, logistics, timetables, and anxieties lifts, and I'm flooded with relief and a great sense of joy: Yes, I am really on the road.

For some reason, that warm, delicious Ahhh almost always happens when I am in the hot sun, wringing the last drips from some freshly washed T-shirt.

Laundry may well be one of the least romantic things—at least the laundry I do at home or send out to the cleaners—in my day-to-day life. But there's something about travel that turns the humdrum chore of keeping my clothes clean into an act of pure pleasure.

I remember, many years ago, being moved almost to tears after opening the tissue-wrapped package I'd sent off to housekeeping at a hotel in Mexico City. Inside was my favorite old summer dress. It had been one step from the Goodwill pile—the white had turned grayish and the skirt had the telltale mango-colored curry stains of a winter spent in Trinidad.

But when the dress came back, those curry spots were gone, the fabric had been restored to a blinding white, and a combination of starch plus some world-class hand ironing had delivered my dress back from the dead to its original condition. No, actually, it looked far more beautiful than when I'd laid eyes on it at the store.

I pressed the dress to my cheek; it smelled like sunshine and orange blossoms. I'd experienced much magic on this first trip to Mexico, but nothing quite as wonderful as the lesson taught me by the hotel laundry: that there were still places untouched by throwaway culture, places where the washing and pressing of clothing wasn't a mere chore but an art.

Since that first epiphany, I've made a point of having at least one encounter with laundry and laundering on every trip I take. Handing my dirty clothes to strangers, I seek clues and signs in the way they come back to me (in Bangkok, with little pieces of colored yarn attached to the seams, to distinguish my ratty cargo pants from the ratty cargo pants of every other backpacker on Khao San Road, I suppose). A button that disappears from my shirt at the hotel laundry in Shanghai appears, in a slightly mismatched reincarnation, years later, when my shirt pays a visit to a laundry in rural Japan.

Some friends of mine, recently back from a trip to India, experienced what must be the traveler's Laundry Holy Grail. A little while after surrendering a pile of dirty clothes to their guesthouse staff in Varanasi, they spotted their shorts and T-shirts spread out along the Ganges, being scrubbed and slapped by Varanasi's world-famous legion of dhobi wallahs, the local washerwomen and -men.

In Venice, I wandered away from the guidebook route and took many, many photos of old flowered tablecloths and embroidered pillowcases sagging from the windows of crumbling houses. The presence of hanging laundry, just about anywhere in the world, signals that you've left the manicured tourist zone and entered "real life." It gave me even more of a thrill to think that, dangling from a hanger outside the window of my tiny guesthouse, my socks had become part of the Venice laundryscape, too.

You know you're really traveling when you run out of underwear. I remember one bright morning, in Tonga, eating breakfast while watching my newly washed sarongs on the line flapping furiously in the breeze. I'd been away from home for weeks by then, and I didn't know when I'd return; my laundry was proof of how far I'd come, and how far I'd yet to go.

My fresh, clean clothes strained on their tether, as though aching to sail away on the warm South Pacific trade winds. And, I realized, so was I.

Real Travel columnist Daisann McLane is now writing dispatches from the road and more on her new travel blog,

Travel's ultimate thrill may be that one special discovery—and sharing it with kindred souls

So, where are we going for dinner tonight?" I ask. My friend Mariko smiles. "It's a little place. I hope you will like it." We jump into a Toyota taxi with spotless slipcovered seats. Mariko instructs the driver in Japanese, and we zoom off.

I kind of know my way around Tokyo. I can ride the subway without getting lost, and I can tell when I'm in Shinjuku or Asakusa. But not tonight. Two or three turns into a labyrinth of side streets, and I have no idea what neighborhood we are in. Or even if we are still in Tokyo.

"Stop here," Mariko says after a bit. We face a shadowy, empty-looking building illuminated by a dim blue light over the entry door.

Suddenly that door slides open, revealing a warmly lit wood-paneled eatery. A woman in a perfectly wrapped kimono appears, bows, and motions us inside. As we settle ourselves, I notice there are no tables, only a bar. A very, very small bar. I count the seats: One, two, three, four.

That's when I realize what is up. Mariko, a new friend I've made through a mutual acquaintance, is honoring this occasion of our first meeting by presenting me with something special. Something that, as ardent travelers, we both can understand and appreciate, even though we come from very different parts of the world. What Mariko is offering me is the greatest travel gift of all: a secret place.

I've collected secret places since I could crawl—the cabinet under the bathroom sink, the quiet space beneath my bed. Of course my standard for specialness has become a little more sophisticated over the decades; what hasn't changed is the urge to discover marvelous and mysterious nooks around the world that somehow will "belong" to me, finds that I come across spontaneously or after a long and concerted quest.

Most travelers I know share this passion in some form. My friend Laura, for instance, keeps a stack of worn Moleskine books filled with scribbled notes: the address of the tiny café in Budapest where she tasted the ultimate walnut-cream pastry; the telephone number of the unlisted guesthouse in Cartagena, Colombia, where she fell asleep every night to the rolling murmur of the Caribbean sea.

I'm not much of a diarist, so I tend to keep my secret places in my head. To jog my memory, I hold onto pieces of travel ephemera: maps of Ljubljana, menus from restaurants in Shanghai, business cards, café con leche-stained paper napkins that I saved from out-of-the-way Buenos Aires confiterias.

In a world where everyone can—and does—blog about their favorite obscure noodle stall in Macau, collecting secret places may feel sometimes as obsolete as steamship travel. And yet I continue to make discoveries of places unknown to tourists, guidebook writers, and bloggers, and sometimes even to the people who live in the place I'm exploring. The reason: My definition for a "secret place" has an important qualifier. To get a spot on my list a secret place has to be special—to me.

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Ko Samui, in Thailand, is a beach resort that is filled with tourists year-round; the Buddhist temple near the center of town is marked on every map. Yet it became my secret place early one morning when I wandered in and noticed, off to the side of the main altar, a device that looked like a pinball machine. Its main feature was an electrically illuminated statue of Buddha inside the glass case.

I stood in wonder before this pinball Buddha, then noticed a coin slot that read "10 Baht." I had some Thai change in my pocket, so I dropped a 10-baht coin in the slot. Instantly the Buddha's eyes began flashing red, blue, and green as a recorded voice thundered forth in rapid-fire Thai. Then, in a frenzy of flashing, whizzing, and whirring, the machine spit out a piece of paper: my fortune.

What did it say? That remains secret (even to me—most of the text is in Thai). But the next time any friends of mine go to Ko Samui they will certainly be carrying directions to my special pinball Buddha, along with operating instructions. Once you've found that secret place and added it to your collection, there is only one thing you can do to make the experience of it even better: Share it with special friends.

Tokyo is practically ground zero for secret places. There seems to be something about Japanese culture that maintains, even safeguards, a reverence for the hidden, for the spontaneous discovery. At Mariko's secret restaurant, we—along with the lucky patrons in those other two seats—eat one of the best meals I have ever had: course after course of the freshest fish, followed by servings of exquisitely shaped and perfectly steamed vegetables that I'd never heard of. The chef personally presents and explains each dish to Mariko, his regular customer.

Full of heady sake and delight, I ask Mariko if the restaurant has a business card, so I will be able to find it again some day. She laughs.

"It doesn't even have a name."

This secret place, I realize, "belongs" to her. Her traveler's gift is not the place itself, but the sharing of it with me, a like-minded new friend.

Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in distant lands on her blog, .


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